To work, a fictional world needs to be even more logical than the real one. As Terry Pratchett once said, your world can contain pigs that fly, but the internal logic of this must be tightly considered. What is the effect on pork prices? Do some religions still consider swine to be a filthy animal?
Since 2014 I have been working on a collection of short stories set in a country where I have spent a lot of time, China.
In doing so, I am not creating a fictional world but seeking to use the English language to portray a culture that is alien to most target readers. How to do this in ways that are real and respectful, compelling and convincing?
My background before that was in translating and publishing salacious news stories with a view toward having them go viral. This was an imperfect apprenticeship. A good work of fiction needs to be more than sensational, there must be relatable characters, emotional truth and structural clarity.
One of the best short story writers of my generation is Simon Rich, whose works are mostly set in present-day Brooklyn. The cast of characters of his first two collections includes Sherlock Holmes, Cupid, Adolf Hitler, and Marissa Tomei.
Because he is writing about things with which his audience are familiar, he is free to be wacky in ways that I am not. Still, my task is not impossible.
Below, I will discuss four works of fiction with present-day East Asian settings that portray the societies accurately while doing the job I have found so difficult – telling a bloody good story.
Each of these writers is obscenely talented, and to suggest them as examples to be followed is neither helpful nor kind. Still, they all demonstrate technical skills that can be picked up with practice.
“Lotus” by Zhang Lijia
Like Guo Xiaolu (“A Chinese:English Dictionary for Lovers”, “I am China”) Zhang Lijia is a native Chinese speaker who writes in English. But while Guo deals with issues as heavy as dissidents, asylum seekers, corrupt politicians, and The Tiananmen Square Massacre, Zhang’s 2017 novel “Lotus” tells the story of ordinary Chinese on the bottom rung of society struggling to get by.
The eponymous central character resorts to prostitution after the unfairness and destitution of factory life become too much. While following her story, in which a non-sexual relationship with a male photo-journalist offers her a chance at salvation, readers can take in much about Chinese culture. Following the superstition of naming one’s children after what they are hoped to achieve, the titular character is named after “a flower that grows in the mud yet remains pure and unstained”.
The novel humanizes both the prostitutes and their clients: “one middle-aged architect didn’t want sex, but to complain about his terrible wife.” Lotus is given a pet-the-dog moment early on when it emerges that – like most of her colleagues – she sends money back to her struggling family in the countryside.
The chapter of each title is a Chinese proverb and folk wisdom is sprinkled throughout to help the reader make sense of the characters’ experience: “a fresh flower withers away on cowpat”, “if you stay long enough in a fish market you soon get used to the stink”.
As well as making the characters likeable, it puts them through relatable hell. One reflects that “poverty stifles dignity” and social issues are unobtrusively brought to the fore. Discussing his exam pressure, Lotus’ brother confides to the photo-journalist: “If I fail…my sister will probably kill herself.”
After creating these characters, the novel harnesses the brutal side of life in China to challenge them: “Since Little Red had died young and unmarried, no funeral rites were performed for her.” This leads to a climax in which Lotus considers that “only marriage could ease the stain of her past and secure her future financially.”
“Silver Castle” by Clive James
In Mumbai-set “The Silver Castle” by polymath Clive James, the author’s intellect shines through. In fiction this is not necessarily a good thing, but the depth and quality of James’ writing along with the audacious scale of storytelling keep the reader engaged.
The central character, Sanjay, is a child beggar who establishes himself as a Bollywood stuntman before encountering a situation in which he could either become a star or end up as an adult beggar.
To bring this to life, “The Silver Castle” uses God’s-eye-view narration. James spends pages at a time explaining to the reader what makes the setting and Sanjay’s story unique. At the start of chapter 7, he muses on the challenges of becoming literate in Hindi, using his intimate knowledge of the Russian, Hebrew and Japanese writing systems to explain.
This culminates in observations like: “One of the most unpalatable facts about the great synthetic nation of India is that its lingua franca, English, is written down in an alphabet so insanely unfaithful to what is said, whereas the principal sectarian languages can, in their written form, be mastered with comparative ease. So the alien language which was meant to unite India has turned out to be universal only in its frustrating elusiveness, whereas the languages that divide it have one dangerous element in common – they feel like home.”
James is similarly expansive when describing the slum where Sanjay spends his early life, contemplating the difference between the U.S English word “sidewalk” and its U.K equivalent “pavement”, and comparing Sanjay’s dwelling to both the favelas of Rio and the underground walkways of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.
If I were as well-travelled and cultured as the author I may have enjoyed the book even more. It may be self-indulgent but as the (recently rehabilitated) Johann Hari wrote of James: “What a self to indulge.”
“Number 3” by Anna Metcalfe
The idea of teaching being a low-status, dead-end job is not common in Anglophone countries. Still, in China, some foreign English teachers are considered to be the plankton of the expatriate community, described as “unqualified scumbags” by Shanghaiist and by one memoirist and former English teacher as “total basket-cases at best”.
Shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award in 2014, this piece employs great skill to realize the challenges of China’s education system. The title alone illustrates that in China, schools have numbers rather than names, which says something about the lack of prestige and pride attached to most of them.
The viewpoint character is Miss Coral, a teacher who, though stuck in a system that under-uses her talents and often only dulls sharp minds, lives her life with quiet dignity and dedication.
Observations of her surroundings suggest a detached fatalism: “A late afternoon sun casts a haze over the urban sprawl. Smog and fresh dust linger, hovering over warehouses, slums and disused factories as they leave the inner city and approach the airport.”
At the airport she meets Mr. James, a young Westerner low on teaching credentials, high on entitlement. By the time he appears, the reader is already more aware than he is of the subtleties of interpersonal interaction in this environment and can see how he is trampling over them.
Still, like all good antagonists, he does not see himself as being villainous and may simply be tactless: “He leans over and kisses Miss Coral on the cheek. She smells beer on his breath. ‘Fuck’, he says, ‘I forgot you don’t kiss in China.’ He walks into the dimly lit hallway, laughing to himself.”
The figure of Mr. James illustrates that, even today, being a Westerner in Asia is in many ways a colonial experience. It also, through their seemingly dispassionate observations, evokes the emotions that the Chinese characters are conditioned not to show.
“Sayonara Bar” by Susan Barker
Set in Osaka, Japan, Susan Barker’s “Sayonara Bar” is alternately narrated by three characters who typify one of the less appealing sides of Japanese society. British graduate Mary works in a hostess bar and embodies the systemic objectification of women; kitchen assistant and college dropout Watanabe the massive pressure placed on young people to perform academically; and middle-aged “salaryman” Mr. Sato the culture of workaholism.
All three narrators are unreliable, but not so much that it isn’t obvious why they are prone to misadventures. Mary is trusting and has poor taste in men. Watanabe, while claiming to exist on a higher plain of consciousness, fails at simple tasks like arriving at work on time and loading a dishwasher. Mr. Sato is strait-laced but tortured, narrating much of his story in the second person to his deceased wife.
Mary wants to flee Japan with her drug-runner boyfriend, Watanabe is secretly plotting to rescue her from this relationship, and Mr. Sato – despite upheaval from his colleagues, a meddlesome neighbour, and a mysterious hostess named Mariko – is determined to live his life in a way of his late wife would approve.
Being a stranger to this setting, Mary is the most relatable of the three, and has a wrenching back story: “When I was a kid she used to go on about the seven pints of blood she lost when she gave birth to me, as though those seven pints compensated for the lack of effort thereafter. Sometimes she’d up the number of pints to eight or nine if I hadn’t done the washing-up or whatever.”
Barker’s prose is at its most enviably sparkling during the sections narrated by Watanabe. Since he believes he can read minds, the use of viewpoint is dazzling: “I too was intrigued by Mary. She gazed stoically into the middle distance as she waited in line. Her mental activity was negligible, practically flat-lining. All her thoughts had been displaced by a melody – the most haunting that I had ever heard, a bittersweet refrain to the indignity and pathos of life.”
The touchingly idealistic Mr. Sato may be different to the author in gender, nationality, age and beliefs. Still, Barker’s writing shows that through detailed observation, authors can make characters who are outwardly eccentric become hauntingly sympathetic: “Everything about her, from her narrow hips to her slight bosom, screamed with obscene youth. She looked at me, steadily, as serene and unabashed as Eve before the fall. I switched my gaze from the cello to banish her from my field of vision. I would not let my body respond. I would not.”