Wen Huang suggested we go to Chinatown. Initially, the idea seemed gauche, kitschy, stereotypical — the last place in Chicago you would want to meet a local writer whose thoughtful new memoir recounts his childhood in China.
Indeed, to anyone following the seemingly daily scandals spiraling out of China — a celebrated blind dissident escaping house arrest, charges of unchecked political corruption, a murder investigation that targets the wife of a former senior Communist Party leader — “The Little Red Guard” can read weighty and prescient, as though it's unwittingly laying the groundwork for larger, international dramas.
Huang (full name: Wenguang Huang), whose book traces his path from schoolboy communist to Chicago resident, notes the tiny contradictions and fissures of party loyalty, but also paints a rare portrait of the every day family eccentricities of China in the 1970s.
"In fact, I find the book so unique," said Ha Jin, the National Book Award-winning Chinese-American author who has been a friend of Huang for years, "so interesting in how it's organized around the building of Wen's grandmother's coffin, so perceptive on life and death and the tug of war between generations, that title is misleading. Politics are always in the background, as they should be."
When Huang and I reached Chinatown, he grabbed my forearm, pulling me good-naturedly across Archer Avenue, explaining the whole time how his feelings for Chinatown parallel his feelings for China and his own history.
We found a restaurant and, in one fluid movement, Huang took a seat, ordered tea and began describing his assimilation: "I came to Chicago at 25," he said. "For a while I didn't want people to see me as part of Chinatown — or as Chinese. I ate spaghetti. I did Chicago things. And after a while I didn't have Chinese friends. But see, the reason, the reason I came here, the key reason, was I participated in the protest movement (in Tiananmen Square in 1989), and though I wasn't a leader, China became a repressive place for young people. The clock was getting turned back. It was so depressing. I had no future there. So I gave away everything I owned. I gave away clothes, furniture. I emptied out my bank account and shared it with my siblings. When you have nothing else left, it puts you in this position to do nothing else but leave."
When I asked how his feelings toward China and his family changed, he began a story.
When the time came for Wen Huang to say something at his father's funeral, he froze up, stammered, then, finally, said nothing. This was 1988, in the city of Xi'an in central China. Huang was 24 then. More than 200 people — family, Communist Party members — had come to pay their respects. The room overflowed with flowers. Huang, who had spent time in an English boarding school, was thought of as worldly and educated; he had been asked many times to script speeches and write school papers for acquaintances. He was well-equipped at finding just "the right combination of words that expressed deep regret," he writes in his new memoir: "I could make Party members sound as though Communism had taken root in their very being."
But when the time came to offer something eloquent about his father, Huang felt a sudden disdain. He felt there was nothing thoughtful to say. He felt his father's life had been drab and compliant and thankless. His father, who had worked in the cultural office of the party, inadvertently offended a boss and spent the rest of his life managing a warehouse. Yet his father stayed faithful to the party. All this ran through Huang's thoughts. The room grew more and more silent waiting for him to speak. Instead, he bowed and offered nothing. Mourners were shocked. For a long time after, his family felt that Huang owed his father a eulogy.
A couple of months ago, as strong early notices for "The Little Red Guard" began coming in from Publishers Weekly and Oprah.com, Huang packed unpublished proofs of the memoir and flew to China. He brought a copy to his father's grave. He thought his father would have been horrified at its mentions of family secrets and fights. ("Americans call it 'dirty laundry,'" Huang said. "Chinese say 'family uglies.'") But he also thought his father would have appreciated a son's late attempt at reconciling the tension that once existed between them. He placed the book on his father's grave and left. Back at his family's home he explained what he had done, he recalled, but his sister, shaking her head, insisted: "Unless you burn it, dad can't read it." So he returned.
The day was misty.
He didn't really believe his dead father could only read incinerated books — he didn't really believe his dead father could read. But since he felt he owed him, Huang brought matches. The rain picked up. The book became soggy and refused to burn. He borrowed a cigarette lighter from the cab driver who had taken him to the cemetery. The cover ignited, then it extinguished. Just as he was about to give up and leave a partly-scorched book, a wind blew across the grave. The fire caught and the book burned. When the last ember faded, a bird chirped.
Huang stopped talking and grimaced, recoiling at his own storytelling. "OK, the wind blew, the book burned, the fire faded," he said, giving a checklist of what he had just said, "then 'a bird chirped'? That is so corny."
No, no, I said.
"Yes, yes," he said. His publisher, the Penguin imprint Riverhead Books, threw a party for "The Little Red Guard" in New York City recently, and after he told that story to the assembled editors and writers and friends, he couldn't help adding, "I hope all of you will be the gust of wind that lifts my book to a success."
OK, that's corny, I said.
"I know," he said. "It's terrible."
Huang is 47. He has a Charlie Brown head, the smile of a Halloween pumpkin and the cheerful, ingratiating manner of a guy who makes friends easily. He came to Chicago via the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he studied journalism in the early '90s. He worked in the state legislature's research division, and today — though for the past two decades he has been writing commentary about China for The New York Times, Fortune magazine and the Christian Science Monitor — Huang still keeps a marketing job at Aon.
Linda Yu, the longtime WLS-Ch. 7 anchor, was one of Huang's first Chinese friends in this country. "Wen and I met because he came in to the station with a tour group," she said. "I told him I was from Xi'an, too — that I came here as a child. He got really excited and was like, 'We are like family then!' I'm thinking, who is this guy? But I said to him, 'Sure, sure, family …' Later, as I got to know him, I realized Wen wanted so much to be able to make it here. I was a kid when I came. He was a man. Having people look at you and perceive you as Chinese when you already see yourself becoming an American — that's a hard thing to deal with."
Serendipitously, Huang's first impression of Chicago, at 18, led to his literary career. The Chinese government had introduced Studs Terkel's"Working" into the secondary-school curriculum because of its critical perspective on American life. "My teacher explained it was Americans talking about America and would be a good way of learning conversational English. But when I read it, it was a revelation. My entire view on America changed," he said. "Because 'Working' wasn't just critical, it wasn't one thing. Remember, when I was young, my mother used to tell me to eat my dinner (because) kids in the United States were starving. My dad's warehouse had a picture on the wall of people dumping milk into the Hudson River, and I'll never forget the caption: 'The capitalist, to control the price, would rather dump milk into a river than give it to poor people.'"
Two decades later, in Chicago, he found himself listening to a Chinese-language radio program about a writer whose book of interviews with often unsavory talking about China was banned by the party. The writer was a Chinese reporter named Liao Yiwu who had spent years in Chinese prisons for writings that were critical of life in contemporary China. Huang said: "I remember thinking, 'Wow, the Studs of China!'"
Huang tracked down Yiwu and, with permission, began translating the book into English. It was published in 2008 by Pantheon as "The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up" and submitted for the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Foundation translation award. Journalist Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker staff writer who was editing the Paris Review at the time, was "talking to a Pen/Faulkner person who said, 'you know, the best thing I read in a long time didn't win.'" Intrigued, Gourevitch contacted Huang.
Huang wrote a piece for the Paris Review about the coffin that his father had built for his grandmother, and how the family had kept the coffin in the house for years as everyone, including his grandmother, waited for her to die. "We worked so regularly together that I watched him develop tremendously," Gourevitch said. "He gained this command of the language, his second language, that was remarkable. His range got large, his sense of rhythm grew accomplished. And in the book — how he's able to combine an adult and child's view of scenes and keep a light touch while retaining sympathy for people in this political bind, there are people out there right now writing memoirs in their native language who can't get their stories across as clearly."
The Paris Review piece led to Megan Lynch, an editor at Riverhead, asking Huang if the coffin story was part of something larger.
"While I guess ('Little Red Guard') flirts in ways with the immigrant-fiction canon," she said, "it's also in stark relief to those books. It's less about the now than the before, the rationale for immigrating."
The book's opening is a grabber: "At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma's seventy-third birthday." Back in Chinatown, I asked Huang why he started there. He told me he never thought the coffin as weird, not until he was older. He was from an insulated family in an insulated country. Not until later did he think of the coffin as profound or metaphorical. He didn't explain this. Instead, he said that he was deeply influenced by the Chinese idea that to be a poet one has to memorize 1,000 poems:
"For example, I once memorized a poem about melancholy, and how you don't understand melancholy when you're young, you don't understand melancholy until you've been though a lot. And then, suddenly, one day, much older, you look melancholy and it makes sense. See, the point is not that you understand things when you are young. The important thing is you know their meanings by the time you are old."
Wenguang Huang will be appearing at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest. Click here to see the full list of authors scheduled to attend this year's fest.
Twitter @borrelliCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times