Belinda Huijuan Tang's debut novel explores family, forgiveness in times of change
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The novel "A Map For The Missing" opens in the United States in the 1990s. A young academic named Tang Yitian gets a phone call from his mother back in a small Chinese village. She shouts, your father's gone missing. That first line of the book is written in Chinese characters.
BELINDA HUIJUAN TANG: I imagine for Tang Yitian this moment when he hears the news that his father goes missing must be incredibly disorienting and almost feel like a tear in reality. And I wanted to recreate that feeling for readers when they encountered the book's first pages.
SHAPIRO: This is Belinda Huijuan Tang's debut novel. The story jumps back and forth in time from the 1990s to the '70s, at the end of China's Cultural Revolution. It was a time of upheaval, especially in rural areas like the village where her main character and her own father grew up. And there are other parallels between fiction and the author's family history, like the high-stakes college entrance exam called the Gaokao.
TANG: Think of it as the SAT on steroids because it is the only thing that really determines college admissions in China. There's no other factors involved. It's such a high-stakes exam. And during the period of the Cultural Revolution, when higher education was being devalued, the Gaokao was put on pause for a period of 10 years. It was terminated, and a recommendation system by the Communist Party was used for college entrance. And so we encounter the characters when they have just lived through a period where there is no system where they can access higher education. But that class, the 1977 Gaokao Class as it's known, is extremely famous in all of China. You can trace so many of today's biggest politicians, writers, people in entertainment, people in universities back to that class because basically what you had was the most talented, smartest people in the country who had not been able to access college for 10 years suddenly all competing for a certain amount of spots. And so it just has such lore around it.
SHAPIRO: You write in the novel that 6 million people were competing for 200,000 spots that year. Is that a real number? Is that accurate?
TANG: That is a real number. And because of that, we see, when Tang Yitian passes, that's something that is seen not only as a big event for him but something that his entire community sees as an almost historical event.
SHAPIRO: Why did you want to zero in on this moment in Chinese history for your debut novel?
TANG: I think it's the moment when China changes from, you know, the Cultural Revolution, all that tumult of that period to the China that we know it as today, which is this global superpower. And as I was thinking about writing about these Chinese characters, it was just a moment in history where there were so many forces pressing up on them, social and cultural, that just made for really ripe fiction.
SHAPIRO: Your main character, Tang Yitian, who's an adjunct professor in the U.S., goes home to see the village where he grew up for the first time in years. He encounters this disconnect between his own experience of financial struggle in the U.S. and the assumption of everybody in his village that, because he's in America, he's wealthy. I know your father grew up in China and came to the United States for graduate school, where he got his doctorate degree. Was this something that he experienced, too?
TANG: Yeah, it was, I think. And it's something that I even experience now when I travel back to China with him. I can see how people in the village see him. You know, he's this figure who's come to take on, you know, almost a legend, that he was the first person to leave the village. And when we go to the village, there are these, like, stones that are engraved with his name. And I think...
TANG: Yeah, they're engraved with his name. And...
SHAPIRO: Like, for buildings that he helped fund.
TANG: He donated some money. But it's also just part of, like, this is the history of our village and people who are kind of famous and well-known that have left our village. And so he has this lore to him in the village. And that's so different than the way I know him, which is just, you know, as a pretty ordinary middle-class person growing up in the U.S. We certainly had our struggles. And it's amazing to me to see the gap between my knowledge of him and how people in his village view him.
SHAPIRO: Have your parents read the book? I'm curious what kinds of conversations it may have sparked.
TANG: My dad read the book. I asked him to read the book after I'd sold it, mostly as almost a fact-checking exercise.
SHAPIRO: Sure, yeah.
TANG: I'd had so many nerves about showing him this book. And it felt almost like something I was doing in secret for a couple years. And it was just funny because here I had for many, you know, years, like, the best primary source about the book. And I was afraid to just ask him, and I would spend hours doing research that could have been really easily asked and answered if I just reached out to him. So when I finally showed him the book, I was so nervous. But I also felt like it was something I absolutely had to do. I felt I couldn't let this book go out into the world without having showed it to him. And we did have a couple long conversations about facts in the book. And he would tell me stuff that I got wrong and I got right. And then at the very end of our last phone call, he said, you know, and I think you should change the ending because it made me cry too much and it was too sad. And then after that, he just hung up the phone, and we never talked about it again.
SHAPIRO: And you didn't change the ending.
TANG: I didn't change the ending because...
TANG: I think for him, I can see, you know, maybe if he's feeling some affinity for this character, he wants to have a notion of a happy ending...
SHAPIRO: Of course.
TANG: ...That, for me, as a writer, I don't think it would serve the characters or the story I'm trying to tell to give to them.
SHAPIRO: I'm just fascinated by the idea of you going to these great lengths to do research to answer questions that you could have called your father for an answer to. Was there anything he told you after reading the book that was a specific detail that just jumped out to you as something he experienced firsthand that either you got right or you didn't in the initial draft?
TANG: The biggest change I made after talking to him was around something about the mindset of people during the Cultural Revolution. There's a scene early on where one of the sent-down youth in the village...
SHAPIRO: The sent-down youth are the folks from the cities who go to the countryside to work the land.
TANG: That's correct. They are forcibly relocated from cities to rural areas of China during this period. One of the sent-down youth commits an act of self-harm. And in the original draft that I had written of this book, the sent-down youth are kind of planning with one another. How do we get sent back to our cities? How do we do that? Well, let's - if we get injured, they have to send us back. And when I talked to my dad, he said, no. You know, the mindset of that time - people were scared to talk to each other about things like that because you could get reported at any point. And if one of the women was going to do this, they would do it in secret. And they wouldn't even dare to tell their closest friends around them. And also, I had - I stepped back at that point to reconsider, to make sure it's kind of, like, that atmosphere of constant fear and surveillance was present in this book.
SHAPIRO: Belinda Huijuan Tang's debut novel is "A Map For The Missing." Thank you for talking with us about it.
TANG: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
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