JUNG CHANG: IN CONVERSATION WITH THE KRWF GAZETTE

Please tell, what has prompted you to visit Cambodia?
To attend Kampot Readers & Writers Festival.

When did you realise you were ‘a writer’?
In 1991, when Wild Swans was published.

Wild Swans is described as first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party, what made you take on this epic story?
I left China for Britain in 1978. Ten years later, my mother came to visit me. For the first time, she told me the story of her life and that of my grandmother. This inspired me to write Wild Swans, the story of three generations of women in my family.

How did you prepare to write a book that would talk a decade of your life?
Wild Swans actually took me only two years to write. But I then spent twelve years working with my husband, Jon Halliday, to write our biography of Mao, Mao: the Unknown Story. Those were very happy years as we travelled to many parts of the world in pursuit of information about Mao and as we sat down to write, day after day, year after year, in our home in London. We loved our work.

What are the pitfalls of such a commitment to a project?
I can’t think of any!

What motivates you to keep going?
A passion to write.

Your husband Jon Halliday is a historian and writer, can you describe how you both work together and how your balance personal and professional life?
Our personal and professional lives are inseparable. Writing is the centre of our lives. When we were writing our biography of Mao, we worked in our separate studies and met at lunchtime to exchange our discoveries – mine from the Chinese language sources and Jon’s from the sources of other languages, especially from the Russian archives, which turned out to be an absolute treasure trove.

Did you know that Kampot has a long and illustrious Chinese History, can you tell us what you expect to find in this sleepy, coastal Sino-Khmer enclave and how it might interest or influence you as a writer/historian?
Sadly, I would not be able to make it to Kampot this time. But it already stimulated my imagination having heard so much about it. I hope I will have a chance to visit it one day and find inspiration in this intriguing town.

What is the value of presenting literature and arts festivals in an environment where there is little immediate impact or is actively discouraged?
Precisely because of these problems, a festival of literature and arts is all the more necessary and invaluable. It helps bring the brain back to life and make it active and interested.

Please tell us or your favourite writer or the single most inspiring story you have heard or read?
I have so many favorite writers. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four was one of the first books I read when I first arrived in London. It was a mind-opening book.

In a regime like China where memories are systematically suppressed, is the act of remembering a matter or courage?
It does need courage – unfortunately!

What will happen to the national consciousness in a country like China in which the memories of the older generations are dying out and the younger generation has been trained to forget?
Brainwashing is powerful. But although it may smother intelligence, it can never kill it. ‘Wild Swans’ documented three generations of Chinese women. Almost two more generations have emerged since the book’s publication.

What advice do you have for aspiring young Chinese writers, who might face obstacles such as a lack of family support and state censorship? Are there any topics in particular would you like to see young Chinese writers pay attention to?
The most important thing is to write about what you want to write about, passionately.