Battlepanda: A thousand autobiographical novels blooming


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A thousand autobiographical novels blooming

Awesome book review, not of a book per se, but of a whole literary phenomenon.
[T]his book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local "team leader" and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant "Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed" one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of "black" (as oppose to "red") families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).

There are many other ingredients that make up this formula. To repeat, these books certainly reflect some of the realities of what were undoubtedly dreadful times, but, as is the case with all literary creations, they represent only a selection from a far larger mass of possible material. You don't write about casual kindnesses or increased crop yields in this kind of book. The formula requires horrors, just as the formula for crime stories requires a dead body, a hidden weapon, a couple of key witnesses who only show up late in the tale, and the final unmasking of the murderer.


And the invariable ending of Cultural Revolution horror stories is always the same — the Death of Mao. Finally the pressure is off, the lovers of Western literature can at last bring their old paperbacks of David Copperfield and Les Miserables out from under the cowshed and file applications for entry to elite universities, their natural home.
I would really like to see some books in English by Chinese writers that isn't about their experiences in the cultural revolution or novels about defiant young woman growing up in a oppressive culture (or both). And I would like to see some books in English by Chinese-American writers that's not about the clash of cultures between their mother's generation and their's.

I feel bad, because it is not that I have anything against Amy Tan or that lady who wrote Wild Swans per se, it's that their work epitomizes the two big ghettos for Chinese or Chinese-american writers. Their feelings and works may indeed be authentic and sincere, but when publishers only seem to favor books that feature certain scripts it make them all seem like cookie-cutter efforts to fit the mould of what's expected from their background.

I used to know a woman who wants to write sci-fi fantasy novels and and once said she didn't like her name because it immediately recognizable as a 'black' name and everybody would know her race as soon as they pick up the manuscript or book. When she said that she wished her name did not identify her as black, I felt like everybody at the table (all non-black) put pressure on her to explain herself. But I understand the impulse -- she has no desire to write her works from a 'black' perspective and she won't have to suffer being put under that bracket immediately if her name was Alice or Jennifer or something. Anyhow. I feel like I've wandered off topic enough.