February Flowers by Fan Wu Picador Asia, HK$165 Many in the west were first introduced to the writings of Chinese women born after 1949 with the publication in 1992 of Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, written in English to target a worldwide readership. A steady stream of books by female China-born authors have been released since, some in English, others translated from Chinese. Red Azalea by Anchee Min, Daughter of the River by Hong Ying, Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Li Yiyun come to mind. Although technically contemporaries or near contemporaries, these writers - who, incidentally, all now live in the US or Britain - have by no means achieved a comparable level of literary craft or scope of subject matter. Although critics have dismissed the writings of some as sob stories or 'look-at-me' chick lit and a few of the authors as so-called sexy lady writers (mei nu zuo ja), the work of a few has won universal accolades. Peking University-educated, biology major-turned-writer Li Yiyun, who was born in the early 1970s, is a prime example. Her 2005 debut story collection in English, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, has been praised as being able to 'distil thousands of years of Chinese history into a single story'. Now a college writing instructor in northern California, Li has been recognised with the Frank O'Connor International Story Award and the Pen/Hemingway Award, among others. Debut works are often autobiographical in nature. Some of the female Chinese writers of the post-liberation generation such as Anchee Min and Hong Ying have used their memoirs as a launching pad into fiction. Jung and Min, both born in the 1950s, and Hong, in the early 60s, grew up heavily influenced by the Cultural Revolution, and their works reflect these experiences. Wei Hui, on the other hand, is a child of the 70s. The booming late 80s and the 90s shaped her generation's sentiments. Fan Wu is the latest of the last group who has made it into print with her coming-of-age novel February Flowers, the first title released by Picador Asia, a new imprint of Pan Macmillan dedicated to publishing Asian authors. Born in 1973 in Jiangxi province to educated parents who had been sent for re-education to the countryside during the previous decade, Wu spent her first 11 years on a farm before moving with her family to the provincial capital, Nanchang, and eventually went to Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou. On graduation, Wu went to booming Shenzhen and then on to Stanford University in 1997 to study communications. She has now settled in northern California and works for Yahoo as a search editor. She took 2004 off to write this first book. February Flowers is set in early 1990s Guangzhou, mostly in and around the campus of Sun Yat Sen University. The flowers in the title refer to 17-year-old protagonist Chen Ming and her 24-year-old schoolmate, Miao Yan. Ten years after graduation, Ming narrates the novel, with most of it being a flashback. Ming is now divorced and on her way to study in the US, where Yan already lives and is said to be operating a boutique in San Francisco's Chinatown. Towards the end of the book, Wu makes an explicit connection between the Golden Gate city and the thriving homosexual community there. A decade earlier, Ming was an innocent and protected child from Nanchang whose intellectual parents had instilled in her a love for learning and books. Yan, by contrast, was an ethnic minority woman of Miao nationality from southwestern China. She strikes Ming as being bold, wild and sexually liberated. Unwittingly and uncontrollably, Ming falls in love with her. 'The past fills me with deep emotion. I recall the evening Miao Yan and I first talked. The details return with such vividness that it seems as if I am watching a video of it - the low hanging moon, the whitish cement ground, Miao Yan's glittering eyes, her fluttering blouse, the way she lit her cigarette and exhaled the smoke. It is all imprinted on my memory and can never be removed.' Yan, it turns out, has a secret past and will do anything within her sexual prowess to avoid returning home after graduation. She wants to stay on in Guangdong, 'the richest and most liberal province in China', where 'East, West, South, North, and the Middle, no matter where you go, the money is in Guangdong'. Meanwhile, Ming is constantly torn by her homoerotic attraction to the seemingly more sophisticated Yan and by her desire to 'become a woman' by losing her virginity to a man. When the man who jilted Yan hesitates over making love to Ming on her 18th birthday, Ming watches him masturbate, having successfully pleaded: 'Can you make love with yourself, here, in front of me?' Other than Lan Yu, the 1997 anonymously published novel on the Web in China about a gay Chinese couple, February Flowers is possibly the only novel to tackle the issue of homosexuality in China, which, until recently, has been a taboo subject in literature. Wu's writing is slow-paced and detailed, the eroticism subtle. It's a welcome addition to existing literature by Chinese women with a western readership in mind, and an appropriate choice for Picador Asia's launch in Australasia.