'Little Red Guard' author Wen Huang has come to terms with his father, and with China
Wen Huang, author of "The Little Red Guard," poses for photos in the Chinatown neighborhood. (Brent Lewis, Chicago Tribune / May 7, 2012)
Serendipitously, Huang's first impression of Chicago, at 18, led to his literary career. The Chinese government had introduced Studs Terkel's"Working" into the secondary-school curriculum because of its critical perspective on American life. "My teacher explained it was Americans talking about America and would be a good way of learning conversational English. But when I read it, it was a revelation. My entire view on America changed," he said. "Because 'Working' wasn't just critical, it wasn't one thing. Remember, when I was young, my mother used to tell me to eat my dinner (because) kids in the United States were starving. My dad's warehouse had a picture on the wall of people dumping milk into the Hudson River, and I'll never forget the caption: 'The capitalist, to control the price, would rather dump milk into a river than give it to poor people.'"
Two decades later, in Chicago, he found himself listening to a Chinese-language radio program about a writer whose book of interviews with often unsavory talking about China was banned by the party. The writer was a Chinese reporter named Liao Yiwu who had spent years in Chinese prisons for writings that were critical of life in contemporary China. Huang said: "I remember thinking, 'Wow, the Studs of China!'"
Huang tracked down Yiwu and, with permission, began translating the book into English. It was published in 2008 by Pantheon as "The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up" and submitted for the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Foundation translation award. Journalist Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker staff writer who was editing the Paris Review at the time, was "talking to a Pen/Faulkner person who said, 'you know, the best thing I read in a long time didn't win.'" Intrigued, Gourevitch contacted Huang.
Huang wrote a piece for the Paris Review about the coffin that his father had built for his grandmother, and how the family had kept the coffin in the house for years as everyone, including his grandmother, waited for her to die. "We worked so regularly together that I watched him develop tremendously," Gourevitch said. "He gained this command of the language, his second language, that was remarkable. His range got large, his sense of rhythm grew accomplished. And in the book — how he's able to combine an adult and child's view of scenes and keep a light touch while retaining sympathy for people in this political bind, there are people out there right now writing memoirs in their native language who can't get their stories across as clearly."
The Paris Review piece led to Megan Lynch, an editor at Riverhead, asking Huang if the coffin story was part of something larger.
"While I guess ('Little Red Guard') flirts in ways with the immigrant-fiction canon," she said, "it's also in stark relief to those books. It's less about the now than the before, the rationale for immigrating."
The book's opening is a grabber: "At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma's seventy-third birthday." Back in Chinatown, I asked Huang why he started there. He told me he never thought the coffin as weird, not until he was older. He was from an insulated family in an insulated country. Not until later did he think of the coffin as profound or metaphorical. He didn't explain this. Instead, he said that he was deeply influenced by the Chinese idea that to be a poet one has to memorize 1,000 poems:
"For example, I once memorized a poem about melancholy, and how you don't understand melancholy when you're young, you don't understand melancholy until you've been though a lot. And then, suddenly, one day, much older, you look melancholy and it makes sense. See, the point is not that you understand things when you are young. The important thing is you know their meanings by the time you are old."
Wenguang Huang will be appearing at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest. Click here to see the full list of authors scheduled to attend this year's fest.