Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Emily Wu - Feather in the Storm

Emily Wu is the daughter of Ningkun Wu (author of "A Single Tear") and 15 years after that book was published, she collaborated with Larry Englemann to publish an account of her family's life in the Chinese countryside during the 1960's and 1970's.

So it makes for a different view of the same circumstances: the family of a blackballed intellectual sent out to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants.

But with the vulnerability of youth -- her story is much more emotional -- and factually, much less reliable.

So there you have both it's advantages and disadvantages.

Emily Wu can make the reader cry -- but she is not a reliable witness -- except as she embodies the effect those catastrophic years had upon her -- surrounded by so much death, deprivation, and abuse.

For example, her father's book never mentions the murder of "Old Crab" - the abusive cadre and leader of Gao Village where her family had been sent -- which would have been an event too significant for him to ignore.

But Emily and Larry turn it into a kind of feel good emotional payback --introducing a heroic war veteran as the agent of revenge -- standing up to the besodden, greedy, lecherous village bully --- as they turn the book from being chronicle into a B-movie screenplay.

And then we have to ask -- what else was put into the story for cinematic effect ? Did all of her young friends really die or end in tragedy ? Was she really reading all those novels in English when she was a teenager ? (maybe I missed it - but I don't recall reading how she was taught)

How much of what we're reading is the recollection of a life -- and how much has been contrived for our entertainment ?

I guess the part that feels the most real is the ever-recurring theme of shit. Why would anyone want to make that up ?

Shit is everywhere -- it's a kid's job to collect it -- and out-houses or sewage pits continually reappear as difficult, dangerous, and , of course, very unpleasant places. (and that's where Old Crab makes his final appearance - face down in a sewage pit, covered with flies)

And the other part that feels real is the isolation - the private world of the only girl in a family that is itself isolated as political criminals from the rest of society -- where everyone maintains their own, fragile inclusive status by shunning/abusing the outsiders.

But the final chapters in the mountains -- with the romance -- with the suicide -- with the captured tiger -- with the improbable but satisfying triumph --well -- these were very enjoyable. I saw the scenery -- I smelled the air -- I wept at the loss -- I celebrated with the triumph -- and I saw how her story paralleled the life that I've been recording on another one of my blogs.

Acceptance at university was the ticket out of China.

My friend got that ticket through hard work, intelligence, good luck --and high family connections. But Emily's family connections were all bad ones -- her education was minimal -- and it looks like it was mostly her incredible intelligence that saved the day.

The love story, in the last few chapters, also runs similar to the true love stories told by friend: the emphasis on language - and the absence of carnality. Emily and her lover were from the intellectual class - so they focused on reciting and composing classic poetry -- quite appropriate for the mountain setting where they were living. It was certainly difficult for young lovers to stay together in those years -- it was way too impractical.

I'd really like to hear about the rest of Emily's life (but without the special cinematic effects!)
What ever happened to her younger brother, Licun ? The older one got into college like Emily did -- but the younger one had such a terrible childhood, I wonder whether he recovered.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris. Emily's father did NOT know about the death of Old Crab the way it happened because, obviously, he was far more concerned with other things. And the man perhaps responsible for it was the father of one of Emily's best friends. Second, who said Emily was reading Dickens and other books in English? It does not say that in Feather in the Storm. She was reading those books from collections in Chinese.

January 26, 2008  

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