Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Mothers and Daughters: Orphanage as Method

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Mothers and Daughters: Orphanage as Method

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

In the fall of 1983, Wang Anyi attended the Iowa International Writing Program with her mother, Ru Zhijuan ... Both women kept detailed diaries during their four-month stay in the United States, and in 1986 they published the two journals together in a single volume, titled Mother and Daughter Travel to America (Munü manyou Melijian ...). Ru Zhijuan's journal appears first and accounts for approximately a quarter of the overall volume, whereas Wang Anyi's more detailed narrative accounts for the remaining three quarters. Ru Zhijuan and Wang Anyi both focus primarily on their day-to-day activities and their relationships with the other Writing Program participants and staff, particularly the other Chinese-speaking participants and the Program directors Paul Engle and his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle (the latter being a prominent Chinese-language author in her own right, who happened to be precisely the same age as Ru Zhijuan). The two women also occasionally referred to one another, which might be expected given that they were living and working together.

Curiously, however, despite the fact that Ru Zhijuan and Wang Anyi were both professional authors who were in Iowa to attend the Writing Program, their journals include relatively few discussions of literature. Wang's 330-page journal, for instance, contains only two references to literary works authored by herself or her mother. Wang's sole reference to one of her mother's works occurs in an entry from late September and is short and sweet. In it, Wang describes having received a letter from her colleague Zhou Hairui telling her about a friend who was a doctoral student in comparative literature at Washington University, whose departmental chair was so fond of Ru Zhijuan's work that he had translated her celebrated short story "Lilies" ("Baihe hua" H-?⅞) and had recently given a presentation on her work. Zhou Hairui adds that "he," presumably referring to the department chair, had welcomed them to visit St. Louis, and said that he would cover their travel, room, and board expenses.1

Wang Anyi's sole reference to one of her own works, by contrast, is significantly less celebratory. In an entry from the end of her first week, Wang describes how she found a copy of an English translation of her short story "Life in a Small Courtyard" ("Xiaoyuan suoji" ... in the office of the International Writing Program, and asked a staff member named Alex whether he could show it to an instructor affiliated with the Iowa Writers' Workshop.2 Wang indicates that she understands that the Iowa Writer's Workshop-the University of Iowa's celebrated MFA program in creative writing-has a longer and more prestigious history than the university's International Writing Program (which Wang and her mother were attending), and that it boasts of many illustrious alumni, such as the celebrated Taiwan author Pai Hsienyung. Upon seeing Alex's hesitation, however, Wang realized that the workshop instructor had already read the novella, but had not been particularly impressed. She consoles herself by speculating that something must have been lost in translation and expresses regret that "our contact with the outside world is still too insufficient."3

Born in 1954, Wang had been sent down to a poor village in Anhui Province in 1970, where she stayed for the next eight years. She began publishing short stories in 1976 and continued writing after being permitted to return to Shanghai in 1978. When Wang went to Iowa in 1983, accordingly, she was still at the very beginning of her literary career, even as her mother was at the peak of her own. Born in 1925, Ru Zhijuan had begun publishing fiction as early as 1943, and by the 1950s she had already established herself as one of China's most popular and respected authors. She was known for works that were carefully calibrated to accord with official discourse and support the current Communist Party line, and had managed to avoid being caught up in any of the political purges that occurred with regularity throughout the Maoist period. …

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