Monday, February 5, 2018

Interview with historical memoirist Charlene Chu

Welcome, readers. I’m chatting with Charlene Chu regarding Fengxian Chu’s memoir, Song of Praise for a Flower.

(From Charlene: Fengxian is now 92 years old. She isn’t up to doing interviews and has asked me to handle everything, so the questions below are all written from my perspective. I wrote the English version of the book – more on that below.)

Charlene was born and raised in Colorado and is half-Chinese. In her day job, she works as a financial analyst covering the Chinese economy and financial sector, and in her downtime, she writes. She is frequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Business Insider and other media outlets. Song of Praise for a Flower is her first book. Charlene splits her time between Washington, DC and Hong Kong and spends an inordinate amount of time each year on planes and in airports.

Welcome, Charlene. Please tell us about your current release.
Many years ago, my now 92-year-old Chinese cousin, Fengxian Chu, wrote her life story for her children and hid it in a bank vault. The manuscript sat there untouched for two decades until I tracked her down several years ago filled with questions about our family. Song of Praise for a Flower is the English rendering of Fengxian’s memoir. It is a moving story of resilience through adversity, the historical struggles facing Chinese women, and China’s tumultuous transition into and back out of communism. It is a living history of the past century in China, which arguably has seen more dramatic change than anywhere else on the planet. Fengxian was born into a world where it was common to bind women’s feet, forbid their education, and hide them behind closed doors until marriage. With grit and fortitude, she manages to break through these barriers, but later in life she is confronted with devastating challenges during China’s transition into communism under Mao. That she survived everything she did and at this late age is publishing her story is a triumphant final chapter in a very difficult life.

What inspired you to write this book?
I saw tremendous potential in Fengxian’s manuscript when I first read it. Most books about the past century of Chinese history are either too academic, focused on one concentrated period, or based on second-hand interviews. This is an engaging, digestible, and rare first-hand account of China’s transformation over the last 100 years. The fact that this incredible story lay hidden in darkness in a bank vault for nearly two decades and that I was the sole person in a position to bring it to light was very motivating for me.

Excerpt from Song of Praise for a Flower:

Part One – Reminiscences of Huaguo
The Xiang River

For millennia, the mighty Xiang (Syŏng) River has pulsed through the lush, rolling hills of Hunan Province in southern China. The region’s famous rice paddies derive their rich, green hue from the Xiang, and it is on the banks of this river that generations of Hunanese families have flourished. In Chinese, “Xiang ()” is the abbreviated name for Hunan, which I think makes perfect sense because, whenever we natives think of home, often the first thing that comes to mind is this beloved river. Several decades ago, when I was a young woman, I bade farewell to the Xiang and have had the opportunity to return only twice. Yet the river continues to run through my veins as vigorously today as it did when I was just a little girl.
Nestled amid the long and winding current of the Xiang River rests the small, graceful village of my youth: Huaguo, or Flower and Fruit, in eastern Hunan Province. Huaguo embraces miles of fertile land and luxuriant forest, crisscrossed with green willows and tall bamboo. Small homes dot the hillsides. Men cultivate the fields while women weave in the courtyards, each working diligently every day. Grey-haired seniors play with lively children, bringing abundant smiles and harmony to the village.
Huaguo is surrounded by numerous hills to the north, east, and south and the Xiang River to the west. Deep within the hills are ancient caves and dozens of narrow, winding paths leading to small valleys. In this openness lie numerous small brooks, gurgling and glistening in the sun, and grass and wild flowers that emit a beautiful, delicate fragrance. Huaguo is the kind of place the soul never forgets.
At the entrance of Huaguo stands Fengmen Railway Station. Although not large, the station used to serve as a key stop for trains passing through Hunan because of its proximity to the water. Day and night, trains stopped at Fengmen Station to add water to the steam engines, bringing business and swarms of passengers to the village.
The passenger cars, platform, and waiting hall would become over-run with villagers hawking food and other goods, their cries sonorous and rhythmic. Many of the hawkers were young and as agile as monkeys, leaping across the tracks and climbing into passenger cars. Sometimes these boys would remain on the train selling goods even after it took off, jumping down fearlessly only after the train reached full speed.
Not far from Fengmen Station was a narrow street that used to form the center of town and was filled with small restaurants, stores, tea houses, gambling parlors, and the local fortune teller. The street terminated at the Xiang River, where several small ferry boats sat waiting to transport passengers across the water to the town of Fengmen, another village bustling with activity.
When I was growing up as a young girl, one of the liveliest times of year was the annual Dragon Boat Festival, when teams from Huaguo and Fengmen would compete in a race on the Xiang River. The festival, held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, commemorates the famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who, according to legend, drowned himself in a river for his motherland in 278 B.C. To distract the fish from eating the poet’s corpse, the legend says that villagers threw rice and other food into the river. In honor of Qu Yuan’s patriotism, Chinese people re-enact this event every year by tossing pyramid-shaped dumplings into water.
The day of the festival, villagers from Huaguo and Fengmen would don their best clothes and flock to the river to toss dumplings and watch the race. On both sides of the river, the streets and banks would be packed with a sea of horse carts and spectators. At the crack of a drum, a dozen colorfully decorated dragon boats would charge ahead, splashing spectators with water as they sped down the river to the beat of the drum. The cheers of the villagers would mingle with the roars of the drums and reverberate through the sky, awakening the God of Heaven and Dragon King of the Ocean. After the race, colorful pennants would be handed to each member of the triumphant team, and the audience would linger for hours, basking in the joy of the moment.
The province of Hunan is said to be a land flowing with milk and honey, with picturesque scenery and a soothing climate of four distinct seasons. In spring, plants sprout, flowers blossom, and birds sing in joy. In summer, trees become lush and verdant. In autumn, ripening fruits tug at tree limbs, and red and yellow leaves fall to the ground signaling the approach of winter, when leaves wither and die, and a thin layer of white blankets the land.
Women of Hunan are known for their gentleness, courtesy, and passion. They love the young and respect the old and are virtuous wives and mothers. Hunan’s women are the shining pearl of the province. It is no wonder so many ancient emperors and leaders, including Chairman Mao, came from this magical environment.

What exciting story are you working on next?
The first line of my Foreword is “I moved to Beijing from the United States in 2006 for the purpose of writing a book, but not this one.” I do have aspirations to write another book, but I am so spent from this one that I intend to take a very long break and enjoy the fruits of my labor.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve always known that there is a writer in me, yet I’ve never viewed myself as one until this book was published. Perhaps that’s because my main profession is in a completely different field. Fengxian, on the other hand, is a writer through and through. She has written poems and songs since a very young age. There is a scene in the book where Fengxian’s father tells her, “In life, it is inevitable that one encounters unexpected disputes and conflicts. You must struggle to the end, not with your fists, but nonviolently through writing.” That is precisely what she has done her entire life – as a youngster Fengxian used her writing to defy an arranged marriage; now as an elderly woman she has used her writing to not only to give voice to her own struggles, but also the challenges that hundreds of millions of Chinese people have endured over the past century. The vast majority of rural Chinese women of Fengxian’s generation never attended school and are illiterate, so it is extremely rare to have this kind of first-hand account from a Chinese woman of Fengxian’s age.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
My job as a financial analyst is incredibly demanding and consumes a large amount of mental energy. Finding time to write Fengxian’s memoir was impossible Monday to Friday, so the only time I could work on the book was during weekends and vacations. For several years, I came home from work every Friday night, shut the door, and didn’t open it until Monday morning when I went back to work. Occasionally during vacations, I would do that for a week or more straight.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My biggest quirk is that I require total isolation to write. It’s the only way I can leave this world and enter the world I am writing about. In the case of this book, I had to switch gears from assessing mountains of data on China’s economy and banks to writing about life in rural China in the mid-1900s. Not an easy task.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I loved building things. I thought I’d be something akin to an engineer. But as I became older, I became more drawn to social science rather than hard science and to writing. Although it was incredibly rare at the time for girls from rural China, as a youngster Fengxian had dreams of living in a city and becoming a modern working woman. She managed to break through many barriers during her era, but not this one. In the end, she became a rural housewife like every woman in our family that preceded her.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
We’ve got an active Facebook page (click here) that features pictures related to the book, some info on the backstory, and posts linking the book to the present day in case people are interested. Fengxian and I both appreciate your taking an interest in the book. We hope it gives people a better understanding of today’s China and the historical challenges confronting Chinese women.

Thank you so much for being here today!

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