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A Year in China with the SARS epidemic

 Denis Ledoux: At The Memoir Network, we had the pleasure of working with Nelida Napuli Co as she polished her memoir, Vinegar and SARS, with one of our editors, Frances King, and focused on book production with Sally Lunt. Because of her insightful articulation of a unique experience—living in China during the SARS epidemic, I am delighted she agreed to do the following interview (conducted by email.)

Denis: Can you tell our readers—your fellow writers—what your book is about and why you were impelled to write it? What was driving you to spend the time, energy and money to get this book out into the world?

Nelida: My book is a compilation of stories I told families and friends that my late husband, Ting, and I had experienced during the years we lived in China. In particular, these stories are about the first year of teaching unexpectedly in a small rural town in Fujian province Southern China.

Unbeknown to us, the yet unnamed virus which later was to be known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 1 (SARS) had arrived in China, at almost the same time as our arrival in the country.

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The similarity of our experience during the SARS epidemic—including quarantine, fear, anxiety and uncertainty while hearing and watching news reports about people dying across the country was eerily similar to the Covid 19 (coronavirus disease 2019+) pandemic caused by a virus called SARS-Cov2 which just as quickly spread but this time across the world. My experience in surviving an epidemic and now the pandemic is something I want to share.

I wrote about my relationship with our students who articulated their feelings about their dreams for themselves and the country as the reality of life after graduation becomes inevitable. Through their eyes, I had a view of China, a nation of constant change as it emerges to become one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Denis: Tell us about your writing process and how long you worked on this memoir.

Nelida: I did not set out with the idea of writing this book. That came much later. I have been writing since high school—poems, short stories—but I was never published. I simply found writing to be satisfying and something I can immerse myself in completely. During the ten years I lived in China, I was constantly writing in journals about what I saw and experienced.

Perhaps, because I did not speak Chinese and relied on what I saw with my five senses, I wanted to put those experiences down on paper. I am good at observing body language from my experience as a Psychiatric R.N., and I used this facility to interpret what is going on around me. Even if Ting and my students translated Chinese into English for me, I used writing as a language to convey what I saw and what I felt at the time.

When it was suggested I write a book about our first-year teaching in China, I thought it was time. Most of all, writing helped me survive the grief when Ting passed away in 2019. I retrieved my journals and reconstructed my thoughts with the idea of writing a book. The Covid-19 years (2020 and 2021) were difficult. Not only because of quarantines and the constant reports of thousands of people dying all over the world, but also because I was still in mourning. The reality of facing life alone was daunting.

When I immersed myself in my writing, I would momentarily forget my loss and focus on getting the book good enough to get it published. I found The Memoir Network, and the folks there helped me prepare my book for publication. With the staff’s tremendous support and their recommendation of an excellent staff editor, I was able get my book released (published).

Denis: You must have had periods of time in which you were discouraged or at least less enthusiastic. Can you tell us about how you kept yourself going? What worked for you?

Nelida: I was very focused on writing and rewriting my book, there were few periods when I felt like giving up. But what was frustrating was doing the research for the book, from sources in China. I had to dig up historical information by proxy with the help of friends and people in China, because I couldn’t do it in person due to Covid 19 travel restrictions. In addition, technology has changed since I started writing my book journals in 2002. I realized how much I missed Ting, who was an electrical engineer and was always there if I had computer or technology problems. With him gone, I now had to proceed on my own and relearn the latest tech stuff as quickly as I could to get the book ready for publication. This sense of urgency is what kept me from getting too discouraged.

Denis: Tell us what the theme of your book was. How did you come upon this theme?

Nelida: When Covid 19, was officially declared by the WHO as a pandemic on March 20, 2020, a year almost to the day Ting passed away on March 14, 2019, I was inspired to write about SARS in China. Against this backdrop, I wrote about Ting’s family in China and how SARS would change them and the country. I wrote about how the students and all the staff of the college endured and survived the quarantine. At the time, we all had to share our fear and anxiety of the deadly SARS virus. But it also provided us with the opportunity and privilege of getting to know the students and staff while living together on the closed campus. We listened to their stories, shared their tears, their dreams and aspirations for themselves, their family and for the country.

Denis: What was most difficult part of writing this book?

Nelida: Before Ting became ill in 2015, we traveled to China once a year for almost ten years. After teaching in the town of Shishan, Fujian, southern China, we were recruited by colleges and universities to continue to teach in China. We ended up teaching for a few more years. We finally retired and settled in Zhu Hai a city, in Guangdong province, southern China. However, we didn’t completely sit in the proverbial rocking chair, but continued to give private English lessons with students whose parents pleaded with us to help their children. I regret not getting my journals into a book while I was living in China. Had I done so, I would have been able to make the research and interviews less difficult. Another “should have” was waiting for many years to turn my writing into a book. What and when I should have done so, I don’t know. But having experienced difficulties of living and experiencing the loss of death, perhaps this time in my life is the perfect time to get this book published.

Denis: What advice would you give to a writer about sticking to the writing?

Nelida: As a first-time book author, I was ignorant in how to proceed in getting my book written and eventually published. But my daily life’s routine helped me to get into a natural sort of a schedule for writing. I am an early morning riser and found that this is the best time to write. Eventually, writing at a certain time of the day became my basis for a schedule; write before and after breakfast, walk on the trail for an hour, then after a short afternoon break, write some more until dinner time. This was how my day was. Being isolated at home during the Covid 19 quarantine ironically helped because I had no other activity that would ordinarily interfere with my writing schedule. There were times when I was so focused with my writing, that when I raised my head from the computer, I found the day had gone by and it was dark. At times, I woke up to get my thoughts on the computer before they faded away. One of the things that frustrated me was to be sidelined with computer glitches while I was amid my writing rhythm. It was tempting to throw the computer out the window!

Denis: Were there times when you doubted yourself and wanted to quit?

Nelida: At first, I was hesitant to let people know I was writing a book. I suppose I was afraid of being criticized and being informed that my book was not good enough. Fleetingly, I was afraid that writing in English my second language, would not be acceptable and not meeting the appropriate rules of English writing, such as grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, etc. But then, I had always written in English even when I was writing in high school and writing it in another language would have been awkward and would not flow the way I have it in my heart and head.

Denis: What makes for a successful memoir? Do you feel your memoir was a success?

Nelida: I consider holding my book in my hands for the first time to be proof of my own personal success. But when other people started complimenting me on my work, it was a total surprise! In the beginning, I had no expectations that the book would be successful, I just wanted to challenge myself to see if I could accomplish it or not. The fact is that I did exceed my expectations. A number of readers have told me that they did not know much about China besides what the heard from the media, but reading my book gave them a deeper appreciation of the country and its people.

Denis: How did your family react to your book?

Nelida: My book tells includes the story of Ting’s sister in China during the Mao Zedong years. Another teenage sister died by suicide after she was brought to the Philippines. Ting’s siblings had only recently been aware of this event and had differing versions of the story. I found three points of few when I interviewed all of them individually. Although they were open to sharing their thoughts about her story, I could feel it was still sensitive to them, and I was considerate in my writing about this in my book.

Denis: Did you envision yourself as a writer before you began this book? What is your identity as a writer now?

Nelida: Despite writing intermittently since I was in high school, I never thought of myself as a writer. My idea of a “real” writer was to be published and I certainly had not done that yet. But like a seed waiting to be sown, I always thought publication was something I wanted to accomplish. And now I have written a book. And yes, I am now a writer!

Denis: What has the response to Vinegar and SARS been?

Nelida: Besides two book signings, I have not done any promotion for my book. Somehow marketing and selling my book is not a priority for me right now. Besides I thought, I had a ready market in China. All I had to do was to go to China and bring my books with me. I was told that book signings were to be organized by my friends. And once China’s travel restrictions, particularly quarantine which currently stands at 10 days for people arriving from foreign countries is lifted, I would immediately travel to China.

In October 2022, most of my former students who were the basis for the characters of the book and are now financially stable, offered to pay for shipping copies of my book to China even before my arrival. But because of Chinese people’s protests in November and December 2022, against strict restrictions of Coronavirus Covid 19, I was told that my book is not and will not be available in the country. The reason…is because the words; coronavirus, Covid 19, SARS or any reference to the virus is currently forbidden from written materials coming into the country.

Denis: Will you write another memoir after Vinegar and SARS?

Nelida: I will continue writing but have no definite plans on a specific book just yet.

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