Peter Hessler insists that he doesn't write books about China. His first book, River Town (Harper Perennial, 2001), about his Peace Corps years teaching English in Fuling, the Yangtze River town of the title, is set in China. Oracle Bones, just out from HarperCollins, is also set in China.
Hessler's point is that he's not proposing to explain China or how it works. "I was 29 when I wrote River Town, I'd been in China two years and I didn't want to assume this authoritative voice; I didn't want to labor under the pressure that I was writing a book that represented China. It's a massive place. After almost 10 years here, I feel like my approach has changed, but my instinct is the same. I wrote Oracle Bones to look at the country from certain angles through certain characters' eyes, not to tell everyone what China means."
Well, right now, lost in Beijing, I could use some help figuring things out. Hessler is waiting for me in a cafe in the hutong, one of the old city neighborhoods, a maze of alleys with houses hidden behind high walls. I don't know where I am and I can't read the signs. I finally get in a taxi, call the number Hessler presciently gave me for the Pass By Café, hand the driver my cellphone and abandon myself to the experience.
Twenty minutes later, I'm at the Pass By, which is just inside the hutong walls, set at the far end of a courtyard. I step carefully over the raised doorsills, meant to trip mischievous demons (and foreign devils?) and come into a coffeehouse that's somewhere between a Greenwich Village haunt and a backpacker hangout in Katmandu circa 1968, except for the Chinese music. The walls are covered with blown-up black-and-white photos of Tibet and shelves of travel books. Peter Hessler's at a back table: he's 36 now, handsome, looking very much like an American college student, although it's years since he graduated from Princeton, passed on an initial Peace Corps assignment to Africa, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and, weary of academia, abandoned his plan to be an English professor and write fiction on the side. He orders me a cup of tea... in Mandarin.
Hessler grew up in Columbia, Mo., with three older sisters (Oracle Bones is dedicated to them) and parents who are professors. At Princeton, he was rejected three times for the introductory creative writing class but went on to have Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks as his thesis advisers. Banks encouraged him to major in writing but it was John McPhee who got him interested in nonfiction.
Hessler always wanted to go overseas, but "China was never in the picture." He remembers Tianamen Square in 1989, but "didn't follow it." China held no attraction for him, until, in the time-honored tradition of hitting the road when your original plan doesn't seem so original anymore, he finished at Oxford and traveled east.
"All along the way, through Poland and Russia, I met travelers who complained about traveling in China, but I got to Beijing and I liked it." When he returned to the States, he reapplied to the Peace Corps and this time asked for China. "I wanted to teach. I wanted to learn a language. And China had piqued my interest. We were only the third [Peace Corps] group to go to China, and no one had ever been to Fuling."
Hessler taught English (he still keeps in touch with more than a hundred of his students), studied Chinese and published some pieces in the New York Times and the L.A. Times; six months before the Peace Corps tour ended, he reconnected with McPhee, who told him to think about writing a book. Hessler had always taken notes and kept a diary, but now he started exploring and reporting in earnest. "The Chinese could be hard on foreigners," Hessler writes in River Town, "but at the same time they could be incredibly patient, generous and curious about where you had come from. I felt I had spent my first year coping with the hard part of being a waiguoren, and now I enjoyed all the benefits."
Home in Missouri, he wrote River Town in four months in the room he had lived in since he was two. He sent the manuscript out to agents randomly, and at the same time, applied for jobs in journalism. Hessler thought he had it down. He had the education, the interest and good clips, but he wasn't getting any offers. River Town got sold for "just enough money to get the collection agencies off my back," he says.
In March 1999, only eight months after he'd left China, he decided to go back. "I wanted to get my feet under me and figure out how to support myself as a freelancer. And maybe write another book."
In Oracle Bones, Hessler follows a diverse selection of ordinary people to give an idea of what it means to be Chinese in a rapidly changing society. There's Polat, aMuslim Uighur from an ethnic minority in Xinjiang in Western China; a money changer and deal maker who manages to create a whole new identity so he can immigrate to the U.S. He tells Hessler he will go to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., maybe Oklahoma City. "Oklahoma City?" Hessler asks.
"Yes. There's Uighurs there!"
And there are Hessler's students from Fuling: William Jefferson Foster, a teacher from an illiterate peasant family; Emily, a factory worker in one of China's new "boom towns"; and looking into the past, Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle bones (writings on bones and shells, the earliest known writing in East Asia) who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution.
Hessler had no plan for Oracle Bones, no model. There was no contract, no advance, no delivery date. He went about the business of writing and filing stories for National Geographic, the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, following threads that appealed to him. When a subject caught his interest, he focused on it. At one point, he says, after 9/11, he saw how all the stories were connected, the unexpected links, and he knew he had a book. Oracle Bones is rich in texture and addresses language and culture and how the past connects to the present.
"I let the stories come to me, to happen spontaneously. I'd meet someone, go somewhere and let the story unfold. It takes time [Hessler spent five years reporting and researching], but it doesn't happen on my terms."
We leave the Pass By Café and Hessler shows me around the hutong: the house where one of the wives of the last emperor lived, the revolutionary slogans revealed through chipped plaster, the antique carved doorways. This is his neighborhood. He left the waiguorencompound a while ago, when it was still illegal for a foreigner to live anywhere else. Hessler has a Chinese name, Ho Wei, a house in a village north of Beijing and people there that he considers family.
Hessler's plan is to promote Oracle Bones and spend some time in the U.S. He's thinking about New Mexico, a place he doesn't know. He expects the stories will come to him. But he's going back to China, he tells me, to finish up some projects. And there will be another China book. "The next one will complete a cycle," he says.
We get a taxi and I show Hessler the card with the address of where I'm staying with friends. He tells the driver where to go. I've stopped trying to understand and just sit back and enjoy the ride, which is just what, I suspect, Peter Hessler had in mind.