Originally on Goodreads, 2012
This is part of my MFA reading responses. I really was a bit underwhelmed by this book.
Response to Red Azalea, by Anchee Min.
There are two aspects I would note in the way Min writes. The first, the simplistic—on the surface—language and sentences. The sentences are extremely short, almost staccato. This is especially true in the beginning, which mirrors the early age of the narrator at that time, but I believe it is not due to this, but rather that English is not Min’s first language. Nonetheless, the simple language does not mean that there are not complex thoughts or changes going on in the narrator. Nor, does it mean that we do not get some strong visuals that simultaneously tap into the Chinese culture, such as the description of her first encounter with the head of the “farm:”
She had a pair of fiery intense eyes, in which I saw the energy of a lion. She had weather-beaten skin, thick eyebrows, a boney nose, high cheekbones, a full mouth, in the shape of a water chestnut. She had the shoulders of an ancient warlord, extravagantly broad. She was barefoot. Her sleeves and trouser were rolled halfway up. Her hands rested on her waist. (52)
The simple language and short sentences does wear on the reader. It is not clear whether this is intentional or not. The subject matter itself is wearing, with one insult of Maoist communism after another hitting the reader. This combined with the short sentences wants to make the reader scream with frustration and rail against the situation.
The simple sentences often convey the childlike quality of the narrator, despite the fact that in many ways—as she states early on—she was never a child. I would have found it more effective if the sentences became more sophisticated later in the book, but they really do not.
The second noticeable writing technique, one that I hate, is the lack of dialogue punctuation. In Min’s writing it is not quite the same as, for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s. Her sentences are more of a past tense summary narrative, while his is more of a “my writing should make it obvious that this is a dialogue,” combined with his own admission that he likes to imitate a biblical style of writing. But, I digress.
Over all Min gets away with what could be difficult writing to read by the subject matter. Memoirs written about painful life experiences, from cancer, personal tragedy, to big events in first person—the holocaust, Vietnam, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Rwandan genocide—we forgive strange writing by the power of the experience that is expressed. We forgive it only when it feels real. Personal. Ultimately, Min is effective this way. Her writing is personal. We admire that is not a translation and her words directly and they feel like her words. We don’t mind the slightly strange metaphors and similes, because they also seem like authentic cultural differences. For instance the wording and the simile, “Lu sensed my intimacy with Yan immediately, like a dog to a smell (101),” does not seem quite right in phrasing, or even the simile, but we accept it as her thinking and authentic.
Ultimately, I felt Min’s writing detracted from the book overall, but only slightly. It is a good reminder that powerful writing does not need to be sophisticated in an overt manner.
Min, Anchee. Red Azalea. New York: Berkley Books. 1995.