12 Days of Christmas Music To Knock Your Socks Off (Day 10)

Miley Cyrus has never been high on my list of favorites, but I do like this update of “Santa Baby.”

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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.

Women Writers Wednesday 11/5/14

You might have noticed the hoopla over the last year or so about women writers getting short shrift in many arenas of the publishing world. It’s been going on for longer than a year, of course, but the Sturm und Drang reached a more intense level of outrage then. Or maybe it’s just that people were starting to be more vocal about it, or that people were starting to take notice. No wonder, with so much discussion of rape culture (or whatever else you want to call it) and the general cancer of death and rape threats outspoken women tend to get de rigeur nowadays.

I’m not going to get all preachy here, not today. Instead I’ve decided that what might make a nice reminder to people about women’s valuable contributions to literature is to feature a series of book reviews and book responses written by women writers about books by women writers.

If you are a woman writer and would like to guest post about a book by another woman, please let me know. I’m soliciting new contributions to this series all the time. At the end of this post, you can find links to other blogs featuring reviews of works by women authors.

Our first guest blogger is Elizabeth Marro, presenting Magical Journey by Katrina Kenison.

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A Journey to Now

In May I was feeling the loss of an old friend very deeply. It was his birthday month and a year since the last time I’d seen him. May was the time he’d normally be wrapping up his training for the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Unable to run last year, he and I made breakfast for his fellow runners after their training run. He died of cancer last November.

His absence was palpable, like a deep bruise that throbbed every day. I was conscious that my grief was not only for my friend but for myself. This appalled me. Here I was, surrounded by more love than I ever thought would be mine, a family that is large, multi-faceted and very much alive, and a chance to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I was, and remain, grateful for all of it.

But struggle and confusion persisted. How is it possible to hold loss and grief and joy and gratitude in one heart all at the same time?

Around this time, I started to read Katrina Kenison’s memoir, Magical Journeyone of two books I’d given myself for Mother’s Day.

Magical Journey cover

Within, I found a fellow traveler grieving for her own old friend. “She’s been gone three months and I’m still not used to the world without Marie in it.” A few pages later I realized I had tears in my eyes as I read about Katrina’s loss as if I were reading about my own.

“The stark, absolute absence of her— of her life, her face, her hello on the other end of the phone, her name popping up in my e-mail box, her presence here on earth— has begun to grow, as Sylvia Plath put it, “beside me like a tree.” I live in the dark shadow of that loss, the shape and color of my own life changed by the too-early end of hers. And I know now, in a way I never quite did before, that time is contingent and that anything can happen.”

I lost myself for a few days in the story of Katrina’s journey. It was triggered by a convergence of events that unfold for all of us in one form or another: the unexpectedly premature flight of her youngest son from the nest, the loss of her friend, the end of a job she had loved, the approach of menopause, and the impending arrival of her 50th birthday. Among other things.

When these events are listed like this, it is perhaps tempting to say, “that’s life isn’t it?” Children grow, friends die or leave, our bodies change, and we get older. I’ve said this to myself, usually when I am feeling anxious or worried or unbearably sad. I see it now as an attempt to sidestep the emotions that come with loss and the unrelenting reminders that nothing, absolutely nothing, is permanent. I am learning the long, slow, hard way that the key to growth and peace lies in how I respond to that single, incontrovertible fact.

In Magical Journey, Kenison is a pilgrim in the land of impermanence. As I read her book, I felt as though I were taking each step with her, sometimes forward, sometimes back, and sometimes into familiar territory. When she described finding herself suddenly untethered to the daily routines of childcare, I remembered the first year after my son went away to school. when coming home from work meant coming home to a lonely silence and a strange, unsettling feeling that I often tried to ignore by throwing myself into work or hitting the gym. Like Katrina, I came to understand that the crack in what she calls the container we’ve built for ourselves represents both an ending and the beginning of whatever is next.

“Sitting here alone in my slowly brightening kitchen, I wonder if my early-morning restlessness could be preparing me for an awakening of my own. And if perhaps what has felt so much like an ending might also be a beginning.”

What I came to appreciate most about Magical Journey, however, is that  there were no discussions of “bucket lists” or developing action plans and strategies for the second half of life. In fact, Katrina spends a lot of time being still and grappling with not knowing exactly what is coming.

“Instead of continually wondering, “What’s next?” we can bring a spirit of inquiry into the present moment. We can be still, and more considerate toward ourselves. When it is too dark to see, we can listen instead. We can ask, “What is my experience of this moment?”

In the stark new silence of dawn in her once-noisy home, she writes her way to understanding and starts to pay attention to her inner guide. Her journey takes her from that kitchen, to immersing herself in yoga and learning to teach it, to a marriage counselor with her husband, to old friends, new friends, and then to helping others through healing practices and leading memoir workshops. Those are the stops that are easy to describe and are, indeed, rich and very powerful experiences but she didn’t get to them though by following her old expectations or the expectations of others.

“It seems that an honest answer to “What now?” isn’t going to have much to do with my youthful aspirations or definitions of success. It will rise from deep within, … My real task is not to try to reinvent myself or to transcend my life after all, but to inhabit it more fully, to appreciate it, and to thoughtfully tend what’s already here.”

We learn from each other’s stories. This is one of the oldest ways that humans have helped each other navigate the years between birth and death. Mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, friends, perfect strangers – they can come along at exactly the right moment with the right words or just the simple companionship that makes you realize you while you must make your own journey through life, you are not alone.

In writing about this stage of her life, Katrina touches on the changes that come to all of us. Loss. Love. Children. Letting Go. Hanging on. Not knowing. Learning to trust and live in a world where nothing is permanent and time seems short. Reading Magical Journey helped me to remember that ultimately the place we’ve been headed all our lives, the place we must truly learn to inhabit, is now.

One final note. As I sat down to write this, I visited Katrina Kenison’s blog only to find that she has encountered yet another reminder of life’s fragility and the need to let the current moment guide our actions. She had been planning to write many blog posts and asked that readers consider buying a hard copy in the books stores while they remained. The death of a young friend has led to a period of silence and I would like, because I feel so strongly about this book and know many of you will find it a beautiful piece of writing, to ask you to consider buying a copy. And thank you.

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Elizabeth Marro is a novelist and freelance writer living in San Diego. Her essays and other nonfiction can be found in LiteraryMama.com, The San Diego Reader, and her blog, http://elizabethmarroblog.com. She is represented by Allison Hunter of Inkwell Management. This post first appeared on her blog here.

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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.