Finding My Place in the Universe

by Zhao Haihong

I still remember the moment I was inspired to be a writer. I was twelve at that time, a sixth-grade primary school student.

When I came across the line in Gardener by Tagore, “Who are you, reader, reading my poems a hundred years hence,” I was deeply touched by the moment of conversation built between a past poet and a little girl. That moment was real and that is the moment Tagore already foretold. The simple line builds a bridge between different time spaces, like a time machine might do. At one side, the confident poet called for his future readers; at another, a girl who receives the precious information and decides her future.

 


Here in this story, I looked back at my writing career and finally figured out why I could keep writing SF for twenty years.


 

I became a devoted reader when I was six, but my reading mainly related to literature as a whole, the canon, as Harold Bloom called it, and also some popular literature. In middle school, I started my writing—poems, kung-fu stories, historical romances, and science fiction. I just wrote them for fun. Among them, a story “Great Rift” (about how an alien watchman on Earth uses a video camera to record the Earth’s history in a fast mode) was published in the fanzine of a student club when I was 16. And two years later, I sent it to Science Fiction World, the most important and, for a long time, the only science fiction magazine in China. It was published in February 1996, when I was a freshman.

Encouraged by my first formal publication, I considered writing SF my foremost writing practice and published a series of stories. Many of my stories these years were about a journalist Chen Ping who was working abroad. She was always involved in mysterious cases just like Miss Marple was often involved in murders. (I was indeed a fan of Agatha Christie and Japanese detective stories.) From 1997 to 2002, my science fiction stories won a Galaxy Award every year while I was studying for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English language and literature. Among them, “Yocast” has won the highest honor in 1999 and was the most popular story, according to my readers.

“Exuviation,” the story about two “cavers,” which won the 2001 Galaxy Award, is an independent story out of the Chen Ping series. It has been self-translated into English, and with the help of Geoffrey Landis, Mary Turzillo, and Michael Swanwick, the translation was adapted several times and finally found its place on Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #25 in 2010. In 2014, it was reprinted on LightSpeed.

After 2002, I graduated from Zhejiang University and became a lecturer at Zhejiang Goingshang University. Teaching took most of my time and energy, so my writing pace slowed down. Fewer stories were released, but I translated over thirty stories and three novels: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, Susan Cooper’s The Green Witch. Translation is part of my professional work and has inspired me in my writing too.

Finished in 2006, my first novel Crystal Sky was a science fiction bildungsroman and a half-autobiography. It was published in 2011. In my new series Soulwave World (translated as magicwave), a human inhabitation on an faraway plant running on a new source of energy, has been started in 2006, but I’ve only finished four stories so far. (The fourth story, “Dream on the Lacus Soniorum,” was published in Science Fiction World in July 2018.) A totally new series of Martian Cavers has been started in 2018 and two stories have been published. The first story “Yangjin” was a story about an Earth-visiting Martian Caver and a Tibetan girl and was published in a Martian story collection along with twelve different authors; the second story “Take off Your ACUVUE DEFINE, Girl” was just published in Science Fiction World in January 2019.

In the first years of my writing, I seldom thought about gender issues, but the story 1923, A Fantasy shows my awakening. I started to write it in 2001, when I was a postgraduate student, but it was not finished until 2005 and published in 2007 in World Science Fiction, a now-defunct magazine. The translation of 1923, A Fantasy by Nicky Harman and Pang Zhaoxia was first published in Renditions Special Issue (77/78): Chinese Science Fiction: Late Qing and the Contemporary in Hong Kong in 2012, and then it was reprinted in Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters (Columbia University Press, September 2018).

I was married in 2007 and gave birth to my daughter in 2010. Changing for a new role took so much time from my writing. What is more, from 2012-2016, inspired by a background study of the Renaissance for my story “Her Smile,” I found a new interest in art history. I came to China Academy of Art for further study and got my Ph.D in art history. My dissertation on William Hogarth was published by China Academy of Art Press in 2017. Now I am still teaching English in Zhejiang Gongshang University in Hangzhou, China, while giving lectures on art classes at the same time. And my open class “English Lectures on the History of Chinese Landscape Painting” was selected as a National Open Class.

“The Starry Sky Over the Southern Isle” [on sale now in our March/April issue] was first conceived in 2009, when the smog in my city was getting severe. And as a pregnant mother, I was so depressed about the air pollution that I even hoped I could live in a pearl city. But when the story was finally finished in 2016, the air pollution in China had been much improved, so it’s no longer a story about smog, but a story of an idealist—how he coped with a utilitarian world with the salvation of love. However, my visit to New Zealand gave me the solution for the ending. I came to Tekapo Lake in the Southern Isle for stargazing, but it was raining that day and a great disappointment fermented in my mind for a very long time. Then suddenly, I asked myself, why don’t I put it into my story? Just like Meryl Streep said, we can turn our painful experiences into inspirations. And the image of FAST, a huge telescope that was newly built in China, also helped in the formation of the storyline. Here in this story, I looked back at my writing career and finally figured out why I could keep writing SF for twenty years.

Writing is the proof of my own existence, and seeking existence, to me, is seeking a place in the Universe. Surely, SF would be the best genre of literature to describe the relationship between individuals and the cosmos. Hence, I will continue writing science fiction in the foreseeable future. The Chinese version of “The Starry Sky Over the Southern Isle” was finished in 2016. I took the writing itself as a celebration of my twenty-year anniversary of publishing science fiction. It was first published in Science Fiction World in May 2017 and was selected in two different yearly anthologies of Chinese science fiction stories. The self-translated English version was adapted by my friends Bivash, Julian North, and a friend who chose to be anonymous. And great gratitude goes to Michael Swanwick, who delicately polished my final English version, and the editors Sheila Williams and Emily Hockaday at Asimov’s who have carefully discussed the adaption with me. I hope the readers in the English world enjoy the story.

To follow my news and my writing, you can visit the following website: http://www.neverneverland.com.cn. I have a Facebook page “Haihong Zhao,” but due to technical problems, I can rarely visit it.


Zhao Haihong has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Zhejiang University and a Ph.D. in art history from the China Academy of Art. She teaches at Zhejiang Gongshang University, Hangzhou, China. Haihong has been publishing SF stories since 1996 and is a six-time winner of the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award. Two of her self-translated stories, “Exuviation” and “Windhorse,” have been published in English and her short story “1923, A Fantasy” has been translated and included in the 2018 anthology The Reincarnated Giants: Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction.

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