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Author Lisa Huang Fleischman on her book, 'Dream of the Walled City'

October 17, 2000
12 p.m. EDT

In her first novel, "Dream of the Walled City," Fleischman has rendered a richly textured, panoramic vision of Chinese life in the perilous years between the end of the empire and the Communist triumph of 1949. The book charts Jade Virtue's arranged first marriage to the corrupt opium addict Wang Mang; her awakening independence and ambivalent politics; her struggles with motherhood; and her fascinating acquaintance with a gifted, idealistic, fiercely ambitious young man named Mao Zedong. But the most important choices of her life are shaped by her conflicting loyalties, her intense lifelong friendship with Jinyu, a fiery woman revolutionary, and to Guai, a government official and sworn enemy of the Communists, with whom she finally discovers true and redemptive love.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN Book Chat, Lisa Huang Fleischman. Glad you can be with us today.

Lisa Huang Fleischman: Thank you for your kind welcome, and I'm very pleased to be on CNN.

Chat Moderator: Please tell us about your book, "Dream of the Walled City."

Lisa Huang Fleischman: It's a book based loosely on my grandmother's life in China from 1900 to 1949, although it is fiction. My grandmother had lived an interesting life, and was an early political activist, and a friend of Mao Zedong. I had not paid a lot of attention to the story of her life, although I knew her as a child. But in 1989, I went to China to travel for several months, and found myself in the middle of the Tiananmen Square protests. When I returned from China after the massacre, I started taping interviews with family and friends, not only to learn about her life, but about her circle of activists. The result was this novel.

Question from CharliGirl-CNN: What was it that finally prompted you to write this book?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: I got the idea to write the book from my experiences in China, but the writing was a long process, so I don't think that was the only thing that prompted me to write the book. I think as you grow up and mature, you have a desire to understand the past and your own family, a desire which was maybe not as strong when I was younger.

Chat Moderator: What were some of your experiences at the Tiananmen Square protests and how did they affect you?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: I thought that the most interesting thing was that while the attention of the world was on Tiananmen Square and the protesting students, what escaped the notice of a lot of people outside China was the fact that there were worker demonstrations all over China during that period. I think if the protesters had only been students, the Communist Party would not have cared nearly as much. But when the dissension spread to workers, then I knew then that the regime would have to crack down.

Question from dub-ya: What kind of political activist was your grandmother at the time of Mao?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: She was in a group of young women at the time who were early feminists, unlike many of the women at that time from the upper classes, who did not work. My grandmother became the principal of a girl's high school, although she had bound feet, and she ran for office and won. She was elected to the Assembly for the Province of Hunan, and actually supported the secession of Hunan from China. As far as I can tell, she may have been the first woman in Chinese history to be elected to office. Her closest friend Xiang Jinyu who was a real person but also a character in my novel, was a famous woman revolutionary, who was executed by a firing squad.

Chat Moderator: Why did you choose to write it as an historical fiction rather than a straight historical account of this era and your grandmother's experiences?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: I'm not a historian, and although I don't think that that's a requirement, I think that someone who is not a historian for a living is at a disadvantage at gathering material. I had originally thought to write a biography, but I felt there would not be enough information available to me. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard destroyed all the letters and photos my family had. Since I am a lawyer by profession, I did not want to write a biography that wasn't fully researched so I wrote a novel instead. However, I must say that my novel is about as fully researched as any biography, in terms of the historical events I depict.

Chat Moderator: Based upon what you have learned about China's past in your research for this book, what do you see in China's future?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: That is an entirely open question. I think that China at the turn of this century is very like China at the turn of the last one. You have a decadent and ideologically bankrupt regime in place, trying to hold onto power, and you have an effort by that regime to essentially try to take what they think is good, from the West, which is economic development and technology -- while not taking on what they think is bad in the West, which is democracy and Western culture. But if history teaches us anything, it is never possible to take the good without the bad.

Question from GW: Lisa, do you plan any further pieces?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: I do. The story of my family after 1949 as it continues in Taiwan would make an excellent novel on its own. But my next novel is actually set in America.

Chat Moderator: Can you tell us about some of the characters in the book?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: The book opens in 1900. The heroine is Jade Virtue, and at that time she is 10, and the daughter of a privileged government official. But when her father dies, her family is plunged into hardship. And the book follows her essentially throughout her life, as she marries twice; the first time to an opium addict, and the second time for love. We follow her as she becomes involved in politics, and desperately tries to avoid political dangers, all the while conducting an intense private life.

Question from DCWabbit: Lisa, some people say that immigrant stories, or novels (from) immigrant lives, are all the same. What do you think of this?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: I wouldn't know. This is not an immigrant story. My novel takes place entirely in China, and there are no immigrants in it. But I think that as a general matter, it's not that any story is the same as any other story. It's just that writers sometimes make them seem that way.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

Lisa Huang Fleischman: People who have read this book so far have really enjoyed it. I consider myself a traditional novelist; which is to say I am not a writer's writer, but a reader's writer. I think that this is the kind of epic journey in which everyone can see themselves, whatever their culture.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Lisa Huang Fleischman.

Lisa Huang Fleischman: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this and found the questions very thought-provoking.

Lisa Huang Fleischman joined the chat via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist for her. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Tuesday, October 17, 2000.

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