Locus Focus: Take Twenty-Eight!
Well, I'm back on board with some non-fiction, excited about next week's visit to the land of Narnia, and gearing up for next month's Wildcard madness. (Keyword: madness. Of course.)
But leave it to me to be inspired by a memoir that is--as the author admits--"strictly speaking," a work of fiction. For by the time the adult woman sat down to write of her childhood, all her memories had flooded together into one gorgeous, colourful, panoramic picture with little regard for proper sequencing and literal fact. And she chose to write not what was in the records, but what was in her soul.
Something I've learned about memoir writing--both from reading those by other people and trying to write my own--is that there is a thin line between telling outright lies and making stuff up about the truth. The former is dark, deceptive and shallow. The latter is a dynamic understanding that the past is never just "the past." But I can't really explain that all here.
Homesick: My Own Story
by Jean Fritz
It seemed to me that once we were completely out of sight of land, I would really feel homeward bound. But as I looked at the Shanghai skyline and at the busy waterfront, I had the strange feeling that I wasn't moving away at all. Instead, the land was slowly moving away and leaving me. Not just Shanghai but China itself. It was as if I could see the whole country at once: all the jogging rickshas, the pagodas, the squeaking wells, the chestnut vendors, the water buffaloes, the bluebells, the grey-coated soldiers, the bare-bottomed little boys. And of course the muddy Yangtse with my own junk looking at me with its wide eyes. I could even smell China, and it was the smell of food cooking, of steam rising from so many rice bowls it hung in a mist over the land. But it was slipping away. No matter how hard I squinted, it was fading from sight . . .
Jean Fritz's eleven-year-old self had never considered the country of her birth to be her home, and had always known she would someday leave for her real home, America, and stay there forever. However, as all "Third Culture Kids" can tell you, hand in hand with that firm loyalty to a land one has never seen is a bond to the "host" country that will never be broken. But it takes the last sight of the shores of Shanghai, already a good distance from the places she actually grew up in, to make Fritz see that. No one ever never really appreciates the past until it is the past.
The very first chapter illustrates these inner conflicts beautifully. Our all-American narrator has just landed in trouble at school for refusing to sing God Save the King, and she is trying to avoid a beating from a British bully by skipping off to the Mud Flats of the Yangste River. There, she finds an unfinished junk and feels an irresistible compulsion to carve her family's name into its spine. Not their proud American name, Guttery--but their adopted Chinese name, Gau.
I was a-tingle, the way a magician must feel when he swallows fire, because suddenly I knew that the boat was mine. No matter who really owned it, it was mine. Even if I never saw it again, it would be my junk sailing up and down the Yangste River . . . whether I was there or not. Often I had tried to put the Yangste River into a poem so I could keep it. Sometimes I had tried to draw it, but nothing I ever did came close. But now, now I had my junk and somehow that gave me the river too.
But after Fritz's family finally fled the increasingly xenophobic China, did her wish for the junk come true? Did this boat bearing the innocent longings of a little girl survive the turmoil of 1920s and Mao Tse-tung's Communist uprising? We'd hope so, of course . . . but then again, that is not what is important. For the exchange has been made. Fritz gave the junk her name, and the junk gave her the Yangste River--and this sort of magical trade can never be revoked.
The writer L.P. Hartley has described the past as "a foreign country" where people do things differently. Who better to understand that than Fritz, whose past literally is a foreign country? For most of this book, both her childhood self and the reader take for granted that she is homesick for America, the "real home" her parents have promised her and where she has always wanted to live. And yet, when we read of her ship sailing away from Shanghai, we see that now it is China that the adult Fritz longs for--a China that has been, since the Cultural Revolution, lost not just to her, but to the rest of the world.
But historical realities have no bearing on the foreign country of memory, where an old-fashioned junk with two eyes painted on its prow and a secret symbol lightly carved into its spine, still sails a familiar river.
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This Week's Other Locus Focus:
Movie Edition: "Stanley Island" @ Birdie's Nest
Image Source: Homesick: My Own Story by Jean Fritz