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March 22, 2011

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Tapping Chinese roots

THREE English-language writers with Chinese backgrounds talk about their search for, connection with and even alienation from their Chinese roots. Yao Minji and Xu Wenwen delve deep.

Malaysia-born Australian author Hsu-Ming Teo begins her novel "Love and Vertigo" (2000) this way:

"These are the myths I tell about my family, and like all myths, they are both truths and lies, simultaneous buffers of love and betrayals of trust."

The narrator is Grace Tay, who flies to Singapore to join her father and brother to explore the history, traditions, hardship and pain of her mother's Chinese family while looking for explanations for her mothers' death.

Teo tells Shanghai Daily she starts the book this way because she doesn't consider herself a representative of authentic Chineseness or Chinese culture to her readers.

"I don't have that right!" the author says. "It is up to contemporary Chinese novelists to do that." She is more interested in examining the relations and struggles of Chinese migrants with cultural roots like her own.

As China books become more popular, it's natural to see an increase of writers with Chinese roots, some of who are very connected, while others like Teo feel alienated.

Shanghai Daily interviewed three authors with Chinese roots, Teo, New York-based London native Simon van Booy and Chinese American lawyer and writer Marjorie Liu. All spoke at the recent Shanghai International Literary Festival that concluded last Sunday.

Teo's family, originally from Xiamen City in coastal Fujian Province, first immigrated to Malaysia and later to Australia. Liu, an America-born Chinese, majored in East Asian languages and cultures and had internships in Beijing before graduation. Van Booy traces his one-eighth Chinese heritage to his great grandfather surnamed Li, who moved to Jamaica at the end of 18th century from Guangzhou City in Guangdong Province, leaving around 10 children in China. Van Booy's grandmother is one of the forebear's 14 children in Jamaica.

Like many English-language writers with Chinese backgrounds, they are generations away from Chinese cultural roots, and are more influenced by ancient than contemporary Chinese literature, perhaps because there are far more translations of ancient books in English than contemporary novels.

Liu, a bestselling writer known for paranormal romance and urban legends, says her favorite Chinese book is "A Dream of Red Mansions," one of China's Four Great Classical Novels written in 18th century. It follows the ups and downs in the eventual decline of the wealthy feudal family of Jia.

Teo regrets not having read enough Chinese literature and is currently reading "Romance of the Three Kindgoms," another one of the big four, written in the 14th century based on the historical events during the Three Kingdoms period (184-280).

And van Booy cites as his favorite "The Book of Songs," the earliest existing collection of Chinese poetry and songs dating as early as 1,000 BC. He says it helped inspire his writing.

Teaching part-time in New York, he also lectures on the ancient verses and discusses with his students how people, despite everything and despite a gulf of time, have the same emotions and desires.

Van Booy has published two critically acclaimed collections of short stories, "The Secret Lives of People in Love" and "Love Begins in Winter." He won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2009.

In the stories, he depicts how characters struggle and survive, even when they are shipwrecked by fate and memories. In "The City of Windy Trees," a depressed and suicidal New Yorker suddenly receives a letter revealing the existence of a previously unknown six-year-old daughter in Stockholm, firing his hope to carry on.

In his new book, van Booy shapes a character based on a Chinese lady he encountered by chance in New York.

"She is a Chinese woman in a wheelchair, and she is also a dancer, better than anyone else," he says.

Teo and Liu, slightly closer to their Chinese roots than van Booy, also have China presence in many of their books.

Liu has set many of her mythic and romance stories in China, three of them in Shanghai, one in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and her first novel, "Tiger Eye," in Beijing.

"When I write, I never consciously think about my Chinese roots, but given how often China is written into my stories, I would say that it's obviously on my mind," she says.

Teo considers herself sharing the complex and alienated relations to her Chinese cultural roots as Grace Tay, protagonist and narrator of "Love and Vertigo."

In the novel, Tay is extremely confused and troubled when she meets her mother's family for the first time.

"I was determined not to belong, not to fit in, because I was Australian, and Mum ought to be Australian too. The tug of her roots, the blurring of her role from wife and mother to sister and aunt, angered me," Teo writes in the novel, which concludes that there is no possibility for her to return to an authentic Chinese culture.

The history lecturer recognizes that "perhaps overseas Chinese have an inability to connect completely or fully with authentic Chineseneses."

"It is not really China that she learns about, rather, it is migrants' myths and memories about China that she recounts," Teo says.

In her second novel "Behind the Moon," Teo examines the multicultural acceptance/rejection from the other side.

One of the characters, Gibbo, is a chubby white Australian boy who wants to be Chinese because he is alienated from mainstream white Australian culture. He thinks that he can find acceptance, belonging and family in migrant Chinese culture because he believes it is more inclusive than Australian culture.

"The point was to show there is something inherently attractive about Chinese culture to certain Westerners," concludes Teo.


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