Dear Chrysanthemums review

Source: Mekong Review 8, 31 (May-July 2023)
No Fragile Flowers, These
By Christina Cook

Dear Chrysanthemums: A Novel in Stories (Scribner: 2023), by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s novel Dear Chrysanthemums offers a provocative look at the defining events of the past half-century of Chinese history. The interconnected stories follow several female Chinese characters whose travails intersect during the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square massacre through to contemporary diasporic life in America and France. Sze-Lorrain empowers each of these characters to tell her own story, even if she doesn’t yet have the knowledge required to see its connection to the broader context. Each consecutive narration reveals more about a complex web of truths, both known and secret; of secrets both personal and national.

As a Singaporean-born French woman who has lived and studied in New York and Paris, Sze-Lorrain knows this complex web well. As a writer, poet, translator and editor, she has spent decades gathering people’s perspectives on modern Chinese history. Dear Chrysanthemums resonates with a rich and efficient prosody. The narrative structure is creative, with each story placing an increasingly complete puzzle on top of the last. In this way, the novel’s form follows its function, for fragmentation is a theme that lies at its very core. As the modus operandi of the Chinese state, fragmentation is the force that sets the events of the novel in motion; the force against which female protagonists fight to stay connected to a truth that aligns with their ethics and experiences.

One of the fragmented truths that characters try to keep alive is the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the story ‘The Invisible Window’, three women meet in the same Paris cathedral every June Fourth to remember—or resist forgetting—the horror they experienced and the friends who were maimed, raped or killed. Because any commemoration of the event is a punishable offence in China, the women’s annual meeting is an act of resistance; one they call “timeless and invisible, like silence”. They sing of that fateful “quiet night shattered by gunfire” and talk, bathed in the light of a “shattered stained-glass window [with] pinholes of light… competing for sluggish shards of shadows around them”. Then, in a prescient nod to the colours of Ukraine, we see that “piece by piece, light from the shattered window [the cracked stained glass] spread into a swath of yellow-blue”. I’m not suggesting that Sze-Lorrain intentionally used these colours to represent Ukraine’s present-day plight, merely that her work taps a deep vein where men’s unending desires for global domination bubble up to the surface.

The Three Musketeers, as the friends call themselves in a nod to their new country, describe an eminent cadre of Chinese scholars as “politicians in disguise” who “build their careers on rewriting history; reframing facts, inking out sources, manipulating narratives”. “Only two hundred students dead or missing?” they scoff, referring to the Chinese government’s ‘official’ mortality count from the June Fourth Incident, which falls at least 9,800 short of the actual number known to have died that day. The women agree that people believe such falsehoods in order to survive. The falsehood machine is described in the final story, when a former Red Guard tells her disbelieving daughter, “we were taught [to] tell the truth, erase the truth, and better yet, spare others the truth—that is how this country works”.

Shattering a citizenry’s perception of the truth and then reshaping it according to the Communist Party’s fabricated reality is an act of mass gaslighting: the signature technique that people—and countries—with a narcissistic personality disorder use to whitewash events. Though China excels in this, it must be said that many governments, democracies and dictatorships take part in the practice—a global truth which bleeds in between the pages of the book.

We see the haunting effects of this most starkly in the story ‘Back to Beijing’, narrated entirely through letters written by a protagonist who has been confined in a psychiatric hospital, due to debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder from the June Fourth massacre. Her efforts to assert a reality that was taken from her in the aftermath are gut-wrenching. In one letter, for example, she writes that her husband “Michel doesn’t trust my memory”. In another, she is just able to write “someone is making my past up along the way” before having to put down her pen to be given her medication.

Much in the same way the Chinese government fragments the truth to weaken the citizenry’s grasp on it, so too does it apply the technique of dividing and conquering the country’s flesh-and-blood communities at the grassroots level. We see the devastating effects of this carefully constructed social isolation in the first story, ‘Death at the Wukang Mansion’, which takes its title from a once private mansion known for libertine parties but since repurposed as a place where ‘non-conformists’ were brought to be killed at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. While serving the latter function in its decrepitude, “everyone… seemed determined to keep out of one another’s way and avoid one another’s gaze”. When the mansion’s superintendent and his wife find the corpse of the protagonist, a lesbian dancer named Ling, he regrets having shunned her. His wife reminds him, though, “What can ordinary people like us do? Better to play safe than to pay the price—” Allow me to finish her sentence: the price of building a community not sanctioned by the government.

This social isolation is part of Ling’s tragic fate. Before being murdered, she suffers extreme desolation from social isolation which, together with sexual assault and shame, makes her feel “hopeless and indecent… in this filthy body that had once brought applause and gawking from admirers nationwide”. At the story’s end, the mansion’s superintendent is “surprised… that despite its slender build, the young woman’s body, once limber, sank with a mass and weight as onerous as the anonymous others he lifted and carried down the stairs every day”.

Women’s bodies are particularly problematic for, and vulnerable to, any male-dominated government aiming for dictatorial control. In Dear Chrysanthemums, women try to free their bodies to be instruments of life as much as death, of self-expression as much as silence. Several women use musical instruments to extend their bodies’ reach, discovering the extent to which they’re able to navigate their freedom to give voice to the unspoken atrocities committed against their bodies, their spirits, their families and communities.

In ‘The White Piano’, when the protagonist, Willow, watches as piano movers lift her childhood piano up to her new apartment, we are told, “The idea of seeing a white upright piano suspended by ropes and slanted in midair gave Willow vertigo on the spot… it seemed like a pregnant woman, blindfolded and kidnapped and hauled up in broad daylight before going into labor or worse, suffering a miscarriage.” After one of the piano movers gags and tries to rape Willow, she sees the piano as suddenly “dirty, despite its white satin finish. The color out of place, the piano stood like a ghost.”

In the title story, we see the government’s same divide-and-conquer technique at work when its protagonist, Mei Zhen, is sentenced to thought reform labour in a camp reminiscent of the Wukang Mansion, in that “the women spoke little and mistrusted one another”. Before long, she learns that a song she wrote for the guzheng Chinese harp, called ‘Combat the Typhoon’, has been co-opted by the Communist Party and turned into a piece of propaganda, which they then catapulted into popularity. As a result, she is released from her thought reform labour and rises to stardom as a musician lauded for music that “celebrated the Chinese working classes as prescribed by Mao” and would go on to play a key role in the otherwise brutally violent Rectification Campaign.

The experimental virtuosity of her playing took a back seat to its political purpose, but Mei still felt she gave “the guzheng its own freedom”: a freedom that came at the cost of its use to promote a proletarian cause to which she did not subscribe. One of the many child musicians in the Communist Youth League whom Mei’s composition went on to inspire was Sky, a girl who grows up to study the instrument under Mei herself when both are expatriates living in New York many years later. When Sky learns about Mei’s background and discovers that her own mother was an elite “iron girl” in the Red Guard who violently humiliated Mei’s father, inventor of the harp, she arrives at a way to make sense of it all, musing that her mother and Mei were both “survivors, their mindsets shaped by their own times; one had a daughter to tidy up her past, the other her student to help reconcile with it. Both women had lived through enough to know better than anyone how to rectify the winds in life, theirs and others.” These women, like others throughout the novel, are more like hearty chrysanthemums than delicate orchids or day-long lilies. They do what they need to do to survive, in ways that many would find questionable, and ways they may even come to regret. But these strong female characters are forces of nature, as their names indicate: Cloud, Crystal, Sky, Willow and Tong, which in Chinese means ‘phoenix tree’—a metaphor that is lost on no one.

Dear Chrysanthemums offers no easy answers to the complex political, cultural and ethical problems it presents—for there is none. Nor does it offer a storybook ending—for any such endings would be unsatisfyingly idealistic and oversimplified. It does, however, provide the reader with a compelling reason to revisit the events of China’s recent history relative to the multinational struggle for global power and women’s universal struggle to make their voices heard. It explores how we can stop making the mistakes of the past—and why we probably won’t. Better than answers, Dear Chrysanthemums plants seeds of hope in the female characters’ stories, personalities, passions and the strengths they have gained from working to overcome the pains of their personal and collective cultural pasts, which the future threatens to erase.

Christina Cook is the author of three poetry collections: A Strange Insomnia, Ricochet and Lake Effect.

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