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Interview: Chen Qiufan on “The Year of the Rat”

- Tell us a bit about “The Year of the Rat.”

At the beginning of the Year of the Rat (early 2008), this title started to hover around in my head, but I never could find the right story or concept to go with it. I attempted several false starts: in one, a family living on a small island welcomed visitors from the mainland; in another, a lonely loser of a guy recalled his painful personal history on Christmas night. But I didn’t like either, and so I put the project aside.

The week before the end of the Year of the Rat (early 2009), I returned to my hometown to spend Chinese New Year with my family. Suddenly, it was like I was struck by something, and the story appeared, fully-formed, in my mind. I wrote it down in four days, and basically that draft was the final version.

- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write about it?

Writing is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Your brain takes bits and pieces of the information you encounter during daily life and rearranges them, edits and shapes them, forms them into a new picture. I’m guessing that my inspiration came from the news and the experiences of those around me. Ever since the Chinese education system acquired a business-oriented focus, colleges minted millions of new graduates every year. But due to the weak economy, many couldn’t find jobs. I encountered these young men and women, feeling adrift, in my life often. I wanted to write something for them because few pieces of fiction portrayed the lives of unemployed, new college graduates.

Putting a science fictional spin on the concept made the observations more interesting, and I thought it gave the story a kind of universal meaning that was applicable not just to the college graduates, but also to everyone.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Year of the Rat?”

I researched the reproductive habits of rodents and their sex ratios. The bits about life in the army were based on my personal experience. In China, all high school and college students must undergo military training (ranging from a week to a month). During my military training at Peking University, I kept a diary. Some of the contents of that diary made it into the story.

- Was the conception and/or writing of this story personal for you in any way?

I was, or maybe I still _am_, one of those lost young men. In China, the propaganda of collectivism infuses the educational experience of every young person. But at the same time, we are all exposed to extreme acts of selfishness in society, not just by individuals, but also by interest groups and the government. This kind of schizophrenic existence leads to confusion, and many of us do not even understand ourselves, much less how to address the relationship between the individual and the collective, between self and society.

Of course, I wasn’t attempting to answer these questions in my story. I just wanted to use the form of the narrative to get readers to think about them.

- What might you want a reader to take away from “The Year of the Rat?”

I’ve been surprised to find “The Year of the Rat” a reader favorite—it’s probably the most popular of my stories. I suppose it’s because the story struck a chord with many young people. A lot of readers posted on the web about how much they liked this tale, and many debated the meaning of certain details in the story that were deliberately left vague: e.g., the suicide of the Neorats and the source of their illusions. Some readers came up with their own explanations for these events, and sometimes their theories were even more detailed and complete than my own ideas.

In any case, I think readers got what I wanted them to consider from reading the story: the individual and the collective, freedom and control, choice and obedience.

- What are you working on now?

Earlier this year, I published my debut novel, THE WASTE TIDE, which was well received. Right now I’m looking for an opportunity to publish it in English (and I hope my friend Ken Liu will translate it, as I think he would be a great choice).

I’m also working on a story about cyborgs, which will be in Neil Clarke’s UPGRADED anthology—it’s an honor for me to be invited to contribute. In addition, I write nonfiction features and op-eds for some mainstream media (Bazaar Man, New York Times (Chinese Edition), etc.), and I may get an opportunity to develop science fiction films.

I feel excited and fortunate to be where I am in my career.

“The Year of the Rat” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.

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