Reading Annie Dillard: Encounters with Chinese Writers

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There’s a lesser known work of Annie Dillard’s that I like to revisit from time to time. By lesser known, I mean only in comparison to Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Teaching a Stone to Talk or For the Time Being or Holy the Firm or The Writing Life.

In Encounters with Chinese Writers, Dillard offers narrative stories, which she refers to as "anecdotes" or "sketches" or "moments" or "snapshots" or "glimpses," of her encounters in China (May-June, 1982) and in the United states (Sept. 1982) with Chinese people--primarily writers--who were part of a US/Chinese cultural exchange group of which she was a part.

I like the term snapshot. It is as if she is laying out her snapshots from this trip and choosing which ones she will group together and in what order. In her introduction she indicated her interest in a "purified nonfiction narrative." To the extent that she is showing her snapshots and has not added her scribbling on papers in between, she has achieved this. Yet the very placement of paragraphs of history into a dinner conversation or the juxtaposition of how she felt versus how a Chinese host responded does signal some reflection and commentary.

I like to return to this book because these sketches extend my perceived scope of what there is to write about, to think about. Dillard wrote the details of what was in front of her. The real topic of these encounters was not at the overwhelming level of ideology or politics, but at the closer level of humankind. It was "not China per se; their subject is the paradoxical nature of all of our days, the curious way we bump up against the unexpected everywhere, the endless dramas of good will in bad times, the sheer comedy of human differences and cultural differences, and the courage and even whimsy with which we – all of us – cope."

Dillard didn't feel a need to first become an expert (and therefore, not write as an expert) or even to figure out how she felt about what she was observing. She writes in the introduction, "The truth about China I leave to the experts. I intend only to tell some small stories, and to depict precise moments precisely, in the hope that a collection of such moments might give an impression of many sharp points going in different directions--might give a vivid sense of complexity (emphasis mine)."

I love that – how depicting precise moments gives a clue to the complexity of a matter. Reading Dillard in Encounters with Chinese Writers makes me re-affirm the value of precise moments in my own life, even those that are seemingly insignificant. I'm thinking much more is significant than first appears.

How about the precise moments in your life? To what complexity and beauty would a collection of those moments point?


Last week was Dillard's 70th birthday. To mark the occasion, Englewood Review of Books has gathered together the only existing online recordings of her: Annie Dillard – The NPR Recordings. Enjoy!


You can order Finding Livelihood from: 1) the publisher, Kalos Press; 2) Barnes & Noble; 3) Amazon; 4) Hearts & Minds Books; 5) Eighth Day Books; 6) me (let me know if you want it signed); or 7) any bookstore.


[Photo: taken this week in my backyard; spring is finally here in Minneapolis!]