‘Bury What We Cannot Take,’ by Kirstin Chen

Here is my latest book review for the SF Chronicle.

‘Bury What We Cannot Take,’ by Kirstin Chen

March 21, 2018

China in the late 1950s was replete with political and social tumult. Following the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Anti-Rightist Campaign started; by the end of 1959, more than half a million “rightists,” mostly intellectuals, were purged. Then a widespread famine, euphemistically called the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” by the government, killed tens of millions.

Numerous writers have described this period, among them Yang Xianhui, whose “Memory of Jiabiangou” is a tragic portrait of 3,000 rightists in a remote Chinese province.

Kirstin Chen’s second novel, “Bury What We Cannot Take,” is set in early Maoist China, in 1957. But it tells a different story, a lesser-known but engrossing account of people escaping to Hong Kong from mainland China.

Taking place on Drum Wave Islet, an island off the southeastern coast, and in Hong Kong, Chen’s book is an engaging account of the Ong family’s escape to freedom at the height of political oppression. It has an arresting opening: Siblings Ah Liam and San San, 12 and 9, from a once-wealthy family, discover their grandmother, Bee Kim, destroying a portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer. Ah Liam, eager to join the Party’s Youth League, reports the incident to the authorities. Suspecting the family’s loyalty to Mao, officials inspect their house. The children’s mother, Seok Koon, has devised a secret plan to procure permits for her children, the grandma and herself to visit Hong Kong, where her businessman husband lives. Now, with the party’s unexpected investigation, she is forced to leave a child behind as proof of the family’s plan to return. San San remains on Drum Wave Islet, while the rest of the family joins the father, Ah Zhai, in Hong Kong, to stay.

The subsequent story switches mainly between Seok Koon’s desperate efforts to rescue San San through trusted friends and a priest and San San’s attempts to escape on her own. Besides these two principal themes, subplots involve Seok Koon’s relationship with Bee Kim and her estranged husband, Zhai’s love for his mistress, the Ong family’s servants and old friends, and the people San San meets while on the run from the authorities. These subplots, despite sometimes risking being cumbersome and distracting, broaden the story’s scope, and add more layers to the main characters.

The book’s most memorable character is San San, described by her mother as “intelligent and mature for her age.” After her mother, brother and grandma flee to Hong Kong, she must write a self-criticism essay, which she reads it aloud to her class, denouncing herself as “the child of capitalist, bourgeois landlords,” and her family as “the running dogs of the Americans and the British.”

When her first attempt to escape fails, San San goes into hiding and plans her own escape. She steals a boat from a fisherman, befriends a boy and his mother, street performers, for food and shelter, and disguises herself as a boy. Her action-packed story is a delight to read.

Chen, a Singapore native who now lives in San Francisco, left her birth country to study in the U.S. when she was 15. Preferring the label of Singaporean writer to that of Asian American writer, she cherishes her Chinese and Singaporean roots. In “Bury What We Cannot Take,” the dialogue and historical details reflect her knowledge of Chinese culture and history, gained through both her upbringing and research. The cursing phrases like “Turtle eggs” and “you son of a dog” lend authenticity and playfulness to the language.

Toward the end of the book, Seok Koon, after almost losing her son, questions herself: “What if a mistake was too grave to live with? What if the guilt wormed its way deep into the flesh and grew more and more potent, devouring tissue and fat and skin, until one day, you looked down, and your whole self had been ravaged and nothing remained.” That’s what “Bury What We Cannot Take” ponders: mistakes and consequences of those split-second decisions.

Taogangzhe, the Chinese who escaped to Hong Kong from the 1950s to the ’80s, is now a term that lives in Chinese memory. Though we the reader may yearn for a richer political and social landscape and a more convincing ending in Chen’s book, it provides a rare glimpse into the little-documented history of such people during Mao’s era.

Fan Wu is the author of “Beautiful as Yesterday” and “February Flowers.” Email:books@sfchronicle.com

Bury What We Cannot Take

By Kirstin Chen

(Little A; 287 pages; $24.95)

Farewell, 再见,Mr. Toby Eady

Toby Eady, my first literary agent, a mentor and a dear friend, passed away three weeks ago, after losing his battle with cancer. Today, his funeral was held in London, the UK. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there and say the final goodbye.  

Toby launched my career as a writer. I remember very well his hearty laugh, his encouragement, his amazing cooking, our many long walks at Hyde Park, and the glittering in his eyes when he talked about publishing and translation. Few Western agents and publishers know as much as he did about China and translation, and even fewer are as passionate as he was for Chinese writers and literature.

Here are a few lines I wrote in Chinese for him: 月落乌啼,思念随风,化作繁星,永存天际。

To read Bookseller’s Tribute to him

Here is the message from Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a charity where Toby served as board chairman and where I lead a team as a volunteer.

Goodbye, 再见,Toby, 一路平安。


Time to redefine the word “nerd”

One day, my daughter, who’s eight-year old, asked me, “Mama, am I a nerd?”

“No, you’re not,” I replied. “Why did you ask?” She does competitive gymnastics, plays soccer, is the fastest runner in her class, and has many friends.

She explained that one of her classmates had called her a nerd because she likes reading.

Indeed, my daughter is a voracious reader, often reading books as thick as a brick. She has her own collection and she checks out more than a dozen books from our local library every week. When she’s absorbed in reading, she forgets about her surroundings. Sometimes I become impatient with her because I have to call her many times for dinner before she answers.

When did loving reading make you a “nerd”? I can talk about our dwindling reading culture, our increasingly shortened attention span, our addiction to entertainment and social media, and even Trump’s anti-intellectual tendency. But rather, I want to redefine what being a nerd means.

According to the Merriam-Webster, a nerd is “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Clearly this definition is outdated, considering how much we depend on technology and all the things it brings along. In Silicon Valley where I live, nerds are everywhere and they are well respected. “Nerd” is the synonym of “devotion,” “innovation,” “industriousness,” and “ingenuity.”

Apple, Tesla, Google, Facebook…they’re all products created by nerds. I was reading a recent Vogue article about fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. She seems a nerd to me.

I like some of the Urban Dictionary’s definitions of “nerd.” Here are a few

  • One whose IQ exceeds his weight
  • People who’re smarter than you.
  • The person you will one day call “Boss”

I’m adding my definition: nerds are the ones who dictate and control, the ones who decide on our fate as a society.

That day, my daughter and I talked about what being a nerd means. Different definitions, different perspectives. She said, after a bit thinking, “Well, I think it’s cool to be a nerd. Isn’t the best thing in the world being passionate about what you love?”

I agreed.

(Featured image: My 5-year-old was mesmerized by a design at The Tech in San Jose, California.)





A Powerful Movie: Blind Mountain

A friend asked me to recommend some Chinese movies. I mentioned “In the Mood for Love,” “In the Heat of the Sun,” “Center Stage,” “Peacock,” and “Blind Mountain.” I once reviewed “Blind Mountain” for Ploughshares. Please see below the slightly revised version. It’s such a powerful movie that I still remember a lot of details.

Ploughshares magazine

When you tell people you are a writer, they often say that they’d love to read your books but just cannot find the time. “But,” they continue, “If they’re made into movies someday, I’ll check them out.”

Maybe it’s just a polite way to say, “I’m not interested in your books.” Or maybe busy people tend to watch movies rather than read books for entertainment or enlightenment. Once or twice I overheard people saying that movies and widely popular TV series might totally replace books. It doesn’t sound likely, in my opinion–at least not in our generation’s lifetime.

I like movies but if I must choose between a good movie and a good book, I usually pick the book (unless the director is a favorite). If I have already read a book and liked it, I usually don’t watch its movie adaptation: More often than not, the book is much better than the movie. Over the years I have re-read many books but I rarely watch the same movie twice. Blind Mountain, a Chinese movie directed by Li Yang, is an exception.

Blind Mountain is one of the saddest movies, also the best, I’ve seen in years. Bai Xuemei, a college graduate, is kidnapped and sold to a peasant in a remote village as a bride. Repeatedly beaten and raped, she tries to escape and refuses to give up even after she bears the man’s child. When hope finally arrives, she finds herself trapped in the idyllic mountain village and its corrupt social and legal system.

Though the cast’s only professional is the lead actress, Huang Lu, the overall acting is wonderful and entirely credible. The cinematographer, Lin Jong, also creates a stunning visual experience.

The story is disturbing. Being based on true events makes it even more so. It touches me profoundly not only because it is tragic but also because it reminds me of my roots, a country burdened with injustice and oppressive traditions, especially in the rural areas, despite its economic boom.

The movie’s ending is perfect, leaving a lot to imagine. When the movie was released in China in 2007, it had a different, more upbeat and ironic ending, in an attempt to satisfy the censors.

The West’s reaction has been mixed. The movie received a standing ovation at Cannes but some critics gave lukewarm comments. “There’s little emotional underpinning to the rote story,” one said. Rote? How many movies about human trafficking are made each year? I don’t think it’s many. Also, a story can never be called “rote” if it provides new perspectives and cultural substances, as Blind Mountain does. (When I read that comment, I somehow thought of what an American once said to me: “I’m familiar with Asian literature.” Later, I found out that all the Asian literature he had read were several novels by an American-born Chinese writer.)

And “little emotional underpinning”? I could not disagree more. The emotion in the movie runs so thick and deep that I could barely breathe normally while watching it. The villagers’ matter-of-fact and unsympathetic attitude towards Bai’s suffering sends out a powerful message. Could this critic’s negative feedback result from his personal preference for being explicit as opposed to being implicit, and melodramatic as opposed to realistic? I don’t know. But to me, real life is implicit, subtle and nuanced much of the time, often not explicit when one might wish it to be.

Featured image: Inside Guitar Showcase, a guitar store in my neighborhood.  I’ve been teaching myself guitar, thanks to Youtube, but finding time to practice is a challenge.

The Hen and Her Eggs – About balance, also who you are.

In my recent conversations with other writers, the topic of self marketing and promotion frequently came up. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve been published long enough to know how important it is for writers to be actively involved in marketing and selling their books even if they are signed by a Big 5 publisher.

There has been gazillions of articles about how writers and artists can embrace social media and establish an effective commutation channel with their followers or potential audience. I’ve read some and found them helpful. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for writers to put all their energy into marketing themselves. Your time and energy is limited, and your creativity needs to be nurtured. You’re respected because of your work, not because how well you can promote yourself.

It’s about balance. Also about who you are.

Here is something I wrote for Ploughshares years ago entitled “The Hen and Her Eggs.” Though the digital space is increasingly crowded in the past several years,  this piece is still very much relevant.

Ploughshares magazine

The Hen and Her Eggs 

An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.

Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than social media presences, traditional bookstores and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties.

When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.

Little- or lesser-known writers need publicity. So do well-known writers. It matters if your book sells or not and it’s certainly important for you to talk about it and to hear feedback–not to mention the satisfaction of contributing to world literature and inspiring others. In his 1992 interview with The Washington Post, novelist Don Delillo said, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times and I’m not even remotely in that category. But people want to believe this because it satisfies some romantic conception of what a dedicated writer is and how he ought to live. ‘I know you never do interviews.’ They say that to me all the time. ‘But here I am’ is my stock reply.”

Ideally, your publisher or publicist will arrange all the nice events for you. Ideally, Michiko Kakutani will eagerly write you a stellar review. And Ideally, Oprah’s Book Club will welcome you as their latest favorite. But in reality, you probably have to do a lot yourself to market your book. So is there a limit to self-promotion? I guess not. Do what you feel comfortable with. If you are like Capote, enjoy parties and talk shows (but don’t forget that he maintained a rigid writing schedule most of his life); if you are like William Trevor, you probably prefer gardening and afternoon tea to a reading at Shakespeare and Company. It’s your judgment. If your book sells because of your hard work in self-promotion, give yourself a big congratulation.

(Featured image: a noodle restaurant in a Beijing 胡同hutong.)

Repetition – The Holy Grail of persuasive selling

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book (not a memoir) for a while. When it comes to submission, nonfiction works differently from fiction. For fiction, agents and publishers typically want to see the full manuscript before they make a decision about it. But for nonfiction, a proposal with a summary, chapter outlines and a sample chapter sometimes can land you a deal.

Usually I read more fiction than nonfiction, but because of this nonfiction project I’m working on, I read more nonfiction these days, if only to be inspired in my new endeavor. After reading several bestsellers, I’ve found a pattern, which is that they’re very repetitive in making a point. They say something on, say, page 11, then on page 13, they remind you of what they’ve said on page 11, and on page 15, the end of the chapter, they say something to the effect of “I hope you remember that on page 11 and page 13 I’ve said something similar.”

To some readers, maybe it’s nice to be reminded again and again, but to me, I just want to skip pages and even put down the book.

After talking to a writer friend I realized that this repetitive style has its roots in rhetoric and is considered the Holy Grail of presentation training and persuasive selling.

When it comes to winning an audience, supposedly, Aristotle, or Dale Carnegie, or Winston Churchill has said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

Considering that our attention span, thanks to all the portable devices, is now less than that of a goldfish, considering that the average person spends five hours/day surfing the web and using apps, I guess what I deem as unnecessary repetition is not all that annoying to some people after all.

I have to admit that I even welcomed such “memory reinforcement” from time to time. Life is busy, work, kids, house chores, friends, endless errands…..and all the worries and anxieties caused by President Trump. The last time I had the luxury of finishing a book at one setting (or maybe two settings) was probably before I had become a mother.

So, dear authors, please do remind me in Chapter 2 what you’ve said in Chapter 1.

(Featured image: I took the photo several years ago when I visited the Beijing 798 Art Zone, a landmark of urban art and culture in Beijing. It reminds me of when I was little, slurping the soup noodles my grandma made for me.) 

Happy New Year from my favorite charity, The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL)

It’s been four months since I started to volunteer at the UK-based charity, The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL), where I lead an amazing team of volunteers from all over the world. The team has grown fast, with almost twenty people now. I owe them a big thank you for inspiration and support.

This greeting card is designed by Gloria Chen, an MBL volunteer in China. I love the messages on the card:

Hang on to your truth

Respect the truth of others

Choose to be happy

Be the voice for someone who has no voice

Be quiet strength 

Be the type of kindness that is strength 

Choose healthy foods, activities and people 

Fall seven times, stand up eight

Live honestly, truly and with integrity 

Happy New Year!

(If you’re curious about The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, please visit www.mothersbridge.org)