China Books

Lisa Brackmann's Rock Paper Tiger excerpt and Q&A

Lisa Brackmann, courtesy of the author

Lisa Brackmann has worked as a motion picture executive and an issues researcher in a presidential campaign. She has lived and traveled extensively in China. A southern California native, Brackmann resides in Venice, California and spends a lot of time in Beijing, China. Rock Paper Tiger is her first novel.

The novel was reviewed by the New York Times, for more reviews see Brackmann's website and buy it on Amazon here.

Below Danwei runs a Q&A with the author as well as an novel excerpt.

Danwei: Tell us a little bit about your first time in China, what that was like, and how long you stayed.
Lisa Brackmann: My first time in China was in 1979. I stayed six months. I was quite young, and the experience had a profound impact on my life.

I think for young urban people or foreigners with only recent experience in China, it’s almost impossible to imagine the differences between then and now. This was immediately after the Cultural Revolution, at the beginnings of China’s economic reforms and opening up to the rest of the world. The country was still very isolated, and I was one of the first Americans that a lot of Chinese had ever met. There was no internet, no Skype, no cell phones, very little in the way of American popular culture (I recall a lot of bootleg copies of the film, “Sound of Music,” and that was about it!). I was pretty much like a space alien in a lot of the places I went outside of Beijing. Crowds of people would surround me at times because they had never seen anyone like me before.

I had just started college, and I ended up teaching a term of Conversational English at a Beijing branch school. I was very conscious of my inadvertent role as cultural ambassador and often worried that I was completely inadequate for that responsibility. I’d get asked all kinds of questions about the US: about our system of government and the principles behind it. Also more innocuous things: Could I demonstrate “the disco dance”? (boy, did they ask the wrong person for that one!)

On the other side, some people would share details of their at times horrific experiences during the Cultural Revolution with me because I was an outsider, and therefore safe to confide in. This all inspired me to begin my own self-taught course of study into recent Chinese history and culture when I returned to the US—I needed a lot of time, learning and reflection to begin to understand what I’d experienced.

The first time I went back to China after that was in the early 90s. I visited Shanghai, and I just couldn’t believe the changes even then. Discos! KFC! Filipino cover bands playing Michael Jackson and Hotel California in Holiday Inn bars!

The changes between then and now are another order of magnitude as well.

Danwei: What's the most significant thing that has changed in that intervening time period?
LB: You can talk about China’s rise, about modernization and industrialization, but what I think is especially significant is the relationship that this has to China’s engagement with the rest of the world. I’m not a historian and I’m sure this is a gross simplification on my part, but traditionally Chinese culture was always really good at absorbing outside influences and making them “Chinese.” What we’re seeing now goes far beyond that—it’s an emergence of a powerful, more globalized China and a portion of the population that is globalized culturally as well.

Danwei: a) How did you conceive the idea for the book?
LB: I had two basic inspirations for the book.

The first was that I felt contemporary China as a setting for fiction was not something that had been explored all that much by Western writers. Though I’m not an expert, I felt that I had enough experience in China to portray the country somewhat credibly. As corny as this sounds, I have a great love of China, and I wanted to share what little I knew with a Western audience, many of whom have very little knowledge about what China is really like. At the same time, I didn’t want to idealize or exoticize China. I wanted to give a little glimpse into the contradictions that happen when you get turbo-charged modernization bumping up against five thousand years of history

The other inspiration, if you can call it that, was the incredible rage I felt about the Iraq War, the politics that led to it, how it was conducted and the effect waging it has had on both the soldiers who fought in it and the US as a whole.

b) When did you decide to relate the Iraq war to China?
LB: It was a marriage of necessity! I really wanted both a Chinese setting and an Iraq War backstory, so I had to figure out some way to integrate the two.

In a larger sense, and I have thought this ever since my first time in China in 1979, China and the United States are obviously very different, but in some weird ways, they are similar too. Both are very large, powerful nations. Both have populations that tend to be nationalistic and isolationist, because they live in big countries and don’t necessarily have experience with other countries, unless they live in border regions. The governments and ruling classes in both countries are concerned with monopolizing information and power. It’s expressed very differently, of course, but it’s hard to avoid concluding that we both live in systems ruled by small, powerful oligarchies that don’t answer to the same rules as most of us, and don’t necessarily have the best interests of the needs of the many in mind.

I wish that it weren’t so, and I hope that our more egalitarian impulses can overcome these tendencies.

Danwei: When you were writing the book, were you conscious of the rapid change going on here, and did you need to adjust your story?
Absolutely. You know, I visit China as often as I can. I wrote the book primarily in 2006-2007, but I revised constantly, and even after the book was sold, continued to update up until the book went to press. I knew when I was writing that the book needed to be after the 2008 Olympics—that was such an overriding event in Beijing that any story set in the immediate lead-up to the Olympics would have to deal with the Games, and I didn’t want to get into that. Also, a large portion of the novel takes place in the earlier days of the Iraq War, and I needed a certain amount of time between that and the “present day” plot for character development. So I finally settled on April 2010 as the setting. I had no idea at the time that the book would be published very close to that date!

So I had to keep checking and changing things. As an example, I originally had Xiali taxis in Beijing. By 2010, those were pretty much gone! So that got changed. I don’t even want to tell you about the amount of angst I went through trying to keep on top of the iPhone situation.

Danwei: Could you outline the main themes of the novel, in your own words?
LB: Well, there are a few.

Central to the novel is the importance of community, and how do we have meaningful communities when everything is for sale, and this happens in a global economy? I thought about this a lot in terms of Beijing, where modernization has swept away traditional neighborhoods and replaced them with anonymous high rises. Sure, there were a lot of problems in the old hutong areas, and I totally understand the need and desire for central heating and modern plumbing and all of that. But something is inevitably lost as well. To me, what “community” really means is a sense of connection: to people, to a place, to human-scale institutions. In many cases we’ve lost that sense of connection in the real, physical world, so in Rock Paper Tiger, people seek it in the virtual world, in online games and online communities. I’m not sure that those are an actual substitute for real-life neighborhoods, but virtual communities enable us to find common ground across distance and nationalities, and this I think is very interesting and important.

Related to this is the question: how do you live a creative, meaningful and moral life in the face of all these powerful, impersonal forces?

That’s one theme. There are others, but I’d also like to emphasize that I tried to write a fun, exciting book that people would enjoy reading. It’s not heavy or didactic.

Danwei: The moral decline of expats in the book--is there something pointed there, or am I just imagining it?
LB: I wouldn’t say that the expats portrayed in Rock Paper Tiger are examples of a moral decline. I’d say that Ellie, the main character, is wounded and lost and feels betrayed, by her husband, by her own country. She didn’t choose to come to China, but she’s found a tenuous home among other fringe elements—both Chinese and expat—and a fragile sort of community. Ellie is a person who is moral at her core, and loyal, and like a lot of Chinese heroes, her loyalty is to her friends, even when she’s not sure who her real friends are and how deep the friendships go.

However, there is definitely a moral decline that I am concerned about in the book, and that is the decline and betrayal of what I believe are the best and most fundamental of American values: the rule of law, the rights of individuals, the presumption of innocence when accused of a crime. So the American expats in Rock Paper Tiger are wrestling with those issues, and some of them are definitely more moral than others!

Danwei: Are you thinking about another book? What's the genre if so? Will it be related to China?
LB: I’m working on another book, this time set in Mexico, about the drug war, political power, and another woman in over her head—a similar genre, quirky, existential suspense. After that, I definitely plan on returning to a China setting, and I already have a lot of ideas for that book. Primarily it will deal with the global environmental crisis, and some different responses to that. I’m really looking forward to it!

Rock Paper Tiger; excerpt

by Lisa Brackmann

I end up in an enclosed cart pulled by a motorcycle that looks like it’s vintage PLA, sitting next to the postcard lady. Her husband drives. My feet rest on top of a case of beer, my elbow’s leaning on a stack of Great Wall books, we’re careening along this crazy winding road, hurtling through the dark, and I’m pretty sure we’re all going to die, but that prospect isn’t bothering me much at the moment, for some reason. Maybe because of the Percocet I took.

“Are you married?” the lady asks. “Do you have children?”

I take a chance and turn on my iPhone for a minute – John found me even with the phone off, so who knows if it makes any difference? — and text Sloppy, telling her I found a ride and I’ll catch up with her later.

Finally we get to their village.

This is the weird thing about China: you can be in a city like Beijing, with every modern convenience, with skyscrapers and Starbucks and bizarre underground performance spaces, and then you can go a couple hours away and end up in some village that’s a throwback to the Qing Dynasty, except with satellite dishes and internet connections and white tile disease.

Tongren Village is a pretty shabby old place, overall, tucked away a few valleys over from the Simatai Great Wall. God knows what they do up here, aside from selling postcards to tourists, because the land looks hard, barren, like scratching out millet and winter cabbage would exhaust whatever life is left in it.

My hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Liang, put me up in their tiny house, in their kid’s bedroom, which is sort of an alcove off the kitchen, and I guess their kid really is away at school, because she’s not around, and the parents are using the space as a storeroom for their books and beers and bottled water. One bare bulb lights the smudged, white-washed room, which is decorated with a poster for some Korean pop star and an out of date calendar. The bed is a kang, but there’s no coal burning underneath to heat it up, so I sleep in the T-shirt, sweatshirt, and sweatpants Postcard Lady rounds up for me to wear, with every available quilt piled on top because it’s still cold up here in the late spring.

For a couple of post-card hawkers, my hosts are hospitable folks. In the morning, they serve me tea and congee and a bag of shrimp chips for breakfast.

I sit and eat, and Postcard Lady sits across from me and watches.

“So, you aren’t married?” she asks.

I can’t even get irritated, for some reason.

“I’m getting a divorce,” I say.

Postcard Lady shakes her head. “This modern life, it’s not well-suited for family. So hard, to keep family together. Don’t you think so?”

I stare across the little table at Mrs. Liang, at her weathered face and her stained-tooth smile and her counterfeit UCLA sweatshirt, and think about her kid, off at some boarding school, in pursuit of a life that doesn’t involve selling shit to tourists at the Great Wall.

“I think you’ve managed it,” I say awkwardly.

She giggles a little, pats me on the shoulder and pours me more tea.

After breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Liang leave for the Simatai Great Wall. They won’t get back till after dark. I check out the village, walking along the one paved road that forms the center of town. Tongren Village has a market, a white-tiled municipal headquarters, a few vendors, elderly men and women selling baskets of candies and snacks. There’s a jiaozi place for lunch and a teahouse for after that. I sit in the teahouse and read this trashy suspense novel that somehow ended up at the Liang’s, try to lose myself in a world of terrorists and super-germs for a while.

A couple of the locals come up and start conversations. They ask me the usual questions: how did I learn Chinese, how do I like China, what do I think of their village, am I married? I answer some, dodge the rest, smile, and drink tea.

After that, I take a walk. There isn’t much to see, though I find a crumbling temple that seems almost abandoned, the washed-out red paint of its walls peeling off in chunks. On the gray wall beneath are faded characters, Cultural Revolution slogans, something about “smashing the Four Olds!” Flayed tires and cracked roof tiles are piled in a corner of the courtyard, and inside, the statue of Guanyin is missing an arm, its once gaudy colors bleached to gray wood.

It’s not a bad place, this little village in the shadow of the northern hills. It’s relaxing here. Quiet. I wonder if I could find some place to stay long-term. Hang out. Just live.

I walk past an old house, its tiled roof peeking above a gray stone wall, chipped stone lions on either side of the wall’s red door. A scholar’s home once, or an official’s, it looks like. Maybe I could live there. Rent a room. My disability money would probably cover it. I could, I don’t know. Read books. Take walks. Eat jiaozi.

What would it be like, being someplace peaceful?

I realize I have no idea.

There are currently 1 Comments for Lisa Brackmann's Rock Paper Tiger excerpt and Q&A.

Comments on Lisa Brackmann's Rock Paper Tiger excerpt and Q&A

What an excellent review and write-up! Awesome. I'd love to read the book too.. I love hearing about other people's interpretations of the fish out of water experience in China. I'm not alone! ;)

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