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[ 2009-03-18 16:45]     字号 [] [] []  
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Time-warpedChina is galloping toward the future with breakneck speed, yet novelists of the English language seem to be mired in the past.

Nicole Mones, American author of three novels, all set in China, says of her readers: "There is a resistance to comprehending modern China." The West has a hunger for China-related knowledge, bordering on "fetishism", yet the public does not seem to be interested in China now, but rather, in the oriental, the historical and the romantic notions of the country. There is simply "not enough audience interest in the narrative of contemporary China".


Be that as it may, Mones' novels are all set in the present day, but with roots in the past. Lost in Translation (Delta, 1999), which has nothing to do with the movie of the same title, is anchored around the bones of Peking man. A Cup of Light (Dell, 2002) is about a huge collection of priceless porcelains and The Last Chinese Chef (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) opens up a world of Chinese cuisine so richly deep it could only have been written by someone who used to write for food magazines.

Mones amassed her vast storehouse of Chinese history and its way of life from her diligent research as well as her first-hand contact with the country and its people. She worked in China for 18 years since 1977 and witnessed some of its most dramatic changes. Yet she always feels this push to dig into China's past and contrast it with the American protagonists in the foreground.

For Liu Hong, a Chinese author now based in the UK, English provides a channel to freedom. She first used the foreign language for her teenage diary so that her siblings wouldn't be able to decipher it. She used it to portray her interior world, which was "separate from political slogans".


When Liu took up professional writing in the UK, she chose fiction while "other Chinese expats were writing memoirs". Even though Startling Moon (Headline, 2002), her debut novel, reads like an autobiography, she loves the freedom of creating a "fantasy world".

However, both this and Wives of the East Wind (Headline, 2007) weave reams of historical details into the personal lives of the characters. Liu says she is venturing into "ghost stories" because she "enjoyed making things up".

The gap between reality and fantasy can be blurry. Even though Nicole Mones appended notes to her books, some mistook her fictional resolution of the lost Peking man as based on fact rather than imagination. It was "emotional truth" that she, as a novelist, feels the need to uphold. As for Liu Hong, she admits she has an aversion to historical notes.

Is it possible for a fiction writer who has not lived in China to use China as a setting and achieve literary merit? Mones believes it is possible, citing When We Were Orphans, set partly in Shanghai. "But it won't be a great portrayal," she adds.

Mones is going to set her next novel in Shanghai, too - Shanghai of the 1930s, when three political forces were feverishly at work. The main character is to be a jazz musician. Just like her own background, it will be the point of view of an outsider looking in. "Sometimes outsiders see more clearly," she says.