China Books

Xujun Eberlein's Apologies Forthcoming

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Hong Kong's Blacksmith Books has published a short story collection by Xujun Eberlein. Below is an introduction to the book by Pete Spurrier, of Blacksmith, followed by an extract from the book.

Introduction to Apologies Forthcoming

by Pete Spurrier

It was some decade. The universities were closed. Students were at war. Poetry was banned. And the word “love,” unless applied to Mao, was expressly forbidden. Artists were denounced, and many opted for suicide. This is the time – its madness, its passion, its complexity – that Xujun Eberlein brings to life in Apologies Forthcoming, her moving collection of short stories about those who lived during and after China’s Cultural Revolution.

This book won the third annual Tartt Fiction Award when it first appeared in the United States, and an Asian edition has been published in Hong Kong.

Xujun is “a fresh voice in American fiction, a Chinese writer with a remarkably shrewd, interesting tongue” according to Jay Parini. But the stories here are based on true experience. Born in Chongqing, Xujun was sent to the countryside after leaving high school, and emigrated to the US in 1988. She blogs about current affairs at Insideout China.

“My big sister died at the age of 16 as a Red Guard,” she says. “She was both a participant and a victim of the Cultural Revolution, but foremost she was my dear sister. Her death planted in me a ‘Cultural Revolution complex.’ For three decades after her death in 1968, I couldn’t bear to look back at that summer, yet the wound in my heart was never healed. It was only after 9/11 that I finally began to write a memoir piece about her. I cried constantly when I was writing and revising it. This non-fiction piece, titled Swimming with Mao, was later published in Walrus in 2006. The story Feathers in this collection is a fictionalized account of that same incident, from a different angle by a more distant narrator. That story then became the first of a bunch featuring young protagonists of the time.”

Asia Times said: “Eberlein’s collection is a reminder of all the great stories that could and should be written in China today. Unfortunately, exile continues to be the home of China’s most honest and moving narratives.” Fittingly, few bookstores in China will agree to stock the book. But the publisher fulfils mail orders to China free of charge. Below is an extract from the first story in the collection.

Men Don’t Apologize; extract

by Xujun Eberlein

Each time a prospective suitor swerved away from Ou Hong, her father couldn’t help but remind her to warm the hues of her face a little. He would clumsily jest, “Have they borrowed your rice and repaid with chaff?” And he always got the rebuttal, “Where do you think I got my hues from?” Those words choked off the even-tempered old man, once an eloquent teacher of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. He would quietly lament the metamorphosis of his sweet little girl, while she did what she pleased.

Ou Hong’s mother had died shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As if she could not manage the tremendous relief of waking up from a decade-long nightmare, her nerves just snapped like a string drawn too taut. Ou Hong was a freshman then, and her mother’s last words were like a prophecy, that she, Ou Hong, would find a suitor among neighborhood boys, someone she was familiar with from childhood. The unsaid words: someone who wouldn’t mind her aloofness and chronic sarcasm.

No one knew if the mother had a particular boy in mind, and Ou Hong took the prophecy as no more than a loving mother’s kind wish. Four years passed and when graduation time came, Ou Hong was the only girl in her Mechanical Engineering class who had not been paired. On a campus of mostly male students she dated few, and never for very long. She departed university with the crown of “cold-eyed princess.”

Then, in the spring, on her first day of work at the Bus Factory, she ran into a neighbor from childhood, to whom she hadn’t uttered a word for 16 years, though she had seen him on TV and around home sometimes.

She was passing workers crowded around two TV cameramen inside the factory’s gate, when a strangely familiar voice glued her feet to the ground. It came from a young man wearing a gray-striped Western suit, elegantly unbuttoned. His thin lips moved swiftly over a microphone while the overflowing light from his enthusiastic eyes swept through the audience. The mannerisms were his trademark as the host of the popular TV program, Focal Interview. He cast a look on Ou Hong before she could lurch away.

“Hey, look who’s here,” he turned off the microphone and said, “mountains don’t circle but waters do.” His long, girlish eyelashes flapped, as he contemplated the white dress-shirt tucked into her red jeans.

“What a white swan,” he eulogized.

“Was I an ugly duckling before?” Ou Hong said. Immediately she bit her lip.

“No, no, I was,” he said, in the charming self-deprecating tone that had made him adorable to his massive female audience. His voice and smile tore open every little detail of that autumn day in her childhood. She could hear — with a sharp clarity — her own flustered and exasperated voice shrieking, “One day! One day . . .” and see him bouncing backward, turning with a sinister smile, then disappearing around a corner of the wall.

What had she tried to say that day? As they stood face to face once again, 16 years condensed into 16 seconds. She felt on the verge of recovering those words, before they slipped away like water — shapeless, with nothing to grip. One day what? All these years of time were like beach sand, layer over layer, with unspoken words buried beneath, till unearthing became hopeless, yet she could not give up digging.

His lilting voice encroached, “What are you doing here anyway, white swan?”

She strutted away without another word. Her heart churned with anger as she sped to the Administration Building. Didn’t he remember anything? How could he speak to her with such a casual intimacy?

*

Chen Yiping was the neighbor boy’s name, and the Political Institute was their neighborhood. The last time she spoke to him was 1966. He was ten. She was eight, until then a spoiled little princess pampered by her father’s colleagues and students.

The Political Institute’s function was to educate the Nationalist army’s ex-generals, who surrendered, or fled unsuccessfully, when the victory of the Chinese Communists became inevitable in 1949. Ou Hong’s father was the president of the Institute. He wore a four-pocket navy cadre uniform and lectured on revolutionary theory in a dignified manner, and those ex-generals were knocked out with admiration. His ability and excellent work even received recognition from Chairman Mao himself; the Great Leader received him in the People’s Hall in Beijing and shook hands with him, a rare honor.

The Institute, located on the south side of the city, was housed in what was once the American Embassy, taken over by the new government after the American imperialists “ran away with their tails between their legs,” as the popular song “Socialism is Good” goes. In the garden-like Institute, Ou Hong’s family had the entire second floor of a beautiful Western-style, two-story beige house, while two families of her father’s subordinates shared the downstairs, one of these the Chen family.

That day in early fall of 1966 was an ordinary day; the sky was blue, the clouds were white, and the bird songs were jubilant. Ou Hong returned home from her elementary school uncertain whether she should be happy or upset about the classes stopping. Yiping slid down from a mulberry tree right in front of her, his lips purpled by the ripe berries.

“Brother,” she said, “You scared me!” Girls and boys didn’t talk at school, but in one’s own yard the rules were relaxed.

“Who’s your brother!” The boy hooted, surprising her in a big way. Yiping was nicknamed by his schoolmates as a “sissy” and had never raised his voice at her or anyone before.

“Did you eat the wrong medicine this morning?” she teased.

“Your Pa ate the wrong medicine.” The boy backed up a step and announced, “The revolutionary situation is grand, and is getting better and better. Your Pa is a loser, my Pa is in power now!”

“What do you mean?” Ou Hong said.

Yiping backed another step and ran away.

Puzzled, she walked to her father’s office building. Long and dense green vines of ivy coated the walls; in front was a goldfish pond with stone rails. Pink lotus flowers bloomed graciously in the pond. She dallied at her favorite mossy-rimmed pool from which a dragonhead spurted water, but a surge of collective shouting from inside the building washed over her like a wave. Scampering through the front gate, she climbed up the rosewood stairs to the third floor, where the President’s Office was located. She stood stunned at the wide open door: the usually neat and roomy office was a total mess, white papers with black and red print scattered everywhere. Her father was nowhere to be seen.

Another sharp wave of shouts erupted from the first floor. Ou Hong ran downstairs. Standing behind rows upon rows of sitting people, she saw her father on his knees in the center of the stage, the same stage where he would give long speeches and receive loud applause from the same crowd he faced now. Uncle Chen, her father’s amiable subordinate, the kind neighbor of her family, the caring father of her playmate Yiping, pressed her father’s head down till it almost touched the floor, his other hand holding a tall, pointy dunce cap made of cardboard. On the paper cap’s surface was a column of hand-written, black ink characters, each bigger than the one above: Capitalist Roader Ou.

“Put the cap on your head!” Uncle Chen ordered. Kneeling prone, her father raised unsteady hands over his head and put on the dunce cap.

“Tell us you are a capitalist roader!”

“I am a capitalist roader.” The small voice did not sound like her father’s at all.

“Louder!”

“I am a capitalist roader!”

“You are a monster and demon!”

“I am a monster and demon. . . .”

As the revolutionary masses burst into loud bellowing – “Bombard capitalist roaders!” and “Burn the monsters and demons!” – Ou Hong sprinted through the meeting hall’s passageway, blasting up to the stage, swirling white papers around her. Bending over, she butted her head into Uncle Chen’s unsuspecting stomach, staggering the big man. Her shriek echoed in the meeting hall, “I won’t let you bully my Papa!”

Uncle Chen caught his balance: “Little Hong, children are not allowed here. Revolution is a grownup matter.”

She kicked him in the shins and screamed, “You are a monster and demon! My Papa is a good man!”

At that moment her father twisted his head toward her, struggling to look up from the floor with bloodshot eyes. “Get out, go home!” His husky voice was muffled, with nothing remaining of his usual dignified bearing. When she did not obey, Uncle Chen nodded to a thick-waisted woman who came up and pulled her out of the meeting hall, as Ou Hong kicked and cursed with the few dirty words she knew.

Once out the door, the woman whispered, “Go home; you’ll only make things worse for your father.” Her voice was surprisingly concerned, which was what made Ou Hong obey.

The upset girl ran into Yiping again. The boy kept a few feet from her and said:

“Yay, what did I say?”

“You are wrong! Your father is wrong! My Papa is not a capitalist roader!”

“He is too!” the boy clapped his hands and sang:

“Your Pa is a loser,

My Pa is a winner!”

As he sang, he jumped up and down on a pile of coal against his kitchen wall. Ou Hong said hurriedly, “Listen to me, Yiping, one day you—” Before her next word was out, pa! a charcoal briquette hit her forehead. The briquette shattered into thousands of particles, blacking her cheeks and blinding her eyes.

Compared to the episodes that followed later, the pain caused by the charcoal was really nothing. However, this was her first experience with humiliation, and the anguish, confusion and frustration had hit enormously. She kept rubbing her eyes, wanting to speak, as if completing the interrupted sentence was the most important thing at that moment, as if it was a lifebuoy for her sunken body, “One day, one day—” Her words broke to sobbing, as Yiping ran away in victory.

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