Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Rachel DeWoskin about being a soap opera star in China, defying genre boundaries, sensory deprivation chambers, and more.
Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Rachel DeWoskin: I’m from Michigan! I was born in Kyoto, but grew up in Ann Arbor and sometimes St. Louis, which is where my parents’ families live. I spent many summers traversing the beautiful, flat Midwest, looking out the windows of our car at so much space. And landing at my grandfather’s farm in the Ozarks of Missouri, where we had our most American experiences: summers of fireworks, ice cubes, and hamburgers. There were farm animals, chickens, pigs and ponies, and some years we flew from there to China, which gave me startling perspective on America. The Midwest was always, in my mind, green and bright and kind. Familiar.
RH: Ann Arbor has an abundant writing scene and artistic culture for its size. Do you think growing up there had any influence on your decision to pursue a career in the creative realm?
RD: Ann Arbor is a magnificent place to grow up, but I think no matter where you are or where you’re from, if you have access to stacks of books, you can be everywhere. And you can be both yourself and also able to inhabit fully and privately the interior lives of others. I certainly had a lively childhood full of art and language, and the cultural scene in Ann Arbor deserves giant credit for that content. But so do my parents, who kept our house full of words, ideas, and possibilities.
RH: Your memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing recounts your time spent in China as a soap opera star, which frankly, sounds marvelous and quite a story. Can you tell us about a little about how you found yourself in such an intriguing situation? What was the experience of writing about it a few years later like?
RD: I got the job acting in a Chinese soap opera called Foreign Babes in Beijing, without talent or qualifications, other than being really young and conspicuously Western. Basically, a hot Chinese guy came up to me one night at a party in Beijing, where I was suddenly living (as part of my youthful effort to avoid leading “a boring life”). He asked if I wanted to be in his friend’s soap opera, “about foreign girls.” Like most questions people posed in those early Beijing days, this was baffling to me. I didn’t know whether it was code for something else, or even if so, what that might be. The truth is, I was stunned almost numb by culture shock, so having no idea what was happening wasn’t an unusual predicament. I said I wasn’t an actress, but that I would tag along to the studio because why not? Once there, his friend, a director named Yao, turned a camera on me and said, “Pretend to be a foreign girl living in Beijing.” I stood there, wondering why he pronounced “girl” the way he did: “niu,” instead of “nu,” thinking it sounded like the word I had learned for “cattle.” I later came to understand that the slight twang transforms the word “girl” into something more like “chick” or “babe.” I was still standing silent, in pure confusion, when he said, “you’re hired.”
And so began my career as a symbol of American girls, playing a vixen who was somehow simultaneously a nerdy foreign exchange student, a temptress/home-wrecker, and a subtle scholar and lover of Chinese culture and men. I wrote about the experience only after coming back to the US, maybe because I had to have some distance from it in order to have perspective. I’ve always found it easier to write about places once I’ve left them. As for the process of writing Foreign Babes in Beijing, it was a monumental amount of work for me – to record what I had seen in China in the 1990’s, and try to explore some of what China’s manic transformation meant both for its own citizens and for the world.
RH: Most of your novels such as Blind (2014) and Big Girl Small (2011) feature protagonists who are either teenagers or young adults. What draws you to write about and often from the perspective of people in adolescence?
RD: All my books, both the ones about adults and those about young people, are about sameness and difference. About girls and women on the peripheries of their societies, families, or worlds. I’m interested in how we communicate with (and betray and forgive) each other, across whatever divides us, whether cultural, linguistic, generational, or political. I’ve been writing recently some about physical difference; my novel, Big Girl Small, is about a teenage little person who wants to be Judy Garland but feels forced to identify with the “munchkins” of our cultural media world. And my most recent novel, Blind, is for me the furthest reach of a question about ways we see the world, no matter who we are. I wrote it in a fit of wonder about what it would feel like to have to change, to have your perspective and identity made irrevocably different both from what it was and from the perspectives of those around you. I like to write about young people because they’re transforming, and change is what compels me. I can’t stand stasis, in the world or in characters or on the page. And I like to create resilient girls in my books, since I always write with my daughters and mama and mama-in-law and an army of my best girlfriends in mind. I’m always wondering– how do human beings keep ourselves and each other safe, lively, and beloved, no matter what the circumstances?
RH: You’ve written everything from poetry and short stories to novels, memoirs and even a television pilot episode script. Do you have any specific techniques to mastering all of these vastly different styles? Is there anything in your process that stays consistent through most of them?
RD: My favorite writers often defy genre boundaries, even within single works. I think of Anne Carson, whose book Autobiography of Red is somehow at once a novel, a poem, an essay collection, and an autobiography. I teach it in every class, because it’s inimitable, stunning, and daring. Also, the work of James Baldwin, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Grace Lin, Anchee Min, Jesmyn Ward – they all genre surf to tremendous and powerful effect. Writing across the genres is excellent and necessary exercise for writers; the masters seem to me to be able to import the most essential components of each genre into the others. They get the clarity, economy and focus of poetry into fiction and non-fiction; the propulsion of fiction into poetry and creative non-fiction; and the truth-seeking, researched, deep vertical dimension of good non-fiction into both poetry and fiction.
RH: As a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Chicago, what is the greatest thing you have learned from your students, either about life or your craft?
RD: I learn too much from my students to be able to quantify exactly or even sum it up. Our workshops are wildly variable and diverse labs, and getting to watch them create and revise pages is amazing to me as a person and a writer. One thing I admire about my students is that they are, in a fresh way, in the process of connecting intellectual dots. They’re always making meaning of what they read and write, across their courses and experiences in the world. They manage to be serious and engaged without being dogmatic or ideologues, and this allows them to read and write with exuberant brains. I love this about them and try to keep my own imagination open, because they inspire me that way. I hope I always get to be in a conversation with students about literature and their own analytical and creative work.
RH: Most writers seem to have a dream writing environment–a certain time of day, location, type of food or drink, computer versus pen and paper, etc. What does this look like for you?
RD: I like a sensory deprivation chamber and some espresso.
RH: What’s next for you?
RD: I have two finished manuscripts at the moment. My next YA novel is called Second Circus; it’s set in Shanghai in the 1940’s, about a Jewish girl and her father, who escape from Poland to China and live out the war in Japanese-occupied Shanghai (where by 1940 there were 20,000 Jewish refugees). Needless to say, it’s another look at some of the central themes that always drive and inspire me: foreign-ness, bravery, feminism, and difficulty.
My next adult novel is called Three Loves. It takes place in the same neighborhood in Shanghai, but right now, and is about three generations of Chinese women, a grandmother, mother and 17-year-old granddaughter, and how they cope when the granddaughter gets involved with a much older man. It’s also an exploration of the temptations, rewards, and devastations of modernity – real estate development, incredible wealth, violence, globalization, opportunity, friendship, and freedom. I’m interested in the question of how and to what extent we are defined by the eras, cities, languages, and relationships we live in. The title is inspired by a Chinese propaganda campaign in the early 1980’s that promoted love of the party, socialism, and the motherland. The objects of love in my novel are slightly different. . .
Rachel DeWoskin’s fourth book, the critically acclaimed novel, Blind, was published by Penguin in August, 2014. Her most recent novel, Big Girl Small, (FSG 2011) received the 2012 American Library Association’s Alex Award and was named one of the top 3 books of 2011 by Newsday. DeWoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton 2005) about the years she spent in China as the unlikely star of a Chinese soap opera, has been published in six countries, optioned first by Paramount for a feature film, then by HBO for a television series, and most recently by Sundance, where DeWoskin is co-writing the pilot episode of a series based on the book. DeWoskin’s debut novel Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009), which follows the unexpected romance between a young American teacher and her Chinese student, won a Foreward Magazine Book of the Year Award. She has written essays and articles for Vanity Fair, The SundayTimes Magazine of London, Teachers and Writers, and anthologies including Found: Requiem for a Paper Bag, and Wanderlust. Her poems have appeared in journals including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, New Delta Review, Nerve Magazine and The New Orleans Review. She is on the full-time fiction faculty at the University of Chicago.