I always bemoan how few Chinese novels I actually read now. When I was a student, Chinese contemporary literature (translated to French or English) was confidential, and as I borrowed “lots” of novels from the Asian language university library, I could easily say that I’d read them all. But after so many years, many more are translated every year and I have of course not been able to keep the pace!
Anyway, I was attracted to this coming-of-age novel with hints of homosexuality, set in Guangzhou in the early 1990s, because I fondly remember Guangzhou in the early 2000s (not the same can be said of neighboring, soulless Shenzhen). Escapism and nostalgia I guess (especially as Guangzhou isn’t quite what most people call a “nice place”). I also remember how many times I’d been told by Chinese friends that homosexuality didn’t exist in China (yeah, yeah, let me roll my eyes) and that it was “just” a Western decadent habit. I smiled in recognition when I read the exact same line of prejudice and plain ignorance in the book.
The main character is Ming, a young female freshman at the university of Guangzhou, the capital of the Southern province. She’s very naive and striving to be a good girl with straight A to meet her parents’ expectations. They were small intellectuals sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and they absolutely want their daughter to succeed in the big city. Ming soon develops a girl crush for a fascinating senior classmate, Miao Yan, who is completely the opposite of her. She has quite a reputation as a flirting, flunking, manipulating sexy bad girl.
Ming hasn’t the faintest idea about the confusion of her feelings. A high school graduate with honors (otherwise she wouldn’t have entered Guangzhou U), she has never had any sex ed, even the most basic one (she thinks kissing makes girls pregnant). So homosexuality is a world away from her, but Miao Yan will make her grow up and mature in unexpected, and bitter ways.
Guangzhou is portrayed in this novel with a lot of kindness and nostalgia. I recognized it and loved the role the city plays in the novel. The writer, a graduate of the same university, obviously put a lot of her own voice and memories into the book and of course made me wonder how autobiographical this all was. Fan Wu now lives in the US (where the novel ends), which explains a bit more how she can describe quasi-lesbian with such a quiet, sweet, non-confrontational voice (provocative books with explicit sexual, occasionally gay content are published at times in China too, but they seem to aim at creating scandal).
Her portrait of girls at the brink of womanhood, her description of all-girls dormitory life is accurate, sensitive and moving, but it’s not full of surprises. I think I’d have preferred something a bit more daring.