Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with our current NER writers in all genres. NER interns Leah Sarbib and Alyssa Taylor speak with Michael Wang, author of “Further News of Defeat,” which appears in NER 36.2.
LS/AT: You were born in China and moved to the US when you were six years old. How are you influenced by your early years in China and what memories do you have of living there?
MW: I remember being in Beijing in 1990 when the city was making a bid for the Olympics. I was sitting on a bench in front of a newly built stadium with my mother and grandfather, and on my lap was a laminated poster of the flags of every country in the world. Staring at all the strange designs, I was picking and choosing which of those places I’d like to travel to. I didn’t know it then, but my adolescent and adult life—along with my writing—have been sort of a reversal of that search. I think my fascination with Chinese history lies in having my birth nation taken away from me through immigration (though, of course, done so with the best of intentions in giving me a better life in America).
I think of myself less as an Asian American writer—although I am that, too—than as a writer who enjoys investigating the historical periods of my birth country.
LS/AT: When did you first become interested in Chinese history, specifically the Japanese massacres of Chinese towns? How historically accurate is “Further News of Defeat?”
MW: A skeleton of the story had been told to me again and again as I was growing up. My father belonged to a family of farmers, and my grandmother had married into his family during the 1950s, riding from her village on a donkey with a band marching behind. The historical incident that “Further News of Defeat” is loosely based on occurred in my grandmother’s village, and San, the protagonist, was supposed to be my great grandmother.
Of course, like all stories passed down in this way, there are a number of discrepancies in the versions my father had told me. The story changed from all of the villagers having been thrown into the well to a half and then to a third. Sometimes my great grandmother escaped before the Japanese came and had only heard about it through hearsay. Sometimes she was there, like in the story.
My version of the story tried to make sense of all the different narratives as logically as I could. I did go back to China the summer after I finished the first draft and asked people living in the village next to my father’s whether something like this had happened, and I can confirm that an event like the one depicted did occur in a village outside of Yuncheng City—but with so many atrocities having been committed at the time, it can be difficult for people who still remember that period to differentiate one from the other.
LS/AT: The story has touching moments but focuses on a deeply unsettling historical moment. How did you navigate this delicate balance?
MW: To me, the most difficult thing that a writer needs to do when his material includes scenes that are shocking to the point of being sensational—and the one that tends to be forgotten the most—is to balance the deeply unsettling with the quietly intimate. All stories need to be grounded in moments of character-revealing quietude, but especially those that eventually depict violence and bedlam. The contrast will only make those moments even more powerful.
LS/AT: The Japanese soldier who takes an interest in San is morally ambiguous. Can you elaborate on the creation of this character?
MW: Right now, the mainstream Chinese media has many TV shows and movies that depict the Japanese as the root of all evil (much in the same way that Western media portrays Nazi Germany). I wanted a more nuanced approach to my depiction of the Japanese—at least in one character—and I thought it was powerful to have a Japanese soldier save San while a Chinese soldier—the returning runner—just walks by and does nothing. War, as we all know, often degenerates into a type of chaos in which there is no clear sense of hero or villain, good or evil. Defeat is imminent for all who are involved, and that was what I wanted to depict in this story.
Michael X. Wang was born in Fenyang, China. He received his MFA from Purdue, has a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University, and won a 2010 AWP Intro Award in fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cimarron Review, Prick of the Spindle, Day One, Driftwood Press, and Juked, among others. His chapbook, A Minor Revolution (StoryFront, 2013), is available from Amazon. He began teaching at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, this fall.