By far the most frequent question I get regarding The Painter from Shanghai has less to do with the novel itself than with me: Why would you–an American writer with neither Chinese name nor Chinese ancestry–write a novel about a Chinese prostitute-turned-artist?
That is a very fair question. In fact, it’s the very first question I asked myself when Pan Yuliang first came up as the possible subject of a novel.
In 1998 my husband and I were visiting a Modern Chinese Art exhibit at the Guggenheim Musuem. I’d just spotted my first Pan Yuliang painting. Lush and Cezanne-esque, it showed Pan in Paris, where she lived in self-exile for the last half of her life. She placed herself by a window, looking gravely wistful against a boldly-toned background. Hung amid traditional guohua, abstract images and enormous Mao-style portraits, both the piece and Pan’s story stood out for me immediately. I knew my husband–a filmmaker with a sharp eye for plot and image–would appreciate it. But I was utterly unprepared for his response.
“This,” he announced, “will be your first novel.”
“You’re joking,” I laughed. “Who am I to try to tell this story?” I wasn’t just being humble: at that point I hadn’t even begun writing fiction seriously–or at least, not very well. It was true that I had a BA in Asian Studies, a Masters in international relations and had spent seven years living in Asia. But I knew nothing about art—let alone Chinese art. And while Pan’s story intrigued me, it certainly didn’t seem as natural a choice for a first novel as, say, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story most people expect from new authors.
And yet in coming months what had seemed a preposterous idea slowly began to take root. I kept Pan’s self-portrait as my screen-saver and studied it almost daily. Then, sporadically and almost surreptitiously, I began to scour the internet for further glimpses of her life and work. I read every China-related novel I could get my hands on, and when I entered Columbia in 1999 as an MFA candidate in fiction, I also took several graduate-level courses in Chinese history.
By second term I’d deepened my research, spending hours in the East Asian Studies library and even hiring a Chinese translator to help with Chinese texts. But despite my husband’s continual urgings (“Just start it,” he kept saying) I held off on the hard stuff–the actual writing–throughout my first year at school, and then through the subsequent pregnancy that led to maternity leave.
My first daughter was born the Fall of 2000. After the bleary-eyed love rush of motherhood’s first three months I despaired of every writing anything again. “There’s no time,” I sniffled, when my husband asked if I’d started yet. “I’m so tired I can barely brush my teeth.”
And at long last, I did. One morning at 5 a.m., the day’s first feeding behind me and the rest of the house fast asleep, I turned on my computer and stared at my screen-saver. I gazed at Pan’s grave, painted gaze. And I began.
The next seven years were a chaotic rush of reading and childrearing; of Googling and drool. There were long hours in the Columbia stacks (often trying to hush my babbling toddler) and all-too-short hours writing while she slept. There were two more years at Columbia, some invaluable writing colleagues and mentors, and a second daughter in 2004. There were chapters written, argued over, discarded, retrieved, rewritten. There were tantrums (mine, mostly) when mothering and writing collided. And there was continued cheerleading ,scolding, and well-earned exasperation–not to mention hours of free babysitting–on Michael’s part.
I firmly believe that I learned more in those years then I ever did in my academic career. Not just about China, and about art, but about myself. And somehow, in that process, I painted my own picture–as wistful and impressionistic in its way as Pan’s painting was in hers–of a life and work that remain, to me, nothing short of miraculous.