I didn't mean to get into a fight with Susan Sontag.
I had gone out to dinner with her for exactly the opposite reason. I was 25 and an aspiring writer, living in Beijing and cobbling together a living as a freelance journalist. When I came back to New York for my yearly visit in 2000, I got in touch with a friend from college, whom I will call Sting. Sting worked for "Susan" as a personal assistant and he invited me to an evening film screening and meal with him and his famous boss. Of course I said yes.
This would be my initiation into New York literary life. I admired Susan Sontag for writing boldly about the things I felt only men were allowed to write about: Big Ideas, the European canon, history. And she looked striking doing it. Perhaps some of her erudition, or her verve, would rub off on me.
After the movie, which turned out to be an interminably long and sad Hungarian film that she enjoyed very much and I found soporific, the three of us walked toward the East Village. Susan was intimidating. Her presence was just as penetrating as I had imagined it would be, her mane just as thick and flowing. Each sentence she uttered with complete conviction.
"This. Is. A. Good. Sushi. Restaurant," she said as we descended the steps of a small place near St. Mark's Bookshop. I wouldn't have dared contradict her.
The dinner started out smoothly. We shared a large order of sushi, the glistening slices of fish sitting perfectly on their wooden slabs like tiny pigs. Sting and Susan talked familiarly as I interjected the odd comment. China was the only thing I knew anything about, and I clung fiercely to that small sureness like a drowning man to a life raft. Midway through the meal, Susan turned to me and asked what I did. I said I was a freelance journalist in China, hoping that we could just trade some meaningless chit-chat about China.
"So you must know about Bei Ling?"
"He's a poet who was recently arrested there. He lives in the States and when he returned to Beijing to distribute magazines, was jailed for several weeks."
I had never heard of him. The major Western Internet sites -- CNN, BBC, the New York Times -- were blocked in China, limiting my access to news. I had been working without an official journalist's accreditation and so I had stayed away from thorny political issues, preferring to write articles about the demise of traditional Peking opera, and tampon companies making inroads into the Chinese market.
To my frustration, I found that there were only two stories that the Western press wanted to hear about China: the economy's meteoric rise and the government's oppression of its people. The iconic image of a lone man standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 had not been replaced by a more complex portrait of China in 2000 in all of its contradictions.
I hesitated, not sure whether I should lie or not. I decided to adopt the know-it-all machismo of my new profession. Why lie? I was going to stand my ground.
"No," I said, "I hadn't heard about that."
"You're a journalist and you haven't heard about that?" she asked, an edge creeping into her voice.
At that point I should have just apologized for being so ignorant, but guilt and pride and all manner of human folly intervened, so I said, "Oh, um, ahem ... that's kind of dissident news ...um ... "
"Dissident news. When you're covering news in China, you don't generally pay that much attention to the arrests of dissidents ... um..."
My hands and voice were starting to quiver like jelly. I put down my chopsticks.
"Why don't you?"
That arresting Sontagian stare you see emanating from book jackets and the pages of magazines? It had leapt off the page and was boring into me from across the dinner table. Her voice was low and commanding like a man's, transforming her question into an order. She was ready for a fight, and to my surprise, so was I. If only I could break my habit of transforming declarative sentences into questions.
"Well, dissidents just don't seem relevant sometimes?"
Sting tried to step in. "Maybe also you can't read that kind of news in China?"
"The Western press should be covering that kind of story," Susan said.
I was getting backed into a corner; the next thing I knew I would be defending the Chinese government.
"I don't know why I didn't see the story," I said, backing down. "I'm just saying that there are bigger stories in China?"
She sensed my weakness and went in for the kill.
"So, you're saying that the jailing of this poet isn't important?"
I gasped. Susan Sontag was going to sit in a sushi restaurant in the East Village and tell me that the fate of this dinky, two-bit poet who lived most of the year in the States was more important than, say, the plight of the country's 800 million farmers? The hubris!
"No. But in the grand scheme of all of the problems that China faces, I guess I'm saying it's not. China has a lot of big problems that the Western press doesn't cover. Poverty. You know, corruption," I said, racking my brains. "Environmental devastation." I looked over at Sting for help. He was drawing his finger across his throat.
We went back and forth for a few minutes, neither of us budging, before Susan turned away and ignored me for the rest of the meal. I tried to pick up my chopsticks but my hands shook too violently to lift even a single piece of sushi, much less choke it down.
We parted ways after dinner. Sting helped Susan get into a cab, and then he and I walked to the subway.
What a mortifying initiation into New York literary life. My petty insecurities had made me look like an ass in front of the most famous person I had ever had dinner with. I took solace in imagining that I had joined a pantheon of great minds who had locked horns with Susan Sontag.
"Do you want to know why she got so angry?" Sting asked.
"I don't know, do I?"
"She was personally involved in getting that poet out of jail. She and other PEN writers petitioned the Chinese government for his release," he said. "So you were basically taking her to task for being a Western intellectual with an inconsequential pet project."
I started laughing. I had schooled Susan Sontag! Relief washed over me.
She was right to defend freedom of speech, but I was right about China's having more basic and urgent problems. Dissidents might be a sexier sell than farmers, but they weren't necessarily more important.
My mortification began to fade as we walked. Her obstinacy, like mine, had not been fueled by a lofty sense of moral responsibility. We had both been motivated by personal passions and insecurities. And that was perfectly fine. In the end, she had schooled me too.
I live in New York now. When I read about Susan's death, I felt like Luke Skywalker at the moment of Obi-Wan Kenobi's death: a sharp ebbing of the Force. I am still an aspiring writer who swears every other day that I am going to quit news and devote myself to letters. (I try to follow what Susan revealed in her biography as the secret to her success: "I did what all writers do. I went to all the parties I was invited to.") But this past week was one when I was finally glad to work in news. Susan's death came just days after the tsunami hit South Asia. I work at UNICEF as a Web site editor, and I spent long days last week doing the mundane work of news: editing stories, checking captions against photos, making sure the home page did not have too much unsightly white space. The Web site raised millions of dollars in donations. At night I went home and cried.
The depth of my sadness took me by surprise. I tried to weigh the death of one famous writer against the deaths of 120,000 uncelebrated people. The stories sat next to each other on the New York Times Web site and they had the same nonsensical fight that Susan and I had had. Which was more important? Literature or journalism? Ideas or reality? New York or Asia? These were the very things I felt caught between. You couldn't say which was more important. It was simply a very sad week.