A couple of days after filing my feature on Pauline A. Chen, I got on the phone to ask her all the questions I couldn’t find answers to out there in the virtual world of google-ing.
True confession moment: I admit I was a wee bit intimidated as the land lines connected us between DC and Cleveland – just what sort of person takes on the most canonical text in Chinese literary history (The Dream of the Red Chamber) and makes it her own (The Red Chamber)? I actually expected a Glenn Close/Cruella de Vil sort of megalomaniacal voice to pick up. Lucky for me, I could put that overactive imagination away, because really, as gutsy as her literary move has been, she’s not at all the hardened character I had dreamt up. Always good to start an interview with a sigh of relief.
Terry Hong: Let’s begin with the basics: I understand you spoke rudimentary Chinese as a child because your parents didn’t want their native language to impede their children’s English proficiency. So when and how did you learn Chinese? Which dialect? And are you fluent now?
Pauline Chen: I took beginning Mandarin in college [Harvard], but the Chinese language program was just getting started at the time, so the classes were not terribly challenging. After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan teaching English and that’s when my proficiency really improved, just because I was living in a Chinese-speaking environment. One of my English students in Taiwan introduced me to 9th-century Tang poetry, which I fell in love with – until then I had never imagined that such a developed and sophisticated literary tradition even existed in China.
I came back to the U.S. and went straight to law school, but on the side, I took classes in classical Chinese language and literature. By the time I finished law school, I had realized working over the summers at law firms that I did not want to be an attorney. I went straight into a PhD program in East Asian Studies, and that’s when I began to study Chinese literature in earnest.
I’m pretty fluent in Mandarin, but my training in graduate school focused on reading pre-modern texts – mostly poetry from the fourth century to the ninth century – so I would say I’m stronger in classical Chinese. I can understand quite a bit of Taiwanese, but my attempts to speak it are usually treated with frank derision by native speakers.
TH: You were so certain going into college that you wanted to be a writer. Where did that determination come from?
PC: For as long as I can remember, I liked to write; I had an impulse to make up stories. And reading always gave me such tremendous pleasure. But really, I had no idea what it meant to be writer. Growing up, I never revised anything I wrote, or asked another person for feedback. I just had this dream as a child, but had no comprehension that this was something I had to work towards.
TH: And then during your four years at college, your writerly ambitions just disappeared. How? Why?
PC: The first reason was that at Harvard, students have to apply to get into creative writing courses, and I got into poetry, not fiction. I struggled in the poetry because then, as now, I was fascinated by poetry in other languages – I studied Latin poetry back then – but really didn’t know the English poetic tradition very well. The deeper reason was that I just didn’t know how or what to write. As a teenager I had loved Jane Austen, but at college I started to realize that emulating her style and subject matter would have been faintly ridiculous, and that I needed to find a way to incorporate my own perspective and experience into what I wrote. Years later, when I read V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, I understood that this was what he had experienced when he tried to write like a worldly, Evelyn Waugh-like sophisticate, while trying to suppress his own experience in a peasant family on colonial Trinidad. I also was too undeveloped, too uncomfortable with my own background to use it as a platform from which to write.
TH: In 2001, just after giving birth to your son, you were diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. It was after you recovered, while you were staying home fulltime to raise your two children, that you finally started to write. What actually prompted you to sit down one day and just start writing? Do you think you would have become the writer you intended to be had you not had the cancer?
PC: I had the idea of writing [my novel, The Red Chamber] before I got cancer, when I started teaching at Oberlin and felt frustrated that not only had most students never heard of the book, but most people – like myself at that age – knew nothing of the richness of the Chinese literary tradition. I knew that I would pursue the project when I had time, which I did after I resigned from teaching after being treated for cancer. I believe that my illness did change me as a writer, because being so closed off from ordinary experiences – everyday social interactions, going outside, eating normal foods – in the hospital made me appreciate them far more keenly. The time I spent home with my children changed me as well. So much of my life previously had been spent in the library or in front of a computer screen. Giving birth to children, caring for them, cooking and cleaning, gave me access to a far more sensuous and concrete existence. I think these experiences gave me a greater interest in trying to capture the texture and meaning of daily life in my books.
TH: Why did you choose to write your first book, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, as a middle-grade novel?
PC: The idea for Peiling came to me when I was sick or perhaps in the period when I was just recovering. I originally conceived of it as a picture book, but through discussions with editors came to realize that it wasn’t a particularly visual book that needed pictures to make it come alive.
TH: How different was writing for younger readers than for an adult audience?
PC: I don’t see it as being so different, perhaps because I believe children are innately sensitive. I think the difference was that with Peiling I was writing about a familiar world which many readers could easily imagine, whereas I felt the challenge of The Red Chamber was in evoking a completely unfamiliar physical and social environment.
TH: Between your first and second book, you added your middle initial – “A.” – to how your name is displayed on the cover. When you made your publishing debut with Peiling in 2007, another Pauline Chen – Pauline W. Chen – also came out that year with her bestselling memoir, Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. On paper, you’re virtually doppelgängers: you’re both Taiwanese American children of Taiwanese immigrants; you both graduated from Harvard in 1986; you both share Yale credentials (yours in law, hers in a medical residency); and your both have titles published by Alfred A. Knopf. Pretty remarkable overlaps! Did you know each other in Cambridge or New Haven? And if not, have you met since you both became published authors?
PC: My sister was at Harvard ahead of me and when she got there, she called to tell me, “Pauline, there’s another Pauline Chen here!” I met her when I arrived on campus. The funny thing is, she looks more like my sister than I do, so I fantasized that we had somehow been switched at birth. Even more peculiar, I think, she studied Chinese literature at Harvard, before focusing on medicine. Years later, when I was being treated at Yale-New Haven Hospital, staff members would often mention that “the other” Pauline Chen had done her training there. I haven’t seen her years—but occasionally I do get asked to speak at medical school graduations. Imagine their horror if I actually showed up!
TH: So let’s back up a bit: tell us about how you discovered the original The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin for the first time. And did you read it immediately, completely in the 18th-century Chinese? How long did those 2,500 pages take? How many times have you read it since?
PC: I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not actually read Hóng Lóu Mèng [Dream of the Red Chamber] in graduate school, because the classic novels were taught in rotation and, by chance, I missed Hóng Lóu Mèng. While I knew that it was a great classic, I had a bit of a prejudice against it because my only exposure to it had been a Chinese opera version of the scene in which Daiyu learns that Baoyu has betrayed her by marrying Baochai—and burns some of his handkerchiefs, on which she had written poems, in floods of tears and self-pity—then expires on the spot. Comparing the scene, say, to Romeo and Juliet, really emphasized the differences between Chinese and western culture. Daiyu and Baoyu offer no real resistance when the family elders decree that they are to be apart, and I felt the audience was supposed to weep sympathetically rather than expecting any defiance on their parts – but I was infuriated by their passivity.
When I started teaching at Oberlin, I realized that I had to know the book and first read David Hawkes’s The Story of the Stone [another version of the translated title]. I immediately fell in love with the subtle depiction of the characters’ interactions, and especially how the female characters were drawn. The novel showed how ordinary social interactions were controlled by unspoken feelings and power dynamics, more vividly than in any western novels I had read. So I built a course around the book (in translation).
One of the extraordinary features of the novel in Chinese is the alternation between high-flown poetic language and passages of earthy, salty dialogue in vernacular Chinese. I think that some of this is lost in the English translation. Another remarkable feature is the alternation between extraordinarily detailed descriptions of the material world, and a spiritual, supernatural unseen realm, which can be understood as “truer” and more lasting. This was something I originally wanted to capture in my own book, but in the end I felt that it would have been difficult for me to juxtapose realism and supernatural elements in a way that would have been persuasive to American readers – despite the success of Harry Potter and Twilight!
I’ve read Hóng Lóu Mèng twice in Chinese – a four- to five-month endeavor each time. In English, I’ve read it three or four more times, which goes more quickly.
TH: When you teach the text to your students, do you teach it in the original 18th-century Chinese? Or perhaps a modern Chinese translation? Or in English?
PC: At Oberlin, very few undergraduates have the proficiency in classical Chinese to read Hóng Lóu Mèng in the original, so I’ve always taught it in translation using Hawkes’s excellent The Story of the Stone. Occasionally I would have a student with more advanced language skills, in which case I would do a reading course with original Chinese texts. We don’t have the time to read the whole thing in one term, so we do just a few chapters.
TH: And your own Red Chamber – when was the pivotal moment when you thought to yourself, ‘I’m going to do a modern rewrite of this text.’ What gave you the courage (and guts) to tackle such a revered historical text?
PC: I started writing Red Chamber in 2002, and basically completed it in 2010, except for a few more rounds of revisions, mostly cutting and shortening, with my editor at Knopf. Of course, I was staying home with my kids – Leo, who was born in 2000, and Somiya, who was born in 2005 – for much of that time, and often wrote just an hour or two in the morning. When they started school, my productivity increased markedly.
At the time, I never thought this was a gutsy thing to do. I just love this novel so much and I wanted to share it. In some ways, it frustrates me that I’ve been criticized for undertaking this project. Most American readers have never even heard of Dream of the Red Chamber; why would anyone attack me for wanting to share it with a wider audience? And we have take-offs on Jane Austen from Bridget Jones and Clueless to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Clearly we’re comfortable with different approaches to western canonical literature.
But I think that for many Chinese readers, Dream of the Red Chamber is so linked with a sense of cultural and national identity and pride that the idea that an American writer changed the story is off-putting in and of itself. As for American readers, because they are unfamiliar with the original work, there is a greater concern about fidelity, and a fear that I may be “misrepresenting” the original.
At the time I started the project, I had recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I pictured scenes from Hóng Lóu Mèng rendered in a spare, imagistic style, but I found that I was unable to provide the necessary cultural and historical background and to handle the narrative complexity and drive of my story in such a poetic and crystalline style. I think the moment when I began to make progress was when I put aside any attempts to emulate Michael Ondaatje and simply began to face the challenges inherent in my own material.
TH: What was the actual writing process like? Did you create an outline of the original and decide which elements you might use? How did you pick and choose the characters and their stories that you would put into your own modern novel?
PC: Originally, I did feel that I wanted to stay quite faithful to the original text, and was taking a sort of “greatest hits” approach and simply stringing my favorite parts together. But I saw that this yielded a disjointed book, lacking narrative momentum – just as the various abridgements of the original novel have been markedly inferior. I had to allow myself to escape the shadow of the original – I refused to look at it for a number of years – and try a different approach: envisioning my central characters as fully as possible, and then devising a plot that would elucidate their personalities as fully as possible, no matter how much it deviated from the original.
TH: So you were never worried enough about how others might react to your modern inspiration to not finish writing your novel. But did you ever worry at all? You write in the “Author’s Note” that “Aficionados of the original novel may well be appalled by how I have shuffled, truncated, and eliminated both characters and plot lines of the original to create a cohesive and more compact work.” Have these ‘aficionados’ been in touch, shared their opinions, made appalled comments? How have you reacted?
PC: On Amazon, a few reviewers have been ‘appalled.’ I haven’t really come out and gone head-to-head with anyone. Reviewers will write and say that ‘she left this out, she left that out’ or ‘She left the supernatural parts out, she missed the whole point.’ Do they really believe there is a single ‘whole point’ for such a profound and complex book? And I went from 2,500 to 400 pages, so I had to leave out something! My hope, though, is that people will read my book, and then be inspired to read the original for themselves.
TH: Your “Author’s Note” continues with “At the same time, many of my changes have been guided by an attempt to be faithful to the novel’s deeper meaning and context.” Could you share an example or two of this?
PC: The Zhī Yànzhāi, or Red Inkstone Commentary [are] handwritten marginal notes written on some early manuscript versions by someone clearly very close the author Cao Xueqin. [This commentary] suggests that Cao expunged some scandalous passages of his original text – for instance, one about an incestuous relationship within the household – and also that Cao’s original ending was darker and more harrowing than the Gao E/Cheng Weiyuan version. I therefore didn’t hesitate to include scandalous sexual passages in The Red Chamber, and also made my ending more harrowing. I also introduced facts and events from Cao’s life into The Red Chamber. For instance, Cao’s own family were Bondservants to the Manchu ruling family. I think this is important for understanding the precarious position of the family, but it is not mentioned in Cao’s text.
TH: You continue in your “Author’s Note” about how you needed to “finish the story for myself.” How does your ending differ from the apocryphal version added by Qing scholar Gao E and his partner Cheng Weiyuan who allegedly reconstructed Cao Xueqin’s lost finale?
[Spoiler alert!] PC: As I said earlier, the family’s fall from power is drastic – all the men are jailed, and the women are left to survive on their own. I thought having the women struggle to survive outside the mansion on their own would bring out their characters more. Also, Daiyu dies of disappointed love and self-neglect in Gao E’s version and she lives in mine.
TH: How do you think Cao Xueqin might react to your re-envisioned ending? If you could meet him, what might you tell him about his original?
PC: I believe that Cao Xueqin wrote a very personal book to commemorate the women that he knew and his carefree luxurious youth, both of which were irretrievably lost. I absolutely believe that Daiyu was based on a real person that he loved. We barely have any historical records about Cao himself, because he had no official career – so of course we have no historical records of the girls he knew, although a contemporary writer has remarked that some of the women in his books were based on Cao’s aunts. I do feel ashamed before Cao Xueqin for having butchered what was so personal and intimate a text.
I think that Cao may have envisioned his readership as friends and relatives who knew his family. I would tell him how widely disseminated and beloved the book has become.
Click here to read Hong’s feature piece on Pauline A. Chen.