Five Minutes With Rachel Dewoskin

Rachel Dewoskin is the author of three novels, including Foreign Babes in Beijing, which chronicled her experience as the star of a Chinese soap opera during the late 1990s. Her latest book, a novel titled Big Girl Small, was released in May of this year. Dewoskin is currently living in Shanghai as the 2011 M Literary Residency recipient.

What was life like as a Chinese celebrity?

Surreal. My actual life felt like a ludicrous commercial. People followed me through markets and bought whatever I was buying (usually complicated condiments, since I was trying to learn to make Chinese food, or esoteric electronic components since I was constantly blowing up American products with Chinese voltage). Teenage girls asked me if it was ‘true love’ with my co-star and how much I had paid for whatever fake Prada purse I happened to have on my arm (always significantly too much, it turned out).  

On your return trips to China, do you still get recognised?

Occasionally, but only in the very old-school way: “Hey! That mama with her little kids? Wasn’t she in that show 85 years ago? What was it called again? Bu zhidao!”

It’s rare to see a western woman in a relationship with a Chinese man (compared to a Chinese woman with a western man). As someone who has written extensively about these relationships, why do you think this is?

Hmmm. From what I've observed and experienced, there are lots of Western girl - Chinese guy romances. And if you're in one, cab drivers sometimes applaud you. Literally. On the other hand, if you're a western guy in a relationship with a Chinese girl, no one claps. I think this distinction is partially the result of centuries of barbarian invasions, and probably also at least a little because of Hollywood's idiotic history of depicting Chinese men in offensive and ludicrous ways. But mostly, I don’t think romance cleaves cleanly along ethnic lines…

Your bio in Foreign Babes says you wrote Chinese rap. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

I only did that when I’d been guzzling erguotou.

You’ve been known to call yourself a feminist, sometimes unapologetically so. How does this affect your relationships in China?

I’ve always had fabulous friendships with women everywhere I’ve lived, China included. And I write about women who love and need and support each other, because that’s been my experience in the world.

Has having daughters changed your subject matter?

Having babies has given me more empathy than I ever had before. And it’s informed both the things I think about and the ways I think about them. Big Girl Small is about a teenage dwarf who gets involved in a sex scandal. Her name is Judy Lohden, and she’s three feet nine inches tall. I thought of her because I watched The Wizard of Oz over and over with my four year old, and felt tremendous empathy for the little people in that movie. I wondered what it would feel like for my daughter (who began dressing every day as Dorothy) if she were a dwarf. What if she wanted to be Judy Garland, but involuntarily identified with the little people? This thought plagued me, and I wrote a book about a girl who is small, wildly talented, different from everyone else and brave. I often write with my daughters in mind - because they are inimitably funny and unique, because they say astonishing things constantly, because I wonder who they'll be in all the lovely and complicated stages of their lives and because I want to create characters who both do them justice and give them ways to imagine being courageous in the world.

What’s next for you?

I am working on the pilot episode of Foreign Babes for HBO, and I have a new novel in the works. I’m also writing a screenplay about an ernai cun [literally: concubine villages, now more often the enclaves where Chinese mistresses live] and a non-fiction article about Weibo. I like to work on multiple projects, and these months in Shanghai, courtesy of the M residency, have given me time and inspiration to do a lot of writing.

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