Perhaps Da Chen would not call himself a strictly autobiographical writer, but when you've lived a life like he has it's hard not to be a storyteller. Born and raised during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Da Chen has written extensively about his experiences growing up in uncertain and tumultuous times. He wrote Colors of the Mountain (1999), a memoir about his childhood, at the urging of his wife, and went on to write Sounds of the River: A Young Man's University Days in Beijing (2002) about his college life and China's Son: Growing up in the Cultural Revolution (2001) for a younger audience. But in his new novel Brothers (2006) Da Chen breaks free of the restraints of memoir into the realm of pure fiction and the results are, in a word, fantastic.
Benjamin Cheever's description of the novel is apt. When he calls the novel "Part Greek myth, part 1001 Arabian Nights" he touches on the aspect that is most enticing about Da Chen's writing: it stretches the imagination. As he tells the story of two brothers, one born into a powerful family and the other an illegitimate son in a country province, Da Chen weaves a story filled with adventure, love, tragedy and power. Perhaps it is most like the myths and stories of the past because it creates the sense of wonder and amazement of a fireside tale, with magical elements that are usually not present in a novel with a strict historical setting. For example, the novel starts with a boy telling the tale of his birth, and it sounds as though it would fit right in with the ancient myths:
"To tell the tale of my birth, I must start not from the beginning, but from the end to my beginning. I was born twice, really. First when I tore through my mother's dark passage. The second time when the old medicine man saved me. The young woman who gave birth to me meant to end it all, not just her life, but also mine, right at the moment of my sunrise… One was left to wonder why she did it, making herself a myth, leaping off the zenith of the mountain with me still attached to her by the rope of life, the entangled umbilical cord." (P.1)Da Chen's sentences are blunt and refreshingly to the point, and this manages to keep the reader captivated from the very first page until the very last sentence.
Perhaps the most enrapturing feature of Da Chen's latest novel is its use of parallel narrative. With each chapter focusing on a different brother the novel playfully threads historical and personal events through the very different lives each brother leads. When one brother's grandfathers are personally attending to Mao Ze Tung by his deathbed the other brother is reading about the leader's death in a newspaper. When one brother is fighting for his life in an enemy ambush the other is worrying about his father leading those troops at the border. It is through this parallel structure that the novel becomes a rich tapestry of two divided lives that often intertwine. Despite their vastly different lives, the ambitions and aspirations of the two brothers are similar. Watching how these same ambitions develop through different experiences is fascinating. It is a delight to see the characters and events through the eyes of both narrators as everything gains a new dimension when examined with this dual perspective.
Da Chen has made the leap from memoir to fiction with great aplomb, and mixes his unique and very real experience of the Cultural Revolution with a storyteller's knowledge of how to spin a great tale. Fiction gives Chen the freedom to tell fantastic stories like never before. In his novel he is finally able to explore the life of the party elite during the Cultural Revolution, with his character Tan who is bred for greatness as one of the highest members of society. However, Chen's personal history, which he draws on for the setting of this novel, as well as some of the experiences of his other character Shento, is anything but fiction. Having grown up in the village of Yellow Stone during the Cultural Revolution, Chen didn't need to exaggerate to tell the grand tale of his first work Colors of the Mountain. The memoir takes the reader through Chen's youth as a social outcast who was told he couldn't achieve anything in life. Chen's response was to join a group of thugs who, although they took part in the darker side of teenage life, showed Chen affection, and provided a place where he belonged. Somehow, despite living in a society that was determined to see him fail, Chen succeeds and the memoir ends with a ride on the train to college.
The story does not end there however, as Da Chen also wrote the memoir of his days at college and beyond in Sounds of the River. In this memoir Chen must adjust to the rigors of college and the temptations and excitement of living in the enormous city of Beijing. Just as before however, the story's success is rooted in the author's frank use of language, and the rich truth behind it.
Chen's stories, both fiction and memoir, are always inspiring. Watching characters in his novel, or Chen himself overcome hardships and succeed is not only entertaining, it is empowering. His stories are filled with the humor and quiet sadness that are a part of the human experience. They communicate to readers on a personal level. Despite the fact that the settings are often foreign to the Western reader, the stories themselves touch upon common values: the coming of age story, young love, and the need for acceptance. They also open a window into the foreign milieu of the Cultural Revolution and provide intimate insights into that closed-off world.
Jeremy Olson is a senior English major at the University at Albany New York.
The Minimalist Style of Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel is one of the most prominent and successful contributing voices to not only contemporary short fiction, but to the minimalist style that she has trademarked throughout her work. Her most recent publication, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006), is an impressive collection of her life's work thus far.
Hempel's arsenal of short fiction has been nothing short of remarkable, including, The Dog of Marriage (2005), Tumble Home (1997), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), and Reasons to Live (1985). Her work is not only critically celebrated and widely anthologized, but she has won numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize, and the Silver Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California.
Of Amy Hempel's work, Rick Moody writes in the introduction to The Collected Stories, "It's against cheap sentiment. It's about regret. It's about survival. It's about the sentences used to enact and defend survival" (xi). In addition to Hempel's masterful use of structure and style choices, what is also provocative about her stories does not end with the words on the page, but the spaces her words leave, a characteristic indicative of her minimalist style. Her work, consistent with minimalism, creates a space that redefines the role of reader and in doing this, a different kind of relationship between writer and reader is created, giving much more agency to the reader. Her stories are not solely about what she has written but take further shape, meaning, and life because of what the reader brings to them. The space Hempel creates for the reader seduce the reader into the stories she writes so that the reader feels a sense of escape but also arrival at a place, time or identity that is both concrete and obscure.
This tension between the concrete and the obscure is illustrated by the story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," which deals with the most real, and difficult, yet immanent, aspects of life: death. This story, originally published in Reasons to Live, is one of her most celebrated stories, in which Hempel poignantly narrates the guilt of a best friend who is only human, and has waited to come to visit her dying friend. "So I hadn't dared to look any closer. But now I'm doing it--and hoping that I will live through it," Hempel writes and herein writes the way that fear has a way of getting down in to the deepest parts of who we are, those spaces that seem impenetrable, the way it infects even the strongest friendships (31). In a story where the characters' names are unknown- a tool Hempel often uses which paradoxically makes them even more immediate and real- Hempel draws the reader in so close to the characters, the hospital beds, the useless anecdotes told for distraction by a best friend, who, throughout the time elapsed in the story, has become "fluent now in the language of grief" (40).
Perhaps it is her unique style that allows her to address some of the most sobering aspects of life in ways that are tangible and discernible even to readers who may have never encountered experiences like the ones her characters have. "Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep," which is also originally from Reasons to Live, is a story in which Hempel gives a snapshot view of the experience of a woman who has chosen to have an abortion. While Hempel's unnamed character assists her friend through her pregnancy and birth, she knits compulsively in an effort at some act of completion, creation and healing. She writes, "Learning to knit was the obvious thing. The separation of tangled threads, the working-together of raveled ends into something tangible and whole- " and herein explains how her character who is hurting so much, has begun to put her life back together (40). The title of the story is a set of directions, "begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat" (49). These directions function as a how-to mantra Hempel's character employs in creating something with her hands, on her own, both a sweater for warmth and legs to stand on, by following the simple directions to knitting, because sometimes it is just easier when we're told how to start (49). Hempel takes abortion, an experience so personal that the reader may not be able to relate to directly, and makes it easier to understand through her use of the simple, familiar, everyday act of knitting.
Hempel's third publication, Tumble Home, features short stories and a novella in which issues of home and self are among recurring and inseparable themes. In "The Annex," Hempel opens the story with, "The headlights hit the headstone and I hate it all over again. It is all that I can ever see, all that I can ever talk about. There is nothing else to talk about" (223). The affect of opening with a description so clear to the reader is that one can picture this headstone that appears like a beacon in the night. The accessibility of this description allows the reader to feel the weighty importance of the headstone, for the events of the story: both past and present. Hempel drops the reader exactly where she wants and in the opening paragraph we are already lost someplace other than reality but found in the space of Hempel's story. Her stories are paradoxically both abstract and grounded, showcase her unique voice, her way of describing things with wholeness and clarity, yet with tantalizing spareness. She leads the reader to another time, place, or identity, to a certain point and then leaves, giving us the challenge of finding our own way back.
While Hempel guides the reader on a course influenced both by her words and what the reader brings to it, she asks questions that function in the literal text but also beg the reader's personal reflection. She writes in the novella, "Tumble Home," "And what if you don't like the person you are? Where do you find the parts to make yourself into some other kind of person? Can it be something you read in a book, a gesture you see on the street? Half-smile of a teacher, the walk of a girl on the beach" (260). Hempel's quirky character brings us to a truth about humanity; we all question who we are and how to get to where we want to be. Is our character really so much more concrete? Or is it possible that we may all be just a complicated series of gestures we see on the street? Identity and self are not concrete concepts but fluid, malleable. Hempel asks the reader to meet at her disclosed location, time, place, identity, and in this act, she asks us to forget--even if momentarily--the things we hold true about self and our own identities in the world.
In a minimalist style that craves the reader's full attention, Hempel's exploration of humanity in storytelling is refreshing and witty, masterful and humble. Her characters, crafted with the right amount of ambiguity, are nonetheless made vivid by their quirkiness and obsessions. With an unmistakable voice, Hempel's equivocal specificity invites the reader to a fresh, fictional space, where we not only learn how to be different readers, we learn to ask new questions of our own realities. Amy Hempel's clean style and unique voice have, and will continue, to influence readers, changing what we think we know about short fiction, and challenging what we know about ourselves.
Stacie Kryger is a first year graduate student in the UAlbany Women's Studies department and also a graduate assistant at the New York State Writers Institute.
The Coverage Not Heard on Fox News
Ann Jones Illuminates Afghanistan at "Peace"
As the daily headlines of local and international newspapers chronicle the events of the war in Iraq, "21 Dead in Blast," "37 Shiites Die in Explosion," it seems that the other war Americans should care about has disappeared. It is Afghanistan, a nation with a complicated history, decades of war, and constant external interferences, that is commonly seen in the media as a great success story of American imposed democracy. And the women--to hear the news tell it--have thrown off their burqas and are now heading up top government offices. There is the spin, and then there is the reality. The women of Afghanistan have been both the object of international focus and invisible at the same time. They have carried the burden of being one of the reasons it was so important for the Americans to oust the Taliban, but in the rebuilding phase, all but invisible. There is a gap between the spin of media--the story most Americans think is truth--and the reality on the ground.
But we have not heard Ann Jones' story.
Ann Jones, women's rights activist, award-winning journalist, and authority on women and violence seems to be just the person to reveal a story of Afghanistan not heard in popular media. She has spent much of the last four years in Afghanistan working as a human rights researcher and women's advocate with international humanitarian agencies and teaching English to Kabul high school English teachers. She writes about her Afghan experience in Kabul in Winter. Part history, part memoir, part travel writing, stitched together with wit and social justice analysis, Kabul in Winter is the book every American needs to read to put a face on war, poverty, Afghan women, and Islam. Void of lengthy philosophical arguments or theoretical jargon, Kabul in Winter is one woman's story of volunteering to help in a place it seemed her own country was bent on destroying. It is profound, at times raw, but always honest. She begins
I went to Afghanistan after the bombing stopped. Somehow I felt obliged to try to help pick up the pieces. I was a New Yorker who had always lived downtown, and for a long time after the towers fell I experienced moments when I couldn't get my bearings. I'd turn a corner and draw a blank. I'd have to stop to look around and think for a minute--which way is home?--as if all these years I'd relied on some subliminal sense of the mass of the towers behind me, or perhaps a shadow over my shoulder, so that I knew which way was which. I'd seen George W. Bush come to town to strut and bluster about the ruins, and as I watched him lug the stunned country into violence, my sorrow turned to anger and a bone-deep disappointment that hasn't left me yet. Surely America was capable of some act more creative than bombing a small, defenseless, pre-destroyed country on the other side of the world, or so I believed. Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the death of thousands, from around the world, in the fallen towers of the city that had so long been my home. I thought America had lost its bearings too. So I left.Within three sections, "In the Streets", "In the Prisons", and "In the Schools", we get to know some of the people working in Afghanistan: Caroline, the head of an NGO dedicated to helping Kabul's thousands of widows; Sharif, Jones' driver who believed in the American process of re-construction; and dozens of women from the prisons--some imprisoned formally and some imprisoned by families mostly for crimes against the "moral codes." For nearly four years, Jones returns, talking with women in prisons, volunteering with Kabul's several thousand widows, working with teachers, and seeing into a window of lives we simply have not been privy to.
Perhaps the most important function of this wonderfully written book however, are the connections Jones makes. For those of us uneducated about the history of a small nation so far away, she takes great care to bring the reader up to speed. Decisions made in board rooms and Senate chambers in Washington, D.C. may seem very logical indeed, until the history of particular players, warlords, factions, families, and ethnic alliances are brought to light. Then, the picture looks very different. The average Afghan is perplexed by how a new "democratic" government has been arranged, with all the same warlords that have been fighting against one another for decades. And further, Jones asks the question, "Where did the money go?" Millions of dollars of aid has been funneled into Afghanistan in the past five years, and nearly no one can explain where it has gone. As the story reveals, it certainly has not gone to rebuilding schools (they are dismal) or infrastructure (still no electricity). She hypothesizes, however, that the foreigners with large, fancy, fully equipped homes and offices may know something.
Progressing through Jones' narrative, it begins to become clear that as far as women are concerned, the Taliban was not the first, nor the last, to deny human rights. That women are not fully human, becomes the unmistakable attitude of nearly every layer of Afghan society, an attitude that runs deeper than any one regime could instill. And if women are to have a future, where does one start when they have no past? Jones struggles with these questions and more, all the while being careful not to fall into that West-is-Best ethnocentric black hole. She beautifully untangles many of the contemporary arguments about Islam, women, and the veil and links them back to issues of nationalism, culture, and politics.
Ever since Europe and the Middle East first collided, Muslim nations have alternatively battled Western imperialism and selectively welcomed Western modernization…They have denounced Western materialism while buying Western materials…But let Muslim women remove their veils--or try to wear them to a public school in France--and the result may be a public stoning or legislative ban. What a Muslim woman wears is not just a matter of gender. She wears the whole weight of the Islamic world…the more men modernize, the more they rely on the traditional dress and behavior of their women to maintain the "culture" and "Islam."
Upon finishing Kabul in Winter, Jones' words linger in the readers mind. Her words inspire action, anger you to the core, and above all, force us to face our worst fears: that we have been lied to. It was both painful and a joy to read her account, clinging to the radical idea that perhaps we are connected through our common humanity.
An authority on women as victims and perpetrators of violence, Jones is the bestselling author of Next Time She'll be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It (1994), which details four common misconceptions of what we call "domestic violence." She is also the author of Women Who Kill (1980), an examination of murders committed by women throughout American history, nearly all victims of violence themselves.
Jones is also the author of Looking for Lovedu: A Woman's Journey Through Africa (2001), an account of her search for the women-ruled Lovedu tribe who live in a remote area of South Africa.
Carmen Golay is a graduate student in Women's Studies at the UAlbany and graduate assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Anyone who doubts the liberating power of literature has never had to hide her short story under a mattress for fear of being discovered. Or found a favorite bookstore demolished and closed because of what they sold. Or feared entrance to the country of her birth because of the words she wrote. Iranian-American novelist and short story writer Nahid Rachlin shares these and other stories, of her and her sister Pari's deep desire to be free to think and write as they please, in her latest work, Persian Girls: A Memoir.
Growing up in Iran under the Shah, Rachlin is taken from her aunt who is raising her and thrust back into life with a birth family she does not know. Rachlin weaves her own story with that of her sisters, her birth mother, and aunts to form this memoir, which is as touching, beautiful and eloquent as any work of fiction.
Throughout this compelling account of coming of age in Iran under the Shah, and the subsequent revolution that changed the country to an Islamic Republic, we are drawn into what those things meant and continue to mean for a diverse range of ordinary people. As the title suggests, Persian Girls is about the women of Nahid's life. We meet her sister Manijeh, seemingly doted on, but in the end, genuine and selfless as a caretaker of aging family members. Nahid's birth mother is Mohtaram, who gives her infant daughter away to a childless sister, only to have her husband, Nahid's father, insist that the child come back to live with the birth family. The older sister Pari, who befriends young Nahid, shares her dreams of freedom and envisions her life as an actress. Finally, there is Maryam, Nahid's beloved aunt, devoutly religious, kind and unswerving in her love for the daughter she raised. It is clear that like the woven tapestry Nahid brings with her when she leaves Iran to attend an American college, this memoir was difficult to construct, as she revisits painful memories, relationships, and unanswered questions, and tries to heal wounds still open. Of Iran, the reader gets a sense of cultural schizophrenia, of old mixed with modern, of new rules paired with ancient, and the constant anxiety of change. While young Nahid is living with her aunt, she comes to know women who are devout in Islam and wear the chador, or headscarf. Yet when she is taken back to live with her birth family in Ahvaz, it is mostly modern, Women wear skirts and men suits. It is confusing to her young mind, to see on the one hand censorship of thoughts and words, and the daily prayers of Muslims, but on the other hand people wearing imported clothing and working for American or British companies, yet still enforcing arranged marriages. Rachlin shares some perspectives of what international influence, primarily the U.S. and Great Britain, had on the country and its people, especially in the oil town where she lived. While she and her sister enjoyed the American movies shown in the outdoor theater they were able to catch glimpses of from their balcony, she also describes the constant smell of petroleum in the air and the "other side of the river" where Americans preferred to live in modern houses. With these stories and a keen eye for detail, Rachlin informs readers of the human cost of international politics and religious fundamentalism that wreak havoc on lives in Iran, especially women's lives.
In part two of Persian Girls, the teenage Nahid has moved to America and is attending college. Over and over again we see that she is neither "this" nor "that;" neither "Iranian nor American." During her time at a midwestern college, she describes being asked to wear her "native costume" for parents' day. Feeling embarassed that she had no "costume" she tells the dean of students that some women in Iran wear the chador, the headscarf that she never wore. She is instructed to wear this garment, something she had come to know as oppressive, while living in the land of freedom. While in America, Rachlin learns of her sister Pari's mysterious death, and seeks answers to her questions, some which still linger. Grief and uncertainties such as these led Rachlin for many years to create beautiful fiction, where she felt she had the power to shape and control the destinies of characters. Fiction gave her the power to invent families, characters and situations, which had for so long been out of her control. Finally, with this memoir Rachlin is able to claim her own personal history while giving readers a glimpse of where many of the inspirations for her fiction were found.
Nahid Rachlin's prose has been repeatedly described as "spare," using seemingly few words to paint a portrait of time, place and relationships that are anything but simple. Perhaps it is because she knows first hand how words can be restricted, by regimes and censorship, that she therefore appreciates and understands the sheer power of words, however few.
Sigrid Nunez says of Rachlin's writing that it is a "…fine introduction to a land and culture about which it is imperative we Americans inform ourselves as much and as quickly as possible." While American readers gain an introduction to a land and culture as convoluted as our own, readers are also being privileged with the private details of a woman's life, her sorrows and grief, and her hopes and dreams. Thank you, Ms. Rachlin, for allowing us the honor.
Nahid Rachlin is the most published Iranian-American author in the U.S. Her four novels include: Jumping Over Fire (2006), The Heart's Desire (1995), Married to a Stranger (1983) and Foreigner (1978). She is also the author of a short story collection, Veils (1992) and currently teaches at the New School in New York City and the Unterberg Poetry Center.
Carmen Golay is a graduate assistant at the New York State Writers Institute and a graduate student in Women's Studies.