When childhood friends Cheng Gong and Li Jiaqi reconnect later in life, they are compelled to retrace the history of their dysfunctional families. In the process they uncover a mystery from their grandparents’ generation that lays bare ghosts from the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution that many would prefer to remain buried. Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon is a story of the unshakable bonds of friendship and the power of hope, and an incisive study of China’s recent past.

Where are you now?

I’m sitting at my desk in my flat in Beijing.

Where and when do you do most of your writing?

In my study.

If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?

I check first if there’s enough coffee beans in my coffee machine to keep me energised for a whole day of writing.

Full-time or part-time?

Part-time. I also teach in a university.

Pen or keyboard?


How do you relax when you’re writing?

I usually go to the kitchen and do some housework. I like working at night, and as a pastime I usually cook a pot of beef stew for the next day, checking the stove from time to time.

How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?

I’m not good at summarising; otherwise my books would have been much shorter.

Who do you write for?


Who do you share your work in progress with?

My partner.

Which literary character do you wish you created?

Mrs Ramsay (To the Lighthouse).

Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.

Whenever my son needs to memorise a poem, I tell him – Wow! It’s mom’s favourite poem! And I say this to him to spike his interest in poetry. Yesterday, his homework was memorising another Tang poem and I told him again that It’s my favourite and there was no reaction from him, because he doesn’t believe me anymore. Unfortunately, this time it really is my favourite poem:

‘Moon Goddess’ by Li Shangyin
The candlelight is flickering on my stone screen,
The Milky Way is fading, the Morning Star is falling from the sky.
Moon Goddess, are you not sorry you stole our immortal potion,
Over the blue sea and sky – seeing my lonely heart every night.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

Middlemarch. But if so, what did George Eliot do in 1871? Could she have been enjoying a long holiday with her partner George Lewes?

Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk.

What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?

Why this World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser.
The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir by Louis Althusser.
Just a Song: Chinese Lyrics from the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries by Stephen Owen.
The White Book by Han Kang.

Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

Which book/s do you treasure the most?

Alice in Wonderland.

What is the last work you read in translation?

Together Still by Yves Bonnefoy.

Which story collections would you particularly recommend?

Family Furnishings by Alice Munro.

What will you read next?

I will reread several short stories by Flannery O’ Connor with my students.

What are you working on next?

A novel.

Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?

Javier Marias. I’m a fan and was scheduled to interview him for a Chinese magazine a few months before his passing. The questions were already prepared in my mind, but can’t be answered now. I can’t let go of it.

If you weren’t writing you’d be…?

An astrologer. Astrologers collect unusual birth charts just like writers collect unusual people to create characters. Astrologers thrill at misfortunes and so do writers. As an astrologer, I can support writers by teaching them how to read a birth chart full of stories.

If you were the last person on Earth, what would you write?

A letter to the alien, but writing must be very stressful work at that moment. The length of this letter would depend on how much food is left.

How can we make peace with our planet?

Repurpose, recycle, and borrow items.


Zhang Yueran is one of China’s most influential young writers. Her novel Cocoon sold more than 150,000 copies in China and has been translated into several languages. In France it was nominated for the Best Foreign Book Prize 2019 and won the Best Asian Novel of the Prix Transfuge. She has been chief editor of Newwriting since 2008 and teaches literature and creative writing at Renmin University. Cocoon, translated by Jeremy Tiang, is published by World Editions.
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Author portrait © Li Jinpeng

Jeremy Tiang has translated over twenty books from Chinese, including novels by Shuang Xuetao, Lo Yi-Chin, Yan Ge, Yeng Pway Ngon, Chan Ho-Kei and Geling Yan. Originally from Singapore, he now lives in New York City.