Imagine if my grandmother had given up when the Japanese invaded, or when she had to flee her hometown, or when there was nothing to eat, or when the Civil War raged on. I wouldn’t be here but for her faith that the future could be better.
Bob Hsiang Photography
May-lee Chai, author of the essay “Women of Nanjing” (NER 41.3), talks to nonfiction staff reader Belinda Huang about the determined strength of women, from those she has seen in passing in Nanjing to her very own grandmother. Their stories assure her that she, and we, will get through this current moment in history because, as she says, “I have resources and tools and I can fight.”
Belinda Huang: Part of what drew me to this essay is how you situate yourself as an observer, even though you have visited Nanjing many times and have a family connection through your grandmother. Your focus seems to be on presenting these women to the reader without embellishment, creating a kind of patchwork portrait of the women of Nanjing. Why did you choose to write this essay in this way, instead of centering your own experiences?
May-lee Chai: I’ve written other essays that did center my experiences, so for this particular essay it really began with my memory of the middle-aged woman in the fabulous yellow chiffon outfit carrying her fluffy white dog across a busy street in Nanjing. Something about this image really struck a chord with me and moved me quite deeply. I wanted to unpack that, unpack my feelings and memories and try to understand why I felt I had witnessed something special. Growing up in the US, I saw so few images of Chinese women, and historically the American media has typically portrayed Chinese women as victims, as weak and subservient and oppressed creatures who need to be saved. And here was this woman on a street in Nanjing who looked like she’d lived through some things and yet here she was decked out in yellow chiffon, and I was just so happy to see her. I decided to start the essay with this memory and see where I could move from there.
BH: You move between women of different generations, who have had varying experiences at the intersection of gender and history. But to me, many of the women do share a kind of strength, determination, and perhaps even a sense of humor when reacting to unexpected or difficult situations. How do you approach the tension between the universal and the particular when writing about Chinese history, culture, and people?
MLC: I was very aware of writing about the passage of time and generational shifts in this essay. I wanted to pick examples from women whom I had met in Nanjing that I felt could illustrate these very great changes that had occurred in the span of a little over 100 years. For me those changes are most visible in particular examples, in the specific women I’ve known or encountered or who are family and friends. The “strength, determination, and . . . sense of humor” are there because that’s how these women really are!
BH: In this essay, you touch briefly on the history of the Nanjing Massacre and comfort women, but what we really see is how quickly the past can fade into museum pieces—quite literally. While your grandmother grieved the family and home she was exiled from, many of the women who grew up during the Cultural Revolution have now adapted to a modern China, and though they may be driven by their history, they do not seem weighed down by it. How do you think our relationship with history changes? What draws you to continue examining your family’s history through essay and memoir?
MLC: In the US, “The Rape of Nanking” is still the one thing that Americans might associate with Nanjing, but other than that, there may not be any reason for most Americans to think of the city. But for me, the city was always my grandmother’s hometown. It was the home she was never able to see again after she left China in 1949 at the end of the Civil War. I grew up with her sorrow and her pain. I witnessed that at every family dinner which erupted into an argument about the past. History wasn’t just a series of dates in a textbook, something dead and finished and knowable; history was family, was pain, was memory, was very much a living, changing, omnipresent relationship to the past. Chinese history isn’t something that my teachers talked about at all when I was growing up. I had to seek out this history in college and then by returning to live and study in Nanjing. By engaging with Nanjing in the present, I could try to come to an understanding of how this history lived in my own family and in me and how this personal family history differed from how other Chinese people and families experienced it.
BH: Your Nai-nai is such a strong presence in this piece, and I can imagine she was in life as well. You write that “her faith in the future was surely not rational, but it was essential, and it was ultimately effective.” Faith as a necessary, active state of mind seems as applicable to the challenges of today as it was to surviving revolution in China. How does this notion of faith hold true for you when thinking of the women in your essay, and in your own life?
MLC: Well, 2020 has been a year that required all of us to have a lot of faith that a better future was possible. Without that kind of faith, hope is impossible, and without hope, activism seems futile. In the present things have been pretty awful from week to week; the increase in anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism and violence is scary. And the rising appeal of fascism in the US has been a very ugly thing to witness. It’s easy for me to get depressed if I just look rationally at the state of affairs. However, I have to give myself the pep talk: imagine if my grandmother had given up when the Japanese invaded, or when she had to flee her hometown, or when there was nothing to eat, or when the Civil War raged on. I wouldn’t be here but for her faith that the future could be better. Despair is easy but we have to keep making decisions and work for the best, and that requires hope and faith. And I’ve never had to live through an invasion, as she did, so I remind myself that I can get through this moment. I have resources and tools and I can fight.
BH: Your essay takes us up to the present day, highlighting the resilience Chinese women continue to demonstrate in the face of racism and worsening US–China relations. We are corresponding in the week after the 2020 US election, with Joe Biden as president-elect. Does that change how you feel about the way Asian and Chinese immigrants are being seen and treated? How do you see this essay, and/or your work, in this context?
MLC: My writing is definitely one tool that I use to fight against stereotypes and to fight the anti-Chinese/anti-Asian racism. It’s one way that I can center my humanity. So much of this election season has been a painful reminder that we Asian Americans are still seen as eternal foreigners in our own country and as threats to the US. President Trump kept calling the COVID-19 virus the “China virus” or the “Kung flu.” When Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris was on the campaign trail, various Republican officials made fun of her name, calling her “Kamala-mala” or deliberately mispronouncing her very easy-to-pronounce name. It’s so juvenile, but it’s also effective racist rhetoric to Other her, to demean her, and to make her seem threatening because of her Asian first name. This racism is familiar and exhausting but, at least this time, it did not work. Biden/Harris won. Their win won’t be enough to end the racism. I have no illusions about that, but it gives me hope and energy. I will keep fighting, I will keep writing.
May-lee Chai is the author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including her latest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants (Blair, 2018), recipient of a 2019 American Book Award. She teaches in the MFA program at San Francisco State University. Her writing has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman (selected by Tayari Jones), a Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and others.
Belinda Huang is a writer, editor, and NER nonfiction reader living on Darug land in Sydney, Australia. She holds a BFA from Emerson College, Boston, and previously worked at Ploughshares. Her work appears in Story Cities: A City Guide for the Imagination.