China of My Mind Starts a Lively and Moving Conversation

On the next to last day of 2013, my essay China of My Mind came out in The New York Times Draft Opinionator blog and prompted over a hundred posts. Perhaps that's routine for that column. The Times, after all, has such a wide reach. But, for me, it was the most immediate gratification I’ve received as a writer. Suddenly, all sorts of readers from my hometown of Boston to the far reaches of Nepal by way of Saint Louis and San Francisco had something to say to me. But before I share the feedback, I’d like to summarize my piece, in case you haven’t read it (though I recommend you do!). It asks a question: do I need to go to China to write about it? I answer by saying, “Of course not!” because I didn’t to write River of Dust. I cite several literary authors on the power of the imagination. My first writing mentor, Annie Dillard, told us to read about a place instead of visit it. Alexander Hemon said, “Expertise is the enemy of imagination.” My essay is a rallying cry for that very power: of the mind to bring together disparate influences as we create. I reminisce about my connection to China—the Chinese objects d'art I grew up with, the novels about colonialism that I read, as well as my grandfather's journals from his time in China. They all melded together to help me create River of Dust.

The responses to China of My Mind generally divided along two lines. Those who said, “Good Grief! How come you have waited so long to visit China? It is not like trying to visit North Korea!!!” Or, “Virginia, do yourself a favor. Spend a few thousand to get yourself to China for a visit.” Versus those who argued the opposite: “Kafka never went to Amerika.” Or, “You can do anything you like, it’s fiction.”

I was delighted to see that the question sparked a conversation—one that went off track in a number of posts, but still, was a good one. I had the strange sense that I was overhearing people talk about me at a party. I stood quietly in the corner as they exchanged repartee, which only once or twice turned snarky: “I wonder if I could review Ms. Pye’s book without reading it?”

I found it exhilarating to have initiated a conversation that people felt strongly about. Some defending experience, while others stood up for the imagination.

But more moving than even those were the emails I received from readers who must have taken the time to come to this blog, then to my website to track down my email address. Over the next week, I had exchanges with readers in Spain, Nepal and nearby North Carolina. A genuine friendship developed with an erudite scholar and a true thinker in Spain.

But the email that touched me the most began like this: “Thank you for your beautiful essay of ‘China of My Mind’ on New York Times, whose immense kindness, deep understanding of people and places, and silk-tender femininity brought me almost to tears...These wonderful elements actually help me understand better why America is so vibrant, charming and strong...BTW, I was born in Tibet, grew up in the rugged fringing land of Gobi and farmed there during the ‘cultural Revolution’....  I’m American now, I love both countries. People like yourself make a place and a country loveable and lovely and hopeful. Thank you, I mean it with my whole heart.”

When a writer writes, they do so for a lot of reasons, but one of them is the hope to somehow reach out into the world and meet people half way. The feelings of isolation and loneliness that can a person to write are contradicted by the hope of connection that writing provides. This reply from the reader who came from the Gobi and now loves both China and America is that gift that I’ve waited for as a writer. To know that when I reach out, someone else’s hand is reaching back. Thank you, to that one reader, but to The New York Times as well, because its reach is vast and its arms wide. I’m glad to be part of the conversation.