World War Two. Japanese occupied China. One cousin’s courage, another’s determination to help a wounded American pilot. Iris Yang talks with Book Glow about the writing of her historical novel, Wings of a Flying Tiger. The book is available for pre-order at Open Books Direct.
Describe Wings of a Flying Tiger in one sentence.
It is a heroic tale in which ordinary Chinese risked their lives to rescue and safeguard a downed American pilot in WWII in China.
What led you to write it?
Wings of a Flying Tiger is a work of fiction. But to me, a Chinese-American, it is also personal. I was born and raised in China. My mother and grandma had lived in Nanking and escaped from the city just days before the notorious Nanking Massacre when the Japanese soldiers slaughtered 300,000 innocent Chinese and raped 20,000 women in six weeks. Both my mother’s and father’s families fled to Chungking, where Japanese frequently bombed the wartime capital. My father told me about the repulsive smell of burning flesh, and as a young child, he had nightmares about the raids for several years. A good friend’s father drowned when Japanese attacked his boat; even unable to swim, he jumped into a river to avoid being blasted. A Japanese friend sincerely apologized for the atrocities her fellow countrymen had committed. She knew a former soldier who forced naked Chinese women to march with them to bring up their morale.
China was an isolated country while I was growing up. We were told that the Americans were “devils” and the American soldiers were crude and cowardly. I didn’t read or hear anything about the Flying Tigers until I came to the US as a graduate student. I was touched once I learned the truth. And the more I read, the more I was touched. I wanted to thank the Flying Tigers. What is a better way to show my gratitude than writing a book about them?
The story of the Flying Tigers, a group of American volunteer pilots who helped China fight Japan in WWII, has been a fascinating and enduring topic for over seventy years. Most of the books, though, were nonfiction written from the perspectives of the pilots. This novel is a rescue story from the points of view of both the airman and the Chinese who saved him.
As a Chinese, I’m thankful for the Flying Tigers’ bravery and sacrifice; without their help, the course of the Chinese history might have been changed, my family might not have survived, and I might not have existed.
As a U.S. citizen, I’m honored to write a book about the American heroes. It’s a privilege. A duty.
How long did it take to write?
It took me three months (fulltime) to finish the first draft, but it took me two more years to rewrite, again and again. I have no idea how many drafts. It was an ongoing process.
In those two years, I shared the book, chapter by chapter, with three writing groups. And a retired journalist volunteered to edit my manuscript. The final version is 25% longer than the first draft. But it was exciting to write “The End,” even if it was a rough draft.
Do you prefer writing in one genre over another?
I like fiction writing, especially historical fiction. It allows me to create characters in a historical setting. I enjoy the process—learning the history and producing likable or hateful characters. I get the chance to create the people I’d like to meet in real life or love stories I long to have. I feel powerful and, at the same time, a great sense of responsibility. It’s thrilling and rewarding when all the pieces fall into place.
What book most influenced your life?
Many books influenced me at different stages of my life in different ways. If I have to pick one, it is a Chinese author, Jin Yong.
His novels belong to a genre called wuxia—martial arts and chivalry. His books have a widespread following in many Chinese-speaking countries and have been translated into many languages.
Unlike typical martial arts novels, Jin Yong places emphasis on patriotism and heroism. Many of his books are set in history when China was occupied or under the threat of occupation by foreign forces. He often includes unforgettable love stories, along with references to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, martial arts, music, and philosophical thoughts. In his novels, historical figures intermingle with fictional characters.
I admired the heroes he created; I was deeply moved by the incredible love stories he created; I learned some Chinese history and culture from reading his books. I hope that my books will provide those wonderful feelings to my readers.
Where do you write?
I can write anywhere! I love to travel, so I learned to write wherever I go. A few times I wrote when I was waiting for my flight or on the plane. I wrote inside the smelly, cheap hostels or motels on rainy days. When ideas came during hikes, I sat down by the side of the trails and jotted down those precious thoughts on a small notebook or my cell phone. Although I’m not picky about the place, I won’t purposely go to coffee shops to write, as a lot of people like to do. Never understood the allure.
Is there any one thing that especially frustrates you about the writing process?
Born and raised in China, I learned English as a foreign language in school. The learning was limited and sometimes even wrong. I came to the U.S. in my early twenties as a graduate student for a career in science.
My first English “teacher” in the U.S. was TV. I didn’t even have the concept of the commercial. I thought accidentally I touched the remote control or there was something wrong with the TV when a program suddenly jumped to unrelated subjects. In China, at the time, there were two stations, broadcasting from 6pm to 10pm. There were no commercials. It took me a while to figure out what was going on.
I’ve always loved reading, but creative writing was a dangerous career in China. As famous writers, my grandmother and aunt were wrongfully accused as counter-revolutionary Rightists. I had to choose science—a safer path. Fiction writing was only a faraway dream; writing it in English was beyond my wildest dream.
I learned fiction writing by reading lots of books. When I wrote my novels, I’m sure I spent more time than most people. I had to constantly check two dictionaries—Chinese to English and English to Chinese. Even so, no matter how hard I tried, I still made grammatical mistakes. That frustrated me the most. There were plenty of times that I laughed and scolded myself for being so stubborn to embark on this journey that seemed almost impossible to succeed. Nowadays, so many people write; everyone has an advantage over me.
I wish I’d grown up speaking English. I wish I’d had proper education or training. Since I can’t change the past, I just have to work harder.
Any advice for novice writers?
You mean I’m not a novice writer anymore? J Even having two novels, I still have mixed feelings—shyness, unease, excitement, pride—when I call myself an author.
Writing is hard. If you don’t have a burning desire, don’t do it. But if you are passionate about it, don’t let anything or anyone stop you.
Start today. Keep writing! Don’t give up. Persistence. Perseverance. Patience.
I’ll share several useful Chinese proverbs with you:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“Every step leaves its print.”
“If you work hard enough, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle.”
Looking back, I’m amazed that I finished a novel (actually three—two have been accepted for publication; one isn’t good enough to share with anyone), by writing down one word after another. If I can do it, anyone can.
I’m working on a story based on my grandmother. She was the first Chinese woman to receive a master’s degree in the UK. Returning to China, she became a professor and a famous writer/playwright. Her play was in production for years. However, in 1957, she was wrongfully accused as a counter-revolutionary Rightist. During Cultural Revolution, she was fired from her job and ordered to sweep streets. Later, she was kicked out of the house at the university. In 1973, she died alone in a small village. As the political atmosphere changed in China, she was once again a celebrated writer/scholar. She was called one of the most gifted female playwrights in Writing Women in Modern China: An Anthology of Women’s Literature from the Early Twentieth Century published by Columbia University Press in 1998. There is a park opened in her name in her hometown.
My grandma’s life was a mix of triumphs and tragedies. I’ll try my best to write it down.