Book Review: China to Me: A Partial Biography

Five StarschinatomeEmily Hahn’s China to Me: A Partial Biography is precisely the type of memoir I had hoped to write 40 years later about my own life. Like Hahn, I set out to live and work in a foreign country. Hahn chose China in the middle of turbulent times when Japan was asserting control over much of the country. I chose Iran in the waning days of the greatest period of influence the US had in that country.

Neither Hahn nor I could foresee what the future would bring in our different environments, but Hahn stuck it out longer than I did—nine years to my two-and-a-half. She also succeeded at getting to know her host country and its people more intimately than I, even becoming the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, a fact that allowed her to claim Chinese citizenship so she could remain in Hong Kong when American citizens were ordered to leave after the Japanese took over that city. Her reason for wanting to remain: her British officer lover, imprisoned at a Hong Kong hospital, the father of her illegitimate child.

In contrast, I left Iran at the end of a contract, leaving behind, I hoped, the negative memories I allowed to store up because life in Iran in the 1970s did not match my barely-beyond-adolescent romantic notions. I lacked the strength of character to live a truly independent life. And I lacked–and still lack–the courage to tell my story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. Hahn wrote her memoir immediately after the events. I’ve waited 40 years and am still facing fear of judgment that keeps me from completing my memoir.

While Emily Hahn, Mickey to her friends, also spent plenty of time among other expatriates in China, she moved easily among the upper levels of Chinese society as well. Along the way, she met the illustrious Soong sisters (Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chaing Kai-shek; Soong Ching-ling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen; and Soong Ai-ling, wife of the richest man in China, H.H. Kung) and eventually wrote a biography of the three.

What appealed to me even more than the details of the daring lifestyle Mickey chose, without apology to anyone, was her writing style. She shared the most intimate and revealing aspects of her life as though she were writing to a close friend, inviting the reader to share in her exuberance as well as in her heartbreaks. She included asides within the narrative, a technique all my writing teachers have tried to dissuade me from using. In Hahn’s writing, the asides work. They bring the reader into the nearly 80-year-old story. To see what I mean, following are three excerpts that touched me, the first for how it evoked my own positive memories of Iran, the second for her honesty in acknowledging that her readers prefer to think the worst of the enemy, and the third for the recognition that life sometimes is harder to believe than fiction.

Crossing by way of the rice paddies was out of the question on such a dark night. The coolies explained this to me and then set off at a good brisk trot along the newly built road. I don’t really know why I bother to tell this incident. It has no value as an anecdote. I only want to evoke, if I can, for my own sake, the sensations of that night. I have known China so thoroughly, all her scents and noises and colors, that it is easy for me to bring back the feeling of a familiar moment there. The streets of Yangtzepoo in Shanghai, for instance, or the dust-choked air of Peking in summer. The wet pathways of Hangchow along the lakeside, and the drifting silence of one of those flat boats with canopies. The hard sharp rocks and the soft gliding clouds of the Yellow Mountain. It is easy to think of these. I could draw pictures of any of them. I would know at midnight where I was if I should wake up in any of these places; I would recognize the smell of it and the sound of it. But that night in my chair, gliding along the dark road from Madame’s house, was a special moment. It had no familiarity. It was not China, and it was not me. Somehow we, the coolies and I, had become new people in a different universe. We trotted along at the bottom of a deep, dark canyon of blackness and all the exciting pleasures of the afternoon, my talk with Mme. Chiang, the poem we had read, the sunlight on my neck as I crossed the field, the flowers I was carrying even now, in the back of the chair—they were not there. I had it all in my mind, like something I had read in a book, but it was no more real than that. My whole life was just that: a book I was reading. That moment, then, that was the proof. Once and only once, for the first time, I closed the book and laid it aside. I sat back in the chair as it jounced and joggled along to the soft pats of the coolies’ feet on the road, and wondered: Now what?

I want to tell the truth, in so far as I know. I have heard since this all happened that the Japanese stretcher-bearers were brutal in their work that day, slamming sick men around regardless and “pulling splints off of broken limbs, et cetera, et cetera.” I saw nothing like that. The stretcher-bearers I watched were gentle and considerate. I don’t suppose you like to read that. I admit I don’t much like writing it. It isn’t artistic; it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the picture, and it isn’t fashionable. It would be easier just to report atrocities. Please bear with me, though: I do want to tell the truth. It seems to me that the truth doesn’t hurt anyone in the end.

What followed sounds incredible. That is the trouble with real life: you can’t write it down as fiction because it is so impossible. I’ve known that happen a dozen times. You will have to believe me because this is the truth. I reached into that thick-pressed crowd and plucked out by the arm one Freddie Kwai, a student from Shanghai and a nephew of Sinmay’s [Hahn’s Chinese lover].

I picked out Hahn’s memoir because of my interest in learning about China from 1920 to 1940, the years my great uncle worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. By the time I finished reading, Mickey Hahn had become a new subject for my fascination, one I wish to explore thoroughly. Thankfully, she wrote 52 books and 181 articles for The New Yorker, material that will keep me reading for some time to come.

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, History, China
Print Length: 454 pages
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Original Publication Date: 1944

Book Review: Reach for Joy

Four starsreachforjoyIn Reach for Joy, Tessy Reyes (a pseudonym) tells of her 30-year marriage to an independent survivalist who controlled her and her children until she succeeded at getting away from him. During that time, she bore ten children, nine of whom survived. Her memoir opens with the memory of the child who didn’t survive, a heartbreaking story, even more so when she puts it into context later in her story.

The family often lived without heat, electricity, water, or plumbing. She home schooled her children so that both she and her children wouldn’t need to leave the house. For many of those years, Tessy’s husband forbade her from driving and spied on her whenever she left home for errands.

Reyes wrote her story in order to give support to other women who may be in abusive, controlling relationships. Her hope is that her story will give courage to others to escape sooner than she did.

While I sympathized with the author throughout the book, I hadn’t realized until I finished reading it that the author used a pseudonym instead of her real name. Other names in the book are also pseudonyms. And this made me feel a bit like I was tricked into sympathizing with her. I immediately went back to the beginning of the book–a Kindle version–to see if I missed something. I didn’t.

Because I was surprised that she chose a pseudonym, I did some online research and eventually found her website where she indicates she is not afraid to use her name, but she chose a pseudonym to protect others from being easily identified. Is this a good enough explanation for a pseudonym? I don’t know. I believe her story is real—unfortunately so. And I applaud her goal of encouraging other women who may be in similar relationships to find the courage to get out. But I feel her case would be stronger if she used real names or at least pointed out in the beginning that she chose pseudonyms for a good reason, for the protection of the privacy of others.

Genre: Memoir
Print Length: 185 pages
Publisher: Northwest Sourdough
Publication Date: June 1, 2016

IWSG-July

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Once again, the first Wednesday of the Month has arrived, the date on which many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

For the past five weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of catch-up reading; not novels or memoirs or anything else with a hard cover. I’ve been reading back issues of magazines that have been piling up on a cabinet next to the sofa. The result has been both inspiring and anxiety producing. The range of topics inspire, as does the excellent writing. But that also explains the anxiety. Following are some examples:

Most occupants of my complex, as far as I could tell, had a mental disability or illness. Meghan’s speech and mannerisms suggested that she was no exception. . .she didn’t seem to fit in with the group, standing off to the side, looking miserable and rolling her eyes at their immature wisecracks. . . .

Wearing her usual frayed blue sweat suit and graying sneakers, Meghan plowed past me, head down, swinging her free arm, dragging that leg, and ignoring me for all she was worth. Though we had encountered each other six or seven times in the hall, she had not greeted me once, as if she were angry about something I’d said or done.

Poe Ballantine, “Even Music and Gold,” The Sun, November 2014

I love this description of Meghan though not a word about her height, weight, hair color, body shape, face shape, or eye color appears. I can see her, though I know I have supplied all those usual descriptions missing from Ballantine’s description. These sentences inspire me to describe one or more of my characters using behavior and actions in place of the usual.

One evening Cole invited me to his house. I didn’t want to go, but I had no strong sense of self, nothing to steer by. I had no way to say no. . . .My deepest fear wasn’t death at the hands of Cole, although I did fear that. I was more afraid of being like him.

. . .I’d thought college would be like the library table in high school, but instead of skipping school, we’d stay at the table and turn into smart people. . . .I knew more trees than people.

. . .I felt I was making a mistake. But, then, I always felt I was making a mistake: walking into a classroom, going on a date, eating dinner with a friend. Everything I did felt wrong, wrong, wrong. . . .I simultaneously wanted to protect Cole and to pretend not to know him.

. . .But I hadn’t discovered a bold, brave part of myself. It was nothing like that. What I’d discovered was that I could pretend to be someone I was not, and that people could be fooled by this, and that this could save my life.

Heather Sellers, “I’ll Never Bother You Again,” The Sun, February 2015

Much of the above feels very familiar. But that would probably be true for nearly any woman who survived her teenage years. In addition to their familiarity, these passages are frank and brave for their self-revelation (a note on the article indicates names were changed to protect privacy, indicating the piece is not fiction). I hope I can become as brave in my memoir writing. I suspect what I have been hiding of myself in my work may make the difference between a series of sometimes humorous vignettes and a story worth sharing.

Book Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come

Five Starsleavingbeforetherainscome“‘The problem with most people,’ Dad said once, not necessarily implying that I counted as most people, but not discounting the possibility either, ‘is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.'”

Alexandra Fuller learned from her parents how to live. She has lived enough to write four memoirs and that’s only up to this point. Leaving Before the Rains Come is her fourth. In it she focuses on her marriage and its dissolution, a story that cannot be told completely without reference to her unconventional upbringing and her complicated family. She dissects her family history, uncovering the strengths and weaknesses of all her forebears, especially the women, and wonders how much of what made each of them tick, for better or worse, has been genetically encoded into her history.

“…although we had all lived inarguably interesting lives, few of us could afford exotic travel, and, surrounded by enough unbidden chaos on a daily basis, we didn’t go in search of it in our free time. No one had written much about us or made movies about our adventures, in part because there was no beginning or end to our undertakings, no way of knowing the arc of our narratives. We were less the authors of deliberate derring-do than victims of cosmic accidents, political mishaps, mistaken identities.”

Alexandra Fuller tells complicated stories using the most compelling language, several examples of which I have chosen to include within this review so her words can make the case directly. My words will never succeed better than hers.

Having been raised in Africa, Fuller met her American husband, Charley, in Zambia, where he worked at the time guiding adventure tours. Charley held out the prospect of being adventuresome enough not to be frightened off by her parents as well as offering a solid future 22-year-old Fuller thought she wanted. But instead of staying in Africa as Fuller’s parents did, willing to tough it out no matter what obstacles appeared on the horizon, Charley took Alexandra and their infant daughter to America, where the two tried, but never found balance.

“It wasn’t so much that we weren’t right for one another, but rather the ways in which we were wrong were so intractable and damaging that nothing–however profoundly accidental or deeply deliberate–could fix us. His flaws and my flaws didn’t weave together or tear us apart; they enmeshed us.”

They remained together nearly 20 years, raising three children, one African-born and two born in America. But for all her independence of spirit, Fuller didn’t truly know how to live on her own, and she failed to pay attention to the warnings Charley tried to impress upon her about the fragility of their financial situation. By the time she understood, there seemed to be no way back and no way forward, at least not together.

“It’s not anyone’s job to make another person happy, but the truth is, people can either be very happy or very unhappy together. Happiness or unhappiness isn’t a measure of their love. You can have an intense connection to someone without being a good lifelong mate for him. Love is complicated and difficult that way.”

  • Print Length: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 22, 2015)
  • Publication Date: January 22, 2015
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Divorce; Biographies and Memoirs, Women

Book Review: The Man-eaters of Tsavo

theman-eatersoftsavoThe Man-eaters of Tsavo by Lt. ColonelFour stars J.H. Patterson, first published in 1907, steps the reader back in history to the 19th-to-20th turn of the century to an area at a time when place names reflected the non-Africans who arrived and set out to tame the continent. The initial chapters of the book tell of Patterson’s challenge to rid the area of two man-eating lions which were disrupting the construction of the railroad through Uganda. Many readers may already be familiar with the fictionalized film version of this story, The Ghost and the Darkness, which includes scenes directly from the pages of Patterson’s retelling. But Patterson’s book includes much more than the tale of dispatching the two troublesome lions.

Having recently read two modern memoirs about the same area, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat, I particularly enjoyed reading this one to construct my own historical backdrop for them. The photographs, though of poor quality, help greatly in conjuring up mental images of the location. Just as in Fuller’s memoirs, some of the language used by the author may be harshly judged by today’s standards. But also as in the case of Fuller’s books, the author presents the stories in a near objective, journalistic tone without braggadocio, though not entirely without deprecating the Africans he meets along the way. He is a colonial, intent on taming the African wilderness for the benefit of Europe, and he takes every opportunity for adventure and to increase his collection of animal trophies along the way. Yet he shows a level of compassion I hadn’t expected when he describes why he chooses not to shoot an animal if there is a risk he will only injure it.

Don’t expect this book to follow the traditional arc of memoir. Patterson is as much a single Englishman taming the African continent at the end of the book as he is at the beginning. He does not confront any demons along the way–only potential trophies, most of which he succeeds in killing. The book is a report of his adventures, plain and simple. If there is a purpose other than telling his own story, it may be to build up excitement in the reader to inspire similar adventures. The appendix provides a complete list of what someone traveling to Africa should bring as well as a chart showing the likely cost for all the servants needed once in Africa.

My purpose for reading the book was to broaden my understanding of east Africa. I recommend the book for anyone who may similarly be interested in either the history or the geography of that area.

  • Print Length: 172 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1500161497
  • Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing; 1 edition (February 22, 2013)
  • Publication Date: February 22, 2013
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Genre: History, Travel

Insecure Writer’s Support Group–My First Post

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeIt’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group Wednesday. I signed up last week when I learned of the group and its requirement to post each first Wednesday of the month. So here’s my challenge for the week.

I know I have to prepare a synopsis of my memoir. I know I should prepare an outline. I know these things, but I’m having trouble getting started.

One reason for the problem is that preparing an outline suggests I have control over the events to include in it. But the events as they happened don’t fit so neatly into the hero’s journey or the 15 essential plot points.

I can reorganize the scenes to fit the desired order, but then the story wouldn’t be as it happened. It wouldn’t be “true.”

Is it appropriate to be creative with the timeline for a memoir?

 

Book Review: Scribbling the Cat

scribblingthecat“The windows of the pickup were rolled down because we, in Five Starscommon with everyone else in this part of the world, were jealous of every drop of fuel we spent. And, under these circumstances, air-conditioning (like the exorcism of war memories and the act of writing about it) was an unpardonable self-indulgence. K had gone quiet and the muscle at the back of his jaw had begun to quiver. Air-conditioning ices memories with its blandness, but with the windows wound down the past came rushing back at K. ‘Do you smell that?’ he asked me more than once, looking at me as if expecting to see the same war-shocked look on my face as he wore on his own. I nodded. But what I was smelling was not what K was smelling. I was smelling now, he was smelling memories.”

In Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier Alexandra Fuller tells the story of her return to Zambia in order to travel with K, a soldier who fought in the many wars of independence in East Africa in a search to make sense of what the war had done to them both. Still a child during the wars of independence that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, Northern Rhodesia into Zambia, and freed Mozambique from the Portuguese, Fuller experienced it as a time when both her parents were defenders of colonial way of life. In her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she recalls being left behind with her sister and mother as her father heads off in camouflage and a blackened face so that he won’t be visible. Fuller the child wants to yell out to him in warning as she watches him walk down the drive leading to their farm that she can still see him, that he must watch out. She also sits at her mother’s feet during her mother’s periods of assignment at the map of lights set up to give white farmers a warning system if attacked. If one of the lights came on, a call to arms would go out to defenders to race to the farm under attack.

Years later, Fuller, now married and mother of two children, returns from her Wyoming home to visit her parents in Zambia. She meets K, a soldier who is still battling demons unleashed during his time as a soldier in the RLI, Rhodesian Light Infantry.

“Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans.”

Fuller begins her narrative with the lines above. K astonished her because he was still in Africa after years of fighting against the native Africans who were fighting to take possession of the land. K has lost his farm, his son, and his wife. But K has found God. He has turned his life over to God, asking God for guidance every day. K asks God if He has sent Fuller to be with him.

Fuller admits she and K were on the wrong side in the fight. And yet her parents remained. K remained. And she returns again and again, feeling African more than any other nationality in spite of her American husband and Wyoming home. She invites K to return with her to Mozambique, where K spent most of his time fighting to retain possession of African land, in the hopes that she can help him find reconciliation and she can find understanding.

“You can’t rewind war. It spools on, and on, and on. Looping and jumping, distorted and cracked with age, and the stories contract until only the nuggets of hatred remain and no one can even remember, or imagine, why the war was organized in the first place.”

In the end there is no reconciliation, no understanding. There is only the story of “what happens when you stand on tiptoe and look too hard into your own past and into the things that make us war-wounded the fragile, haunted, powerful men-women that we are.”

This is a naked story of warts and wounds and victims of war. Fuller opens up the door to let the reader see her Africa, an Africa she loves in spite of its terrors and dangers. She uses the language those she meets would use, unflattering in its references to black Africans, but without apology. She simply reports.

To any who choose to pick up her story, and I recommend doing so but not until after reading Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, be sure to turn to the back of the book to review the Glossary before diving into this story.