03 May Author Interview: Peter Hessler
By: Matthew Jellick
Throughout this Semester, members of the SUSTech English Book Club have been reading the nonfiction account of Peter Hessler’s, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Within the pages, the Staff who make up the Book Club are able to delve into the experiences the author had 20 years ago when he was living and teaching in rural China, mirroring many of the same complexities faced now, even as the country has developed over the past two decades. Meeting every two weeks, we gather to discuss how the words pertain to both our individual as well as collective experiences, challenging preconceived ideas while underscoring the importance of culture in an educational context.
Thinking of ambitious ways to capitalize on this experience, I reached out to Mr. Hessler to see if he would be interested in speaking with our group about his book. To our amazement, he responded with delight, and last Wednesday we had the opportunity to conduct a Skype Interview with him from his home in Colorado. Each of the students came prepared with a question to ask, ranging from topics found within the book to broader issues pertaining to China as a whole. Mr. Hessler was both personable and professional, and our hour-long conversation will be something I will reflect upon with a smile on my face, years from now when I am in a different country, teaching different students.
Peter Hessler is currently a writer for The New Yorker, and his book we are reading, River Town, is the first of three he has written about life in China. Recently returning from five years living and writing in Cairo, Egypt, he seemed to have no problems recounting his experiences from Fuling, and the small college he taught at as a Peace Corps. Volunteer in 1996. Throughout our interview, he was patient, answering each question with the respect and validity the students put into creating them.
Book Club member Deng Dandan, from the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department, asked:
“Within the book, it seemed like you had had two lives in Fuling, one as Peter and another as “He Wei”. But after the two years in Fuling, what happened to “He Wei”? Did those experiences strengthen your ability, while expanding your life and your mind? Do you think two years in China paid off in those respects?”
Using the interactive videoconferencing tool of Skype before switching over to a telephone, each of the 15 members of the Book Club took turns speaking with Mr. Hessler, and each time, new insights into his writing were raised. Monica Huang, a Librarian at SUSTech and founding member of the Book Club sums it up nicely: “This Book Club is beyond what I could have expected. I believe the author interview was not only an interesting outreach, but it also really made a big difference. The communication with Peter Hessler gave me a total different perspective when I read River Town, and I am grateful for the opportunity.”