Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (1984) opens when Bandit is living in China in her grandparents’ home. She is ten years old (nine in Western birthdays) and she is about to learn that she will be going to live in the United States.
“Holding Precious Coins even tighter, Bandit inched toward the carved ebony chair in the center of the room. She kept her eyes on Grandmother’s bound feet, which rested on a stool.
She set the boy down. At once he plopped to the floor and put his arms around her left leg.
‘Good morning, Grandmother,’ she whispered, still keeping her eyes on Grandmother’s feet. They were very tiny, like little red peppers.”
One of Marc Simont’s illustrations accompanies this description, capturing the young girl’s uncertainty and her brother’s fierce grip perfectly. Soon after, she adopts a name suitable for America; she chooses Shirley Temple.
“Home was Brooklyn, New York, but Shirley would not know that for a while. To her, it was simply Mei Guo, Beautiful Country.”
As the chapters unfold, one for each month of the year in the Western calendar, Shirley’s perspective alters slightly, the number of Chinese words gradually decreasing as she becomes more integrated into her new life in Brooklyn, attending P.S. 8 and learning to love baseball.
“Shirley felt as if the walls of the classroom had vanished. In their stead was a frontier of doors to which she held the keys.
‘This year, Jackie Robinson is at bat. He stands for himself, for Americans of every hue, for an America that honors fair play.”
In an era in which the president of the United States does not honour fair play, does not believe that Americans exist in more than one hue, the passages spoken by Shirley’s teacher, and by Jackie Robinson himself when he (oh, wait: spoiler! never mind!) are particularly touching.
Sometimes, books written for children just get it right in the simplest terms. Shirley is not a perfect child. She makes mistakes and misjudgements (often reaching just beyond her grasp, then requiring the assistance of someone more experienced – well, this is what childhood is about) and often quietly regrets her decisions but determinedly moves forward.
“Amitabha! Why had she been so quick to show off again? Next time, she would hold her tongue. Next time…if there ever was a next time.”
She brought a much-needed pluck to my reading stack. Her story also brought an additional layer of sadness to my explorations in Richard Bowan’s Mei Mei Little Sister: Portraits from a Chinese Orphanage. Novels like Bette Bao Lord’s make it easier to imagine experiences far removed from our own lives.
Turning the pages of mei mei I couldn’t help but think of Bandit, couldn’t help but want a happy ending for the girls in these photographs.
The introduction to this volume is written by Amy Tan, “The Unfinished Story of Our Lives”, who also discusses her own experience looking at these images.
“I must be careful not to fall into either helpless pity or the romanticism that I can rescue them all. I must avoid the ethnocentric gaze of comparing these girls to luckier or unluckier ones. I want to see each girl for who she is. It’s impossible, of course. But it’s good to ask every now and then. What is the essence of any of us beyond the comparative assessment of others?”
Ultimately, she arrives upon the importance of witnessing.
“As with any photograph one might see in a history book or a family album of snapshots, they are portals, to another’s consciousness in a particular time and place. For as long as we look, we can imagine. With a bit of imagination, we can inhabit that moment over and over again, that mind and heart, that smile or frown, those desires and needs. We can look and hope to know more. That is the start of compassion, I think. The rest just naturally follows. And before we’ve even finished turning the pages, those girls are already part of our lives.”
P.P. Wong, author of The Life of a Banana, underscores the importance of Asian writers telling their own stories. The last page in her debut novel encourages readers (and writers) to visit www.bananawriters.com which is a fantastic resource. (Warning: your TBR list will likely grow demonstrably if you read these interviews.)
The Life of a Banana (2014) landed on my stack because it was longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize a couple of years ago. (I’ve never been disappointed in the books on this prize’s longlists, and quite often they have brought a terrific writer onto my reader’s radar.)
Xing Li’s voice is smart and funny, even though readers meet her in London after her mother has died. The book’s presentation is playful, too, with little images marking the beginning and ending of each chapter.
But it can’t all be fun and games in the wake of such a trauma, especially given that she and her brother must now adjust to life with a more traditional Chinese grandmother.
Ultimately Xing Li learns that life was not easy for her mother either; she, too, felt pulled and torn when aspects of her identity left her in conflict.
“Mama wrote to Autie Mei every week, it must have been tough hiding Papa away while being there for Uncle Ho. Mama’s big heart must have had to split into two, one half for Papa, one half for Uncle Ho. How did Mama do it? She was always splitting her heart for everyone. Once Mama’s best friend Mrs. Alsanea told me ‘Your mother’s heart splits in all directions. If someone asks for help she never knows when to say no. She takes on too much, sometimes I’m worried that your mother’s heart will explode.’ Mrs. Alsanea was right, when the oven exploded and killed Mama her heart exploded too.”
The structure depends upon some overly earnest and spelled-out-for-you explanations like this one; Xing Li is only twelve when her mother dies, so there’s only so much she can provide as a narrator. She did not have the opportunity to understand her mother’s choices herself, so she relies upon others to supply her with that information, which makes for some “so-and-so-said”. And she’s not significantly older or experienced in telling this story, so she doesn’t quite own the insight even when she relays it to readers, which muddies the waters of her maturity.
There are, however, many aspects of the story which are satisfying: her friendship with Jay, her brother’s different way of coping with their mother’s death, the trip to Singapore, and her glimpse into her grandmother’s pasr during the trip (though the attempt to update it felt tacked-on). On a scenic-level, there are a lot of powerful moments in The Life of a Banana.
Have you read any of these? Does one of them appeal to you more than the others?