During my time at the London Book Fair I had the opportunity to hear Jung Chang speak. She’s a Chinese writer who now lives in Britain. Her name sounded familiar to me when I was looking at the list of speakers. It wasn’t until the moderator held up her book did I realize she wrote one of the books I would stop and look at when I worked in a bookstore in Boston. I was one of the people who stocked the shelves, which for a book lover was wonderful and painful. I loved seeing all of the books. I regretted not having enough time to read all of them. There were times when I wanted to stop working and to sit on the floor and read. However, since I enjoyed receiving my paychecks this wasn’t feasible.
While I listened to Jung Chang speak, I marveled over her eloquence and passion. She’s also written a biography about Mao. I must admit that I don’t know a lot about Mao. After listening to her speak about her own history and about Mao I promised myself that I would finally sit down and read her book, Wild Swans. And I was happy to see that it was on my 1001 list of books, which surprised me since most of them are novels and this one is a memoir. I have always been fascinated by memoirs.
Wild Swans is not an easy read. This isn’t to say that the language is complicated. In fact, I devoured the book in a few days and my copy is 669 pages. Her writing is beautiful and almost hypnotic. The book follows the lives of three women. Chang’s grandmother, mother, and her own story came alive right in my living room. I felt immersed in their stories and felt their pain, suffering, and sometimes happiness. It also chronicles Chinese history during the 20th century. If you are like me and don’t know a lot about Chinese history during this time, it was a turbulent time. Wars, famines, political upheavals, natural disasters, and the rise and fall of Mao kept me riveted to my seat. When I write that this was hard to read, I mean their stories made cringe in my seat. The hardships that these women and their families endured were more than I could imagine. The best part of this book is the honesty of the author. She not only details what is happening but what it meant to her and to her family. And most importantly, it explains why she and many of those around her believed in Mao, at least during the beginning. Since Mao came to power when Change was a child, you can see her indoctrination process. It astounded me.
Many of the scenes in the book are moving. I welled up on many occasions. On other occasions, I was angry. She made me laugh, think, sympathize, question, you name it, I felt it. This book is a rollercoaster of emotions. And it made me believe that no matter what obstacles you face, if you have the love and support of those around you, you can face them head on. You may not always succeed, but you can keep your dignity. Mao’s regime tore families apart. But not this one. This family stuck together. They are a true inspiration.
Wild Swans won the 1993 British Book of the Year and the 1992 NCR Book Award. It has been translated into 30 languages and has sold millions of copies. My edition was the 21st Anniversary edition and it included a moving afterward by Chang about how the success of the book has impacted her and her family. If you are looking for a wonderful introduction into this part of history, I highly recommend it. This book counts towards one of my reading challenges, Award Winning Books.
I tried getting a picture of Jung Change but the crowd was large. The picture above is of the stage for all the author interviews. The majority of my time at the fair was spent here listening and learning. I’m hoping to go next year.