Category Archives: Reading

Words and Women: Louisa May Alcott

image from: womenshistory

The emerging woman … will be strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied … strength and beauty must go together.

― Louisa May Alcott, from her 1869 novel An Old-Fashioned Girl. Alcott is best-known for her novel Little Women, which was published in 1868. Some of Alcott’s works were published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. If she were still alive, today would be her 184th birthday.

Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Words and Women: Ursula K. Le Guin

“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

Ursula Le Guin
image from: GooglePlay

“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, from her 1974 novel The Dispossessed

Download The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and read for free

Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Words and Women: Jane Austen

image: Rice Portrait of Jane Austen

“I hate to hear you talking as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth waters all our days.”

― British author Jane Austen; spoken by Mrs Croft in Austen’s sixth novel Persuasion, published posthumously in 1818. 

Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Lijia Zhang on ambition, writing and her public role in contemporary China (Interview: part 1)

One sunny but frigid Saturday in early January, I crossed Beijing and headed to an area I’d never been to before. As I drew close to the top of the subway escalator, feeling the cold seeping into my shell of hoarded underground warmth, I phoned Chinese writer and author, Lijia Zhang, asking for directions to her home. Not long afterward, she guided me through a narrow redbrick alleyway and led me to her home.

socialism-is-great.jpgOnce indoors, this vivacious and brightly dressed woman in her early fifties plied me with green tea and fruit, sat down across from me at a large glass dining table and began to chat. Despite suffering from jetlag (she says it is getting worse with age) after a business trip to London and holiday to Ethiopia with her two teenage daughters (17 and 19), she spoke spiritedly.

We talked for an hour an a half, pausing only for Zhang to grab another layer of clothing, while reminding me that she’s from southern China and still unused to the cold of Beijing’s bitter winters. We agreed that traveling outside of China is the only way to stay sane during the icy months, realising a mutual interest in Burma (Myanmar).

Throughout our meeting, this author whose first book has been published in 7 languages, and first novel, Lotus, will be released next year, seemed just as curious about me as I was about her. She gave me some hints about writing in China, tips on getting my work seen by a wider audience, and even slipped in a little love life advice! And did she drop a little hint about her third book?

Zhang burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with the memoir of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English. Her first book Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China describes how she dreamt of escaping the stultifying routine of factory life, while reading Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily and studying English in the local dump.

Zhang’s plans to attend college were quashed when her mother dragged her out of school at 16 and forced her to work in a factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in her hometown, the southeastern city of Nanjing. Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: she chose to teach herself English as a way out of her claustrophobic surroundings, spearheaded a walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989, and still describes her dress-sense as reyan, conspicuous or showy.

One of the few mainland writers writing in English, Zhang describes herself as being a cultural bridge between China and the world. She now writes regular op-eds for publications including the New York Times, the Guardian and The Observer and is a regular guest on media outlets such as the BBC, CNN and NPR.


How did your aspirations to get away from factory life in the 1980s differ from the national China dream at that time?

I have never been asked this question before. In some ways you can see the similarity. Like me, China was the frog in the well, because of its’ isolation. But in China’s case, it was a self-imposed isolation from the world. China had just gingerly opened its doors in the late 1970s, and, like myself, was very curious about the outside world. I knew the world was large and I was not happy to be trapped in my small world.

Does the new China dream being peddled around look like a farce?

The China dream, the way I read it, is basically China’s rejuvenation. It wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s, because at that time China was just establishing itself. Now China’s position in the world is increasing and the nationalist sentiment is growing, so the new China Dream has tapped into that.

It sounds like you defied expectations in any way you could.

Chinese people have this really strong tendency towards conformity. I still remember that my sister, when we were at school – our whole class too – nobody would be the first to change from long sleeves to short sleeves, it’s really silly. Certainly that’s a very suffocating environment.

Have you continued to defy the China norm, or has that changed?

Well I think China definitely has grown far more individualistic. I guess that tendency started in the eighties and in some ways climaxed in the democratic movement. When I was in the factory, you couldn’t express yourself in any way. Now young people can do as they like. You can shave your head! I hang out with a lot of feminists like Li Maizi – that will probably be my next book – she constantly changes her hairstyle and things. The new generation are very different.

Do you know where your coworkers from the factory ended up?

I have one close friend – the book is dedicated to her, Zhou Fang – but she was different, she was educated, she was sent to work after graduation. I keep in touch with her, because she is still one of my best friends. She’s now a senior manager with 3M. She lives in Minnesota.

A year after my marriage collapsed I met one of the women from my work group. I was going through the worst time in my life, and I saw my former colleague sitting on the roadside selling newspapers. A few years before that, all women aged over 45 were sacked. In all state downsizing, women are always first to go. She retired early and the pension was very little. Just to make a living she was sitting on the roadside selling newspaper.

I saw another guy, Ma, the guy who kept spitting [in the book]. It was really terrifying, just to see him. He’d had a stroke and had already become an old man. He still lived in the same village.


Writing in English

Does writing in English hold particular advantages over writing in Chinese?

I am one of very few Chinese people who write in English. I certainly get noticed because I am one of the few people who live in China. There are a few people writing in English, like Yiyun Li, Ha Jin, but they live abroad. So I am in an unusual position.

Recently I had an interview with BBC TV about the 1.3 million unregistered people to be allowed a Hukou. BBC called me because they needed somebody who can understand Chinese society but can also communicate with people outside, speaking English.

Last year I was invited to attend an academic conference. I was introduced as one of the only Chinese living in China writing for international publications. So that’s the reason I was invited to attend the conference; I was flattered.

I also got a fellowship from the US State department. I have no idea how!

Does writing in English help you to think in different ways?

Talking about writing, I increasingly notice some of the common problems in Chinese writing – writing in Chinese by Chinese authors. Writers have trouble using different points of view. Chinese authors often use omniscient [narrators], but not very skillfully.

To give you an example, Sheng Ke Yi wrote a book called Northern Girls. The content is fascinating, but it was so poorly written, I don’t know how it got such attention! In once scene, they were having sex, and the story jumps point of view from his to her point of view. Terrible! She is regarded as an established writer but she makes common mistakes that any creative writing class will tell you to avoid. So I notice these kinds of problems now. I have a few Chinese friends who write and I often have the urge to point this out to them.

Creative writing is offered to Chinese Literature students, does this bring hope for Chinese writing?

Creative writing courses alone do not automatically produce writers. Writing is something so personal. The drive has to come from within yourself. You have to have a desire to write your story and to express yourself this way. But writing is a craft, so some things can be learned. Yes, of course I think Chinese writers will benefit from creative writing courses, but Chinese Literature overall is in a bad place. There are many reasons, and creative writing courses will not solve the fundamental problems.

Socialism is Great! was published in 2008. Why then?

Like many things, it happened accidentally. I benefitted hugely from the creative writing course [MA Creative Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, 2003-4]. I had a wonderful tutor. I chose a module about non-fiction writing, life writing, and my tutor was Blake Morrison. I found him very inspiring. In his book he borrows a lot of elements from non-fiction writing, which I was very much inspired by. I had already finished the book but after the course I really had a major rewrite.

In December 2006, I was working for a literary agent and I was assigned to interview James Atlas, the publisher, who had a project publishing in China. I interviewed him and I said, ‘Oh, I actually have a book.’ He said ‘show me,’ so I showed him. He read it through on his flight back from Beijing to New York and decided to publish the book. It just happened, just like that.

Do you see the publication of Socialism is Great! as the turning point of your career?

It was. It has proved to be the turning point. I didn’t expect that a little book would have such a big impact. It was published by a small independent publisher – but they gave lots of attention to it – and then picked up by Random House, had good reviews, and it was published in different languages. I have to say I am grateful… looking back I had such a bad contract! Now, I’m able to make a living from giving public speeches and I have a lot more offers of jobs, so I can pick and choose.

Did you consider approaching a China based publisher?

No. The climax of the book was about the 1989 demonstration [in support of the Tiananmen protests], so the book was very much about jumping out of the well. By the time I organised the demonstration, mentally I was already out of there.


Writing in China

What challenges do you face, as a Chinese writer, writing in English, based in Beijing?

I would still consider the first one as language – it is just very difficult – especially in the beginning. Secondly, the way to present an argument: in the West, there is more focus on presenting a very balanced view, which is not stressed so much here.

Have you ever felt threatened as a result of your work?

In 2008, I wrote a piece for the Guardian called It’s time to stop criticising China. I wrote that China has come a long way since the 1980s. I got a lot of hatemail, mostly from right wing Republicans, saying “how could you possibly defend a fascist regime like China?”

Then in 2011, when Little Yueyue was run over by two vehicles in and left bleeding by 18 passersby, and the incident was caught on CCTV, I wrote a piece questioning China’s declining morals. I got so much hate-mail from Chinese people. I guessed some of them were from wumaodang (the fifty cents party), paid by the authorities to attack anybody they don’t like. But some people’s English sounded too natural; they must have been Chinese living abroad. I got lots of personal hate-mail saying I was the running dog of the west, that I don’t deserve to be Chinese, and how ugly I am.

Because it’s not face-to-face, you can say anything.

For a time, you wrote under your married name while simultaneously using your maiden name. How did that make you feel?

That was just a safety concern really; for some articles it felt safer. It didn’t bother me. I just knew it was a necessity to attract less attention. If they are nasty, they can be nastier to a Chinese national, even if you’ve got a British passport. But I am divorced, I cannot use the other one any more! And my name, Lijia Zhang, is more established now. I cannot even use Zhang Lijia any more.


Social Role

You once said you see yourself as being the cultural bridge between China and the world. What amount of control do you feel in how China is seen by the rest of the world?

I wrote a piece on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 about this issue, the title was Expanding Cage. I wrote that there is still control but after 1989 the government relaxed the control, and expanding personal freedoms is part of that strategy. So, now, ordinary people feel very free.

I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions of china. People outside China imagine that 1.3 billion people exist in a very controlled, very rigid environment here. But for lots of ordinary people, the cage has expanded so much that they don’t often feel the limit, unless you’re like visual artist Ai Wei Wei or somebody caught up with the law. Lots of ordinary Chinese people actually feel free.

You are bringing domestic China to the world.

Public speaking is a big part of that. Writing books and articles is, too.

Do you see yourself influencing foreign policy or the Chinese diaspora?

I don’t know about that! But I have been often asked to meet VIPs. Just recently I met a former Greek foreign minister, who is now in charge of the human rights issue for the European Commission. He came here to participate in dialogues with the Chinese authorities and he had one free day to meet people, so I was one of the people he met. I don’t know if I can influence foreign policy but I am happy to share what I know.

Is there something you wish people knew about you or a question you wish someone would ask?

What a nice person I am! No. No, people serve the purpose they have. They want to know certain things, so that’s fine.


Read on: Lijia Zhang on Gender, China’s sexual rev0lution and her new novel about prostitution in contemporary China (part 2)

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite authors. She’s certainly my favourite African author and I believe she is the best female writer of our time. Her fiction is poetic and hugely powerful. She weaves enchanting and wonderfully moving stories about the reality of Nigerian life.

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Adichie was named one of the twenty most important fiction writers today under 40 years old by The New Yorker. She featured in the April 2012 edition of Time Magazine, celebrated as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Hers is the voice of a generation.

Adichie’s stories spark recognition within me. Not only do I remember fondly places I’ve lived, people I’ve met and friends I that I miss daily, but I feel a deep sense of understanding. Of home. Of humanity. Things that transcend distances of all kinds. She gives us a longer look into the real stories of Nigeria. Following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe, often dubbed the Father of the African Novel in English, Adichie is changing the perception of her Nigerian home in the outside world. She offers up stories – many, varying and widely different stories – that seem to reach into the heart of humanity and pull out only truth.

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Half of a Yellow Sun

Her 2009 talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ is a wonderful analysis of the power of stories:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

“When we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Adichie understands the power of stories when it comes to changing stereotypes and erasing false perceptions.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.35.39Adichie’s 2012 TEDxEuston Talk, part of an annual conference focused on Africa, shot to fame when Beyonce sampled it in her performance at the 2014 MTV VMAs: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you with threaten the man. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

While I have read much of her work including the written version of the talk, entitled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, I had not listened to it until last week, and promptly showed it to 70 Chinese undergraduate students (their responses to come). Her voice and presence transform already brilliant writing into something transcendent. The room crackles with truth, recognition and understanding.

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Half of a Yellow Sun

To those who read any of her novels (Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah), her ideas about gender are made crystal clear. The fact she admits she finds it hard to read classic feminist texts, acknowledges the stigma around the word ‘feminist’ and once labelled herself as a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men’ makes her an ideal role model for women worldwide, no matter what their background.

Adichie’s is a singular voice, but it speaks to many. Though we may not have personal experiences like her stories of Nigeria, most of us can identify with them and remember similar moments in our own lives. Her words cross the boundaries that divide us, her sentiments unite us.

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We Should All Be Feminists

There’s little that can be said in response to this – her words need no qualification. She’s just right.

25 Things I Did Instead of Getting Married at 25

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Thirteen months ago, I published an article entitled 25 Things I did Instead of Getting Married At 25. It’s a polemic and judgemental piece about marriage and married people, spurred on by sensationalism. It was an overreaction to people I knew getting engaged, having babies, and posting pictures of their weddings on Facebook. Perhaps it was I, not they, who was scared shitless about the future.

I had been worried that people my age were choosing marriage, relationships, and children – what I viewed as symbols of conventional life – over careers, travel, and self-improvement. I wrote: How can they be my friends when we are so clearly of very different attitudes toward life?

I was proud of everything I’d achieved, having left my home country and arrived, alone, in China. I wanted to tell the world: there are other ways to live a fulfilling life. (Or did I think I needed to prove that some ways are better?) But, what I failed to ask myself was “why should their life choices reflect mine?”

I have always had conflicting views on marriage. Marriage doesn’t seem personally necessary when I know I could live a (financially, socially, politically) stable and independent life perfectly happily. It is difficult for me to see the relevance of an ancient social convention in modern life, particularly with its links to religious bodies that have never held a significant position in my life. It has been particularly hard to reconcile my feminism with the idea of one day getting married: marriage traditionally implied the ownership (and thus restriction) of a woman, and why would any woman willingly choose that?

Times have changed. People have changed. The nature of marriage has changed.

I would still argue that marriage is largely non-essential in modern Western life. I do still believe that marriage is not the only way to show you love someone. But I’ve stopped seeing it as “a pointless gesture people undergo to publicly declare their feelings”.

The very fact that it is non-essential for the majority of people is possibly the most powerful element of modern marriage. Rather than becoming insignificant, it possibly means more than it once did, purely because it is so heavily reliant on individual choice.

I would nevertheless advocate exploring a less conventional path through life, particularly for young people in countries where marriage is still the expectation. For example, many young Chinese women are still expected to get married by the time they are 27, under threat of becoming a “leftover woman” if they wait too long. Rather than be forced into marriage by the phantom “biological clock”, I believe the marriage question must be left to individual choice.

At 25 there’s still so much learning, growing, travelling to be done!

Perhaps there are many more interesting things you could do with your time than settle down with your mortgage and a brand new hubby. But marriage is not the end of life. In fact, it could just be the beginning. There’s still so much living to be done, that in 10 years time, you’re probably not going to be the same person you are right now. So if you’ve found someone who’ll love you for who you are in years to come, rather than who you once were, then you’re a very lucky person.

Getting married is not settling down, it is flying free together.

Nonetheless, it is with pride that I give you 25 things I did instead of getting married at 25:

  1. Fill up a passport five years before it expires
  2. Get a job that changes lives
  3. Move a few thousand miles from home and stay there
  4. Live alone and make your house your home
  5. Start a blog and publish things people actually read
  6. Meet friends with whom you only speak your second language(Korean)
  7. Begin studying a third language(Chinese)
  8. Make your own fresh coffee instead of buying it
  9. Create and nurture an indoor garden… keep the plants alive!
  10. Sing at an open mic event unrehearsed
  11. Learn Capoeira
  12. Quit the job with the sexist boss
  13. Read non-fiction of your own choosing
  14. Study online courses
  15. Become financially independent which means doing your own tax returns & facing up to the Student Loans Company
  16. Vote in the UK elections from overseas
  17. Dance around naked in your living room
  18. Make your Dad proud so he tells you every time you talk
  19. Invite your Mother to visit and stay in your home
  20. Tell the world “I am a Feminist!”
  21. Actually make friends with colleagues
  22. Learn more about Buddhism
  23. Inspire people around you
  24. Celebrate Lunar New Year in proper Chinese style(over-eating and fireworks)
  25. Never stop setting new goals

post revised 10th April 2016

Read on


Having It All: Career and Love: can we ever have it all?

What do Punk girl bands, hangovers and radical feminist texts have in common? Valentine’s Day 2015

The highlight of last year’s Valentine’s was the Friday night adventure of a housemate’s kitten whom we thought had found her way outside for the first time in her life and was instead rescued by another scantily-clad-and-feeling-macho housemate from beneath the floorboards and given a very scratchy bath at 3am. A tad less dramatic, this year I spent V-Day entirely alone with my hangover and three soon-to-bloom hyacinths.

IMG_2046I had spent my Friday night at my first Chinese metal gig, unexpectedly finding myself in the mosh pit at a bar called School having met a new group of people earlier in the evening. I felt at home among the mostly Chinese Doc Marten clad crowd. I had the appropriate number of piercings, for once. At the next venue, I danced my arse off for approximately four hours, careful not to spill my pint of Guinness (most recently acquired taste) and ended the night doing cartwheels on the almost empty dance floor, to cheers from a group of worn-out/drunk Chinese patrons. I got messages from two guys I’d met on Tinder (and never met), who’d both recognised me as I danced like a lunatic wearing stripy jeans… I wonder how this changed their perception of me.

IMG_2043Having gone to bed at 6am, I wasn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailedfirst thing on Valentine’s Day, but then it’s not like I had anyone wake me up by bringing orange juice, coffee and a croissant to me as I sat up in bed. Instead, I spent the day drinking various kinds of tea, listening/dancing to Girlpool songs and reading my copy of Vagina: A New Biography (which made it’s first outing to a Beijing Starbucks on Friday, to the surprise of about 4 other western patrons).

So there I am, swearing at almost every other page of my radical feminist text as I read by candle light, sipping my tea in my empty apartment, and I realise how immensely happy I am to be alone, on this of all days.

I’m a romantic. I am. I fall in love with characters in novels as often as (well, probably more often than) the next person. I cry at films. I write quotations on post-it notes that cover my apartment. I listen to Tracy Chapman on repeat. No matter how many times I re-watch the 1995 dramatisation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, my heart leaps at the moment Lizzy realizes she loves Darcy (though maybe it’s got something to do with Colin Firth’s thighs). But Valentine’s doesn’t strike me as romantic.

image2Perhaps I am cynical, though I’d like to think of my ideas as realistic. During a recent first date, he and I discussed our views on marriage over my very first pint of Guinness. He seemed impressed (or was it closer to horrified?) to find I was even more cynical than he. (aside: Yes, we talked marriage on the first date. Problem?) I simply don’t view marriage as a necessary or even positive part of life. The same goes for Valentine’s Day.

It’s the one day every year when it is apparently normal to pass judgement on the validity of people’s relationship status. And it gets competitive. All those Facebook statuses of ‘perfect brunch with my perfect boyfriend’ and photos of happy girlfriends having been taken on surprise trips to Hawaii. I find it all rather sickening, to be honest, that couples apparently need this day (and, often, this day only) in order to show their appreciation of one another (that should happen all year around). And for those people who don’t have a partner? It’s like it’s designed to make people feel lonely.

It probably seems like I’m feeling dejected about being single, or that I’ve never been romanced. That’s far from the truth. My first boyfriend gave me a single red rose on our one month “anniversary” (quotation marks = what a blatant misuse of the word). He bought me a diamond ring when we’d been together six months. He gave me a heavy chunk of glass with a photo of us and the caption ‘I love you x’ laser-etched into it when we reached one year. Need I go on?

Being alone does not equate to feeling lonely. Why should anyone be made to feel lonely? Why should man or woman feel that their life is incomplete without another person?

I’ve been musing a lot, lately, on the futility of playing the waiting game. Whether it’s waiting for a guy to text me back, or a boyfriend to come over, or for the next time I could visit him, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life waiting. Waiting for someone. Waiting for something to happen.

Waiting around like that harks back to a time when a good match in marriage was vital for a woman’s success in life (and being in love with the man you married was considered a bonus). During those days of waiting I imagined myself a romantic heroine, doing nothing but waiting. But that’s a Jane Bennett thing to do. No one really wants to be kind, gentle, passive Jane.

Perhaps the active alternative, for the impatient among us, is the over-eager, (slightly psycho-bitch?) thing of clinging onto someone you imagine makes your life better. Perhaps they do make your life better… but why rely on someone else to make your life good? That’s what flirtacious, man-obsessed Lydia Bennett would do. I can’t help thinking of something that makes me laugh every time (at least partly to do with their fantastic accents), but is rather poignant, really.

This is what crazy sounds like via text messaging:

No one wants to be Lydia (who brings “shame” on her family for going out and getting what she wants, which is a whole other kettle of fish I won’t go into now). No one really wants to be Jane, either. We’d all prefer to be their badass, witty sister, Lizzy.


Back to waiting: How is it productive?!

The one thing it certainly creates is a plethora of unvoiced expectations. Spend your entire day waiting for someone, while that person is out living their life. Chances are, that person will be full of things to tell you about their life but won’t understand why you’re full of resentment when they’re too tired to cater to your whims. If you have uncommunicated expectations of someone, they’re likely to disappoint you (how can anyone possibly guess what you want from them?).

Waiting for something to happen to you takes all the autonomy out of existence. The fact is, only you can make things happen in your life. Only you can be the active element in your life.