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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

A Girl Named Zippy

Source: goodreads

Source: goodreads

Mooreland, Indiana was in the news recently. According to Health News from NPR, shortly after buying a house in Mooreland and moving in, a family discovered that it had been once used as a meth lab. I read about meth houses from time to time, and this article would not have been very remarkable except for the fact that I also happened to be reading a memoir of Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I had never heard of Mooreland before.

I grew up in cities, but I have heard some older family members remember life in small towns (in India) that had just two streets, a ‘main’ street running north to south, and one or two smaller streets running east to west—a town where everyone knew everyone else, a town with just one tailor, one priest, one school, and one grocery store. Mooreland is that town.  Only, there is no dull soul in Zippy’s Mooreland. There are people with peculiar talents: they can sit really still or sneeze so loud that “the whole house rocked”; they have very little hair as babies (Zippy); or are so ancient that they “seem as inevitable as the moon”.  Zippy’s stories are funny, small-town accounts of friendship, family, poverty, school, pets, and encounters with scary grown ups. They are told in the voice of an adult’s recollection of her around seven-year old self, so while the seven-year old Zippy can say the things that only seven-year olds can, she wouldn’t be able to pull off her deadpanning without the benefit of adult hindsight.

Here is what Zippy has to say about her father:

My father was a great smoker and driver of vehicles. Also he could whistle like a bird and could perform any task with either his left or right hand, a condition he taught me was called “ambisexual”…He could hold a full coffee cup while driving and never spill a drop, even going over bumps, He lost his temper faster than anyone.

But on to Zippy herself now. Zippy (otherwise known as Haven Kimmel, the author) is featured on the cover of the book, a smart marketing move, as Zippy’s face is anything but meh. What she lacks in hair, she makes up in spirit. You can tell that this child is not sweet and kind and good and angelic and all honey. Zippy is better than that—she is wicked and witty and wicked. Zippy is fearless. Zippy has personality with a capital P. I also thought it was refreshing to see a little girl dressed in all blue, a baby blue, but a blue that has been foisted on boys, and boys only in the past several years.

A Girl Named Zippy made me think again about what it means to have an ‘ordinary childhood’ and how ‘unusual’ and ‘remarkable’ sometimes need the context of a time and place. Zippy’s Mooreland childhood was perhaps less remarkable and exotic than that of Sissy Bellings, another Mooreland citizen, who lived with her fifteen siblings and half-siblings in a two-room house next to Mooreland’s only diner. Three years ago, I read and enjoyed Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, another childhood memoir of growing up poor in small towns in an unorthodox family. Sometime earlier, I tried to read another childhood memoir, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, which I found eccentric and bizarre in an off-putting way. Zippy is neither irresistible nor  unpleasant. It has a very understated poignancy, a deliberately impassive humor, and an abundance of quirky individuals. A note on the flavor of humor—it is not the kind that inspires deep belly laughs, nor is it the warm kind that leaves a general feeling of contentment; it is entertaining and funny overall, and I half-laughed three or four times, but it is not the kind of humor I would be compelled to revisit, or even find funny upon rereading, such as this passage:

Mom kindly refrained from mentioning my many, many visits to the emergency room. She also kindly refrained mentioning the little incident last summer which had resulted in my losing two toenails, severely abrading the top of my foot, and breaking two toes. At the hospital the nurse had asked how I’d done it, and I had to admit that the injuries were because of my foot being run over while it was upside-down, by a bicycle I myself was riding.

I’ll admit it was funny the first time I read, but now as I am reading it again, even my inner smile isn’t awakened.

Zippy is a smart and funny book, and perhaps people who grew up in small towns or have second-hand memories of growing up in small towns might find it especially meaningful. It did make me imagine growing up two minutes from everywhere—the Main Street, the Diner, the School, the Drugstore, and all my friend’s homes, a town where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was the same race. It made me think of how different such a life would be. It made me think about how it would not necessarily be a simpler life.

On the whole, I feel mostly ambivalent about A Girl Named Zippy, although I can see it has its charm.

Side note: It is so much more fun to write about a book that elevated me in some way, or even better, that aggravated me. Why am I writing this then? Early this year, I resolved to write at least about one book a month, a very unambitious goal to begin with, but I suppose I was secretly hoping that it would then be easier to exceed my insignificant expectations, and write twice a month, or even once every week. January was a successful month, and I wrote about the singularly interesting Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The next six months are a different story. This July, as I turned a year older, I resolved to write again even if Zippy didn’t inspire me or amuse me as much as it has some others. Simply because writing makes me happy.

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Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a half

 

This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative — like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it — but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. 

– Blurb on back cover of Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (2013) by Allie Brosh.

Hyperbole and a Half is probably surely the best thing to come out of MS Paint. I didn’t even know you could actually put MS Paint to use, let alone develop content for the ‘funniest site‘ or ‘most humorous weblog‘.  And if I were an aspiring writer/cartoonist/graphic novelist, MS Paint would not even make my list of “tools to use”. I’ve been reading a lot of graphic work these past few years. I even discovered Osamu Tezuka, and started an as of now incomplete Buddha collection. Tezuka, who has been called the god of Manga, produced work that can qualify as sublime. Reading Brosh’s raw MS Paint caricatures of herself and her dogs, right after browsing through Tezuka’s work taught me one thing: art does not have to sophisticated to be good or great; crude can be brilliant. Of course, it would not be fair to either Tezuka or Brosh to compare their works with each other’s. Other than the use of illustrations, there is nothing, really, that they have in common.

Brosh, for instance, relies as much on her prolific writing skills as she does on her simple (not!), unrefined line drawings (that my pre-schooler found oh-so fascinating – “what IS that thing?”, he kept asking). Brosh also has the singular talent to convert the mundane, the important, and the nothings into a page of giggles.

The two ‘stories’ I found the most funny, and laughed the hardest for, are “The Party” and “Dinosaur (The Goose Story)“.  The second one in particular touched a nerve – I am the victim of a goose attack myself. I do not recall with relish or pride the time when a daddy goose flew several yards to hiss and spit at me. Recollecting my pathetic sputterings of “Hey! No!” before I ran in a random direction does not do good things for my self-worth. It didn’t end too badly though – while my kindly neighbors prepared to launch their own attacks, armed with heavy driftwood sticks and black shawls, to save my hysterical self, the goose decided to land a few inches from my head and waddle back to its brood. Apparently, this is typical goose behavior – geese never wander too far from their offspring, even when they are being mean. I was guilty of trying to take a picture of his day old goslings, though. In my defense though, goslings are cute, I was a good distance away from the family when I tried to take the pictures, and I did stop when I got the sense that daddy didn’t appreciate it.

The point of that little anecdote was not to one-up Brosh (her story is funnier, and she is way funnier), but only to point out that I share her goose-love and I was able to relate to her terror.

Brosh also writes (and draws) about depression, and uses the same stick figures and very little else  to talk about how debilitating her depression was, and difficult it is for “normal” people to understand what is going on, and how difficult it is for depressed people to explain how they are feeling, or even to conceal their true feelings from aforementioned “normal” people.

And then there are stories that I confess I didn’t fully understand or find very funny. Perhaps, my humor IQ is not very well developed.

Whether you want to spent a few hours reading some side-splitting stories that feature some mean stick figures, or if you are looking to read, laugh and ponder, Brosh might have written just the book for you.

Plus, if you own dogs, or are attracted to dog stories that are the opposite of warm and fuzzy, then you have no excuses not to read the book. She really does have a “simple dog” and a “helper dog”. If you are intrigued, run to your library or head over to her site.

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Looking for Palestine

I received an advance reading copy of ‘Looking for Palestine. Growing up confused in an Arab-American family‘ by Najla Said as part of a LibraryThing giveaway. 

I know of Edward Said because I read part of the introduction he wrote in Joe Sacco’s Palestine, where I think he also mentions his (most well-known work), Orientalism. I haven’t read either books, though Palestine has languished in my TBR pile for years. Orientalism, I know nothing about – I haven’t read the book, and, now, I am not really sure if my understanding of its meaning is entirely correct. Also, I always thought that Edward Said’s last name was pronounced ‘Sed’ (as in the past tense of ‘say’).

For me, it is a good thing, really, to learn about the extent of my ignorance (on occasion; very often might inflict serious damage to my self-esteem). Knowing that I know not, is many times the first step to repairing the state of affairs. In this case, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the history and the politics of the Palestine-Israel region. In that context, I don’t know what the politically correct terms were/are, nor do I know anything about what it means/meant to be an Arab (or Arab-American) in a country that is vocally pro-Israel. This book is not an annotated history of Palestine, but I am grateful to it for bringing my uninformed state to my attention.

Najla Said, as you know or might have guessed, is Edward Said’s (pronounced ‘Sayeed’; did I hear a ‘duh’?) daughter. Edward Said, she says:

is the author of Orientalism, the book that everyone reads at some point in college, whether in history, politics, Buddhism, or literature class…It’s mainly because of my father that people now say “Asian American” instead of “Oriental.”

Whoa.

Najla’s famous father is Palestinian, and her mother is Lebanese. They are Arabs. They are also Christians. Growing up with a multitude of identities, and yet not being able locate one she was comfortable in; confronting the realities of both being associated with what was considered a “barbaric” and “backward” clan while also not fitting into others’ notions of the same clan; growing up fairly privileged in a much less ethnically diverse New York than it is now, Najla spent much of her childhood and later years dealing with the anguish of her inner turmoil.

Most of us are guilty of sweeping generalizations, some totally harmless, others less innocuous. For instance, Najla writes that “An Arab is a person whose native language is Arabic.” She also writes that “[by 1979] the words “Arab” and “Muslim” were already synonymous with “crazy, violent terrorists” (an unfair generalization). Assumptions related to terrorism aside, the words “Arab” and “Muslim” are considered synonymous, to some extent, even today. Just as “Indians” are immediately associated with the “bindi” (a harmless assumption, really). Najla speaks of being asked why she didn’t have “a dot” on her forehead at school, and replies, “I am not Indian!!!”.

Reading any work of non-fiction, and especially memoirs, requires the reader to take a leap of faith and presume reasonable honesty and sincerity in the writer’s depiction of life events. Najla’s voice is beautiful in its simplicity, and seems entirely her own, and her famous daddy is just that, her daddy,

Now I’ll be sure to read both Orientalism and Palestine.

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A bittersweet treat

I’m not the only one, I learned, who believes that the kitchen, and the food that comes from it, is where everything begins.

– Molly Wizenberg in A Homemade Life (2010)

Food memoirs are one of my go to class of books. I might have found a book particularly insipid, or I might have spent a few weeks agonizing over a brilliant but distressing book, and I find that food memoirs not only cleanse my palate, but sweeten it. And I’m ready to take on that book about the meth epidemic or the American language landscape.  Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life certainly qualifies as a memoir, and food certainly features prominently in it, and not only in the recipes themselves. The centrality of food, of cooking, of the kitchen table in her life undoubtedly comes through in her writing. But A Homemade Life is as much about life as it is about food.

a homemade life

Part of why many of us like to read memoirs is because, whether we admit it or not, we are curious about people’s lives. Through memoirs, we learn about life in a poor rural commune in China, about life in a poor rural community in Stamps, Arkansas, and an unorthodox childhood in the Southwest. We take in all those little details and indulge in a little harmless voyeurism. Of course, we’re never really sure if the writer’s memories are untarnished  by some creative imagination, but then memories are never completely reliable anyway. We learn about what went on behind closed doors and inside people’s heads, and sometimes we learn about another piece of the world, another time, another culture, another person, and frequently even about ourselves. Some of us have delicious memories that’ll be a crime not to share – memories of dipping that crusty little piece of bread into a plate of perfect, fruity olive oil, or picnic lunches assembled under shady trees with sliced radishes, butter, salt, and good bread, or of getting together with aunts and cousins assembling tamales or braising duck, or growing your own carrots and pulling them out into a waiting basket, or your grandmother teaching you how to select the really tender eggplants, or in my case summer afternoons spent drying vadams in the sun, making scarecrows and sneaking the perfectly half-dried vadam in to my mouth without anyone noticing, or helping my mother roll out salty, buttery cheedai on Krishna JayanthiWhether you know what a vadam is, or a cheedai, or you’ve ever tasted tamales or kaya, you know they must be lovely things and happy times. Eating is a sensory experience, and food memoirs often provide the reader with a vicarious excitement. Food memoirs are mostly joyful. They are about the pleasure of growing, cooking, serving, feeding and eating, frequently involving family and friends.

Wizenberg’s memoir is a little unusual, not only because it is incredibly personal, but also because it deals with death and grieving, subjects that I have not known food memoirs to dwell on. Of course, life is as much about loss as it is about love, hope, and birth, but food memoirs don’t usually venture into that territory unless to mention a beloved person’s favorite technique just in passing. Wizenberg writes honestly and bravely, whether she talks about her father’s illness and death, or about falling in love with her now husband. She writes with wit and she writes well. Her recipes are a bit heavy on desserts and salads (which is not a bad thing at all), and you know that they’ll be good too. Also, Wizenberg is a blogger (a food-blogger), and it is difficult not to relate to someone who writes…

It’s hard to beat the rush that comes when you press “Publish,” sending your words out into the ether, or the satisfaction that stems from someone leaving a comment on your site.

…when you are a blogger yourself.

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Another impromptu pick at the library, Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me (2012) by Sarah Leavitt, may well be one of this year’s most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had.

I tend to stay away from illness memoirs. I don’t have the courage to read them. Even flipping through them and catching sight of painful, hopeless words and phrases here and there throws me into a deep gloom, and an even deeper dread. If I had ever imagined that physical illnesses are in any way worse than mental illnesses, or more painful, or more distressing, was I ever wrong! Illnesses that manifest themselves in the form of bodily pain, and that force us to confront our own mortality, are terrifying to imagine. If a person, because of impaired cognitive ability, is spared the knowledge, is that not a better situation?

No.

The only reason I picked up a memoir about Alzheimer’s, a memoir of sickness and dying and sadness, is because I do not have an Alzheimer’s phobia. I was able to read and weep through the book, and appreciate how utterly beautiful it is in its tragedy, without being struck by debilitating terror.

Tangles is a graphic memoir by writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt, whose mother, Midge, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s very young, at 54. Midge’s disease progresses over the next 6 years, and her family (and towards the end, caregivers) care for her as best as they can. Sensing that she is slowly losing her mother, Leavitt begins to take notes and draw sketches to remember her mother before and during her illness.

I often felt like Harriet the Spy, or, in darker moments, like a vulture hovering and waiting for Mom to say or do something that I could record and preserve, even as she slipped away from me. Sometimes she would pull on the page or grab my pen as I tried to write. The pen would skid and make a mark and I’d label the mark: “Mom moved my pen”. I wanted to keep every trace of her.

When my son was born, like many other mothers and fathers, I wanted to capture his every moment. I have little scribbles in my diaries from those years that tell me on which date exactly he made his own little joke for the first time, his cute mispronunciations, the first time he smiled, ate sweet potato, or used words like ‘disappointed’. I like to read them and relive my joy, and feel all the love rush over me, right down to my toes and finger tips. These are little milestone moments that mark his progress, as he learned to think, pay attention, speak, laugh, and dress himself. Tangles, infinitely sad as my diary is jubilant, is also a memoir of progress, the cruel march of the disease, a heartbreaking journey in reverse, as Midge’s abilities are slowly affected, and she stops writing, talking, dressing or feeding herself.

Some things became precious to me, like her poetic mistakes.

Sarah starts by briefly describing her mother’s family and childhood, and draws a picture of a vibrant, passionate, nature-loving and kind kindergarten teacher. Since Midge starts to show signs of the disease at only 52, her family mistakes them for menopause, or stress. She is often confused, forgetful, moody, and angry. Once diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Midge’s deterioration is steady and relentless. As she becomes a shell of her former self, and assumes a different identity, her relationship with her closest family members shifts as they assume new roles.

(Sarah): Waaah! I want my mommy!

As she forgets to read and write, so does she forget to keep clean. Sarah writes of being embarrassed by her mother’s smelly clothes and breath, but soon realizes that her mother’s deterioration will present greater challenges that call for a lot more strength.

(Mom): I’ve lost all my sweetness

 

Me: Are you OK, Mom?

Mom: No. I just can’t tell what is and isn’t.

 

Me: Oh, Mom, I thought you were sleeping.

Mom: I don’t know if I am or not.

A few months after moving into a nursing home, Midge, who by now isn’t walking or talking, becomes weaker, stops eating, and dies, although she had stopped living years ago.

Sarah’s drawings and writings are remarkably candid, as she tries to capture moments of joy, and pieces of her mother as she really was, amidst all the anger and sadness.

Heartbreakingly beautiful, Tangles is a testament to the power of the graphic format.

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I must admit, somewhat shamefully, that in the past I have been woefully mistaken about diversity in the United States. What I pictured in my mind was a more or less homogeneous sea of blonde-haired, fair-skinned people. Later, I realized that darker-skinned people also called it home. I had, of course, also seen some other people in movies – people with long braided hair, wearing colorful feathered headpieces. I knew these people as Red Indians (which I later realized was politically incorrect – at that time I thought it rather odd, since these Red Indians looked neither red nor Indian) and never gave a thought to who they really were or what became of them. To my credit, I was only a child and grew up on the other side of the world much before Facebook and Google were born.

Coming from a part of the world where mono-ethnicity is the norm, I can understand why we thought that other countries were the same. We all looked more or less alike, so why should things be different elsewhere? Many, many years later, I experienced a blast of diversity – cultural, ethnic, racial, lifestyle-related, you name it – when I lived/worked in Honolulu and New York City. But not too long ago, I got food for thought when someone (who has never been out of their home country before) asked me if the dark-haired woman sitting in front of us was American. “Why, yes”, I said. “But, aren’t Americans blonde?”. In that moment, I realized my own ignorance – I had witnessed but a drop in the ocean of diversity, as Elizabeth Little proves in her road trip, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country travels in search of America’s languages (2012).

A self-confessed language fanatic, Little drives over 25,000 miles pursuing answers to linguistic mysteries:

Why do some languages last while others fade away?…How, ultimately, has the language experience affected the American experience?…why language communities in the United States have, again and again and again, eventually yielded to the seemingly implacable preeminence of English.

What is the language experience in America like? To say that the language of America is English, is a bit like saying Americans are blonde. American language, American English if you will, is the result of the co-mingling of different tongues, that happened (and is continuing to happen) at various phases in the nation’s history. European colonization of America brought into contact European languages with Native languages; slavery added African languages to the mix; and immigration, past and recent, is continuing to add more into the pool. Little’s cross-country travels look at each of these phenomena, their influence on American English, as well as the fate of these other languages and the mechanisms of language loss, death and preservation.

Colonization and the native peoples

…it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that American English owes much of its distinctiveness to words it has acquired in the New World.

Firstly, “all Native peoples are not, in fact, part of one big, homogenous culture”, and all Native personal names are not “of the verb-preposition-animal variety”. Sources suggest, says Little, that anywhere between 250 to over 400 languages were spoken in the pre-contact population of North America, and around 175 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States. That, however, doesn’t mean that these surviving languages are in any way mainstream, or are spoken by substantial numbers of people. I am not sure I have heard a conversation in even one of them. What contributed to the decline of these languages?

Plantation life

The institution of slavery brought African languages into the continent, traces of which can be found in  creoles around the nation. Creoles are contact languages born when two groups, speaking different languages, need to communicate with each other, but are either unwilling or unable to learn each other’s language. Creoles are also a tool to understand the socio-cultural milieu of the time of their conception. They are…

a linguistic encapsulation of the power dynamics of colonization and cultural exchange.

…[an] indication of the relative social, political, and economic power of each language group. The more power one group has, the more accommodating the other group will tend to be. ..Indeed, most creoles are based on the languages of the major colonial powers.

Speaking of creole languages, which are frequent byproducts of colonization, I began to wonder about such languages existing in India. I found that several Portuguese-based creole languages did indeed exist in India’s east and west coasts. Many of these languages are now extinct. I am not quite sure why or how colonial contact around the same period should have such different outcomes – with its people learning one language (English) to eventually become a mostly bilingual nation on the one hand, while also resulting in creole languages (Portuguese) on the other. Clearly, the mechanisms of language adoption and creation are hardly simple.

Assimilation

“Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought; customs and habits are moulded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble  would have been gradually obliterated.”

An 1868 report quoted in Trip of the Tongue

Native and creole languages have more or less disappeared from the nation’s landscape, surviving only in pockets. Geographic isolation (such as, when some languages are spoken in less-known islands), and insulation from cultural and economic interactions that normally lead to assimilation, have facilitated the preservation of these languages in some parts. Others are in the midst of revivals, aided by determined individuals and communities. Some are struggling, and possible more are dying.

In the 19th century, a systematic campaign of forced assimilation and linguistic humiliation led to the loss of many native and creole languages. Under the pretext of civilizing the peoples, the government adopted a policy of mandatory English language instruction in schools, at the same time disparaging indigenous and creole languages, and punishing their usage. With children learning to despise their native tongues, and with parents fearing the consequences of teaching or even speaking in the language, generational language transfer ceased.

Creoles, particularly, continue to “routinely face prejudice and derision born of the mistaken assumption that their languages reflect some combination of simplicity and stupidity”. The very existence of creole languages is evidence of inequalities, and continuing to regard these languages as inferior or degenerate is a sure sign that these inequalities continue to exist in our society.

Prestige language

“…the language associated with access to power, status, respect, prestige, and economic benefits in both professional and personal life.”

Deborah House, quoted in Trip of the Tongue

The advantages of knowing English, indeed, the necessity of knowing English, has/have contributed in no small amount to the decline of these languages. Apart from its obvious economic advantages, English has evolved into a prestige language. Fluency in English is often correlated with intelligence, and poor or limited proficiency in the language is looked down upon. Such linguistic prejudice is quite common in bilingual countries, such as India (where I’m from).

Immigration

Ironically, “the exploration and colonization of the Americas precipitated a rapid decline in indegenous language diversity…[and] also ushered in a new era of European language diversity”. Later immigration from Asia, and Central and South America, have only added to the diversity. A ride in the subway alone can offer you a glimpse of just how many languages are spoken in this country.

In the course of her road trip, Little finds Basque, Norwegian, Crow, Navajo, Makah, Spanish (many dialects of it), Louisiana Creole, Haitian Creole and Gullah, all in various stages of decline/revival/preservation. While she acknowledges the indispensability of English, she makes a case for the preservation of these, and other languages – these invaluable cultural artifacts.

The survival, death and dominance of languages is ultimately about privileges and inequalities.

A person’s language is necessarily a reflection of his or her own political environement, of the social and economic forces that influence survival and success. The languages of prestige are the languages of power.

Little certainly has a way with words, and combines trivia of the Jeopardy kind, with a thought-provoking commentary on the history of languages in the United States. What does the future hold for these languages? Of personal relevance to me is Little’s exploration of ethnic communities in the United States.

As ethnic communities welcome steady flows of immigrants, the usual process of language shift – limited English in the first generation, bilingual in the second generation, monolingual English in the third – is obscured, at least on the surface

Although, I see plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, a part of me was definitely saddened to imagine the loss of my native tongue in future generations (if I continue to live outside of my homeland).

Elizabeth Little is a talented writer, and I also hope to read her first book, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (2007).

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Coming of Age in China

About two months ago, I received The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir (2012) by Wenguang Huang, as part of a LibraryThing Early Reviewers giveaway. Based on the blurb and description provided, I expected a moving and perhaps humorous story set in Communist China of the 1970s. Huang’s memoir is remarkably poignant, and he is certainly has a sense of humor, but The Little Red Guard is also a surprisingly complex story of an unfamiliar culture at a particular period in its history, and the familiar struggles of its people.

The Chinese belief that “When a person reaches the age of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell is most likely to make his call”, leads Huang’s grandmother to obsessively start preparing for her death when she turns seventy-one. Believing that being buried next to her late husband is the only way to join him in the afterlife, Grandma endlessly urges her obedient son, the author’s father, to promise to bury her properly. The family then sets about acquiring a coffin and burial clothes, and making plans to ensure a befitting burial – which consumes their energies and finances for the next decade and a half, and leads to conflict and comedy, but mostly conflict. All this in the 1970s,  during China’s Cultural Revolution, when traditional practices and elements, including burials, were strictly banned from Chinese society.

… in the 1970s, buying a coffin for a living person in the city was considered an act of defiance against the Party policies and punishment could be severe.

The family lives under the stress of the risk of discovery, which would certainly destroy all prospects for Huang and his siblings. The book’s blurb…

The unbending dictates of Communist China pit one generation against another in this story of a family’s fifteen-year struggle to honor a grandmother’s final wish.

…certainly sums up this story well. But only that story. Undoubtedly, Grandma’s death wish, which Huang describes in this essay in The Paris Review, is a major theme that runs throughout the book, but it is so much more than that – a rich account of   private lives and public performances from a remarkably different time and place.

I’ve visited China earlier through books, but they have either been through the eyes of a non-Chinese person (River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze), or set before Communism took root in the country (The Rape of Nanking and The Good Earth). River Town does offer some glimpses into Communist living, but mostly public Communist living. The Little Guard was a good starting point to remedy my ignorance.

It is quite remarkable how an ideology can take over every aspect of people’s lives. Even their names.

In the mid-1960s, many parents opted for more progressive names for their sons to express their loyalty to the Party: “Yaojin”, to honor Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward; or “Wenge”, the Cultural Revolution; or “Weihong”, “defending the Red Revolution”.

Huang’s own name, Wenguang, which has something to do with being scholarly, was thus quite nontraditional coming from a family that embraced Communist ideology. But only in public. Even though Huang’s father was quite the model party member, the family’s (and other families’) private opinions and practices were quite different, even contradictory, evident in the trouble they took to purchase the hard-to-acquire coffin and other accessories required for a proper burial. They did, however, practice contradiction with caution, for you couldn’t be too careful with the communist climate encouraging neighbors, relatives, siblings, parents, and children to rat on each other. Very big brother-esque.

Father gave me a serious look [when Grandma mocked their Communist ideas] and said, “Don’t listen to your grandma and don’t tell the others what she says. She is illiterate and backward in thinking”. As I left the room, I heard him tell Grandma, “Watch out. He doesn’t know any better and could talk to his friends. If they report us to the authorities, they might think those were my ideas”. It was true.

The Red Guards were a youth organization, mobilized by Chairman Mao Zedong, to make and keep China red. Huang was the head of the Little Red Guards and the Communist Youth League throughout his elementary and high-school years. He writes:

As a “Little Red Guard”, I was supposed to defend and fight for Chairman Mao’s revolution, not to guard Grandma’s coffin. Each time I looked at the “Little Red Guard” scarf that I wore around my neck at school, I felt a pang of guilt. I was even hit with a fleeting thought of reporting it to my teacher. Then, the idea of seeing Father being paraded publicly deterred me.

Communist indoctrination began at a young age.

When American preschoolers reading Dr. Seuss or watching Sesame Street, we were memorizing Chairman Mao, starting with his simpler quotations and graduating to whole essays by elementary school. Thanks to visits to Mother’s factory, my revolutionary vocabulary was extensive because I asked what this or that character meant until I could easily read banners – DOWN WITH THE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARIES AND RIGHTISTS and THE WORKING CLASS IS THE LEADER OF THE REVOLUTION. When I became the first memorize the three famous essays by Chairman Mao in first grade, I was made class leader.

Little Huang had to deal with these, often dangerous, contradictions between his public persona and his family’s private practices. He writes about walking the tightrope – sharing forbidden secrets with classmates, being constantly prodded by teachers to stay true to their Communist faith, and surprised by his father who espoused Communism on the surface but acted very differently at home. Lest you think that Grandma’s elaborate burial plan was motivated by a sense of duty co-existing with Communist beliefs, Huang writes about his confused childhood.

Often, the teachings I received at home contradicted what I was taught in school. For example, the most important lessons at home were about filial piety…In my third year at elementary school, we were taught that filial piety was part of the Old Confucian philosophy, which needed to be eliminated. “Only Chairman Mao and the Communist Party are your closest relatives”, said our teacher. “If your parents or relatives engage in any counterrevolutionary activities, you should not hesitate in reporting them or publicly denouncing them. It is a true test of your revolutionary will.”

Ideological differences aside, Huang also speaks of differences in culture, much of the sort we hear in presentations on cross-cultural adaptability.

Unlike parents and teachers in the West, who encourage children to stand out from the crowd, be confident, unique and let their individuality shine, my parents insisted that I be ting hua or obedient and conforming, because “the gun will shoot the head of the flock.” Speaking from his own experience, Father warned me, “Don’t show off and be overly aggressive at school. Go with the flow. Otherwise, if anything goes wrong, you are likely to be a bigger target.”

He talks of the emphasis on rote learning as a way to discourage creativity and critical thinking. Echoing what Nurtureshock has to say about the inverse power of praise, Huang also notes that:

My parents, like many in China at the time, believed that praise led to arrogance and that criticism encourages children to aim higher. Throughout my school years, my academic performance was among the best in the class. Never once did I hear my parents praise me.

In 1974, Huang is designated coffin-keeper at age nine and shares his room with a big black secret coffin. Apart from describing his family’s preparations to honor Grandma’s wishes, the author also reflects on his own coming of age and changing worldview, from being deeply entrenched in Communist ideals as a child, to becoming a “bona fide Capitalist” who even tries to cut all ties to his Chinese self and past. Huang’s journey begins when he gains admission into the prestigious Xi’an Foreign Languages School and following China’s open-door policy in the 1980s, visits the United Kingdom as an undergraduate student. Being exposed to Western philosophy, witnessing intoxicating freedom and encouragement of critical thought in the West, Huang becomes increasingly disenchanted with the tenets of Communism. As the years of Communist indoctrination slowly wear off, Huang seeks to escape what he calls an “oppressive environment” by moving to the United States, where he is accepted at a graduate program.

Traveling back to China later, Huang speaks of Xi’an, his hometown, transformed in much the same way as Akash Kapur writes of India in India Becoming.

The courtyard houses were gone. Skysrapers punctuated the skyline, and gaudy traditional-style retail outlets lined the widened streets, and loud billboards glittered with the universally exclusive consumerist icons of Chanel and Rolex in the hastening dusk…Nowadays, all is transition and impermanence. In today’s rapidly changing China, both the living and the dead must give way to development…People are no longer to their birthplaces, and as they search for better job opportunities, many have migrated to the sprawling cities and to distant parts of the world.

Towards the end, the reader begins to realize what the book is really about. Huang grows somewhat estranged from his father in his college years, in part due to his father’s obsession with tradition. Ironically, his grandmother outlives his father, who dies an untimely death at age 60. At his father’s funeral, Huang deliberately sets aside ritual, and does not deliver the expected  long and touching eulogy that tradition demands of him. In his later years, Huang regrets his behavior. This book is his eulogy.

This book represents my effort to make up for my foolish reticence at Father’s funeral in November 1988. It is also my attempt to rescue an obscure family story that I believe speaks universally to the contradictions that are thrown in our paths as we grow up.

 

My only criticism of this book is that the title simply doesn’t do it justice. In retrospect, I think the title suits the work admirably.

 

 

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