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My Mother’s Fiction

February 27, 2019

We are pleased to share an excerpt from Na Zhong's novella "My Mother's Fiction," the 2018 recipient of the Bette Howland Nonfiction Prize. The prize, given annually to a graduating nonfiction student at the New School in New York City, was established by Honor Moore, who first met Bette Howland in 1977: "​In the winter of 1977, I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time. I had just had my first work—a memoir-as-play called Mourning Pictures—go public on Broadway.... The play had been a hit in a Massachusetts summer theater and closed quickly in New York, and though it was to be published in an anthology, I was having a hard time emerging from what was an up-down whiplash experience. At MacDowell I met a woman writer about eight years older than me—at the time, she seemed much older!—who had just published a memoir of her time in a mental hospital—the book was called W-3. We became friends—long talks in what I remember as her very dark writing studio—her typewriter in a pool of light. She was the first woman writer to encourage me."

Feng and Na got up late, still suffering from jet lag. They were going to visit Na’s family today. When they got ready, it was around noon. Feng’s mother stood behind the dining table and watched them pick up keys and put on their shoes. Wear the new boots, the one with heels, she said to Na.

Na paused in the midst of choosing her favorite flat boots, smiled in no particular direction, and obeyed. The heels of the black leather boots had a round, curvy line. They shone voluptuously in the skylight.

Don’t forget to take the mangoes. Just put them in the back of the car with the suitcase, she said.

Na was nervous about the red suitcase. The night before she had been excited thinking about what new clothes she should take with her to spend the lunar new year with her parents and her father’s family. The gray sweater had a loose neck that draped elegantly onto the shoulder; the black sweater was tighter and had a soothing ribbed texture. They would go with the white down coat and the navy wool overcoat perfectly. In the past, not many of her clothes had matched with such effortlessness. She felt a sensuous delight not only from touching the clothes but from owning them. It was a pure materialistic pleasure that she had always been wary of. Now she wondered if her past anti-consumerist stance merely resulted from lack of money or any experience of good things. She wondered if other people had such doubts. She tried to think of people who were down-to-earth and content and had simple tastes, and the first person who came to her mind was her mother. She imagined showing her mother these luxuries.

So, Feng’s parents bought these for me. They are 100 percent wool, by the way.

100 percent? No wonder they are so soft. Heavenly soft.

But, the thing is, how do I wash them?

In high school, Na was a boarding student and came back home once every two weeks. She would take a town bus to the North Gate bus station, and then stand in line for the cross-borough bus. The heated air in the buses and the boring trip gave her motion sickness, so she always tried to fall asleep as soon as the engine started to burn. Once in a while, she woke to the fragrance of orange during the trip: someone had just peeled a mandarin. The bus took the winding local road to avoid tolls. Slowly gliding past wheat fields and an array of small, gray tiled houses with painted walls. Behind the low brick walls of small shops, she could see piles of rubber tubes and wine urns of various sizes in the backyards. They looked pristine and profound, like an art installation. She missed these things, sitting on the passenger’s seat beside Feng. The view along the highway was a monotonous band of slim green and fat grey.

Wait, you are not falling asleep again, are you? Feng said.

No, of course not.

Open the compartment in front of you; there should be a bag of CDs. Play some music if you should feel drowsy.

Na picked an album by Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese pop singer who was her mother’s favorite. Na had heard most of the songs in the collection while growing up. She could even recite most of the lyrics.

Their car reached the entrance gate and stopped at the booth. The doorwoman leaned near their window, and Na lowered it, trying to explain: We won’t be staying long… The doorwoman nodded at her, as if she remembered Na’s face, Na wondered if she owed the woman an explanation as to why instead of returning home in a bus she was in a car, with a man. Na leaned to look the woman in the eyes but caught only a glimpse of her sallow jaw. Nearby a table of four were playing mahjong. Na pressed her forehead to the window to see if there was a white, orange, furry belly under the chair. Old cat, Na said, getting older every day. The family uses her to catch mice so they feed her nearly nothing. My mom used to save egg yolks for her. But she always forgot to bring them with her when she came down.

They navigated carefully past dust-covered cars into the depths of the community and parked in the semi-deserted entertainment yard. Na texted her mother their arrival. Yellowish aerial roots hung from old banyans like thick curtains, blocking half the view. Abandoned sofas, torn at the edges, were scattered between steel facilities. The place felt like a junkyard. Feng pulled in the car at a corner, a discreet distance away from a row of trash bins. Rusty and dented, they looked exactly like a pile of pants drunkards left rumpled on the ground. Na didn’t want Feng to see all this, but knew she had no choice. It was not like she could cover his eyes when he drove, or feign surprise at the “abominable changes” that happened to the world she grew up in. The bins had always been there. She’d absorbed part of them, assimilated them, the way the elm trees expanded themselves by sprouting more roots to inhale all the mildewy and reeky air they could get. The plants consoled her with their levelheaded, almost indiscriminate acceptance of where they were.

Someone rustled behind the brush. Na’s mother emerged at the side of the garden. She was wearing a puffy, slick cotton jacket with big flowers blooming across her chest and up the sleeves. In her grayish-green low-heeled boots she stood no more than four-eleven, her legs seemed girlishly slim in dark leggings.

My little daughter, Feng! Her voice pierced the rainforest-like atmosphere like a sharp whistle.

My little daughter! Na called back.

Feng shook his head at Na with a loving look of mixed surprise and puzzlement, and said: How can you call your own mother your little daughter?

Yeah, how inappropriate! Na’s mother laughed absentmindedly. And writes bad things about me, too, she said.

Feng’s parents sent some mangoes to you, Na said.

Yunhua, come help with the boxes! I don’t know what your dad is dawdling over. Na’s mother said.

They heard a stealthy jingling sound approach and Na saw her father scurrying across the grassless garden in his squarehead shoes. He was wearing a V-neck checked sweater. A few strands of hair arched across the top of his head, hinting at a more luxuriant hair of his younger days. He gave a shaky smile and took one box from Feng. His face instantly flushed.

Be careful! Na said.

Not a problem! he said.

Your dad’s still got it! Na’s mother said.

They were being very loud, Na could feel it; she actually encouraged her parents a little, as if this were a jovial scene she wanted them to perform for Feng. She also realized how relaxed she felt, near her strong mother and weak father. At Feng’s house, she had been scared, even threatened, by the prospect of being an obedient wife to a tyrannical husband. This little drama of marriage was intended to let Feng know: this was how things worked in my family, I’d been raised up by this structure of power, take it or leave it.

At dinner they sat around the end of the rectangular dining table. Na squatted on her chair. Wherever she looked, the old reproduction of a nameless oil painting on the wall over the counter burned at the corners of her eyes: a few fist-sized sunflowers with fat, juicy stalks thrusting out from between dark green leaves. On the TV in the living room was an entertainment gossip program. A ponytailed woman in short dress and high heels was pretending to have an argument with a slick-haired young man in a navy polka dot blazer. Then a poorly shot video of some Hong Kong pop star began and at some point Na laughed out loud for no reason. She felt her body expanding, becoming more porous and airy.

What are you laughing about? Feng said.

Twenty-three, but still a child, her mother said.

Her father coughed, picked up a mug of red wine, and nudged Feng: Come, come.

Ah, very delicious, how delicious! Her mother took a sip of the wine and clicked her tongue to show her enjoyment.

Na looked at Feng. She was happier here. Life was happier here. She was trying to lure him into this world, away from his father.

They raised their mugs for a toast. Her family was bad at making toasts, mostly because they never drank red wine at dinner, and they had no wine glasses. Na’s mother found red wine bitter and sharp, and her father never drank at home. The mugs they were using to drink red wine, their favorite mugs for tea and juice, were promotional gifts they got for buying toothpaste or instant coffee. On one of the mugs was printed the smirky Garfield cat, on another was the red Nestlé logo. Na’s father mumbled something, and they all raised their mugs and made a few bumps in the confusion.

Ah, I am full, Feng said.

What? You barely ate anything, Na said.

He finished his little bowl of rice, but most of the dishes on the table were half-finished.

Are you on a diet, Feng? Na’s mother asked.

Feng stretched his arms and yawned. His cheeks turned a little rosy under the light. He glowed like a statue kneaded from mud, wet and solid and warm. Radiantly healthy. Na’s mother looked at him across the table and said admiringly, Look how healthy Feng is. Your mother must have labored hard to feed you well.

My dad knows no limits. When I was little, he would make noodles, and the three of us would eat sitting side by side along the table. He ate from the big pot, me from the small pot, my mom from a big soup bowl. My mom always accuses him of fattening her up! Feng said.

Na laughed along with the others. It was a joke, and also not a joke. The anecdote revealed many things, probably everything, about his family: Who oppressed, who loved, and who endured. To tell it as a joke showed Feng’s understanding or acceptance of a working mechanism of power. It might be a joke to someone who had grown up with it; to Na it seemed dark and bitter and alarming.

After dinner, Na asked her mother for her writing and sat on the sofa browsing homemade notepads. From time to time, her mother smuggled a small quantity of paper from her school’s printing lab. She’d cut them in halves, sometimes in quarters, then bind them into small notepads with a smuggled stapler, three staples on the front, three on the back. She wrote with whatever pen she had at hand: Ballpoints in black, blue, or red, with tips that were fat or thin. Her characters were big-boned with forceful strokes, absolutely illegible to all the students, from second-graders to high school seniors, who came to the house for her mother’s private composition classes on weekends. Unhindered by the lines on the paper, her characters slanted to the right like rows of coconut trees bent under a gale. had already shortened the title, “The Man Who Walked on the Margin,” to “The Marginalized Man.”

The sun cast a hot, stuffy nest over the garden, over Jiang, whose forehead was covered with sweat and dung water.

“Damn!” He thought to himself in indignation. “Do they mistreat me just because I am a temp? How unfair!” Furiously, he acknowledged this reality: After 25 years of living in the city, he was still the temp that everyone looked down upon. As he brooded on this, the “dung-stirring stick” in his hand, governed by hatred, began to poke maliciously here and there; the reek in the garden grew even thicker. The smell permeated to every nook and cranny uninhibitedly, just like the gas Jiang belched from his chest.

Na skimmed the first few pages in disgust, the way she grimaced when she watched her mother scrape away scales from behind the kitchen door. She found the choice of scene and the unfazed description of such crudeness bewildering but also admirable. She thought of her mother’s hands; the skin was brown and hard, like a pair of worn leather gloves that could be taken off any second. But the writing was no good. It lacked the touch of linguistic originality required to turn such stone into gold.

After a few pages, the story stopped, and the rest of the notebook was blank. Na turned to the other notebook: it contained a characterization of the antihero, a brief synopsis of the story, arranged as a list.

Her mother had abandoned projects before. Na tried to remember them. Ah Teacher, Your Eyes is about how teachers treat students unfairly based on their academic performances. It was inspired by her mother’s senior year internship at a middle school. In Search of the Red House was written when she stopped teaching and started to work at a school library after she got myocarditis, an inflammation of heart muscle caused by viral infection. It seemed based on a high school student with whom she particularly sympathized. He had a streak of a poet in him, but couldn’t afford college, and had a hard time finding work. She seemed always to draw inspiration from the same kind of person: Someone more or less artistically wired, who, due to various circumstances, fails to achieve his potential. Instead of becoming a pipe performer, a calligrapher, a dancer, a poet, a novelist, he becomes a doorman who plays a pipe, a car mechanic who composes poems, or even a teacher who attempts to write fiction.

As Na tried to remember one or two interesting sentences from the missing manuscript, she recalled an episode that took place around the time when her mother was in the middle of writing The Red House. She had just added some new material, in fact, a new character. Na had read it on her belly, stretched on her parents’ bed, her feet paddling the air. The new character was a young girl at the top of her class. She gave one the impression of being proud, selfish, and ill-mannered. Na didn’t finish reading, because her face was burning hot. How dare you write about me! She put down the notebook and howled. Stop writing about me! After the initial shock of having been woven into a story, she was ashamed to realize that the portrayal was more or less faithful and was furious that her mother had seen through her. Her mother just laughed: No big deal, all right, I won’t write about you. Shortly after that, she seemed to have stopped writing altogether. Then the notebooks disappeared one by one.

Na wished she had those notebooks now. She wanted to see how her mother thought of her back then, to see if she had changed after all these years. Feng had always said that her mother knew her inside and out, but she couldn’t let herself be persuaded. No. She yearned to be offended and shocked by her mother’s opinions of her again, as if she were an intelligent monkey, and her mother was a mirror in which Na would be thrilled to find an ugly, furry creature looking back at her.

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