Life and Death in Shanghai

Nien Cheng died on November 2.  She’s been one of my heroes, ever since my son Tim introduced me to her work some 15 years ago.  Cheng spent almost seven years in one of Mao’s prisons for the crimes of having worked for Shell, studied abroad, and for speaking fluent English.

Nien Cheng

Nien Cheng

While she was in prison, her only child was murdered by the Red Guards for refusing to denounce Cheng.  She survived horrifying conditions with wit and anger, and, according to her memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai, poetry.  She had memorized a great deal of classical Chinese poetry during her youth and it came to her rescue in prison.

The easy way in which Mao stirred the youth of China  into a violent mob is not unique or isolated.  The Fascists did this with ease and effectiveness in Italy, home of Dante and Verdi, and the National Socialists were equally effective in the land of Beethoven and Goethe.  A recent Italian novel set in this period,  The Jewish Husband, is more heart-stopping than any horror or serial killer novel.  We read a lot of fiction and history about Germany, but very little about Italy’s approach to race–this novel, brief, powerful, beautifully and urgently written, helps fill that gap.

I am uneasy, even frightened, by the way Republicans in Congress and radicals in the talk-show world are stirring up mob passions.  On November 7, Congressional Republicans organized an event in Washington to show opposition to health care reform.  They used images of Dachau and Auschwitz as part of their action.  As Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post,

“the best of [Rep.] Bachmann’s recruits were a few rows into the crowd, holding aloft a pair of 5-by-8-foot banners proclaiming “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.” Both banners showed close-up photographs of Holocaust victims, many of them children. Immediately in front of this colorful scenery, various House Republicans signed autographs and shook hands with the demonstrators. Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.)…recently said the health-care bill is more dangerous than terrorists…”Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) exulted as he stood in front of the Dachau banner.”

I know you come to my blog because I’m a fiction writer, not because I’m a political commentator.  And I know my novels are  criticized in the blogosphere for being too political, a charge that worries me.  But–we are living in a time of upheaval and, in my opinion, danger, and I think it would be irresponsible of me not to reflect on the times, either here, or in my fiction.

As always, I welcome your reaction.

  • Penny Thornton

    “Those of us who love reading and writing believe that being a writer is a sacred trust. It means telling the truth. It means being incorruptible. It means not being afraid, and never lying.” Andrea Dworkin

    Those of us who really like your novels also appreciate your honest opinions on many things, Sara, and I, for one, agree with you wholeheartedly.

  • Maureen

    I follow your blog because I listened to a podcast of a talk (“Truth, Lies, and Duct Tape”) you gave at the University of Chicago in 2007 and was inspired. Thank you for having the heart and bravery to offer political commentary!

  • Thank you both for your heartening response.

  • I love your novels, Sara, but I love what you stand for even more. I am uneasy, too.

  • I, too, love your novels, Sara. I have learned a great deal about life in Chicago (and the US) through the word pictures that you paint, and have a greater understanding of some of the issues you all face in your huge American cities.

    I fail to understand the widespread opposition to health care reform in the US. We here in Canada bitch and moan about our health care system, and heaven knows it isn’t perfect, but no-one can be turned away from receiving treatment because they can’t afford to pay, which, as I understand it, can happen in the US.

    And how can someone criticize your novels for being “too political”? Is there some sliding scale for allowable political content in novels that I am unaware of?

  • We may have found you through your fiction, but many of us do come for the politics, too. We need to hear a sensible voice from the US, and you provide it.

  • Shirley Harrison

    You had the courage to speak out during the Bush/Cheney years about blacklisting. I am very worried about women’s reproductive health as a result of the House of Representative’s health care bill. Their plan makes abortion not covered by insurance, as it is now under most insurance plans. Many Senators won’t do the right thing and put it in their plan, either, unless we let them know this is UNacceptable!

  • skeller

    As far as I’m concerned, you can blog about politics and world events any time you feel moved. There are things I first encountered in the novels that I followed up on, and am glad I learned about. (Jane, for instance.) I was deeply grateful for Blacklist, as well as for Writing in an Age of Silence. (Totally unrelated but I always meant to say: I love Ghost Country.)

  • Deborah Thomson

    I came to your website as I enjoy your books, as a New Zealander I can’t comprehend not having social health care, nor can I really understand a country that would deny it’s people the most basic health care, how can you have a strong progressive nation without the nation being healthy? I like many who are not American find it hard to comprehend the level of greed nepotism favourtism and coruption that seems to polute American politics the whole lobbyist thing jsut seems to be a bunch of the biggest hogs with their snouts in the trough stopping all the other hogs getting a fair share, keep writing keep talking politics

  • Dominique ter Braak

    Something like Bachman’s action could be brought before a judge in my country (Belgium). Using the holocaust fur such purposes is illegal, because in a way it is a form of denial or if you like a belittlement. I hope the people responsible will be punished or at least reprimanded. I want to thank you for your beautiful book “Kansas burning” that made me more aware of how some conservative Americans actually think.

  • Thanks for all these thoughtful comments. Dominique ter Braak’s point is exactly on target. By appropriating shocking events and twisting their meaning, demagogues successfully belittle the original event and make debate impossible. Clarence Thomas, one of the most bitter and right-wing of the justices on the US Supreme Court, did this when he claimed that the women who were reporting on his sexual aggression in the workplace were “a lynch mob.”

  • genny from jersey

    Sara, one of the reasons I enjoy your writing so much is the passion with which you write. Even though “Hardball” is fiction, it wouldn’t have the impact it does without the realistic elements that you included. Life is a struggle and unfortunately the “good guys” don’t always win. But we must never give up the fight.

  • Thanks, Genny. I’m happy we met–I love being able to picture your face when I read your comments.

  • genny from jersey

    Sara, I’m happy we were able to make the booksigning. It was a wonderful time. We also got a chance to talk to a lot of other fans also.

  • Jodi

    It bothers me that the voices which are the loudest right now in the health care/insurance debate are also the ones who restrict comment. For instance, you cannot email Rep. Bachman, unless you are a constituent. Most other representatives are the same. Yet, they all keep saying they are listening to the voice of the American people and working for the American people, but really don’t want to hear from the American People. A sad commentary. Thank you so much for your books and your thoughtful comments on this American life.

  • Katinka

    Dear Sara,

    I have to object, I came to your blog looking for inspiration because you are a politicised fiction writer! As a wannabe fiction writer with a PhD in political science, I have for a long time come to the conclusion that EVERYTHING is political. What frightens me most about the health insurance discussion is not that some conservative politicians oppose it, but that they are able to convince even or especially those that would profit most from a more social America.

  • wesley stocker

    wow- I’m really amazed people are thinking the same as I politically and looking at chinas’ history too. Seems the population of america is too focused on each others uneducated rants of misinformation. I had to read “life and death in shanghai” while in college and couldnt stop reading after I started.
    wow- now maybe I feel there may be hope for our country- now what to do about it?


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