Traveler Reads: Apologies Forthcoming

Shiao Su leaned his forehead against the closed door and shut his eyes.  The vibration of the Zheng strings passed through the door to his body.  He lost the courage to knock on the door.
-Snow Line, Apologies Forthcoming

The following review is revised from one written years ago. As this marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution in China, I thought it was appropriate to look back at one of the few fictionalized accounts of the time period that I’ve read. This is a subject that remains hidden from conversation in China–I was told stories from a few people who lived through it, but the tales they told weren’t detailed and still remained shuttered in many ways.

Outside the mausoleum of Chairman Mao in 2006. The bicycle cart in the bottom right appears in more recent photos as well
Outside the mausoleum of Chairman Mao in 2006. The bicycle cart in the bottom right appears in more recent photos as well

I discovered the work of Xujun Eberlein in 2008 when I came across her blog Inside-Out China. I found her writing style engaging and her stories interesting. This led me to obtain a copy of her short story collection, Apologies Forthcoming. Over time, I exchanged emails and Twitter messages with Xujun–she was a contributor to the first issue of my China-centric literary journal, Terracotta Typewriter (now defunct, but available on Issuu). This was all back before Twitter was blocked in China and every China-focused blogger and expat was connected through social media (and many of us still keep in touch).

The collection of stories by Xujun Eberlein is intriguing; it draws the reader in with gracefully flowing prose and genuine character emotions. Xujun combines the ability to weave complex short stories with grand themes, filled with interesting characters that the reader wishes wouldn’t depart at the end of each story.

Each of her stories centers on China during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath–the politics of Red Guard factions, inserts in the countryside, and movement toward opening and reform. More importantly, the stories focus on the emotions of the characters. Most of the stories in Apologies Forthcoming deal with love and relationships; though they also discuss forbidden love and its dangers.

One quirk of Xujun’s writing style is the dialogue. It’s not typical dialogue by American standards, but it is a close translation of Chinese speech, which helps to portray more of the culture to readers.

The culture she portrays and the time period in which it takes place makes this collection an important work for anyone with an interest in China and history, especially as many Chinese are unwilling to discuss what Xujun fictionalizes.

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