Raymond Carver once said: “You are not your characters, but your characters are you.” Sometimes readers will ask whether I have a favorite among the three protagonists of my novel, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai; they will tell me that they adored one of the characters, disliked another, and felt exasperated by the third (but different readers take different sides); and they will assume there’s one character who reflects my autobiography most accurately, to whom I’ve given most of my own experiences. “Nope,” I’ll shake my head, “I made them up.” But the truth is, that’s not entirely accurate.
When I started writing stories as a child, I never wrote about me—or at least that’s what I thought at the time. I wrote stories about men and women falling out of love long before I ever fell in love myself. I wrote stories set in times and places I’d never been. During my last semester of college, I was feeling adrift, unsure of where I was going or what I wanted to do. What I started writing then, and what I kept writing the next eight years, were the stories of three characters who, on the surface, were nothing like me.
Why did I start writing about Li Jing, a thirty-something Shanghainese financier who gets brain damaged in a terrible accident and loses the ability to speak Chinese? I didn’t resemble Li Jing’s wife Meiling either; she is a woman defined by her role as a wife and mother, who, in the aftermath of Li Jing’s accident, must try to keep her husband’s business afloat and her family together. As for Rosalyn Neal, an American divorcee who comes to Shanghai to conduct medical research into Li Jing’s case? I had never even contemplated medical school, nor was I anywhere close to being married, much less divorced. Each of these three characters were a decade older than me, full of experiences and concerns and losses I couldn’t have possibly known about. But as I wrote about them, I realized that though the exteriors of their lives diverged sharply from my own, each of them, strangely, embodied a piece of me.
At the beginning of the book, when Li Jing wakes up in the hospital, he is horrified to find that he can no longer speak any Chinese. Li Jing’s loss—the loss of a language, but also of all the other things that language affects, including relationships, memories, and the ability to work—happens in an instant. But for me, the same kind of loss happened over the course of years and decades. I moved from China to America at the age of 10, and when I arrived, I didn’t speak any English. Eight years later, when I went back to Shanghai to visit family, it was Chinese that I struggled with. With the deterioration of my Chinese, I lost more than just words and sentences; my relationships with members of my extended family were weakened because it was hard to communicate, and I felt alienated and estranged from the very city I grew up in. Li Jing’s frustrations and pains, once he is robbed of his tongue, gave me an outlet to explore my own history, the process of losing a language, and what else you lose when you can no longer speak to the ones you love.
For Meiling, her husband’s accident and its aftermath means making drastic changes to her own life. Not only does she have to work with the hospital and Rosalyn to manage Li Jing’s care, she must also provide some stability to their young son. look after her elderly father-in-law, and keep Li Jing’s business running. Her life becomes impossibly busy, but her relationship with her husband deteriorates after a series of miscommunications. Meiling had always been an observer, keeping life at a bit of a distance. Her husband’s accident spurs her into action, but her sense of remove never quite leaves her. She keeps watching her husband, keeps judging him, and never allows herself to express her emotions or ask him about his. Her reaction to the crisis . . . well, let’s just say it doesn’t sound entirely unfamiliar to me. And as a writer, I must admit to that sometimes I feel as though I’m watching the proceedings instead of participating in them.
When Dr. Rosalyn Neal comes to Shanghai for the first time, she is simultaneously isolated by clamor of the city and seduced by its beauty. Soon, she falls in with a crowd of hard-drinking expats, allows herself to leave her painful divorce behind, and develops an unprofessional relationship with her patient. It is as if in traveling halfway around the world she can throw off her troubles and give herself a momentary escape from her “real” life. Unfortunately, before the book is over, she will realize that even when we are far from home, we cannot escape who we are. In portraying Shanghai through Rosalyn’s eyes, I was able to express what I saw when I went back to Shanghai as an adult. The city I returned to was very different from the city I had grown up in; this new Shanghai was full of nightclubs and bars, dazzling and sophisticated. Rosalyn loses her head in the city, the way we all can when we’re in a different place, when we want to create new versions of ourselves. But the thing is, you can’t ever really run away from yourself. It always catches up with you sooner or later.
I am not my characters—my life is nothing like theirs, and what happened to them haven’t happened to me. But where they come from, how they feel, who they are—all of those things come from me, and they’re not entirely invented. I look back at what I’ve written—from decades-old stories to new drafts, and now I think: ah, there I am. Writing has a way of not letting you run away from yourself, and your characters have a way of reminding you that they are, after all, you.
Ruiyan Xu lives in Brooklyn. The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is her debut novel.