Most novelists only dream of landing a global publishing deal at
the first attempt. Nancy Yi Fan is 13, Chinese and writes in her
second language. Lucie Young meets a literary prodigy and her very
Americans like to think they have the market cornered in how to
raise child geniuses. Educational programmes such as Baby Einstein,
Learning Before Birth and the Mozart Effect are all popular with new
parents. But the Chinese are equally driven, judging by the success
of Nancy Yi Fan. Nancy, 13, is one of the youngest authors to have a
novel published in America – an accomplishment that is all the more
extraordinary as English is not her first language. She was born in
China and Mandarin is her native tongue.
|Chick lit: Nancy Yi Fan with her pet budgies in the
bedroom of her home in Florida. Her evening work schedule is posted
on the wall|
Nancy, whose first book, Swordbird, comes out in the UK
next month, is the latest in a line of Chinese prodigies to conquer
the West that has included the 13-year-old chess champion Pu
Xiangzhi and the violinist Tang Yun, who at 13 starred in Chen
Kaige's 2002 film Together with You.
Over a homecooked
dinner of dumplings, tofu, egg and peppers in their hanky-sized
apartment in Gainesville, Florida (where the Fans moved from China
six months ago), Harvey Fan, 43, explains that it is no accident
that his daughter is such a precocious talent. His plans for her
greatness began even before she was born. 'Americans really
care about their children, but in Beijing they go more crazy,'
he says, as the Fans perch around the kitchen table on what appears
to be plastic garden furniture.
By law, Chinese parents can
have only one child (unless they produce twins) and they do
everything in their power to ensure that their child develops to its
fullest potential. 'I didn't buy a sofa,' Harvey
says, looking at the plastic chairs in the spartan living-room.
'Luxury is not for me. I don't need to lie on a sofa. As
long as we have enough money, it is for Nancy to buy books.'
Turning to look at his wife, Lora, he continues, 'She is never
complaining. My sister criticises me and says, "Why you not buy
your wife beautiful clothes? You not so decent. You just wear cheap
shirts and T-shirts. Why?" '
Nancy shows no
evidence of being a spoilt child. She has little in her bedroom
apart from her computer, a collection of moss and four-leaf clovers
she gathered from the school playing fields, and a bookcase that
holds about 50 books (half in Chinese, half in English). What she
does have – in abundance – is confidence.
Sitting on a mattress on the floor, with her hair in a ponytail
and glasses that make her look like a cross between Harry
Potter's Chinese twin and Velma from Scooby-Doo, Nancy explains
how she took two years to write Swordbird, and then did what every
writer dreams of – she secured a publisher without even having an
agent. 'I'd read a few books about how to get published
and it was so complicated,' she says, rolling her eyes. She
didn't want to waste money on postage, sending out lots of
copies of her manuscript to book editors, so instead she simply
e-mailed Swordbird to half a dozen of the most important sounding
people at the leading publishing houses.
Jane Friedman, the
CEO and president of HarperCollins, who frequently appears near the
top of lists of America's most powerful women, receives dozens
of emails every day from hopeful authors, but this one caught her
eye. 'It was addressed to President Friedman and said it was
from a 12-year-old Chinese girl, but it seemed very grown up,'
Friedman says. 'I had my doubts that it was real.'
Nevertheless she emailed Nancy immediately to let her know she was
interested in her book. Within a month, Nancy had a deal.
Swordbird, like most classical children's fiction, involves
a crusade of good against evil. In this case, the main protagonists
are blue jays, robins and cardinal-birds that eat pies, play the
piano, perform plays, dance, sail boats and tip-claw around the
trees of the Stone-Run Forest. These small creatures are also expert
swordsmen and defend themselves with an impressive array of blades
against an evil hawk, Turnatt, who enslaves innocent birds in
Fortress Glooming and tries to pit everyone against each other.
Birds are Nancy's passion. In a tiny cage in the living-room
are perched Ambergold, Cyan and Tiger, her budgerigars. 'I got
my first bird when I was in China. I called him Alphabet because I
was learning the English alphabet at the time.' Keeping birds
as pets is common in China but mostly among the elderly. 'They
keep canaries, singing birds or nightingales in bamboo cages. It
takes the place of golf or a newspaper,' she says.
spent her first seven years in Liaoning in north-east China, and
Beijing. Lora and Harvey had already lost twins and didn't want
to lose another child, so when Lora became pregnant for the second
time she stayed in hospital for nearly a year. Harvey had a karaoke
machine and recorded love songs to play to their unborn baby.
'I remember Moon River and Love Story,' Lora giggles.
'My husband said, "Eat all sorts of things so your child
will be clever." '