Wednesday, June 20, 2007

From the Yangtze to the Thames

We are nothing if not international-minded here at The Rap Sheet. So let me introduce Shanghai-born St. Louis resident Qiu Xiaolong, a very interesting novelist now celebrating the British paperback publication of his third mystery, When Red Is Black, and looking forward to the November 2007 release in the States of his fifth novel, Red Mandarin Dress.

As many of you probably already know, Qiu is a very interesting writer who sets his Chief Inspector Chen Cao mysteries deep in the Far East. I first discovered his work thanks to a profile of the author, written by Caroline Cummins shortly after the publication of Qiu’s second novel, A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), and posted in January Magazine. Cummins’ description of detective Chen in that piece makes him seem very much like the gentle man who gave the character literary life:
In his books ... Qiu writes about the kind of life he might have led had he stayed in China. His detective, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, is another Shanghai native who, as a bored youth, also tried to practice tai chi in the Bund. He, too, gave it up one day--in his case, when he came across a battered English textbook lying on a bench. Like his creator, Chen is a poet with a fondness for the modernist writers of [T.S.] Eliot’s generation. He likes mysteries, as well, and even earns a little side income translating Western crime fiction into Chinese.

But after Chen earned a degree in English, he didn’t become a professor or a writer. Instead, the government assigned him to the Shanghai Police Bureau. As a detective and member of the Communist Party, Chen is in charge of the “special case squad,” a police division responsible for handling any crime involving politics. Naturally, the politics tend to trump the police work, and Chen’s life is a delicate dance between trying to be an honest cop and trying to stay on the right side of the Party.

Having since become familiar with Qiu’s fiction, I was pleased recently by the chance to talk with the author (a meeting arranged by Henry Jefferies of Sceptre Publishing), while he was here in London promoting When Red Is Black.

I said before that Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced “chew-shao-long”) is interesting, and much of the reason for that derives from his background. Selected for membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association, he published poetry, translations, and criticism while he lived in his native land. But since 1989, he’s resided in the United States, picking up two degrees--an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature--from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His writing has been published widely in American literary magazines and in several anthologies. For his efforts, Qiu has received the Missouri Biennial Award, the Prairie Schooner Readers’ Choice Award, and a Ford Foundation Fellowship.

Despite the political machinations in his criminal tales and the interjection of poetry into his prose, Qiu’s books have become popular in the English-speaking world. That his fourth novel, A Case of Two Cities (2006)--which finally reaches bookstores in Britain this summer--was set primarily in America probably didn’t hurt his U.S. sales any, either. In Two Cities, Inspector Chen Cao is instructed by the Party to lead a highly charged corruption investigation. The tentacles of that corruption have spread through the Shanghai police force, the Chinese civil service, and the vice trade, and reach deep into the criminal underworld. The principal suspect in Chen’s investigation has long since fled with his family to America, beyond the Chinese government’s reach. But the criminal network he created remains intact, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes stronger than before. In a twisting case that reunites him with his counterpart from the U.S. Marshals Service, Inspector Catherine Rohn (first introduced in A Loyal Character Dancer), Chen must find a measure of justice in a corrupt, expedient world.

Assessing A Case of Two Cities for Reviewing the Evidence, Andi Shechter wrote not long ago:
Telling a crime story set in a foreign country requires the author to ‘translate,’ to offer the story in a way that makes sense to the reader who may never have been to that country. Certainly, relatively few Americans are likely to have visited China but author Qiu provides us with an accessible narrative. That this tale takes place in part in America provides another angle. While the author has lived in the U.S. for over 15 years, he’s Chinese, born in Shanghai and knows the culture and the country. The changes in recent years are manifold and Qiu shows that understanding them isn’t the easiest thing for those who live with them.
During our interview, I talked with Qiu about those changes, as well as about his authorial inspirations, his next Chen book, and his present-day reception in China.

Ali Karim: Welcome to London, Qiu. What have you been up to during this visit, and is this your first trip to London?

Qiu Xiaolong: Thank you, Ali. Well, I met my editors here for the first time. We had only written e-mails to each other before. It’s a wonderful experience. Also, I had a fantastic reunion with a friend of mine; we had not met for about 20 years. And, actually, it’s my second trip to London. I came here first four or five years ago.

AK: I see that Chief Inspector Chen is interested in tai chi, as you were as a boy. So, let me ask you the inevitable question: Is your detective’s life based upon your own?

QX: I share some experiences with Chen, but not all of them. He’s a better tai chi player, though I also studied English by myself and practiced tai chi for a short while in Bund Park. But I never was a cop or a Party member.

AK: OK, then, where did Inspector Chen come from?

QX: Chen did not come from one particular individual. Chen’s becoming a cop may have come from a friend of mine. Like me, he majored in literature in college, but upon graduation, he was assigned to a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau. And he has since been a cop all these years. Also, I have some friends who have been trying hard to do things in China, within the system--so I have got something from one, and something from another, you know. And sometimes I cannot help imagining what I could have done had I stayed in China, especially in such a transitional period [as we’re in now]. In that sense, I may have sort of projected myself into Chen, but not that much.

AK: How is your work received in your native China?

QX: I think that my books have been received in a mixed way there. The government did not want people to talk too much about them, so some reviews in the mainstream newspapers were taken off. While some positive reviews talked about my work being the first mysteries in China, the negative ones questioned my writing in English, implying that I cater to the Western readers. For me, a meaningful response has come from the younger generation. For instance, my nephew asked me whether these things really happened in China. The government wants people to forget about the Cultural Revolution [which sought to expunge “liberal bourgeoisie” elements from China]. There’s hardly any mentioning of it in the textbooks. That’s like a random harvest to me.

AK: Can you tell us a little of your early time in China, and how you ended up in America?

QX: I grew up in what was termed a “black family,” as my father was a “capitalist” in his class status. During the Cultural Revolution, our family suffered a lot. It was not until after the end of the Cultural Revolution, that I was allowed to study in a college. I started writing in Chinese and translating during my college years. Among other things, I translated a collection of Eliot’s poems, which was a “bestseller” at the time and earned me a prize.

I went to America in 1988 as a visiting scholar. I had originally planned to stay for only one year there. But then the Tiananmen [Square] tragedy occurred and my name was mentioned in the Voice of America as a poet raising money for students in Beijing. I had no choice. So I stayed on and switched to writing in English. It was out of the question for me to write and publish in Chinese at the time. One thing led to another, and here I am.

AK: And what was your path to publishing the first Inspector Chen novel, Death of a Red Heroine [2000]?

QX: After I finished the manuscript, I made some inquiries. I was told that it could be as difficult to get an agent as to get a publisher. So I simply sent the manuscript directly to publishers, and I got the response in a couple of weeks. That’s it, basically.

AK: Did you realize at the outset that the Inspector Chen books would become a series?

QX: No, I did not know that when I finished Death of a Red Heroine, but my American publisher wanted me to sign a contract for three books--a series of Inspector Chen books. I was flattered, but after signing the contract, I had no choice. So one book after another. I’m working on Book Six at the moment.

AK: Given the lyrical nature of your work, I was not surprised to see you publishing poetry. So tell me about your interest in that field.

QX: I started writing poetry in Chinese in the early ’80s. Because of my translation of T.S. Eliot, I came under the influence of modernist poetry. I was selected for membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association. After 1989, however, I started writing in English. I received several prizes for my English poetry, including the Missouri Biennial Award. I also published a collection of poetry entitled Lines Around China. In my novels, I have Inspector Chen write poems, some of which are mine, as you know. It’s in the tradition of classical Chinese literature for poems to appear in novels. In addition, I have Inspector Chen complain that he does not have enough time for poetry; for Inspector Chen, poetry is like “the moon palace”--he knows he cannot stay there for too long, but staying there for a while still makes the necessary difference. And you may say that it is true in my case too.

AK: I detect in your work what seem to be the Western influences of Raymond Chandler. Am I write about that? And who else influenced your direction in writing crime and mystery fiction?

QX: I read Raymond Chandler. You’re right about that. But Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, with their sociological emphasis, influenced me more than others in the writing of mystery fiction.

AK: I can understand the international appeal of your work--not unlike the appeal of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. Other than the United States and the UK, in what other countries are your novels published?

QX: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, Spain, Russia, Israel, Norway, Hungary, Sweden, Holland, Finland, Denmark. Perhaps one or two more.

AK: What are the differences you find between UK and U.S. publishers, and others?

QX: I don’t think I know enough to tell you the difference, but as far as readings and book-signings are concerned, there are some differences. In China, you simply sit in the bookstore and sign your books. In the U.S., you read and talk and sign your books. In Germany, it is like a performance. Usually, there is an actor (in my case, an actor who plays cops) doing the reading, and I will do the questions and answers with an interpreter before book signing. In France, I once did a reading in a department store. Also, there seem to be more festivals in European countries. Having said that, I have to say that I can tell only from my own experience.

AK: What can we expect from Inspector Chen’s fifth outing, which I believe has just been released in France?

QX: It has been just released in France. The English title is Red Mandarin Dress, but the French title is changed to De Soie et de Sang. It is about a serial-murder case in contemporary China, but it goes back to the Cultural Revolution, and to the archetype of the femme fatale in Chinese culture as well. Personally, it is my favorite in the series.

AK: Have you been back to China, or would political issues prevent your doing so?

QX: I have been back to China many times. Since my first trip back to China in 1996, no political issues have prevented me from going back. However, political issues have prevented my novels from being translated in Chinese in an unabridged way. According to my Chinese editor, they had to do “major operations,” including the change of Shanghai to “H city” in the Chinese text.

AK: Food is mentioned heavily in your work, and I get hungry just reading it. Are you a “foodie”? And do you do a lot of cooking?

QX: I like good food, and I cook too. I wrote about food, partially because I missed the authentic Chinese food in the United States, and to write about it offered a sort of compensation, almost like Proust reliving his past experience through recalling his favorite cookies.

AK: One last question: Of contemporary writers, who have you managed to read recently?

QX: In London, I have been reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Recently, I also read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, partially because of the poem “Dover Beach.”

READ MORE:Qiu Xiaolong, Interviewed by Cara Black” (Mystery Readers International).

(Author photograph provided by Hodder & Stoughton.)

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