From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This book is very powerfully and economically written, with poignant understatement sufficing very well. As is known, its main conceit is to take the underground railroad literally, as a subterranean locomotive, as it conveys the runaway Cora through a variety of states of freedom, each with hopes, mysteries, and dangers and each stressing a usually sinister aspect of race relations, involving, to name two examples, medical experimentation and violent segregation.

One splendid sentence is a line of dialogue: “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth” (p. 285). A few lines later, America is named as the grandest delusion of all, hopefully a useful one; and since the ending of the story doesn’t involve total genocide, perhaps it might count as a (very relatively) hopeful one.

Book Review: Crossing the Horizon, by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro’s Crossing the Horizon promises a tale of “three remarkable women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kan7FDWhDcc), but one of its three main subjects, Mabel Boll, doesn’t belong with the other two. Granted, Ms. Boll was one of at least three women who hoped to cross the Atlantic before Amelia Earhart did. However, she was not herself a pilot (she would have made the trip only as a passenger) and comes off in these pages as a frivolous socialite and gossip. She might have been remarkably witty, but she wears out her welcome halfway through the book and is tolerable after that only as comic relief. If there is any lesson in her story it would be that her dependence on other people to realize her dream proves fatal to her chances: Anyone with any merit runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, leaving her in the rotten company she more commonly keeps (especially the scoundrel Charles Levine), with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else and no one really helping.

Notaro’s other two protagonists, Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay, are the true heroes. Both are addicted to freedom and stop at nothing in the pursuit of it. Both run away from home, eloping with men who seem to offer fresher prospects – though neither one does, and both women return to their families. Both are enamored of fast cars and aeroplanes and quickly obtain pilot’s licenses.  Both are inspired to follow in Charles Lindbergh’s footsteps and set their sights on the Atlantic, although they plan to cross in opposite directions – the American Elder flying east and the British Mackay flying west.

In fact, there are at least as many interesting differences between the two heroes, beside their proposed directions of travel. Elder, of Anniston, Alabama, is supported by her family in her transatlantic endeavor, while suffering at least some measure of opposition from society. It is Ruth’s mother who dresses her in a necktie and trousers, and all her relations turn out for her flight. (This reviewer is also extremely pleased that Elder’s family is not depicted here as a pack of cartoonish hicks.) However, the press seems a bit too preoccupied with the question of Ruth’s husband, and one reporter says that she’d do better as a typist. Even Eleanor Roosevelt calls her ambition “very foolish.” Conversely, Mackay is the favored daughter of aristocrats who, owing to overprotection, forbid her from making the crossing. It cannot be said for sure how much society in general would have supported her plan, for she keeps it a secret; but she seems generally to get her way in the world, and her crew is quite devoted to her.

Nothing stops either woman, of course, but the edge would have to go to Ruth Elder for her pluck at making things happen. True, most doors open for her because of her winning looks. Conscious of this advantage, she employs her lipstick and her smile strategically. However, her pretty face can get her only so far. When the world stops taking her seriously (if it ever did take her seriously) and the doors slam shut, she is forced to rely on her intelligence, her voice, and her ability to prevail in argument.

The turning point of the book comes when a smart-aleck reporter discovers her husband.

“Mister,” Ruth demanded, pointing at the young reporter who thought he had just scooped everyone. “You, sir. What is your name?”

He looked shocked and surprised and pointed to himself. “Me?” he asked, and Ruth nodded. “Dan Shear. Jersey Journal.”

Ruth nodded again and put her hands behind her back.

“Mr. Shear, have you ever been to Anniston, Alabama?” she asked without a trace of malice, but not sweetly, either.

“Can’t say that I have,” he said with a snarky laugh.

“Well, I am from Anniston, Alabama, and I am the second of seven children. Eight if you count my little brother who died when I was ten,” she said.

After revealing more of where she’s from, way more than the reporter bargained for, she asks,

“Do you know that kind of living, Mr. Shear?”

“That wasn’t my question,” he stammered. “My question was–”

“Well, this is my question to you, Mr. Shear,” Ruth interrupted. “Do you know what that kind of living is like? For a seventeen-year-old girl in Anniston, Alabama?”

“No, Miss Elder, I do not,” he finally admitted.

“Now you do,” Ruth stated firmly. “So you can stop asking those questions….My name is Ruth Elder and being married makes no difference in how I fly that plane. It doesn’t make me better or worse. It doesn’t change a thing.” (pp. 199-200)

There’s a lot of waiting around for favorable weather, but Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay end up flying their planes.

Book Review: Tap Roots, by James Street

I read Tap Roots hoping for an American story about the struggle for freedom and also for an always-timely memorial to Southern Unionism. I was partly rewarded by passages like this one:

Never was a stranger assembly gathered…. Scots and Irish, English and Germans, Cajuns and two Negroes — a tiny melting pot that must be tried by fire to prove to mankind that fire and blood can melt all races and blend them into a new being…. The scum of the South was represented. Fire can purify scum. The illiterate, the suspicious — they were there, too. Deserters and draft dodgers, abolitionists and Unionists — five hundred men with nothing in common except a burning fervor for freedom as they understood freedom.

(That last phrase, “as they understood freedom,” is pretty ominous, especially in a story about the Civil War South.)

For the most part, however, author James Street, despite his eagerness to tell the story of Southern Unionists and abolitionists, does so as a Southern and not as an American patriot, and no love of freedom can supersede his hatred for the Yankee. His unwillingness to concede the moral high ground to the Union spoils his narrative of Southern Unionists, whom he might otherwise have portrayed as standing on that same moral high ground. His “Unionists” are really only succeeding from the Confederacy, not remaining loyal to the Union, because, although the South was wrong, the North could not have been right. Therefore, Street’s novel ends up being not all that different from the usual Confederate apologia, brimming with assertions that Lincoln was a mere schemer, that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves, and even that Southern abolitionists were better than Northern ones. The latter group garners the vast majority of Street’s ire. Through his characters, he mocks the idea that his protagonists, Southern abolitionists, would have found common cause with their Northern counterparts, over something as obvious as a revulsion toward slavery:

Hoab said, ‘Some of our Tennessee members think we should join forces with the Yankee abolitionists. They say there is strength in union.’ ‘They are loonies,’ Keith said. ‘The Northern abolitionists are fools and we know it. Somebody ought to shoot Sumner. He’s doing our cause more harm than John Brown.’

In fact, nobody comes in for nastier abuse in this book than Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher.

Of course, the ironic thing is that Street could have better vindicated the South by hating the Yankees less and developing his own Southern characters more as Americans with a universal conception of freedom. Alas, the defensive tone prevails. Street’s bitterness is that of the proud man (or child), directed against those who would expose his faults, faults of which he is well aware, which he insists he will address in his own sweet time, but which no outsiders can raise a peep about — especially since they’re just as bad, nyah nyah n’nyah nyah. I am reminded that Indian nationalism only took shape after the British banned the burning of widows in India. For fueling aggrievement, nothing beats being wrong.

Oddly, Street’s peevishness occasionally attains Marxist dimensions, as in:

‘I know and you know that slavery is not the root of this situation. We are going through another phase of our Revolution. Of course, slavery is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s as wrong to own a man as it is to work a child fourteen hours a day as they do in Massachusetts. But that’s not the point. the real clash is between artisans and farmers, the age-old clash of manufacturers and people who build up an agrarian culture, such as the South’s.’

and:

‘Queen Victoria’s antagonism for slavery has nothing to do with it. The English merchants who really rule that land will brush her aside if necessary.’

On reflection, it appears to me that Street’s coincidental Marxism makes sense. The theory of historical materialism is fully in keeping with the spiteful Southerner’s project of removing all morality and idealism from history, a project he takes on because he can claim neither for himself. If he can’t have the moral high ground, then no one else will, dammit. The idea that money makes the world go around is the common coin of all cynical minds.

Writer’s Interview

Having recently infiltrated the Mobile (Alabama) Writers Guild, I was asked to complete the following interview form. The result is somewhat arch; so I’ve decided to post it here. 

Name: Harry Miller

Facebook/Twitter/Social Media:

yellowcraneintherain.blog

(I’m also on Facebook)

Anything published?

State versus Gentry in Late Ming Dynasty China, 1572-1644

State versus Gentry in Early Qing Dynasty China, 1644-1699

The Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (A Full Translation)

When did you start writing?

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Why did you start writing?, etc.

I began writing in middle school, because it was required of me by my teachers. The latter praised what I had written, and I accepted their praise, proud to be considered a good writer. Apparently, the quest for external validation has always been my chief motivation as a scribbler.

At any rate, with my pretentions thus encouraged, my literary endeavors soon went beyond class assignments. I kept a diary in the tenth grade and have occasionally revisited journal-writing since graduating from college, especially during discrete life experiences such as periods of overseas adventure, including a stint in Taiwan from 1988 to 1992. I also wrote many letters, in the last decade or so before letter-writing became obsolete.

Though I gave no thought to the process of choosing a profession before turning twenty six, I always wanted to be a writer of some kind, even if only as an amateur. I was particularly inspired by historians such as C.V. Wedgwood and Francis Parkman, and I dreamed of creating monumental works like theirs. In my late twenties, finding amateurism, too, to be a thing of the past and sensing that it was time to put up or shut up, as far as my dreams were concerned, I committed myself to the academic career path, reasoning that it would offer the most practical chance of realizing them. Putting my college major and post-graduate experience (and language ability) to use, I selected Chinese history as my area of expertise.

After twenty years of credentialing myself academically and establishing myself professionally, during which time I also started a family, I have accomplished my ambition by authoring three historical epics (listed above), which are very well thought of by the twenty or so people who have read them.

In search of a larger audience, I have turned to historical fiction. My first historical novel, Southern Rain, tells the story of an ordinary young man and an extraordinary young woman in seventeenth-century China, who struggle to get and stay together in the face of cultural and political obstacles. It explores the relationships between men and women and freedom and power, against the backdrop of dynastic upheaval. I have tried to make it not only historically realistic but also accessible and engaging to the general reader. The book has been accepted for publication by Earnshaw Books, and I’m quite happy that it’ll be out there soon – in paperback, no less!

Beyond Southern Rain, I’ve got a few more ideas in me. For example, I’d like to translate an account of a creepy family from seventeenth-century China into English and then transplant it to Renaissance Italy. There’re also several straight translations from Chinese and Japanese that I wish to undertake.

How long does it take you to write a book?

About two years.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I work in the mornings, on days when I am not teaching.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

If something is giving me trouble, it may bother me for a day and a night, but the “bother” is usually just my mind solving the problem. In Southern Rain, for example, I didn’t want the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng, to have bound feet. After obsessing over the matter for a while (and consulting a few other historians), I determined that an upbringing in a nunnery would probably have spared her the agony.

How do books get published?

I don’t know how other authors’ books get published. Mine get published by the grace of God.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

From Chinese history. The climatic episode of Southern Rain is a historical event from 1645, of which I learned while researching my second book.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I just write. The outline takes shape in my head.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

State versus Gentry in the Late Ming came out in 2009. I was 43.

What do you like the most about writing?

Getting it right. It’s torture until then, euphoria afterward.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Canoeing, reading, music, movies, and sleeping.

What does your family think of your writing?

My mom and brother seem to like Southern Rain.

What do your friends think of your writing?

My friends love my writing (letters, etc.), but none has read any of my books, no doubt because they are put off by the supposedly alien nature of the subject matter (China).

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

The worst criticism a reader can give is that he doesn’t understand what I’ve written, which means that I’ve failed as a writer. The best compliment is “You’re a great writer.”

Is anything in your work based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

Some of the settings in Southern Rain are based on places I’ve visited. The protagonist’s house in Nanjing, for example, is based on a place where I used to eat (which was someone’s house). I’ve traveled on the Grand Canal in China, which helped me visualize my characters’ travels by the same method in my book.

As for the characters of Southern Rain, the male protagonist, Ouyang Nanyu, I suppose may be based on me; and Ouyang Daosheng may be a composite of every woman I’ve known – for all I know.

Do you plan on making a career out of writing?

Since I obtained tenure by publishing, I’m happy to say that I already have.

What is your favorite type of book to read?

I like to read histories, novels, historical novels, and books on contemporary issues (such as law), in turn.

What was the last book you read?

Pride and Prejudice

What is currently on your to read list?

The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

What do you listen to when you write?

Nothing.

What is your favorite music?

The Beatles (though they’ve been going in and out of style, with me)

What is your favorite quote?

“As I hung upon the rail I occasionally turned to watch the captain and the mates who were motioning and swearing in all directions until no one knew his own business.”

— Stephen Crane, “Dan Emmonds”

What is your favorite candy?

A Japanese white chocolate wafer called Shiroi Koibito – “The White Lover”

What would I find in your refrigerator right now?

Acai juice

Have you ever played patty cake?

I play it all the time, with the gentleman who mows my lawn.

Have you ever gone out in public with your shirt on backwards, or your slippers on, and when realizing it, just said screw it?

Shirt on backwards and slippers on is overdressed for me.

Do you go out of your way to kill bugs? Are there any that make you screech and hide?

I don’t kill bugs, except, occasionally, for cockroaches. In Taiwan, where cockroaches are the size of lobsters, the only way to kill them is by pounding them with your fist, upon detection. If you run to get a newspaper or something, he’ll be gone by the time you return. I got pretty good at it.

Is there anything unique about you that you’d like for us to know?

I am the only person in the world with no unique qualities.

Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?

Where are you?