In your story from this week’s issue, “Heart,” the narrator’s family suffers from a hereditary disease passed down from his woodworking ancestor, in which tiny wood shavings perforate the heart. What was the inspiration for this disease?
When my mother was younger, she did many types of factory work. On production lines, she would pull enormous bearings into place and tighten their screws. When she was middle-aged, she transferred to a smaller factory, where she worked as a paint sprayer. This work was less strenuous, since it didn’t require heavy lifting, but the paint found its way into her windpipe. Around the age of sixty, she developed a persistent cough. On a given winter day, she might abruptly start coughing while having a drink of water or halfway through finishing a meal, and she’d say, “Oh, that’s the paint.” It didn’t bother her—she thought this was perfectly normal.
As an author, I write certain things that likewise seep into my heart, and there’s no way to get them out. I need to live with them. This is how I see the connection between people and their work: as wood shavings that find a place in your heart without your realizing it, and which affect not only you but also those who come after you.
When his father experiences a heart attack, the narrator accompanies him on a nighttime ambulance ride from their provincial city to Beijing. During the journey, he recalls his father’s obsessive boxing routine, which he has practiced every morning and night since childhood. Why do you think the father is so drawn to boxing, and why does he refuse to teach his son?
I had the father practice boxing because he needed to have something that belonged to him and him alone, something he didn’t share with anyone else. I’ve observed that, whenever people of my parents’ generation learn something new, they share it with others, because they’re used to everything being in short supply—back in the day, siblings would take turns wearing the same pair of trousers. It filled them with joy to own something, but also unease, because this new possession could be ripped away at any moment. “What truly belongs to me?” I imagine them asking themselves. Fists are one answer; as long as you remember how to use them, they’ll always belong to you, like a sort of memory. That’s why I think the father won’t pass this skill to his son. He’s already given him so much, and needs to keep something for himself.
Do you box yourself?
I started boxing last year, three years after writing this story. Part of the reason I started is that I’ve played soccer for a long time, which has left me with muscular legs but skinny arms. In an attempt to balance out my body, I went to a boxing gym. The trainer seemed to sense what was going on inside me, and said that the training would be good for my brain. “Do you mean it will improve my reaction time?” I asked him. Not entirely, he said; according to him, it was because the arms are close to the brain, whereas the feet are farther away. So working your arms will make your brain more active, just like two vehicles speeding along separate highways to the same city. I found this persuasive, and have now been training there for almost a year. I’m not sure whether boxing has made me more intelligent, but at least it has removed one of my fears: when someone throws a punch at me, I won’t run away. That’s a fairly significant change for a person.
The father-son relationship is especially poignant in this story. It seems like they don’t quite know how to relate to each other, possibly because of the differences in their circumstances: the father has spent his life laboring in factories, whereas the son has gone to university, has worked in a white-collar job, and now writes fiction. At one point, the father says to his son that “your existence devours mine.” As children, is there a way in which we consume our parents’ lives?
I often wonder why, when my father was alive, we never properly talked about anything, not even the smallest matter. All our conversations seemed to speed by in just a sentence or two. I understood very clearly that I was consuming his youth, but I didn’t see anything wrong with that—that’s just how life is. It seems to me that some people from his generation had a tendency to give up on themselves, because their lives had been so shaken up by the turbulence of their times, in which a person could easily be destroyed. Yet there was still hope for their children. This wasn’t a rational judgment on their part, but a sort of instinct: we didn’t have very good lives, so yours should be better. The future must contain hope, or what’s the point?
Of course, the father in “Heart” is not my own—my father would never say such bombastic things, nor did he ever box. In the story, the father expends himself without realizing it. Out of inertia, his life got quietly nibbled away. When resources are limited, fathers and sons are in competition. That’s roughly what the father means when he says “your existence devours mine.”
History presents a continuous backdrop to the story; the father is sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and loses his job amid the privatization of factories during the economic reforms of the nineteen-nineties. How much were you thinking of this social context when you were writing?
I come from Shenyang, in Liaoning Province. It was one of the main industrial cities in China’s northeast, until the nineties. I have a distinct childhood memory of the city being shrouded in smoke.
Then came the economic reforms, when China moved away from a planned economy and toward marketization. Prior to this, every tractor that was manufactured in Shenyang would be taken away by the state and distributed to the people. All of a sudden, the factories had to find their own customers, and what these customers wanted was different from the state. This round of reforms also brought together the northern and southern markets. Factories were set up in the south, in places like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and they didn’t need to be huge; all they had to do was produce cheap and desirable goods. As a result, the northeastern economy crashed. In this relatively free market, the cumbersome, the inefficient, the human, the traditional—all of these were destroyed, and to this day they have not recovered.