Zachary Mexico, author of China Underground
Zachary Mexico’s first book, China Underground, just came out this month. It’s an edgy look at margins of modern China—and it’s a real page-turner. Mexico mixes it up with the masses, returning with sixteen tales of unique individuals “trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to carve a place out for themselves in the new China.”
Zachary Mexico—a musician and videographer as well as an author will be giving a talk at Lit Fest where he will be reading three profiles from his book: a mafia kingpin from Qingdao, a slacker idling in Dali and a guerrilla peasant photographer from Shenyang. Catch his session at Glamour Bar at 5pm, Saturday, March 21.
Mexico is perhaps the youngest of the presenters at Lit Fest this year, but so far, is generating quite a lot of buzz. Two interviews with Mexico were published yesterday in Shanghai, one on ChinaTravel.net, CTn Interview: Zachary Mexico’s China Underground and the other on Urbanatomy, At the Lit Fest: Zachary Mexico.
Here is an excerpt from my interview with Mexico on ChinaTravel.net:
Rebekah: Tell me about your approach to storytelling in China Underground.
Zachary: Basically, I just hung out with people and let them tell their own stories. The storytelling part comes in, really, in knowing what to cut out—each of the chapters were originally twice as long. That’s the hard part! Once you’ve gained people’s trust, hanging out and shooting the shit with a tape recorder on is pretty easy.
Rebekah: What is your technique of getting people to open up and talk?
Zachary: I think it’s kind of easier as a foreigner, especially a younger foreigner with long hair and a certain kind of demeanor. People don’t feel threatened by me; they don’t think I’m going to rat them out or expose their secrets. Also, I think at the end of the day people are all egomaniacs and they love to talk about themselves. Chinese people are no different!
Rebekah: China Underground focuses on the individual: in each chapter you take someone—a slacker, a screenwriter, a punk, a prostitute, a gangster—and investigate that person’s life. I feel like China Underground is a series of parables with each individual standing as a metaphorical representation of a topic you wish to address. Am I wrong?
Zachary: I would say you’re definitely wrong! I kind of viewed the entire thing as a collection of interesting people. No more, no less. I’m not trying to make a statement…but if you inferred one, that’s cool with me!
Rebekah: Not to sound like a diehard lit major but one of the things about “the narrator” in China Underground is, he appears to sit back as a fly on the wall, observes, prods with questions, but withholds his opinion. Is there a difference between you as a person and you as the narrator of the book?
Zachary: The narrator IS me. No difference.
Rebekah: How long did it take you to do all this research, once you had decided to write a book? Were you also holding down a job at the same time?
Zachary: A year and a half, and I was working full-time, playing music and running a bar in New York.
Rebekah: In your acknowledgments you mention Peter Hessler and Karl Tao Greenfield as your inspirations. How and why?
Zachary: I loved Hessler’s River Town and Oracle Bones, and Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Speed Tribes—which I read as a college student—provided the rough template for China Underground.
Rebekah: What are some of your favorite recent books about China? Can you recommend books for people who’d like to know more about present-day China?
Zachary: Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China by Duncan Hewitt. Oracle Bones and River Town. Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. Beijing Blur by James West. Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing by Ian Buruma. Harvest Season by Chris Taylor (though that one’s not out yet!)
Rebekah: You play in an indie punk band in New York called the Octagon. What do you play? Sing? Where can I hear you guys?
Zachary: Sing, play guitar, songwrite. You can hear us on myspace.
Rebekah: What’s the deal with your flat in New York’s Chinatown? Did it really burn down last month, just before your trip to China? Bad timing? Stressful?
Zachary: Yes, it burned down. My neighbors died. It was very bad timing, and very stressful. I’m lucky to be alive, but dealing with the whole mess in a practical way is very complicated.
Rebekah: So far on this trip you’ve presented the book in Hong Kong and Beijing. In Beijing you were presenting with James West, author of Beijing Blur, on punk music, homosexuality, subcultures and changing perceptions of freedom and the West. The Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival pitched you two as “a new generation of China commentators interested in youth and how it’s lived in twenty first century Beijing and writing the freshest approaches to the China story.” That’s high praise indeed. Are you surprised by the feedback you are getting from your readers?
Zachary: It’s really shocking, and rewarding, how positive all the feedback is. Thank you everybody!
Rebekah: What’s it like coming to China to be part of the Shanghai International Literary Festival with your first book having just been published?
Zachary: It’s awesome, actually.
Rebekah: What are your future plans?
Zachary: I’m going to write a book about Yunnan. It’s already in the planning stages and the research will start this summer!
Photo of Zachary Mexico from ChinaTravel.net.