The protagonist of Talia Carner’s novel, China Doll (Windsprint Press), has a familiar ring — although it was the author’s fiction well before Madonna made the news.
American pop icon Nola Sands, a woman privy to fame and fortune, suddenly finds herself powerless against an immediate bond: A baby girl is thrust into her arms while on a goodwill concert tour in China. This sets the stage for a high-stakes flight through China as Nola, a woman who has it all, is poised to lose everything. How much is she willing to risk to save this child? Does she take a stand and refuse to be silenced? Become the voice for China’s abandoned and forgotten children?
Carner's storytelling shines a light on the complicated world of celebrity, government relations and human rights abuses. One of the many layers of China Doll is the psychological exploration of the bond between parent and child. “As a novelist, I’m always intrigued by human emotion and for me, motherhood is a very strong motivation—the commitment to a child,” says Carner, a Manhattan mom. Her own father, to whom she dedicated China Doll, adopted her when she was a child and the bond was instantaneous. The emotions of an adoptive parent, she says, were something she always wanted to explore. After Carner gave birth to her first daughter, she felt that if someone were to just put a baby in her arms, she would have loved the child as much as her own. She then began wondering where something like that could happen — and thought of China, where abandoned babies are in abundance.
Although China Doll is a work of fiction, there are haunting truths throughout the pages — all of which were carefully researched. Before turning to fiction, Carner had a 25-year career in advertising, marketing and magazine publishing. The seed of the idea came in 1995 when she went to the International Women’s Conference in Beijing to participate in an economic panel. She used that opportunity in China to explore, and the timing was perfect. Five months before the convention, the BBC had aired a documentary, The Dying Rooms, which described deaths in the orphanages in China. “In state-sponsored institutions, the death rate was about 80 percent,” says Carner. “I was shaken to the core. So were a lot of other people. And that gave me additional material to explore.”
And that she did. After the conference, she traveled around the countryside to gather the tastes, sights and sounds of China and through interpreters, started talking to women. “The older women, the farmers, the women who didn’t know you were supposed to mask information — they were starting to tell me about killing their own children,” says Carner. “The famine in China has been generations old. It was infanticide but more specifically, gendercide. Particularly of baby girls.” The more Carner heard about this, the more horrified she became.
Does she hope to shape the debate over China’s treatment of human rights issues? “If you had asked me a few months ago what can be done about China, I’d have no idea,” says Carner. “It’s such a huge, totalitarian country, very unmoving, stiff in its doctrines. But then, little by little, I started to realize there’s something we can do.”
According to Carner, that something is the 2008 Olympics and although the Chinese government is sensitive to criticism, it also does respond to it, she points out. And now is the time to start raising awareness. She says it is estimated that a million girls go missing each year. While some may be illegally adopted or kept in the family, many are abandoned or killed right after birth. China’s preference for boys is generations old and the One Child policy is added pressure for the perpetrators of female infanticide.
To give her novel added realism, Carner interviewed officers of the U.S. National Security Administration, State Department, CIA and Foreign Service, and even researched the inner workings of the music industry. “I had to study the music industry way beyond what a lay person would know,” she explains. “In fact, a woman like Nola has a host of people whose lives depend on her. So they have agendas. What she wants is not necessarily high on their priority list.”
While China Doll was published last year, before Madonna made the nightly news with her adoption controversy, Carner has nothing but compliments for the Material Girl. “How can we criticize anyone for opening their hearts and homes to a child?” she says. “We should all take a lesson from Madonna.”