Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Three Souls"

Janie Chang is a Canadian novelist who draws upon family history for her writing. She grew up listening to stories about ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts, and immortals and about family life in a small Chinese town in the years before the Second World War. Born in Taiwan, Chang has lived in the Philippines, Iran, Thailand, and New Zealand. She now lives in beautiful Vancouver, Canada with her husband and Mischa, a rescue cat who thinks the staff could be doing a better job.

Chang applied the Page 69 Test to Three Souls, her first novel, and reported the following:
Three Souls is a historical novel set in 1930s civil war China, narrated by the ghost of a young woman named Song Leiyin. She is accompanied by her three souls – yin, yang, and hun, and together they review her life to learn why she is still trapped on this earth and what she must do to atone for her sins. As her memories unfold, Leiyin sees the idealistic girl she was, the act of rebellion that changed her life, the betrayals she experienced, and her own betrayal of the man she loved.

The story is inspired by the story of my paternal grandmother, who was highly intelligent and well-educated for a woman of that era. She wanted to train as a teacher, but her father refused her a career. Her attempt to run away from home failed and the punishment for this rebellion sealed her fate.

On page 69 is a conversation between the ghost and her souls. Leiyin has tried various ways to get the attention of Hanchin, a charismatic (but Communist) poet. They’ve just watched a memory where she finds that Hanchin has answered her letter to the left-wing magazine where he works.
“Our first question is from a young reader named Song who has concerns about proposals for simplifying our written language. Staff writer Yen Hanchin replies...”

It was a secret correspondence, carried out in plain sight. What else could it mean except that he cared for me? He understood my situation and had shown the utmost delicacy by acknowledging my letter through his magazine.
* * *
“In our family,” I tell my souls, “there is a tale of a many-times-great-grandfather who fell in love with his bride before he had even seen her.

“As required by tradition, he never met the bride chosen for him until their wedding day. But they exchanged letters, for that was encouraged. They wrote to each other, composing verses so exquisite that when they finally met, they were already deeply in love.”

“Correspondence is a time-honoured and entirely proper way for young people to get to know each other”, my yang soul declares. “It allows a contemplation of each other’s qualities far more meaningful than the distractions of dancing and films”.

“How wonderful”, my yin soul says. “To be in love with your husband before the wedding. And through poetry”. There is a sweet, musky scent in the winter air, amber and roses, and her face is rapt. “How happy they must have been”.

I shake my head. “Only for a while. The bride died in childbirth and her husband published their poems in a book dedicated to her memory. Father had a copy. I read them, but I was too young to truly understand”.

“But you were enthralled by the notion of falling in love through letters”, my hun soul suggests.
The scene illustrates how Leiyin’s youthful optimism and near-arrogant confidence regards every incident as evidence that life will follow her plans. It also highlights the constraints of traditional courtship, when bride and groom in arranged marriages never met before the wedding.

Leiyin, who is pursuing Hanchin in the modern fashion, still falls back on convention however, when she compares his reply via newspaper column to a correspondence between lovers. Social and personal behaviours in China were shifting, and Leyin’s emotions were a muddle of modern ideals tugging against her traditional upbringing.
Learn more about the book and author at Janie Chang's website.

--Marshal Zeringue