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Entrance Ward Road Jail

Shanghai Noir

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle: publication date 01.04.2017

This is the entrance to the Ward Road Jail in Shanghai. The jail is in the old Jewish Quarter of Shanghai and was infamous in its day. Now, there's a fancy marker that designates the building as Heritage Architecture. When I took this photo in 2013, I couldn't tell whether the attached Public Security Bureau was still in operation.

Lucky for me, I didn't get too close. This week's blog post is about the Chinese prison system as seen through the eyes of two recent inmates. Liao Yiwu was a guest of the state from 1990 to 1994 during the Tiananmen crackdown. Peter Humphrey was released just last year. Their two eyewitness accounts bear eerie resemblance to each other. They also echo the experiences of prisoners all over the world, whether in the gulag, a laogai or a Japanese POW camp. You can read about it in Prisoner #42816.

Why read about a country so far away? Some would say, out of a sense of self-preservation, given the rise of China and Emperor Xi. A trade war between the United States on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other, seems imminent. Know your enemy.

Where, then, does fiction come into the mix? If the point is to arm ourselves with information, then better foreign news coverage is what we need. But there is also a need for fiction. As Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh so elegantly puts it:

"mere politics is downstream of culture. The real prize is to comprehend another country's thought patterns, speech rhythms, historic ghosts and unconscious biases -- and these seep out from the stories [a country] tells and the way it tells them."

In an attempt to remedy my woeful lack of knowledge of Africa and African literature, I've started with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's classic, Half of a Yellow Sun. You can read my review of this novel about the Nigeria - Biafra War in High Life.

In another month, you'll also be able to find my book reviews and blog posts at Authors Electric. For the sharp-eyed among you: yes, I've published on this platform once before but at the time as a lowly guest blogger. Now I'm to become a regular contributor, which should double my readership. (Hi Mom!) Starting on April 10, I'll be talking about the craft of writing. Stay tuned for more updates.

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