An interview with Xun Yuezang, author of Liberationists

Liberationists tells the story of a human rights worker who disappears while crossing the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. More broadly, it’s about the lives of people fighting for human rights, freedom and democracy in the two places.

In March 2016, I interviewed Xun Yuezang just as Liberationists was appearing in regular installments online. The book will now be published in April this year.

At the time of the March 2016 interview, I hadn’t yet read the full text. Now that I have, I return to speak with him about it. As before, the interview was conducted via email, this time over the course of the first two weeks of February 2017.

Let’s start out with the epigraphs. Unusually, the book begins with a section of them that’s about twenty pages long. Why?

I thought of the epigraphs as an entryway into the story. At first, I wondered whether such an entryway might over-determine the story by impressing upon the reader a certain interpretation that’s hard to avoid, but I hope it sets an emotional and intellectual atmosphere.

The epigraphs are multivalent, corresponding to different directions and facets of the story, alerting the reader to them. On the one hand, there’s George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Gramsci, and on the other, Ai Weiwei, Zeng Jinyan, Liu Xia. All are the story’s guardian spirits, Western literature and philosophy, Chinese activists and thinkers.

The epigraphs section begins with the well-known poem, “Bohemia lies by the sea” by Ingeborg Bachmann, which I take to be about idealistic, supposedly unrealistic thinkers and doers, or, in the terms of the story, “liberationists”. The poem was inspired by a stage direction in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale: “Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.” Of course, most people commonly think of the territory of Bohemia as corresponding roughly to the modern-day Czech Republic, a landlocked country nowhere near the sea. Even in Shakespeare’s time, fellow playwright Ben Jonson mocked him for the “error”. Anselm Kiefer was inspired to make a painting based on Bachmann’s poem, with the same title. In fact, he even scrawls “Böhmen liegt am Meer” across the top of the large canvas. I didn’t know of the painting and came across it one day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The moment I saw it, I thought it would make the perfect cover of Liberationists, and Kiefer kindly consented to its use. Many of the quotations from Chinese activists, artists and writers in the epigraphs section have to do with how they contend with the “impossibility” of their situation, symbolized by Bohemia lying by the sea. Are they just deluded, wayward idealists, or are they the visionary vanguard?

The epigraphs section also brings up the issue of the many references to literature in the story, and of its literary influences.

Especially the early parts of the story are full of allusions, to Woolf, Plato’s comments on Orpheus’ descent to the underworld to rescue Eurydice, Blake’s “London”, Basho, The Little Prince, Hamlet, Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. This is foremost because they are a part of the thought world of the narrator, the husband of the missing rights worker. He’s an educator and intellectual. Just as if one were to have a scientist as a protagonist, there might be various allusions to science, these writers and thinkers are the ones who come to this narrator’s mind.

At the same time, there is no sign in Liberationists of some of its most immediate literary influences. When I set out, I wanted to write something that was both “literary” (and in that sense, perhaps “timeless”) and something urgent, about now, and there was a certain tension between the two. I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, but looking back, that’s how it appears to me now. I’ve found much of literary culture in recent decades, perhaps especially in the English-speaking world, to be too apolitical, too cut off from the political and social struggles of the time, or, more generally, not addressing issues of power that go beyond the interpersonal. I was aiming for a more “engaged” literature that had something to say about those issues.

In this respect, novels such as Li Yiyun’s The Vagrants, Teju Cole’s Open City, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island helped me to consider how to go about what I wanted to do. Though very different from one another, they are all about power, who has it, who doesn’t, its uses and abuses, complicity with unjust power, and how all of those dynamics of the “big world” out there manifest themselves in people’s lives. Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit, while squarely nonfictional, helped me to figure out how to combine nonfictional elements with more literary or storytelling elements. There is much in Liberationists that is “true” in the sense that it depicts what’s actually happened in reality, especially as regards the rights situation China.

The story is told by the husband of the disappeared rights worker in the form of an address to her. Why did you choose that form?

Simply put, it was just the voice I heard in my head, one person talking to another. One thing I wanted to do in the story was to give a sense of the experience of those whose loved one has been disappeared, and this form seemed to suit that purpose.

Having a loved one disappeared is a very particular kind of experience. If a loved one dies, there is often some sense of finality, closure — at least you know what has happened to that person. In some ways, having a loved one kidnapped by the state is comparable to a sailor being lost at sea in the old days — you can guess what has happened to the person who hasn’t returned, but there is no way to know for sure. But in the instance of the sailor, you suspect a superhuman force, nature, or some other accident beyond human control has taken the beloved away.

In the case of what’s legally called “enforced disappearance”, it is suspected that human beings, namely, the state, have disappeared the beloved. And if they have, there’s always the chance they might release her. You find yourself constantly thinking you haven’t done enough to find her and procure her release, you feel guilty for living an ordinary day and even more guilty for enjoying anything — how can you take pleasure in a cup of coffee, a breeze, a book while she almost certainly is suffering? The mind never rests. And then you just don’t know when or if it will end. The Partystate rarely commits entirely extrajudicial executions, rarely just kidnaps someone and shoots her in the head, as some states do and have done, so the chances of her still being alive are relatively high. But you’re in limbo, and the Partystate is so opaque, it’s virtually impossible to find out anything it’s intent on keeping hidden.

Then, as far as the address to a “you” goes, you find yourself constantly talking in your head to the person who is missing, constantly wanting to tell her about all of the things you experience and think and feel in the course of an ordinary day, to report to her all of the things the child you’ve had together does and says. In some ways, this has the effect of bringing the beloved closer, and in other ways, it makes the pain felt at the absence more acute. On top of that, the relationship between the couple was fraught before the disappearance, not least of all because of the stress and anxiety of their rights work, and this complicates the address to the beloved. It is not uncommon that rights work or any kind of activism that antagonizes the Partystate in China threatens the family, such unbearable pressure does state persecution place on it. I wanted to depict that state of mind. But as I say, the address to a “you” wasn’t so much a conscious choice as a voice heard and transcribed. It’s a kind of apostrophe, the form of the love lyric.

I’ve read few books that so substantively depict a relationship between a parent and a young child as Liberationists does.

That’s my impression as well. It’s striking, considering what an important experience the parent-child relationship is for many people. Of course, there are plenty of stories about relationships between grown or teenage children and parents, but not between little children and parents. It’s as if little children are beneath literature. Dave Eggers’ most recent book, Heroes of the Frontier, is an exception.

As mentioned, one of the things I wished to do in Liberationists was to show the experience of the family of a person persecuted for her rights work. It’s a terrible and terrifying experience. One of the biggest deterrents the Communist Party uses is the threat that not only you but also your loved ones will suffer if you do anything it doesn’t like.

There are lots of excellent human rights reports and other information about the deplorable human rights situation in China as well as eloquent articulations of a vision for a democratic, rights-respecting China (for example, Charter 08 or some of Xu Zhiyong’s statements). So I didn’t really feel that a straight-up history of the rights defense movement [ed: the commonly used term for one of the main strands of rights activism in China over the last decade and more] needed to be told, at least not by me. Instead, I wanted to show up-close the experience of the family. The trauma of the families of the persecuted is not undocumented but at the same time, it’s rarely featured; you rarely see it from the inside.

The relationship between the father and young daughter in the story is intense, perhaps even more so than most such relationships, because of the absence of the mother. In a sense, without intending to, the young daughter “saves” the father and gives him the strength to continue, even while he finds it a great strain looking after her by himself while trying to find his wife.

The girl is just becoming aware of the wider world out there and so approaches what has happened to her mother with an innocence so complete that it brings into relief just how abnormal what’s been done to the mother is. One of the worst effects of dictatorships is that they normalize the abnormal, they condition people to accept the abnormal as normal. In essence, they degrade us all, psychologically, culturally, linguistically, spiritually. But a young child hasn’t yet been degraded — it’s the old emperor’s new clothes syndrome.

Beyond that, one of the issues thematized in the story is education and its relationship to building a democratic, rights-respecting free society. The narrator has been trying to start a school to train young rights activists throughout Asia, and, before her disappearance, the rights worker and her husband had spoken often about the sort of education they wanted for their daughter, that they thought was necessary for the society they envisioned, especially because the disappeared rights worker felt she had been so irrevocably damaged by her own education.

The relationship between education and society is most often mutually reinforcing: the society decides the kind of education its children receive and those children then go on to become the society of tomorrow. Most educations reinforce the status quo, which is fine if the status quo is good, but if, as is more often than not the case, the status quo is unjust and unequal, then what is needed is progressive education, education intended to produce people with the consciousness and skills to go out and improve society, but it’s very hard to bring that kind of education into existence because it challenges the powers that be and you need excellent, enlightened educators, of which there’s usually a shortage.

Almost every society pays some kind of lip service to the line that “children are our future”, and in Chinese society, people love children, but at the same time, the social policies that affect children in many societies are brutal. And the people who work with children, for example early childhood educators, tend to be poorly paid and have low status. If we wish to build a decent society, we need to start with ourselves, our thinking about education, and to respect children, their interior worlds, their imaginations, their interests, as well as teaching them what it means to be a citizen, to live democratically together with others, to resolve differences in a fair, nonviolent, rational manner, to live in a rights-respecting community, for these are the things they will take with them into their adult lives to transform society for the better. Unfortunately, today, few children anywhere get this kind of education, certainly not in China. How can the youth be educated in an enlightened way if their elders are not themselves enlightened?

If anything, one ray of hope is that somehow sometimes in some places, the youth see the light themselves, even though they’ve been raised in oppressive systems or educated in less-than-enlightened ways. A good example of that is the young people who were so central to the HK Umbrella Movement. Their participation was a reaction against their education, not an influence of it. If they and their generation persevere, then perhaps they will manage to establish a different paradigm and change history’s course.

Throughout the story, the Chinese government is referred to as “the Partystate”, which can be a little jarring. Why do you use that term?

That’s what it is, a party, the Communist Party, and a state, the People’s Republic of China, forged into one. The history of the two is so intertwined as it render them virtually inseparable. Formally speaking, the two entities are discrete, but in practice they are virtually one. Also, it’s got an Orwellian tone to it, which is accurate to the reality.

And we live in age when it’s not only dictators normalizing the abnormality of dictatorship, but others, such as the media. So, when you refer to the Partystate as “the Chinese government” or “Beijing”, you’re normalizing it by equating it with legitimate governments elsewhere. The media do this out of a sense of “fairness” and “objectivity”, treating it as they do other governments, but it’s categorically different from governments freely chosen by their own people.

The book’s made up of six parts. The fifth part is the longest and it consists for the most part of an account of the beginnings of the HK Umbrella Movement, which, at least initially, seems like a departure from the main plot of the story. Can you tell me about why you decided to include it?

Most of the story focuses on individual “liberationists”, which is what I’d originally intended, but at the same time, at a certain point in the writing, that focus seemed a little narrow and perhaps gave the impression that liberationists work in isolation or are inevitably a small minority. For that reason, I thought it was important to depict an instance of a mass liberation movement. It just so happened that during the first year of writing Liberationists, the Umbrella Movement happened, as if it were offering itself to be included in the story. Sometimes one can get the impression that liberationists are highly unusual, courageous people willing to take extraordinary risks to stand up for what they believe in, but in another sense, a great many ordinary people are liberationists of a sort, or at least have that liberationist impulse in them, though this is often dormant, latent, or hidden, perhaps even from themselves. Moments like mass nonviolent uprisings show this impulse coming to the surface, manifesting itself. I wanted to show some of the dynamics and complexities of a collective, large-scale liberationism. The situation at the moment on the mainland is so oppressive that it’s difficult to the point of near impossibility for such a movement to occur.

The genesis of the Umbrella Movement also happens to be a crucial element in the plot, having to do with the search for the disappeared rights worker.

Why didn’t you set the story squarely on the mainland, if it’s about human rights, freedom and democracy there, rather than having it range so widely? Not only is there the part about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, but there are other parts set in London and New York.

There are several reasons.

First, I wanted to look at the relationship between Chinese organizations and international organizations when it comes to working on rights in China, among other things to examine the effectiveness of current approaches, especially in a time when foreign governments are almost entirely unwilling to confront China on rights issues.

Secondly, I didn’t want the story to be only about China. Yes, China is one of the most politically unfree and least rights-respecting countries in the world, and it also happens to be one of the largest and most powerful, with a growing influence. But the story’s called Liberationists, which is not a China-specific title, and it’s because I wanted to look at the issue of liberation from several perspectives, including historical and philosophical.

In fact, the narrator’s not physically present on the mainland at any point of the story — it’s just too dangerous, as demonstrated by the apparent abduction of his wife. When she disappears, he’s in London. And in searching for her, he goes to New York. In London, there’s a passage about the Shard that brings out themes of vast disparities of wealth and political power, which are closely related to issues like rights, democracy and freedom. While there, the narrator goes to Paris to visit a Tibetan refugee, which introduces the aspect of the Tibetan freedom struggle. And in New York, the narrator walks past the old Stonewall Inn and muses on what great progress has been made in some areas of the struggle for human rights, such as LGBT rights, in a matter of a few decades. The struggle for rights in China doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is connected to all these other issues.

It’s a bit long, isn’t it?

Ah, yes! I didn’t intend for it to turn out like that. Not many people read long books these days, do they? But in the process of writing it, it just bled outward in various directions from the moment of the disappearance, and I didn’t attempt to staunch the flow, just direct it. In that sense, it’s a kind of testament — this happened, this is the way it was, at this point in time. So there’s the main plot line of the search, the situation in China today, the relationship between the father and small daughter, the backstory about the complicated love between the disappeared and the husband, reflections on the value and meaning of freedom, rights, democracy and education, and the beginnings of the HK Umbrella Movement. They’re all related and relevant, such that whenever I considered cutting one aspect, doing so seemed to damage the whole.

Of course, there are great long books, though I don’t think many have been written recently. Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Ferrante’s tetralogy have been rightly praised. The former is great because it’s just about an intelligent middle-aged man living and thinking about his life, the latter almost for the opposite reason, because it situates a woman’s life, or perhaps more accurately the friendship between two women, in the context of the last half-century of Italian history. Both encompass decades, whereas Liberationists is very tightly focused on a relative short span of time, not as short as Ulysses’s 24 hours, but a few months.

Many of the best books of recent years have been somewhat circumscribed and shorter, with masterfully controlled style and language. I’m thinking of books like Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Han Kang’s Human Acts, Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage. Their power and intensity are gained through their compression, their density, their concreteness, their “here-and-now-ness”, their disciplined, adamantine prose and unwavering focus. It’s a very penetrating style. Cusk’s story is basically about a recently divorced woman trying to restart her life in London. It’s made up of conversations between her and others, many of whom she simply happens to come across in the course of her day. The conversations read like parables of life in an early twenty-first-century consumer-capitalist urban society. The context of Han Kang’s story is the Gwangju uprising and massacre, but it is more specifically about bodies and corpses and the horrible things that were done to bodies. The first chapter is narrated by a volunteer at an impromptu morgue, the second actually by a corpse. The volunteer is eventually himself killed, and the rest of the novel circles around his memory. Both novels are made of voices that combine to represent a culture, a society. Arudpragasam employs the compacted style to address a large theme as well, in his case, the fate of Tamils affected by the Sri Lankan civil war. His book portrays the relationship between two people in an IDP camp that’s being shelled by the Sri Lankan army. Again, it focuses on the minutest details of the experience of the body, and in doing so, remarkably takes on philosophical and spiritual meaning.

I’d love to write a book like that. But I don’t know if I have it in me. The control of language, I mean, not to mention the brevity.