“Aren’t you worried what might have happened to them?”
“What’s the point in worrying? If they’re very lucky, they’ll survive. If not…Girls are born to suffer. It’s too bad they’re not boys.”
Xinran is a Chinese journalist who has compilied the stories of Chinese women who have had to give up or abandon their daughters because of political, economic, or social and cultural reasons. The women’s stories may have varying circumstances but the overwhelming pain permeates each story. Due in part to the one-child policy, economic hardships, and the desire to have a male heir to carry on the family name and spiritual duties, many women are forced to abandon or kill their daughters. What I could appreciate most about these stories is that Xinran invites the reader to get a better understanding of the many forces at work behind these heartrenching decisions. Xinran at times marvels over her lack of understanding and naiveness of the many cultures and ideas that exist in the country where she grew up. We see that these mothers are not heartless and cruel but are operating under tense and mostly inflexible constructions. These women range from students to the richest and the poorest, they are educated, they are all of us. There are even families who try to evade the authorities by travelling constantly so that they can keep their girls. These “extra-birth guerilla troops” risk everything to keep their families together. The women Xinran writes about greive for their lost daughters but know that they must not bring shame to the family or disobey the policies. It’s very hard to do this book or an explanation of the culture any justice, but just know that reading it will bring about a new understanding that you would never get from Western media.
There is a scene in the one of the stories that remains with me. An orphanage worker remembers the babies that are brought to the steps of the building. Some of them have a small X on their pinky, some have their familiy history and stories or poems and words of love written on their clothes, some mothers have embroidered elaborate pictures on their clothing. It as if the mothers hope to be reunited one day or to at least have the baby know where they come from and and that hey were loved once they are old enough.
The collection of stories as told to Xinran by the women themselves, serves a few purposes. They are to help Chinese children who have been adopted to understand the circumstances their mothers may have faced in giving them up, they are to help adoptive families to obtain a bit of information about their children’s familial culture, they are to help Westerners and outside cultures to understand how social structures and economic and political climate influence the actions of a country. These stories also serve as a place of healing for the author herself, who was not adopted as a child but says she barely knew her parents (because of their involvement and circumstances related to the communist party at the time) and still feels the strains from what she sees as a lack of love and displays of affection. Xinran also recounts the story of fostering an abandoned baby girl, whom she had to give up to adhere to the one-child policy.
These stories were amazing on so many levels. I think I can safely say that all of us at bookclub have had our eyes and hearts opened, we’ve had our ideas and convictions changed a bit.
As we said good-bye, Mary said to me: Print what I said, please, so those little girls can read it and will never forget their Chinese mothers.”
Posts this week and next will be devoted to some of the things I missed discussing during my blog absence.
These are selections that our bookclub has read over the last half-year or so.
Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night – Sindiwe Magona
This is a cluster of short stories that explore women’s lives in South Africa. The first part is a series of interconnected stories that center around a group of black South African maids who work in the homes of whites. They keep their share of gossip and the to-dos of the families they work for. The stories are written in first person and the narrator is usually talking directly to another woman. It’s like you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, tongues wagging.
The second part takes place during Apartheid in South Africa. These stories were heavier than the stories of the maids. The story that I can still remember is of a young girl who discusses all the magic of Fridays including the end of school and trips to the market. The other that still lingers is of a mother who leaves her village and children behind with the idea that it is the only way she can be a good mother, a good provider.
I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison – Editor, Wally Lamb
This is a collection of pieces written by women who take part in a writing workshop at York Prison in Connecticut lead by author Wally Lamb. It is the follow-up to Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned), which I have but have yet to read. The essays written by the women themselves tell various stories about their lives and families before and after entering prison, the turns their lives took that ended in prison, as well as efforts at recovery and finding purpose in life. I didn’t know what to expect before reading these and literally read them cover to cover. I think these essays truly speak to the healing power of writing and sharing stories both for the reader and the storyteller.
Impatient With Desire – Gabrielle Burton
Gabrielle Burton has researched the expedition of the Donner Party. Impatient With Desire is the imagined journal of Tamsen Donner, a woman who decides to pack up her family and move with her husband across the US to California. They travel with others by wagon train. After trying a new route called the Hastings Cutoff, the group becomes stranded in the mountains during winter loosing cattle, wagons, and running short on provisions.
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship – Ann Patchet
Ann writes about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a woman who has lost much of her face and jaw to childhood cancer. Ann writes about her supportive role as Lucy’s friend, the ups and downs of their relationship, and Lucy’s amazing ability to appear strong even though she is very fragile. What I am not sure if others have picked up on is Ann’s almost disappearance in this memoir. She is at times as Lucy’s doormat, enabler, and fiercest supporter.
Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself – Rachel LLoyd
Lloyd uses Girls Like Us as a place to expose the commercial sex trade of young girls in the US. At times she intertwines the stories of the girls she’s met in her work with GEMS with her own story of abuse and sex work. What I think most people will find eye opening is that these are very young girls who either have been kidnapped or seduced into sex work and that there is limited help for them. Lloyd chronicles the struggles her organization has had with getting law passed to view these girls as victims instead of prosecuting them as prostitutes.