A Chinese-American woman reimagines her parent’s flight from China in this semifictional debut memoir.
In this darkly enchanting book, Zhang interrogates and re-creates the turbulent life of her father, a Chinese émigré, and the last half-century of Chinese history—some of which she saw for herself while visiting the country over the years. Zhang’s father, whom she here calls “Wang Kun,” grew up in a country that was in thrall to regional thuggery, brutal Japanese occupation, and all-consuming civil war; by 1949, Mao Zedong had won that war. Wang Kun studied with two literature-professor sisters from a powerful family that he called “the Kennedys of China” and later fled the country by way of Hong Kong for the West. Zhang says that she spent a good part of her life “renouncing all things Chinese”; now, in the course of her father’s “slow but unstoppable degeneration,” she works to piece his history together. The resulting book is partly fictional, with italicized, imaginative chapters interspersed with straight memoir and settings ranging from wartime Chongqing to upstate New York. The photographs that pepper the text are useful and create a scrapbook-ish verisimilitude. However, the book would have been nearly as strong without them, as Zhang delivers images in prose that are far more powerful than any photograph could communicate. One paragraph evokes the “thick plumes of smoke” moving across the waters of a devastated Nanking; another passage describes a pit near Gele Mountain, containing “94 bodies…bound with handcuffs bearing the inscription ‘Made in Springfield, Massachusetts.’ ” As a child, Zhang says, she had difficulty making sense of the different elements of her father—his charm, his temper, his formidable intellect, and the fact that he would nonetheless “play the Laughing Chinaman for American audiences” at cocktail parties. But in the end, through her exploration and self-described “embellishments,” she gives readers a real and unified man.
A warm, intellectually rich journey through several nations and identities.