Wang Ping has written many books and poems, but her latest book is one that’s been in the works since she could write. Life of Miracles along the Yangtze and Mississippi (out this month) is the story of her life, about the things that happened in China and America to the people she grew up with, met, and befriended along her journeys between these two distant rivers.
Wang Ping was born in China and came to the United States in 1986. She is now a professor of English at Macalester College and has won the Eugene Kayden Award for the Best Book in Humanities, the Bush Artist Fellowship for poetry, and many other honors.
Wang Ping’s newest story is about miracles—how ordinary people perform miracles every day; how we are touched, touching, all the time, across oceans and continents, across time and space, through our stories. We talked with her about the book and how the stories she tells shaped her as a person.
Q: You’ve written a number of books, but none quite like this, considering it’s a nonfiction narrative about your own life. How was the writing process for this book? Did you feel it was more or less personal than some of your poetry or fiction? Why?
I think all my writing is intensely personal, and many people have thought my stories are autobiographical, even though they are not–maybe only 5 percent of my fiction is based on personal experiences. But Life of Miracles is truly based on personal experiences, whether they’re told from my voice or from other storytellers’ voices.
I think there’s a very thin and mobile line between fiction and nonfiction. Our memories never truly mirror what really happened, because reality always shifts, according to our moods, time, space, perceptions. Our brains are wired through these shifting memories and differences. That’s why a story/myth/legend can grow every time it is told and retold.
In that sense, this book is not too different from my other books. It’s intensely personal, emotional, and aiming for spiritual, while anchored in the physical earth.
As for the writing process, this book spans a much longer period. I started writing it from the moment I had memory. It was the book I wanted to write since I learned how to read and write. It is not just my own voice, but others’: humans, fish, animals, plants, rivers, and mountains. I’m just their vehicle. They speak through me.
Q: At the beginning of the book, you told the story about how you and children in the neighborhood would read and exchange fairy tales, despite the dangers. How did fairy tales play a part in raising your own children? Why do you think fairy tales important?
Fairy tales are the essence and collective memories of human civilizations, our fear, anger, terror, desire, dreams, hopes… all boiled down in seemingly innocent tales for children, but if one looks carefully, they’re truly dark, and highly imaginative, and super important for our consciousness and unconsciousness, and of course for our humanity.
Q: Your life growing up in China was a lot different than your children’s lives in America. What are some good and bad things that you experienced that you wish they could have as well?
Work ethics, food ethics, and learning ethics. My kids got everything I wished for, yet are they happier? Only time can tell.
The big question: What truly makes us happy? Materials? The spiritual? Through pain? Training? Discipline?
Q: Your partner grew up in America and didn’t share your culture. How did you two balance each other? What were some of the growing pains in raising children at the intersection of these cultures?
Lots of funny intersections, like sneaking Chinese beef into pizza…
Both my kids studied Hebrew and went through bar mitzvah… yet they love speaking Chinese with me, even though I let them drop Chinese on Sundays because they were going to school seven days a week, including Saturday studying Hebrew and Sunday studying Chinese. I figure they only have one childhood, and they should play on Sunday. When they want it, they’ll pick it up again. And they did. Now one is minoring in Chinese at St. Thomas University.
Q: Water is a major motif throughout the book. Why do you feel drawn to the water? Why do you think it balances you?
We are water! Seventy-five percent, inside, and outside and through us. Even though I’m a fire sign in both Western and Chinese astrology, I’m drawn to water, rivers and sea. I was born in Shanghai (above sea), grew up on East China Sea, and now live on the Mississippi and row fifteen kilometers every day in a single scull… My friends say I’m married to the river, and I agree. We are all married to rivers and are children of water.
Q: The book isn’t written in a linear fashion. Why did you decide to mix stories, switching freely between time and location?
Well, that’s reality. Linearity and logic are human artifacts. Our brains are not wired in linear fashion, our thoughts never run straight, and time and space are not lined up linearly either. I’m just trying to mirror what’s real, or at least get closer…
Q: You made a lot of difficult decisions growing up without much assistance. How did you face being alone, making these decisions and doing something such as moving across the world by yourself?
I didn’t have a choice. The desire to see the world, through books, stories, colleges, and to seek truth, are my inner engines to push me on and on…still pushing me, till my last breath.
Q: How have you used your experiences to mentor children, students, and young writers?
All the time! I have made many stars, through role models, classrooms, workshops, dancing, rowing… They teach me, too. Learning and teaching, like reality, have a thin, shifting line. The most important thing is to have fun, to live with utmost joy and passion, with every breath and step…