Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

twenty_fragments_of_a_ravenous_youthThis novel was originally written in Chinese when the author was in her twenties, but rewritten before translation into English when she realized she “didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it.”

It tells the story of Fenfang Wang, a young girl from the country who moves to Beijing when she decides that she must take care of her own life.

She meets male friends and lovers in the big city, but never connects with any other women.

Fenfang works in a tin-can manufacturing plant before making connections in the film industry, where she works as an extra in non-speaking parts, and later sells a screenplay to an Outsider Director.

Fenfang meets Xiaolin on a movie set: he was the Assistant to the Producer and shares his lunch with her.  Later, he buys her a bathing suit even though she doesn’t swim.

She lives for three years with Xiaolin, his parents, his grandmother, his two sisters, two brown cats and a white dog in a tiny one-room flat.

Later, Fenfang meets Ben from Boston, who brings her a lily when she moves into her new apartment, having left Xiaolin.

Xiaolin doesn’t take the breakup well, and harasses Fenfang when he can find her; she moves many times, partly to escape Xiaolin’s persistence.

Beijing is constantly changing, with whole neighbourhoods being torn down almost overnight, and new developments taking their place.

Fenfang feels disconnected from her own nation’s history, especially when a foreigner like Ben sometimes knows more about it than she does.

Cheap consumer electronics are not only made by China for export–Chinese people themselves own televisions, DVD players, laptop computers, and cellphones.

The best place in Beijing to escape the heat and dust storms of summer is McDonald’s, which offers air-conditioning as well as red bean ice cream.

Fenfang eats more than anyone she knows–so much that her friends are reluctant to invite her to restaurants.

China has its own wine, with names like Great Wall Red, Thousand Happiness Dry Red, and Dragon White.

When Fenfang hears the quote “Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan–till the first draft is finished” she becomes obsessed with Tennessee Williams.

Fenfang likes to invoke the name of the The Heavenly Bastard in the Sky.

The best neighbourhood in Beijing is Haidian, partly because you can find banned books and pirated DVDs of Western movies there, and since everything is illegal, even the police don’t bother to do anything legal.

Years after leaving her village, Fenfang visits, and her mother feeds her longevity noodles.

In Beijing slang, “Second Breast” means “mistress”.

The last thing Fenfang’s best friend says to her before she leaves Beijing is “Fenfang, you must take care of your life.”

Desert Island Picks

Surviving ParadiseI’ll start by saying that I’ve never been on the ocean, nor over it–I’ve waded into it, but I don’t think that really counts.  On top of that, I’m actually afraid of the idea of the ocean; I’m not a great swimmer, and the idea of hundreds of metres of water between me and the bottom scares the daylights out of me.  So it’s maybe surprising that I really enjoy books about remote islands–the remoter the better.  I have a dream of visiting Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, and read a great book this year (Curious Little World by Rex Bartlett) about a Canadian couple who went my dream one better and actually moved to Saint Helena from Winnipeg.

Peter Rudiak-Gould, author of Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, had an entirely different motive when he moved to Ujae in the Marshall Islands, situated halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.  He went to teach English for a year on this remote island in a remote archipelago which is a protectorate of the United States.  As the only foreigner on an island whose nearest neighbour is 30 miles away, Rudiak-Gould faced special challenges.

The author was only twenty-one when he landed on Ujae for the first time, committed to spending a year there teaching English to students in one of the worst schools in one of the worst educational systems in the entire Pacific.  He not only faced the challenges of teaching children who were largely unmotivated, but parents who didn’t seem to care that much about education either.  Outside of school, he faced a culture very different from his own, seeming to treat its children with a disregard that was shocking to him.  It was far removed from the tropical paradise he had imagined when he signed up to teach there, and the language barrier, food, lodgings, and climate all challenge him greatly.

Rudiak-Gould writes well–passionately and intellectually–about his experiences and frustrations, and comes to understand his new home to a degree which seemed impossible at the start, although ultimately he realizes the island and its culture are too different from his own for him to become truly at-home there.  Like the best travel literature, Surviving Paradise teaches us as much about our own culture as about the foreign culture within which the book immerses us.