Translating High-Profile Events into Fiction

(This piece was first published by Writer’s Digest on January, 19 2019.)

My friend disappeared when I was living in Beijing.

Hao had been living in the city for about a year, working on a documentary about underground Christian congregations in China. The project attracted the attention of the country’s state security officials, and when Hao was on his way to interview a lawyer representing congregation leaders, they swooped in and detained him.

The situation eventually attracted the attention of then-Senator Rick Santorum, a George W. Bush ally, and received coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, and the Washington Post. But the story wasn’t compelling enough for the book publishing world.

“What happens to the guy?” asked several literary agents and publishers I was in contact with as I worked on a book, intended to be a work of creative non-fiction, on Hao’s disappearance.

“He was released after six months,” I said.

“Was he ok?”

“He didn’t seem to suffer any physical or psychological damage as far as I could tell. He’s now living in New York City with his spouse and two young children.”

“So where’s the story? Where’s the drama?”

I would then explain that several people, myself included, tried getting messages to those in high places in Washington. The detainee’s sister started blogging about the detention. We got a letter to then-US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice via then-Senator Santorum. Rebecca MacKinnon, CNN’s former Beijing bureau chief got an editorial placed in the Washington Post about the matter on the day that then-President Hu Jintao arrived in the US for a conference. And then Hao was released.

“Hmmm. Not very compelling from a literary standpoint.”

This was generally how my conversations with those in the publishing industry went.

The book, which eventually evolved into a work of fiction, was at first a work that was true to actual events, including the long stretches of time—sometimes weeks—during which Hao’s sister would get no news and life would seem to return to normal. Except that no one should ever consider the extra-judicial detention of a journalist to be a “normal” occurrence.

Hao’s circle of friends in Beijing included a wide range of professionals: NGO directors, bankers, lawyers, management consultants, graduate students and journalists. We worked hard during the week. We hit Beijing’s bars and dance clubs on the weekends. Amid China’s breakneck economic growth and the constant transformation of Beijing, our consciousness of Hao’s situation would sometimes fade like a jetty disappears under a high tide. The miasma of work-related fatigue, late-night benders and weekend hangovers would blunt our concern further.

Disagreements about how much noise we should make about the situation sometimes bubbled up over dinners out with friends. I was working for an international media outlet and many in the rest of the group of Europeans, Australians, Japanese and others were well-connected enough to get a word to their respective country representatives. Some of my friends voiced concern that too much noise might damage efforts to get Hao released more than it would help him. But I saw in that position more concern about how such action might affect our own careers in China.

This led to a form of moral paralysis and had the effect of keeping thoughts about Hao further at bay. Sometimes it was only in the dead of night, when unable to sleep, that I would wonder what condition Hao might be in. Was he even alive?

This was the story I wanted to write. How the atmosphere of China’s all-cylinders drive to re-establish the country’s economic vitality, which produced an economic boom that touched every aspect of everyone’s lives, had the tendency to diminish our humanity.

But such a focus was too interior, too existential, for any author looking for commercial viability in the world of creative non-fiction. So I took the advice I was given, and pivoted to fiction “based on real events.”

The first half of the book and parts of the resolution are true to actual events, such as the attempts by Hao’s sister to work quietly with the public security bureau and then her decision to make the situation public. Conversations in these parts were written almost verbatim. However, tertiary characters and some events that tie two key storylines together, including a bribery scandal related to the 2008 Olympic Games and the way one character dodges the local police, were inventions. Other events, like the way two characters were photographed during sex to blackmail them, happened to a friend whose career was put in jeopardy because of the event, but this occurred a decade earlier.

There’s a lot to consider in that four-word caveat—“based on real events.” It makes anyone interested in the story wonder how much is “real events” and how much is pure imagination. The ambiguity leaves authors open to criticism that they’ve sensationalized a situation and, in doing so, unfairly maligned a person or group.

This is especially true for what I was writing because the US-China relationship has always been fractious. Two countries economically integrated even though they’re at opposite poles ideologically makes for a high degree of sensitivity on both sides. This was the case even before the current bilateral trade standoff, which is rapidly spilling into other realms, such as national security, pushing lawmakers and even Vice President Mike Pence to portray China and many of its people as national security threats.

Which brings us to a story about China’s detention of a documentarian, written by an American journalist. I always knew the project would leave me vulnerable to accusations that I’m one of the many Westerners bent on maligning Beijing. That I’m doing my part within a vast conspiracy to hold China back. But I wrote it anyway, motivated by whatever spiritual force pushes artists, meshing “real events” with imagination, my own memories fused with those of others who told me their stories. And a good bit of situational extrapolation.

I worked hard to keep the imagined situations within the realms of what’s possible in China, though, where a political force that took control of the country seven decades ago eventually learned how to drag most of its population out of extreme poverty, but in exchange tolerates very little in the way of political dissent. Another aspect of the book that should offer some protection are the Mainland Chinese characters. They are more heroic than the Western characters. They risk as much, if not more. They show more wisdom and stronger moral codes, and this isn’t fiction. Portraying these characters in such a way wasn’t a charitable act. Their actions in the book reflect the characters they’re based on.

I believe the ends justified the means. If I had to fictionalize some of the twists and turns of a detention and its resolution in order to produce a story that would pull in an audience, and in doing so present fully rendered, sympathetic Mainland Chinese characters, we’re better off for the effort.

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