Wouldn’t that be a dream to find an old memoir hidden in a trunk in the attic? To turn the yellowed pages of time and find an amazing story of a great-grandfather’s or grandmother’s everyday life long ago when times were tougher and the world was changing so rapidly? Well it does happen.
The latest I’ve heard of is Canton Elegy, the title so far. London writer Howard Webster married a Chinese-American girl and was shown the pages of her grandfather’s memoir the family had put away for 50-some years, not knowing what to do with it. Webster found the story beautiful, moving, and harrowing, documenting in English-second-language the journey of Stephen Jin-Nom Lee from poverty to being a colonel in the Canton military, through war and revolution. Agent Susan Mears says, “Effectively it’s a male version of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans but much more of an engaging read.”
How nice we live in a time when publishing has never been easier. In Webster’s case, the memoir, which he edited and presented to Mears, was attractive to a trade publisher, but if it wasn’t he could have gone with a small press or indie-published it himself.
My mother wishes she hadn’t lost her diary in a firestorm during WWII, and what a dream that would have been to have her read it to me. But, at least she remembered a lot and we’ve now got her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight memoir published. Stories like the Lee family’s do happen frequently, but usually it’s a diary or journal that’s found. Makes you wish everybody kept one.