Showing posts with label Biography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Biography. Show all posts

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Baby Girl, AKA Aaliyah

Where were you when you heard about what happened to Aaliyah?

That's the question many fans of hers share; thus, most certainly me included.  I remember my first hearing of her death clearly.  I was in one of those MSN chat rooms at the time that very night the incident happened.  Someone came in and blazed the news: Aaliyah was dead.  I couldn't believe it and, since I was already online, immediately jumped into investigator mode only to find that it was true.  And, yes, I was hurt.  I remember having this odd fascination with her age (twenty-two) and how I couldn't imagine what twenty-two would look like while I stood dazed at age eighteen. And I wondered, would I make it to twenty-two one day if something like this could happen to someone as fascinating and talented as Aaliyah?

Aaliyah to Me

Nevertheless, the convulsive notion was how her death emphasized how fleeting, cruel, and unfair the mortal existence was.  Though I’m hardly one to go into deep existential thoughts, her sudden death truly troubled me.  I had been listening to her since her first album.  Memories upon memories of her music stacked up against moments upon moments of my adolescent and teenage years.  I had just gotten her third album, Aaliyah, the month before her death, which was released that July.  And to this day, it remains an album that stapled a life-changing and transitional summer (other than being my favorite album of hers) for me.  Heck, the first single off the album, "We Need a Resolution" came out that April. And it's a song that tied my final days as a high school student as my signature song when I reflect on those days.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

WEEK TWO #NonFictionNovember ~ CLASS & CHINA

So what’s next on the #NonFictionNovember reading TBR? The image is obvious, but to walk it on down through there it goes like this…
"In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same." 
Yes, yes, yes. I’m a year late to this party. But, as I always say, when a book comes it comes at the right moment in which it needs to be one's hand (or, heck, e-reader). Which, as a given, is now about Michelle Obama's Becoming for me. I wanted to use this #NonFictionNovember to lean into inspirational memoirs/autobiographical stories. You know, to get my own inner seas a glimpse of direction. Besides, life is a recipe that takes the right amount of timing of ingredients to bring it taste. BOOOOMMMMM! Put that expression on a T-shirt, buddy. It sounds like an opening tagline for a Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member. I’m picturing Cynthia Bailey. (But did y'all see what I just did there?)
But I digress. Y’all get the gist. I'm taking on the story of one of my most classiest of classiest women ever to exist. And that twinkle of thought is only the beginning. Basically, I'm looking for more confirmation to commit to this...

"Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a gripping story of love, war, intrigue, bravery, glamour and betrayal, which takes us on a sweeping journey from Canton to Hawaii to New York, from exiles' quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. In a group biography that is by turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China."

Author Jung Chang tackles China’s history in the most storytelling of fashions. And finally we have a new release (you better believe it was on my pre-orders list) from her. Chang hasn’t released a book since 2013’s Empress Dowager Cixi (CLICK HERE TO SEE MY THOUGHTS ON THAT BOOK). Now she’s back with Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China. As I said, Chang knows how to relay China's history and make it both real, fascinating and enjoyable to digest. With this book I’m particularly interested in getting into Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s story. Years ago I attempted to read a biography of her story, but also that of her surrounding sisters. Let’s just say that biography didn’t have the spell-binding gusto and finesse as a Jung Chang book. HA! Now’s my chance to go further into this fascinating woman in history. And just China's history as a whole. Considering I have a deep fascination with The Cultural Revolution–among other eras of extremeness within China's history.

Anyway, I’m off to read. How about yourself, eh?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sole December TBR (For Now)!

"With a beautiful, powerful, and sexy Madame Chiang Kai-Shek at the center of one of the great dramas of the twentieth century, this is the story of the founding of modern China.

With the beautiful, powerful, and sexy Madame Chiang Kai-Shek at the center of one of the great dramas of the twentieth century, this is the story of the founding of modern China, starting with a revolution that swept away more than 2,000 years of monarchy, followed by World War II, and ending in eventual loss to the Communists and exile in Taipei. Praised by China scholar Jonathan Spence for “an impressive amount of telling material, drawn from a wide array of sources,” Pakula presents an epic historical tapestry, a wonderfully wrought narrative that brings to life what Americans should know about China—the superpower we are inextricably linked with."

~ The Last Empress on Amazon
All right.  All right.  As much as I want to break open my copy of Toni Braxton’s memoir, Unbreak My Heart, I have to take a step back.  After two years, I finally cracked open my copy of The Last Empress by Hannah Pakula back in October.  I got a good 100 pages into the book before I began to feel the swell of tome-size intimidation.  Great story, nonetheless.  It kept me glued, but I just knew getting through the book was going to take some work.  So I put it down for smaller titles in November.  And now I’m back at this monster of a read!  I’m committed to closing out the year finishing at least another big book.  This will be it.

The author...

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015's 6 FINAL READS ~ PART 2

All right, friends.  I’m back with the second half of my 2015’s 6 FINAL READS.

I finally, after over a year, sat my ass down to finish reading this volume of the Young Miss Holmes manga series.  And it was fantastic.  I believe I stalled for so long because of the eight-part The Hound of Baskervilles case Christie investigated.  Somewhere in the middle, I lost interest in the case.  Only to find myself enthralled by it during my re-introduction.
But let me back up a little, for those who aren’t familiar with Kaoru Shintani’s Young Miss Holmes.  It’s quite simple: ten-year-old Christie is the protege of her uncle, Sherlock Holmes.  Endowed with his sense of chief intelligence (how theatrical of a description?) as her uncle, Christie spends her time running around England solving murder mysteries.  And a variety of murders she encounters–almost freely.  You see her parents are in India, so she’s aided by a pistol-toting maid named Ann Marie.  Likewise, her servant, Nora, tags along on Christie's adventures.  Though mostly unassuming, Nora stashed a forked tongue whip underneath her petticoats.  
Ann Marie & Nora DON'T PLAY
when it comes to Christie!
Christie’s curious and precocious nature aside, I find these characters bring much of the action and humor.  I perk up whenever Anne Marie or Nora unleashes her respective attacks, in the face of protecting her charge.  It’s equally entertaining watching Christie’s sneaky shenanigans and off-color comments aimed at her "protectorates."  But don't get Christie wrong.  She does bring her guardians trouble, both from her willful behavior and slick mouth.  However, Christie cares deeply for the two.  She's as protective and loyal to them as they are to her.  And this is further shown in the two chapters dedicated to sharing the history of Nora and Ann Marie.
And it’s these two chapters I felt highlighted this volume.  Nora’s chapter follows her life as a gypsy-slave, before finding solace under the care of Christie’s parents.  As for Ann Marie’s story, we get a glimpse into her tragic childhood growing up in America.  Shintani takes us all the way to post-Civil War Georgia, and on into the racial strife during the time.  And you wouldn’t believe what he came up with.  Then again, it may not come as a surprise given the context.
So the list goes for teenage sleuths:
1.  Martha Grimes' pre-teen amateur sleuth, Emma Graham.
2.  Alan Bradley’s sharp-thinking ten-year-old sleuth, Flavia de Luce
3.  And Kaoru Shintani’s ten-year-old Crystal "Christie" Margaret Hope.
It's interesting how each series is historical–in a sense.  Graham takes part in the 60s, whereas de Luce's a full decade ahead.  As for Christie, she's a 19th century girl.  And I can't wait to get into the third and final volume.  I just love this kind of shit.  Smart girls solving mysteries and kicking grown men ass!  Or at least getting them locked up by the law.

Here’s another book I wish to dedicate an entire blog post toward.  But I’m sticking to my year-end wrap up here, as much as it pains me to hold back my thoughts.  You see, I want to write more on the book for a variety of reasons.  More so from the conversations generated by Rodriguez.  
He uses a stream of socially-conscious and opinionated essays to piece together his autobiography.  Some of his opinions may appear debatable, but I lean a little toward thought-provoking.  I’ll break down the subjects he addresses later.  But for the sake of holding myself back, I’ll drop a quick summary of the man.
Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory recounts life as a Mexican-American living in Sacramento during the 60s to 80s.  His story unfolds life as a child understanding a total of 50 English words.  This leads him to a Roman Catholic school for his early education, where his teachers have concern for his inability to grasp English.  Their suggestion is for his parents to speak more English around him, and so they do.  
However, this early circumstance stirs the beginning of Rodriguez's life story.  As a child, he begins to differentiate language and cultural differences between himself and his white classmates (as well as neighbors).  Which language and culture was more acceptable?  Which was correct for him?  His questioning leads to trouble, and a doubtful perspective of his Mexican parents.  Determined to control his future he learns to assimilate to American life.  Of course via its academic system.  This, in turn, causes Rodriguez to find himself distant from his Mexican roots.  To further his troubles, he relays the strife he faces by not finding acceptance in the exchange.  Instead of appearing as a successful middle-class American, he’s haunted by the “minority” label.  A label he rejects as the use of affirmative action grants him professional opportunities.  This troubles Rodriguez–and for obvious reasons.  Still, he never manages to escape his label.
There’s plenty to consider from Rodriguez’s commentary, expressions, and opinions on his inner grapples.  Or more so the Mexican heritage he bypassed in the divide between his aspirations.  Furthermore, he takes apart his religion during the "Credo" essay.  And I kind of recognized his salty view in that arena.  
Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the final two essays that I truly woke to his voice.  When he falls into the subject of his complexion and “minority” labels, I started to connect with his anguish.  Though I smirked as well, seeing how he was the one who denied much of his heritage/culture in the chase for a middle-class "seat."  Which he gained successfully, only to find himself alienated in the processes.  The final essay on his profession ties up his story, and the isolating conclusion of his struggles.  Closing the book comes his epilogue, featuring the silence he endures from his now disconnected parents.
Moving and kind of whiny in all the right areas, I have to give credit how Hunger of Memory drew me into the deep complexities of immigrant children struggling with assimilation and ambition.  And I honestly have to say–I get it.  Not one to toss aside my own background, I do understand what its like to ache for better.  Or to long for a life beyond your parents' road.  But like many things of that nature, it comes with a cost.
All right.  All right.  I can’t say too, too much about this book for a very important reason: I skipped toward the end.  Don’t judge.  Don’t laugh.  Just hear me out when I say I started the book in the spring of 2014 and only now decided to finish it up.  Now I managed to get through 100 pages–back then.  And the book is only 240-or-so pages.  So I figured my new, determined and focused attitude would sail me right through this.  Besides, I enjoyed James’ first Dalgliesh book enough to come this far.  With the expectation of moving further into the series.  So I came pumped and ready to go.  Then almost instantaneously, I got that familiar dry and dull buzz from over a year ago.  James is so meticulous of a crime fiction writer that I found myself soaked too deep into her time frames and mathematics.  I say that as opposed to her crime and character.  So.  I skimmed lightly toward the final 40 pages and tread on to the finish line.  And that’s just the way the damn cookie crumbles.  Judge those who may, but after a year, I consider this a FINISHED READ.
With the intentions of getting the third book somewhere in the unforeseen future.  Cross all fingers.
Nonetheless, since I’m finished whining, I’ll “remind” everyone what happens in this books.
Via Goodreads!
"On the surface, the Steen Psychiatric Clinic is one of the most reputable institutions in London. But when the administrative head is found dead with a chisel in her heart, that distinguished facade begins to crumble as the truth emerges. Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate and quickly finds himself caught in a whirlwind of psychiatry, drugs, and deceit. Now he must analyze the deep-seated anxieties and thwarted desires of patients and staff alike to determine which of their unresolved conflicts has resulted in murder and stop a cunning killer before the next blow."
And that's it my friends!  My 6 FINAL READS of 2015.  But remember to please leave your comments on your 6 FINAL READS OF 2015 down below.  I'm currently powering my way through Haruki Murakami's monster, 1Q84.  I'm tackling this one a year later, with the intent of going after my large books this year.  And there are plenty to keep me company.  

In case this is the last post before New Years: HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!  Keep READING, DRAWING, AND LIFE'ING.  
Wait.  I think I have another post in me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Anand's Calling...

Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling is sort of my first foray into readings based on Indian culture, and the country in general. It’s an “intimate portrait” written by Giridharadas regarding his experience as an American-born Indian returning to the country his parents immigrated from before his birth (as well as his sister‘s). He exams the many influences as to why his parents left India, between a somewhat stifling culture and a tumbling economy. And then he relays how many of those grounds for fleeing have evolved and changed over the years. For better or worse is often the question. Nevertheless, it’s at a consequence that some Indians find themselves culturally deprived and economically disadvantaged compared to the transfixed success of others.

So what could be the catalysis to this change within the country? Here’s where Giridharadas also assesses the cultural influences outside of, say, the caste system that once held a cord over India‘s public. Women and men of India are beginning to take control of their lives–their circumstances. And it’s complicated to do so, as the people of India give away many of their old cultural standards for something new, adventurous, and maybe even considered sinfully enticing. Giridharadas explores these changes through seven chapters where individuals he‘s spoken with, concerning the conceptualization of India Calling, share their stories. From fundamentalist, entrepreneurs, spiritual, and love-lost citizens, he categorizes his chapters between Dreams, Ambition, Pride, Anger, Love, and Freedom. And it’s here that I’m going to share quotes and pieces of each chapter to give you guys and idea as to how revealing I found India Calling.

"India was changing when I arrived, and it continued to change dramatically, viscerally, improbably.  The freeze I had sensed as a child seemed to be thawing.  It was partly the enormous physical churn: the quantities of earth being moved, the malls and office towers and gated communities being built, the restaurants opening, the factories pumping out cars, the blue jeans being sewn.  It was the new verticality of the big cities, the slum dwellers in Bombay moving into towering apartments financed by New York investors, the mushrooming of village backwaters into congested satellite cities such as Gurgaon and Navi Mumbai and Electronics City.  It was the villagers who have been moved off their land so that Tata Motors, the once-stagnant company where my father worked, whose lifeless culture had pushed him toward America, could built the world's cheapest car, priced at a little more than $2,000."

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Wilkerson's Other Suns

I’ve read some really fun and good books so far this year, but as of right now, the best belongs to The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  There is no way around how illuminative and influential this book is.  No way.  Listen, if you love Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, or J. California Cooper, this book is for you.  Absolutely.  I know my list of African American authors is short, so extend it however you feel.  Just drop any author in and tag them with this book.  I encourage everyone to read The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns is non-fiction, categorized as History/United States according to Barnes & Nobles; however, it is chiefly a biography.  Without a doubt Isabel Wilkerson serves some powerful, informative details that illustrate African American life in the early 20th century U.S. South.  She continues to strengthen her book with the conflicts concerning the Jim Crow era, and on into black communities residing in the North and West through merging migrations.  Nevertheless, the true strength of the book lie in the biography of three African Americans Wilkerson staff to paint the tone and veracity of the book, via their personal firsthand accounts and experiences.  Their stories glow through Wilkerson’s years of personal interviews.  Each share a different decade of migration, and each travel to different geological and emotional destinations.  Whatever the cavalcade, their amazing stories are told through narratives so smoothly detailed and realized that I find it hard to ever forget about them and their respective journeys.

First on the list is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, the wife of a Mississippian sharecropper.  Her story begins with her husband, George Gladney, and his romancing competitor vying for 16-year-old Ida’s hand in marriage.  Or better put, the endorsement of Ida’s mother to marry her daughter.  Eventually George marries Ida Mae, pulling her into his business of picking cotton on a white landowner named Mr. Edd's plantation.  Ida Mae isn't the best at picking cotton, but she manages alongside her husband.  That determination is clear in Ida Mae very early within her narrative; there is an unspoken toughness in her.  Nonetheless, being the wife of a sharecropper isn't easy beyond fieldwork either because what troubles her husband often troubles her.  

Considering that period, it wasn't uncommon for men like George to find themselves cheated by landowners.  Only a few African American men could follow mathematics and clean numbers in relation to their labor and its payoff.  For a black man to question or confront the landowner of his concerns is for a black man to gamble with immediate death.  The division of power and politics was that ruthless and clear.

So when one of George’s cousins find himself accused of stealing livestock owned by Mr. Edd, Ida Mae goes tense with the news that a posse of white men have gathered to hunt the cousin down.  Eventually they find him, beat him near death, and throw him in a jail cell.  According to Ida Mae, George’s cousin was never the same.  And when Mr. Edd’s livestock meander out of the woods and back to his plantation safe and sound, Ida Mae and George decide that it is time to take their family out of the South.  The incident hit to close, and it seemed only a matter of time before George is falsely accused on any white man’s whim and consequently beaten or killed.  That was just the way it was in Mississippi, so Ida Mae and George secretly embark on a train headed North and eventually to Chicago.

The second person carrying Wilkerson’s book is George Swanson Starling.  George begins his journey as an ambitious citrus picker in Florida (according to the book, this was the worse state for blacks).  Driven by his desire to excel beyond previous generations, George manages to complete high school and eventually move into college.  Teased for his ambition, George never allowed anyone to stop him.  However, what eventually halted his dreams was himself.  After two years of college, George sought his newly remarried father for more tuition money to keep pursuing his education.  With a new, blended family to support, George's father insist that he wait another year and work instead.  Unable to convince his father of the support he needed, George rebelliously married a local girl his father always disputed against.  Believing this would push his father into giving him the money to leave the state (and away from the girl) back to college, it only backfired.  Instead George’s father decided that it was best for George to work and take care of his new wife.  Without much of a choice, George went back into the citrus fields where his friends remained during his absence.  When George begins to use his education to challenge the work versus pay gradient, he attracts the unwanted attention of several white citrus field owners.  Unworried, George forwards his debates.  Eventually rumors of his potentially orchestrated demise begin to circulate through the fields.  Finally fearing the consequences of his outspokenness, George sets off to New York, leaving his new wife behind as he proceeds to change their future.  Unfortunately, George never quite seems to live freely without regrets.

Lastly, Wilkerson shares the story of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Monroe, Louisiana.  Robert comes from a family formed by education--which influenced and encouraged his own educational purists.  He and his siblings each make it to college, Robert in particular finding himself at Atlanta’s esteemed black college, Morehouse.  At Morehouse Robert studies to become a doctor and surgeon.  It’s here that he also meets his wife, the daughter of then Morehouse president, Rufus Early Clement.  Soon after his marriage and graduation, Robert joins the army.  While he faced plenty of prejudices as a black doctor in the U. S. army, it doesn't prepare him for the vacancy of opportunities he later face as a black doctor in his home state of Louisiana.  The medical community in the South adjudge black doctors to the poor, black, backwood populace only.  This realization builds pressure and frustration in Robert.  Always under the thought that he has much to prove to others, Robert eventually leaves Louisiana to California.  In turn, he removes himself from his Southern roots so completely that he almost chronically overlook how much he's already proved and achieved.

While the journey of the three are certainly different in both context and moral delivery, they each share something inspirational and reflective for generations ahead.  I say this beyond the complicated elements that made up southern plight and the response to civil rights.  As tantamount as those elements are, though.  Nonetheless, I found myself identifying with pieces of each of Wilkerson's storytellers' dilemmas, moral standings, and inner motivations.  Which really causes me to insist that people as a whole take part in everything that this book has to offer.  

Nevertheless, with that insistency I should also add that some strings of story and imagery come repetitiously.  Blame it on the years of interviews Wilkerson sources in the Acknowledgements, or the mountain of research she sites in the Notes.  But to be clear, this repetition is too minor to concede.

One serious thought The Warmth of Other Suns left me with concerns my personal lineage.  I'm from--and still live--in the South.  My family has always been here... as far as I know.  My grandmother was born in 1941, in the midst of blacks migrating North and West.  She grew up on a farm in Toney, Alabama, picking cotton with eight other children (she was the baby girl) born by Van and Maggie Abernathy.  While she clearly recalls her mother’s parents and where they lived, when I asked about her father’s parents she had this to say:

White folks owned everything--ruled everything.  My daddy didn’t even know who his mamma was.”  I asked her to elaborate a little more.  She added:  “There are bad colored men and bad white men and if a white man owned a colored man, he’ll do whatever he ask.

Needless to say, I got chills.

As for my grandfather, he passed in 1988.  He's in the above image.  Anyway, rumor has it that he was half Jewish, but nobody knows too much about his family because they weren't exactly happy with his decision be with my grandmother.  From what I can recall via one of my aunts, with the exception of one of his sisters, his family cut him off.  It is a saddening reality.  Especially when you want to know who your people are and where you come from.  

In any regard, my grandparents met while my grandmother was working “uptown” at this placed called Blue Front CafĂ©.  I should add that this was some time after she ran away from home.  So soon after birthing my aunt and mother, my grandmother convinced my grandfather to buy the house she currently resides in.  Our family has owned and lived in this home since its construction in the early 60s, right around the March on Washington, a Civil Rights movement geared toward the end of employee discrimination.  Since then, we've been here.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chinese Cinderella & History

I’ve been writing about China and Historical Fiction/Non-fiction on Comic Towel lately.  So much so that I wanted to share more of my love of both subjects in their sometimes blended splendor.  While the book I’m currently reading doesn't occupied either of the two topics, I couldn't exactly find a book to square up to that would allow me to delve deeper into the subject.  Then I glanced at my copy of Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah, and recalled the summer night I spent reading the book from start to finish.  Needless to say, that night I freely absorbed Chinese culture and Mah’s personal story revolving around subjugation to many of China’s darkest administrations.  Politically and communally I might add.  That glancing led me to an essay I wrote not to long ago featuring Adeline Yen Mah’s teen version of her autobiography titled, Chinese Cinderella, as well as the topic of historical fiction versus fact.  I would like to share it here, knowing that these subjects have always been something I generally loved to talk about.

Historical fiction and non-fiction novels contain a precise view of the world via a particular story’s setting.  This category of children stories represent realities of earlier periods in human history, told to contemporary readers.  Therefore, because of generational gaps, children may be unfamiliar with the settings and traditions that make up historical fiction.  Here writers must provide enough strong material to fill in the customs of the past so that children of the modern age can understand and appreciate the entirety of a story.  It is this filling of significant period-related material that eases children into the plot of a story, instead of pushing a history lesson.  Adeline Yen Mah’s nonfiction biography, Chinese Cinderella, introduces children to 1930s China through the eyes of an unfortunate girl within an emotionally abusive home.  It is a story that pulls from generations past to express political and cultural upheavals while maintaining the story of one Chinese family’s struggle.  Some may assume that Mah’s need to reveal Chinese culture and politics found itself unnecessary in developing the story’s theme concerning family and child disassociation.  However, Mah’s political and cultural reflections of past China shape much of the influence of family oppression that encouraged young readers to engage with her story.

Chinese Cinderella represents a story about conquering one’s own painful past to establish a productive and wealthy future.  Told through the autobiographical eyes of Adeline Mah, the children’s novel begins with young Mah living a relatively normal, happy life as a child in revolutionizing China.  

The beginning of the novel shows Mah celebrating with a silver medal that she received from school as well as a certificate.  This celebration is in honor of her leading her class, an element that foreshadows her future as a physician and writer.  Nevertheless, like many Chinese families, Mah lives within a complex family; therefore, she presents this award to her aunt, who is combing her hair and not to her numerous brothers and sister because of her fear of an unwarranted reaction.  Mah’s aunt becomes inspired by her niece’s achievement, pulling forth old photographs to relay where her niece came from within the complexities of her family‘s list of honors.  With the photograph, Mah’s aunt reminds Mah of each family member and his or her purpose, goals, and achievements.  However, when Mah questions her aunt about her mother’s role and death, her aunt reveals that Mah’s mother died three days after giving birth to her only.  This begins to set the tone of a motherless girl who becomes classified under Chinese tradition to contain bad luck because of the life her birth took.  No amount of achievements would appear to shadow Mah’s existence following her mother’s death, even within her own family (Mah, 1999, pg. 6)

Mah’s family siblings would forever blame her for their mother’s death, her father sought marriage to a woman of French and Chinese heritage.  This wife bore two additional children (a girl and a boy) during the time China faced and lost the Opium War between England and France.  Many families migrated from coastal cities to Tianjin and Shanghai as a result of the war.  As World War II came about many Chinese traditions further changed from customs featured in the Tang dynasty.  One of these customs was the custom of bounding girls’ feet, considering Chinese men put stock in women with small feet.  Here, Mah no longer had to follow tradition.  This later granted her the ability to form her own destiny as the story unfolds presenting the horrors her stepmother placed on her family (and her in particular) during their time in changing China.  Because her stepmother came from mixed heritage, it became easy for the father to accept that her form of discipline was a matter of cultural progression.  Therefore, he accepted the abuse for the sake of maintaining his wife during a period of struggle (Mah, 1999, pg. 8-10).

Literary elements that construct novels such as Chinese Cinderella are honest history and convincing characters.  Each of these two elements coincides with one another to illustrate a story.  Readers of Chinese Cinderella must consider the history behind China, presented in the novel as well as the character’s place and reactions to those histories and settings.  Convincing cannot be established when the setting and characters are not balanced correctly.  One must fit into the other.  Should the setting contain elements of future sciences and technologies, the characters would no longer be honest to the setting.  Likewise should the character contain knowledge of future sciences and technologies, the character would have no place within the influence of his or her story (Russell, 2009, pg. 247-250).  Chinese Cinderella manages both literary elements correctly, stemming from its nonfiction nature.  Told from the perspective of an individual, the information is accurate.  However, that is not to say that some autobiographies contain elements of fiction.  

Nevertheless, examples that illustrate Mah’s placement of these two literary elements are Mah’s reaction to traditions such as her older sister’s marriage arrangement and bringing honor to family and ancestors.  Under each circumstance, Mah remained innocence and honest in her wonder as regarding why such traditions should be held, even as she went about upholding them.  However, when faced with the scrutiny of her stepmother (who twice sent her to boarding school because of Mah’s tendency to question her), Mah’s resolve to one day be set free of China increased.  This set of traditions (including the early mention of bounding girls feet for marriage) reflected the character of Mah, who has remained an outcast to her family no matter how clever and smart (indicated by her school achievements) that she was.  

One insightful passage helped establish readers to the character of Mah as well as her struggle to separate herself from the harshness of China because she longed for life outside her confinement as a girl and an unwanted daughter.  The passage is told by Mah’s grandfather.  He states to her:

“You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English.  But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English.  You’ll always be  expected to know Chinese, and if you don’t, I’m afraid they will not respect you as much” (Mah, 1999, pg. 151).

Her setting later allowed her to split from the boundaries women face in China, leading her to a successful career in London and America as a bilingual physician (Ford, 2003, pg. 66).

Fact or fiction is a statement that demands truth over false within historical fiction or nonfiction.  In Mah’s nonfiction biography, Chinese Cinderella, the elements of fact become determined by the historic events that take place within the story.  Two examples that relay how her material becomes based on fact are her mention of China’s divide with foreign territories or concessions while the Japanese ruled the country beyond these foreign territories.  Because Mah’s family was wealthy and with clout (particularly her French and Chinese stepmother), her family lived well within the territories of the French.  Mah express this piece of fact stating that “Tianjin’s French concession was like a little piece of Paris transplanted into this center of this big Chinese city” (Mah, 1999, pg. 5-6).  During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Japanese and other foreigner territories did reside in China during the period of the Opium War and World War II. 

Another example of fact within Mah’s novel arises in the political stains the country faced after the Japanese fled the country at the end of World War II.  This period of Communists and Nationalists became the cause of civil war within the country, as the exchange of ideas erupted in Chinese communities, concerning the progression of the country after the wars.  When Mah became pushed into a boarding school, the teachers, and administrating staff questioned: “Didn’t your parents tell you the Communist don’t believe in God and hate foreigners?” (Mah, 1999, pg. 129-130).

Each example furthers the theme of Mah’s story as she continued to wrestling with inner and outer wars to establish her separation from many elements that created a corrupted China.  These elements brought envisions of freedom from tradition as well as freedom from her family.  Mah was the perfect student and remained partly, such as mistreatment from family and wars proceeded to damage her mentality.  Had she not continued to pursue excellence, she would have never escaped the hardships of her past (Ford, 2003, pg. 66).

Even as humans try to remove themselves from his or her past, it is the past that makes the individual.  Mah learned this through the development of her autobiography, aimed to teach children how one’s past does not onset a negative future unless and individual chooses to allow it to be so.  Much of the events Mah faced, from war to political ruling, shaped her determination to exceed beyond her past.  How these elements also contributed to the destructive behavior of her stepmother furthered Mah’s resolve, as toward the end of her true story, when her father’s will is read, Mah decides to no longer fight with her abusive stepmother.  Instead, Mah walks away to continue creating the life she desired with her newfound power of freedom of mind.

Ford, Kim. Voices From the Middle 10.3 (March, 2003): 66.

Mah, A. Y. (1999). Chinese Cinderella. New York City: Dell Laurel Leaf.

Russell, D.L. (2009). Literature for Children: A short introduction (6th Edition). Boston,
MA Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Jung Chang | Cixi

I was a little wary in writing and posting about Jung Chang’s latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, for several reasons.  I’ll state a few of those reasons even if they may sound preposterous.  One reason is that I’m not a historian or scholar and this book is a biography about a 19th century Chinese Empress.  With no claims to know every single historical detail on that century/era, I feared some form of ridicule from those who've studied the subject--professionally if I should say.  Still, that small hesitation was constantly pounded by my affinity for Chinese history, developed from reading Chinese and Chinese-American authors. 

The other reason I was wary came through my research on the author and her status in China.  Evidently, with her books banned in China, Jung Chang is only allowed there in short visit to see her mother and sister.  So what happens if an individual from China ran across my blog post (which according to my blog’s statistics, they are there)?  Would this cause readers to turn away because of the debates behind the author and the subject of Empress Cixi herself?  I gnawed on that for a while after reading the book… always the careful thinker.

Then I realized I was being ridiculous to the ninth degree.  Really, I enjoyed the book enough to be inspired to post about it.  So why in the hell was I over-thinking doing so?

I first heard of Jung Chang when I worked in a bookstore in Atlanta.  It was around the time her book on Mao released and the publisher did a re-release of her early 1990’s book, Wild Swans.  Because Mao was a behemoth (about 900 pages) and had yet to really urge me to tackle its reading, I was instead excited to grab a copy of Wild Swans for drowning myself in stories about Chinese mothers and heartache during the Cultural Revolution.  And I did so with pleasure; Wild Swans comes highly recommended from my reading list.  I have yet to read Mao: The Unknown Story, although now I’m ready for the action (just yesterday I picked up a copy).  However, I kept Chang in mind after my experience with Wild Swans.  Naturally, after years of patience and double checking her profile on Amazon, I was glad to see that she was releasing a new title in 2013 based on a Chinese Empress named Cixi.  Drool and bolts of excitement struck me until its release and I spent no time cutting through this exciting book the minute it was in my hands.  Once finished, I went online to search every video, article, and review to match my concluded enthusiasm with others.

I suppose it should be stated that Chang received some criticism for her latest book as well as her previous.  Decades of debates swirled around Cixi’s ruling methods over China, and it's here that Chang gathered criticism for painting a rather “white” light on her portrait and perspective of Cixi.  Lucky for me I didn't have much to debate with as I went into the book.  I just knew I was about to learn something valuable.  I trusted Chang's details would be genuine and true; nobody reward lies in a biography or piece of non-fiction.  Nevertheless, my realized desire was to gain awareness of the story of a woman in power during historic China.  I wanted to understand and fill my head with the story/portrait of Cixi, but not necessarily with the inclusion of deciding whether her decisions as one of China’s leaders belongs to my judgment.
Credit: Jon Halliday

Jung Chang begins Cixi’s story with 16-year-old Cixi (the daughter of one of China’s government employees) gaining the attention of China’s then emperor, Xianfeng, during the Great Qing dynasty.  As one of Emperor Xianfeng’s many concubines, Cixi’s role was more or less summarized to her producing a male heir as the successor of Xianfeng’s rule.  She became the only concubine who managed to do such.  Sheltered within the confines of the Forbidden City in Beijing, Cixi grew with little awareness of the world surrounding China, although there was curiosity for that world.  It wasn’t until British and French forces moved into Beijing during the 19th century, when foreigners sought much of China’s resources as well as tangling in opium war discord, that things begin to turn within the Great Qing dynasty.  As foreign troops stomped through Beijing, destroying the emperor’s Old Summer Palace with fire, Emperor Xianfeng fled with his family/court to a Hunting Lodge in Northern China.  

Emperor Xianfeng died in the lodge, but before his death he consorted with his Board of Regents in producing a will that placed his only son as ruler.  With the help of Emperor Xianfeng’s wife, Empress Zhen, did Cixi step forward to maneuver her way into becoming the Empress Dowager of China through the shield of her toddler son’s new found position as leader.  With the rise of foreign contacts, affairs, and disputes, Cixi saw that it was time for reform in China.  According to Cixi, to do that required China to open up its doors to Westerners instead of resisting them.  

Given that opposition would arise within the Qing court, one of Cixi’s first strategic moves was to rid her son of the Board of Regents while allying herself with her late husband’s brothers (Prince Chun and Prince Gong).  The removal of the opposing Board of Regents resulted in a twisted political game moved in Cixi's favor.  With the threat hanging over her new found position removed, Cixi went on to pull the political strings surrounding China’s move toward modernity and reformation of culture/traditions (she is known as banning Chinese foot binding).  Having all the details documented in Chang's book, it's hard to not find yourself wrapped in Cixi's ambitions struggle.  And needless to say, by the end of the book, Cixi left a body or two along the path to China's move into modernity.  But what leader in history has not?

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China is a book that provides a sharp, piercing look into what was then of China and its inner politics.  It’s here that we not only learn the insides on what made Cixi tick as a fascinating and frightening leader full of intent, but also we get to witness evolving China move into the modern age suggested by Cixi’s ruling.  From China’s dealings with Japan over sovereign countries, budding Chinese Reforms and the (what I saw as) somewhat backlash that sparked the Boxer Rebellion, and the pickings of foreign countries stripping the dynasty of several of China’s territories, did this expansive book reflect on the makings of  modern China through the grounding of Cixi’s story.

Without a doubt this became a gripping, well-written (and apparently thoroughly investigated) read that I would recommend to anyone interested in exploring Chinese history through the eyes of one of its most charismatic and powerful rulers.  We watch Cixi struggle to keep her country’s traditions while remain aware of the inevitability of opening China’s doors to world.  It's a wager filled with consequences and successes till the bitter end.  With that said, I am now capable and ready to move into reading Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story. For more on Jung Chang and her new book, click on the video below.

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