When the teenaged Pauline Chen arrived in Harvard Yard, her intention was to become a writer. The American-born daughter of Taiwanese parents, she grew up amidst Long Island’s endless strip malls and was determined – she wrote in July 2012 at Tribute Books – to shed her “provincial” upbringing. By the time Chen graduated in 1986, she had reinvented herself as an “international sophisticate” whose literary preferences had “distinctly European sensibilities: cigarettes and grappa at Parisian cafés; country dances and muslin frocks in a Derbyshire ballroom.” Her undergraduate degree was earned in Classics, and belied a particular interest in Latin poetry.
During her four years in Cambridge, she shed her “frizzy perm and Long Guyland accent,” but gone, too, by the time she graduated, were her authorly ambitions: “… I stopped feeling that I had anything to say. My writing dried up; I did not understand that the experiences which made me nervous and uncomfortable, which I was quick to bury, also made me creative.”
Although she didn’t create, she also didn’t stray too far from the page. After Harvard, she went to Yale Law School and got her JD. She went south to Princeton where she finished a PhD in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on reading pre-modern Chinese poetry from the fourth to ninth century in original classical Chinese. She had stopovers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where she honed the rudimentary Mandarin of her childhood into fluency, before settling in “most alien of all” – Ohio – to become a professor of Chinese language and literature, squarely on the tenure track. She got married. She had a child.
And then she got cancer.
Diagnosed with a rare, highly aggressive ovarian cancer in 2001 just weeks after giving birth to her son, Chen returned to some of the comforts of her childhood when her mother moved from New York to Ohio, to take over Chen’s family’s care. Chen’s mother… mothered: she cooked, cleaned, and cooed over her newborn grandson. When the chemo erased Chen’s appetite, her mother’s rice was sometimes her only nourishment. When her baby cried, only his grandmother could comfort him. When Chen required more advanced treatment in another state, Chen’s mother took full charge, following her daughter with her grandson, setting up a new apartment, and smoothly continuing her patient care.
Chen’s mother’s “generosity and talents … enabled [her] to survive,” Chen wrote at Goodreads in September 2012. Before her cancer, Chen’s focus was honed on her demanding academic career and the financial independence it offered, which she thought set her far apart from her traditional mother who had arrived in the U.S. to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology but chose to stay home after her eldest was born with a congenital defect (from which she eventually recovered). Not until her youngest of three children entered school did she get her pharmacist’s license, with which she worked in hospitals for the next 30 years. Growing up, Chen internalized the contempt with which her engineering professor father treated her mother: “I had always failed to give her credit for her talents, for the very reason that she had chosen to devote them to the service of those she loved, rather than to the professional realm.” Only as an adult – and a cancer patient relying on her mother’s unconditional support – did she recognize the “idyllic period of our childhood”: “For years I deplored my childhood circumstances as narrow. In fact my parents had lived on two continents and spoke three languages. All along the narrowness had been in my own vision—and I had had to travel to the ends of the earth in order to see the place that I had come from.” [… click here for more]
Tidbit: Click here for my review of The Red Chamber, originally published in Library Journal. Click here for my review of Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas in BookDragon. And click here for a follow-up Q&A with Chen.