The P-word

I’ve been meaning to post on the plagiarism suit launched against Ling Zhang and her novel, Gold Mountain Blues, for some time now. I participated in an event with her at this year’s Vancouver International Writers’ Festival and, as anyone who knows me understands, I have very deep and emotional relationships with many of the books she has been accused of copying, in particular, The Jade Peony andDisappearing Moon Cafe.

Let me start by saying that being accused of plagiarism is catastrophic for a writer. It is perhaps the one thing that all of us fear. Remember when you were seven and were terrified of descending into the basement because you were convinced that a huge tentacled monster lived and snorted behind the hot water tank? Well, that’s how every writer I know feels about plagiarism. When I was writing The End of East, I kept a copy of Disappearing Moon Cafe on my desk and would check it every few weeks just in case I might have lifted an idea or a phrase or an event. It can be easy to read something, absorb it and then write it out thinking it came from your own head. And this is the fear.

I know, without any doubt, that none of the authors who have filed this lawsuit do it lightly.

Because we know how crushing it would be to be accused of such a career-destroying act. And I also know that Ling is a truly nice woman, one who approaches her readers with a genuine and sweet enthusiasm that I personally haven’t been able to muster up in years. So really, there are no winners in a lawsuit like this, which is the saddest part of this whole story.

There is one tiny thing that hasn’t been discussed in the mainstream media though. Ling claims she has never read the other books in question. But at our event in October, she said she had spent many years researching Chinese Canadian history. It may have been as long as 10 years, which would be a thorough study indeed.

But here’s the thing: how can you conduct any research into Chinese Canadian history without having read The Jade Peony or The Bone Collector’s Son? Every person you would have spoken to–from librarians to academics to the elderly man who used to own the tailor shop in Chinatown–would have mentioned those books to you, probably even said, “You need to read these.” How do I know that? I spent a few years researching my own novels, especially The End of East, and it is impossible to know, really know, the depth and breadth of Chinese Canadian stories without reading the work of Wayson or SKY or Paul. Like, literally impossible.

So maybe Ling’s research wasn’t quite as extensive as we might have thought. Or maybe she really did (and I hate to say it) take ideas from the books she denies ever having read. I don’t know. But I feel great sadness for everyone involved. No one wakes up thinking, “Gee, I hope a lawsuit enters my life today.” Well, probably lawyers do (big ups, legal community, and no insult intended!).

Here’s to telling original stories without fear and with great joy. But you should be cautious around that tentacly monster in the basement. He shudders out of hibernation at the most unexpected times.

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