I've been thinking about Jung Chang's memoir “Wild Swans” for about two weeks now, so I thought to finally share my thoughts on this book, which is only two years my junior with a first print dating back to 1991. With all the new releases, I'm reading, I find it oddly bizarre that a novel can be older than me or around my age. Although I'm tempted to review “Wild Swans”, I will keep my praise to myself, but look at my experience from another angle.
As with all worthwhile experiences, finding “Wild Swans” in the first place had been random. I was browsing through my favourite bookshop “Shakespeare & Friends”, when I stumbled on this thick beauty and decided that it deserved a chance. At the time it felt like an impulse purchase, but I know you know that some books speak to you in a language that only your body can decipher and this is pretty much what I believe happened to me. I've never read a memoir. Moreover, I have rarely had a hunger to read outside my comfort zone [though this is changing at the moment], but I extracted so much gut-punching knowledge from every page in “Wild Swans” about China that had me thinking about whether it's not better to study about history, other cultures and the development of countries and civilizations through fiction.
While I like to pretend I take interest in learning about other cultures and their histories, I rarely find myself in the position where I pay an academic level of attention to another culture or history of a nation. The way my brain is wired challenges me to digest information in raw form, no matter how well ordered or sparingly presented it is. Facts are not my thing and interest alone can't pull me through. With fiction, however, sign me up. “Wild Swans” presented me with a China all my history textbooks failed to do.*
Considering how the volume of information grows, especially now that most countries in the world connect with each other and attempt to re-establish cultural connection, the newest generation has a tough challenge to absorb as much as possible about any given subject. Theoretically, it would be a lot easier to learn about any country's history through a narration rather than paragraphs with dates. I'm not saying that this should be the dominant form in which history should be taught, because I've yet to see the perfect substitute of a good old fashioned textbook [in the sense that a textbook gets the job done]. Studying with fictional memoirs or even autobiographies would be an additional tool to help keep what has been studied in class.
Why do I believe this would work? Because history is indifferent to the student. It has happened in the past and those events do not concern him, even more so, if the student lives in Iceland and has to read about Spain. There is no connection, plus the 21st century is the era of “me”, if you take a look at how products are marketed on a personal level. They are not being sold to a consumer, but to the individual and all commercials seek to establish an emotion connection with its intended audience. Memoirs such as “Wild Swans” are the commercials that sell history.
They offer a brief glimpse into what has happened over a period of time, narrowed down to an individual, whose voice the reader is exposed to through the whole book. If the memoir is competent, then the reader will bond with the narrator and relate to the pain and the hardships through any turbulent era. It's not about the dates or the figures, but how they translate as tragedies or triumphs, which appeal on a more personal level. Given that teenagers are in the age, where they are in a constant state of discovery and emotional growth, it's a safe bet that a powerful book such as “Wild Swans” would use their raging hormones in history's favour and feed their desire to learn.**
Then again, this would bread problems on its own, because in order for this model to work, children would have to be avid readers and enjoy the assigned titles, which in middle and high school is an issue as no child likes to be forced to read. Personally, I hated every single book that was assigned to me to read, mainly because it was not up to me to make the decision. So my post is more of an exercise in theoretical thinking than anything else, but worth some thought. What about you? Do you like memoirs? Do you find them useful to access another culture or are they just another pretty story?
*: Of course, I can't confirm the historical accuracy in Chang's book. Perhaps, Chang tweaked some of the details to fit her plan for the story. However, the Zeitgeist and the mentality of the people in the one century in “Wild Swans” along with the major historical events ring true to me as a reader. I have read that the memoir has been labelled as a fictional narrative, but even if the example given in the book through the three generation of women had not happened, Chang reinforces the belief in her readers that these events, or similar ones given the historical context, must have happened to someone.
**: I'm talking in an ideal case scenario. Let's not forget that this is theory.