Friday, February 18, 2011

Judy Fong Bates' 2010 memoir The Year of Finding Memory is absorbing my attention when I'm not thinking about Festival-planning. Because I lived in China for many years when I was younger, the book gives me a lot to chew on and Bates has a real gift for re-creating that specific kind of small town life in southern China.

Bates chronicles her two trips to China as an adult, attempting to trace the history of her parents' lives in the years prior to 1949 (the Communinist takeover in Mainland China) before they left China and move to small town Ontario. What she gains from these trips is powerful: she learns who her parents were up and beyond the hard life they struggled to maintain in 1950s rural Canada.

The last section (the second trip) feels unnecessary, though, and Bates delves into typical traveler hijinks (odd stares by locals, bizarre dishes at restaurants, learning to haggle in public markets) that distract from her overriding purpose her: to give life and humanity to her mother and father and others who were, by and large, de-humanized (by struggle, by Canadian society, by a rebellious child trying to understand who she is trapped between two cultures). By the end, we, the readers, have made this journey along with her ourselves, and we come to understand how history is not just facts in a book, but life-changing forever altering, and inescapable on a human and individual level.

Judy Fong Bates was born in China but came to Canada as a young girl. She is the author of a collection of short stories, China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry.

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