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Red Azalea – Review

by: Min, Anchee

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Copyright: 1994

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: (Name Withheld by Request) 10/5/1994

Summary: Highly Recommended. Coming of age in 1970s China.

Reprinted from Crushies Book Review, October 1994 Volume I, Issue No. 5.

Red Azalea was written in a down-to-earth style, yet it flows in a fashion that is exceptionally poetic and moving at the same time. It is a beautiful story well written and worth reading. You may find yourself reading a fine piece of literature — a woman’s secret diary. Red Azalea is about the human spirit . . . the spirits of ordinary people struggling through life with dignity, keeping their heads up when faced with hardships, fighting to believe that there is light at the end of the dark tunnel.

Anchee begins the story by taking us to her home-land, China, where she was born and grew up under the influence of China’s Communist Party. As a young girl, she took on the responsibilities of taking care of not only herself, but also her two younger sisters and a brother while her parents worked long hours in a State owned factory. It may not seem fair, but it was a very common family situation in China.

There were many lives affected by the communist power….power that ruled people’s lives turned family members and friends against each other. In Red Azalea, the incident with Autumn Leaf was one living example. Autumn Leaf was a knowledgeable, dedicated, well respected teacher. Her students loved her and her teachings. Even though she was born and received her education in America, she wanted to share her knowledge with her students in China. To Anchee, Autumn Leaf was the most devoted teacher there was. She came to teach even when she was sick. But the Communist Party thought differently.

For unknown reasons, the Party decided that Autumn Leaf was a spy sent by her father in America to brain wash the young generation. She was accused as an enemy of the Party and a threat to the society. Anchee was selected and forced to testify to the teacher’s wrong doings. Where is human justice when we need it?

Time is tough but life goes on. At age seventeen, Anchee was assigned to a poorly developed village because it was required that every family must send a member to serve the country–meaning hard labor, poor living conditions and cheap pay. Strangely enough, the Party was able to convince people that it was an honorable thing to do.

No matter how hard Anchee slaved herself in farming, she could not escape the fact that she was growing up. As a young woman she experienced her loneliness, her need for passion, her longing for someone special and dear to hen She found Yah her commander. They shared their dreams, their sorrows and happiness in a living nightmare. Life in the farm was just unbearably difficult. The work was hard and endless. It was either building bridges, digging tunnels or working in the rice fields with leeches. Worst of all, there was never enough food to go around. How long can they live like this? Is there any way out of this nightmare…..and how?

In an unexpected opportunity, Anchee was chosen and sent to a film-making studio to be trained as an actress. Here she had to deal with competition from classmates, rejection from those who looked for fame and glory instead of friendship. She observed, she learned, she worked hard……she had to find a way to succeed. Would she become an opera star in Red Azalea? Where is fate taking her this time? Read for yourself. You will enjoy the distinctive writing as well as the story.

What makes Red Azalea so unique in style and so beautiful in language? One of many reasons, Red Azalea was written similar to the Chinese writing style. The Chinese language has an extremely profound way of describing things, especially when it comes to nature, emotions, spirits, feelings and thoughts. The language expression is deep enough to touch hearts and souls. It often illustrates actions, thoughts and meanings vividly, poetically beautiful. For those of you who are familiar with Chinese history, cultures, traditions or dialects in some ways, reading Red Azalea is like seeing an old friend in a foreign country. The experience is not only wonderful, but surprising at the same time.

In reading Red Azalea, I could not help to think that people living in free societies are very fortunate. So much so that we tend to take our freedom of life for granted sometimes. It is a basic right of a person to live as an individual, not a piece of property owned by the government. Because of that right, everyone has the same opportunity to live, learn and grow to one’s best ability and become useful to our society.

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When Heaven & Earth Changed Places – Review

by: Hayslip, Le Ly with Jay Wurts

Publisher: PLUME Books

Copyright: 1989

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 10/5/1994

Summary: Highly Recommended. Vietnamese girl growing to adulthood in war torn Vietnam. Turned into a movie by Oliver Stone in 1993.

Reprinted from Crushies Book Review, October 1994 Volume I, Issue No. 5:

In reading this book, I came upon a sentence on some page or other where my mind just suddenly flipped on a sequence of thought un-related to the subject matter at hand. This often happens during reading. It does not often happen when viewing a movie. There is no time. In reading a book, especially a good book, there is time to explore the unexplored, even if not by conscious choice. For some, especially Vietnam veterans and those who were actively involved in protesting the Vietnam war, this book will cause a few divergent thoughts. The read is definitely worth the distractions.

Hayslip’s WHEN HEAVEN AND EARTH CHANGED PLACES is the only work encountered thus far which gives more than it takes from telling of events related to the Vietnam War. The giving is in the rich tapestry it weaves of an agrarian culture being changed into something else–a communist utopia, a capitalist market place, or simply a culture in flux–a culture shaken from its roots and tossed upon the seas of international geopolitics never to find its identity again. It is amazing to experience this transition on the pages of HEAVEN AND EARTH because there is no ideology here, no polemic exercises on right and wrong. It is just the story of a young Vietnamese girl growing into adulthood.

Le Ly starts life as a farm girl, is coerced into being the eyes and ears of the Vietcong, becomes a victim of torture and rape, becomes a house servant and mother, a black marketer, a hospital orderly and finally, a wife on her way to America. It is the story of Le Ly’s transition. But as you experience the events of her life, as you follow the divergent paths of her brothers and sisters, the struggle of her mother and father to survive the disintegration of their family, you know more is in transition than just these people. You know that the cultural foundation of their perspective upon the world is also in transition. Hayslip captures and transforms this majestic flux in a style and simplicity that forces you to see beyond the Vietnam War and truly see the individuals whom the war effects.

The over-riding message coming through Le Ly’s story is stated on page 215 when she writes, “. . .a determination to live, no matter what, was more powerful than a willingness to die.” The rationale here is very simple: if we are willing to live rather than die for the things we believe in, we learn to separate the little things of life from the really important things–like love and understanding. With a willingness to live, we learn to nurture the patience to change. With a willingness to live, we can put aside our inclination to turn to war and violence as a solution for our fear of change. For Le Ly, time bore the fruit of that learning. She returned to Vietnam in 1986 to have a reunion with her family.

You get the sense from reading Heaven and Earth that the culture that was Vietnamese prior to the war did not die as a result of the war nor was that culture exported and transplanted along with the refugees who escaped the turmoil in the war’s aftermath. But change happened; a transformation from what was to what could be. The bottom line is that

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is an inspirational book as well as a learning book.

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