By Utami Diah Kusumawati
Chinese American novelist Iris Yang released her first novel, “Wings of a Flying Tiger”, just last month.
The novel, published by Open Books, centers around heroism and romance in which Chinese villagers rescue the life of a dying American pilot. The novel as reported by Xinhua News has been well-received by Chinese readers and is also a best-seller in the United States.
Yang said the story was inspired by the true story of the Flying Tigers, a group of American volunteer pilots who helped China fight against Japan in the second World War. Creating a fictional story about the Flying Tigers was fueled in part by her gratitude for the help of these American pilots.
“I didn’t read or hear anything about the Flying Tigers until I came to the United States as a graduate student. I was touched once I learned the truth. And the more I read, the more I was touched, “she said to BookGlow in an interview.
Despite having written best-selling English novel, Yang admitted she struggled with the execution of flawless grammar, often stumbling upon little mistakes in her stories.
“Writing in English was beyond my wildest dream. When I wrote my novels, I’m sure I spent more time than most people. I had to constantly check dictionaries – Chinese to English and English to Chinese. Even so, no matter how hard I tried, I still made a grammatical mistake. That frustrated me the most,” she said.
During that hardship, questions often popped up in her mind. She began to doubt her decision. Becoming a novelist in the states often felt out of reach.
“I wish I had grown up speaking English. I wish I had proper education or training. Since I cannot change the past, I just have to work harder,” she said.
Yang admits she fell in love with writing historical fiction — she loved creating characters within a historical setting as well as learning the history itself. The writing process of “Wings of a Flying Tiger” took more than two years.
“I have no idea how many drafts (it took to write). In those two years, I shared the book, chapter by chapter, with three writing groups. And a retired journalist volunteered to edit my manuscript. It was exciting to write the end, even if it was a rough draft,” she said.
The “Wings of a Flying Tiger” is not Yang’s first crack at fiction, though it’s the first to be published. Prior, she wrote about the self-transformation of an introverted woman. The draft of this first novel was never completed even after crafting it for more than ten years.
“I only wrote about 20 percent before I paused. It was too hard. I was too busy. But the idea of finishing the book never left my mind,” she said.
The urge to create and finish a novel was so strong that Yang decided to follow through. In 2010, Yang’s father nearly died because of cancer so she quit fer job and returned to China to take care of her parents. However, after her parents passed away three years later she decided to return to the states.
“I made a decision that most of my friends didn’t agree with. I was going to do what I wanted the most. Traveling, hiking and writing,” she said.
The experience of losing her loved ones taught Yang a valuable lesson — life is too short to be wasted doing something she disliked.
Prior to writing novels, Yang was a postdoctoral fellow of molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, worked at the University of North Carolina and published scientific papers. However, her passion had always been in creative writing.
“I did not want to go back to the laboratory as a scientist, which I was trained to be … my heart wasn’t there. I longed to see the world. I needed to finish the novel I started, not for anyone but myself. Just to see if I could accomplish a tough job. Just to fulfill a dream,” she said.
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For her next project, she is planning to finish a story about her grandmother who became the first Chinese woman to have a master degree in the United Kingdom. After completing the study, her grandma returns to China and becomes a professor and accomplished playwright.
“Writing it’s hard. If you don’t have a burning desire, don’t do it. But if you are passionate about it, don’t let anything or anyone stop you,” Yang said.