Red blossoms at the gates of history!

East Main Street

From my bookshelf

Yesterday, while decluttering my bookshelves, I found an essay that I ended up reading as foundation work for my family history. Christine So’s piece in East Main Street is about women-authored, women-centric Chinese/Chinese American memoirs, and it speaks to much of what I dislike about the genre. As I wrote crankily a month ago, I dislike reading memoir because I feel that so many of them sound the same. When it comes to Chinese/American memoir, that story goes like this:

  • 20th-century China is “a frenzied, tragic era, filled with famine, displacement, destruction, and death.” This has become as familiar to us as “the image of China as the land of Confucius, jade, ancestors, and temples.” (page 141 of So)
  • Meanwhile, oppressed Chinese women manage to triumph over the constant stream of challenges and obstacles presented by men and by history. (Often, they do so by coming to the West.)

The story’s been told so many times it’s now familiar; it has the same basic parts as Gone with the Wind (a book I read with obsessive absorption in high school), only transplanted to a different setting — and it’s a setting I find problematic. Frankly, I don’t read many of these memoirs, because they seem so far removed from my life as to be almost fairytale-like. In the brief quotations and excerpts in So’s article, and even in the titles of the books, the language reflects a weird romanticism that is some combination of the exotic (incense and bound feet!), the epic (oh, the sweep of History!), and the tragically fated (the end of an epoch, a woman fighting forces beyond her control, star-crossed lovers!).

In California there are seemingly countless Asian-owned frozen yogurt shops, all unaccountably popular, and all bizarrely bent on replicating the original Red Mango and Pinkberry by also naming themselves after colors and/or fruit: Kiwiberry, Orange Leaf, Starberry, Cantaloop, Tuttimelon. When I browse through a bookstore shelf of Chinese/American memoirs, their titles read with a startling sameness that is so reminiscent of the frozen yogurt trend: Falling Leaves. A Leaf in the Bitter Wind. Bittersweet. Empire of Heaven. The Girl from Purple Mountain. Red Azaleas. Wild Swans. Is it impossible to write such a memoir without invoking nature?

When I was at UCLA, I took a graduate-level Asian American literature and creative writing course with David Wong Louie, which was a wonderful experience in critical discussion of Asian American art. At one point we had read a passage that described a walk through Chinatown, and David and some classmates were critiquing it for relying on stereotypes to establish Chineseness. They said that the author seemed to be pulling out all the most touristy, exotic details from the scene, grounding the story in this very stylized world of the Other, as if it were necessary to hammer in the point that this was Chinatown and not Main Street USA.

After reading Christine So’s essay, I went online and looked up the other books and writers mentioned in the piece. In one review on Amazon, I came across this line: “[this book] illuminates the mystery that is China for Westerners.” That just sums it up for me. It’s the same reason many white San Franciscans liked to go to Chinese restaurants in the 1870s: to taste the mystery of the Orient. And it’s the same reason my classmates objected to the Chinatown description we read. China is no more a Forbidden City than Africa is a heart of darkness; it’s just a place and a fact of life, as mysterious and as commonplace and as fascinating as any other. You don’t have to turn it into an Other to make it interesting — it already is.

Another Amazon review for another book described it as “a Chinese Gone with the Wind,” which is something else So mentions in her article. Many memoirs read like this — multigenerational family saga against backdrop of tumultuous historical epoch, combining the nation/region’s “evolution” with the protagonist(s)’s personal journey — and many of them are so universalized as to be easily translated into any region or time with a similar background. In the comments of my last post about memoir, we talked about the importance of universality tempered with specific details. The books that stay in my mind — in any genre — are those that are so precise in their detail, so tied to their setting, that it would be impossible to translate them easily to another time or place. They do touch on the universal, naturally; that resonance is vital to their meaningfulness. But in mixing universal and specific, they achieve a perfect blend: fresh, and yet timeless. (That’s how life itself is, anyway; so much of it has been done before, and yet, having only one life, it’s still interesting to us!) As for the books I don’t like, their blend is off. It seems to me that writing about people or places in an Othering way — an exoticizing way — is to mix a sweeping universal with clichéd specifics, so that there’s very little that stands the test of memory.

I know I can be mean and cranky about genres that are dear to me (graphic novels, memoirs, food writing), but it all comes down to what I wrote about last time, how memoirs serve multiple purposes. The first is just to record a story that needs to be preserved for posterity. For that purpose, it doesn’t matter how poorly your story is written or how sketchily; it’s just important to get it down, to declare your voice, to memorialize your family history. From this standpoint, all memoirs are worthy — yes, all of them. But if the second purpose is to create a compelling work of art that will read well and resonate even years later, there I’m a lot more merciless (with myself as well). Looked at from that lens, very few memoirs are worthy. And since I want to write one that is, I criticize the less-worthy ones heavily and brusquely, because I want to learn from them what not to do, and how not to do it!

And again, as I said, I haven’t read very many of these memoirs, but in preparation for my own book, I’m going to start making my way through them. If I find one I really like, I will let you know. First on the list is Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. I read an excerpt from it a couple of weeks ago and I found it very moving.