Photo: Susan Fan-Brown


Why I Write

The accomplished novelist Yang Huang MA '98 on how writing fiction, in English, allowed her to overcome the censorship and thought control she experienced while growing up in China. 

I was 7, and I was crying again. Being a sensitive child, I often experienced strong emotions that I couldn’t put into words. I grew up in China, and from the time I was 10 months old until I was 7, I lived with my grandparents, where people put up with my crying fits. When I returned to my parents to start elementary school, however, my father demanded to know why I was crying. I was startled that I had to give a reason for being sad. I should stop crying, he told me, because my life had been better than that of many others. I understood that I wasn’t permitted to cry in front of my parents. It was my first taste of censorship.

By the time I enrolled at Tongji University, in 1988, all of my schoolmates had survived their versions of a similar ordeal. Concealing discontent had become our second nature. I studied physics and enjoyed the beauty of science. I also loved working at the school newspaper, the Tongji Students Post, with other like-minded engineering students. On the surface, we were granted a voice, but none of us was permitted to express our opinions. Instead, we were instructed what to write and how to feel. Yet we resisted. Parroting the official line felt like a form of prostitution. So, we conspired for ways to say what we meant without getting into trouble. Then, in 1989, pro-democratic protests swept across China like wildfire. But the peaceful demonstrations ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre, and we gave up our resistance for stony silence and amenia in order to survive.

In 1990, I took the opportunity to leave China and study computer science at Florida Atlantic University. After I graduated, in 1992, I worked as a computer engineer at IBM. It was a good and comfortable life, but something was missing. I felt lost in the sudden and complete freedom, like a person without an identity. The whiplash of two opposite realities brought on an early midlife crisis when I was 23.

A desire to bridge the emotional gap between my early life in China and new life in America eventually drove me to become a novelist. In 1994, I returned to FAU to study English. I envied the freedom of writers who wrote in English. When I was growing up, censorship had transformed the poetic Chinese language into a limp, florid, and pompous tool for propaganda. Our teachers had told us what everything meant, and how we should feel. We were made to breathe the oppression and embrace it as truth and happiness. I never fully complied—I observed people and delighted in finding the contradictions in what they said, felt, and did—but I didn’t dare put any of it into words.

Now, I was an adult with a reservoir of life stories. It was safe for me to tell my stories, but I lacked the language or skill. So in the late ’90s I decided to take a risk and write in English, my second language. I poured myself into studying English, memorizing phrases and sentences verbatim. Step by step, I tore down the thought-prison of my early years. That work continued at Boston College, where I began studying literature in the MA program in 1996, and also at the University of Arizona, where I earned an MFA in 2000. Through it all, I continued to work full-time as a computer engineer.

In my latest novel, My Good Son, a young man named Feng wants to become a tailor, but his father, Mr. Cai, pressures him to go to university and study engineering. Unlike me, Feng rebels. In storytelling I wield my power of imagination, enabling my characters to act out their desires. Their actions can bring painful consequences, but they also have the power to make people grow. In writing the book, I relished Feng’s rebellion, which caused Mr. Cai to think deeply about his parenting decisions. These days, I’m the mother of two American teenagers, and I no longer begrudge my father’s actions from when I was a child. I sympathize with his efforts. In silencing my discontent, he was trying to protect me so that I could have an easier life. But I have learned that a person can never be free by hiding their emotions or turning away from their aspirations.

In a way, I can be that child once again, having a good cry, not merely from sadness, but from basking in the raw emotions that move me. Finally, I can give voices to strong fictional characters who confront their difficulties with ingenuity, humor, and quiet dignity. 



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