ROCK PAPER TIGER, Lisa Brackmann's terrific 2010 crime and gaming novel of today's China (with an ex-pat [American in China] protagonist), has us wanting more. Here's the author; thank you, Lisa!
Like Ellie, the narrator of ROCK PAPER TIGER, I was first in China when I was young—actually, I was younger, about the same age as her character was during the Iraq sequences in the book.
China back then was very different than the China depicted in ROCK PAPER TIGER. I was there shortly after the Cultural Revolution, and Beijing at the time struck me as being in the grip of a profound emotional hangover, the country emerging from a national trauma that was only the latest in a series of national traumas. People talked to me about their sometimes horrific experiences because I was safe to talk to: young, American, not involved in what had happened to them. I spent far more time observing and listening than I did judging or acting.
China was also extremely isolated. This was before the Internet. Before cell phones. Communication to and from home was handwritten letters on tissue-thin paper. Very few foreigners lived in China, and of those, hardly any were Americans. China at that time is the only place I’ve ever been, before or since, where there was no evidence of the American pop culture that has so colonized the rest of the planet.
I was an observer wide-open to constant waves of intense experience in an environment that was nothing like what I knew (which was mostly San Diego, California), and at the same time, an odd sort of ad-hoc celebrity. There were very few places I could go in China where I did not attract ridiculous, outsized amounts of attention. I wasn’t just a young American, I was, as far as most of the Chinese people I met, the young American, the first of the peculiar breed they’d ever encountered.
It was in many ways a profoundly unsettling experience, and one that completely changed me and the course of my life. So, though I’m not a vet, and haven’t lived through the kinds of traumas that Ellie did in Iraq, I could relate to the adjustment problems that being in a very strange place at a young age can cause. You just don’t fit in to your old world the way that you used to—mostly because you’ve changed so much, and it hasn’t changed at all.
Ellie’s Beijing is very different from the Beijing I knew when I was her age. There are places for young, disaffected foreigners like her, weird little niches where the fit might not be precisely comfortable, but the niches are there. She can have Chinese friends, participate, up to a point, in their communities, something that just wasn’t possible before. My first time in China, it was very much an authoritarian, if not a totalitarian state. Travel was restricted, and you were monitored, all the time. A simple act of friendship required permission if you were Chinese, and could carry unintended consequences, if you were American.
I wasn’t harassed by Men in Suits of various nationalities, but I did experience a sort of ambient paranoia that no doubt carries over into ROCK PAPER TIGER.
Ironically, I feel very comfortable when I travel in China nowadays. It’s a relatively safe place for a single female traveler, and I have a pretty good sense of how to get around. Most of the places that Ellie visits are places that I’ve been to (or in the case of the Daoist mountain, based on a real place), that I could describe with the precision based on first-hand knowledge.
I was particularly nervous about the Iraq sequences, because I haven’t been there. I compensated for that the way I do whenever I need to depict something I haven’t experienced—I immerse myself in research. Books, documentaries, countless articles. I learned way more about private contractors, prisoner abuse and PTSD than I wish I had to have known. But knowing any less would have been a disservice to the importance of these issues, and I still worry that I didn’t know enough.
Your characters come from you, but they’re not you. Ellie has more reasons to be angry than I ever did. Her reactions are more extreme than mine, her coping ability less; she’s more confrontational, more lost. She’s also tougher than I am, and a braver, more honorable person. She doesn’t know how to compromise. We share some experiences, but Ellie’s are like viewing mine through a kind of hallucinogenic kaleidoscope.
What we do have in common is a love of China, and if at times our affection is somewhat exasperated, it is deeply held.
Oh, and though Ellie’s Chinese is better than mine, we both speak Mandarin with a Beijing accent.
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For those curious about my first time in China, here’s an essay I wrote for Amazon’s Kindle blog: http://nozama.typepad.com/amazon_blogs/2010/05/rock-paper-tiger.html.