Memoir of art, music, history, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

I was astonished to learn of her past. An unassuming aquaintance, Fangfang Xu, recently published her family memoir, Galloping Horses:  Artist Xu Beihong and His Family During Mao’s China. She did tell me her father was called the “father of modern Chinese art,” but I didn’t realize he was world famous, his work hanging in prestigious museums and selling for high dollars at auction. He is known particularly for his black ink paintings of spirited horses, hence the name of the memoir. It is said he was lucky to have died before the Cultural Revolution. His family struggled to preserve his art and his memory.

In her book, Fangfang exposes the harsh life under Chairman Mao from the unusual perspective of artists, musicians and teachers—intellectuals severely punished  for being “reactionary bourgeois.” People lived in fear of the merciless young Red Guards and the country closed in on itself and moved backwards. Although the Xu family was privileged to know many influential people, including Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, that did not keep them, “the children of dogs,” from suffering along with others.

gallopinghorsesFangfang filled Galloping Horses with incredible detail from much research, friend and family interviews, and notes she and her mother had kept. She spent six years doing research on the important events because “I want my book to have credibility for general readers as well as academic people.” Fangfang captures in story what went on during this time and explains the results and implications of the crackdowns affecting families, culture, universities, and the economy. I learned about Chinese art and teaching methods and about the art of music composition as Fangfang was an accomplished pianist at a young age. She made all of this easy to understand and the story line flows smoothly—I was surprised to see what an excellent writer she is, often poetic. I have read several books set during the Cultural Revolution, but nothing like this. I highly recommend this fascinating and poignant memoir for anyone interested in history and the arts or in a compelling story of survival.

I asked Fangfang how she remembered so much of her experiences. She said:

“As for the memory of my early life, I had written about some episodes in my compositions while in the music school. Even though I lost these compositions during the Cultural Revolution, I remember the content. It is an interesting journey to relive these formative years during my writing.”

You never know what incredible stories might be hiding in your friends.

For further information about Xu Beihong and to see examples of his work, see the Beihong China Arts website. Before reading Galloping Horses, those not familiar with Chinese pronunciation may want to learn the basic  x and q sounds—and Fangfang is  pronounced “Fahngfahng.”

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A journal is not a (good) book

Here’s something different:  Notes From My Phone* a self-portrait in her twenties is a compilation of notes Michelle Junot wrote on her cell phone’s notepad app. She wrote during her college years, posting her thoughts and prayers and grocery lists during “formative years of her life.” Two years later she came across the notes, bringing her back in time. A friend liked them enough to want to publish them, so a short book was born. Reviewers say it is honest and funny and captures life in all its mess and beauty, to paraphrase.

Have you thought of publishing your journal notes, or the old love letters between your parents, or even your old blog posts? Well, don’t publish them raw and unedited and in their entirety. Michelle had 500 notes and they were culled down to 180 of the better ones, leaving out the “self-indulgent and totally woe is me” ones and keeping the ones that “told a larger story,” the ones that covered shared human experiences. In another example, a WWI veteran’s 400 pages of notes were edited down to a 157-page book. I chopped down my Korean War veteran friend’s notes to about 215 pages, leaving out any stories that said nothing new.

The average journal-writer or letter-writer is not composing essays she/he plans to publish. To be interesting to strangers (and even family), a lot of editing needs to happen. A famous piece of writing advice is by Elmore Leonard:  I try to cut out the parts that people skip. You may think everything is important, but readers will not. What is the reason you want to publish? What do you want readers to learn, understand, experience? Gather the entries or letters that are most meaningful to what this overall message or theme is and then edit out the boring parts. You will probably need to add context, but what will be left after pruning is much easier and more enjoyable to read.

Lafayette-born author found a memoir in her smartphone’s notes

Sault teacher writes first book, turns soldier’s memoir into a ‘must read’

The art of memoir and writing about history


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WWII on the Home Front – a Woman’s Perspective

As Pearl Harbor Day was last week, it is fitting to write about a different kind of WWII memoir. Peter Green finished putting together his mother’s story of civilian life during WWII and published it in time for Veteran’s Day. I’ve just started reading it. Feisty Alice Green was raising two young children while her husband, Ben, was out among the Pacific Islands and acting as defacto manager of the Armed Forces Radio Station WXLI based on Guam. Both of Peter’s parents were writers, so Peter had well-written stories and letters to work from. His father’s letters to home are the basis of Peter’s earlier WWII memoir, Ben’s War With the US Marines.

imag2592From the cover of Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces, I can see Alice is probably a fun character, and right away in the book that is confirmed in “A Fish Story.” The memoir starts with her childhood as spunky and somewhat unusual daughter of a stay-home mom and a civil engineer dad who is away most of the time. Her father designed some famous bridges and buildings in the US. The stories continue through starting a family with Ben who goes off to war at age 35, leaving Alice with two little kids and her ingenuity. When he comes home, he has to deal with a wife who has become not just independent, as many women were forced to become during the war, but independent-minded.

The book goes beyond being a memoir of just life during WWII, since it covers Alice’s childhood and goes all the way to Ben’s death in 1976. The final chapter wraps it all up, and the story is book-ended by what amounts to as prologue and epilogue, both touching. This is almost an autobiography. Alice is quite candid throughout, a pleasant surprise as many of this generation can be reticent in expressing true thoughts and feelings.

Radio is not just a story of life on the home front during WWII. It is about the effects of the advancement of technology. It is about women leaving their traditional roles and how society reacts. It is also, interestingly, about the changes in news media, as both Alice and Ben were writers and Ben worked in radio and advertising. Really it is about the changes in the whole cultural fabric of American life. If you have parents or grandparents still living who can tell about these times, be sure to ask them questions about it. That was a whole different world from now.

I am enjoying this book so far from reading and skimming, and I commend Peter on his accomplishments of putting together and publishing both his mother’s and his father’s stories. While his parents left behind a pile of letters and writings, I know how hard it is even to take written pieces of other people’s lives and put them into a cohesive whole, especially when they are no longer around to consult with. Alice never realized her dream of writing her own memoir, but it is done now and she lives on in written pages. It is a delight to meet her.

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