GAINING may be the only book about eating disorders ever written as an MFA thesis. This was an accidental genesis, as I first applied to the Bennington Writing Seminars with the intention of earning a degree that would prepare me to teach fiction. I was 50 and felt it was time to share with others what I'd learned over a 30-year writing career, but before teaching in an MFA program, I felt I should "earn my stripes" by earning an MFA myself. In fact, I'd never taken a writing course in school, and had only attended three writing workshops before publishing my first novel. So even though I'd published many books, I felt I had a lot to learn. However, shortly after being accepted by Bennington, I was offered the contract to write GAINING. Since Bennington had a nonfiction program, I decided to switch genres and write the book as my thesis, braiding together elements of literary nonfiction, memoir, interviews, and scientific research.
Thanks to my instructors at Bennington, who included Susan Cheever, Tom Bissell, Sven Birkerts, and Ben Cheever, I read more widely and variously in researching this book than I ever would have otherwise. GAINING benefits from the work of Susan Sontag, Andrew Solomon, Knut Hamsun, Simone Weil, M.F.K Fisher, D. W. Winnicott, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Mary Shelley, Henry David Thoreau - none of whom wrote specifically about eating disorders, but all of whom shaped my thinking about this subject in ways I could never have anticipated. I believe GAINING is richer as a result, and also significantly different from other books in the field of eating disorders.
The experience of returning to school in mid-life also gave me a new way to experience much of what I was writing in this particular book. If there is an overriding message in GAINING, it is that we most flourish as human beings when we dare to transcend our anxieties and reach out to others in ways that open their lives as well as our own. In other words, once we unlock ourselves, we can change the world. For me, this process has meant becoming a member of a community of writers, admitting what I still need to learn, and accepting the wisdom of others, as well as mentoring and teaching others to find their voices.
Looking deeper into the qualities that make literature great has also given me unexpected insights into the conditions of our society that foster eating disorders. Good writing is never based on superficial measurements, such as size or weight or surface appearance. It is defined by character, honesty, emotional integrity, and passion. If our culture emphasized these same standards to the extent that it does looks and status, there would be little need for the insecure to send out distress signals coded as eating disorders. We'd all feel encouraged instead to speak - and hear - the truth.
Having based my first two novels on the history of my father's family in China, I decided that Flash House should focus on my mother's "home of the heart": India. I immediately envisioned Kamla, a fictional character inspired by photographer Steve McCurry's famous portrait of an aquamarine-eyed Afghan girl, which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. This Kamla, so vivid in my mind, would serve as a witness and also a kind of reality test for my American expatriate characters. But what was the story? Two incidental remarks set the plot in motion. My father recalled flying in a small plane over the Khyber Pass and parts north during our two years in India. And my mother ventured that if anything had "happened" to my father, she probably would have stayed on in New Delhi. From there, my imagination took over. Would it have been so easy to stay on? I wondered. What if, for example, that plane had gone down, and under suspicious circumstances? What if no death could be proven? What if my father's allegiance to China had drawn him back over the border, and what if the year were 1949, just as the Bamboo Curtain was closing? What would a woman in my mother's position have done then? She would have had to investigate, and if she were as stubborn and as curious as both my mother and I, she would not have quit until she got her answer. Or made her rescue. I began to examine the political realities of Central Asia in 1949. Flash House became a spy novel after I discovered that the CIA really was working in western China at the time to form a Third Force against Communism. The characters Osman and "the Butcher of Turfan" were, in fact, the historical characters the CIA selected to lead this doomed force (foreshadowing the mujaheddin "freedom fighters" of the 1980s in nearby Afghanistan). And Alice James is inspired by a real life adventurer named Barbara Stephens who at age twenty-five in 1947 traveled solo through western China in order to document the atrocities and abuses being committed against the local Muslim population by both Nationalist Chinese (supported by Britain and the U.S.) and Soviet-backed Communists. Stephens was killed when the plane carrying her back across China crashed under suspicious circumstances. Evidence suggests that the Nationalists arranged this method of silencing her. In 1949, America, too, was seized by fear and paranoia. Government agencies were spying on each other, and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were in full swing. The Communists of 1949 were the equivalent of today's terrorists, and American patriotism was measured by one's willingness to demonize Red sympathizers. Outside forces gained political advantage by embracing this paranoia, so the Nationalist-backed China Lobby enthusiastically fingered as "Communist" anyone who opposed Chiang Kai-shek. My father, who was then still a Chinese citizen and a journalist, had to tread lightly to avoid being caught in this net. I didn't have to stretch my imagination far to picture him in Aidan's predicament. What I did not foresee as I began laying out the puzzle of this novel back in 1998 was just how relevant this fifty-year-old history would seem when the book was finally published. I had never heard of Al Qaeda. The warlords were battling for control of Afghanistan, but America paid scant attention. The events of 9/11 still lay in the future, and the U.S. seemed single-mindedly obsessed with sex scandals. The country was not unlike Joanna Shaw in her inability to see the big picture. But the big picture has a way of demanding attention, and our insistence on ignoring it was already costing us long before the terrorist attacks of 2001, before we attacked Afghanistan, and before we declared war on Iraq. America's attempts to rescue the world had failed to make the world love us, perhaps because our rescue efforts so often insisted on making Them more like Us. Kamla might have warned us this would lead to trouble. Please note that this is an excerpt from a longer article, available in the paperback edition of Flash House by Aimee Liu.