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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 177-178
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Ask the Sun
Ask the Sun by He Dong. Translated by Katherine Hanson. Seattle: Women in Translation, 1997. 112 pages, paper $12.95.
"Not so very long ago the Middle Kingdom had a sun whose name was Mao Zedong. He called China's children morning suns. Today I ask the sun." This epigraph begins Ask the Sun, a lyrical collection of short stories by Chinese poet and short-story writer He Dong, who lives in Norway, where she is a researcher at the University of Oslo. Born in Beijing in 1960, He Dong describes what it was like to be one of Mao's many "children," to grow up under the influence that he radiated across China. She is part of that generation whose childhood was marked by the sudden disappearances and reappearances of family members, by public humiliations and abrupt reversals of status, and by constant surveillance and self-censorship. It's no surprise that Mao's children became adults who ask the eternal question of childhood: why? The only person who can answer them is dead, so the question hangs in the background, like a dark sun, like the indelible memory of Mao himself.
"Time," says the narrator of the volume's first story, "Nine," "has carried me into a new phase. I am living a quiet and peaceful life, but this phase is also marked by something else: The memory of an enemy." She is seven when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution begins and her parents and brother are banished to the countryside. She is left with her seventy-three-year-old grandmother in a neighborhood terrorized by a housewife named Aunt Huang, who zealously seeks out "counter-revolutionaries." The young girl struggles to help her nearly illiterate grandmother read and memorize Mao's "Little Red Book." But when the grandmother makes a small mistake during a mandatory study session, Aunt Huang furiously brands her a traitor to the state and punishes her harshly. The old grandmother sorrowfully and violently bangs her head against the hard wood floor nine times to atone and to protect her granddaughter. And in that way, the girl learns to hate. Although she gets her revenge, her childhood has been scarred by a brutal political system that makes children witnesses to its crimes.
The other five stories in Ask the Sun are equally moving and lyrical. Like her characters, He Dong is tender but never sentimental, political but not didactic, strong but not at a loss for deep emotion. She writes with a deceptively calm and [End Page 177] spare eloquence, casting a burning look back at a history both personal and political. Ask the Sun is the work of a bright talent, a storyteller who retains a remarkable innocence and purity for all of her worldly wisdom.
Leza Lowitz is Manoa's contributing editor for Japan. Her most recent collection of poetry is Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By.