A Map for the Missing

Belinda Huijuan Tang

(Penguin Press)


Yitian is teaching mathematics in America when he receives word that his father has gone missing in China. When Yitian last saw him more than a decade ago, his father said he was no longer his son. Still, Yitian feels the need to return to China after all these years, to attempt to find his father.  While there, he is reunited with Hanwen, the girl he met and fell in love with while they were teenagers studying to pass the exam that would allow them to go to university. Hanwen was in Tang Village as a sent down youth, a program that sent city youth to work in the country. Now, she is married to a bureaucrat and may provide the only way through the tangles of bureaucracy impeding his search.

AUTHORLINK: What started you on the idea for this story?

“This story is based on a part of my own family’s history.”

TANG: This story is based on a part of my own family’s history. When my father was sixteen, his grandfather went missing from their village. My father spent the summer riding trains around the province searching for him, but they never found his grandfather. I first heard this story when I was quite young, and it stuck with me for a very long time, particularly the fact that my family never had a sense of traditional closure around the disappearance. From the time I started writing fiction, I knew I wanted my first novel to deal with this story.

AUTHORLINK: From that beginning, where did you start to develop your fictionalized version?

TANG: I started with an image: I wondered what that initial moment of receiving the news about the disappearance might feel like. From a fictional standpoint, I began to wonder what factors might make this news feel even more shocking. From there, I developed an idea of a character—one who hadn’t seen his father for a very long time and was estranged from him. I thought that was a ripe ground for exploration: the multiple and conflicted thoughts that might run through this character’s mind.

AUTHORLINK: Did you plan much of the story before writing, or did most of the ideas develop as you wrote?

“I’m the type of writer who has to discover a lot of the story while writing…”

TANG: I mostly planned as I went along. I’m the type of writer who has to discover a lot of the story while writing it and has to test out ideas to find out what works and what doesn’t. Usually, I would think in terms of blocks of chapters and have a loose idea of what would happen in each block. After finishing one block, I’d plan the next. Unfortunately, my temperament as a person is to crave absolute certainty, so it often was frustrating not to know everything that was going to happen in the book.

AUTHORLINK: How did you learn what life in Tang Village was like during Yitian’s time?

TANG: Tang Village is based on my own family’s village in Anhui Province, called Middle Tang Village. I am lucky to have a lot of living relatives who were eager to tell me about what life in the village would have been like in the 1970s, and my dad did some fact-checking on the book for me. I lived in China for a few years and did a lot of the research for the book when I was there—although I didn’t know I was writing this book, yet.

AUTHORLINK: What other research did you do? What about Hanwen’s story, also mathematics?

TANG: Hanwen’s story of the sent-down youth required a different kind of research because no one in my family went through that experience. I started with reading memoirs written by people who were sent down during Hanwen’s time. The fortunate thing is that because it was such a common experience, there was a wealth of material dealing with this era. Particularly interesting sources are blogs that are written by people who were once sent down. Most of these people are now around retirement age, so they have a lot of time on their hands to write down tales from their youth!

As for the math, none of what’s in this book is particularly advanced. I have a background in math from undergrad, and most of it was simply an extension of concepts I already knew.

AUTHORLINK: Your story starts with Yitian in 1993, then goes back to his life in 1977. All of the six parts start in 1993 and most go back to the 1970s to 1980s.  We also get to be in Hanwen’s point view in most parts. How did you work with going between characters and time frames?

“Only after I finished did I go in and re-arrange the chapters.”

TANG: I actually wrote the first draft of the book entirely chronologically, from 1977 to 1993 (with the exception of the very first chapter). This helped a lot with keeping track of the storylines and various subplots. Only after I finished did I go in and re-arrange the chapters. I did write Hanwen and Yitian’s sections in separate chunks as I went along. That part actually wasn’t difficult—it felt natural that after I worked on Yitian’s chapters for a bit, I would want to take a break from him and see the world with Hanwen’s eyes.

AUTHORLINK: What do you think the reader can learn from your story?

“…it’s my hope that they [the villagers] might feel seen by some aspect of this story.”

TANG: Now that it’s been out in the world, it’s interesting to see the varied responses and takeaways from different kinds of readers. People who aren’t familiar with this period and place of history seem to tell me they’ve learned a lot, which I’m grateful to hear. I wrote this book primarily for another kind of reader—people who lived through this era and their children. I’m not hoping that they learn anything from it per se, and I wouldn’t presume to be able to teach anything to people who experienced this period of history. Instead, it’s my hope that they might feel seen by some aspect of this story.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

TANG: I don’t like to jinx what I’m working on too much! I’ll say it’s another novel, and it’s set contemporaneously in America. It touches on a lot of science.

About the author: Belinda Huijuan Tang received her BA from Stanford University. While she was living in China from 2016 to 2018, she received an MA from Peking University. She was a 2019 work-study fellow at the Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2021. There she was a Truman Capote Fellow and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. A Map for the Missing is her first novel. She lives in Los Angeles.

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