Interview with authors Guo Yue and Clare Farrow
Husband-and-wife team, Guo Yue and Clare Farrow are co-authors of Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing, the first of what is to become a series of illustrated middle-readers published by Barefoot Books. It is based on Yue's childhood in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. They have also written a book for adults, Music, Food and Love, a memoir with recipes and an accompanying music CD.
Yue was born and grew up in China, where he learned to play the Chinese flute. He now has an international reputation as a Chinese Flute player and has collaborated with musicians from many different countries, including the UK, Ireland, Italy and Japan. He has also helped with the composition and performed on the soundtracks of the films The Last Emperor and The Killing Fields;and the award-winning documentary, Beyond the Clouds.
Clare is a writer and editor, with a background in modern and contemporary art, architecture and music. She is currently working on a novel.
Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing has been selected for the 2010 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set.
Clare and Yue met in 1994 in London, where they now live with their two children.
What inspired you both to write Little Leap Forward as a children’s story?
Yue: It was Clare’s idea...
Clare: When writing Music, Food and Love, which is the story of Yue’s childhood in the Beijing hutongs (alleys), I interviewed him about every detail of his childhood – colours, tastes, thoughts, sounds – and his memories emerged unchanged: fresh and brightly coloured, still from a child’s perspective, as if they had been locked away in a box. It was the first time that the story of a child’s experience in the hutongs during the Cultural Revolution had been published, so it seemed a natural step from there to write a story for children.
To read about an individual’s experience is a wonderful way for children to learn about history: especially to realise that, although the framework may be different in other parts of the world, many feelings, thoughts and experiences are universal.
The story was also inspired by a tiny bamboo flute, just a few inches long, which Yue can play to sound like birdsong. He can also whistle the patterns of birdsong, and birds actually answer him!
The wild songbird, Little Cloud, which the boy Little Leap Forward keeps in a cage, is central to the book’s universal themes of love and learning to let go. Where do you think music fits in with these?
Yue: For me, music is an expression of my feelings and thoughts. Music is also the only connection I have with my father, who played the Chinese 2-string violin (erhu) – he died when I was only 5 years old. My mother bought me a little bamboo flute in 1966, to keep me off the streets, but soon after that she was taken away by the Red Guards and sent to the countryside to be re-educated. She was only allowed back to Beijing once a month, for one night, and she became increasingly ill – she was forced to dig heavy mud out of a river, because she was a teacher and said to be ‘counter-revolutionary’. I used to take a little stool to the end of the alley, to practise my flute – the scales and long notes and simple tunes. I wanted her to be proud of me when she came home, and the flute made me feel connected to her, even though she was so far away.
Yue, you quote your father saying to you, “With music and your imagination you can travel anywhere; you will always be free.” What have his words come to mean to you?
Yue: Without music I would have become a peasant farmer in the countryside, which is where many of my school friends were sent for many years – to be re-educated. Music saved me, and for that I have to thank my mother, who wanted me to travel and to see the world. But I thank my father too, although I never had the chance to know him. His friend in our courtyard – a musician from the countryside – gave me my first bamboo flute lessons after my father’s death, in exchange for tiny amounts of rationed peanut oil.
Because of my flute, I was able to become a musician in an army singing and dancing ensemble in China and then, through my sister Yan (Swallow in the story) I was able to leave China, to study at the Guildhall School of Music in London. That gave me my freedom. But my biggest regret is that my mother, who was an English teacher, and spoke fluent Russian and Japanese, was never able to travel outside China: she suffered so much, as many people in the 20th century did. Clare and I hope that our book can play a little part in ensuring that this part of history is not forgotten.
Clare, the interweaving of fact and fiction is seamless in Little Leap Forward. What were the particular challenges for you in creating a story that would appeal to young readers, based on your husband’s childhood?
Clare: Actually, the process seemed very natural to me because it came after years of writing Music, Food and Love with Yue. I have been to his courtyard in Beijing, and walked through the maze of narrow alleys, past the vegetable markets. Following this experience, together with writing down every sound, taste and colour that Yue could remember from his childhood, his thoughts as a child and the conversations he had with his mother (whom I feel very close to, even though we never met), I felt that I could live and breathe the alleys, imagining the dialogue between the children. So reality and invention came together quite naturally.
Imagery is very important to me in writing, and Yue’s stories of flying handmade paper kites and catching dragonflies and tiny birds by the river immediately struck me as having huge potential for a work of children’s fiction. I also put some of my own childhood thoughts and experiences into the book. I put a lot of myself into the character of Little Leap Forward’s friend, Blue, for example; and, because my father was a vet, I was very close to animals as a child. I remember rescuing birds from my cats: the feeling never leaves you of holding something so light and fragile, yet with that strength of life and will to survive that wild things have. If you have ever held something wild, it is the rhythm of the heartbeat that makes the strongest impression.
Alhough the Cultural Revolution casts an ominous shadow over Little Leap Forward, the story ends before its full impact was felt. Details of what happened subsequently are given in the Afterword, which is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Why did you choose to end the story where you did?
Clare: By the end of the story, Little Leap Forward has been on a journey – he has learned how to love, and that sometimes when you love something or someone, you have to find the strength to let go. This is a universal childhood experience, and we wanted the story to work on a universal level, so that children can read it by themselves. Above all, it is intended to be a work of fiction (even if based on a real childhood) with beautiful illustrations, not a history book.
The story ends on a positive note of hope and inner strength – as Yue has often said, nature and music gave him hope and the ability to keep going as a child: however, there is a sense of drama too, as the reader realises that Little Leap Forward will need all his new-found inner strength to deal with the events that are about to take place in his life, especially his best friend and then his mother being sent away. The Afterword also establishes that, while the story has strong elements of fiction, it is based on a real childhood; and that the character Little Leap Forward actually grew up to be a musician and composer. For a story to shift from the magical and fictional to the real is exciting for children, I think. I am a great believer, too, that something understated can often be far more powerful and moving.
Clare, why did you choose to use the English translations of names in the book?
Clare: For a number of reasons. Firstly, I wanted children to be able to curl up in a chair and read this book by themselves, looking at the illustrations, and not have to ask an adult how to pronounce a word, or to explain anything. Secondly, the meaning of Chinese names is so important in Chinese culture. Yue was given his name because all children had to have communist names, and he was born in 1958, the year of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ policy – in fact this was a disastrous agricultural policy that brought about a famine in China. However, true to his very positive character, Yue has always said that as a child he loved the idea that his name meant not just a step forward, but a leap! Little Leap Forward is the direct translation of Xiao Yue – the affectionate name given to him by his mother.
In terms of the story, the name has another significance: Little Leap Forward’s gesture in releasing the bird is a tiny one, in the context of the Cultural Revolution which was such a huge historical event, but every little individual gesture is significant, especially at such a time – to show kindness and compassion to one small fragile living thing is universally important.
Little-Little is the direct translation of his best friend Xiao-Xiao (whose brother had the wonderful name Little Stone) and this name also suits Little-Little’s humorous character in the story. I chose the name Blue because of our daughter, whose name Lan-Tien translates from Chinese as Blue Sky. It is also the opposite of Red,the most communist of names, because Blue loves everything that is being destroyed in the Revolution. Little Cloud is a beautiful, poetic name, connected to the sky.
Clare & Yue: We had a consultant role, so we gave our thoughts on the initial script and at rehearsals; and we gave some visual ideas too. However, the play was very much the theater company, Horse + Bamboo’s interpretation / adaptation of the story. For example, it was their decision to bring the Revolution directly into the centre of the story. This is very different to the approach we took in the book. They explained that they had to think in terms of the language of theatre so certain elements in the story were changed. It was their version of the story but we were delighted to see it, and honoured that so much thought and sensitivity had gone into this piece of theatre. It’s always fascinating, when you have created something – a book or a piece of music – to discover what people have taken from it: people interpret works in their own ways. For both writers and musicians/composers, it’s another process of letting go.
Yue, how did it feel seeing your story acted out before you, especially in light of your being a performer yourself?
Yue: I found it very emotional and moving – especially the shadow acting, when my mother was sharing her memories with me as a child. It was very strange too for this reason. We loved the puppets; and the actors were very sensitive, wanting to get everything as authentic as possible.
It was good to include my own flute playing and flute-birdsong as well.
Clare, what have been your children’s reactions to reading/watching their father’s story?
Clare: Our daughter feels very close to the character of Blue – she held the puppet of Blue for ages after the theatre performance – and our son loves the kite competition in the book! It is very special that, although they could never meet their Chinese grandmother, they can in a sense know her through the book and having seen the play – as well as through Music, Food and Love. The illustrations are so beautiful in the book, too; our children say that it is such a lovely thing to hold. So we are very happy that they will be able to share it with their children and grandchildren too.
Are there any particular children’s books they have enjoyed reading that explore their mixed cultural heritage?
Yue: Having had no books as a child, it is more natural to me to let them experience Chinese culture through music and Chinese cooking (my other passion!). They experience both every day and it is natural to them, a part of their lives – so I am not consciously teaching them. Our daughter Lan-Tien loves Chinese silk fans and dancing, and our son Bei-Sheng is very good at table tennis: but again these are things that come naturally. It is a great thing to be both Chinese and English – you can just be a person of the world.
Clare: Yes, our daughter loves making Chinese dumplings while watching Jane Austen films! Above all, we want them to be free. But yes, we will certainly encourage them to read Chinese literature when they are older – novels such as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, as well as the poetry that Yue’s mother loved so much, from the Tang and Song dynasties. We included one of these poems at the beginning of Music, Food and Love.
Can you tell us a bit more about Music, Food and Love?
Clare: It is a childhood memoir with 37 traditional Chinese recipes – the story of how, through music, cooking and nature, Yue found a means to express himself freely, at a time when personal creative expression was banned in Mao’s China. Again, it is a story about freedom. It is illustrated with beautiful black and white photos from Yue’s childhood and lovely Chinese brush paintings.
Would you agree that the CD you produced to accompany Music, Food and Love could equally be played alongside Little Leap Forward? How do you think it would enhance the book for young readers?
Yue: Yes, definitely – especially the two pieces The Hutongs and White Kite. To hear what the instruments sound like is very important for children who have read Little Leap Forward. My second sister (Whirlwind in the book) also sings a song called Paper Boat on the CD so children can hear Chinese being sung.
Yue, can you tell us something about the different flutes you have in your collection?
Yue: I have about 20 flutes in my collection: different types of flute and in different keys. There is the dizi (the horizontal bamboo flute), the xiao (a long vertical quiet flute) and the bawu (an amazing flute from the Yunnan province, which has a reed). I also play a white jade flute.
The dizi is the flute I had as a child, and the sound is created only because of a tiny membrane, lighter than a feather, taken from one of the inside layers of the bamboo, which covers one hole on the flute. When this vibrates with the force of my breath, the sound is created – strong and natural.
What has it been like, working and writing together?
Yue: Wonderful and special – to love someone and then to be able to work together is a great privilege. But the creativity of the writing is down to Clare. I must give her the credit for that.
Clare thinks in words and images; I think in sounds and tastes and smells (especially food!): so we are a very good combination!
What projects do you have in the pipeline? Do you have any plans to write more children’s books in the future?
Yue: Yes, we would certainly like to write more children’s books together in the future, but at the moment I am working on a Jade Flute CD and Clare is writing a novel for adults, and has some art writing projects on the horizon too.
If you were to pick a place anywhere in the world to send Little Leap Forward to, where would it be, and why?
Both: Little Leap Forward is about the lives of children who are growing up in a very poor, overcrowded society, in which food is rationed and there are no toys (beyond what they can make themselves) - a closed society in which freedom, knowledge and creativity are suppressed, and the people they love are about to be taken away from them. It is also a story about the irrepressible power of friendship, love and the imagination, even in the face of hardship and revolution.
So if we could send the book to children in areas of need in the world, it would be to any country where people are not free to express themselves, where families are divided, and children suffer from hunger, fear and poverty. In some small way, we would love to give those children the feeling that they are not just tiny grasses blowing helplessly in the wind (there is an old Chinese saying about this), but that they can find strength through nature and friendship, and hope for a better future by making the most simple gestures of freedom and compassion, whether it is releasing a caged bird (as Little Leap Forward does), finding music in everyday sounds, taking care of a friend, or flying a homemade kite in the wind.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers' Associate Editor.
Posted September 2009, updated February 2010
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