annotated in Ten Words by Marianne Woods Cirone
People: Yu Hua was born in 1960, I was born in the same year. He grew up in China, I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. It would seem that our similarities end there, yet, Yu Hua intertwines his political and cultural narratives with stories of his childhood that I can totally relate to—boys bragging about touching breasts, children looking at books with pictures of naked people, neighbors gossiping about the sex lives of other neighbors. Despite our differences, Yu Hua proves that people– communist, capitalist or a hybrid thereof– are all, at the core, essentially the same.
Leader: Despite our commonalities as human beings, our cultures diverged radically. For example, Yu Hua relays the tale of when he was a teenager in 1976, that a thousand students his high school auditorium wailed and sobbed when they heard that their leader, Chairman Mao had died. I could not imagine my high school peers, that same year, shedding even a tear for our leader, Gerald Ford, much less his predecessor, Richard Nixon. Yet, while our nation vilified Nixon, his crimes appear trifling compared to the genocide of 50 to 70 million people committed by Mao. No one wept for Nixon, yet millions mourned for Mao.
Reading: While I relate to Yu Hua’s love of reading and quest to find good books, there the similarities end. As a child and teen I had access to virtually any printed book, yet I interpreted most efforts to get me to read anything other than what I had specifically selected for myself as an infraction of my own human rights. I disliked Johnny Tremain in junior high, I detested Beowulf in high school. Like most of my peers, then and now, I had no idea of how good I had it. The lengths which young Yu Hua must go to read a novel are heartbreaking, and reading of them harkens me to cherish my total freedom to read a vast variety of material.
Writing: YuaHu’s weaving of the political and the personal, of adulthood and childhood, of horrifying and hilarious, inspire me to consider using these techniques in my own writing. A heavy-handed political tome doesn’t fare well for those not named Chairman Mao, so I am instructed to keep adding my personal voice and stories to my (sometimes dry) writing.
LuXun: This chapter, which links China’s pre-eminent writer, LuXun and Norway’s writer, Henrik Ibsen, reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s Clothes. Just because the experts, be they “literati” or the government say an author or a work is good, stick to your opinion and have the guts to say so. At least in my culture, you may get heckled, but you aren’t likely to have your head blown off.
Revolution: I think that Yu Hua is telling us that at some point, every successful revolutionary will be challenged by a counter-revolutionary. In writing, I think this means, don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom, even if it held by those considered to be revolutionaries.
Disparity: As in economics and politics, there is disparity also among writers. Some of us have talent, some of us don’t. Some of us will be published, some of us won’t. Either way, we can each show up at the page and create. The obstacles Yu Hua and other oppressed people overcome should encourage us to use our voices and speak the truth when we are so blessed with that opportunity.
Grassroots: As our culture loses it connection to printed literature in exchange for all things electronic and video-related, and writing literature seems to be increasingly be put into the hands of the ever-growing bastions of MFAs, it remains important that the “common man,” the grass roots of the culture, continue to practice expressing themselves in writing. My field study consisted of teaching several creative writing workshops to cancer survivors, as well as to teenagers, so I hope to continue the tradition of writing for the “grassroots” of the population.
Copycat: I plan to copycat some of Yua Hu’s structural techniques in my own writing, such as using a device like the ten words to organize a piece, and interlacing personal reflections with research-based prose.
Bamboozle: YuHua seems to have done a bit of bamboozling himself, as creative non-fiction writers do when they create the persona to tell their story, as he presents himself in the book more as a “common man” than a seasoned author, and may have bamboozled the government of China with “read between the lines” messages for Westerners. Art is artifice, though, as I keep hearing over and over, even when it is authentic—and all of us as writers, need to continue that quest to keep our work authentic, while learning the craft of the artifice.