China and the US actually fought as allies during World War II?
I had spent so much of my young life secure in the idea of China as the enemy or competitor or otherwise, that the discovery of Chinese and Americans joining hands in the Pacific theater to fight against the Japanese astounded me.
I’m embarrassed to admit I learned this not from my high school or even college history courses, but rather from some historical novels by Pearl S. Buck.
Indeed, historical fiction has frequently served as an indispensable window into the past, filling in the gaps from my own education through realistic narratives that add a human perspective to devastating events from generations ago, such as World War II.
Award-winning author Zhang Ling, in the highly anticipated English translation of her novel A Single Swallow, transports the reader to a small village in eastern China during and after World War II, where one woman deeply touches the lives of others, including the three men who loved her — one Chinese soldier, one American soldier and one American missionary.
The ghosts of these three men, who each knew her by a different name, manifest her into the pages through their recollections of her life — recounting everything from the chilling brutality and suffering she endures to the light she shines upon them and the world with her determination and resilience. Despite not having a direct voice, this woman speaks powerfully through her actions in what is ultimately a feminist tale.
Fans of historical fiction who prefer a story that takes its time, unwinding the narrative with lyrical prose and rich, evocative descriptions, will savor A Single Swallow.
Here’s Zhang Ling’s bio from Amazon:
Zhang Ling is the award-winning author of nine novels and numerous collections of novellas and short stories. Born in China, she moved to Canada in 1986. In the mid-1990s, she began to write and publish fiction in Chinese while working as a clinical audiologist. Since then she has won the Chinese Media Literature Award for Author of the Year, the Grand Prize of Overseas Chinese Literary Award, and Taiwan’s Open Book Award. Among Zhang Ling’s work are Gold Mountain Blues and Aftershock, adapted into China’s first IMAX movie with unprecedented box-office success at the time.
The novel A Single Swallow is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
What was the inspiration for your novel?
Compared with the attention Europe has received in the World War II narrative, the Asian portion of the war is little known to the rest of the world. For years I brooded over the idea of a Chinese war story, but the idea remained vague. Then I found, through my reading, there was a small, secretive American naval group specializing in spy and guerrilla warfare active in China during the war. This group, working together with the Chinese, established thirteen camps along the coastline, to gather meteorological data for potential air raids on Tokyo, and to train local guerrilla forces using the latest technology at the time. The 8th camp was located in a place called Yuhu, under the jurisdiction of Wenzhou, my hometown in southeastern China. An American presence more than 70 years ago in a poor and isolated village immediately roused my curiosity, and it became clear that I wanted to write a war fiction set in my hometown, about the Chinese and the Americans fighting together against their common foe.
Your novel centers on Ah Yan, the woman loved by three different men, who in telling their own tales allow the reader to know her story. Why did you choose to narrate her life mainly through other characters?
This novel begins in the early 40s in a poor Chinese village. Women then typically didn’t have much of a say in any issues, which accounts largely for my decision not to adopt Ah Yan’s voice as a dominant one.
Ah Yan is a very complex character, and each of the three men who come to her life draw out a different part of her. I find it harder to write from Ah Yan’s perspective, i.e. to create multiple versions of “her” while using her own voice as “me” speaking. A third person narrative seems to offer me more freedom and ease. However, her actions, revealed through other characters’ voices, speak louder than her suppressed voice. In the end, she is the one who sustains and survives the three men who, each in their different ways, have tried to “save” her.
The novel is set during and after World War II, and touches on the human costs of the war. What research did you do in preparing this story?
My research mainly falls in two categories, library reading and field trips. Through the help of a local volunteer group, I was able to visit the training camp site which miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. Vivid details emerged from my meetings with the surviving trainees and local residents who have clear memories of their wartime experiences.
While my library research has helped me to gain a historical perspective of the war, the field trips made me understand the poverty and sufferings of China as a war-torn country, the initial distrust of the local people towards the “foreigners” forced upon them by war, and the displacement and loneliness the Americans felt in a country so far away from home. These elements have been reflected in my description of the bond that eventually established between these people.
The resilience of Ah Yan, despite her brutal life experiences, stands out in the novel. Without giving away too much, could you share with us a favorite moment from the book showing Ah Yan’s strength?
One section has stayed with me for a long time after the book is finished — that is when Ah Yan decides to lay bare her past in front of the entire training camp, just to stop, once and for all, the gossip that has haunted her wherever she goes. It breaks my heart to write about the trauma inflicted upon her by the war as well as the oppressive social norms that associated the loss of virginity with such a degree of shame. Her brave decision to speak out brings a light of humanity to the darkness of brutality and ignorance.
You first published this novel in Chinese, and later released this English translation. How have readers of the English version responded, compared to those reading the original Chinese version?
Readers in general are intrigued by the American naval presence in China and the training camp stories during the war. Ah Yan’s traumatic experience, her incredible resilience, her innate ability to forgive and love, and her power to neutralize the most trying crises seem to stir up a universal feeling of empathy, understanding and admiration. However, the Chinese readers seem to focus more on the historical events of the war, whereas the English readers tend to pay more attention to the feministic aspects in the narrative.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
I’d like to present WWII in a different light through Swallow, so that the readers can, hopefully, gain another perspective from the Asian war experience. I also hope to bring more awareness to the sexual brutality women suffer during the war and its long-term traumatic effects on their lives.
Many thanks to Ling for this interview! The novel A Single Swallow is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.