‘I got on the train on a horrid summer day, wearing a white designer shirt soaked with sweat.’
In 2014, two years before I came to the United States from Shanghai, I would invite a different guest to dinner every week in return for their life stories. I was looking for subjects to write about, and, perhaps not unlike other Chinese writers, I had taken an interest in the large political movements that had been shaking and shaping the country for the past century: the Sino-Japanese War, the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening. My plan was simple enough. I wanted to hear our history from those who witnessed it.
If you have any journalistic experience, you will understand the disappointment I felt when I began my interviews. Most people mistake a string of events for a story. They would offer me a skeleton of happenings in chronological order, dry and bland, like leftovers on a dinner plate. What I needed were the moments when their lives became entangled with historical events, and the details that would bring those events to life. In textbooks, the periods are often strictly defined: the Cultural Revolution in China, for example, is said to start in 1966 and end in 1976. But for every witness, history unfolded at some other time, and in some other place. In Nien Cheng’s autobiography, Life and Death in Shanghai, her years of confinement and torture began not on the day she was bundled up into a car, but sometime earlier, when two young officials came into her house, not bothering to take off their shoes, sat down on her couch and spat on her carpet. She knew then that people were becoming brutal, and that this brutality would only grow in the coming years. Brutality had come to represent power.
‘To the Dogs’ is based on the life story of one of my dinner guests. It’s still fiction, but I won’t be a killjoy and tell you which parts are imaginary. Boarding the train is the beginning of everything for Zhao, who is only fifteen and has a very vague idea of what lies in store for him. He was raised with certain manners at home in Shanghai, and he was taught to wear a formal shirt to make a good first impression. The bizarreness of history lies in how these common traits should strike others as something strange and alien.
People often compare a first sentence to a first impression. If that is the case, then you might not have a good first impression of this story. There is nothing strange in the opening line – there is no surprise – you may already be bored. But I hope to draw my readers on to that specific moment when the storm begins to brew, when Zhao’s personal life intersects with forces outside of his control. I have done nothing to ‘hook’ my reader. (And, as I am still tethered to the language, I may not be able to.) As we all know, a first impression is sometimes accurate, sometimes deceptive. But to me, the most interesting thing – both in fiction and in life – is to find out whether or not a first impression tells the truth. That investigative process – not the impression itself – often invites self-realization.
Image © Laura Thorne