Xiaoda Xiao's heartbreaking The Caveman (Reviews, Sept. 7) follows the tragic story of Ja Feng, who, like Xiao, spent years in a labor camp. In the novel, Feng is released and tries to re-establish his life in a world he no longer recognizes.
Was it difficult to write about the labor camps?
In China in the early 1980s, there was a genre of prison literature that was very welcomed by the reading public, but when I read those stories I was disappointed because they were so different from what I had gone through. Then I read a book by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener, and I thought that Bartleby was closer to what I had gone through. So I thought that I should write something about my experience in a Chinese prison labor camp.
You earned an M.F.A. from Amherst. How did that experience shape the writing of the book?
One of the advantages of coming to study at the Amherst M.F.A. program was that I had the opportunity to read all the great books. Also, I was especially lucky to have the opportunity to work with my adviser and all my fellow M.F.A. students. They were all of great help. I couldn't have finished the book without them.
How much of you is there in Ja Feng?
It's a kind of combination. One time they sent me to clean a warehouse in the prison camp, and I happened to find a bunch of books. They were pre-cultural revolutionary books from the library, and they'd thrown all the books out and they ended up in the warehouse. I put those books under the red cover of Mao's book, but the guards found it and they sent me to solitary confinement for three days. So, unfortunately, I know what that experience feels like. A friend of mine was locked in solitary confinement for a year and four months. It was incredible.
What should people take away from this book?
I hope to make people understand what we went through collectively, the terror in its daily and hourly incarnation. Just like Kafka, you know? It's a danger for us all when a society accepts this as normal. I was arrested and accused of attacking “the great leader's” image in 1971, and they sentenced me to a five-year prison term. I stayed in prison for seven years, five years as a prisoner and two more as a laborer. This is what is happening in China right now. This is the real world, the real darkness that I've experienced. Not what they say, or people from the outside see, not the propaganda that's talked about.