This post is part of my review of the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016.
So, Xinran’s track record is pretty impressive. Not least because she started out as a reporter in Nanjing, just like myself, I felt instantly drawn to her. I have to admit that only after my colleague was in awe when we discussed she was going to give a Bookworm talk, I picked up my first Xinran book, and now I will have to read them all.
Her stories give a voice to the marginalized in Chinese society and she manages to unlock secrets most of us journalists only ever imagine they could find; stories of the hardships of Tibetan women and those mothers who had to give up their baby girls or worse; and her latest book, a look at the one child generation, or the Little Emperors, as they are often half mockingly, half critically referred to.
The event was eye-opening and inspiring in many ways. Xinran’s outlook on life, or the one she presents to the public in any event, is incredibly positive and derived, according to her, from a Tibetan woman’s anecdote on how to view the world.
The story she tells is that the Tibetan woman explained in their culture if a young boy stubs his toe on a rock, rather than saying “poor boy”, the mother would tell him he should be honoured that the rock chose to cross his path; based on the practice of Buddhism.
I do think this sunny disposition and her incredible charm is how this charismatic woman has managed to dig up some of the most secret and tragic stories of China’s past, of abuse, neglect and even murder.
During her talk she touched upon a point that honestly brought me to tears. “Those German soldiers who murdered in the name of Hitler. They weren’t all believers. Some of them just needed to feed their families.” As a German with a heap of Nazi guilt hearing someone express this simple truth just really got to me. I cannot say that I face a lot of heat for being German nowadays at all; I really don’t. But somehow the way in which we talk about the Reich in Germany is very simplistic in that anything remotely related is bad, bad, bad. To have someone from the outside offer such a multifaceted and sympathetic view was incredibly unexpected.
Mr Li got to learn a little bit about himself as well. Both of us never really understood why he is, quite frankly, terrible at reading out loud. He is incredibly intelligent and speaks English fluently, but no matter in which language he will switch out entire verbs while reading. It was not until Xinran explained that his generation were never allowed to read out loud in class that he had an utter “aha” moment. He told me afterwards that when he was at home also, his mother would tell him to not read out loud because she couldn’t hear the TV if he did. I will bite my tongue about parenting at this point; she didn’t know any better.
But this is the power of Xinran, she manages to touch the people she speaks to in these profound ways. With a few simple words. She has a clarity paired with a compassion I have rarely seen in people.
She is not much about the figures but all about the heart. Personal stories of real people. And there is a place for that. It makes for an incredibly powerful narrative.
As much as she is an inspiring person; this review should really be about the event. Since “Buy me the Sky -The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations” was the name of the event, I did expect the focus to be on her latest book and on the one-child topic; instead it was more of a tour of Xinran’s entire bibliography. This was interesting, yes, but I still would have preferred to learn more about the one-child generation; partly for very selfish reasons – I want to gain an insight into my husband.
The other slight criticism I had was regarding the following panel discussion. While I do agree with many of the narratives Xinran presents, her main argument is that the Chinese people have spiritually not yet caught up with their economic development. And for some reason, this seemed to be her answer to every single question paused by the audience, including whether the two-child policy will reverse the gains Chinese women have made in education under the one child policy as they didn’t lose out against male siblings, and a question by an actual Chinese orphan adopted by Americans about whether there is a place for her in China. Every answer seemed to be almost the same; probably in part a move of caution.
Overall it was a great event with some very interesting insights and truly touching.
I award this talk 4 out of 5 Aubergines.
Reads for this talk: Xinran’s entire body of work, mainly “Buy Me The Sky”, “Messages from an Unknown Chinese Mother”, “Sky Burial”.