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Interview: Annie Wang

07-22 11:43 TimeOut Beijing
The author talks about her Chinese identity and why it’s easier to write about sex in English

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Annie Wang has a sultry voice. It’s strong but sensual, like a firm handshake in a silky glove. She is talking to us about her latest book, Confessions of a Nymphomaniac. If this seems a shocking title in conservative China, it’s not surprising from a writer who’s made a career of turning taboo to her advantage.

Wang was first introduced by Pantheon Books in 2001 as ‘the youngest published author who was born and raised in China and has written in English.’ Her debut novel, about a relationship between a black man and a Chinese woman, was praised and panned by critics in equal measure. Her follow-up, The People’s Republic of Desire (2006), depicted the sexploits of four thirty something women living in Beijing as they discussed plastic surgery and porn over Starbucks coffee. Adapted from Wang’s eponymous South China Morning Post column, it was somewhat predictably labelled ‘China’s answer to Sex and the City’, consolidating her ‘bad girl’ reputation.

Confessions promises to ruffle feathers once more by testing sensitivities with a tale that, among other things, features child molestation and rape. Set in Beijing and the Bay Area of San Francisco, the story centres on May, a modern Chinese woman displaced in the West. The book chronicles her entanglements with two American men – her lover, a Harvard-educated professor named Leaf; and her mentor, a Silicon Valley- based self-made billionaire.

Speaking to Wang, you instantly feel in the presence of a great intellect. A former journalist who writes in English, Wang has never been part of the mainstream. At school she was berated for her unladylike behaviour: she accepted treats when offered, had a wide, toothy grin and spoke with a deep, ‘manly’ voice. Born in 1972, she and her two sisters (one a writer, one a musician) were raised by liberal parents. Her father held a senior position at the People’s Daily newspaper and though not wealthy, he immersed his daughters in classic music, poetry, painting and ballet, regularly hosting salon-style get-togethers at their home in Beijing.

As a university student in Beijing, Wang witnessed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 up close. ‘That respect for self-expression was short but memorable,’ reflects Wang. Following the military suppression of protestors, life for university students became rigid. ‘It produced obedient people who always said yes. I am not a ‘yes’ person,’ she says.

In 1993, Wang left for the States to study abroad alongside many of China’s best and brightest. Since returning from Berkeley in California almost ten years ago, Wang has been busy. She has had three children, edited Chinese Tatler – where she refused to stop breastfeeding her child despite being urged to by colleagues – and launched a mobile internet business in Beijing’s male-dominated ‘Silicon Valley’, Zhonguancun, among numerous other projects. It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that this is her first novel in eight years, though Wang attributes the writing hiatus to Chinese pragmatism.

‘I purposely tried to avoid writing and tried to live a life that was really ‘Chinese’ – so pragmatic, so busy. If you are someone that’s intellectually wild [like me], you’d better hide it so that people like you more. The pressure of fitting in unconsciously had an impact.’ Wang eventually found intellectual sanctuary in her fictional version of Berkeley, where Confessions is set. ‘Ernest Hemingway said Paris was his Moveable Feast, the Bay Area [including Berkeley] is mine,’ she says. Would she ever move back? ‘I’m too emotionally attached to China. America is so structured; China is exciting for a writer like me who likes unexpected chaos and spontaneity.’ Nevertheless, she prefers to write in English. ‘With censorship, how can I say that this pretty woman takes pain for pleasure, and wants a man who can’t even tell what rape is?,’ she says, referring to Confessions’ protagonist. ‘Nobody’s going to get to read it in the first place [in Chinese].’

And yet Confessions seems to be a way of articulating the new ‘Chinese Dream’ as Wang has witnessed it: the desire to attain status and wealth no matter the cost, to be educated in the West, to marry rich if you’re a woman and to ultimately succeed; to become a winner. As Wang puts it, ‘There is this obsession with success and this is the fundamental reason why I want to write.’

The more you read Wang’s work, the more you realise it’s not about challenging sexual taboos, but rather the cultural values that lie beneath them. Confessions is set to grab headlines because of its saucy, controversial subject matter. But scratch the surface and the message is more profound than that. Just, you could argue, like Wang herself.

Confessions of a Nymphomaniac is available now from Amazon.com priced around 60RMB.

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