Meet Shi Naseer, Author of The Cry of the Silkworm

Shi Naseer’s debut novel, The Cry of the Silkworm, is a spellbinding coming-of-age and revenge story about a young woman grappling with the trauma and loss she endured growing up under China’s one-child policy, in a small rural village where only boys were assigned value. When 20-year-old Chen Di travels to Shanghai to avenge the untimely death of her mother, she is razor-focused on her “mission.” But a chance encounter with a troubled Shanghainese boy throws her mind back into the past, where she is forced to revisit the shocking events leading up to her mother’s death.

Weike Wang, author of CHEMISTRY, calls it “A sweeping narrative that explores the complexities of family dynamics, societal pressure, and the resilience of love amidst adversity. Chen Di, our intrepid protagonist, confronts numerous hurdles with remarkable strength, compassion, and a fierce determination to persevere.”

Bill Beverly, author of DODGERS, calls it “A revelation—a hard plunge into a roiling China, a thriller and spiritual journey, a deeply felt story about the broken and the beautiful. These settings: they’re rich, scented, spellbinding. A haunting debut from a remarkable new writer.”

I was honored to speak with the author about this at once beautiful and evocative novel, which fluctuates between China’s sweeping rural landscapes and the bustling, urban city of Shanghai.

While reading The Cry of the Silkworm, I am reminded of dystopian novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as some of the darkest moments in human history, including the eugenics movement in Nazi Germany (modeled after American sterilization laws). What inspired you to write a novel about the one-child policy in China, especially through the eyes of a young girl?

I’m glad my book reminded you of dystopian novels and WWII; it was supposed to. Some of my non-Chinese friends assumed the one-child policy amounted to the government handing out condoms. The reality was much darker. Think government-forced abortion and sterilization. Think byproducts like female infanticide.

As to why I was inspired to write it, I spent my girlhood in China, in the ’90s and ’00s—the peak of the one-child policy—in a culture that preferred boys. My mother’s life-long yearning for more children, my teenage cousin’s death, and many other one-child policy-related tragedies I lived and witnessed all compelled me to write down this part of our history.

Moreover, the most well-known novel about the one-child policy is perhaps Frog by the Chinese Nobel Prize winner, Mo Yan. It’s absolutely masterful, but the protagonist—the most humanized character—is an abortion enforcer rather than a direct victim of the policy. Mo Yan has to work under Chinese censorship; I do not. We need another perspective.

Your novel is made up of complex characters who grow and change over the course of the story, despite having done horrible things. Chen Di’s abusive grandfather, and the family planning chief the villagers refer to as “Lunatic Lü,” are examples of characters you give human qualities to, though it would have been easy to demonize them. How did you create this balance and was it something you had to work at over the course of revisions, or something that came naturally to you?

The balance is natural since this is how people are, but as with other craft issues, it took me several rewrites to transfer what I had in mind onto the page. Chen Di’s grandfather survived the Great Chinese Famine eating tree bark while his beloved wife died, unable to give him a son. Now he wants sons, and sons’ sons, and sons’ sons’ sons. Chief Lü carries out his family planning work devoid of humanity, but he has his share of personal problems and, to Chinese readers, his firm belief in the Chinese Communist Party is only expected.

My father was a CCP member until he automatically relinquished the membership by becoming an Australian citizen in his late forties. A lot of ordinary Chinese people are CCP members—it impedes your job opportunities if you aren’t one. Is my father a bad man? Meet him and I bet you won’t think that.

Most Westerners can’t fathom the societal pressure that turned Chinese people of the last few generations into “bad people.” During the cultural revolution, my mother and grandparents woke every day to see a dead body or two floating down the river outside their window. They were pelted with stones, their home was raided by the police, and several times my grandmother almost put her head through the noose she’d already affixed to the ceiling. She had no energy to love her three children, the least my mother, the middle daughter. This generational trauma is something I myself still struggle with today.

In an interview you did for Curtis Brown Creative, you talked about your decision to steer The Cry of the Silkworm toward a “book club” fiction approach, as opposed to a literary fiction approach. Can you share a little bit about what that meant for you craft-wise when revising the novel, and why you made this choice?

It was my decision from the start to make The Cry of the Silkworm “book club” fiction. Craft-wise, a key ingredient that distinguishes it from literary fiction is perhaps its thriller element (though you’re in for disappointment if you want a standard thriller!). But that element is reality-based: revenge against family planning officials was common during the one-child policy.

The reason for my decision is the following: most of my family never had the opportunity to be trained to read English novels, let alone appreciate English literary fiction. In fact, I verbally translated my book line by line into Chinese to seek my parents’ feedback. Literary fiction rarely reaches lower-class citizens around the world. My goal is to connect people via stories— If I write something so obscure that only few can appreciate, I might as well have stayed in black-hole research (my academic training).

Further, half my lifetime ago, I was still trapped in my high-school English-as-a-Second-Language class as a new immigrant in Australia. Most people from my background are unable to write English “book club” fiction even with the help of a translator. Cultures are complicated, but the more you explain, the drier the story gets, and the less readers remain engaged. As a multilingual translator who’s lived in China, Australia, Europe, North America, and Pakistan, I believe I have a knack of communicating cultures, maximizing both readability and authenticity. I had to take on this challenge.

Your main character, Chen Di, uses Aikido as a means to carry out her revenge and the fight scenes in your novel are realistic and gripping. What research did you need to do in order to make the movements and body positions of your characters so realistic in these scenes?  

I only discovered writing a few years ago, in my late twenties. Most elements in my book are not products of research but what I had experienced long before I even thought of becoming a writer. And yes, I have trained in many styles of martial arts. In particular, my aikido training at the Cambridge aiki dojo in the UK was the highlight of my year there. I probably enjoyed it more than my master’s degree in applied math!

Do you have a favorite novel, or novels, that you’ve carried with you on your travels or that you still take inspiration from?

I read widely, in different languages. What the Western publishing industry considers “diverse” perspectives today is not at all diverse in my view but catered to Western readers to a painful degree. The irony is of course I’m part of it. My favorite novels are A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and all of Haruki Murakami’s work. Jin Yong was my childhood favorite—I’m rereading《笑傲江湖》(The Smiling, Proud Wanderer) right now. Also, I used to translate Japanese manga and anime and I’m a little embarrassed to say that now in my thirties I still love them.

However, rather than any novels, my life experiences inspire me to write. I have never taken a single book on my travels. I spend every second of my journey being as present as I can, talking to fellow travelers and the locals, staring out the bus window, absorbing the new colors and the new smells. They might just inspire my next story, but I don’t do it for that purpose.

What’s next for you project-wise?

Here’s a pitch: Nida is furious. For twenty-six years she has waited in her Pakistani village for her wedding with her cousin Daniyal, her betrothed since babyhood. But Daniyal, while completing his PhD in the US, has married an American woman named Florence. How dare they? Nida lures the lovey-dovey couple from their home in Boston to the Thal Desert in Pakistan to punish the wicked white woman and win back her man. Trapped in 110F heat, under the threat of sandstorms, the three of them meet and clash.

Chinese-Australian-Pakistani writer Shi Naseer has lived in nine countries and backpacked to over seventy. She recently moved with her husband and young son from Sweden to the USA and spends her winters in Pakistan. She aims to connect people by telling stories from different cultures. Her debut, The Cry of the Silkworm, is released on June 6, 2024, with Atlantic Books/Allen&Unwin. Shi Naseer holds a PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard University and is a GrubStreet Novel Incubator graduate. Visit her at

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