In a country where cremation is mandatory, the narrator’s grandmother insists on a traditional burial and persuades his father to build a coffin, in this memoir of an ordinary Chinese family during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Wenguang Huang’s memoir The Little Red Guard is the story of an ordinary Chinese family during Mao’s punitive Cultural Revolution. And yet it is not a story of suffering under the regime, nor of being sent to work in rice fields because of what was seen as a privileged background; rather, it is the story of how an ordinary worker’s family created a life. And yet, beneath a cloth in the bedroom is hidden a dangerous secret: In a country where cremation is mandatory, the narrator’s grandmother insists on a traditional burial and persuades his father to build a coffin. Thus begins a perilous balancing act between keeping a secret to heed a tradition and toeing the party line to make a living. Over time, the coffin consumes, quite literally, the family’s savings and well-being as an ever larger web of machinations is spun to prepare for an elusive funeral.
Your grandmother and especially your father are the main characters in The Little Red Guard. Did you always plan to write this book about your dad?
I always thought I’d write a book about my father because I wasn’t able to speak at his funeral. When I was younger, I shrugged off that failure, but my mother never let me forget it. I always felt that one day I’d find another venue for what I didn’t do for my father. When I came to the U.S. 20 years ago, I read a lot of memoirs about people’s relationships with their fathers, and I started thinking, “Maybe one day I’ll write a book about my father.”
For the Communist Party anniversary in 1997, I did write a piece about him and how his feelings about the party changed before his death. I got a lot of feedback that I should write more, but I still felt I didn’t have enough material. I also thought, it’s a China story, and people wouldn’t be interested. Then one day I attended a funeral and told a friend that my grandmother had had a casket while she was still alive. And I blurted out that if I wrote a book one day, the first line would be: “At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that my father made for my grandmother.” Then in 2009 I took a layoff package, and being out of work I finally had all that time to write my memoir. Once I started writing, however, the guilt, the tension and all those old feelings came back. That was the hard part. For about three weeks, I couldn’t sleep. I have a somewhat photographic memory, and all those details would come up and night after night, I would get up to write them down. It got messy. After that, I traveled to China to help me sort out some of those memories, to get more information and to visit family.
With piles of material, I returned to the idea of writing about my grandmother’s coffin. My first draft of the coffin story was about 10,000 words. I had a few people read it who found it “touching,” so I asked the editor at the Paris Review, where I had had some work published before, whether he’d be interested in a piece of memoir, and he ended up publishing that shorter memoir. With all the feedback I got on that story, I realized it’s not just about my Chinese family; all families are dealing with the same thing. I seriously started wondering how I could expand it into a book. In the end, the coffin story emerged as the key structure, and everything clarified as to what could work with it and what couldn’t.
Initially your mother comes across as an unsympathetic character, most likely because the child narrator does not have warm feelings for her, as his grandmother is the emotional center of his world. However, I felt that your mother is almost redeemed at the end of the book. How did writing the book change your view of your mother?
Over the course of writing the book I started feeling more sympathetic toward my mother. In a way, she is the more tragic figure. She lost her own mother early in life, she did not have a happy childhood, and then she had this arranged marriage with my father that was practical but not loving. Her marrying again so quickly after he died was a sore spot for me, but through writing the book I finally understood why she was so passionate about her second husband. He treated her in an affectionate way that my father never did.
Writing a memoir is almost like therapy. It changes your view of your family. I had always been so close to my grandmother, and while writing the book I started detaching myself from her, and I was able to see that she was indeed very controlling. She monopolized me and my father, and as a child it was therefore impossible for me to have a close relationship with my mother.
The Little Red Guard takes place in China during the Cultural Revolution, and yet it is an amazingly accessible book. How did you manage to write a story that happened in another country in another time that still works for an American audience?
When I started writing, I was indeed worried how much readers would know about China in the 1970s, especially since the country has gone through such dramatic changes since then, but I soon realized that I am dealing with the universal topic of family. Your relationship with your father, your relationship with your mother, it’s the same universal issue for everyone, so I pretty quickly “forgot” to write about China and focused on writing about family. I often hear from readers, “Oh, your grandmother is just like my grandmother!”
But you also have to keep in mind that America is a country of immigrants, so that issue of coming from a different culture is something many readers can relate to. People see different things in the book. One reporter asked me a lot about my relationship with my father because it turns out that that was an issue for her as well. Someone else reviewed it from the angle of human rights. Then the Funeral Directors Association wanted me to give a talk on Chinese funeral culture. It’s been very rewarding to see these different reactions.
Are you thinking about having the book translated into Chinese?
I am often asked that question and the answer is no. If I were to publish it in China, it would be a different book. I’ve been approached by publishers in Taiwan and mainland China, and so far I have resisted that. This is a book for a Western audience, and I’d have to rewrite it for a Chinese audience. Some of the references would not be needed for a Chinese audience because they would know, and similarly, there are things I would add, as it would be more of a nostalgic view of the 1970s for a Chinese reader. Even for the French version of the book, I was told that it is too American and I was asked to change the ending of arriving in America. But how could I change that? This is a very American book; it is an American immigrant story. For a Chinese version, it would be a totally different story, and I am not ready for that.
How did your family react to the book?
That’s another reason why I’m reluctant to create a Chinese version. It’s a good thing they don’t read English, and for me, it was exhilarating to write in another language. The urge to write as honestly and truthfully as possible would have been much harder if I had to consider a Chinese audience, and especially my family. They do know about the book, and they are very proud of it. After it was published, my siblings and I went to my father’s grave and burned it there as a tribute to him. But still, there are some touchy details in the book that would probably be difficult. Both my parents are dead, and while it is easier now to talk about family issues with my siblings, they have also made up their own minds about our parents, and on many things they would not agree with me. If my dad were still alive, he’d probably be horrified; my mother, on the other hand, was always “keeping a secret” by telling it to the whole neighborhood, to the point where my father called her public radio.
You’re a journalist by training. Was it hard for you to make the switch from writing impersonally, in third person, to writing in a highly personal, intimate way in first person?
Yes and no. In 2009, I was on assignment to cover the Frankfurt Book Fair, which China was sponsoring. There was so much going on that I decided to write in journal form, which was a departure for me. I never wrote in first person because that made me feel very vulnerable. Back in 1995 when I traveled to Tibet for the New York Times, I wrote some very private thoughts in a journal. We got arrested and they confiscated my diary. I felt so violated that I decided I would never do that again.
In Frankfurt, I initially thought I’d just write down my observations in third person, but I found it boring. So I experimented and wrote about my impressions in first person and called it “Postcards From Frankfurt.” To my surprise, the editors liked it, and I found that it was much easier than writing factually in third person. If you’re writing in first person, you’re writing about what you thought, about something you know, something that you have experience in and I found it came quite naturally.
This book exhibits a great talent for irony. Were you aware of those ironies when you were writing?
My initial intent was to write about my father and only my father, about how he worked a good part of his life to make this traditional burial possible for his mother and then he ended up dying first. That is the central irony of the book. The other ironies started to become obvious to me after so many years of living in a different culture because I was able to detach myself. It was easier for me to look in from the outside and that gave me the necessary perspective.
From the very beginning of The Little Red Guard, I was struck by your use of storytelling. You bring in the stories that your grandmother and your dad told you, and later in the book the power of stories comes to the fore again when you discover ancient Chinese myths and then your dad’s opera books. For an illiterate person like your grandmother, telling stories was obviously the way values and traditions were transmitted. How do you see the power of storytelling?
Actually, my second book will be about how you grow up in a culture without books. In 1970s China, pretty much all books were banned except for Communist propaganda. In that environment, how do you get nourishment intellectually? My dad was a big opera fan, and while it was not being performed anymore, he would tell these great stories, especially at New Year’s. Sometimes we’d save the bus fare and walk for hours, and he’d tell me all these stories. Sometimes, as kids, we’d read handwritten books that people weren’t able to publish, and we’d love them, so we’d take turns, each one of us copying a chapter, and then stitching them together to make a book and return the original. Within two days, we’d have a book and that’s how we survived as young readers. But obviously, all that storytelling at home had a great impact.
Interviewer Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.