“Baba, do you think Great Granddad went mad like King Lear?” I asked my father on our evening walk.
“No, your great grandfather did not go mad, because he was a Buddhist and Daoist. Most men would have committed suicide by jumping into the river after being pushed out of his estate, turned a beggar, and abandoned by his children. The Patriarch felt the hardship was put in his path to temper him. He felt he would achieve enlightenment through adversity, so he lived on.”
The Patriarch With Grands
That’s one of the differences between Yang Junchen, the Patriarch (of the House of Yang on Western Pond in Xinmin, Shenyang Province of Manchuria) and the pagan King Lear. My granddad had faith in the flow of the cosmos.
I was born in 1960 on the island of Taiwan, the very year my great granddad died of hunger during one of the greatest famine known to mankind. His sons and daughters would not take him in because he was labeled a Capitalist. Their children would not be able get an education and their food ration would be curtailed if the government found out their landowner past. Ultimately the one who did nourish and warm the Patriarch was his estranged eldest son, my grandfather the truth-speaker. But like, Cordelia and King Lear, it was too late for the happily ever after. Great Granddad soon died from the years of ravage from hunger and cold.
Up on Old Granddaddy Hill where my ancestors were buried
I began writing, “Forget Sorrow: A China Elegy,” in 1996, but I could not sell the book to the original publisher of the first two illustrated nonfiction books, my Manchurian trilogy. When I became ill, I still could not let go of the dream to publish the third tome. I think the book’s hope kept me alive. My great grandfather came in a dream as if to say, “You have not rescued my story from the chaos of time and forgetting. This is not time to be lying in bed.” And so I got up in 2000 after my tenth blood transfusion, which fell on my birthday. My body started to make its own blood and pushed its way into the new millennium.
When I saw the exquisite Korean film, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring,” some four years ago, I left the theater sobbing. The last scene was of a monk, shirtless, sweating, carrying a huge piece of rock, shaped like a millstone, up the mountain. I saw the monk's struggle as my own and felt all the pull of gravity for not being able to sell the story, not having the power to release Great Grandfather’s soul by taking revenge for him in the telling of his life. I was sobbing and choking as I left the theater to people’s stares (and to the bewilderment of my date).
When I told my parents about sobbing attack, my father said, ”But you don’t have a stone. You may have had it, but it’s not there. If you think it’s there, I release you from it.” Still, I felt the boulder.
My superstar agent was no longer interested in selling this book after a handful of rejections (“beautifully written but too quiet for the market”), and after working with an editor on my agent’s recommendation--someone who was only messing with my mind and wasting my precious hours--I bailed and changed agency. I sold the book as a graphic novel a year later.
The Patriarch with Baba
I have to admit, I am not ungrateful the book took eleven long years to sell. The graphic novel market had matured; the format had evolved to encompass memoir and history. I found the perfect format to put words and pictures together.
The stone has fallen off my back. In many ways, I feel I am finished with my writing life. Today, I simply have a LIFE made eloquent by writing. I have more work to do, but it is LIFE I live. I am not weighted down by "THE writing life.
In the past, I have felt I am the reincarnation of my great granddad, but as I work on the graphic novel, I know he has left my body and is happy in Xi-Tian, the Western Paradise, Nirvana. He is set free.
PS—We’ve started the King Lear discussion tribe, and I am rereading by comparing the Quarto and the Folio, side by side. I’ve had to get this post off my chest before I begin the earnest reading and careful thoughts.
PPS--I posted more thoughts on Shakespeare in a comment to Matthew Biberman.
The first two books of my trilogy:
I won't be doing much study of Lear as I will be in Vancouver soon with the American Immigration Law Foundation
Causes Belle Yang Supports
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