Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother
After publication of the bestselling The Good Women of China, the writer and journalist Xinran received letters and photographs, video tapes and stories of Chinese girls who had been adopted overseas. Many of the letters begged Xinran to write the book that has become Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, pleading with her to record some of the stories she had witnessed throughout her years as a journalist in China about mothers forced to abandon to their infant daughters.
Ten stories make up the collection, a book written with a very specific purpose: to speak directly to adopted daughters, their adoptive parents and to tell the stories of Chinese birth-mothers. It is a powerful effort, one whose impact can be summed up by the letter from an adoptive mother in New Zealand: "For some, your books are just stories, but for many of us, they are much more than that."
Each chapter shows a different woman: a countryside peasant whose daughter is drowned immediately after birth; a former midwife who explains her trade; an abandoned daughter who is the result of a forbidden tryst; a mother who waits in the United States, regretting her decision every day.
These are not easy tales to tell, but Xinran succeeds, in large part to her storytelling and narrative style. With simple and straightforward prose, Xinran has managed to strike the right balance between her personal reactions and the story itself. There are no attempts to draw out drama; these stories are powerful enough and Xinran's writing allows their messages to come through.
Each chapter is powerful in a different way. In some cases it is the ease with which some kill infant girls which is most moving; other stories make lasting impressions from small details and symbols revealed in Xinran's personal conversations. In one, a mother gives Xinran a pebble, asking her to pass the stone to her birth-daughter if Xinran should ever find her, so that she'll never go hungry.
Given that the oral histories of these women are first transferred onto the page and eventually translated from Chinese into English, one feels at times as if one is reading a sort of double translation, leading one to wonder if or how the impact of certain passages or stories would change if one were reading them in Chinese or hearing the women's stories first-hand. However, questions of translation and of transcribing oral histories are dealt with in an explanatory forward, where Xinran discusses ten months of struggle as to how write the book. She concludes that her duty was to stay true to the stories of the mothers. This loyalty is obvious throughout the book.
Although the intended audience of Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother seems narrow, Xinran's latest effort carries broad appeal. My copy of the book will next be passed on to an American neighbour, whose preschool-aged daughter Lily was adopted from China.
04 May 2010
Melanie Ho is a writer who has reviewed for publications in Hong Kong and Canada.