I hope I can be forgiven for this post by anyone who objects to Red Room "love fests" -- I promise not to make a habit of it -- but I really want to write a short entry about a book I read this week, one written by a Red Room author whom I have begun to consider an online friend. The book is called Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father's Shoulders, and its author is Belle Yang.
Obviously, I don't mean to offer anything like a book review, which implies an effort to maintain a critical distance from the text. Nor do I mean to describe the book in a comprehensive way -- the best introduction you could have to it comes in one of Belle's own blog posts.
What I do want to post here, briefly, are some of my reactions to the book as its fortunate reader, because I know myself the wonder and (usually!) pleasure of hearing responses to my writing, and I like to pass that experience on to others when possible. Readers' responses always teach me something about my work -- or even something about the subject of my work, or about writing in general -- that I didn't know. So. Some responses of my own:
- I gained a new appreciation for Belle's wicked sense of humor. One favorite moment of this, among many, is this passage in the description of the deathbed scene of a very old (and well-to-do) family patriarch: "When the long-expected words 'Yanquile! He no longer breathes!' were echoed by those at the bedside, then the real and pretend tears began in earnest." : ) To fully appreciate the humor here, you have to have been carried along, as I was, on the detailed descriptions of the many wonderful rituals and customs that the dying man's vast numbers of family members have gathered to carry out, all to ensure that he is properly honored. The narrator's voice is sincere, not ironic, in general, so when irony is called forth, it is surprising and funny.
- I am amazed by how richly rewarding it was to read the history that contextualizes her Baba's life. The impact of colonialism (at times Russian, Japanese, British, and otherwise) upon his childhood and young adulthood is relentless -- and yet the narrative makes clear how much of life, even in conditions of political and economic oppression, can be beautiful and rich and joyous nonetheless, because of the relationships and traditions that manage to survive against the odds. I say this as a devoted reader of literature (meaning, narrowly, creative writing) who too often approaches history as information I know I need to know, rather than as a narrative I'll enjoy reading. Belle's writing offers a singular (yet widely resonant) view of Chinese history as one important thread in a work of "creative nonfiction" -- the best of both worlds.
- Related to the first response is my appreciation of how well she melded her father's cultural standpoint with her own. She puts the difference best herself: "we had no natural understanding, Baba and I: his spiritual address was in the East, mine so much in the West." Her ability to bring these two "addresses" into coherent conversation with one another -- each respectfully interrogating the other -- makes the narrative speak with such clarity to a reader, like myself, who knows embarrassingly little about Chinese history and culture that goes below the superficial level. My appreciation also stems from my perspective as a writer who also comes from a culture about which surprisingly little is known (and perhaps even less understood) by many of the people who might decide to read my work.
- Lest this be lost in the more philosophical and writerly points I've made, I want to say how strong my emotional response to the book was. Before I knew it, I was utterly bound up in a desire to know more, more, more, about Baba's life and family. I cheered for Baba's victories, large and small. Likewise, I was devastated to read about some of the losses the Yangs sustained over the course of Baba's youth, even though much of it was foreshadowed by what I've learned about Belle's family history just from reading her blog, as well as by the fact that certain parts of the narrative don't appear in linear, chronological order. She writes so beautifully and so caringly that I could not help but invest myself in the figures who cross her pages -- even those who show up only for a single chapter, like the unlucky, but stallwart Uncle Zhao and the poor, naive Uncle Yu.
- A final response, of the many I could still add: the whole book is transformed by the inclusion of Belle's gorgeous paintings and drawings. From the world depicted on the cover, to the prints that open each chapter with a symbolically significant representation of the story (all in glorious color), to the black & white ink drawings that illustrate smaller moments in each piece, the book just wouldn't be the same without the work that flowed from the "other side" of Belle's magical pen. (Mine comes only with one side -- the side that writes letters!) I am more eager than ever for her to finish the graphic novel she is working on!
I wish I had time to write at length about every book or work that moves me deeply. I do plan to write about things I'm reading as often as possible, so if you're looking for things to add to your to-read list, check back from time to time. But I couldn't let this opportunity to write about Belle's work pass. She is so generous with so many of us here in the RR, it is truly a pleasure to be able to give her something -- unbidden and unexpected and motivated simply by gratitude -- in return.