Friday, November 29, 2013

China: "Wild Ginger" by Anchee Min

Anchee Min grew up near Shanghai in the 1960s and 70s, and writes in Wild Ginger of the so-called Cultural Revolution that marked (marred) her youth. I appreciated the opportunity to read what amounts to a first-hand account of the stark realities of that era in China.*

Wild Ginger uses personal stories to weave a political theme, but I found the work predictable from the moment we learn that the title character is given an unusual (for its time) name. Her mother sees an inner fire in her, and she does indeed burn fast and hot. She ultimately somewhat consumes her loyal "tree" friends Maple and Evergreen.

In this project, I've read several works that use the trope of blighted love to depict a failed nation. Agamemnon's Daughter and This Earth of Mankind both took that approach. Each clinically describes both the politics and the love story. Kadare, in his first person-narrative of totalitarianism in Albania, keeps an emotionless tone that reflects of the lack of feeling in the country overall. That very lack marks the degree to which the regime succeeded. Toer's account of Indonesia circa 1890 reads like a narrated tale, told from memory, which it was. Both of those works are by men. Perhaps it is coincidence that both are, in some sense, bloodless and clearly more about the political than the personal.

By women, I've read this book, Krik? Krak? about Haiti, and the work about Iran, Children of the Jacaranda Tree. Danticat's prose in the short story called Krik? Krak! is spare and retains the voice of the characters. It is an epistolary tale even though the letters are never sent. It is stark and moving. The imagery remains long after the covers close. This is literature similar to Kadare and Toer.

For my (admittedly somewhat naive) tastes, both Wild Ginger and Delijani's work about Tehran are "overwritten."  It is as if the authors were showing off for peers in a creative writing course. As a trivial example, Delijani uses the word susurrus not once, which would be fine, but three times in a few hundred pages.  More substantively, going back to my flippant depiction of literature as fiction that "ends badly" (see blog about Ireland), Delijani's book does not qualify. It is almost terrifyingly realistic to begin, but ends with two lovers going off hand in hand.

Min's work could have been literature, but she picks up the story of Evergreen and Maple a few decades after Wild Ginger's dramatic final act. There are green shoots from those charred trunks. This is likely realistic. The Cultural Revolution did end, and China has made ever-so-tentative steps toward a state without images of Mao in every household, "re-education camps," and neighborhood snitches. Nonetheless, the book would have been more powerful without the epilogue in which the trees left standing finally lean toward each other. This book SHOULD have been literature. 

I wonder if women writers feel compelled to offer happy endings in order to gain readers. If they do, does that mean women (or at least, women who buy books) find it difficult to cope with the difficulties of life, without having a fantasy close?  Have we been conditioned by Disney, Harlequin, and "chick lit" to lay down our money only when there is a tidy resolution that promises a better future?  Are we really not strong enough to accept reality in the fictional world?

Even more, is the purpose of fiction and or literature to entertain (Disney) or to inform and enlarge our perspective about the world?  I'm increasingly preferring the second choice. I do still read for entertainment, but I'm starting to demand more reality and less fantasy. While the truisms about sun after storms, lights at the end of tunnels, and silver inside of clouds are usually true, I fear that offering such respite from powerful emotions raised in fiction dilutes the impact of the storm itself. If we are to learn and understand, we need powerful emotions.***  Let them happen, good and bad.

* Note 1:  If you are interested in other works about China, and other parts of China, you might want to check out Reading the World by John Brookes. He read a book from each of the country's provinces. He also has a blog.

** Note 2: The official name is Islamic Republic of Iran. I'm using Islamist because it means "moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life" (The Free Dictionary online). 

*** Note 3: John Dirkx is a leader in this field of inquiry. For one of his takes on the topic, see "Nurturing Soul in Adult Learning." It is a classic academic article but will give you some idea of the issues involved and it is free.

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