FEBRUARY 3, 2018
EILEEN CHANG died alone in her Los Angeles apartment in 1995. A small, quiet death for a literary celebrity who had grown ever more reclusive as she aged. Similarly, Chang’s novel Little Reunions, newly translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz, nearly met a quiet, small death. Chang’s most autobiographical novel experienced a drawn-out journey to the hand of a publisher. Though written in 1976, it wasn’t published until 2009 in China and sold over a million copies. When she first finished it in the mid-’70s, Chang wrote to her literary executors, Stephen Soong and his wife Mae Fong Soong, asking them to read the 600-page handwritten manuscript. Later, when she wrote to discuss her will, she mentioned she’d contemplated destroying what may be the most personal of all her work to date, but didn’t go through with it. The Soongs would later be responsible for the novel’s appearance and wild success in China.
Little Reunions traces protagonist Julie’s life during prewar and wartime China. As the novel opens, Julie, who is from Shanghai, is studying abroad in Hong Kong. The reader soon finds out that much like Chang, Julie is the daughter of an opium-addicted, traditional father and a glamorous, globetrotting mother whom she never sees. The book’s title comes from those rare times spent with her complicated mother, Rachel, as a child and adult, as well as Julie’s long separations during and after the war from lover-then-husband Chih-yung, a suspected Japanese sympathizer in exile.
The structure of Little Reunions echoes the chaos and fear of war. Chang quickly hops between scenes, sometimes leaving the reader with, if not a cliffhanger, then a truncated experience. For example, as the war rages around the students in Hong Kong, Julie hears about a house where students have been sneaking off for baths because the water is still hot. When she arrives, she moves through the ruins of the residence, the lives of its past occupants now scattered among broken pieces of furniture and piles of a papers, only to find the bathroom door locked, no sound or motion coming from inside.
As Julie walks to the house, Chang describes the sinister soldiers who hang about, and how the young female students fear harassment or worse. Tension builds. After waiting and waiting, knocking and knocking on the bathroom’s locked door, Julie gives up and urinates on some papers before leaving the house. The scene ends and the reader never finds out who or what, if anything, was behind that locked door.
Soon after, Julie is back in Shanghai, first living with her father and his concubine, before escaping to live with her mother and aunt Judy in a snug apartment in the same city. Rachel is rarely home — she’s abroad for most of the novel, skipping from Europe to Indonesia to anywhere in between — but when she is, Chang writes the tension of the relationship between mother and daughter with beauty and honesty. As Julie watches her mother host guests with an intense envy close to romantic longing, Rachel’s cruelties toward her daughter hold a terrifying accuracy that, though amplified, reveal the tensions that exist between many mothers and daughters, particularly those who rely on their outward appearance to maintain a place in the world.
Much of Little Reunions and Chang’s other writing, including the excellent essay collection Written on Water and short story collection Love in a Fallen City, is positioned around metaphorical locked doors and difficult relationships. Chang provides the reader with signs, clues, and lists of facts, but the key or solution is ever ambiguous.
I encountered Chang in 2006 when I’d just moved to New York and her collection of essays Written on Water had just been translated into English by Andrew F. Jones for the first time. The collection, consisting of pieces taken from her early career in China, is something of a blueprint for Little Reunions; in some cases, passages from the collection appear in the novel in a near-identical state.
Soon into reading Chang’s work, I realized something profound about her writing: like that of Eve Babitz, Anaïs Nin, or another Eileen, Myles in this case, Chang draws the reader into her inner realm with direct, yet lyrical, prose that allow events, scenery, and characters to mold the story. Striking in their frankness, her essays are deeply personal, but they’re not personal essays.
As an early twentysomething from a tiny town, I was conditioned to be on display, the way some self-conscious people are in small rural populations. Chang, through her writing, was teaching me how to be seen in a large urban center, instructing me in the ways a person can come to be viewed among many, and how one’s individualism allows that person to become a part of the vast world around her. In her essay “Notes on Apartment Life,” Chang describes living in a sixth floor apartment. “In an apartment on the top floor, you can change clothes right in front of the window without anyone knowing the difference,” she writes, before cascading through descriptions of children roller-skating on the top floor, and the every move of her Russian, German, and Chinese neighbors whom she can hear when the windows are thrown open during spring. A creature of the city, Chang’s descriptions of urban centers resonated in my new surroundings.
Chang’s life seemed one of mystery, drama, and, above all, glamour. Raised in an aristocratic family in Shanghai, she was the daughter of a woman who had been educated abroad, preferring to stay there, and a man who held deep-seated conservative views and regularly fed his heavy opium addiction. Once, when Chang was sick with dysentery, her father beat her and locked her in her bedroom for nearly half a year rather than seek medical attention, essentially holding her hostage. She escaped and moved in with her mother.
In her 20s, Chang’s literary career ascended quickly. She made her debut at the age of 18 when an English-language newspaper published her essay “What a Life! What a Girl’s Life!” about the incident with her father. She was published widely in magazines and journals following her debut, and her early essay and short story collections Written on Water and Romances appeared to wide acclaim between 1944 and 1945. With much of her private life revealed in both her fiction and nonfiction as well as her inborn ability to navigate the limelight, Chang became a much sought after enigmatic celebrity.
In the 1940s, Chang’s work fell out of favor with the Chinese government, and soon her books were difficult to find the country over. Chang immigrated to the United States in 1955, finding employment unstable until she landed a job at Berkeley as a researcher, continuing to write in her spare time.
In her most popular publicity photo taken early in her career, Chang’s glancing somewhere to the side, her eyes looking up. Her closely cropped hair surrounds delicate features that hint at amusement. The photo is black and white, but the bold pattern of her cheongsam bursts forward, and her earrings flash with the camera. Chang indeed looks glamorous, but there’s something else. Her misdirected gaze, hard posture, and glossy exterior suggest an elusiveness, one that she achieves through style.
In Chang’s world, clothing is often the great signifier of one’s experience in the face of monumental historical change. How a garment is styled or how the colors match say as much about the person as it does about what’s happening around her. In a pivotal scene in Little Reunions, while Julie is still attending university in Hong Kong as the Second Sino-Japanese War is about to begin, the clothing of her peers takes precedent. When the bombs begin to fall, the students become pawns, worker ants. Julie’s best friend, Bebe, joins the relief effort, taking care of soldiers in lavish silk gowns that rustle as she serves.
In a later scene in Little Reunions, after China takes back control from Japan, Julie’s soon-to-be ex-husband Chih-yung has gone into hiding in a small town in the country. The pair decide to go out for a walk to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house where Chih-yung is living, but Julie’s appearance is painfully out of step with her husband’s new life:
“What will people think when they see us?” Chih-yung said while they strolled along. “What a fashionable woman; the man, though, doesn’t look the part.” He laughed bitterly. “I’ll even have to change the way I walk and alter my accent.”
Julie, whose literary star has begun to rise back in Shanghai, looks at her husband, and doesn’t see much changed about his appearance. However, she also doesn’t have the outward vision to see how she appears in Chih-yung’s new world. Chang, color-obsessed to the end, switches perspectives following the conversation between Julie and Chih-yung, describing the countryside around the pair as they walk:
It was a clear day: the sky appeared a pale light blue in contrast to the yellow. This vista […] was even more magnificent, more dazzling, than the azalea-covered hills of Hong Kong blooming against the emerald-blue ocean. Even the occasional stench of manure wafting by didn’t seem malodorous — otherwise it all would surely have been an illusion.
By novel’s end, Julie is in the throes of a successful career and new romances. She’s found an independence from her smothering family, and an identity of her own. Even now, a decade and a half into my post-rural life, I find myself drawn in, studying Julie’s, and ultimately Chang’s, struggles and achievements during their early careers and urban lives.
However, the past haunts Julie and torments her dreams, as it does for many of us. The novel concludes with a scene in which Julie is remembering one of those dreams. In it, she’s in the middle of the movie The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, starring Peter Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. Children, something she’s never wanted, emerge from the forest and reveal they belong to her, as Chih-yung appears and leads her into a cabin.
“A movie she saw more than twenty years ago; a man from ten years ago. Julie floated rapturously for a long, long time after she woke up. She only had that dream once, yet she never stopped dreaming about exams. Nightmares, always nightmares,” Chang writes. Like so much of her writing, the novel’s finale finds Chang pulling from the familiar — first loves, the cliched dreams of past school anxiety — to create an affecting, haunting atmosphere that brings to the surface the relatable, if not horrifying, elements of being human.
Melynda Fuller is a New York–based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, LitHub, Poets & Writers, A Women’s Thing, TimeOut NY, The Hopper, Bust, and HelloGiggles, among others. She’s a graduate of the New School’s MFA writing program and is currently at work on a collection of essays.