Talese, in customary Italian suit and Panama hat, creates a new template for the modern-day soccer writer. He says of the Chinese footballer Liu Ying that “she was like a beacon drawing me toward her, illuminating possibilities. I thought of her in those terms.” (Photo © Joyce Tenneson)
On Sunday morning, July 11, 1999, I listened to my pastor, down the street from our home in Decatur, Georgia, warn parishioners about the dangers of nationalistic revelry. The occasion was the aftermath of American victory over China the previous afternoon in the Women’s World Cup final. The game finished 0–0, with the United States prevailing 5–4 in the penalty phase. “Let’s not forget the Chinese players,” our pastor said. It was the only time I have heard him, in 13 years, mention soccer within the worship context. “The TV cameras did not let us see their faces. What were their players thinking? What were they feeling as they watched all the American flags?”
Gay Talese refers to the setting at the Rose Bowl—the tableau of winning penalty-kick taker Brandi Chastain mobbed by teammates in a swirl of confetti and California sun—as a “stadium sky jet-streamed with jingoism.” Soccer, as Talese says in a Jul 16 podcast, has never been nor will it soon become the national pastime. But on this one Saturday, the lure of the unfamiliar international pastime overpowered Talese’s own lifetime affection for baseball.
Interview with Talese, from New York, Jul 16. (51:00) Download »
As the New York Yankees toiled on another television channel before surrendering to the crosstown rival, Talese, like some 40 million other viewers in the United States, could not take his eyes from the American and Chinese players. He had tuned in to watch the advertising icon Mia Hamm. But questions came to mind, not unlike those that my pastor posed in his homily. Talese, 77, a former sportswriter who calls himself “the Miss Lonelyhearts of locker rooms,” thought especially of Liu Ying. U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry‘s left-gloved save of Liu’s penalty effort secured the gold medal.
Talese lays out the roots of his curiosity about Liu Ying in A Writer’s Life, the chronicle of his career in literary nonfiction. He imagines Liu
sitting tearfully in the locker room. Nothing in the life of this young woman of twenty-five could have prepared her for what she must have been feeling. … Was she surrounded now in the locker room by sympathetic teammates? Was she sitting in isolation after being rebuked by her coach? … I was asking questions as if I were a born-again sportswriter with access to the locker room, and if I were, she would have been my story, she who would probably not sleep tonight and might forever be haunted by the remembrance of her woeful moment in the sun while much of the world was watching.
In China, where it is acknowledged that most parents lack enthusiasm for the birth of females, what amount of enthusiasm would greet this particular female when she returned to her homeland?
Liu’s tale consumes much more than a footnote in Talese’s 429-page memoir. Her heartbreak, in fact, takes pride of place. She provides the point of entry and coda for the career of a writer devoted to pursuing similar burning curiosities. Her loss certainly exceeded that experienced by the Yankees on July 10, 1999, and even the saga of woebegone heavyweight fighter Floyd Patterson, whom Talese had covered at the New York Times in the 1950s.
To Talese, Liu became a beacon drawing him out of depressive reverie to action, onto a plane to Beijing in Oct 99 where he would pursue Liu’s life story for the next five months.
“That’s a writer’s life—indulging your curiosity, and not only indulging your curiosity in terms of pursuing it but sometimes taking a long time, having the patience to stay with the subject,” says Talese of how Liu became so central to his narrative of nonfiction craft and its relationship to the writer’s experience. The Los Angeles Times in a profile of Talese calls the Beijing trip his biggest reporting challenge, comparing his work there to Truman Capote‘s Midwestern sojourn while researching In Cold Blood. Both Talese and Capote, far removed from Manhattan, were exemplars of the non-native. “Especially with a language barrier,” Talese continues, “you’re not going to get much from what people say, because they’re guarded with a foreigner. … So the language as spoken isn’t as important as your capacity to hang out with people, to spend time with them, to observe.”
Talese set about writing the interior of Liu’s life—literally from inside 74 Wuding Hutong, part of a warren of communal dwellings in downtown Beijing decimated in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. This was where Liu was reared, where her football boots formed part of the landscape of household effects. Talese knew that Liu was not a central character in world football, but a symbol of cultural transformation. Through Liu’s moment of mass-consumed anguish, Talese could speak of gains and losses at the level of society, especially within the erratically unfolding story of Chinese women’s physical liberation. “I imagine their grandmothers having bound feet,” Talese says of the women soccer players of China, “and here are the granddaughters running around in cleated sneakers in front of the world kicking the ball.”
Historians of Chinese sport date the cessation of footbinding, a thousand-year-old custom, to challenges to Confucianism mounted by spirited peasant women in the mid–19th century and also to the arrival of Christianity, which helped bring to women “the normality of unmutilated limbs.” In millennia past, based on evidence preserved in fresco paintings, women had participated in the stylized kicking game of cuju, one of football’s earliest forms. In the modern era, as early as 1924, a physical-education teacher in Shanghai translated an English football rule book into Chinese. Backed by the school principal, who saw soccer as symbol of sexual liberation, women students started playing the game against men. Such physical emancipation continued under Communism, motivated by a desire to boost military and economic development.
But despite Maoist rhetoric of women “holding up half the sky,” Liu’s penalty-kick miss in Talese’s work presages a cataclysm of loss. Her sobs, transmitted via telephone to Beijing early on Sunday morning, spread in close quarters within the hutong. Her twin sister must apologize on her behalf; her grandmother, Madam Zhang, cloaks the television screen in black. “It is a part of life,” she tells neighbors. In the coda to the book, we learn that this hutong lies in ruins, an early victim of the Olympic improvements. Although Talese followed her career for several more years, Liu fades from view as she faded from the consciousness of most Americans, drunk with victory, on July 10, 1999.
At last contact, in 2003 or 2004, Talese says that Liu, now 35, was teaching high school soccer. “That’s a worthy profession,” he says.
In this chiastic framing of A Writer’s Life, the writer’s regard for craft develops in parallel to Liu’s existence. At the opening Talese confesses a conflicted relationship to the game (“I am not now, nor have I ever been, fond of the game of soccer”). Liu meets her nadir as Talese acknowledges his own fascination with defeat. But to him, the women players exist at a remove, as objects for consumption. Talese rakes his subconscious for forthright observations that are far from politically correct:
It … appeared to me that the Americans’ bodies were more curvesome and fully feminine than the Chinese. The latter were inclined to be quite narrow-hipped and boyish in figure, and, with one or two exceptions, to have smaller breasts than the Americans. Actually, I had not noticed large-breasted women on either team.
He does not stop there. Talese momentarily imagines them “gamboling in G-strings in a rain forest on the Playboy Channel.”
By the end, however, Talese’s affection for truth-telling and for his subject expresses itself. Liu Ying, whom he had identified in project notes as the “wrong-footed Chinese soccer maiden,” has become a human being, even heroic, situated within the classic Chinese appreciation for long-suffering women able to eat bitterness (chi ku). Talese has ventured across boundaries of the known world and brought himself to a new vantage point. Both soccer player and author have taken a great leap forward.
Note: An excerpt from Talese’s writing on Liu Ying is available in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press).
Fan Hong, Footbinding, Feminism, and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China, Sport in the Global Society (London: Frank Cass, 1997); Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, “Will the ‘Iron Roses’ Bloom Forever? Women’s Football in China: Changes and Challenges,” chap. 3 in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, Sport in the Global Society (London: Frank Cass, 2004), 47–66; Jere Longman, “The Great Wall of China,” chap. 6 in The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2000); Mei Fong and Loretta Chao, “The Great Women of China,” Wall Street Journal, 13 Jun 08; Gay Talese, A Writer’s Life (New York: Knopf, 2006).
The Paris Review (summer 09) queries Talese about his writing techniques (Katie Roiphe, “Gay Talese: The Art of Nonfiction No. 2”). He discloses that he takes notes on cardboard from dry-cleaned shirts. “I cut the shirt board into four parts and I cut the corners into round edges, so that they can fit in my pocket,” he says. “I also use full shirt boards when I’m writing my outlines. I’ve been doing this since the fifties.”