Where are they now? WaterBridge Review recently caught up with Kiriyama Prize authors

 

author photoMadeleine Thien
2007 Kiriyama Prize Finalist in fiction for Certainty

What have you been doing since being nominated for the Kiriyama Prize?
I’ve spent the last six months primarily in Cambodia, Laos and Shanghai. Right now, I’m in Stavanger, Norway, taking part in a festival on freedom of speech, and in a few days I’ll be in Iowa City. The last two years have been very, very nomadic, I guess. I’ve come to agree with what Ma Jian says in Red Dust: "Traveling is hard work. Danger is not exciting, it’s just proof of your own incompetence."

What are you working on now?
I’ve finished a new novel, and now I’m letting it sit. It’s a strange, raw book, written in a short time with great intensity, set partly in Cambodia and partly in Montreal, about neuroscience, childhood, and totalitarian regimes. After I finished it, I felt like I could breathe again. This summer, I’ve been mostly enjoying the freedom, still writing a bit (short stories) and reading and thinking. The time has come to get back to the novel though.

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?
I’ve always liked the way the frame of the Pacific Rim shifts the map and gives us a different vantage point, reminding us of how vast a barrier the Pacific is and, at the same time, how near in psychology these separated coastlines can be. I like this nearness and farness, writers looking east and writing in English (Chang Rae-lee, David Leavitt, Denis Johnson, Le Thi Diem Thuy) and writers looking west and writing in other languages (Zhu Wen, Ma Jian, Haruki Murakami). Or writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Bao Ninh and Michael Ondaatje, who make the novel, as a form, bigger, more unpredictable, and who draw their influences from many places and many artistic approaches. I sometimes struggle with being a writer, but I think it’s true that it’s a glorious time to be a reader.

book titleRuth Ozeki
1998 Kiriyama Prize Winner for My Year of Meats

What have you been doing since winning the Kiriyama Prize? 
I’ve published a second novel and a bunch of short stories, and I’m working on a third novel now. I’ve also been traveling and doing a lot of public lectures and talks at universities and colleges about issues concerning food and environment. One of the things I’m most happy about is that, while the problems remain, the levels of awareness have grown tremendously. When My Year of Meats came out in 1998, Mad Cow was in the news, but people weren’t talking about the use of hormones and antibiotics in meat production and the environmental impacts of factory farming. And in 2003, when All Over Creation was published, food activists were battling genetically engineered foods, but the general public still wasn’t aware of the issues. Things are different now, and people know more and care more about what they eat, as well as how and where their food is grown and produced. This is a huge step forward.

And another thing that’s changed has been the public discourse around race. Both of my novels deal with Asian American mixed-race issues. Ten years ago, while this wasn’t new, it was also not mainstream. Now (touch wood) we are set to have our first mixed-race US president. So these kinds of changes are good.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a third novel, set in Japan and the US, but suddenly last week the weather changed up here in Desolation Sound, and my interests got hijacked by the wolves that have started to roam and howl at night. So I can’t really say much more than that. When the wolves howl, you have to pay attention.

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?
It’s tremendously important. I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a diversity of global voices and experience in the English-language book world, have we? I can only offer the most mundane and obvious speculation as to why this might be (the Internet, our emerging sense of interconnected and interdependent economies, ecosystems, cultures), but I certainly think that we need this kind of literature now, if we hope ever to understand one another and to work together as a planet. But I don’t have to tell you this. Clearly, this is something that Kiriyama knows very well.

 

book titleLuis Alberto Urrea
2006 Kiriyama Prize Winner in fiction for The Hummingbird’s Daughter and 2005 Kiriyama Prize Finalist in nonfiction for The Devil’s Highway

What have you been doing since being nominated as a finalist in nonfiction and subsequently winning the Kiriyama Prize for fiction? 
If I were to answer this question completely, it would take too many inches of space! Briefly, since the nominations from Kiriyama and Pulitzer, The Devil’s Highway has become a common reader of choice for universities all over the country. I’ve been touring incessantly to huge and motivated crowds to discuss the issues involved with The Devil’s Highway. Since winning the Kiriyama, The Hummingbird’s Daughter has been coming out in many foreign editions. I am especially thrilled (speaking of the Pacific Rim) that the Chinese edition has just been released. Aside from all that, I’ve been working on the film preparations for the movie.

What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a book coming from Little Brown in spring 2009 called Into the Beautiful North, and I’m embarking on the sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter. As a sideline, I seem to be writing forwards and introductions to several books, the latest being Peter Orner’s and Dave Eggers’ Underground America.

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?
They always say think globally, act locally. So for me, the Pacific Rim always begins at home: Tijuana. If you take a look at the unbelievable explosion of writing cross-genre coming out of the Mexican Pacific coast, you’ll be astonished. This seems to run all the way down the Central American and South American coast as well. In terms of Mexico, I attribute a lot of this movement to the success of the Nortec Music Collective in Baja California. I am not as well versed in African writing, but I can say the tide of Indian and Asian authors and poets has been remarkable. And I am extremely interested and moved by the American writers of Asian heritage who are creating some stunning works, such as Le Thi Diem Thuy, May-lee Chai, Bich Nguen and Gao Xingjian.

book titleAndrew X. Pham
1999 Kiriyama Prize Winner in nonfiction for Catfish and Mandala

What have you been doing since winning the Kiriyama Prize? 
Writing, reading, and riding. Lots of travels. More writing that, hopefully, will be published at some later date. Co-translated Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dr. Thuy Tram with my father. Wrote my father’s memoir/biography, The Eaves of Heaven. Finished a collection of essays, tentatively titled The Drifting Years, which pretty much summed up the time I spent since winning the Kiriyama Prize.

What are you working on now?
Big secret. The final installment of my Vietnam trilogy.

book titleManil Suri
2001 Kiriyama Prize Finalist in fiction for The Death of Vishnu

What have you been doing since being nominated for the Kiriyama Prize?
I’ve just had a second novel released this year, called The Age of Shiva, which took seven years to write. It traces the odyssey of a young, strong-willed woman who tries to establish herself in a very male-dominated society: India after independence. The birth of her son gives her new confidence to rebel against the expectations of those trying to control her life. I’ve also continued as a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. One of my projects has been to find ways to combine my two endeavors. In this respect, I’ve been giving a presentation called "The Mathematics of Fiction" to do math outreach (often to unsuspecting audiences, such as those at literary festivals).   

What are you working on now?
The third part of my trilogy on modern India. The tentative title is The Search for Brahma. The first novel, The Death of Vishnu was a snapshot of India in contemporary times; the second, The Age of Shiva was set against the evolution of the country from its independence onwards. The final part will continue the story into the near future. The books all have mythological themes woven into the narrative: Vishnu (the preserver), Shiva (the destroyer) and Brahma (the creator) form the Hindu trinity.   

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?
It’s very exhilarating. These voices have opened up new vistas for the rest of the world—an especially crucial development, given how globalization continues its relentless march. In some sense, these voices are the presagers of the Asian century to come.

book titleYiyun Li
2006 Kiriyama Prize Finalist in fiction for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

What have you been doing since being nominated for the Kiriyama Prize?
I’ve been working on a novel, titled The Vagrants, which is now finished and schedule to be published in February 2009 by Random House in the US and 4th Estate/Harper Collins in the UK. 

What are you working on now?
I am working on a new collection of stories. 

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?

I feel that these books are a very important part of today’s global literature, and one thing I especially appreciate is that these books de-exoticize the region for the readers, which will allow more space for all kinds of voices and styles to bloom.

 

book titleJulia Whitty
2007 Kiriyama Prize Winner in nonfiction for The Fragile Edge

What have you been doing since winning the Kiriyama Prize?
I’ve  been busy since I won the Kiriyama Prize, a little traveling, a lot of work, including writing a couple of short nonfiction pieces, plus gearing up for a long research trip to Southeast Asia this (boreal) winter.

What  are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book, another work of creative nonfiction about the natural world and the human place in it, this one more global in scope.

Can you  speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global  voices that  have emerged in the past twenty years?
It’s good to tap this deep vein of voices emerging from the Pacific Rim. Our world is getting smaller, its problems larger, and we need to hear from everyone if we’re going to address the concerns of the twenty-first century intelligently and with compassion. All voices are unique—though some have had more airplay in recent decades. The Pacific Rim covers a lot of territory, and offers its own blend of knowledge, wisdom, wit and vision. It’s good to hear the heartbeat from this side of our planet.

book titleTruong Tran
1999 Kiriyama Prize Finalist in fiction for The Book of Perceptions

What have you been doing since being nominated for the Kiriyama Prize?
Since the nomination for the Kiriyama Prize, I’ve written four other collections of poetry and a children’s book. My latest book is titled Four Letter Words. I have also made a transition to visual art.

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a body of assemblage art titled RE (VISION).

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?
I think the proliferation has been tremendous. I remember growing up in suburban America and feeling really disconnected. Part of that came from the fact that I did not have access to literature that I identified with. Things have changed for the better. My high-school nephew called me up the other day just to tell me that he studied my poetry in his class. I could sense the excitement in his voice.

book titlePeter Hessler
2001 Kiriyama Prize Winner in nonfiction for River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

What have you been doing since winning the Kiriyama Prize?

Since 2001, I’ve continued writing nonfiction, almost entirely about China. I’m a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing writer at National Geographic. But I’m still essentially a freelancer—I choose my own projects and I work at my own pace.

For a young writer, one of the main goals is to figure out what makes you happiest and most productive—in a sense, that’s what I’ve done since 2001. It takes time to learn how to juggle various commitments, and it takes time to learn how to earn a living without losing the freedom you need for creativity. The Kiriyama Prize helped a lot in this regard. I think the first book is often quite formative to a writer, in terms of developing patterns.

I got married in 2006. My wife, Leslie T. Chang, is also a writer, with her first book, Factory Girls, coming out in October. We moved out of China in the spring of 2007. Both of us had finished researching books and we were preparing to write. At that stage it’s possible to work anywhere, so we decided to move back to the States for a spell. We drove around and found a house to rent outside of Ridgway, a town of 700 people in southwestern Colorado. It’s a quiet place—one traffic light in the county. No Wal-mart, no McDonald’s, no Starbucks. After a decade in China, I wanted to spend some time in a quiet place.
     
What are you working on now? 
I left China with a lot of researched material waiting to be written, so that’s mostly what I’ve been doing. I’ve published a number of China stories in The New Yorker and National Geographic, and in July I wrote a profile of Ryan Hall, the top American marathoner, also for The New Yorker. In August, I went to Beijing, writing another New Yorker story about local people’s reactions to the Olympics.

I’ve also been trying to finish my third book. This will be the last installment in a trilogy of nonfiction books about China. There are various links between the books, but with each project I’ve tried to take a slightly different focus. River Town was primarily about geography, a sense of place in China; and Oracle Bones was about history, a sense of time. The new book, Country Driving, is more focused on economics and development. Like the other books, this one examines the topic through the experiences of average Chinese, both rural and urban. And for this last book I used the automobile as a unifying thread: I took a driving trip across the north, and I examined how cars and improved transport links are changing places.
     

Can you speak to the proliferation of books coming from the Pacific Rim and the global voices that have emerged in the past twenty years?
 
I’m most familiar with China, both as a former resident and as a writer, and there’s no question that American interest in that part of the world is growing. Back in 1999, when my agent sent out the manuscript of River Town to publishers, quite a few responded by saying, "This is good, but we just don’t think anybody wants to read a book about China." It’s hard to believe that was less than ten years ago—there’s such a healthy market for China books right now.
     
I also believe that the quality of such books is improving. For one thing, it’s increasingly common for authors to speak the language and actually live in the place they’re writing about… One of the most important literary movements in the US over the past half century has been the development of narrative nonfiction, magazine stories and books that feature deep reporting and the quality of writing that you typically find in a novel. But if you look at the best-known practitioners of this craft, you’ll notice that it’s been rare for them to live or work overseas, especially in the developing world.

I’ve always believed it’s only a matter of time before more young writers go to the developing world and find ways to combine a literary sensibility with local language skills. It’s not easy, because you have to develop both skills in parallel. You learn to write well in the same way that you learn a foreign language, through practice, and in the past there hasn’t been much emphasis on doing both. But I think the bar has been raised. This is definitely true in China. The range and quality of books today is completely different from what it was ten years ago.  
     
Many places in the developing world are prime for narrative nonfiction because change happens so quickly. In China, if you stay focused on a community for a year, you’re going to see major developments. One problem with nonfiction is that you don’t have the luxury of creating a plot… But when a place is moving as quickly as China, you can hang around and a series of events will unfold. There’s no need to force a story. And such a project naturally lends itself to literary writing, because it involves close observation and subtlety. You’re more likely to write well if you see well. Increasingly we have China books with this quality. 
    

There’s still so much room for good nonfiction, though. I think we’ve just started to scratch the surface as far as China is concerned. I hope that all the new books, and prizes like the Kiriyama, help introduce American readers to a more nuanced and accurate picture of the country. And mostly I hope that more Americans are inspired to live there and study the language.  

To top of page