I’m writing a novel, River Lake People, about a young girl from the city of Panzhihua in southern Sichuan who finds herself “wandering the rivers and lakes” on a quest for some purpose. In Chinese culture, the term “rivers and lakes” represents anything outside of the mainstream. Outcasts and circus performers and martial artists and scammers and caravan drivers and sex workers and the places where they hang out. Fake monks, real monks, aspiring monks. Witches and fortune-tellers. All river lake people.
Someone who moves through these circles is known as a 江湖人, which translates literally to “River Lake Person,” and I think translating the concept literally is the only way to do it justice. I think the imagery of the rivers and lakes, of the river lake person, is universal – even if the language isn’t fluid English, the concept is fluid human, so it works. I think generally of an old man with a sack on a stick, bearded long haired, walking. I put myself in those shoes.
I’ve loved this concept since the first time it was explained to me, by either Zhuang Jian or Li Quan – my guess being Shifu because he’s big into the concept too. I’ve written several stories that deal with this idea; even my journalism work is “river lake” in hue, if you ask me.
The seed for this particular book, River Lake People, was a story Big 10z told me around 2002 in Chengdu. At the time, we were all living in south Chengdu, in a neighborhood called Yulin, but we found ourselves over by the river a lot, due to Paul’s Oasis on the riverwalk being the only westernish public house in the city. Back then, the strip of the Funan River across from Paul’s and the Jinjiang Hotel was a special late night riverside ho stroll. Wild people hung out there, crazy strange sex workers: pretty tall men in fluffy purple wigs, lace, and painted eyes; pairs of whatever; peasants, gay, old, dressed in blue – hovering around the lamppost’s halo. Whoever couldn’t walk the streets freely at day, but still had others like him or her out there, who also couldn’t get out during the day. They were all there.
This was before order was imposed from the top-down in Chengdu. This was when anything goes, anything you could get away with.
Big 10z told me there was a one-legged girl who hung out by the riverside with her dwarf companion. That’s all he told me. I don’t remember anything else about whatever he said about those two women. I just had this image in my head of them leaning up against the fountain in the middle of the riverwalk in Chengdu, just lounging and people watching. The girl with one leg wearing a flowing white coat, and the dwarf in a pink frilly dress, chewing on sunflower seeds and talking shit. Images like that stuck, merged with the others from that river walk; the way the river smelled in summer when the heat sunk low, and the cicadas. These memories and fantasies underwent mitosis. A story emerged, about just these two on a night at the river, singing a song from an old novel and hanging out with an old ex-Revolutionary turned fake monk who took them to the Green Ram Temple in west Chengdu for breakfast after a long night out on the stroll.
I wrote that story, showed it to some people, but didn’t try and get it published anywhere. Just held on to it. One day I picked it up and started tinkering with it. I am not sure what happened there … but after I had tinkered for a while, suddenly, out of nowhere, three male characters jumped out the bushes and demanded to be heard. The fake monk, the glutton selling draft beer, and the fastidious, creepy, patriotic salaryman. I messed with those three for a while. Fell in love with the tragic old monk, and with the fat guy too.
Then after a year of writing I gave it to someone with clout to read, they said “it’s got legs” and marked it up for me; I kept writing, and then BAM! Meimei the protagonist ripped free of this straitjacket she’d been struggling in and just let me know what the deal was. A few months later, another woman – Maheiahyi – revealed herself to me, right when I needed her: she’d been chilling as a side character for much of the story, then slipped to the top real smooth-like, taking a powerful position that only she could fill.
I keep writing, the story morphs and grows.
The dwarf, Da Jie, is a character who, for me, is one of those socketed into the firmament, to draw on when needed. The deformed one, who sees all. Da Jie is my moral compass. She helped Meimei burst out and stake her claim, and she also makes sure I do the same for everyone else in the story. No one is getting short-shrifted if she and I can help it. Everyone gonna feel they had their time in the spotlight. The outcast has certain privileges we grant even if we don’t want to grant them; imagine! you and me, withholding from the outcast …!
“Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights is worthy of all else from you.”
Da Jie the dwarf sister, the tough one, the girl from Yunnan. The more I write everyone else, the realer and heavier Da Jie gets. I hear her voice when I’m scared to write what really happened, what would really happen, what happens every day. And she always got something to say when I consider some critical reader too much. Thanks, Da Jie!
So that’s the basics in terms of origins, and a few of the characters.
I’d like to talk about something else for a second:
There’s a 2002 Chengdu vibe I’m seeking, and I think people who’ve been at the edge of a big change in a strange society may have this type of vibe in their memory sockets, in their bones, this feeling of … potential, the moment at the top of your breath. It’s important to know though, that the vibe I’m talking about actually ain’t shit … at least not in that moment. It’s ‘bout to be shit. You could be forgiven, at the top of that breath, for thinking you’d just inhale again and again, instead of going ahead and letting out a big ass exhalation.
Stuff that always has been and maybe still could be standing there waiting, holding a collective breath. Like bout to be sepia photographs. Where nostalgia and anticipation meet. That’s what I’m looking for. There’s a lot of failure in that place, where the they meet you know. Lotsa failure. Whole lotta striving. Sacrifice. Above all sacrifice. The Chinese people I knew in 2002 in Chengdu during the time of this story, about the time when 10z told me that seed story, those people knew how to sacrifice. They for sure knew that.
Sacrifice and survival in bout to be time.