Annie Wang has just finished her first novel in English. She has, according to her dust jacket, published several books in China, a country she left in 1993. She was 23 when she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Her photograph makes her look most fetching with spiky, gelled hair and a pert expression on her face.
Right from the second paragraph of her book, “Lili, A Novel of Tiananmen,” (Pantheon Book) you see Ms. Wang has gotten a good grasp of colloquial English: “Before my buddies and I can get wind of it, we are busted at Chou-Chou’s. Chou-Chou is the son of two diplomats who work in Sydney; their house has become our hangout.”
You also learn in that same paragraph what life in Communist China was like not so many years ago – and may well to some degree be the same still today. The eight kids are thrown in jail. Lili, the eponymous narrator, is booked on “charges of having a corrupt lifestyle and hooliganism, and sentenced to three months of rehabilitation through labor. There is no trial.”
As for Lili’s lot at this point in her life, it is governed in large degree by her parents and their past. “During the Cultural Revolution there were many classes of enemies, including landlords, rightists, traitors, and counterrevolutionaries. The intellectuals were ranked ninth among these enemies. Being ‘stinky number 9s,’ my parents were politically mistrusted.” Her mother’s ambition is for Lili to become a flight attendant. Flight attendants get to go abroad.
Lili can play the ehru, an old stringed Chinese musical instrument. She gets a job in a hotel playing her instrument. She has a friend who has a travel company, and arranges to send her with her ehru on a bus trip to Mongolia. In the quiet night, she remembers as barely more than a child being raped by a Communist Party official, and how she went back to Beijing and wound up as a gang member. Suddenly a voice breaks in on her thoughts in near perfect Chinese. He introduces himself as Roy Goldstein, an American journalist, seeking to divine the mysteries of the Orient. Soon, they are taking camel rides together every morning.
Roy tells her of his Japanese-American sweetheart who died in a car crash just before they were to leave for China. Roy tells her that he and his fellow activists in the antiwar movement were fighting for peace and love. Lili muses, “Chinese are taught that as long as there are class differences between oppressed and oppressing, there can be no real peace or love in the world. While Roy was seeking love, people here were betraying their neighbors, their friends, even their parents and spouses.”
Roy goes away, but clearly the two are destined to meet again – within a few pages into the next chapter in fact. Their mutual education is developed right up to the time of Tiananmen Square and the arrival of the tanks. It is Lili who has the most to learn.
Lili’s story is told in fresh, bold tones. You sense a strength and a drive – a strength and drive reflected in the young author’s face looking at you from her dust jacket photograph. Annie Wang has written a story you would do well to read.