Acclaimed author Alex Kuo’s new work is a historical, political doppelganger, following two finite-numbers mathematicians on both sides of the Pacific. G, a Chinese American man and Ge, a Chinese-American woman, battle the corporatism and corruption involved in building high dams, while oblivious to one another. The American Book Award-winning author talks about constructing characters and parallel plots.
A lot of the novel is based on your research of America’s largest dam, and a United Nations-funded study of the Three Gorges Project. What were your findings? My findings were quite shocking, discovering that most of the benefits attributed to these high dams were hallucinatory, twins to accompany the ideology held by a very scary percentage of Americans that there is no such thing as global warming, and that the planet is only 10,000 years old. And what about the majority of those Americans at the other end of the ideological spectrum? Essentially most of them don’t give a damn, and some act like academic liberals who traffic in conspiracy theories to make themselves feel good.
Let’s talk about your characters. How did you create Ge, the Chinese female protagonist? While I was sitting at a roadside teahouse outside Chengdu, a tall woman with a wide-brimmed yellow straw hat walked by briskly, prompting me to snap a blurred photograph of her. I spent the next three years finding out about her (in my imagination, of course). I had to be able to close my eyes and see and hear her, and occasionally talk to her, ask her questions, and listen for answers.
And G? G is more familiar. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, went to a few games at Forbes Field where Roberto Clemente played right field and batted third, had too many drinks at Shadyside’s Walnut Street, and danced all night at a few parties where Lester Lanin’s band passed out beanies. All this went into my novel.
How did you adapt your writing style between the novel’s two main characters? Probably the most challenging writing technique was to make Ge’s dialogue sound as if it’s translated from the Chinese, without using any of the clichéd shortcuts of Chinglish. The other was how to handle the time and geography shifts from one character to the other, because basically I was telling two parallel stories over a span of some 20 years and five to six thousand miles.
Mathematics plays a big role in your novel. Yeah, I was a math major in college before I got smart – or got dumb, depending on how you see things. I’ve always been interested in mathematics, and often see experiences in mathematical terms. I realised some readers would be resentful of this, because in the US, math is probably the weakest subject in high school. I’m not trying to entertain the reader. The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze is available at www.amazon.com