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Interview with Science Fiction Writer Xia Jia

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Xia Jia is Associate Professor of Chinese Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University, School of Humanities and Social Sciences has been publishing speculative fiction since college.

Wang Yao, known by the pen name Xia Jia is a Chinese science-fiction and fantasy writer. She majored in Atmospheric Sciencesand receiving her Ph.D. in comparative literature and world literature at the Department of Chinese, Peking University, she is currently a lecturer of Chinese literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University. Xia Jia’s science fiction works have won seven Galaxy Awards for Chinese Science Fiction, six Nebula Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy in Chinese. One of her stories received honorable mention for the 2013 Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards. Her first story written in English, “Let’s Have a Talk,” was published in Nature in 2015. Her stories have been published also in Clarkesworld, Year’s Best SF, SF Magazine as well as influential Chinese Sci-Fi magazine Science Fiction World. Besides those written in Chinese and English, her works have been translated into Czech, Italian, French, Korean, German, Spanish, Japanese and Polish. She’s also engaged in other science fiction related works, including academic research, translation, screenwriting, and teaching creative writing.

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Have you always had clear your career? What motivated you to become a sci-fi author? How did your adventure in the sci-fi world begin?

I haven’t always had a clear idea of my career as a science fiction writer. I got interested in science fiction when I was a kid. But at that time the science fiction market in China was not developed. It was hard to think about writing science fiction for a living. For a very long time, science fiction was just my hobby, my spare time interest. But things change with the big success of “The Three-Body Problem” and also the recent international influence of Chinese science fiction in these years. This pushed the development of science fiction in China and also gave the young science fiction fans and writers the opportunity to get jobs in the related areas. I was very lucky. I graduated and I got my Ph.D. in 2002. It was an epic time, the big explosion of Chinese science fiction. My dissertation was about “Contemporary Chinese science fiction” and it was like a sort of a risk because when I started to do that project, I was not quite sure whether or not I could find a teaching job because of this topic. The truth is, that I was very lucky. I got accredited and got a teaching job. Right now I’m an expert on this topic in China. So right now, my main job is researching science fiction and science fiction writing is still my part-time job, but it’s closely related to my main job. I could say that’s science fiction is my career. My adventure began when I started to tell stories, when I was a kid, even before I learn how to write on ideas. When I was 8, I wrote my first work, which was like a fairytale story, a very short one. I’d collaborated with my best friend. So basically that was one of the starting points of my writing career. When I was in high school. I tried to write more science fiction stories. It was like a secret hobby. But I haven’t published anything. My first story was published when I was in college in 2004. It was a formal publication in the only Chinese science fiction magazine. It’s like a showcase for the science fiction readers community and made me become a science fiction writer. My first published story was “The Demon-Enslaving Flask”.

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Xia Jia’s drawing for my flash story “Let’s have a talk”

She won the Galaxy Award 银河奖 which is China’s most prestigious science fiction award, which was started in 1986 by the magazines Zhihui

Who influenced you as an author? What were the stories that impressed you the most?

I could give you a series of names, but I just mainly focus on one author. This Chinese author passed away in 2003. His name is Zheng Wenguang. He is considered the father of Chinese science fiction, because he published the first science fiction story, since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. He also published a lot of influential science fiction stories from the 1950s to the 1980s. He’s is the most influential author since I began to read science fiction as a kid. The most impressive story is the latest story of his writing career. It has never been translated into English or in other languages. The Chinese title is《战神的后裔》, that can be translated as the children of Mars. The story is about a group of Chinese people who try to establish the inhabitant on Mars, to change and rebuilt Mars into the second homeland of humanity. A very mature science fiction story, complicated with multiple characters and plots. That story routed me to Mars’ dreams when I was a kid. It made me think that maybe one day I could go to Mars. I talked to many, many people that my life dream is going to Mars one day in the future. Even when one day I’ll be old, my dream will always be to go to Mars and bury that book there.

Well, there is a possibility. They are working right now on going to Mars!

Yes, I think this is an exciting thing, that your dream may come true in your lifetime.

What is the hardest part when it comes to sci-fi writing? Where did your ideas come from?

For each sci-fi writer, it may be a different thing. For me, the most important thing is to have interesting enough ideas or characters to share with the readers. I think that sci-fi is not the only element. I think the most important is the inspiration, which motivated me to write science fiction: to share that view, urgent, real questions with readers. Not just to tell good stories. I think about something really interesting, something which would push me to share this idea. For most people, it’s not really easy to always get good questions. Sometimes you just stop thinking about like “Why?” or “How?” or “What will be?”. These kind of questions are just easy to be accepted by common education or reality, instead of asking questions about “What else?”, “What can we?”. I think that it’s a very good thing that science fiction gave me: more opportunities to encourage myself always to ask questions. Not just about my research area or my job. But randomly or commonly questions about humanity. And this is a very safe thing to do.

In her Science Fiction stories, she is walking the border, in a constant migration on the frontier of the unknown, searching self-cognition and growth.

How do you keep your self inspired?

 

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I keep myself inspired by reading about everything. I try to do everything. Of course, you can’t do everything at the same time 🙂 I just try to do more things. I read a lot, not just specific pieces, but also reports, news, scientific reports and academic researches, studies about the past, the history of humanity, and all of these aspects. I think it’s very important to try other things. Other things you never think about that you should try. Like to do some art, to play music, to travel, to do some new sports, which is also a very good way to activate myself. To renew myself.

How much of you and from your personal life can we find in your Sci-fi stories?

I think a lot! For example, my first story published “The Demon-Enslaving Flask”. That story is about physic in a physic scenario. The story is about a demon who made a pact with a physician. The story came from my experience as a student with a major in physics. A very important thing is that you can find more and more female characters. Especially the main characters are female heroes in my science fiction writing. I think it’s very important to bring the reader into the point of view of females in science fiction. What I’m working on right now is a fix-up science fiction story entitled “Chinese Encyclopedia”. It would be like a collection of tales, short stories with a shared background where one main character travels through the stories. The main character is a female, a linguist who majored in humanities instead of science and technology. She’s in her ‘30, the same age. So you can find a lot of pieces of my personal life. She is the main narrator of all these stories, you can discover what she saw, what she witnessed, and also what she thought and find her feedback to all of these stories. I tried my best to make these people real enough, but at the same time, charming. I don’t like to make up a fictional character, which is like super perfect. I want to make them look like true people. Just like me. She’s not perfect. She’s just charming in many ways.

Do you have a story of yours that you are most attached to? Why? Can you share with us the idea behind it?

Yes, the story is called “Tongtong’s Summer”. Tong Tong is the name of the main character, and she’s actually the same main character of the “Chinese Encyclopedia”. But “Tongtong’s Summer” happens when the female was a young girl around 8. This story is based on my true experience with my grandfather, and it’s a tribute to the pass away of my grandfather. The story happens in an ordinary Chinese family, with parents, a little girl, and a grandfather. In the story, many things happened between the grandaughter and the grandfather. This story was originally submitted to an anthology edited by Neil Clarke, an American editor. At that time, he wanted to edit an anthology on cyborgs, and he asked me to write a story. I think that most of the cyborgs’ stories depict cyborgs as an inactive image, not as a human being. I wanted instead to write this story in a different way. I finished that story and I made my grandfather a cyborg. He is a good cyborg. He would love him. The main idea I want to share through this story is about how to keep revolutionary thinking, even when you are really old. In the story, the grandfather is old, he has many disadvantages as older people have, but he is not weak. He still got his revolutionary idea and thoughts. He’s like the real hero in this story. This story is in the Italian collection “Spring Festival” published by Future Fiction, thanks to my Italian publisher Francesco Verso.

Her science fiction skills have been visible also as director and actress in the experimental Sci-Fi film “Parapax” (2007), in which she appeared as three different identities of the protagonist across parallel universes.

Your writings are available in several languages. Translations involve dipping into the author’s thinking and new cultural aspects. What do you feel about exposing your mind and thinking to the world? What message do you hope people will understand?

Yeah, in many. Thanks to Ken Liu: my first and most important English translator. He asked me to translate my stories into English. At that time I never imagined that one day my story could be translated into other languages. I have also thanks, Neil Clarke. He published most of my English stories in the online Magazine Clarkesworld. I think the process of translation is a sort of international transportation by words. This also inspires me a lot, in many ways. I get some feedback from the translators and my readers from different cultures, languages and these lead me to think more about the topics I’m exploring. I think that I’m very lucky since this is another way of trying new things. For example, right now in recent years, I’ve traveled internationally. I have been invited to different countries and cities to participate in writers’ festivals, to give speeches on science fiction and other topics which give me opportunities to meet new people, to make new friends, and to know the world better. That’s an excellent way of living. About the message, I hope people do understand my stories. We are always trying to cross the boundaries, to explore the unknown area outside the world. The boundaries are not just only between, for example, the known and the unknown knowledge, but it’s also something related to the access to different cultures, languages, genders, classes, living spaces. The people around you live in a space that for you it’s like an alien space if you never went into that space. So if you have the courage and the curiosity, to try to cross the boundaries, it’s like having a new point of view on the world you felt you knew already enough. Translation, like science fiction writing and also like my teaching job, my research, and international travel, all these things can be part of this crossing the boundary activities.

It has taken all the moments of my life for me to become who I am today. Life is such a beautiful gift that no matter how carefully you measure it out it will seem like a waste. So don’t panic, and there’s time enough for love.” Xia Jia, Clarkesworld Magazine

Besides being a writer, you have been involved in the making of Parapax (2007). Nowadays movies with digital and spectacular effects have reached high-quality levels. Do you think this has lowered the content level of the stories and plots, addressing the audience to visual impact and not to psychological and human aspects?

That’s actually a very important question, which can be hard to give a simple answer. One thing I want to say is that Parapax was a student’s work. It was made when I was doing my master’s degree. It’s a movie we did with a really low budget. Without any special effect, because we couldn’t afford that. The main idea about that movie is a multi-universe or multi possibilities for human life. I wrote that screen and also I played the three main characters. That was how we avoid spending a lot of money to finish a science fiction movie, using a few tricks. At that time, we, as poor students, questioned the idea of depending on visual effects, technologies, or movie technologies, and we found instead other ways to tell a story, without all of these effects. We try to give the answer through our own work. So that’s one of the aspects of this question. But the other is that right now I’m studying science fiction movie a lot. I think it’s not easy to conclude the question into a simple opposition, for example like the form vs the content, the visual effects vs the story. It’s not like a simple observation, not like you have to sacrifice one to make benefit another one. I think in the age of digital capitalism, the media, the vision, and the visual video effects became some of the most important elements of the story itself. So if you want to tell a story it’s very hard to avoid these effects. A very good example is the TV series ‘Black Mirror’. All of these stories talk about human vision in the age of technology and also they adopted a lot of 3D effects.

The visual effects express this aspect. I think that there are bad movies and good movies, but this not depend on which aspect you more focus on. It doesn’t just depend on how much special effects you use in a science fiction movie. It also depends on how deep the main creators try to discuss issues. For example, human vision. You can tell a very simple story about how human vision is badly influenced and impacted by the new technologies. You can try to abandon this technology and get over to the original pure human vision. But actually, this pure human vision never existed. Human vision always has been deeply influenced by technology. All the time.

Sci-fi works explore the unknown, different points of view, parallel universe, possibilities, etc. Do you think they can help people to understand human beings and try to find answers or to interpret the future?

Yes! First, I may disapprove of the idea that science fiction can help people to anticipate the future. It’s not like to point out which direction we should go. But at the same time science fiction can help us to have a better understanding of the past and human beings, also the present situation and to think about alternative futures. Because I think that the only way to imagine alternative futures is by learning of past and present from an alternative point of view. If we only have a very simple version of the history of humanity, we would believe that history is always like this, and in the future, we can have nothing new because we should always follow all of these mistakes.

The tragedies will have already a victim and we will only just repeat all of these mistakes, again in the future. So that’s a very bad way of thinking. If we want to try to imagine something different, the only way is to learn about the history of humans beings better. From different aspects. From a different point of view. From different people’s cultures. To realize that human history is not just a simple story. One of my favorite academic, about this area, is Frederick Jameson, an American Academic. He said that science fiction is generally understood as they attempt to imagine only imaginable future, but its deepest subject may, in fact, be our own historical present. So I think that’s a very deep idea to review the true meaning of science fiction and I believe in this idea.

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Eastern Science Fiction is making a huge mark today. Do you think Chinese sci-fi has any influence on society? Can Chinese sci-fi be a tool for understanding contemporary China?

Yes! The superficial reason is that the readership of Science Fiction in China has been enlarging significantly in recent years. I mentioned that when I was a kid the science fiction market size and distributors in China were very small. So it was really hard to see if there was any influence of science fiction into society. For the science fiction readers, and the fans, we always had the feeling that we were just the idiots living in a common human world and what we were interested in, was just entirely separated from reality, the common human life. But since things changed in recent years, right now, you can say that it’s become more and more common for ordinary people. For example, they watched the science fiction movie “Wandering Earth”, or they heard the discussion about the “Three-body Problem”. So they began to use the science fiction elements to talk about what is happening right now just around them, like the social issues. For example, the way Coronavirus is discussed in China. The people are not only talking about this issue from a scientific point of view but also in other ways, involving multiple social issues: how they can organize people to do things better, to follow the instructions from the scientists, how to convince people to believe in real ideas while avoiding believing in false information, in false news. So all these things had already been discussed in multiple science fiction stories and you can see that the common people and the mainstream or the media began to borrow elements from science fiction to talk about that.

Science fiction thinking can help us to deal with many real social issues. So I think that’s a very passive influence of science fiction on society. To answer the question “science fiction as a tool to understand contemporary China”, the International readerships of Chinese science fiction became larger and larger. I don’t want to use the word door, but it’s like a window, a portal for the world to get to know China better. Last time when I visited Italy, local people told me that in the past the most popular Chinese writers in Italy were Yu Hua or Mo Yan but I think they can only provide one aspect of Chinese Society. Right now since they became to be interested in Chinese science fiction, they began to read Liu Cixin’s works and other authors’ work. Even my work. Many readers told me that they can find a quite different China also in my work. So that’s a good way for the International readership to get to know China.

Traditions are always changing over time. It is we, the present generation living on the frontier between tradition and modernity, present and future, who struggle for our self-affirmation, not some “tradition” that retains its own self-evident essence.” – Xia Jia, Clarkesworld Magazine

Chinese society in the technocultural-information era is getting closer to many westerns sci-fi stories. Do you think this transformation of China is influencing and changing other countries, and to some extent, the new western sci-fi stories?

I want to use what president Xi Jinping, had mentioned: the concept of human beings as a community with a shared destiny. 人类命运共同体. So in the past, we may think that China was a Nation-State partly separated from the International Community. But in recent years we realized that all this Nations State combined with each other, shared a destiny. So when we talk about China, we are not just talking about one Nation: a lot of talks are about this shared destiny. So what is happening in China: both the negative or and the positive aspects, all of these issues, these problems, all disadvantages and advantages, all of these just bring out the question to these human beings as a community with a shared destiny. So when they ask about “What about China?” and “What is China going to be?”, there are also questions like “Where the human beings came from?” or like “What aspect of human being and how this aspect will influence the future of humanity?”. So I think that a very important thing is to explore more in contemporary Chinese science fiction including my own work. Recently my work is mainly focused on this kind of issue. When I talk about my stories, I’m not focused on writing Chinese stories. I don’t want to consider them as a narration with Chinese characteristics, Chinese style or flavors, because such Chinese characteristics, sometimes can be stereotyped images of China.

I want to bring out the question “Why you as a foreigner reader should feel more interested in what is happening in China right now?” It’s not just a Chinese issue, but also the issue we shared. So that’s also the weight of contemporary Chinese science fiction that makes an influence on the so-called English science fiction or Western science fiction writings. There are more and more Chinese elements showing up in the science fiction written by Western writers. More and more Chinese science fiction is translated into English and other languages. It’s not just because these people are curious about China as a totally strange, and unknown country but also because they are really interested in these stories. So that is what I interpret as the influence of Chinese science fiction.

Photos and illustrations courtesy of Xia Jia

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