Letter From Peking

I love diving into lesser known works of famous authors; you never know what pearls you might come up with. Letter from Peking is one such pearl of a book written by the legendary Pearl S. Buck. She is most famous for The Good Earth, a novel about rural pre-revolutionary China that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, earning the distinction of being the first American woman to be honored with the award. I may be one of the rare readers who preferred Letter From Peking to her popular and award winning novels. Letter From Peking, published in 1957, has an unusual plot and a sad and haunting tone. I was moved to tears several times while reading.

The story is about long distance love and a family caught between two countries, two continents and two cultures. The setting is Vermont and the novel is written in the form of a dateless diary with a lot of flashback to Peking. Elizabeth has been separated from her beloved husband for five years and has been raising their son alone on her family’s farm in Vermont. While studying at Radcliffe College, she had met Gerald MacLeod, a half-Chinese half-American doctoral student at Harvard. They got married and returned to Peking where they spent many happy years together until the rise of the Communist regime when it was no longer safe for Elizabeth and her son to stay there. Gerald is the President of the University in Peking and it is not clear if and when he will return to the US to join his family.

Elizabeth leads a quiet life in Vermont managing her farm and devoting her days to her son Rennie and Gerald’s father, Baba, a Scotsman from Virginia whom she is looking after in his old age. The caretaker of the farm and his wife, the single doctor who takes a romantic interest in Elizabeth and summer residents are among the few people who revolve in their orbit. She pines for her husband and reminisces about the beautiful love they shared. In fact, they were each other’s first love. “The first run of maple syrup, John Burroughs says, is like first love, “always the best, always the fullest, always the sweetest, while there is a purity and delicacy of flavor about the sugar that far surpasses any subsequent yield.”

Now she lives on the strength of her memories and on the hope that they will be reunited again which seems like a dim prospect in the political climate of the time. She reassures herself:“Gerald has not deserted me nor I him. We are divided by history, past and present.” Letters are the only form of communication between them. They have to be sent clandestinely as communication with westerners is banned by the Communists. At first fairly frequent, they start dwindling in number until a final one comes along. The contents of the last letter are not revealed till the end.

Although not a widow, the sad reality is that Elizabeth is one in many ways. I felt a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. Can you imagine not seeing your spouse for years and living life without knowing if you’ll ever meet again? There is so much uncertainty coupled with the loneliness but yet Eve as Gerald used to call his beloved Elizabeth, takes it all in stride with so much grace. There are men vying for her attention but she fends off their advances staying loyal to her husband. I think what appealed to me in the book was the gentleness in the tone despite the sadness. There is something very moving about Elizabeth’s serene acceptance of her situation and resignation to her fate. Her loneliness is described with poignancy:

Oh, the awful silence of the valley at night! No one comes near me and I am as alone as though I lived solitary upon a planet. Here and there in the distance a light burns. It means a house, a home, two people, perhaps children. The oil lamp burns yellow in Matt’s little house, and far down at the end of the valley the bright single light is the naked electric bulb that never goes out above the office door of Bruce Spaulden. I know, too, the intermittent flares of summer folk. None of them burns for me. Sometimes I light every lamp in my empty house and a stranger passing by could believe the house is full of guests. But I have no guests.”

I loved the Vermont setting and its juxtaposition with Peking; the grandeur of Chinese civilization offers an interesting contrast to the gentle beauty of Vermont and captures the essence of the novel. Elizabeth cherishes her husband’s Chinese heritage and wants her son to appreciate it too and wants him to have a life partner who would accept and understand it too. Baba lives in the past and still wears Chinese silk robes and reads Chinese books. As Elizabeth says, he still lives in the world of Confucius and Chinese emperors. I think that’s an important distinction- there is the grand old China- one of the oldest civilizations of the world and the new Communist regime which is entirely different. Her father-in-law is the only link to her husband and it is interesting that though Baba and Elizabeth are not Chinese by blood, they are proud to be linked to the rich culture.

Being quarter Chinese, Rennie, on the other hand, wrestles with his identity. Which country do you claim as your own when you can’t embrace both? It was a period of Sino-American geo-political tensions and there was a real fear of China and suspicion of anyone favorable to it and a similar distrust on the part of the authoritarian Chinese government towards Americans. Besides, in those days mixed families were not as common. Rennie has to choose between America and China and sadly between his mother and father. Unlike his mother, it is not so easy for him to forgive his father and it is safer for him to reject his heritage.

He falls in love with a girl in the neighborhood named Allegra and he is worried that revealing his Chinese identity will keep her from liking him. Elizabeth is harsh and judgmental about his relationship with the white girl. She wonders how Rennie could love a girl whose heart can “only hold one cup”. Pearl S. Buck beautifully depicts the complicated mother-son relationship.“Yet no mother can save her son. She can only watch and wait and wring her hands.” I thought her feelings arose from her loneliness. Her son was the only constant person in her life and she seemed jealous like any over protective mother. But later on I realized that maybe she was on to something as she seemed to readily accept his relationship with Mary, a girl she thought to be better suited to him and who would understand and embrace his Chinese heritage.

Gerald and Elizabeth’s relationship is tender and sweet no doubt, but I felt that she could have been idealizing it at times. Time and distance can make you lose perspective. When a person is absent, we tend to focus on their positive qualities and overlook their flaws. We only remember the good times. The bitter truth is that Gerald chose his country over her. Gerald’s patriotism and love for China prevented him from leaving his country. He had the opportunity to return to the US with her but didn’t and then it became too late. Even her son points it out to her but she is in some kind of denial mode. She continues to be fiercely protective of him.

I was struck by the dignity and poise Elizabeth had in the face of suffering but I do think she had a slight ‘holier than thou‘ attitude- she felt that no relationship could compare to this sublime love of theirs and she is steadfast in her belief that this true perfect love can withstand barriers of time, distance, race and culture. Her attitude seems like a coping mechanism. She needed something to cling on to, to give her hope to continue waiting.

In spite of some annoying traits, Elizabeth is on the whole a sympathetic character and I think it is because she is a lot like a modern day single mom who is self-reliant and has to raise her son singlehandedly. She is an independent woman who lives alone, works hard and makes her own money by managing a big farm by herself. She interacts mostly with men and like a single woman sometimes has to deal with their romantic interest in her. She also takes care of her father-in- law like a lot of women who end up taking the responsibility of caregiving. I am not going to reveal what happens in the end; what the final letter disclosed and whether Elizabeth is reunited with her husband. I hope I have piqued your curiosity enough to want to read the book.

When Pearl S. Buck died in 1973, former President Richard Nixon called her “a human bridge between the civilizations of the East and the West.”Though there are critics who believe that she perpetuated stereotypes about the Chinese, there is no doubt that she was instrumental in making China and the Chinese real and relevant to many people. This ‘pearl’ of a novel is more than a story about interracial conflict. It is a story about the love a woman is capable of- a love in its myriad complex forms-the undying love that she has for an absent husband, the protective love she has for her son, the filial duty and affection for her in-laws and most of all the love for a country that she has no ties of blood to but has embraced with her heart and soul. Imagine all this tumult of emotion soaked up in the quiet and gentle beauty of Vermont!

Have you read this novel or any other novel by Pearl S. Buck? And have you enjoyed reading any lesser known works of popular authors?

 

Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri’s early novels and short stories explored the theme of displacement and alienation in the context of the Indian- American immigrant experience. In 2012, Lahiri moved to Italy and adopted the country and its culture. Not only did she learn Italian and become fluent in the language, she made the startling decision to give up writing in English. She wrote her first work in Italian in 2015, a non-fiction piece entitled In altre parole which was translated into English as In Other Words by Ann Goldstein. ( You can read my blog post on the book here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/in-other-words-a-love-affair-with-a-language/ )

Dove mi trovo ( Where I Find Myself) is her second book in Italian and this time she has translated it herself into English as Whereabouts. She has also moved back to the US, coming out a little, if not wholly, out of her self-imposed linguistic exile. Though Whereabouts does not address the immigrant experience, the anxiety of dislocation–that feeling of being neither here nor there- is still the prevailing theme.

In a series of vignettes set over a year and spanning the seasons, Whereabouts chronicles the daily life of a middle aged single woman in an unnamed city, presumably Rome in Italy. The structure is fragmentary and there is no plot as such-in fact nothing much happens. The short chapters read like diary entries. From the few crumbs of details thrown at the reader, we guess that she is a professor at a university and has never been married or had children. She is aloof with her colleagues and her relationship with her parents is fraught. She describes herself as “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around...” She may have some regrets in life but she seems content with her lifestyle despite her loneliness. She derives comfort from her mundane routine and rituals.

She wanders through the city and frequents its haunts as she goes about her day. You can find her on the sidewalk, at the trattoria, in the piazza, in the bookstore or at the museum. In fact these locations are also chapter titles. Sometimes the titles refer to the weather or the season (‘In spring’, ‘In the Sun’, ‘In August’). There’s one chapter titled ‘In My Head’ and another one called ‘Nowhere’. She moves in and out of these different urban spaces forming tacit and fleeting connections with the people she encounters.The specificity of the location is juxtaposed with the meanderings of the narrator’s mind which jumps between the past and the present. At times on the street, she runs into people she knows. But often she is only an eavesdropper, intrigued by strangers. She follows a couple having an argument and builds up a whole narrative in her head about their personal life based on the few words she hears them speak. She is a voyeur and so are the readers, privy to her innermost thoughts. She takes comfort in crowds but is a solitary woman who prefers being alone. “I eat alone, next to others eating alone”, she muses at a restaurant. She feels less alone in the company of people. She craves for connection but not of the close kind:

This evening as I read in bed I hear the roar of cars that speed down the road beneath my apartment. And the fact of their passing makes me aware of my own stillness. I can only fall asleep when I hear them. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, always at the same time, it’s the absolute silence that interrupts my sleep. That’s the hour when there’s not a car on the road, when no one needs to get anywhere. My sleep grows lighter and lighter and then it abandons me entirely. I wait until someone, anyone, turns up on the road. The thoughts that come to roost in my head in those moments are always the gloomiest, also the most precise. That silence, combined with the black sky, takes hold over me until the first light returns and dispels those thoughts, until I hear the presence of lives passing by along the road below me.

As she goes about her day, she reflects on her life and her relationships. She has had her share of men including married men and a two timing boyfriend. There is also her friend’s husband to whom she is drawn and he seems to be attracted to her as well but they never act on their feelings. She discovers that over time, this hypothetical affair, “which never took hold to begin with, loses its hold over me.” The narrator is prone to anxiety and suffers from tics, headaches, odd afflictions and mysterious pains arising out of the blue. Her mother who was codependent while married, is now a lonely woman who lives alone. Her father’s untimely death has left her bereft but she is not able to forgive him for not protecting her from her mother’s rages and cries out near his crypt: “ …but that magma never touched you, you’d already built yourself an enclosure that was taller and thicker than the marble that encases you now.” She was supposed to go on a trip with him to see a play but he died before that could happen. Her buried anger erupts : “I refused to unpack my suitcase for a month. I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.

The unnamed narrator who vacillates between the need to stay and to leave, to connect and to disconnect is a sort of an ‘everywoman’. It is easy for any city woman to identify with her. She is a flâneuse somewhat like her literary predecessor, Mrs. Dalloway, who ambles around the city, both part of the crowd and separate from it. I thought of how, like the narrator, we crave anonymity and blend in with the crowd but yet we shrink from total solitude. We are happy to sip our coffee alone with a book or our smartphone in a café but we derive a sense of security from the people around us. Even the narrator sees her double, a woman who looks like her and whom she follows and loses in the crowd. “ My double, seen from behind, explains something to me: that I’m me and also someone else, that I’m leaving and also staying.”“Did I imagine her? No, I’m certain I saw her. A variation of myself with a sprightly step, determined to get somewhere, just up ahead.” Variations of the narrator exist everywhere, caught in the hustle and bustle of urban loneliness.

The quiet story has a dreamlike quality and shifts between shadow and light, absence and presence, stillness and movement, till the narrator makes a momentous decision. When she was a little girl, she was afraid to jump from one tree stump to the other while playing with other children at school, but she finally takes a giant leap of faith. And like her protagonist narrator, Jhumpa Lahiri also reinvents herself by leaving her comfort zone to try something different. I appreciate her devotion and dedication to another language. It resonates with me personally, as much like Lahiri, I grew up exposed to many languages and was most fluent in English, which was not my mother tongue, but a ‘stepmother’, to borrow her analogy from In Other Words. I went on to embrace French, a totally different language I could consider my foster mother. I understand her relationship to Italian as I share her passion for living and breathing a foreign language. Yet I am left with ambivalent feelings on reading this book.

Does she have to give up one narrative style to find a new voice in her writing? Does she have to abandon one language to adopt another? I did not quite have the same intense and intimate experience with her Italian books as I did with her immigrant writing. There are a few poetic prose passages I savored, but on the whole I felt that some of her linguistic brilliance, so evident in English, is missing here as she is still in the process of perfecting Italian. I was mostly left with this agonizing question: Will we never get to read another Interpreter of Maladies or Unaccustomed Earth?

The Mad Woman In The Attic

 

One of the most fascinating characters in literature is the mysterious mad woman confined to an attic in Jane Eyre. I have read and re-read Jane Eyre many times and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never paid much attention to this spectre of a woman lurking in the shadows until much later in life. To my young mind, she was nothing more than a plot device; a nuisance and an impediment to this beautiful love story between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Still I was aware that she wielded a lot of power as her existence threatened the happiness of two people in love.

A strange woman evoking fear, Mr. Rochester’s long-suffering first wife is depicted as a savage creature with a preternatural appearance and a diabolical laugh:

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.

Throughout the book she is described in a degrading and dehumanizing way as a ‘clothed hyeana’, a ‘goblin’, a ‘vampire’, someone of ‘pygmy intellect’ and is referred to as an animal or by the neutral pronoun ‘it’. She is considered a raving lunatic as she sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed, attacks Mr. Mason and tears Jane’s veil on the eve of her wedding. On re-reading the book now I realize that years of confinement without fresh air or sunshine would be enough to drive anyone mad. We don’t have her account of the story. She is referred to by her maiden name Bertha Mason although she is Mr. Rochester’s legal first wife. Hidden, stifled, negated, she is denied of her conjugal rights. Her ethnicity is not clear; she is described as dark but was probably a white Creole woman, but even as a white woman she is viewed as the foreign ‘other’ compared to the ‘civilized’ English.

Two feminist critics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in a 1979 book entitled The Madwoman in the Attic posited that she represents the subverted rage of Charlotte Brontë herself, the female voice stifled in literature who had to write the story under a male pseudonym or that she could be the evil doppelgänger of Jane herself. Read the book if interested in a thorough analysis. Although a little dated, it’s a seminal work which sowed the seeds for future literary criticism.

While recently re-reading Jane Eyre, I focused on the dichotomy between the two women; the kind and good-hearted Jane and the wild and intimidating Bertha. In Victorian novels women are often depicted as one of two binary opposites- angel or monster.

It is interesting that both women possess qualities attributed to the other. As a child Jane displayed bouts of aggression when confined to the red room by her aunt. Years later, Mrs. Reed on her death bed, reveals: ” I could not forget my own sensations when you thus started up and poured out the venom of your mind: I felt fear as if an animal that I had struck or pushed had looked up at me with human eyes and cursed me in a man’s voice.” Jane’s aggressive and unladylike behavior, similar to Bertha’s is also likened to that of an animal and a man. It was social conditioning at her boarding school that curbed her impetuousness. She became docile and learned to control her feelings. Yet Jane is a passionate, independent and courageous woman who has a rebellious streak and shows spunk when needed. She does try to assert her individuality when she refuses to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress on finding out that he is already married or when she refuses to be dolled up in silks to please him.

Bertha, for all her belligerence, is a subjugated woman forced to give up her wealth and her country. Even Jane can’t help feeling sorry for her and rebukes Mr. Rochester:“ Sir.. you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” Bertha represents the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. She is Jane’s alter ego who acts out her darkest repressed desires. This type of ‘doubling’ is a motif prevalent in many Gothic novels.

Jane Eyre is one of my most favorite literary characters. Even to this day I admire her for her resilience, her tenacity and her ability to forgive. She is a sensible woman who follows her heart but doesn’t compromise her integrity. Most women, I imagine, identify with her irrespective of ethnicity and skin tone. The racial prejudice and xenophobic overtones escaped my attention as I was heavily invested in her romance. But now with age I view Mr. Rochester in a different light. He’s a dark and brooding man who tried to deceive Jane. And then, there’s the troubling issue of mental illness and its depiction! And I have become more enamored with the woman in the attic who eventually jumps to her own death and enables the couple to get married. ” Reader, I married him” declares Jane towards the close of the novel.

Reader, I married him first!

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The Sargasso Sea with free- floating sargassum!

There’s always another side to every story. Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, written in 1966 is a prequel and a post colonial reading of Jane Eyre, narrating the story from the perspective of Bertha Mason. She literally brings her out of the closet..er..attic. She gives a voice to the silent woman and reveals how she was a victim of patriarchal and colonial hegemony. Her mental illness made matters worse.

The first Mrs. Rochester who goes by the name Antoinette Cosway in Rhys’ book is a white Creole, born and raised in the West Indies. The novella is divided into three sections narrated alternatively by Antoinette and by Rochester and is set in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Jamaica. The last section takes us back to Thornfield Hall in England. Antoinette lives with her mother and sick brother in relative poverty until her mother remarries the wealthy Mr. Mason. Black workers burn down their plantation house, her brother dies and her mother slips into madness. She spends the rest of her maiden days in a convent school until her marriage is arranged with Mr. Rochester. He marries her for her dowry and is deceived into the marriage by his own father and brother who wish to disinherit him and hide the history of insanity in his fiancée’s family from him.

The text highlights the political and racial tensions between former slaves and slaveowners after the Emancipation. Antoinette’s parents who were once slaveowners represent a shameful legacy to the locals. Antoinette who grows up in isolation belongs nowhere. A white European girl raised in Jamaica, she is as much of an outsider to the English who visit the island and marry the white girls as she is to the local colored people. She experiences a sense of alienation and rootlessness:

It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English woman call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”

Mr. Rochester is ill at ease in his own way in this languid and lush country which is frighteningly oppressive in its intensity of sensations and he laments: “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” On the one hand he lusts after his seductively beautiful bride and on the other, he is bewildered by her strange native habits and her familiarity with the servants and especially with her nanny Christophine who practices obeah ( voodoo) and doles out rum and love potions as and when needed. Rumors of madness in her family drive a wedge between the couple. Eventually Antoinette herself starts showing signs of mental illness.

Marriage is another form of slavery.  It is interesting that Antoinette whose name has been changed to Bertha ( just as Mr. Rochester would, on occasion, call Jane by the name of Janet) and who is transported to England and locked in the attic for years, only gets her liberation through death. And Jane, who is free to marry, will be confined in matrimony due to her gender and also as she will have to take care of a crippled and invalid husband.

Although the idea of giving a voice to the marginalized woman is subversive and original, Wild Sargasso Sea, in my opinion, is so dreadfully written that it loses all its credibility. The sentences are disjointed and incomplete and often missing punctuation. Maybe Rhys’ intention was to portray Antoinette’s fragmented self with incoherent dream like visions and a hallucinatory effect but the execution is poor. Moreover Antoinette still remains in the shadows. I did feel an inexpressible sadness for her and her plight but I felt she could have been fleshed out more as a character. This is one of the rare instances when I enjoyed the film more than the book.

The book tackles issues of racism, reverse racism, xenophobia and misogyny in the sensual setting of the West Indies. The Sargasso Sea, defined by ocean currents instead of land boundaries and masses of free floating seaweed which, according to mythical lore, trapped ships, serves as an apt analogy for the struggles of racial identity. What a pity then that the writing ruins what could have been a brilliant book of intertextuality!

All I can say in defense of the book is that we’ll never see or read Jane Eyre the same way again.

 

 

Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

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Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :

Fiction:

The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

 

 

The Remains of the Day

KazuoIshiguro_TheRemainsOfTheDay

I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.

Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married, and ostensibly, to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.

The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.

But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.

Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.

There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”

Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a propensity for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- at that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.

Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out while conversing with a stranger on a bench by the pier in Weymouth:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.

The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.

This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?

Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.

*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066

 

 

 

 

Quinceañera

Quinceneara

April is the month dedicated to poetry here in the United States. On the last day of this month long celebration of verse, I am sharing my thoughts on a poem penned by Judith Ortiz Cofer that caught my attention.

Quinceañera is a poem about the coming of age ceremony of a girl who turns 15. It’s one of the most important rites of passage in a young girl’s life in Latin communities and has its roots in both indigenous and European Christian traditions. It’s supposed to be a special ceremony to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood and to present the fifteen year old to the community and thereby increase her prospects for marriage. Quinceañera literally means a fifteen year old girl in Spanish. In recent times the celebration has become as ostentatious and ornate as a wedding featuring long guest lists, photo shoots, lavish decorations and sometimes even a mariachi band. Although it’s a momentous occasion looked forward to by many girls, the tone of Cofer’s poem is dark and depressing accentuating the fact that it’s also a time fraught with anxieties and awkwardness for the growing girl.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a Latina writer who in her poems and essays wrote about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the US mainland. She herself straddled two worlds: that of Puerto Rico where she was born and returned frequently to spend extended time at her grandmother’s house and the states of New Jersey and Georgia where she lived in the US. The movement to and fro between two cultural spaces shapes her work. In her memoir, The Cruel Country, she describes how her mother hated becoming a quinceañera “… which in those days meant announcing your status as a potential wife-nothing like the social extravaganzas of today’s young Latinas, but a serious passage into adulthood. My mother said that when she turned fifteen, she began her training in domestic functions such as childcare and cooking, which didn’t interest her, and she was not allowed to play ball again.” In another of her memoirs, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood , in which this poem is featured, Cofer writes that to her grandmother, she was as a quinceañera ,”a fifteen year old trainee for the demands of marriage”.

Quinceañera

My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.

The poem is written in free verse in the first person and starts with the image of death, a jarring contrast to the picture of dolls that represent early life. We know that the poem is about a fifteen year old thanks to the title. The speaker/narrator is probably going to take her dolls with her to her marital home in the future and pass them down one day to her own children. The Last Doll or La Ultima Muneca is one of the symbolic traditions of the quinceañera ceremony. The quinceañera gives her last doll to a younger sister or cousin or saves it to pass down to her own children. In some cultures, the doll is tossed over the girl’s shoulder to young girls who have not yet turned fifteen, much like a bride flings her bouquet to young maidens. The ceremony then represents the death of her childhood.

There are many other images of death evoked in the poem with the words “skull”, “poison”, “blood” and “battle”. The satin slip shows that she will be wearing a fancy dress for the rich celebration over the slip or that she will now start needing a slip and will have to dress modestly. The poet resorts to poetic devices like simile and alliteration in spite of the choppy construction. The breaks in lines and stanzas may be a device to show the confusion and frenzy in the mind of the girl.

We have more harsh images of death with the words “skull “and “nails”. Her mother seems to handle her with firmness and hurts her while braiding her hair. The words “twisted” and” tight” suggest constriction. Maybe she is oblivious to the girl’s needs or she wants to send her the message that life will be hard.

Her black hairpins could be a sign of mourning . Ironically the ceremony is supposedly a joyous occasion but she is also lamenting the loss of childhood and dreading the arrival of womanhood with responsibilities.

She has to start doing her own laundry and other chores. The blood symbolizes the onset of menstruation, a sudden and dramatic moment in a girl’s life. She has to start washing her stained clothes furtively as this natural biological process is viewed with shame. Menstrual taboos exist in many cultures around the world with a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. Her world shrinks but it also expands at the same time as the rite of passage of menarche places new expectations on her from her family and from society at large.

Why is the blood of dying men and Christ considered sacred but not the life giving blood of women? There is so much hypocrisy in our patriarchal culture surrounding menstrual blood. The rhetorical questions and the repetition of the words ”as if” reinforce her anguish.

She is growing rapidly and is aware of the changes in her body which bring about a sexual awakening too, reinforced by the alliteration “soothe stretched skin”. The simile “wound like the guts of a clock” shows that she is anxious and needs a release, both a physical and an emotional one.

The poem suggests that being on the threshold of adulthood is not necessarily the best time in a woman’s life. Traditionally the fifteen year old was presented to society as eligible for marriage and trained for the duties and demands of family life. Needless to say, the custom is outdated and losing its relevance and being celebrated instead as a lavish birthday bash.

Have you participated in a memorable rite of passage ceremony in your life? How meaningful was it to you and how did you feel about the transition and being the center of attention? Interestingly, rituals marking the initiation of menstruation have existed in many cultures since time immemorial. My grandmother like Cofer’s “Mama” was a traditional woman who religiously followed all customs. I had a similar ceremony when I was a teenager. I was dressed as a bride and almost died of embarrassment when relatives came up to me and congratulated me on becoming a woman. Maybe that’s why this poem struck a chord. Or rather a nerve.

 

A Book About Books

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Chinese Propaganda Poster- “Scatter the old world, build the new.”

Could you picture a world devoid of books, a world where books are forbidden and where free expression in the arts and literature is restricted? We take the freedom of the written word for granted. Yet, there are places around the globe where books have been banned in the past and sadly still are subject to censorship in our present day world. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) by Dai Sijie is a book about books and a beautiful ode to literature. It’s a tender story of friendship and survival through the transformative power of literature, set in a very somber period in Chinese history and loosely based on the author’s own life.

The year is 1971 and we are in the mountainous countryside of China during the cultural revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a movement initiated in the sixties by Mao Zedong to implement Communism and to eliminate capitalist influences and also to root out China’s ancient cultural heritage and the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits , old ideas. To achieve this objective, places of worship and of historic interest were vandalized and ancient artifacts and relics which were once treasured, ruthlessly destroyed. Needless to say, it was a period of great unrest, turmoil and violence. Rapes, murders and suicides were commonplace. The young children of bourgeois intellectuals were banished from urban centers to rural areas in order to be purged of western ideas and to be re- educated by the peasants. The youngsters or China’s ‘lost generation’ were deprived not only of educational opportunities but also the right to live with their families and they experienced feelings of alienation brought on by the sudden exile.

In this tumultuous era, two young boys, a nameless narrator and his friend Lou, both sons of doctors, are sent for re- education to Phoenix Mountain in China. They are separated from their educated and well- off families and forced into agricultural labor. Their tasks include working in dangerous coal mines and carrying buckets filled with excrement on tortuous and slippery trails. They hope that they would be one among the three in a thousand to be sent back to the city despite their parents being deemed enemies of the people. They have to use their ingenuity and wit to get the better of the villagers and the village headman. They meet the little seamstress, a local girl who has not been exposed to books, music or the western way of life and both fall head over heels in love with her although it is Luo who manages to catch her attention. The boys discover that one of their friends from the city, Four Eyes, who has been sent to a neighboring village for re-education has a suitcase of forbidden books in his possession. They succeed in getting him to lend them a translation of a book by Balzac in exchange for a favor and once they have had a taste of the formidable French author, they have an insatiable thirst to read more.

“Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

When Four Eyes becomes the lucky one to get the opportunity to leave Phoenix Mountain, Luo and the narrator devise a plan to steal his suitcase of hidden books before his departure. They succeed by means of their cunning and resourcefulness and their lives are changed forever. The books have a profound effect on them and on the little seamstress too for the boys enact scenes from the books to her. So just as the boys are being re-educated to the ways of the peasants, the little seamstress is re-educated, in turn, by them in this Pygmalion like story.

I admire the author’s skill in managing to weave an enchanting tale interspersed with moments of comedy in spite of portraying a very grim period in history. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator except for the last few chapters where the point of view shifts. I don’t understand the rationale behind the change in structure as it disrupts the flow of the text. I was also a little disappointed by the conclusion. The romantic in me would have preferred a fairy tale ending for a story which reads like a fairy tale but on reflection, I can see why the ending is what it is and why it would not have been as impactful otherwise. I was a little taken aback by one sacrilegious act which seemed to negate the premise of the book. But I will not reveal anything more and risk ruining the plot for future readers.

The book transported me to a time and place foreign to me and gave me an insight into the political and cultural upheaval in the China of that period. I firmly believe that the best way to understand history is through travel or literature rather than following a bland textbook. But I mostly enjoyed the story for celebrating three pursuits close to my heart – storytelling, translating and reading. Luo and the narrator entertain the villagers by enacting stories of films they’ve watched and embellish their performances with the aid of their fertile imaginations. Luo laments the inevitable demise of this art form as people have moved beyond the age of The Arabian Nights. The art of storytelling is even more threatened in our modern digital world. The book is also a tribute to the art of translation. First of all, this book is itself a translation and the translator, Ina Rilke, has beautifully rendered the translation from the original French to English with her richly descriptive and evocative language. Secondly, the boys devour books by Flaubert, Gogol, Balzac and Dumas translated into Chinese in spite of the cultural differences, reinforcing the universal appeal of literature. I was reminded of my college days in India when my friends and I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus and other authors in translation. I am grateful to translators for making an entirely different canon of literature available to readers all over the world.

Finally, it’s a book celebrating the love of books. Books allow us to escape and make life more bearable. The narrator, moved by Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe declares:

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”

I could say the same about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It’s an unforgettable book that stays with you forever and rekindles your love of reading.

Bound by Convention

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A Nu shu artwork. (Photo from http://www.womenofchina.cn

 

I am fascinated by books that transport me to an era and culture different from my own. If that culture happens to be Chinese, my reading pleasure is twofold. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is one such book that not only satisfied my wanderlust by transplanting me to southern Hunan province in 19thcentury China, but also immersed me completely in the experience of growing up as a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. I was part of a cloistered world where a woman’s conduct was governed by the Confucian doctrines of the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow, obey your son.”and the Four virtues: “ Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” In this environment where women were accorded an inferior status and expected to be subservient to men, See explores the intense friendship of two peasant girls from their daughter days to hair pinning days, rice and salt days to sitting quietly, in other words, from their girlhood to married life to old age.

Lily and Snowflower are two young girls , from different walks of society who are ‘old sames’ paired in a laotong relationship. A laotong is a contractual friendship arranged by a matchmaker between girls of two different villages just like an arranged marriage. Girls of suitable birth who may share birthdays, birth signs and birth order or other traits in common are brought together in an eternal friendship. A marriage is only good for ‘bed business’, the rather crude but practical manner in which lovemaking is described in the novel. You have to look elsewhere for an emotional connection. Many young women have a community of a sworn sisterhood in their natal homes where they sing songs together, embroider, exchange stories and share companionship .The sworn sisterhood is dissolved at the time of marriage but the laotong relationship is a lifelong commitment. Being a laotong improves your social standing and makes you a more eligible catch for marriage.

Lily is prized for her dainty and exquisite golden lily feet. Footbinding was a strange and barbaric practice that was started in the royal court in China and gradually became widespread in the rest of the country and among all social classes. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet in order to attract a wealthy match. The girls were around six years old when they started the process that would take two to three years to complete. The four little toes were bent underneath the sole of the foot and tied with bandages. The bandages were periodically removed and tightened till the heel was twisted and reshaped. The girls suffered excruciating pain which could last months or even years.

220px-natural_vs-_bound_feet_comparison_1902
A woman with normal feet next to a woman with bound feet.

Their muscles atrophied and the less fortunate ones got infections like gangrene. Some like Lily’s third sister, died from the ordeal. The girls who survived were disfigured and crippled for life. They would limp and couldn’t walk long distances and had to be carried by men. They developed a peculiar faltering gait which was considered a sexual turn on to men. Footbinding became a way of controlling women and keeping them confined to their homes so they wouldn’t go astray. They were physically incapable of moving far from their homes or the ‘inner realm’ and thus less likely to cheat on their men. They lived in seclusion and were kept subjugated. They learned to tolerate pain and suffering. Of course, it wasn’t just the feet that were bound. The girls were tied to male conventions of beauty, to matrimony, to domesticity and to maternity.

In this sequestered world, women reached out to each other for solace and support. They communicated through nu shu, a syllabic script used in Jiangyong County in Hunan province. Nu shu was used exclusively by women to compose letters, songs and stories either written on paper or on a fan or embroidered on a handkerchief. Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a silk fan on whose folds they take turns writing their thoughts to each other. The fan chronicles all the important events in their life, both joyous and sorrowful. The nu shu gave the girls a voice and a chance to soar in spite of being bound. Their lives become more expansive just like the delicate unfolding of the fan. Lily observes: “Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the field…”

The girls establish a tender connection through correspondence and through Snow Flower’s numerous visits to Lily’s home but Snow Flower’s family does not reciprocate the invitations much to Lily’s mother’s ire. At times their friendship has homoerotic overtones not uncommon in a gender segregated society. The girls go through all the trials and tribulations of life together. With marriage comes a total reversal of fortunes. Lily marries into a wealthy family of good social status but due to circumstances beyond her control, Snow Flower is married to a poor butcher and has to endure hardship and abuse. The sweet and sensitive Lily changes gradually into a different person when her position is cemented as matriarch of the family. There arises a misunderstanding between the two friends that threatens their strong friendship and whether they reconcile or not is the crux of the remainder of the plot.

My main criticism of the book is that the latter half seems rushed and melodramatic. It wasn’t the story of the complex friendship that caught my fancy as much as the insight into ancient Chinese history and culture which was an eye-opening experience. I felt a piercing sadness to learn about the different ways daughters were demeaned within their own community. Their worth only came from their ability to procreate and to produce sons. The protagonists deal with the agonizing pain of foot binding, experience great sorrow on leaving their parents’ homes, endure cruelty in the homes of their in- laws, face the pressure to bear sons, lose children in childbirth and accept their husbands’ concubines. You wonder why strong women like Lily perpetuate the patriarchy by following old traditions. Foot binding was no different from customs like forced marriages, dowry and FGM where women are often complicit in the patriarchal oppression. The rebel in me would have liked to see Lily stand up to injustice. But she ends up being a stickler for rules and is herself ‘bound’ by convention. I understand her powerlessness and realize that being dutiful is her only coping mechanism. At the most Lily can follow her mother in law’s sage maxim: “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”

The atrocities committed on the women made me reflect on my own life and the choices I’ve made and appreciate the freedoms I enjoy and take for granted. Lily and Snow Flower’s world may seem like a world very foreign to our own but yet we can all relate to it to some extent. If you’ve ever felt undervalued as a woman in any way, if you’ve been expected to defer to a man unworthy of your respect, if you’ve taken pains to be beautiful whether going for cosmetic surgery, waxing body hair or wearing stilettos that hurt your feet, if you’ve endured a disparaging remark from an in-law, if you’ve heard the words ‘ I hope this time you have a boy’, then this achingly beautiful novel will strike a chord with you.