Yesterday I posted a review of Descent, a compelling debut novel by C.H. Zhu. I interviewed Zhu because I wanted to learn more about this book and how he came to write it.
What inspired you to write this story? What parts of the story come from your own life?
The character, Dr. Wu, first came to me when I was writing my MFA exam at University of Oregon in 2002. I have always been interested in exploring an individual’s struggle against family and social constraints. Born and raised in China, and with a rebellious streak, I have experienced such conflicts first hand. In Dr. Wu’s case, being a homosexual symbolizes an almost insurmountable obstacle for a young man who is expected to be a model son. This seed of conflict fascinated me from the very beginning. During my years in America, I have also developed great sympathy for gay people whom I know personally and for the gay community’s struggle for recognition and equality, so writing Descent has indeed been a creative and meaningful process for me.
As a first-time author, how did you go about publishing this book?
I submitted my manuscript to agents first. I did some research and chose agents who are interested in emerging authors, controversial subject matter, and/or unique characters. I received some encouraging feedback, which largely affirmed the quality of my writing and the worthiness of the theme. Instead of prolonging the agent search, I was inspired by a friend’s experiment with self-publishing and decided to give it a try. Self-publishing offers closure to a writing process that had spanned seven or eight years and allows me to move on to my next project.
You write about the class and geographic differences of Wu’s mother and father. How does that influence Wu’s upbringing? How do Communism and the Cultural Revolution impact this story?
The city of Shanghai, where Dr. Wu grew up, is like a “melting pot” of people of diverse origins and backgrounds. Since the late nineteenth century, it has attracted people from all over China (and the world at times) to come and seek fame and fortune.
Wu’s mother and father are like different generations of immigrants. Wu’s father is the grandson of a successful merchant family whose sheltered “bourgeois” style upbringing was curtailed by the Communist takeover in 1949. It is a different case for Wu’s mother, a peasant’s daughter. Her aspiration to bring up a successful son is not uncommon among the first generation of poor, provincial immigrants. Her intensity in raising her son reflects her own insecurity and eagerness to prove herself in a highly competitive, class-conscious society that often breeds snobbery and prejudice.
Post-1949 China has seen waves of political turmoil, including the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. These contemporary political events affected the lives of just about every family, rich or poor, urban or provincial. Communism itself, as it was practiced in China, reinforced a rigid social structure that stifled individuality and personal freedom. In Descent, Dr. Wu came of age in a society that did not encourage any self-expression but demanded conformity. Since his parents’ marriage was a hapless product of political and family circumstances, Dr. Wu’s emotional growth was also affected by the imbalance between an overbearing mother and a painfully distant father.
You contrast Wu’s family with that of his friend Dawei. Does Wu’s relationship with his parents, and the intense pressure he feels to meet his mother’s expectations, reflect a “typical” Chinese family?
Dr. Wu’s upbringing represents the type of Chinese family that pursue upward mobility by ensuring their children’s success through education. It has a long tradition and can also been seen among Chinese immigrants in the United States.
On the other hand, Dawei’s family represents a portion of working class families that are barely trying to survive at the bottom of a metropolis like Shanghai. Their prospects are hampered by their educational deficiencies and domestic troubles.
In reality, these two families would rarely socialize, and Dawei and Dr. Wu would hardly have anything to do with each other as they move into different social echelons. That’s why it seemed interesting to create a relationship between these boys that renders contrasts and ironic twists.
Wu struggles to accept his sexual orientation and wonders whether he would be able to live more openly in America. Do you think greater societal acceptance would have helped Wu to be more accepting of himself?
The public attitude toward homosexuality has evolved tremendously for the last fifty years in America. In spite of ups and downs, it has become an open debate and the gay community has stepped forward to define itself and fight for its rights. I don’t think China has begun this process. In the last twenty years, China has gone from total denial of its homosexual population to accepting the existence of gay individuals, certain pop stars, for instance. There is, however, no open and genuine discussion of how to acknowledge and integrate homosexuality within family and social structures. It remains an exotic subject in movies and fiction.
Research has shown that, in China, a majority of gay men marry and have children. The ensuing marital, psychological, and social problems have started to receive attention.
Not unlike a young man growing up in a socially conservative town in the U.S., Dr. Wu’s self perception was directly impacted by the traditional prejudice against homosexuality and the lack of public discourse. As long as homosexuality is not socially acceptable, there can be many Dr. Wus who will vehemently deny their true sexual orientation. They will internalize society’s gender definitions and strive to live up to them by suppressing their true feelings.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
The novel Descent is about self vs. family and society. It is a tragedy about a person who internalizes external values and obligations while denying his true self. I believe such struggles exist for many people, regardless of ethnicity or sexual orientation.
A novel is a complex slice of life and reading a novel should be a complex experience. I hope my readers appreciate the complexity of the novel and come away feeling enriched, challenged, and encouraged to live a truthful life.
Which authors have influenced your writing the most?
It is hard to say which authors have influenced my writing in general. But during my writing of Descent, I found myself drawn to the works of Kazuo Ishiguro, such as The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World. The narrators of these two novels share a restrained voice limited by their view of the world, but they are nevertheless strong and unforgettable voices. The suppression of the voice itself seems to have become an expressive element in the storytelling.
Bio: C. H. Zhu, born and raised in China, studied writing at New York University and the University of Oregon. Publications include stories and essays in both English and Chinese in periodicals such as Slice Magazine (Brooklyn, New York), World Journal Literary Supplement (the U.S. Edition), and Mengya Literary Monthly (Shanghai, China), among others. Connect with the author online: email author.chzhu[at]gmail.com or visit http://facebook.com/novel.descent.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The interview questions are answered in the author’s words with no editing.