by Jerry Waxler
When I was in college in 1968, I grew long hair as a protest against my parents’ generation. The old ways obviously hadn’t worked, so it was up to me to unravel everything I knew and start over. I didn’t realize that at the same time, on the other side of the world, a billion Chinese people were trying to do the same thing. Repeating slogans like “Smash the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas,” Chairman Mao had stirred up a frenzy against the wisdom of the past. Since education was traditionally held in high regard, smashing the “olds” included shutting down schools, mocking and denouncing teachers, and shipping students into the country to work in fields. This social movement was known as the Cultural Revolution.
Xujun Eberlein was an educated girl, living in a small city in China during that period. Her father was the president of an educational institute and her mother was a school principal so the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on their family. Both parents lost their jobs, her beloved older sister died, and Xujun were taken from home and inserted into a rural village to live and work with peasants.
After the fanaticism waned, she returned home, then moved to the U.S. and earned a doctorate from one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the past kept calling to her, and in the fall of 2001, she began to write stories about growing up. After several years honing her English writing skills, she started winning awards and placing pieces in competitive literary magazines. Recently she published a book of short stories “Apologies Forthcoming” based on her experience.
When I first picked up Xujun Eberlein’s book of fiction, I hoped it would offer me deeper understanding of the task of turning life into story. My hope was richly rewarded. Like any good story, her tales lifted me out my own world and offered me a glimpse of hers. I read about a little girl seeing her father on his knees on a stage, being forced to denounce himself in front of his community. In another story, a young woman tried to adjust to her new life of poverty in a rural community. In still another, the protagonist reached out to men for friendship, and for the first time confronted the complexities of sexuality. In every story I felt two things: the pleasure of losing myself, and a sense that I was witnessing a period of history through the eyes of someone who was there.
Surprisingly, my suspension of disbelief gave me the freedom to enter that world without picking it apart for historical accuracy. To learn more lessons about this connection between her stories and her history, I read one of Xujun’s memoir essays, available online in the literary magazine, The Walrus. You can read it here. It’s a wonderful and tragic story, and another window into her heart and into those times.
Like the Rosetta Stone, I tried comparing these two different versions of the same events. My comparison of Xujun’s multi-dimensional attempts to tell the story of her life gave me some of the clearest understandings I’ve had so far about how story and memoir intertwine.
While fiction can freely break loose from actual historical fact, the story must give the reader an emotionally authentic compelling experience. One of the best ways fiction writers can tap into such authentic emotions is by drawing on the realities of the world around them, and especially the world they have experienced themselves.
On the other hand, nonfiction writers must adhere to historical facts. Even though this seems to offer fewer choices, a nonfiction writer has an almost unlimited supply of raw material contained within tens of thousands of days of memories. To transform these historical facts into an engaging story we must draw on fiction techniques, such as pacing, language arts, suspense, and surprise.
As I ponder these observations, I wonder what lessons I can learn from Xujun herself. She has poured enormous amounts of time and energy in the pursuit of good stories, so I asked Xujun to discuss some of her own experiences as a writer, and what it has been like to return to an earlier time, to awaken and review her memories.
Click here to read the first part of the interview I conducted with her.
For more details about Xujun’s life and writing, including more information about her book, awards, and other publications, see her website. http://www.xujuneberlein.com.
She also blogs about her observations about life in the United States, about China, and about life in general. http://www.insideoutchina.com
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.