by Ying Chen, Carol Volk,
154 pages,
ISBN: 1550542672

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Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth
by Mary Soderstrom

Ying Chen is a small woman, who at first glance appears much younger than her thirty-seven years. As captured in Georges Dufaux's film for the National Film Board, Voyage Illusoire, she looks almost like a teenager when she's shown drifting down a street in Shanghai, wearing walking shorts and a denim jacket, her long hair pulled back by a headband. Or when the camera watches her riding the Montreal Métro, her slim figure glimpsed through the passing trains.

Then she raises her eyes, revealing the circles under them, and you see that here is a woman who has seen and understood much, and made literature from it.

Literature: yes. A big word, but one that applies to her growing body of work. Her third, prize-winning novel, Ingratitude, appeared in English translation this summer, and so finally those who know little French can have the pleasure of reading her.

Born in Shanghai in 1961, Ying Chen has spent the last nine years in Quebec. She writes in French, a language she learned in China. From 1983 to 1989, she was a commercial and technical translator at the Institute of Astronautical Research in Shanghai. Before that she studied in the Department of French Literature and Language at the prestigious University of Fudan. Besides Mandarin, she also is fluent in Russian and English: Shanghaiese is her first language.

A measure of her position in Quebec is that her two-week trip to China in the spring of 1997, the first she'd made since she left, was filmed by the well-known director Dufaux.

She has been grouped with other Canadian writers of Chinese descent who have some outstanding books. Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children (Penguin, 1994), Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (Douglas & McIntyre, 1995), and Jan Wong's Red China Blues (Bantam Doubleday, 1996) were all bestsellers. Choy's sensitively told story of Vancouver in the late '30s won the 1995 Trillium Prize, while Denise Chong's memoir picked up the Edna Staebler prize for creative non-fiction in 1996.

Three other writers born in China or Hong Kong have made more limited, but still significant impact: Zhimei Zhang in Foxspirit: A Woman in Mao's China (Véhicule Press, 1995), Jin-Lin Peng in Wild Cat: Stories of the Cultural Revolution (Cormorant Press, 1990), and Judith Fong Bates in China Dog & Other Tales of the Chinese Laundry (Sister Vision Press, 1997). Zhang's autobiographical account of love and life in post-war China and Peng's twelve stories from inside Maoist China were both finalists for the QSPELL prizes.

And one cannot forget Evelyn Lau, whose hard-edged accounts of life began when she was a teenage prostitute. Recently she came out with a thinly veiled story about her romance with W. P. Kinsella.

At one level it is folly to talk about Chinese-Canadian writing. China is the most populous country in the world, with one written language but a range of spoken "dialects" as different from each other as the Romance languages are. And Chinese-Canadian writing is by people whose ancestors may have lived in the same empire, but whose own experience differs wildly. The best that can be done is to divide the books of Chinese-Canadians into two groups: those by recent immigrants and those by the children of immigrants.

Ying Chen writes as if she had passed beyond both groups. One reading of Ingratitude would have it that, at the moment she stands poised on the brink of becoming an international literary star, she has put aside ethnic considerations to explore the intricate and universal relation between parent and child. Another reading shows her commenting with masterful subtlety on both her homeland and on the complicated world of people who choose to change their destinies.

Zhang and Peng, in contrast, both fall squarely into the first group. Writing in English, their books nevertheless are documents about China. Foxspirit is full of loveless marriages and workplace perfidy set against a backdrop of ideological warfare. The book begins with Zhang being taken away in 1968 during the third year of the Cultural Revolution, and it ends with her coming to Canada.

Peng's stories take place during the same time period, and cover some of the same hard history. For example, in "Pilgrimage to Peking", two bourgeois boys make their way to Tiananmen Square to meet Mao, even though-because of their formerly privileged backgrounds-they are barred from a great event being held there.

Bates, who emigrated with her family from Hong Kong as a young girl, records none of the political background, however. Her stories are about what it is like to be young and different in Canada's small towns. The legends and the customs are different, but the problems before her characters are similar to those faced by Nino Ricci's young first-generation Italian-Canadians.

Wayson Choy, Denise Chong, Jan Wong, and Evelyn Lau, however, all write with the sensibility of people who have grown up in this land. Choy's novel is told with great skill in the voices of three children, transforming even the cliché of a Chinese laundry into something mythic. Here is Jung-Sum, the second brother, describing what it was like to receive a cut-down coat:

"Luxurious blasts of steam penetrated every fibre of the coat. The machinery hissed and sang; the flames danced blue and red in a ring beneath the water heater. The wool material stiffened like new in the mix of chemicals..

" `This is a man's coat,' Gee Sook grandly announced..

"I felt intense heat embrace my shoulders, then curve over my back and drop upon my chest. I felt like a young warrior receiving the gift of his bright armour, a steely-grey coat born from fire and steam."

Both Denise Chong and Jan Wong use narrative techniques borrowed from fiction in their fascinating non-fiction books. Chong imagines conversations that took place sixty years ago, putting words in the mouths of her ancestors. Wong's book, subtitled My Long March from Mao to Now, is a lively first-person account of growing up privileged in Montreal, converting to Marxism, and then ending up as the China correspondent for the Globe and Mail.

Evelyn Lau's books are just as idiosyncratic: short narratives and poems about life and sex, chillingly told.

Ying Chen's first book, La Mémoire de l'eau can be seen as her book about the history and politics of modern China. Its ten short sections, which could each stand on their own as short stories, are rooted in the same reality as Foxspirit and Wild Cat: China after the Communist triumph and during Mao's rule. And like Foxspirit, La Mémoire ends with the heroine on a plane bound for North America.

Chen's second book, Lettres Chinoises, which begins with the hero landing by airplane in Montreal, is a collection of letters supposedly written in French by a young francophile. His sweetheart writes back, as does his father. We are shown his surprise at his new life, his slow detachment from his faithful girlfriend, and his eventual acceptance of the West. Some would call it a classic immigrant's novel.

Ingratitude, however, is a step beyond the two earlier books, in terms of style and technique, and also in subject-matter. When it was first published in Quebec in 1995, it was a finalist for the Governor General's Prize for French-language fiction and won the Prix Québec-Paris. In addition, it was in the running for the Prix Fémina until the very end. Artistically, the novel marks a departure from Ying Chen's earlier books, while thematically it plunges much more deeply into the psyches of the characters.

It is hard to have a surprise ending in a story when the reader knows from the beginning that the narrator is dead, but nevertheless Ingratitude surprises at every turn. Told in the first person, this strange story of a girl who wants to kill herself to punish her mother begins after the young woman's death, when her spirit floats above her body as her family and friends come to say goodbye.

The narrator is twenty-four, apparently well-employed, the only child of an academic father (badly injured several years before in a road accident) and a strong-minded mother, who, the narrator says, is horrified as the girl becomes less and less like her parents.

The precipitating event appears to be the fact that the mother has forgotten the daughter's birthday, even though the girl's difficult birth has always been one of the things the mother has reproached her for.

She decides that the ultimate punishment for her mother would be her own suicide, but not one where she blames her mother for everything. Instead, she writes a farewell letter in which she tells her mother that she is dying to make up for all her shortcomings, as a sign of how much she loves her mother. She says about her suicide note, "I tried to be as hypocritical as possible."

To some extent, her mother's complaints are the traditional ones of age against the young. "Mother didn't like young people. By `They're young,' she meant: `They're stupid' or `They're dangerous.' She had much to forgive youth, and she didn't do it easily. This didn't stop her from regretting her own youth. `Ah,' she would sigh, `if I could just start over!' That's why she didn't accept that others should live too much: they want to change everything, youth isn't enough for them, they want everything! They want more than we had, more than their parents, who had so little, who want so little.."

All of which sounds familiar to anyone who has ever been young: Ingratitude can be read simply as the troubling story of a young woman oppressed by a too-controlling mother. As such it appeals to the young person in all of us, who chafed and perhaps still chafes under the weight of our parents' control.

This is the way I read it the first time, and when I heard a few months later that Chen had given birth to her first child, I was very glad the baby was a son. How terrible to be the daughter of a woman who could put herself in the persona of someone writing so hatefully about her own mother, I thought. What a complicated relationship that would be!

But on second reading I began to wonder if the story could be an allegory of a woman coming to grips with her culture of origin, with her mother tongue. It can even be read as concealed criticism of China and its politics. In the end, the narrator is crushed, literally, very much as her father, a political scientist who can no longer speak or write, was injured.

At one point in Dufaux's film, Ying Chen says that she was disappointed when readers emphasized the criticism of the status of Chinese women found in La Mémoire de l'eau. The book is about much more than that, she says.

The same undoubtedly applies to Ingratitude. And yet the selections from her travel diaries that Dufaux has Ying Chen read makes it clear that some of the symbolism in Ingratitude arises out of her conflict over China.

In one long scene in the film when she appears to be meditating in front of a gorgeous display of calligraphy, she says in the voice-over narration that she "doesn't regret not being officially Chinese" any longer, having renounced her Chinese citizenship to become Canadian. "To be born Chinese in the twentieth century is a great unhappiness," she says. But since she no longer lives there she will not judge it, she adds.

Nevertheless she says that leaving "was a suicidal gesture, made not knowing whether there was a possibility of rebirth." The mother tongue is really "a sort of mother", she says, adding that she considers the Chinese language "a gift from the heavens" even though she now dreams in the language of Molière.

Ah yes, and in Ingratitude, she writes about being "an exile", of crossing a frontier forbidden to the young." She asks, "How can you feel the glacial joy of the foreign without having once had a homeland? And how can you learn to get rid of a mother without ever having been born?"

If the sign of a great book is the fact that you can read it again and again and still find new things in it, Ingratitude qualifies. Ying Chen has written a many-layered novel of great quality at a point in her career when she has much time to push her art further. Expect to read more from her-with pleasure. 

Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal writer whose forthcoming non-traditional biography of a Lower Canadian Patriot will be published this fall by Oberon Press as The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson & the Rebellions of 1837-38, and by Editions l'Hexagone as Docteur Nelson, médecin rébel.


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