Between Fact and Fiction

Two Malaysian writers, as different as chalk and cheese, found one thing in common: success abroad.

Mei Fong.

Looking East

With over a decade of reporting and a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Mei Fong’s most important literary work yet, One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, delves deep into the history and after-effects of China’s longest running and most radical social experiment. “I’d frequently come across stories that touched upon its population policy in my years reporting on China for Wall Street Journal. It’s affected everything from manufacturing trends to real estate.”

Drawing comparisons to Orwell and Huxley, she explains further, “I’ve always thought China’s one-child policy was one of the most fascinating things about the country, except it’s not science fiction – it’s real life, and the policy has irrevocably shaped how one-sixth of the world live, love and die.”

Fong has been writing since she was young. In 1988, at the tender age of 16, she won an essay competition that got her an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Emboldened by this, Fong resolved to become a journalist and writer. Her journalism career began in Singapore, and in 1999 she moved to New York. Later, she covered China and Hong Kong, which won her a shared Pulitzer for her stories on China’s transformative process ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But transitioning from a journalist to a writer is no easy task. “It’s like going from being a short distance sprinter to a marathoner – some skills developed are useful, but there’s a whole new set to work on as well. It’s much easier to hold the reader’s attention for 2,000 words. To get readers involved in a whole book, you have to employ other techniques – some borrowed from fiction writers, like the suspension of disbelief and playing with chronology. I always take it as a compliment when folks tell me they finished my book in one sitting.”

The catalyst for One Child, says Fong, was the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China’s worst disaster in a generation. “Over 70,000 people were killed. The most pitiful victims, we thought at the time, were children, killed in the collapse of poorly built schoolhouses. What I later discovered was an even more tragic group: their parents. I discovered the area, Shifang, had been testing ground for the one-child policy. Harsh population control measures had been implemented in the area years ago, with such success that authorities were heartened enough to take the programme nationwide in 1980. So when the earthquake struck decades later, many people in Shifang not only lost their only child, they couldn’t have more because they’d been sterilised – also a result of the policy.”

While reporting on the tragedy, Fong revealed that she too had to grapple with the heartache of a miscarriage. “It helped me understand to a greater degree what it means to lose the hope of a child. Understanding my own reasons for seeking parenthood and weighing the costs against this backdrop was healing.

“One Child is, in many ways, a meditation on the costs of parenthood. I thought – in judicious doses – my experiences lent the story additional power. Chronicling my struggles with infertility in a land with the most rigid fertility controls gave my reporting fresh perspective. I really went down the rabbit hole myself. By undergoing IVF in Beijing, I discovered how the one-child policy had distorted the way people used third-party reproductive technologies in China.”

Having twins (or multiple births) exempted one from the fines imposed on those who have more than one child; therefore, everyone wanted twins. “‘Buy one, get one free’ was the thinking. Also, the one-child policy mandates that fertility services be available only to married couples, stifling regulatory oversight and creating grey areas for things like surrogacy and egg donation. The result is a veritable ‘Wild East’ of baby making. There’s quite a lot about the one-child policy that’s misunderstood or unknown even within China. It’s by no means as monolithic as outsiders think it is; all sorts of exceptions are allowed.

When the 2008 earthquake struck, many people in Shifang not only lost their only child, they couldn’t have more because they’d been sterilised – a result of the policy.

Despite One Child’s release having "fortuitously coincided with Beijing’s announcement of a move to a nationwide two-child policy”1 , Fong hit a stumbling block: “One of the hardest challenges came after the book was published, when tightening censorship in China led to my Chinese publisher rescinding an offer for the language rights,” she explains. “This censorship spread beyond mainland China – especially with the kidnapping of Hong Kong booksellers – so suddenly I faced a situation where I had a book on China but no prospect of reaching a Chinese-language audience. It was absurd. I interviewed many Chinese people for this book – from academics to officials to everyday folk. They spoke honestly, at some risk to themselves, about how the one-child policy has shaped their lives. Their observations and experiences deserve to be part of the conversation about China’s past and future. I was not willing to have their voices silenced.

“So rather than kowtow to this reality, I self-funded a translation and released a free Chinese-language version of my book in digital format. The strange upshot of this was, the resultant publicity brought about several new offers from publishers, including one from Taiwan who said their offer was prompted by shame that the Taiwanese publishing community had been so cowed. So this November I’ll finally see a Chinese-language print copy of my book to be sold in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It was a painful process but I think the lesson here is, writers can’t just write their books in a vacuum, but sometimes have to take a more active role to make sure their message is heard in the right places.”

Zen Cho

Looking West

Thirty-one-year-old Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, has received critical acclaim. The fantasy fiction about magic, intrigue and politics set in Regency London is the recipient of the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was a Locus Awards finalist for Best First Novel.

“I wanted to write a light-hearted, frothy novel that would be a mash-up of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances and P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies, but with dragons and some critical engagement with the Empire,” says Cho.

Her choice of setting raised quite a few eyebrows. “People have asked why I set the book in nineteenth-century Britain. When you’re a writer from an ‘unusual’ background, you get questioned a lot about your artistic choices and it’s often implied, if not said outright, that all those choices must arise from your identity.

“But it was more that I was bored a lot as a child – I didn’t get out of the house much – so I had to come up with some way to entertain myself. Books were my favourite form of entertainment. I suspect I was drawn to nineteenth-century fiction not just because it was affordable, though that was a big reason, but because the cultural norms were often similar to the norms of the society I was living in rather than the norms of modern Western society.2

“I’m also very sensitive to voice, and prose style is fundamental to how I experience stories – as a reader as well as a writer. I adopt different styles depending on the story I’m telling because it’s a world-building tool for me. So, for example, Sorcerer to the Crown is told in a deliberately archaic voice, using strange old words I unearthed from the Oxford English Dictionary, because that hopefully helps convince readers of the reality of the setting.”

Currently London-based, Cho is also the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad and editor of the anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia. Describing her venture into speculative fiction as part of her decolonisation process, she says, “I’m very interested in colonialism – it’s shaped our world in such significant ways, but I don’t feel I fully understand it, and it seems to me that there is very little intelligent discussion about it. I write partly as a way to understand the world and to explain it to myself.”

In Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho fashioned its main protagonists, Zacharias Wythe and Prunella Gentleman, as “in-between” – characters who straddle different worlds, cultures and ideas. “I think that comes from my background,” she explains. “I moved around a lot even before I came to England. Part of it just comes from being interested in what is different. If you’re a science fiction and fantasy reader, that’s probably because you’re fascinated by the strange and the novel, and I’m no exception.”

Cho actively shies away from being pinned as the poster girl for diversity, preferring instead to establish an enduring emotional connection between readers and the stories she dreams up. “You write what’s given to you to write; everyone will have different preoccupations depending on who they are and what’s happened to them. There’s a line in The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis that stuck with me: ‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing’. If you're going to do anything interesting as a writer, I think you need to understand that.”

Her next book, the sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown, hits bookstores soon.

Mei Fong and Zen Cho will make appearances at the George Town Literary Festival, taking place in Penang from 24-26 November 2017.

1 http://www.chinafile.com/viewpoint/why-imgiving-away-my-book-china
2 http://www.bananawriters.com/zenchointerview



Related Articles

FEATURE
Aug 2017

More Amazing and Amusing Museums

Private museums offer an extra dimension to experiencing Penang’s history and heritage.

FEATURE
Dec 2015

Doing heritage diplomacy in Europe

From Oxford to Chantilly, Penang is being positioned as an economic model and an intelligent city.

FEATURE
Oct 2016

Men Who Ran PFS and Inspired Generations

Penang Free School turns 200 this month. We celebrate its three visionaries who made the grade.

FEATURE
Nov 2016

Local Democracy Awaits a Resurrection

It has been 45 years since the death knell rang for local elections in Penang.