A tale of death threats, tarnished reputations and literary jealousy
The streets near Scarborough’s Confederation Park curve and loop in a vertiginous web. The neighbourhood was built in the 1970s—several blocks of low-lying split-levels and bungalows divided by neatly trimmed hedges and 20-foot pines. The 401 is just a few blocks away, but these houses are quiet and isolated, even prim. Ling Zhang lives here in a large mock Tudor. She answers the door on the first ring, a diminutive woman with full moon cheeks and a bashful smile. At 54, she wears her hair in a wispy, youthful updo and is dressed in a peacock-blue sundress, a simple cardigan and slippers. The house is immaculate. We pass through a large front hall with a formal dining and living room off either side. Matching white leather sofas sprawl across polished cherry floors. Everywhere I look, there are vases filled with flowers in pastel pink and white. They’re all fake, but the effect is cheerful.
In the kitchen, Zhang makes me a cup of tea. Her husband, Ken He, a slight man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt, pops in to say hello—but not much else. Zhang explains his English isn’t great. “Moving to Toronto was a big sacrifice for him,” she says. The couple met in Vancouver, at the church where Zhang, a born-again Christian, was baptized as an adult. They came to Toronto so Zhang could take a job at Scarborough General Hospital as an audiologist. Her husband, who was an ophthalmologist in China, now sells real estate to the GTA’s Chinese immigrant community.
Until recently, Zhang made her living treating patients for hearing loss, but in 2010 she quit to concentrate full-time on her writing. She is the author of nine Chinese language books, including the bestseller Aftershock, about the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan. A government-sponsored film adaptation of the book brought in $100 million at the box office in China, becoming the highest-grossing Chinese movie ever. This fall, Penguin Canada released an English translation of her sprawling historical epic Gold Mountain Blues. The book is her first novel to be translated. It spans from 1872 to the present and tells the story of five generations of a Chinese family who came to work, live and eventually settle in Canada. At over 500 pages, it’s an ambitious book, both in subject matter and in heft.
The novel became a bestseller and critical hit in China and won a number of awards. The TV and film rights were optioned, and foreign rights sold in 12 countries. Its Canadian publishers are hoping it will become the first East-West crossover bestseller. Last year, a panel discussion devoted to Zhang’s books was held at an international symposium on Chinese-Canadian literature at York University. Xueqing Xu, one of the organizing professors, described Gold Mountain Blues to me as “a milestone in Chinese-Canadian literature in its scope, depth and characterization.”
Thus far, the novel has proven Ling Zhang’s personal gold mountain—a financial and reputational game changer in a literary career that had been restricted to China and Taiwan. But as the old Chinese proverb goes, if you go up the mountain too often, you will eventually encounter the tiger. In Zhang’s case, the metaphorical beast is a wave of allegations, which started in the Chinese blogosphere and made its way across the globe, that Gold Mountain Blues plagiarizes Denise Chong, Sky Lee, Wayson Choy and Paul Yee—four of this country’s most established Chinese-Canadian writers. In October, Lee, Choy and Yee launched a civil claim for almost $10 million in damages against Penguin Canada, Zhang and the book’s translator, Nicky Harman, which also demands that the book be pulled from the shelves and pulped.
Whatever happens, it’s difficult to imagine a positive outcome for Zhang. Plagiarism is the most serious professional allegation a writer can face, an accusation that produces an instant and lingering stain on even the most sterling literary reputation.