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Thursday, October 1, 2009


red azalea

It doesn't happen very often that writers compel me to read book after book by them, fiction from inside a world I'm curious about. Fiction, another word for making it up as you go, is a good way to see into another culture. A History professor who taught an Eastern European course, an old-world intellectual who had to escape Hungary, wife and kids too, came to USA and got this job teaching in Charleston. He required reading a novel of the part of the world the course covered, to get the feel of life there in that time.

In my ongoing search for new Chinese writers I came upon Anchee Min, found a copy of one of her novels, Empress Orchid. It swallowed me up. Her writing is so clear it's like looking at a grand vista of these mountains on a perfectly clear day in the fall. This was historical fiction of the last Empress of the last dynasty where intelligence had been bred out of the royal family for some centuries until the last male emperors were each one so inept the Empress had to take hold of the decision making when the powers of the world, Britain, Germany, Japan, USA, et al, were taking big bites out of China. Empress Orchid held it together the best she could.

The story is told as if she, herself, is telling it, like an autobiography. Starts in childhood, into her teens when she is chosen in a national contest for 15 year old girls, to be a concubine to the young Emperor, and live the rest of her life captive in a palace full of other concubines and eunuchs, the servants. The time period is the last half of the 19th Century. The story ends not long before she becomes Empress. Then the next novel is The Last Empress, how Orchid became Empress and her rule.

Both novels are equally beautifully written. Before I'd finished it, I ordered the next one, The Last Empress, and was ready to start page 1 after the last page of Empress Orchid. Interesting woman, interesting time seeing China fold up from within was historically enlightening, because I knew next to nothing about that period in China history, having little to no understanding to what preceded the Revolution. And there it is, all laid out in corruption that had been the way all along until it came to a place where the house of mental cards gave out and fell down, weakened by opium, which the British supplied. Vietnamese sold it to American GIs with the same end in mind, easy pushovers.

After the Last Empress I found a copy of Becoming Madame Mao. This one covered the years after the fall of the old way. This one told the story of Mao's rise to power and placing himself as the new emperor. His wife's story is told from her own point of view as she writes every other paragraph. The other paragraphs are like 3rd person biography. It works very well. It was necessary, because Madame Mao didn't have a great deal of character and didn't have an ounce of shame. She used her power to settle scores with people who had slighted her before she became Mao's wife. I never liked her through the reading, and couldn't stand Mao, but it was still interesting and Anchee Min's writing was so superlative I read for the pleasure of reading her prose.

From there I found a copy of Red Azalea, her first writing, published 10 years after her arrival in America. I believe she started learning English in school in China. She learned the language well fast. She brings to mind Joseph Conrad and Jerzy Kozinski, who wrote beautifully in their second language. Many others have too. I have to commend Anchee Min on her command of the English language. She has a clarity in her writing that pulls me into it. She writes visually. Nothing she's written is published in China.

My curiosity about the writing coming out of China now, has a great deal to do with wanting to see how the people there live in various circumstances, what their culture is like in the everyday life part of it, from the inside. Also reading writers who left China for the freedom to write what they have to say. The expatriot writers tell the parts the ones in the country are forbidden to say. But one of the beauties of writing under the boot of a militarist government is the way symbolism can be played with to get it past censors. It can sometimes inspire some great writing. It adds a little fire to the writing, dancing on the edge of what's permitted.

Anchee Min's novel Wild Ginger was next. The story of young people caught in the Cultural Revolution of the 70s that destroyed so much and so many people, and worst of all made the kids heady with power. Now the kids are adults in the post-Mao world, carrying the guilt; everyone silently agrees not to talk about about that time. They have a hard time living with things they did to innocent people. Min, herself, had been in the Red Guard through that period, telling her stories from the inside, from that world she fled for her life.

Next after Wild Ginger, I'm now in Katherine, her first novel, written after Red Azalea. Katherine is an American graduate student in Chinese who goes to China to teach for a year. The young girl narrating the story is in Katherine's class. It's a beautifully written tale of two cultures face to face and not much connecting. The American girl wanted to know all about China and the Chinese. Someone told her you can only drink the Pacific Ocean one sip at a time. When it came to defining China for her, no one could find anything to say. For them the subject was so vast there was no place to start. Plus, she had a way of asking them questions they dared not answer, not anyone, couldn't even say they didn't dare answer.

I like the way she uses each character as a symbolic embodiment of their own culture, given their own individuality and specific experience in that culture. I'm glad I didn't read this one sooner, because now that I've read enough Chinese stories to have a feel for their visual writing, which is what I love about it, it's an interesting look back and forth between the two worlds, how we look to them, how they look to us. One of the things I found most profound was the kids in the classroom were uncomfortable with the American teacher's laughter. The girl narrating the story told her later, 'We don't laugh.' I'm having a hard time picking this one up to read in it, because when it's done, there's no more Anchee Min stories for me to read until next one is published. But I can't stop.

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