Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lijia Zhang on her novel Lotus: part 2 – women’s rights in China

Lijia Zhang
Below is Part Two of zhendegender ‘s interview with Lijia Zhang about her first novel Lotus  which centres on a young migrant woman eager to escape her life as a prostitute in China.

What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?

There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.

Lotus questions how to equate sexual pleasure with social norms, because she’s been told good women shouldn’t enjoy sex yet she tries hard to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing?

I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.

China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People's Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)

There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.

Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one client. An older colleague told her to think this way, just imagine: “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money, we use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.

Having a mistress is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.

Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic. It’s quite an emotive scene, but abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?

Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the west. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don't get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.

It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.

Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.

Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?

I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.

I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.

Part 3 of this interview will be posted on Wednesday 24th May

The interviewer is from Norwich, UK and is currently based in Beijing, China, where she teaches English Literature at a state university, and writes about gender and culture in contemporary Asia. Her writing has featured in various media outlets in China and the UK. Read more at www.zhendegender.com


Lijia Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English. Her first book was the memoir: Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China

Thursday, 11 May 2017

An Interview with Lijia Zhang on her debut novel Lotus.

Lijia Zhang initially rose to prominence with the story of her rebellious journey from disillusioned rocket factory girl to international journalist. Her 2008 memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China documents her escape from a mind-numbing job testing pressure gauges at a Nanjing munitions factory into the world of English Literature. Her debut novel Lotus, inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.

Lijia Zhang will be talking about her novel and her work at two events in London – at The Asia House on the 15th May and at China Exchange on the 18th May. She will also be talking about her work on Start The Week, BBC Radio 4, on May 15th at 9am.

Over the next week we will be posting an interview with Lijia Zhang with the kind permission of the author and the blog zhendegender . The interview took place in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of Lotus. In part 1, Lijia Zhang describes her reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.

IDENTITY, BREAST IMPLANTS, AND WANTING MORE FROM LIFE: LIJIA ZHANG ON HER DEBUT NOVEL LOTUS (INTERVIEW: PART I)

Why did you feel that you had to tell this story about contemporary China?
I tried to find out about grandmother’s life after her deathbed confession of being a concubine, but my mother knew very little about her life. So I have always been curious about these women. Then on a trip to Shenzhen I went to a hairdresser near my hotel and asked for a haircut. There were several women there but they said they did not know how to cut hair. I looked at the floor. There wasn’t any hair on the floor. I realised these women were prostitutes.
Prostitution is an interesting window to see social changes and it touches upon some serious social issues, such as migration and women’s rights.

Why write a novel, not a non-fiction book, about prostitution in China?
I wanted to become a journalist, and I did. I wanted to have a story published in the New York Times, and I did. I had always wanted to write a novel. So I thought I would try my hand.
I started Lotus when I was in my final year of my MA at Goldsmiths. The storyline has changed little, but the style changed a great deal. For example, I experimented with the point of view. I started by writing all the dialogue in pidgin English, with direct translations of Chinese, like “Toilet is where?”
I tried writing it from the perspective of Lotus, and later from the perspective of Bing, her child's father, but that meant I could not tackle social issues like women’s rights, migration, the aftermath of Tiananmen. So I decided to write it in third person, alternating between different points of view, and eventually it became Lotus.

How do your personal experiences inform the characters and events in your novel?
It took a lot of work to do all the research about these women. It took months and months of research over many years. I met so many people with so many stories.
I volunteered for an NGO dedicated to help female sex workers, where my main task was distributing condoms. On day two of my time as a volunteer, I met a really colourful character. I accompanied a staff member as she went to visit a sex worker. This woman was sitting outside, which is unusual because most women would hide inside. They wear revealing clothes but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves on the street. This woman was doing embroidery on the street – she was embroidering a church onto fabric. She took us inside, and the woman I was with commented on her breasts. I was amazed how much they talked about breasts. She spoke to prostitutes in their own language, to be on their level. She was a former prostitute and knew she had to engage them using the same language. They really trusted her.
The women inside the shop commented on her breasts in return, so she explained that she herself had had surgery. They said “I’m thinking of getting implants, can I see?” So they went into the back room and everyone looked at her breasts. The breast implants had not settled well. It was a cheap procedure, and one of her nipples went sideways. She had been told that massaging them would help so she was always massaging her chest.

Her fellow villagers call Lotus “the toad who dreams of eating swans meat”, meaning someone who dreams too big. How does your own struggle for self-improvement come through in Lotus?
Lotus wants more from her life. People often laugh at those who think or behave differently. These women send money home to their families. This is really important for them. It improves their position in the family and gives them face. They must be seen to be successful. They want to show their best side to people in the village.
My friend and I went to visit one woman’s hometown with her. On the day we travelled there, she wore very nice clothes and when we arrived in the village, she took off her trainers and changed them for a pair of leather high-heeled shoes.. On the bus there, she introduced herself, and us, to other people from her village: “hey, I am the second from the Mao family, do you remember me? This is my friend, an international writer and this is a doctor.”
It is the same for other professions, too. I met a man who was a garbage collector in the city. He usually wore very dirty clothes all the time. But when he went to his home village he wore a very smart coat, with a fur trim around the neck. He looked so smart. It is very important to appear successful to the people in the village.
They cannot really tell people the truth about their life in the city. It can be quite lonely. Telling the truth is the worst thing that they could do.

When Lotus chooses her own path for the first time, she decides to open a school instead of settling down with the father of her unborn baby. Is her choice to become a single mother a realistic one in contemporary China? What does the future look like for a woman in her position?
It is realistic. Single mothers exist and they live their lives. Many live in these villages that were once stand-alone places but have now been engulfed by the city. They are supported within that community. She may not have the correct papers for the baby but they will be ok. 
A woman like Lotus might marry the baby’s father just for the papers. Lotus is very smart and savvy. I don’t think she has decided yet. But she may not maintain the relationship with Bing, because she realised that she can’t be herself when she’s with him. He is very selfish really. He doesn’t really consider her needs. He was a more sinister character in previous versions. But Lotus has always been very strong, quite unlike the way Bing sees her.
My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.


PART 2 of this interview will be posted on the 17th May.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A Secret Sisterhood

On the 1st June Aurum Press will be publishing a must-read book about female literary friendships. Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually portrayed as isolated eccentrics. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney seek to dispel this myth with a wealth of hidden yet startling collaborations.
A Secret Sisterhood looks at Jane Austen’s bond with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharpe; how Charlotte Bronte was inspired by the daring feminist Mary Taylor; the transatlantic relationship between George Eliot and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the underlying erotic charge that lit the friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – a pair too often dismissed as bitter foes.
Through letters and diaries which have never been published before, this fascinating book resurrects these hitherto forgotten stories of female friendships that were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring; but always, until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows.
A Secret Sisterhood evolved from the authors’ own friendship. Their blog, SomethingRhymed, charts female literary bonds and has been covered in the media and promoted by Margaret Atwood, Sheila Hancock and Kate Mosse, showing that the literary sisterhood is still alive today.


A Secret Sisterhood
The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontе, Eliot and Woolf
By Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney
Foreword by Margaret Atwood
Pub 1st June 2017 Aurum Press

Emma Claire Sweeney has lectured at City University, New York University in London, the Open University and the University of Cambridge. Her work has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, and Mslexia. Her debut novel Owl Song at Dawn was published by Legend Press in July 2016. The novel has been shortlisted for the BookHugger Book of the Year Award, and Emma has been named an Amazon Rising Star and a Hive Rising Writer.

Emily Midorikawa lectures at City University and at New York University’s London campus. She has taught at the University of Cambridge and the Open University, as well as writing for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, Aesthetica and Mslexia. Her memoir ‘The Memory Album’ appeared in Tangled Roots, an Arts Council-sponsored collection that celebrates the stories of mixed-race families. Emily is the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015, and was longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition. She was a runner-up in the SI Leeds Literary Prize, judged by Margaret Busby, and the Yeovil Literary Prize, judged by Tracy Chevalier.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Going High - texts by inspirational women


Remember our Going High event  on International Women’s Day this year? We collaborated with Chalk Circle Theatre Company to busk in Norwich’s city centre, using words and not music. The words were from texts by inspirational women. We’ve had a number of requests for the names of the texts and the authors, so here they are with links:
                   


Audre Lord -  The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House -
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA:  pub Crossing Press.


Clarissa Pinkola Estes -  Extracts from Women Who Run With The Wolves, pub Rider; Classic Ed edition (7 Feb. 2008)

Michelle Obama – Extracts from her speech to the National Democratic Convention 2016


Monday, 3 April 2017

Melissa Fu on winning the 2016 regional prize of the Words And Women’s prose competition

Melissa Fu
‘I am delighted to have won Words And Women’s 2016 Regional Prize with my piece of creative non-fiction, Suite for my Father. The Words And Women prose competition is especially dear to me because I saw a flyer in 2013 at a local bookstore for the inaugural competition and it felt so encouraging and welcoming that I decided to send in some writing.

Entering that first competition meant learning about Words And Women and their important work. It was on their blog too that I came across a post written by Leigh Chambers about the Angles writing group she’d started in Cambridge. I got in contact with Leigh and eventually joined the group. Angles has been an invaluable source of friendship and community for me. I have Words and Women to thank for connecting me to these amazing writers!

I was a highly-commended writer for Words and Women: One and that was my first writing success ever. It was such a boost to have come so close to being included in the anthology! I loved the ethos of the competition and entered again the next year. My first writing publication is a piece in Words and Women: Two.

Because Words And Women has been an integral part of my finding a place as a writer, I wanted to send them my very best work. Last fall, I sent them a story that is deeply meaningful to me as well as one in which I had carefully considered every word. Of all the pieces I have written over the past few years, this is the one of which I am the most proud. It was an absolute thrill to have it honoured as the 2016 regional winner.

As part of the prize, I had a session with Jill Dawson, best-selling novelist and founder of the Gold Dust mentoring scheme. Before the session, I sent Jill a longer piece and an overview for a book-length project. Jill’s feedback was fantastic! It was clear to me that she had read my work not only with a keen eye for structural and narrative possibilities, but also with a generous respect for the soul of the story I want to tell. What I found especially helpful was that she would pair a general suggestion about my writing with specific areas in the piece she had read, showing me where I might put her guidance to use right away. I could then take these ideas and apply them to other pieces of writing. Jill offered just the kind of perspective and boost I needed to give me the confidence to embark on my larger project. And, we met in a great teashop in Ely that was new to me - always a bonus!

Thank you Jill Dawson and thank you Words And Women!



Melissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and lives in Cambridge. Her work appears in Words and Women:Two, Words and Women: Four, Bare Fiction, Envoi, Right Hand Pointing, and other publications. With backgrounds in physics and English, she spent many years working in education, both as a teacher and a consultant. In 2014 Melissa combined her loves of writing and teaching to start Spilling the Ink, a small business offering creative writing courses and coaching. 

Her winning story Suite for my Father can be found in Words and Women: Four, available from Unthank Books