Saturday, April 24, 2010

"A Thread of Sky"

Deanna Fei was born in Flushing, New York, and has lived in Beijing and Shanghai, China. A graduate of Amherst College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has received a Fulbright Grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a Chinese Cultural Scholarship, among other awards. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches in public schools.

She applied the Page 69 Test to A Thread of Sky, her debut novel, and reported the following:
I’d never heard of the “Page 69 Test” until I encountered this blog, but it’s my belief that any page of any novel should express, in some way, the essence of the whole.

In A Thread of Sky, a family of six fiercely independent women reunite to tour mainland China, seeking to reconnect with their ancestral home and with one another. In this chapter, the reader meets Kay, a 25-year-old activist who moved to Beijing in the wake of her father’s sudden death. When her mother calls to announce the tour, Kay is thrown. To her, a two-week package tour seems an utterly inauthentic way to explore China, nearly a mockery of how she has struggled all year to “trace her heritage in a place where history was being razed, paved over, replaced with steel, glass, and neon.”

On page 69, Kay has come with a classmate to explore Tiantan Park soon after dawn, and she is finally experiencing how one must-see still lives up to its name: Temple of Heaven. They have just marveled at the Round Altar, listened to their whispers traveling along Echo Wall, and watched elderly locals performing mysterious morning exercises in the woods.
And then they ambled through a gate into a vast courtyard and nearly collided with two wizened men absorbed in a kind of dance, flowing and meticulous. One was painting classical characters from right to left, while the other painted the mirror image of each character underneath, both pausing every few steps to dip coarse brushes into plastic pails. The two lines of calligraphy were divided by a long chink in the pavement, a horizon separating each object from its reflection.
A tourist might be content to leave with a photo of this scene, one imbued with an exotic, mystical aura yet as familiar and convenient as a postcard. But Kay is searching for something more profound and more elusive.
She began copying the first line into her notebook. The characters were immensely complicated, composed of traditional radicals whose meanings should have been obvious from their images—and surely were, to the other old-timers idly looking on, but not to her. At last she moved to the next line, and saw it was fading fast. She looked back to the first. It was gone.

The men were painting on the pavement with water. Dawn had given way to another day. After another minute, the men dumped out their pails and trundled off.
Like any tourist, Kay longs for those moments of wonder, of being transported, of getting outside of herself. At the same time, she has come to China to find herself, to reclaim her ancestral ties, which seem to be fading faster than she can discover them.

She seeks to divine a deeper meaning from those words on the ground, even as she understands that there is nothing mysterious about them to the locals around her. She wants to preserve them, even as she knows that the very notion of cultural preservation is not one that concerns many Chinese citizens; after all, in a country of one-billion-plus, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of losing their heritage.

Still, Kay’s longing remains. Ultimately, this moment becomes, to quote the last lines of the chapter, “another element of this country that took hold of her, even as it eluded her grasp.”
Read an excerpt from A Thread of Sky, and learn more about the book and author at Deanna Fei's website and blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue