Novelist and some-time-Laowai Lisa Brackmann chats with us about her just-released follow-up to 2010’s Rock Paper Tiger, as well as how China and its expats have changed over the years.
Brackmann, who has lived in and travelled around China extensively over the past three decades, returns to the country for her latest book, Hour of the Rat. Released this week, the novel takes place about a year after the first book and continues the story of Ellie Cooper (née McEnroe), a tough-n-troubled Iraq War vet living in Beijing who frequently finds herself traipsing around the country running from one mysterious stranger or another.
What made you decide you wanted to return to Ellie Cooper? Did you know while writing “Rock Paper Tiger” that she was a character that had more story in her?
Lisa: I really didn’t. When I wrote “End” on Rock Paper Tiger, I really thought that was all I had to say about Ellie and that her story was complete. Then, a couple of years ago when I was vacationing in Yangshuo, I read a rather bizarre story about an American fugitive accused of “eco-terrorism” who’d been arrested in Dali for having thirty pounds of marijuana buried in the back yard of the house he was renting. I thought, “this has to be in a book,” and it inspired me to return to Ellie (who has returned to her pre-married name, so she’s Ellie McEnroe now). I didn’t end up following the real story closely at all, but it was a way to get into environmental issues, in China and elsewhere, which interest me a lot. Just as one example, in China you see people across location, profession and class lines, everyone from poor farmers to rich urban professionals protesting environmental problems; and I personally think this has the potential to build and strengthen civil society there.
Also, I’d left some things open-ended in Rock Paper Tiger. At the time I felt that the ambiguity was very much an expression of the book’s theme, but I realized later that it also left me with opportunities to further explore and even resolve some of these points.
How has your history with China, and the “laowai” culture in China shaped the way you approach the subjects and settings in your novels (China-themed or otherwise)?
Lisa: That’s an interesting question, and one for which I don’t have a ready answer. My first time in China was in 1979, a very different country than it is now, and very different from anything I’d ever seen or lived. I was also fairly young, 20 years old, an age where big experiences are still pretty formative. This was right after the Cultural Revolution, so the CR was very much a “present” event that had affected nearly everyone I came in contact with, and many people shared some of their difficult experiences with me. In spite of the recent reforms and opening, China at that time was still very much an obvious authoritarian state, where peoples’ personal lives were often monitored and in many ways, rigidly controlled. There was no American pop culture to speak of, which was the first time in my life I’d been completely removed from that, probably the only time I ever will be given how few places are left in the world that aren’t influenced by it. The experience was very intense and I think overwhelming, but at the same time I was mostly just living day to day like you would anywhere. I think that this naturally pushed me out of my own head and into a near-constant observational mode, where I was paying close attention to everything around me. That tendency is reflected in my writing to this day—there’s a certain journalistic, “you are there” immediacy to it, I think.
Regarding the “laowai” community, I think that it’s a more general life approach than my writing specifically – I’m often drawn to people who have that kind of cosmopolitan background, who have made a home in a place other than their native country – they tend to have broader horizons and are more comfortable thinking about things a little more globally than people who never leave the place they were born. This isn’t always the case, but it frequently is.
Your novels often centre around a woman who is either living or visiting a foreign country. What about that dynamic appeals to you as a writer?
Lisa: A couple of things. On a practical level, I’m writing suspense fiction – quirky suspense fiction maybe, but there still needs to be some suspense! When you have a “fish out of water” scenario, you’ve upped the degree of difficulty for the main character – she may not be familiar with how things work in the country she’s visiting, or she may not have the resources to deal with the trouble she’s in that a local would have.
Also, it’s a reflection of my love of travel. When people ask me why I go to China, one of my answers is, it’s never boring. When you travel, you tend to be more open to experiences and details because they are not part of your every day life. So it’s a sort of heightened sensory state that I really enjoy. And I also enjoy taking readers somewhere they may never have been, or for readers who do know the setting, depicting it in a way that they will recognize as being accurate and credible.
I also think that the “heightened sensory state” I mentioned is really connected to the process of writing in general – when I write I am trying to create a world on the page that’s vivid and that you can “see” and feel – and in order to do that, I have to be in that state where I’m able to come up with those very specific and impactful details. I’m basically putting myself in a scene and observing it, and writing down those observations. That applies to any setting – China, Mexico or Houston TX, where some scenes in a book I’m working on take place. I want to bring the same level of credible detail and “Isn’t this interesting/a little strange?” observation to an American setting that I do to a foreign one.
I noticed while reading Rock Paper Tiger that you weave in a lot of expat anecdotes into the story, things that any foreigner living here will instantly relate to, can we expect more of the same in Hour of the Rat?
Lisa: I think you’ll actually find more of these in Hour of the Rat! When I wrote Rock Paper Tiger, the longest period of time I’d spent in China was way back in 79-80. Obviously things have changed a ton, and though I’d made a number of visits before and during the writing of that book, I didn’t feel that I had the easy familiarity with some settings that I wanted to have. I kept returning to China at least once a year (in 2009 I was there for about 3 ½ months), worked on my Mandarin, visited new places, read a lot of new material and of course hung out with friends, picking their brains and getting their insights, and I hope that this new experience is reflected in Hour of the Rat.
Have you witnessed any changes in the expat culture in China over the years? If so, what’s the most striking change that you’ve noticed?
Lisa: Quite a bit, if you count my first experience in China! At the time, there weren’t all that many Western foreigners in China – I’d gone to visit the parents of a high school friend who were part of the first wave of Americans to teach English (a part of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and diplomatic normalization with the US – Australians and New Zealanders, I think, had started arriving a littler earlier – I’m not sure when the Canadians and Brits came in!). You met some people who were part of the diplomatic corps as well. Otherwise a percentage of the Western foreigners were old China hands who tended to have connections with the Revolution or with radical politics. Living at the Friendship Hotel, which was where most of Beijing’s “Foreign Experts” were housed, I also met people from countries like Albania and Ghana – it was fascinating. This was also the time that the first, small wave of American college students were making their way into Chinese universities.
So, you tended to meet people who were very focused on China, or very adventurous. I think the next few decades you saw a lot of the same types of expats—people who were China scholars, people who wanted to explore a very different place, and a little later, people who were trying to solve that magical “China market” conundrum.
At first, housing for foreigners was very restrictive – there weren’t that many places laowai were allowed to live in Beijing, with a few rare exceptions. I realized that things had started changing, a lot, when I made my first trip back in 1993, to Shanghai, and met a young American who was trying to get a car repair business off the ground. He was crashing in a friend’s pantry, I think it was, when he wasn’t sleeping at his business. This wasn’t legal, but he was sort of getting away with it, which would have been hard to imagine in 1979.
I think as time went on, you saw more laowai who were able to go to China and make money based on their white skin rather than any particular skill set, or to frame that more positively, there were more opportunities to those who were willing to take some chances. I think that at least in the first tier cities, and probably in the second as well, those days are passing, if not over. My impression is that China is a much more competitive job market now. The flipside is that I think there are a lot more foreigners in China who don’t have the same interest in Chinese language and culture that the earlier waves tended to have. They are there to make money and get some necessary work experience, or because their foreign-based companies need them in China. I’m not sure if as many of them have the passion that a lot of earlier laowai did.
On the positive end, I don’t run into the “Marco Polo syndrome”, e.g., “I am the special laowai who knows China better than you” all that much any more. Being an American who lived in China used to be a pretty rare thing – I will cop to having had a touch of that “Special Snowflake” attitude myself! Now there are so many foreigners who have China experience, and speaking personally, I’m constantly humbled by the depth of knowledge — and Mandarin skills — in many of the expats I meet.
It does seem like a lot of long-timers are packing up and leaving. I don’t know if that’s just a natural cycle, or something new. I know that in my case, I chose not to move to China when I had the opportunity a few years ago, primarily because of the pollution and the censorship. I think there might be a certain number of foreigners who’d hoped that the political (and business) climate was going to improve and instead have seen signs of things moving in the opposite direction. But again, it just may be time for an older generation to move on.
You can purchase Hour of the Rat, as well as other Lisa Brackmann books, at Amazon.com