Interview with Virginia Pye

  • by Sarah Vogelsong
  • June 27, 2013

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, is an Indie Next Pick for May, 2013. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Failbetter, The Baltimore Review and Tampa Review.

Interview with Virginia Pye

About River of Dust

In the tense years following the Boxer Rebellion, when drought gripped China and fears of a second uprising ran rampant, the only son of the Reverend John Wesley and his young wife Grace is carried off by bandits. Driven half-wild with grief and shock, the Reverend sets out in search of his child, leaving behind the pregnant, partially bedridden Grace. As the Reverend travels through the untamed lands of the Shanxi Province, his contact with a people and culture resistant to the intrusions of the West begins to plant seeds of doubt in his mind about his own path. A tale of many journeys and the unexpected destinations often at their end, River of Dust takes readers into a chapter of Chinese–American relations that is often overlooked.

The Q&A 

You have said that River of Dust was drawn from the experiences of your grandparents, who were missionaries in China at the turn of the century. How much of your story would you attribute to their history, and how much is due to your own imagination?

My novel is entirely fictional — the characters are invented and the setting doesn’t exist on any map. But, I was influenced by my grandfather’s journals. He was sent as a missionary to China in 1907 and he wrote reports quite frequently to the Congregational headquarters in Boston. As a Victorian man of his era, he wrote in the style of his time — which is to say elegantly and even poetically about the countryside of northwestern China and the people who lived there. When I sat down to write River of Dust, I believe that his voice filtered somewhat into my language. His descriptions of the exotic, desolate countryside helped me create the landscape for my novel.

The voice of the story skips between a number of characters: the Reverend, Grace, the Reverend’s manservant Ahcho, and Grace’s maid Mai Lin. Why did you decide to split the narration in this way?

I chose to tell the novel through four different voices because each has something distinct to offer to the patchwork quilt of the narrative. Mostly, the story is about an American couple in China, but I needed the two main Chinese characters to shed light on these foreigners. Ahcho and Mai Lin are relied upon at key moments as a reality check, the voice of reason, or a window into the broader Chinese culture that the Americans are only dimly aware of. I enjoyed creating these four separate voices because each has their own beliefs, sense of humor and language.

Both of your main characters are missionaries, and a reader could interpret the Reverend’s search as a dual quest for both his own child (his son) and, perhaps, Jesus (his Son). Did you conceive the novel as primarily a story of spiritual journey?

That’s a very interesting and astute reading of the book, I think. The Reverend and Grace both endure Odyssean journeys that challenge their Christian beliefs, but also their entire worldview. Starting with the mysterious kidnapping of their son, they find their sense of things badly shaken. Their search is spiritual, but also cultural. As they are forced to go deeper into the Chinese countryside, they see it, and themselves, in a new and disturbing light. They may lose their faith, but not their love for one another.

It’s been said that it’s harder to be the one left behind than the one who leaves. In River of Dust, Grace is often the one left behind as the Reverend takes to the road. Do you think she’s drawn the harder lot in the story?

I think so, as was probably typical of women at that time. She was confined, both by her pregnancy with their second child and by simply being a foreign woman in a dangerous, unfamiliar setting. Her longing for both her stolen son and then her traveling husband is a cruel punishment. Boredom and physical pain take over and she begins to truly suffer. So, yes, I think that inaction after such a wrenching loss is the more difficult path. But, in a way, she ends up the wiser for it. I don’t want to give too much away, but she truly learns from her great loss.

Cultural exchange works in both directions in River of Dust: the Chinese are affected by the Americans and their Western, Christian views, and the missionaries in turn are drawn into a deeper understanding of China. Do you think this is often the case with missionary work?

To be honest, I’m not a scholar of missionary history, but I do know that if you put people from different cultures into a home setting, or in this case a mission compound, and they share their beliefs and customs, then some type of exchange is bound to happen. In River of Dust, one of the Chinese characters becomes a devout Christian, while the other rejects the new religion in favor of the “old ways.” I think that must be typical, because not everyone will be swept up in the fervor of the missionaries. There are always skeptics. As they rub elbows with one another their differences become apparent.

The Americans feel a growing unease about the Reverend as he begins to embrace some of the garb and behavior of the Chinese. How much do you think a fear of the unknown plays into this unease, and why?

The fear of “going native” seems to pervade the literature of colonial experience. The British were always worried about one of their own taking on too much local “color.” Usually, it was an Anglo trader, someone who went often into the bush, became too friendly with the natives, and ended up sharing characteristics with them. The missionaries who question the Reverend in River of Dust are worried not just that he has taken on the costumes and customs of the Chinese, but that he doesn’t seem to realize it. They are appalled that he isn’t more aware of his own changing appearance and behavior. In his own way, the Reverend is trying to overcome racism and the fear of the Other by identifying with the Chinese and accepting them for who they are. But no one in that setting, not even him, can see a positive side to such a change.

One of the most powerful images in the book is the wolf hide that the Reverend wears, which provokes a range of emotions: awe, disgust, fear, confusion, and anger. Can you talk about the importance of this symbol in the novel?

That’s a great question: the wolf hide is a symbol of wildness and, because of that, as you say, it evokes fear, awe and disgust in those who see it. But it was given to the Reverend as a mantle against grief. The chieftain who presents it to him lost his own son and by sharing this animal cloak he creates a bond between them. The hide has helped the old man stave off his sorrow and he hopes it will do the same for the Reverend. We know that this is foolish, but still the gesture is a sympathetic one and we can hope that something will protect this American man who is both admirable and strong and yet also so fallible. He may invoke fear in others, but we know that he is weakened by his own losses.

Unfamiliar and often-harsh geography plays a big role in the novel, and readers can see it profoundly affect both the Reverend and Grace. How did you go about imagining this landscape, and in what way do you think people’s outlooks are changed by their physical surroundings?

When I was growing up we had around our house old brown-tinged photos of my grandparents, their children and other missionaries in the Congregational compound in Shanxi Province. In some of them, American children played in bare trees or by rocky streambeds. There are more photos of a little girl than anyone else. Her name was Mary Elizabeth and she was my father’s older sister who died when she was six and he was just four. In each of those photos, she holds her father’s or mother’s hand, or sits in their arms. She looks much adored.

My grandfather also died while in China, just one year after Mary Elizabeth had passed away, so when my father was five. After this double loss, my grandmother decided to remain in that land and she raised my father there. She was a very strong woman. They stayed, even through the Japanese occupation, and only left many years later after Pearl Harbor when all foreigners were forced to evacuate.

But, back to those photographs that I grew up looking at: they also always showed a dusty background and the plains that stretched far off into a rough landscape. A terrible drought took place at that time in northwest China and when I read my grandfather’s journals, I understood that the land had suffered, as well as the people. The feelings that infused those photos informed River of Dust. The sense of great loss and desolation helped me to create that fictional universe.

This is your first novel, and one rooted in your family background. Is this a story that you’ve had kicking around in your mind for a long time?

Prior to writing River of Dust, I worked on a novel for five years. It told the story of three generations of an American family with ties to China and followed the arc of that family through the 20th century—from Victorian era colonialist assumptions all the way up to the year 2000 and a post-Vietnam understanding of our country’s role in the world. In the end, that book was too difficult to write and I chose instead to focus on one year — 1910 — in China and the story of four characters — two Americans and two Chinese.

So, although I wrote River of Dust quite quickly, I had been mulling over the themes for many years. Having come of age during the Vietnam War when the dangers of American imperialism were made obvious, I had tried to ignore or even disavow my family’s missionary past. But I also always knew that at some point I was going to have to wrestle with my particular inheritance. River of Dust is my attempt to do that.

Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, Va. Her work has also appeared in publications such as “Style Weekly,” the “Neworld Review,” and the “William and Mary Alumni Magazine.”


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