Sunday, July 12, 2009

Beautiful as Yesterday (A Review)

Beautiful as Yesterday
By Fan Wu
Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)
368 pages
July 7, 2009

"The innocent dreams we took to heart when we were young are just naïve. Do you remember that I once said that I'd use my poetry to change Chinese people's spiritual world? What a dreamer I was! You also said you'd devote yourself to science just like Madame Curie. We used to think that we were the happiest people in the world."

Fan Wu was born in the 1970s on an isolated state-run farm in China, where her parents had been exiled during the Cultural Revolution. She graduated from Sun Yat-Sen University and shortly thereafter, in 1997, she arrived in California and began to work for Yahoo! in Silicon Valley. Realizing her English was poor, Wu devoured works by American writers such as Salinger and Capote and developed an interest in practicing the craft herself. While her left-brained colleagues lived for math and technology, Wu concentrated on writing and came out with her English-language debut February Flowers, a coming-of-age story story of two young women, in 2006. "Probably Westerners are still more interested in hearing about all the tragedies in China but I feel there are enough memoirs," she says. "Young people want to have more hope, they want to look to the future so they shouldn't really live in the past." Still, however much a nation reinvents itself, this fine day today was built upon layer after layer of painful history. According to Wu, China's "generation gap can never be filled. You always live in your parents' past. You can move on, but there's a price. You can never forget the past." Her latest novel, Beautiful as Yesterday (released July 7 by Atria Books) focuses on a mother, her two Americanized daughters, and the distances between each Chinese generation born in the tempestuous twentieth century.

American immigrant and "multicultural" fiction - from Chaim Potok to Edwidge Danticat - has often focused on the interaction between mainstream American culture and the culture of the protagonists. (I actually hate that label "multicultural literature." It's an umbrella term so broad it has no real meaning.) Predictably, that is also a prominent issue in Beautiful as Yesterday. What currently distinguishes China and the Chinese people, however, is the country's rapid, almost overnight transformation from a brutal and stagnant Communist backwater to a modern, quasi-capitalist economic powerhouse (albeit a repressive one). Chinese culture is ancient; yet the disparity between China in the twenty-first century and China under Mao is akin to two divergent cultures colliding and trying to make sense of one another. Even siblings have known different childhoods: there are only six years between Mary (Guo-Mei) and her younger sister Ingrid (Guo-Ying), but Mary remembers the difficult times of the Cultural Revolution, whereas Ingrid tasted enough freedom to wind up at Tienanmen Square one fateful afternoon.

Mary arrived in the United States for college, and then helped to pay her sister's way through an American university as well. Life in a foreign country, however, has only heightened the contrast between them, as Mary has since settled into conventional, affluent suburbia while Ingrid enjoys la vie bohème in New York City. But the arrival of their widowed mother, Wang Fenglang, from their Chinese hometown disrupts the uncomfortable status quo existing between them and forces them both to confront a past they thought they had left behind. As perspective shifts from one woman to another, themes of innocence, world-weariness, loss, idealism, and hope slowly develop in the form of reunions between family and friends, and the accompanying moments of accusation and acceptance. Culture clash is both burdensome (Fenglang can't drive and speaks no English) and humorous (a Chinese tourist in NYC snaps a photo of a random obese woman). There is also a split between Chinese-Americans born in America and "FOB's" ("fresh off the boat"); yet instead of simply showcasing that tension and raising awareness that it exists, Wu subtly explores the contradiction inherent to these artificial estrangements between groups and sub-groups. Mary and Ingrid communicate easily with non-Chinese when it comes to finances, science, and shared interests in art and literature. Fenglang learns to look past regional differences between herself and other Chinese expatriates, realizing the other seniors at the park relate to her tragic past far better than her own daughters ever will. Above all, Beautiful as Yesterday is about unification and understanding, whether it is between individuals, generations, and different facets of human society.

Like February Flowers, Beautiful as Yesterday is written in English, which both helps and slightly hinders it. On one hand, Wu's prose can be awkward and the dialogue is sometimes stilted and unnatural (from an American six-year-old: "Why must I do this?"), which makes getting into the book a rather difficult until the plot picks up and carries the reader along with it. Christine of She Reads Books did an interesting post awhile ago on the issue of style v. substance, in which she basically argued that beautiful writing is paramount, although in rare cases an excellent plot can overcome mediocre writing. I think Beautiful as Yesterday is an example of the latter scenario (of course, Wu's prose is not mediocre - it just reflects the difficulties of writing in a second language). In the end, Wu definitely proves that an emotionally powerful story can more than make up for any initial stylistic drawbacks. In fact, after awhile I didn't even notice anything "off" with the prose.

On the other hand, the fact that Beautiful as Yesterday is in English gives it a real boost in American markets (in addition to the fact that it is as much about America as it is about China). I've complained numerous times on this blog about Americans generally not reading translations. (Although all fiction can probably be considered a form of translation.) According to this article, Asian-language works fare even worse in this country than their European counterparts. In fact, every book I've gotten from Autumn Hill and Open Letter Press has been European except for the sole Israeli. Wu's British agent goes as far as to claim that Americans are absolutely not interested in contemporary Chinese voices and that we "think Chinese is Amy Tan." I rolled my eyes at first (oh those disparaging Eurosnobs. . .), but then I came across a couple of reviews claiming that Wu is somehow too "derivative" of Amy Tan. I've never read Tan so I can't really refute or support her alleged similarities to Wu, but if we're simply talking about them as Chinese-American women who write about the experiences of Chinese-American women, then we might as well state that Julia Alvarez is similar to Sandra Cisernos because they've both written about the experiences of American Latinas. As I said earlier, we are a nation of immigrants and our literature has often reflected that.

Beautiful as Yesterday truly demonstrated to me how lack of international awareness in the US when it comes to literature in is so unfortunate. Fan Wu has written a wonderful book that is genuinely eye-opening in its portrayals of both recent Chinese history and the dynamics of the Chinese-American community. It is the type of book that you read and come away feeling that you've learned something. It is also a universal story of reconciliation. Overall, Beautiful as Yesterday is enlightening, poignant, and ends on an uplifting note of future promise. Recommended.


claire said...

This is the first time I've heard about this book. Am definitely interested, being half-Chinese and being that English is only my second language, too. I'm a writing-over-plot reader, but as you say her prose isn't mediocre but only hindered by that second-language fact, I probably will overlook the misses, or maybe even not notice.

E. L. Fay said...

I have a friend who's half-Chinese as well (her father is German-American) and for whom English is also a second language. I should recommend this to her.

I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on it!

Anonymous said...

I recently read the book and it relates so much to my own experience and struggle as an immigrant who came to U.S. to study post graduate degree and ended up staying working for Silicon Valley companies. Anyone who likes to get to know this growing population - well educated, first generation immigrants would definitely appreciate this book's story. Highly recommended.

Diane said...

This is another one I have on my shelf to read. I'm so happt you enjoyed this one too

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