Beyond apologies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 August, 2009, 12:00am

Chinese-American authors such as Iris Chang and Amy Tan have made a significant contribution to factual and fictional literature, but few have a tale to tell as piquant as Xujun Eberlein's.

Having grown up in Chongqing despising the US and all its works during the Cultural Revolution, she now lives in Massachusetts with her American husband Bob and has swapped a scientific career for writing.

Xujun first came to the literary world's attention with her debut collection of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming, which drew heavily on her adolescent experiences at a time when China was in a state of turmoil; the book garnered numerous respectful reviews and won the Tartt Fiction Award in 2007.

One of the most significant influences on Xujun was the death of her elder sister Xu Ruodan - who was a Red Guard - at 16. Xujun mourned for years and it was only in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that she was able to let her feelings spill into her writing.

'I cried constantly while I was writing and revising her story, which was published in a Canadian magazine, The Walrus, in 2006,' says Xujun.

'The Cultural Revolution was an 'all-people movement'. By this I mean virtually everyone in China, at various stages of that movement, participated. There was often no clear divide between victims and victimisers and people took turns to be in both positions.'

From a single memoir Xujun expanded her oeuvre to the eight stories that make up Apologies. But her life had reached one significant turning point by April 1987, when she was a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Chengdu.

'At the time, among mainland Chinese people, any balanced attitude towards Americans was rare and I was not an exception,' recalls Xujun. 'The veneration of white foreigners for their superiority was as common as the revulsion for their vile actions and I was in the latter camp, a legacy from my parents whose hatred towards America developed in the 1940s.'

But Xujun was astonished when, at the end of an address on system dynamics by visiting American scholar Bob Eberlein, the lecturer sought her out in the audience and started to talk to her. She fled, but he found her the following afternoon and the pair conversed in halting Putonghua and pidgin English.

'It was an intelligent and humorous chat that would change my impressions of Americans for ever,' says Xujun, whose impressions were so radically altered she was later to marry the persistent scholar. 'Years of anti-American propaganda were no match for one personal encounter.'

A hiking trip along the Yangtze followed - interrupted by heavy-handed police officers who suspected Eberlein might be a spy - romance blossomed and Xujun later moved to the US, where she received a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995.

Like many new immigrants, Xujun experienced culture shock on arrival in the US - and continues to do so.

'There are many contrasts between China and the States, but the main one concerns interpersonal relationships, which are much looser in the US than in China,' says Xujun.

'We have lived in our current home in a suburban area of Boston for 11 years, but we hardly know, or even see, any neighbours.

'The contrast is shrinking these days though, as China shifts more towards the American lifestyle. Several years ago my parents moved into a new residential compound in a suburb of Chongqing and they still don't know their neighbours in the same apartment building. So our lives have become similar in this regard. Such residential compounds are a new trend in Chongqing, replacing nearly all of the much more open, courtyard-style houses.'

Writing continues to preoccupy Xujun and China remains an important subject to her.

'I have a memoir in the works, which I hope to finish by the end of this year,' she says.

'It is set in Chongqing and tells stories of my family from the 1940s onwards. The title is hardest of all. My friends unanimously preferred Swimming with Mao, which came from a personal essay about my big sister's tragedy in 1968.

'It's a good title but I feel it might be a bit misleading regarding the book's content. Life in China isn't all politics; in every dynasty and regime there are interesting personal episodes. Politics is only part of the human condition. I'm thinking of something like Letters Lost in Chongqing.'

And Xujun continues to reap the rewards of the success of her first publication.

'Apologies has stimulated lively discussion among Chinese immigrants who experienced the Cultural Revolution and Americans who had a far different impression of the time,' she says.

'But I have to say that as a writer, the ultimate reward comes from the comments of readers I don't even know. One woman from Montana wrote that she had been moved to tears, and a man from Minnesota said that having read my book he 'walked on air for the rest of the day'.'