On Peter Hessler’s Winning of MacArthur Fundation’s ‘Genius’ Award

I was so thrilled to hear the news that American writer Peter Hessler has won the award. As one of the 22 recipients of the $500,000 award, he was rewarded for his writing about China, the subject of many of his articles and the first three books: River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving. So richly deserved! I take it also as an award for his contribution in helping people to understand China.

Pete, as his friends call him, is not only a great and thoughtful writer but a kind and gentle man, who actually inspired me to write my memoir.

I met Pete back in the end of 90’s in Beijing when he was completing his memoir River Town, about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteers, teaching English in a small town Fuling on the Yangtze River. To make his ends meet, he got a job as a ‘clipper’ – to cut important or interesting newspaper articles and then to file them for Wall Street Journal, an experience he humorously described in his second book Oracle Bones, a more ambitious book than the first exploring the human side of China’s transformation. But the pay wasn’t quite enough. I was working for Newsweek as a part-time researcher and doing my own freelance writing for various international publications, including Hong Kong Standard, (later changed to I-mail) The journal’s boss at the time, a mutual friend of us, persuaded me to pass my weekly column in Hong Kong Standard to Pete. I agreed as I had enough going-on besides raising my young children.

One day, Pete came to Newsweek office to see me and I saw an unassuming young man, casually clad in a T-shirt and a baseball cap. I showed him half a dozen clips of my stories and said: “The column is so easy because you can write about anything you like: you can recycle your old stories, you can write an opinion piece on any topic or you can describe your personal experience.” I told him that, at times when I became desperate for material, I would lift passages from my diary if there was a good enough story to tell. He listened attentively and thanked me. Little did I know what a great writer he is!

Partly to thank me, Pete took me out for lunch. He asked me if I was vegetarian and I replied that I wouldn’t be in a million years because I grew up poor and craving for meat, a luxury our family could hardly afford. As a child, I used to catch cicadas, roast them over a small bonfire and munch them up. Then I told him about my background and my life at a rocket factory, starting at 16. He was surprised: somehow I thought I was from a better family background and had a good education. He said I should write my story for a column called Personal Journey in WSJ. By then, he had started to write for the journal and other far more prestigious publications than Hong Kong Standard.

Pete did follow up by putting me in touch with the editor of Personal Journey column. After I subsequently published my piece called Frog in a Factory Well in WSJ in Dec. 2000, so many friends asked me why I didn’t write a memoir about my decade-long experience of working at the missile factory back in the 80’s. It was the most fascinating era, the 80’s, when things became to change and when China became what it is today yet much less documented compared to the Cultural Revolution and the eras before. After the New Year, I sat down to work on my memoir. “Socialism is Great” was finally published in 2008.

So, thank you, Pete, for sending me to my way as a writer.

Among his three books, I’m particularly fond of River Town, for its simple and elegant prose, often with fresh twist: “Fuling is a city of legs – the gnarled caves of a stick-stick soldier, the bowed legs of an old man, the willow-thin ankles of a xiaojie…” I admire his sharp observation as an outsider. For example, he talks about how Chinese often laugh at a moment westerners would think impropriate, saying mentioning death, and points out it’s just a Chinese way to ease the awkwardness. I realized that’s what I’ve been doing without realizing why. And I love his subtle humour.

And I think he put just right amount about himself in the book, which is about a Chinese town, seeing through his eyes. Through the pages, he comes across as an extremely nice man who honestly reveals his more arrogant (only by his own standard) English-speaking Peter Hessler and more likable Chinese-speaking He Wei (何伟,his Chinese name).

I am delighted that his fame and enormous success have not blown up his ego. This spring during Beijing’s International Writer’s Festival, I saw him and his twin girls. He remains the same laid-back and amiable guy he always was and even the cute babies are easy-going.

He and his wife Leslie, another fabulous writer and the author of Factory Girls, and their new twins, have been living in Colorado after their long sting in China. Now they are just about to move to Cairo. I wish their new adventure as exciting and rewarding as their China experience.

In the copy of River Town,which he kindly gave to me and my ex, he wrote such dedication:

For Lijia and Calum

Who understand very well the kind of effort that goes into a project like this.

All the best, and I look forward to reading more of your books in the future, as well as hopefully coming up with a couple more of my own.

Indeed, he has come up with two more great works. I’ll cherish this copy, for the emotional value as well as the practical one – when Pete becomes a literary giant, it will be worth a lot more!

5 thoughts on “On Peter Hessler’s Winning of MacArthur Fundation’s ‘Genius’ Award

  1. congrats to Pete. Enjoyed River Town. Oracle Bones was 50% a great book and the one about driving around China was interesting but very light.

    But, like you say, he deserves recognition for bringing China-beyond-the-stereotype to a wider audience than jaded folk such as myself.

    And well done yourself. I met you and Calum about ten years ago for coffee in a place in that strip behind the Friendship Store. You were both extremely nice.

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