People, even complete strangers, feel compelled to tell Xinran their personal stories, from the simple happiness of sweet everyday lives to the most horrific memories of shocking abuse. Something in her soothing voice, the wordless encouragement to keep talking, exudes a sense of undeniable comfort of being heard, of being truly understood. Her very essence gently says, “Tell me more; I am here to listen.”
Xinran has built a remarkable career by listening carefully, and always with the greatest empathy. She had an audience of faithful millions as a journalist in her native China when she hosted a nightly radio called Words on the Night Breeze. The show debuted in 1989 on Radio Nanjing and ran for seven years. As the first show in China to give voice to the personal issues of women, Xinran received hundreds of calls and letters every day; women from all walks of life poured out their stories of incest, rape, kidnapping, brutality, suffering, torture, and neglect. Xinran often wept.
Eight years later, in 1997, she moved from China to London, and took those stories with her. She felt she had been entrusted with these women’s lives, so much so that she risked her own when she was mugged on her way home from her London University teaching job. She struggled desperately with her attacker, refusing to give up her bag, which contained her only copy of a manuscript that would become her debut title, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices. She refused to let these women sink into obscurity without a fight to the death.
When I first interviewed Xinran almost a decade ago, she was on her U.S. tour for Women. By the time she hit American shores in 2002, Women was already a major international bestseller, published in 50 countries and 27 languages. As with just about everyone lucky enough to meet her, I felt an instant connection, buoyed by the serendipity of a shared geographical proximity. At the time, Xinran lived around the corner, literally a stone’s throw, from what had been my last London address years earlier; she could see the same familiar stretch of the Thames, she walked the same streets, took the same underpass to the High Street, she ate and drank in the same neighborhood restaurants. So warm and intimate was our first conversation that I felt we were practically related by the time we finished our long conversation.
How blessed I’ve been to share small portions of Xinran’s life since. In between a staggering world travel schedule of countless talks, presentations, projects, and conferences, Xinran has graciously allowed me more interviews; together, we’ve grabbed hurried cups of hotel caffeine and enjoyed a few lingering meals (ever nurturing, Xinran picks out the best tasty morsels to place on her companion’s plate!), and of course, I’ve never missed any of her books.
Over the last nine years, strangers, colleagues, and friends alike have continued to entrust some of their most heartfelt experiences into her literary care. With her signature honesty and deep respect – not to mention her warm patience – Xinran has ushered those stories into bestselling, illuminating titles. She followed Women with Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet about a young Chinese doctor’s three-decade search for her missing husband, published Stateside in 2005.
In 2006, Xinran’s regular cultural column for The Guardian, one London’s leading newspapers, was compiled and published as What the Chinese Don’t Eat. Her first (and thus far only) fiction title, Miss Chopsticks, about three village girls trying to navigate their labyrinthine new lives in the big city, hit British and European shelves in 2008. Back on both sides of the Pond in 2009, China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation was an ambitious, rich tome filled with unforgettable stories from the survivors of China’s tumultuous past century. “This book is a testament to the dignity of modern Chinese lives,” Xinran’s introduction begins.
Each of Xinran’s titles have been tenacious extensions of her life’s work: to acknowledge and preserve the disappearing stories of ordinary, everyday people who have managed to survive extraordinary experiences. What was missing was Xinran’s own … until now… and still just a glimpse, but what a heartbreaking, compelling, unforgettable moment of her life she shares in her latest title, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love, finally available in the U.S. this month.
Her single children’s book published in 2007, Motherbridge of Love, hinted at what was coming. That poem of love was originally submitted anonymously by an adoptive mother to Xinran’s charity, Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a London-based group Xinran founded in 2004 that reaches out to adopted Chinese children around the world. The book celebrates the adopted child who is deeply rooted in love, who bridges two mothers, two cultures, two lives.
The wondrous Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is by far her most personal. That I read Message in full on Mother’s Day last year was truly a gift. Contained in these 200+ pages are heartbreaking stories of Chinese mothers longing for the daughters they lost, either forced by cultural expectations to ‘do’ away with newborns, or to give up for another mother to nurture, hold, and love. Regardless of that loss, the ultimate message is clear: a mother/child bond remains forever unbreakable. [ … click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Xinran,” Bookslut.com, February 2011