Women Writers Wednesday 1/7/15

The Women Writers Wednesday series is back after a long holiday hiatus! This week I’m featuring a review of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans, presented by Niva Dorell Smith. Her short bio follows the review, as does information on how to see more of this series and how to be a part of it. I’m always interested in new voices!

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The next time you think or say, “This country sucks” (it’s okay, we’ve all felt this way at some point), please do yourself a favor and read Jung Chang’s debut memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Simon & Schuster, 1991). I guarantee you’ll feel differently when you finish it.

 

Wild Swans

 

In Wild Swans, Chang recalls the trajectory of her family and country from 1909 to 1978, expertly weaving the stories of three generations of Chang women with China’s historical struggle to redefine itself from feudal society to Communist super power. The result is part history lesson, part family soap opera, and entirely epic in both breadth and depth. I couldn’t put it down.

Chang begins the story with her fifteen-year-old grandmother Yu-Fang being given by her father to General Xue Zhi-Heng as a concubine. Seven years later, Yu has her one and only child, a daughter, Bao Quin, with whom she escapes from the General’s palace when Bao is a baby. Together, they live in exile for over a year until General Xue dies. His last words are that Yu be given her freedom. A short time later, Yu remarries Dr. Xia, a respected local doctor forty years her senior, who raises Bao as his own daughter and nurtures both her independent spirit and quest for knowledge.

During this time, China transitions from an empire to a republic/warlord society; the Japanese invade in the 1930s; a Communist-Kuomintang alliance leads to Japanese surrender in the mid-1940s; and a political struggle between the two victors results in the brutal Kuomintang-Communist Civil War. Chang’s mother, Bao, becomes a student leader, joins the Communist underground, and falls in love with Wang Yu, a Communist rebel leader. They marry right before the Communists prevail and General Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China.

Despite being a young couple in love, Wang Yu and Bao immediately butt heads on how to approach life, the Communist Party, and the raising of their own young family, including the author, Jung Chang, and her three siblings. Her father, Wang Yu, is a hardcore Communist who believes that being a Communist leader requires the strictest adherence to Party rules and values; in other words, no special treatment for himself or anyone in his family. Her mother, Bao, believes that a man in a position of authority should do everything he can to protect and provide for his family, even if it means making exceptions to Party rule and occasionally, secretly, questioning Party values. This conflict, which continues throughout their marriage, results in serious repercussions as both become senior officials in the Communist Party, and life becomes increasingly harsh under General Mao.

Chang writes with both emotional restraint and painstaking detail about growing up within the highest ranks of the Communist party, from walled communities to school beatings, to joining the Red Guards and watching her parents be denounced, tortured, and eventually sent to labor camps during the ten-year-long, ultra-violent Cultural Revolution. She chronicles the gradual transformation of her own psychological and emotional attachment to the almost mythical figure of General Mao, whom she loves, respects, and adores as a child and begins to question only as a young adult. Her father, though strict, earns the respect of even his fiercest enemies for remaining faithful to his principles, even when they eventually conflict with the radical Communist agenda. Her mother remains fiercely determined to fight for her loved ones, pulling every string and calling on every favor possible to protect not only her children, but also people who come to her for help.

Despite everything the family endures­­––starvation, torture, separation, forced labor, and prison camps––they manage to prevail and remain close. When Jung Chang leaves China in 1978 for London, one cannot help but share in her relief and joy at the miracle of freedom.

Whatever your thoughts about our government’s––or any government’s––being flawed, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans will illuminate unequivocally how Communist China was a thousand times worse. Families were torn apart by the regime, with neighbors turning on neighbors, children turning on parents, and parents turning on each other. Almost all symbols of Chinese history, including the majority of China’s vast art collection, were destroyed. Somewhere between fifteen and seventy million people died under Mao Zedong.

But the most painful aspect of Wild Swans is the psychological effect of living in constant fear. Jung describes a political and social environment that discourages any form of independent thinking, to the point where she no longer trusts her own thoughts. Breaking free of this psychological manipulation is not only extremely difficult but also dangerous. In Communist China your thoughts could get you arrested, tortured, and killed, and ruin your entire family for generations to come.

It is no wonder that this book is taught in colleges worldwide. Wild Swans is an unprecedented, intimate view of what it’s like to grow up in one of the most secretive and oppressive societies in the world. Only someone who experienced it first hand could have written it. Be grateful you did not.

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Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently working on a memoir titled The History of Us. She writes regularly about grief and writing at www.ridingbitchblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @nivaladiva.

To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

In Praise of Love Notes

I was nineteen, almost twenty. We were on the glorious five-week hiatus our university called Winter Break. My college friends all hailed from different states, and everyone had gone home for vacation. And one of them wanted me to go out with him, so to make sure I thought about him while we were on opposite sides of the country, he wrote me a letter. He was an English major and I liked Shakespeare so the prose was filled with archaic forms of “you”: thou and thee and thy sprinkled everywhere like inky blossoms trying really hard.

 

We all wrote letters in those days, honest-to-goodness personal notes written on paper and folded into envelopes, with stamps and ink and licking the whole thing. Stamps and envelopes weren’t self-adhesive, the paper was real stationery, email was not a thing we’d even heard of, only drug dealers and doctors carried cell phones. We had long-distance phone cards, but it cost a lot more money to talk on the phone than it did to write a letter, so we wrote. The more romantically-minded of us even used sealing wax for fun, for special occasions, though often it had cracked and crumbled by the time it left the post office.

 

Letters are so much fun to receive. When I was a child, any piece of mail I might receive was a treasure. Birthday cards, letters from pen-pals, Highlights magazine. When I was in high school, the flood of brochures from colleges and universities that started in tenth grade filled a filing cabinet before I ever sat down to write my first application essay. In college, the mail was letters from friends at faraway schools and bills. Now it’s mostly junk mail and bills. Things that must go into the recycling or into the file, things that take up mental energy but give little of value in return. I miss correspondence and, frankly, wish I were better at it.

 

The one thing I always manage to accomplish, though, is love letters. Certainly for my husband, and a different sort for my children. If I’m going on a trip without them, I leave them letters on the kitchen table to find when I’m gone. If my husband has to go on a business trip, there’s always something tucked away in his suitcase, slipped in while he’s rushing around and not paying attention, a letter or card or heart-shaped stone waiting in the pocket of his dress shirt or rolled into his socks. Other than the holiday greetings we try to send out almost every year, Valentines and anniversary cards for my husband are the only cards I still give.

 

I love letters. I adore love letters. We need, in such a busy and disjointed world, those tactile reminders, those tangible artifacts of human interaction and loving connectedness. Write a love letter today, and someone can read it every tomorrow.

 

What is the most interesting love letter you’ve ever given or received?

Start-of-Term Make-Overs

It’s not so much a photograph as the black-and-white computer print-out of a photograph. And it’s not so much placed on the windowsill among the framed snapshots and portrait prints of my family as it is stapled haphazardly into an empty spot on the aging bulletin board. The bulletin board whose juvenile illustrated border has been falling down for years, whose navy blue felt backdrop is dusty and faded by the sun around the rectangles where items like this not-so-much-a-real-photograph have been thumbtacked and stapled up for years. So many years.

But this picture matters to me. It’s a picture of my birthday. Or more specifically, of a birthday party my Creative Writing class threw me one year––in 2009, I think––and I’m there in the middle, surrounded by my students and desks piled high with paper plates and napkins and homemade cookies and random snack foods from the grocery store that opens before school starts and a chocolate cake with a candle on it. The photo is grainy and hazy and even a little graffitied by my daughter, who drew ball point pink hearts around her favorite students, ones who used to babysit her and her little brother before they moved away to college.

I am dramatically rearranging and overhauling my classroom this year. It began with the acquisition of a Promethean Board which necessitated moving my computer (and thus desk) to the opposite side of the classroom, and that meant moving my bookshelves around, which snowballed into moving everything else around, too. In cleaning off the bookshelves I let go of a lot of things I don’t need or want anymore, and halfway through inservice week I spontaneously decided to redecorate my bulletin boards, which I hadn’t really done ever, choosing instead each semester only to add more stuff on top of what was already there. The fire marshal might have written me up, if he’d seen it.

By any logical estimation, this not-so-much-a-photograph, this piece of paper, curling at the staple-holed corners and ripped down one edge, ought to be tossed into the recycling bin. But I cannot let it go. This casual print-out of a digital photo one of the kids emailed to me is proof that during at least one point in my teaching career, I was able to make a meaningful connection with a room full of high schoolers that was powerful enough that they found a way to throw me a surprise party in my own classroom on my birthday, complete with decorations, food, a cake, and even handmade cards and a gift wrapped in lovely paper with a bow. I seem to recall that one of them posted to Facebook a short video of them singing to me, then one of them saying, “Now get your germs all over that cake!” and all of them laughing as I––also laughing––blew out the candle and then cut each of them a slice. Only half a class worth of work got done that day, but no one really cared about that.

I keep this picture around because it reminds me that I am capable of making these meaningful connections, that no matter how difficult it is for my students to relate to me as I get older and they seem to get younger, to get less interested in school and in learning for its own sake, to get more involved in the digital world we all now inhabit to the exclusion of real, tangible interactions with actual live humans…I was able to make an impression on them once, and I will find a way to do it again. I have to believe that, no matter how difficult it feels the first couple of weeks of the school year, no matter how many people ask to be transferred out of my English class because they’ve heard it’s hard, no matter how many of them stare up at me on the first day of school with faces that have shut down to mask the fear in their eyes. I’m so tired of not being known, so tired of not being given a chance.

I’ve been giving my classroom a make-over this week. The bulletin boards are now covered in a cheerful robin’s egg blue with white and silver scalloped borders. I’ve put up new artwork––some of the best of it by my AP Gothic Lit. students from last year. I’ve even included the book launch party poster for Finis. The walls have been freshly painted, all the surfaces have been dusted and Clorox-wiped. By the time classes start on Wednesday, the classroom will look like a brand-spanking-new place that is my own, rather than a room I inherited when I started teaching in it so many years ago, and even my desk will be cleaned off. I will appear to have it together.

In this process, I’ve been wanting to give myself a make-over, too. Wanting to walk into Macy’s and head right up to the Chanel or Dior counters and tell them to give me a new look. Preferably one with a shade of red lipstick I actually like, not too pink and not too orange. Something that won’t rub off on my teacup. Maybe find a new blouse or two to go with my fabulous skirt wardrobe.

In clearing out the physical detritus, I’ve been yearning for an emotional purge, too. I’ve had some setbacks with this school year already, and classes haven’t even started yet. Monday it felt like I was being slaughtered by a thousand bureaucratic and technical paper cuts. Here I am, already back at school and my summer’s work isn’t finished: I didn’t finish the rewrites of my novel, I didn’t finish clearing out the clutter in my house, I didn’t finish reading all the books I wanted to. My thinking about all of this is so entrenched in the negative, I have to consciously remind myself of all the good things that have happened: traveling with my family, successfully launching a new book and the excellent reviews it’s garnered so far, getting two of the rooms in my house and my wardrobe really purged and cleaned out. My god, I have to remind myself, the summer is only so long. How much did you expect to get done and still have a life? I’m too hard on myself.

David Foster Wallace’s brilliant commencement address to Kenyon in 2005 begins with an old joke about two young fish swimming around, when they encounter an older fish who says to them, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish leaves, one of the younger fish asks his friend, “What the hell is water?” Wallace’s point is that we sometimes cling to our natural default setting of disappointment in the tedious fulcrum of mediocrity upon which so much of daily adult life turns; in this self-indulgent laziness, we sometimes forget to appreciate the value of our own experiences among other human beings. In short, we focus on the negative of what we know we don’t have, instead of recognizing the potential beauty in what we do not yet know about what we are going to have. Wallace’s speech is one of the most impactful and glorious elucidations of the Human Condition I’ve ever heard, made even more poignant by the fact that he, just a few years later, ended his own life. I share this speech with my students every May, just before the school year ends. Yet as often as I’ve heard it, I still have trouble, sometimes, remembering its wisdom.

My classroom is looking great so far. So here is my own personal start-of-term make-over: it’s going to be okay. Look, I’m getting writing done this very morning. After my writing date, I’ll head over to Macy’s and get some new lipstick. Then I’ll go home and attack one pile of paperwork and finish my summer reading, and then take my kids to a birthday party. My students are going to be marvelous and smart and kind and find something about my classes interesting. It’s all going to be okay.

I just have to keep reminding myself, This is water, this is water, this is water…

Forbidden Cookbook: Game Day Guac (and a Haiku Contest Update at the Bottom of This Post)

I do not watch the Super Bowl.

Even though I live in Texas, I admit I don’t really care for football, not any part of it, and so I don’t host or attend Super Bowl parties as a general rule.  I don’t watch the game, not even for the commercials (though I have been to quite a few SB parties in the past which were primarily devoted to watching the commercials).

But I know a lot of people do enjoy it, and so I wanted to share my recipe for Continue reading “Forbidden Cookbook: Game Day Guac (and a Haiku Contest Update at the Bottom of This Post)”