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Zhang Yueran: Emerging from The Cocoon (Part 2)

By Quek See Ling

Continued from Zhang Yueran: Emerging from The Cocoon (Part 1)

Sustaining Tension Throughout the Novel

Zhang Yueran at the 2016 Shanghai Book Fair, at a release event for her new book Cocoon

Zhang Yueran at the 2016 Shanghai Book Fair, at a release event for her new book Cocoon

“That man was still alive when I was born.” The Cocoon draws its plot from an account written by Zhang’s father in his youth about a doctor who had a nail lodged in his head and was reduced to a vegetative state. The incident occurred during the Cultural Revolution, and has no medical explanation to date. Zhang asked her father about the details, investigated at the hospital and carried out research about people in vegetative states before she began writing. As Zhang wanted to complete the story with fiction, she did not interview the doctor’s descendants because “fiction loses its power if it is based too much on facts”. Furthermore, Zhang’s main focus is the characters’ inner worlds.

In the postscript, Zhang writes modestly that “no one needs this story”, but her willingness to expend so many years to complete the novel suggests that she regards it as a mission undertaken for herself, her father and his generation. “Disappointment, rejection, the loss of belief – these were the things that I recognised in my father… And only now do I recognise that these things were not inherited from birth, but deeply connected to history.” Zhang feels that she has not merely undergone a change in approach, but a genuine transformation. “Literature enables us to access the deeper meanings of life and emerge with new experiences.”

(From left) The editor of Harvest magazine Zouzou hosting the event, alongside scholar and writer Mao Jian, Zhang Yueran, novelist Lu Nei, and literary critic Jin Li on 18 August 2016, discussing Zhang’s novel The Cocoon at the Shanghai Book Fair’s Shanghai International Literary Week

(From left) The editor of Harvest magazine Zouzou hosting the event, alongside scholar and writer Mao Jian, Zhang Yueran, novelist Lu Nei, and literary critic Jin Li on 18 August 2016, discussing Zhang’s novel The Cocoon at the Shanghai Book Fair’s Shanghai International Literary Week

Finally, when asked about having conviction in the face of irreversible circumstances, Zhang paused for a moment before saying: “One can only believe; everything else is waiting and persistence.” The Cocoon proceeds with no preamble, beginning only with a line from Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring that “my poor child, the best thing I can send you is a little misfortune”. “Misfortune” is a word that has, in ways big and small, shaped the writing life of Zhang Yueran.

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