Last week, we published “ The Second Waltz,” new fiction about love, technology, and time, by Madeleine Thien. Here, she discusses where the story came from, tenses in the Chinese language, and more.
1. In “The Second Waltz” a girl named Wu Ming obsessively follows a love affair between neighbors, Naomi and Mr. Jin: a human and a not-quite-human. Where did this story have its start?
I had this image of a woman grieving the illness of her lover, but yes, the lover is not-quite-human. He’s a construction or a creation or a person who has been made in our own image. I was thinking of love as a double helix between attraction to the other, the opposite; and attraction to some unarticulated part of ourselves that we recognize in another.
And then, out of the blue, I could see Jin and Naomi dancing together, and the perspective was that of child, a neighbor, watching this love affair unfold, and interpreting that otherness, that not-quite-humanness, in a very different way. So that was the beginning.
2. The story takes place in the near future, under an authoritarian regime in (what is suggested is) China. The sci-fi elements in the story are beautifully subtle, and there is a kind of timelessness to the way it is written. I almost felt like I was reading about ancient history. How deliberately were you playing with the expectations of a futuristic or dystopian story?
I’ve never written speculative fiction before but I’ve always loved it, ever since I was a child. With this story, I wanted to think about the present from another temporal direction. I started asking myself, what do I know now, right now, that I might not know—or will have hidden from myself—forty-five years from now? If a person is accused of a fabricated political crime today, in 2016, what might his daughter's life look like forty years from now?
I love the way you describe it, a futuristic timelessness. I’ve always been fascinated by languages that have no future or past tense, like Chinese, which only has the present. If your language, your conceptual framework, doesn’t divide time, the future is unfolding right now, it is unfolding yesterday. It’s almost as if the past, future, and present are staying in place, and we’re the ones circling around it. I tried to picture time (past and future) like the head of a sunflower, spirals curving in opposite directions but created by the same equation, and so, in essence, the same thing.
3. Do you consider this a story about Chinese history and politics?
Yes, and also about a history and politics that is very old and human. I was thinking about the current crackdown on Chinese human rights lawyers, but I could just as well have been thinking about the campaign against spiritual pollution in the 1980s, or countless other crackdowns in China and elsewhere. My sense of the story is that it lives inside multiple realities so that even as the narrator’s father is grieving everything he’s lost, he’s living in a world where there are new birds, new technologies, new biospheres. He knows that his own life is being discarded, is being made insignificant, even as these incredible possibilities are being born. I was thinking about what it would mean to pass away at thirty-four if the world’s average age becomes closer to 150.
4. What was the hardest thing about finishing “The Second Waltz”?
Writing the future of the future! There’s a part of me that knows that most things— histories, lives, the understandings we come to—are cyclical, but I also think that Wu Ming falls through a rip in the fabric. By the end of the story, even though the second waltz is still a waltz, it’s happening in a very different intellectual and emotional place; the same physical movements but an entirely different dance. But how to find the words for that? It’s almost as if the whole story tries to re-harmonize the language somehow, so we hear the words in a new way.
5. What books or writers or other things are most influencing your current writing projects?
So many. I feel fortunate to be a reader now. I’ve been revisiting Edward Said, and the ways his mind and language elucidate what it is to be human, and the Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar. I’ve been thinking a lot about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and about the work of Eileen Chang, about sexuality and desire in the art and literature of Asia, past and present, for instance Japanese shunga, and so on. I can feel my work turning in another direction, which is exciting.