Posted by: viaprograms | April 19, 2010

Interview with VIA alumnus about her novel A Thousand Miles of Dreams

Sasha Welland

The following are excerpts of a 2007 interview with author and VIA alumnus Sasha Su-Ling Welland by Danni Redding Lapuz, first published in VIA’s Spring 2007 VIAlogue

Danni: You recently completed, “A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters.” Can you tell us a little about the book and your personal connection to it?

Sasha: A Thousand Miles of Dreams is a dual biography of two Chinese sisters who took very different paths in their quest to be independent women. Ling Shuhao arrived in Cleveland in 1925 to study medicine in the middle of a U.S. crackdown on Chinese immigrant communities, and her effort to assimilate began. She became an American named Amy, while her sister Ling Shuhua burst onto the Beijing literary scene as a writer of short fiction. Shuhua’s tumultuous affair with Virginia Woolf’s nephew during his years in China eventually drew her into the orbit of the Bloomsbury group. The sisters were Chinese “modern girls” who sought to forge their own way during a period of social revolution that unsettled relations between men and women, and among nations. Daughters of an imperial scholar-official and a concubine, they followed professional trajectories unimaginable to their parents’ generation. I stumbled across their remarkable stories as an undergraduate at Stanford University in 1989, when I started recording my grandmother’s oral history for my senior thesis. During the process, I discovered the secret she had hidden from family in the U.S.—her sister’s fame as a Chinese woman writer—as well as discrepancies in the sisters’ versions of the past. That mystery hooked me into a story that took almost two decades to research and write.

Danni: How did you first become interested in documenting the lives of these remarkable women?

Sasha: My grandparents lived in Indianapolis for most of their lives in the United States, but after they retired, they moved to San Francisco. Several years later, after growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I followed them to the Bay Area to attend Stanford. When my grandfather died in the fall of my sophomore year, I felt a lot of remorse about not having known him better, and I began to visit my grandmother more often. I was feeling lost and unsure about what I wanted to major in. Eventually, I decided to take some time off from school. I worked in a Palo Alto restaurant and regularly took CalTrain to the city to see my grandmother. She began to tell me stories about her childhood and youth in China, and I was fascinated by this whole other realm of experience—her life before coming to the U.S.—about which I knew so little. I was especially drawn to her stories of struggling as a young woman to get an education and have a say in society. She came from a generation of women who, swept up by a larger social revolution, emerged as real fighters. This personal history really “undid” for me the stereotypes of weak, passive Asian women that I had grown up surrounded by in the U.S. I started taping and transcribing her stories. Having the past come alive through oral history gave me a new focus for my studies. I went back to school and pursued an individually designed major that allowed me to explore the question of how certain stories—especially those of women and minorities—get pushed to the margins of conventional history. Shortly after, I had the opportunity to study abroad at the Stanford Program in Oxford. This experience radically changed the family history I’d been recording. My grandmother’s sister had immigrated to England in the late 1940s. By the time I arrived, she had passed away, but I was able to meet her daughter in Scotland for the first time. She gave me a book called Ancient Melodies, an English-language memoir that her mother had published in England. This book came as a surprise in two ways. My grandmother had always told me that her sister was a painter. Her sister did paint, but she was much more significantly a writer of short fiction. In fact, Ling Shuhua was a very well known writer during her time, one of the first women to begin publishing modernist fictionin the 1920s. Peers often called her the “Chinese Katherine Mansfield.” My grandmother had hidden this fact from family in the U.S., I think, because she didn’t like what her sister wrote. Ling Shuhua wrote semi-autobiographical stories about what one critic has called the “everyday feudalism” of women in traditional households. Here was the second surprise. The family tree that my grandmother had narrated to me resembled an American nuclear family with one father and one mother. Her sister’s memoir opens with a family tree that includes one father and six mothers. The gap between the two sisters’ versions of the past initially frustrated me but eventually led me to want to understand more about why they were so different.

Danni: How did your VIA experience play a role in the development of this story?

Sasha: My VIA experience played a vital role in my growing understanding of Chinese language, culture, and history, which was extremely important in preparing to write this story. My students and fellow teachers provided many different perspectives on Chinese society and disabused me of the American notion that following one’s roots is a nostalgic or romantic enterprise. For example, one of my English major students wrote, at my suggestion, her senior thesis on Maxine Hong-Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, a book thathad informed my understanding of the Chinese American experience. One of her main reactions, however, was dismay at how the book depicted Chinese women. She asked, “Is this what Americans think Chinese women are like?” From 1992-1994, I taught English at the North China University of Technology (Beifang Gongda), in the Shijingshan district of Beijing. Just being in that location was a daily connection to the story I was following. Ling Shuhua returned from England to China at the end of her life. She was very sick with cancer and basically went back to die in her homeland. She lived the last weeks of her life in 1990 in the Shijingshan Hospital, which is where I parked my bicycle every time I got on the subway to venture into the heart of Beijing. I did this almost every weekend when I went to see my friend Li Ningning, who was helping me read Ling Shuhua’s collected short stories in Chinese. On the way home, gazing at the Western Hills in the distance, I would pedal my bicycle down the dusty road back to Beifang Gongda. My grandmother told me that her mother had been buried somewhere in those hills during the Sino-Japanese War. For the first time in my life, I felt viscerally close to a family history about which I had previously known very little.

For more of this interview and other articles about VIA alumni, visit our newsletter archives on VIA’s website (http://www.viaprograms.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48&Itemid=143)

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