Were you close to your father growing up?
I was 13 years old and living in Montreal when my father went missing. The truth is, the lives of activists are much more complicated than what the novel presented. My father was not a regular man nor a regular father. He gave himself to his cause, and our relationship was forged by distance. There is no resentment. The world needs people like my father. In a recent letter, he apologized for the pain he has caused us by his decisions, but said he has no regrets for responding to his calling.
What was it like being fictionalized as Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School student Ti-Anna Chen, who runs off to Hong Kong with her brainy classmate Ethan Wynkoop to hunt for her missing dissident father?
It was surreal. I felt a little bit vulnerable and exposed sometimes, because there are scenes about being followed by spies, which has happened. But he created a Ti-Anna that is so much like me that my mother cried yesterday when she read the whole book. He got the details right — like me having meetings over dim sum in Hong Kong with people I did not trust, but needed to get their help. I’ve always felt frustrated that I couldn’t secure my father’s release or improve his situation much. Seeing that his story was not forgotten was beyond what I could have possibly hoped for.
Does your father know about “Nine Days”?
No. I am going to mail him a letter soon about the book and everything happening here. The jail only lets us write to him in Chinese. But I grew up in Montreal and I didn’t know much Chinese. That’s why, right now, I am studying Chinese in Taiwan. It’s part of the way I deal with the cloud of my father’s situation — to try and understand him. So the letter about the novel will be in Chinese, so I can communicate with him directly. That was important to me.
What’s happening with your father now?
Sadly, his situation has not changed much. This is despite the fact that the United States, Canada, Taiwan, the European Union, the United Nations and Amnesty International have all called upon the Chinese government to release him. His physical and mental health — he suffers from untreated depression — continue to deteriorate. He is now 66 and has suffered three strokes, all while being kept in solitary confinement. His spirits are very low and he’s losing faith in the possibility of freedom. I haven’t been allowed to see him in four years. We are only allowed to write letters.
Ti-Anna Wang and Fred Hiatt will speak at Politics and Prose April 13 at 11 a.m. .