Lijia Zhang is a factory-worker-turned writer, social commentator and public speaker. One of the few Chinese who write regularly in English for international publications, her articles have appeared in The Guardian, Newsweek and The New York Times. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “Socialism Is Great!” about her rocket factory experience and her debut novel Lotus is on prostitution in contemporary China, which has been featured by BBC’s World Book Club program. Lijia has lectured at many conferences, institutions and universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Oxford. She is a regular speaker on the BBC, Channel 4, and CNN. She divides her time between Beijing and London.
“I am a rocket-factory-worker-turned-wrier and a passionate traveler. I guess it was because I grew up in a small and confined world. I was born into a poor working class family in Nanjing, on the banks of the Yangtze River, in eastern China. When I was 16, I was dragged out of school for financial reasons and began to work at a military factory that produced intercontinental missiles. Bored to death from greasing machine parts, I plotted my escape by teaching myself English. Looking back, learning the language changed my life.
Now, out of my small world, I want to travel as widely as I can. This summer, I enjoyed a fabulous trip to Armenia, all thanks to my creative friends there.
Dana, an Armenia/American writer friend kindly put me in touch with Haroutiun, an Armenia artist and publisher, who published one of her books. When I met up with Haroutiun, a handsome gentleman in his mid 70s, he asked me where I’d like to go – he offered to show me around Yerevan, I said Parajanov Museum. “Perfect!” he replied simply.
Shortly before leaving London for my Caucasus adventure, I had watched a Soviet art-house film titled The Colour of Pomegranates. I was extremely impressed by how modern and original it was, totally different from the usual Soviet socialist realism style. I noted it was directed by an Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov.
When we neared the museum in downtown Yerevan, we saw a large portrait of the avant-garde filmmaker on the wall of his house. Pointing at it, Haroutiun said to me casually: “That’s one of my works.”
“Wow, really?” It turned out that my new friend was also a photographer and a friend of Parajanov. In fact, he published the director’s art works, including collage, assembles and sculptures.
The enchanting two-storey house, with a pleasant court-yard, is packed with fantastic art works of Parajanov. Bursting with creativity, he produced art all the time, even when he served in prison – he was locked up several times because of his so-called ‘immorality’. He was bisexual.
Haroutinun took me for a guided tour around the museum which gave a rich flavor of the fascinating but tragic life of the extraordinarily talented film director. What a privilege to have such a knowledgeable man such as Haroutinun as my guide!
Another person I should mention is writer and poet Violet Grigoryan. We were on Iowa International Writers’ Program together back in 2009. She had impressed me with her poetic talent and her colourful attire, having not been in touch lately, however, I didn’t connect her with Armenia.
One day in Yerevan, while arranging a meeting with another Armenian writer, using Facebook messenger, I noticed, with pleasant surprise that we have a mutual friend – Violet! Wow! Of course, she is Iranian/Armenian! I immediately wrote to my long-lost friend, announcing: “I am in town and hope you are, too!”
So on my last day in Armenia, we managed to meet up. Upon Violet’s suggestion, I visited her at Tumo Center for Creative Technology, where she teaches creative writing. She showed me around, visiting one classroom to another where students were learning graphic design, animation or computing skills. I was impressed that the Armenians were trying to keep up with the modern technology.
After that, we had a lavish dinner at a restaurant over-looking Tumo Park. There, we caught up with the happenings in our lives.
All these creative friends helped me to understand Armenia, deepened my fascination with the country, which had a rich if troubled past, yet it is resilient. I look forward to returning”!