Warning: This article discusses many details of the book’s ‘plot’. I put plot in inverted commas because I don’t believe the book, fragmentary and non-linear in its narrative, is much concerned with plot, and therefore don’t regard these details as spoilers. Others may differ.
I had never heard of Crossings before coming across a copy in a Seoul bookshop. The name Chuang Hua was likewise wholly unfamiliar. This is her only published work. It’s heavily autobiographical, drawing on her family history and childhood memories, shifting freely between the present and various points in the past. The central character, Fourth Jane (so-called because she is the fourth of seven children), is a young Chinese-American woman, clearly based on the author. Other family members include her father, Dyadya (a former doctor who has turned successfully to business in the States); her mother, Ngmah; and a younger brother, Fifth James, who has been serving in the US army in Germany. Other significant characters are Amah, the family’s nanny; James’s unnamed wife; and Jane’s unnamed Parisian lover. Such plot as exists is difficult to summarise, so I’ll just attempt to give a brief description of its most important points.
While away from his family, Fifth James marries a white woman without seeking permission from his parents. His father is initially opposed, and the young couple duly shunned, but later, following the birth of a grandchild, he relents and begins to visit them. This causes friction between Jane’s parents. She herself is unsettled by her father’s inconsistency and disturbed by the rupture in the united front her parents had always maintained. She decides to quit her job working for her father, and move to Paris, where she embarks on affair with a French journalist and filmmaker; the affair is marked by rather more passion on her side than on his. While she is in France, her father takes ill and later dies.
Such are the bare bones of the book (though events are not related in the order in which they appear above) but much again consists of remembered scenes of childhood in China and in America (from where the family had fled the occupying Japanese), of the more recent past, of birthdays and deaths. As well as the shifts in time and space, there are also occasional shifts in point of view, although the bulk of the text is written from Jane’s perspective. Such shifts occur freely, with few, if any, demarcations to help orient the reader. The following excerpt will serve as an example:
He picked up the loose end of the towel under her body and with it brushed off the hairs. Then he raised her hips to draw away the towel which he took compactly folded into the bathroom. He returned with another towel which he had soaked in very hot water, then wrung out, and placed it folded and steaming between her thighs. He turned out the light, lifted her and placed her between the sheets.
With a clang amah pulled out the stopper from the hole in the sink. Water rushed down the pipes in choking gurgles. Amah finished washing Third Christine. Her turn next.
Amah was taught to be clean and with a vengeance she kept her charges clean. Her nails bore relentlessly through the hair, tore sickeningly against the tense scalp. She felt her face pushed lower into the hole of the basin. Her hands groped and found the sides of the basin to which she clung for support. Rivulets of soap blinded her, streamed down her face, into her ears, her nose and down her neck. Stiff and unbreathing she thought she could stand it no longer but suddenly she felt water being poured by the cupfuls on her head, the noise of the tumbler catching the water from the tap, and breathing deep with relief heard her wet hair squeak from cleanliness through amah’s fingers.
She wrenched her head free from the weight of his shoulder in order to take in deep gulps of air. Mute roars raced through caverns of her head. Clasping his body tightly, she tensed her hip muscles and in a final effort rose and met him.
Fourth Jane’s lover cuts her hair (including her pubic hair) and takes her to bed. A childhood memory is triggered by association – but is it the hair-cutting or the sex that triggers it? Or the steaming towel? It isn’t made clear; why such memories rush into our minds at any given moment is often unclear. The sexual connotations of the water going down the plughole are not hard to discern; it might also suggest to readers the sudden onrush of memory, or the inexorable disappearance of time. Jane’s intense remembered experience of having her hair washed comes over as somewhat sexual; at the same time, it’s written almost like a torture scene. I thought, too, about the earlier description Amah gives to the young Jane of the long-haired ghost of a drowned woman, a figure from Chinese folklore. There’s a struggle for air in both the act of being washed and the act of having sex with her lover – a struggle in both instances taken to the point of desperation, and ended by a sudden release and deep breaths. Alas, the effect is spoiled just a little by the mute roars racing through the caverns of her head – a line that might have been written in anticipation of the Bad Sex Award.
As the excerpt indicates, punctuation in this book is stripped down to necessities, with commas and full stops often being dispensed with. Speech marks are left out altogether. Chuang Hua’s prose employs several stylistic modes: generally short, spare dialogue, occasionally giving way to more expansive speeches; plain, somewhat exhaustive detail in the description of tasks and routines, particularly domestic (there’s lots of cooking in this work; at times it reads like a recipe book); and a lyricism that can be lush or precise and controlled. Here is an example of the prose at its most finely wrought:
She threaded the needle and continued to stitch at the point where she had left off. Days, weeks, months, years, the pains of births, absences, voyages, wars, losses, solitude, storms at sea, thirst and hunger, her Father dead, miles of silks newly dyed floating sullen and heavy in the waters of the canal, silks twisted and looped oozing dripping colors not yet fastened into the fabric from overnight soaking in the canal, silks unfurled and drying in the sun on the road by the edge of the canal.
In the space of one short paragraph, we move from Fourth Jane sewing in the present to the whole expanse of her own and her family’s history to a specific image from her childhood in China. The recent death of her father is linked to that image by the dead/dyed pun; the silks floating in the canal suggest dead bodies in water – an image that does in fact occur later on in the book as Jane recalls a scene from war-torn China. Her family’s present, her birth country’s history and her own personal memory are thus concentrated. The description of that remembered image is remarkable for the density of its sound-patterning. As well as the repetition of individual words (silks and canal), there’s the recurrence of ‘l’s, ‘s’s, ‘n’s and short ‘i’s, as well as more localised alliteration. I particularly like the ‘looped oozing dripping colors’.
Jane’s memories of China exert, naturally enough, a powerful grip on her, for it is a past that cannot be recovered, a land to which she cannot return. The question of her identity as a Chinese-American is a central theme of the book, examined most closely in a couple of scenes between her and her French lover. The latter suggests she go back to China, claiming that America is not her country, that she is as much an exile there as she is in France. But for Jane, it is too late; China for her can now only exist in memory, both cherished and painful. When the pull of nostalgia for a lost homeland becomes too strong, it leads to a divided self. As she tells her lover, ‘I can’t separate any more’. The irony is that she is able to say this only when she is in Paris, separated from both America and her close-knit Chinese family. Her lover is not convinced, accusing her of betraying her country. His is a naive and presumptuous attitude, of course; one remembers the year of publication and the French setting (though there is no direct reference to les événements), the popularity of Maoist dogma among French leftists of the time. The conversation between them is prompted by his reading of the New York Times, which he condemns as stupid and reactionary (Jane amusingly replies that ‘[in] certain circles in America it is considered almost left’). He seeks to apply a simplistic, rather uninformed political interpretation to her situation, which she rejects, being alive, as he is not, to the intertwining of the personal and the political, as well as more knowledgeable.
Poignantly, Jane weeps while watching The Searchers repeatedly (the film is unnamed, but easily recognizable from the description). One of the defining American works dealing with race, otherness and community, it portrays three contrasting modes of society: the harsh, bigoted, male-dominated individualism represented by John Wayne’s character; the closed-off, unassimilated savagery of the Indians (I write Indians, rather than Native Americans, because I am describing a politcally incorrect film, not because I am personally rejecting the more accepted term); and the new, supposedly multi-racial dispensation represented by the younger characters. Where might Fourth Jane’s sympathies lie here? As a child of two cultures, transplanted from the place of her birth into a different culture with a different language and way of living, Debbie, the Natalie Wood character (who as a child is abducted and raised by Comanches), would seem to provide a probable figure of identification. That would equate her parents’ homestead and the community of which her parents were members with the lost China of Jane’s childhood. Both Jane and Debbie were forced from their homes by violence: in the former case, the Japanese invasion of her country; in the latter, the slaughter of her family and her own abduction. With this equivalency, ‘civilized’ white America (mostly white) stands in for China, while the ‘barbarian’ Comanche stand in for white America. Significantly, Jane’s brother James marries a white woman who is referred to as a barbarian. On the other hand, to many white Americans, Jane and her family will always be barbarians by virtue of their otherness, just as the Comanche will always be heathen savages to Ethan Edwards, the bitter, racist war veteran who is the film’s hero or anti-hero. There may even be something of Ethan Edwards in Dyadya, Fourth Jane’s father, both being apparently iron-willed authoritarians who reject racial otherness – the former by seeking to kill Debbie, his niece, because he believes her to be tainted by years of living as a Comanche; the latter by shunning his son because he has married a white woman without consulting him. Both seek to exert what they see as their rights of ownership over their young relations: Edwards by claiming the right to kill his niece, Dyadya by claiming the right to veto his son’s choice of spouse. Identifying Dyadya with Edwards might then put Fifth James, rather than Fourth Jane, in the Debbie role, for at the point that she watches the movie, she is still living in America and hasn’t yet met the Frenchman with whom she will conduct an affair. Both Edwards and Dyadya soften their positions before the end: Edwards catches up to the fleeing Debbie, sweeps her in her arms and says “Let’s go home”, while Dyadya visits the young couple against the wishes of his own wife. The ambivalence of the Debbie/Jane/James identification reflects the ambivalence of Jane’s attitude to her brother’s marriage; she begins as the loyal daughter who supports her parents’ refusal to recognize the couple, breaks with her father when he changes her mind, yet ends up having her own relationship with a ‘barbarian’. When Edwards first meets the teenaged Debbie after many years of searching, she states that she does not wish to go back to white society because she has become ‘one of them’ (i.e. Comanche). As a response to the fear of assimilation, to losing her sense of ethnic identity and thus her connection to the homeland from which she has been exiled, Jane plays the role of dutiful Chinese daughter, working for her father’s company and largely submitting to his will (she later reflects that it is barbarians who defy their fathers). She has left the family home by this point, but even that first step to autonomy is difficult. What is the price of such a sense of duty? Her father may have her best interests at heart, but is his judgement always sound? What is Ethan Edwards’ attitude to his niece: that she must be killed or rescued? What is Dyadya’s attitude to his son: that he must be shunned or brought back into the fold? The question Jane faces is whether she can attain autonomy while remaining so closely tied to family, ethnic community and memories of a lost homeland. Her identity as a Chinese person (as she conceives of it) is at odds with her identity as an inidvidual. Later, in Paris, she admits that to some extent, like Debbie, she has become ‘one of them’ – only, the American part of herself is one equal half of the whole rather than the whole itself. This apparently healthy realization comes when she is away from America and away from her family. Edwards says to Debbie once he catches up to her by a stream (or says in the book’s account of the film) ‘Cross. You don’t belong here. You belong with us’. Jane does cross, but she crosses away from both of her homes, to a third, neutral space. She rejects both ‘here’ and ‘us’ in order to arrive at (or begin to arrive at) an equal acceptance of ‘here’ and ‘us’ (which have become, from her French vantage point, ‘there’ and ‘them’). When she returns to both, it is to be at her father’s side as he lies dying, which complicates and perhaps undoes the answers to which she had been working while away.
I’ll end with what I think is the loveliest bit of writing in the book, which beautifully expresses its irresolution and avoidance of fixity:
There are two gates in the north wall, three in the south, two in the east and two in the west. Winds blow from all sides. In the center is stillness. Winds blow from all sides. The gates are open. The center shifts.