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Wed April 17, 2013
Author Interviews

A Real-Life Fight For Freedom In 'Nine Days'

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 10:10 am

Two high-school sophomores — Ethan Wynkoop and Ti-Anna Chen — sneak away from their homes in suburban Washington, D.C., and fly to Hong Kong. They're searching for Ti-Anna's father, a Chinese emigre and dissident who believes that China is just a spark away from democratic revolution.

He's gone missing after landing in Hong Kong, and Ti-Anna is determined to find out what happened. Ti-Anna is based on a real person, and her story is now part of a new young-adult novel — a thriller — by Fred Hiatt, who also holds down a day job as editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

Fred Hiatt and Ti-Anna Wang, the real young woman behind the story, stopped by to chat with NPR's Melissa Block.


Interview Highlights

Wang, on the origin of her name

"I was born in 1989, and my father, being a democracy activist, he was paying a lot of attention to what was going on in Tiananmen, in Beijing, at that time, so after the massacre, he named me Ti-Anna to commemorate the victims ... and also to celebrate the ideals of freedom and democracy. He really wanted to remember their courage."

On the disappearance and imprisonment of her father, democracy activist Wang Bingzhang

"In 2002, my father went on a trip to Vietnam. He was hoping to meet with labor activists near the Chinese-Vietnamese border when he was kidnapped and forced into China on a boat. He was, you know, blindfolded, beaten, gagged, and then left at a temple to be picked up by Chinese police within minutes of being left there, so that's the story that he told us.

"After his arrest, he was subsequently charged with terrorism and espionage. He had a one-day trial and then [was] found guilty of those charges, and sentenced to life in prison.

"The last letter I got [from her father], a month-and-a-half ago ... the part that I remember the most from the last letter was, he apologized for the amount of pain that he's caused my family in the past 10 years, but also said that he had no regrets, because he felt like he responded to his calling.

"I think his psychological health is what worries my family more than anything. He, himself, is losing hope in the possibility of freedom, and that's really difficult."

Hiatt, on discovering the story of Wang and her father

"I hadn't really focused on him until late 2008, when, at The Washington Post, we received a beautiful op-ed about his case, which happened to be written by Ti-Anna Wang, who at the time was just out of high school and had come to Washington to spend a year to try to bring attention to her father's case. So I read the op-ed, we published it, and then I asked if she wanted to get a cup of coffee — I just wanted to meet this obviously unusual young person.

"It struck me as quite courageous that she had left Montreal and moved to Washington, really without any contacts, and I think I was also struck by the name and the expectation — of course, it's a beautiful name, and it's beautiful to commemorate the democracy aspirations of Tiananmen Square, but also what a burden for a young person to have to live up to, in a sense, and I think that struck me."

Wang, on whether her name is a burden

"I guess a little bit. It feels more like a responsibility. I think, in the novel, the fictional Ti-Anna and I feel like, given the circumstance — in her case her father's disappearance, and in my case my father's imprisonment — it's kind of inescapable that we feel like we have to respond to sort of the responsibility that was given to us, that's embedded in our names."

Hiatt, on deciding to turn Wang's story into a young-adult novel

"It sort of decided itself for me ... I thought it was going to be the story of Ethan and his adventure in Asia, and as I wrote, the Ti-Anna character, which I appropriated at the time without permission or without even telling or asking Ti-Anna, just kind of became a more and more important part of the story, until really it was a story of the two of them, and their friendship, and the adventure they go on together."

Wang, on discovering her role in the novel

"It took me completely by surprise. The conversations about human rights in China, they can be a little numbingly familiar after you talk about it. You say the same sort of things about what's going on, what's going on with your father, and the fact there's not much progress — it's marked by a lot of stagnation. So having a book and finding a new, creative approach to talking about human rights issues, it's really inspiring for me, too."

Hiatt, on whether he hopes Nine Days will help raise awareness of Wang Bingzhang's case

"I do hope that, and Ti-Anna and I each wrote afterwords for this book, and Ti-Anna's is quite beautiful, but I think we'd both be very happy to write different afterwords for the paperback."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Two high school sophomores - Ethan Wynkoop and Ti-Anna Chen - sneak away from their homes in suburban Washington, D.C., and fly to Hong Kong. They're searching for Ti-Anna's father, a Chinese dissident who believes China is just a spark away from democratic revolution. He's gone missing after landing in Hong Kong, and Ti-Anna is determined to find out what happened. This is the plot of a new young adult novel - a thriller - based on a true story.

It's written by Fred Hiatt. He's the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, and Fred joins me here in the studio, along with the young woman who inspired the book: 23-year-old Ti-Anna Wang. Welcome to you both. Thanks for coming in.

FRED HIATT: Thank you.

TI-ANNA WANG: Thank you.

BLOCK: And, Ti-Anna, your name tells a story in itself, right? Tell us about that.

WANG: Yeah. I was born in 1989. And my father, being a democracy activist, he was paying a lot of attention to what was going on in Tiananmen in Beijing at that time. So after the massacre, he named me Ti-Anna to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and also to celebrate the ideals of freedom and democracy. He really wanted to remember their courage.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit more about your dad, Wang Bingzhang. He was a Chinese exile, moved to Canada, right, where you grew up, left a career in medicine to become a very prominent democracy activist. And like the father in Fred's book, he went on a trip and disappeared. You were 13 at the time?

WANG: Correct.

BLOCK: And what did you piece together later about what happened to him?

WANG: In 2002, my father went on a trip to Vietnam. He was hoping to meet with labor activists near the Chinese-Vietnamese border when he was kidnapped and forced into China on a boat. He was, you know, blindfolded, beaten, gagged and then left at a temple to be picked up by Chinese police within minutes of being left there. So that's the story that he told us.

BLOCK: And he's been held as a prisoner in China ever since. It's been more than 10 years now.

WANG: Correct. He was - after his arrest, he was subsequently charged with terrorism and espionage. He had a one-day trial and then found guilty of those charges and sentenced to life in prison.

BLOCK: Fred Hiatt, how did you find out about Ti-Anna and her father's story?

HIATT: Well, I'd heard about Wang, but I hadn't really focused on him until late 2008, when, at The Washington Post, we received a beautiful op-ed about his case, which happened to be written by Ti-Anna Wang, who at the time was just out of high school and had come to Washington to spend a year to try and bring attention to her father's case. So I read the op-ed, we published it, and then I asked if she wanted to get a cup of coffee. I just wanted to meet this obviously unusual young person.

BLOCK: And what struck you about the piece that Ti-Anna wrote and about meeting her for the first time?

HIATT: Well, it struck me as quite courageous that she had left Montreal and moved to Washington, really without any contacts. And I think I was also struck by the name and the expectation - of course, it's a beautiful name, and it's beautiful to commemorate the democracy aspirations of Tiananmen Square, but also what a burden for a young person to have to live up to, in a sense. And I think that struck me.

BLOCK: Does it feel like a burden to you, Ti-Anna, to have a name that has the resonance of that massacre in Tiananmen Square?

WANG: I guess a little bit. It feels more like a responsibility. I think, in the novel, the fictional Ti-Anna and I feel like, given the circumstance, you know, in her case her father's disappearance, and in my case my father's imprisonment, it's kind of inescapable that we feel like we have to respond to sort of the responsibility that was given to us, that's embedded in our names. Yeah.

BLOCK: Mm. Fred, how did you decide to turn this story into this novel for young adults?

HIATT: It sort of decided itself for me. I started that summer without a great plan working on a young adult novel. And I thought it was going to be the story of Ethan and his adventure in Asia. And as I wrote the Ti-Anna character, which I appropriated at the time without permission or without even telling or asking Ti-Anna, just kind of became a more and more important part of the story, until, really, it was a story of the two of them and their friendship and the adventure they go on together.

BLOCK: When you first saw Fred's novel, Ti-Anna, and realized that this was based on you and your story had been turned into fiction, what was that experience like for you?

WANG: Well, it took me completely by surprise. You know, the conversations about human rights in China, they can be a little numbingly familiar after you talk about it. You say the same sort of things about what's going on, what's going on with your father, and in fact, there's not much progress, and there's a lot of - it's marked by a lot of stagnation. So having a book and finding a new, creative approach to talk about human rights issues, it's really inspiring for me too.

BLOCK: Ti-Anna, tell us about the latest you've heard from your dad or about your dad - what's his condition.

WANG: The last letter I got a month and a half ago, he told us that was, you know, there's a part that's directed specifically for me because he only gets one letter a month, and so he writes really a long letter. And then there are sections of it for each member of my family.

BLOCK: He's only allowed to write one letter a month.

WANG: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: Wow.

WANG: On one hand, he's really encouraging of whatever it is that I want to do and. And on the other hand, you know, he wants - he also has his own ideas of what I should do with my life. But the part that I remember the most from the last letter was that he apologized for the amount of pain that he's caused my family, you know, in the last 10 years. But also, he said that he had no regrets because he felt like he responded to his calling. Yeah.

BLOCK: That must have been very hard to read.

WANG: Yeah.

BLOCK: Mm. What have you heard about his health?

WANG: I think his psychological health is what worries my family more than anything. He himself is losing hope in the possibility of freedom, and, you know, that's really difficult.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. Is your father's case on the radar at the State Department?

WANG: Yes, yes.

BLOCK: It is.

WANG: Yeah.

BLOCK: And what have you heard?

WANG: Well, they raised their - his case, you know, at - whenever there's high-level meetings, you know, and there's opportunity to talk about human rights issues. There's a standard list of prisoners that they hand over, and my father is somewhere on that list. I don't exactly know what - in what order. But, yeah.

BLOCK: Fred Hiatt, do you have any hope or expectation that this book will raise the level of attention to Ti-Anna's father's case?

HIATT: I do hope that. And Ti-Anna and I each wrote afterwords for this book, and Ti-Anna's is quite beautiful and - but I think we'd both be very happy to write different afterwords for the paperback. You know, what I hope that people who read the book will get the idea that there's really no reason for this man who's now 66 - right - to be in prison. And, you know, there is new leadership in China. And I think we can hope that as they consolidate, maybe they'll take a slightly different attitude towards some of these questions.

BLOCK: Fred Hiatt, author of the young adult thriller "Nine Days," and Ti-Anna Wang, daughter of Wang Bingzhang who inspired the book, thanks for coming in.

HIATT: Thanks for having us.

WANG: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.