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Old Town Paperback – January 25, 2011
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A Q&A with Author Lin Zhe
Beijing-based author Lin Zhe has written 14 novels and three TV series. Time Out Beijing caught up with Lin Zhe and published the following interview.
Although Old Town is mostly set in the old town of Fuzhou, the action partly takes place in the States. What literary influences
helped create it?
The contents of Old Town is very Chinese, but the style – a less constrained style – is very Western. I like the French writer Marguerite Duras: she also uses freedom with time and space. When I write I feel that I am breaking away from the real world and stepping into a place which is much more free.
In the novel the older characters of the family live by simple values of Christian faith and Chinese tradition; by contrast your narrator represents a chaotic and lost generation who focus only on themselves. How important is faith in the novel?
The different generations in the book are strung together by faith, and today’s China has a great hunger and thirst for faith. Faith answers questions everyone needs to face: why we are living in this world, the meaning of life, where I am from and where shall I go. Many people feel depressed because they have no answers to these problems. I’m not saying that one faith is right. I just want to let people know that we need to take care of our spiritual life, especially in a time of great materialism – like today.
You’re currently producing a Chinese TV series based on Old Town. What are the differences between writing a novel and writing a script?
Scripts have many technical requirements: for me, it’s more of a job, more of a routine. But with novels there are almost no limitations. I simply follow my feelings and let them lead me.
Interview by Cecilia Wu and Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore for Time Out Beijing.
About the Author
Lin Zhe (pen name of Zhang Yonghong) was born in 1956 of Han Chinese parents then serving in the People’s Liberation Army in Kashi (Kashgar), a small frontier city in what is now Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After graduating from the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Fudan University in 1980, she worked as a reporter and editor for Women of China Magazine in Beijing. She has written fourteen novels that focus on women’s issues relating to marriage and personal and family life, as well as three TV drama series.
George A. Fowler lived and traveled widely in the Asia Pacific region for over 30 years, first as a Marine, then as a student of Chinese and Malay, and finally for 23 years as a commercial banker. He has most recently translated Marah Rusli's classic Indonesian Malay novel Sitti Nurbaya, which will soon be published by Lontar in Jakarta.
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Top customer reviews
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"Old Town" is not a straightforward book. The story line is complex. It reminds me of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" because both books have a similar spiral shape. Certain motifs and moments are referred to again and again, as touchstones, becoming more rich and layered with meaning each time they come around. When a complex history meets a complex story line, it's easy to end up with a confusing book that no one can follow or relate to. Not this one! What a wise, profound book. Characters are introduced, their personal and familial qualities shown to us. The place and time in history is noted. We see how the different families get to know each other. Then the events start spinning, carrying all this along in a narrative. People do unexpected things (just like real people!), get caught up in the whirlwind of history, participate in other people's dramas, etc. The touchstones bring readers back to the core experiences.
Adoption is a repeating theme. Strangers are adopted into families, sometimes as children, sometimes as adults. Characters also disappear from families, sometimes forever. Prayer and faith are major touchstones. I really love it how amidst all the chaos in China, faith is a foundation for life. When the changing regimes say, "Black is white; white is black," it makes perfect sense to me to seek out something eternal. I wouldn't call it a Christian book, but the faith theme is there, as well as characters whose lives are defined by their faith in Jesus. These characters have their periods of doubt, as well. Grandpa's death, giving warm milk to a child, a woman waiting at an oleander bush, prison, healing, enduring love are also touchstones in this marvelous book. i highly recommend it! I only give 5 stars to books I plan to keep on my shelf to re-read in the future.
At first, adjusting to some of the conventions of Chinese nomenclature might take some getting used to. Most of the characters are referred to by their relationship titles rather than proper names: for example, Ninth Brother and Second Sister are the maternal grandparents of the narrator. Once the reader gets the hang of this, it feels quite natural and probably helps maintain the Chinese "feel" of the novel. Translator George Fowler made a good call there.
Although OLD TOWN deals with one family's story, it's really an epic about an entire era. We see the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, culminating in the victory of the Communist Party, followed by the catastrophes of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," ending in a modern China where status is more closely tied to money than ideological purity.
One aspect of the book that is likely to attract little notice in China but may surprise Western readers is its presentation of China as a heterogeneous country, with divisions of old and young, rich and poor, right and left, North and South, city and country. It's not a portrayal that usually comes through in Western novels or films. Throughout the book, almost incidentally, Zhe lets the reader see just how large and varied the country is.
Outside of educating the reader about Chinese history, geography, and literature (a helpful timeline, map, and family tree, as well as footnotes for literary and cultural references, help the reader keep up with a great deal), OLD TOWN is a wonderful story about faith, family, change, and continuity. It's a novel that truly immerses the reader, in the best sense of the word.
Most recent customer reviews
Overall I found the novel interesting because I knew very little about the period in China during the Communist takeover.Read more