A short diversion, before I get excited about another book – this blog comes with a tip of the hat to my friend Atrayee. Back when we were teenagers, we were (as teenagers should be) enthused about changing the world. We were twin captains of the school debate team, organisers of the film club – and I couldn’t have started our school’s GSA without her support (and support from my other friends, who are all awesome). One of the restrictions put on the GSA, amid the general controversy its existence caused, was that we couldn’t have any students under the age of sixteen, so as not to corrupt their minds. What certain teachers didn’t count on was the fact that Atrayee and I also organised the book club for younger students. They may have been barred from the GSA but, week after week, we read feminist, LGBT-positive books, and tried to foster discussion of identity, bigotry, equality and social justice.
Ah, youth. Anyway – one of the books Atrayee recommended was Anchee Min’s 1994 memoir Red Azalea - and I can’t thank her enough for it.
There were plenty of works of Chinese history, literature and memoir in my family bookshelves – our time in Hong Kong had left my father fascinated – but very few of them were by women. And now here was a brutal, brilliant book, exploring the absurdities and wonders of life during the Cultural Revolution through a bisexual lens. Obviously, it was impossible to resist.
Written after her emigration to the US, Min’s use of English is poetic, intensely musical in its spareness. Without exaggeration or melodrama she captures perfectly the idealism of youth, and the horror of its betrayal. For all the extremism of Mao’s regime, there’s something wonderfully still and quiet about her framing – and erotic, also.
“Closing her eyes she moved my hands to her cheeks. Slowly opening her eyes, she stared at me. Lips slightly parted. I could not bear it, the way she looked at me, like water penetrating rocks. Passion overflowed in her eyes. I made an effort to look away, staring at the ceiling of the net. I heard Lu’s cough. She was sitting three feet away at the table, concentrating on Mao. She turned a page. Under the blankets, Yan’s arms were around my neck. She held me closer. Her breasts pressed against my shoulder. She turned me towards her. She untied one of her braids, then moved my hands up to untie the other. I smoothed her loosened hair with my fingers.”
Good for: Anyone trying to find a new direction, or negotiate the path between hope and cynicism. People grieving a broken heart.
Bad for: Those who read only the wordy and deliberately weighty.
Goes with: A clear early morning, sitting alone with a cup of tea and a sense of contemplation. Regret.