In Issue 13 of Apeiron Review, we published “Years Later” by author Sieghard Jian, the story of a social scientist volunteering for an NGO to educate a village of sex workers about HIV/AIDS. The truth is that Mrs. Zhao chooses this line of work to further her academic goals and conduct research, but thanks to some scolding from her boss, she learns to connect with the villagers, especially a curious 10-year old boy who she grows to care for.
When her career takes off, Professor Zhao doesn’t return to the village until 10 years later, and she learns that little has changed, and that the 10-year old she connected with is now in prison for prostitution and pimping. Feeling like she has done more observing than acting, she decides to visit him in prison.
I recently spoke with Sieghard about the story.
Before we start, tell me a little about yourself, beyond your bio. What inspired this story, and what would you say your larger literary inspirations are?
Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. I like learning foreign languages. Now, because of my doctoral research, I read Chinese, British and German novels. Though I can read German books, my German speaking and writing are still terrible! With regard to the story, besides creative imagination, there were two realistic inspirations.
First, many years ago I listened to a BBC programme. Anyway, a female journalist visited a poor community of black residents, in America, if I remember correctly. She had a conversation with a young girl, whose brother was imprisoned due to crime. She gave this boy a call.
Second, I worked as a part-time interpreter for a British scholar who conducted field research in a Chinese village about the local livelihood. He taught me how to observe the physical conditions such as road construction, house condition and plants, like banana trees for instance. We visited several rural families and had conversations with them about their daily life.
This story has such a unique setting and really explores the issues of community planning and infrastructure in a very human way. It’s very sympathetic of the fact that people without resources can be doomed to a certain existence. Little in the village changes over ten years, and the government doesn’t seem to have done much.
While these issues exist around the world, this story is set in Chinese society, and so I’m curious; do you feel that any of the elements found in this story are uniquely Chinese?
The community planning and infrastructure construction I described in the story are indeed based upon my own observation of many Chinese villages. For a long time, when we talked about the improvement of rural condition, better roads in villages were one of the obvious external indicators in the discourse of Chinese news broadcasting. Now with the development of technology, access to the Internet is also an important indicator.
Follow-up question: how much, if at all, does your ethnic background impact your work? Writing from a Chinese perspective in English publications must be a unique experience. Can you tell me about that?
My Chinese background does influence the theme, motif and even symbol in my stories. Sometimes I write a Chinese story first and then translate it into English, or vice versa.
Anyway, during this process, occasionally I had to ask myself questions, for instance, will English readers feel depressed when I describe the crescent moon of a cold autumn night? Because I am sure the Chinese readers will feel the atmosphere of loneliness and desolation, because of our accustomed literary tradition and shared literary inheritance. Another problem is that I must pay close attention to English grammar.
What makes “Years Later” bittersweet is how the young boy tells Professor Zhao he wants to be like her when he grows up. This establishes a clear divide in social standing, and it really humbles Zhao as she realizes that, even though she wishes to climb the ladder through her research, there are those who yearn for what she already has. I sensed that it gave Zhao a real sense of sympathy for villagers, like the boy, and guilt for having such a better life than him and walking away from the village so many years ago.
What are your thoughts on that dynamic?
After ten years of growth, Professor Zhao eventually reached her supervisor’s level of concentrating on people! Sociological research, for her, had been merely an academic job. It was a career for personal development. To a certain extent, such an attitude is understandable and acceptable. But this boy reminds her of the essence of the lesson taught by her supervisor, that is, the necessary empathy between human beings. Moreover, from the boy, Professor Zhao recalls her dream for career and life when she was young. This touches her deeply.
When Professor Zhao returns to the village, her students’ comments about feeling like spies in enemy territory bothers her a little, which I felt highlighted the divide between villagers and researchers. When Zhao’s students try to track down the boy, Zhao takes over the search herself, feeling a sense of responsibility and that she could conduct the search with more dignity.
It paints the picture that she wishes she could have done more for this boy, and by extension her fellow man. Do you feel this story has a broader message about the need to help others? Do you have any strong thoughts on civic duty?
This forms a contrast indeed. This antithesis existed between Professor Zhao and her supervisor when she was still a student. Now, it appears again between her and her students. It is extremely difficult to eradicate the gap between the privileged and underprivileged. But at least we shall try to have a warm-heart. However, the sense of responsibility and sympathy needs soil, care, or in other words, guidance, to nurture.
Now let’s focus on the boy for a moment. He treasured the time with Zhao, and the books she gave him, for it was all a look into a bigger, better world for him. That makes it heartbreaking when we see him crying in prison in regards to his fate, longing for a world he could never reach. What are your thoughts on keeping hope alive in such terrible circumstances?
In line with Karl Max, economic base will determine many things. The boy’s life is sadly constrained by poverty. He had no choice at all even if he had such a beautiful dream. Hope and confidence are very important in dire situations. But sadly, on many occasions, they are not enough to alter people’s fate. For young people like this boy without adequate education to find an appropriate job, external assistance is indispensable.
The story ends with Zhao offering to help the boy when he is released. This action completes Zhao’s arc on truly connecting with the people she is studying, and it bridges the divide between people of different social classes, highlighting the responsibility on both sides. And the final passage hints at working towards dreams and not leaving things to fate.
Do you feel this captures the broader message of the piece? Is there a message to this work, or your work overall?
What I want to express by this end is the complicated mixture of past and future. Maybe we forget something important when we forge ahead. Meanwhile, maybe we should leave something behind or temporarily forget something so that we can move forward more easily.
Tell me, do you have any other projects you are working on or would like to promote?
Actually, I have not written any short stories over the past year because I had to concentrate on my doctoral thesis, part of which is about Jane Austen, one of my favourite novelists. Thank God, I passed the doctoral oral defense on December 14, 2018. Now I can re-start my fictive writing.
Xiahou/Sieghard Jiang is a PhD student at the University of Macau. He worked as a translator and published three translation books (all from English to Chinese) in mainland China. He also published short Chinese fictions in newspapers and magazines in Macau.