Monday, 18 March 2013

Hilary Spurling - Burying the Bones

Linzhu Deng (Felicity) writes:
Hilary Spurling
Before the lecture, I didn’t know Pearl Buck's work very well. I knew her name but I’ve never read her book, to be honest, because what I’ve read during my school years are those famous books written by Chinese writers like Mao Dun and Ba Jin. Today, I’ve heard a lecture about her life and books and I’ve got really interested in reading them, but one thing that I find very interesting is that she was the public enemy in China at that time and at the same time, not very welcome in the US because she stood up for China. The words “public enemy” caught my mind, and after the lecture I did a little bit of research about her and found that some of our well-known Chinese writers at her time accused her of being unrealistic in writing about Chinese society and of her limitation of vision which was from the perspective of a missionary’s daughter. Controversial as it is, it’s impossible for me to judge anything unless I read her books on my own. However, this lecture has indeed given me some views about China from a brand new perspective.

Jing Zhang (Maggie) writes:
After the talk, one word emerged in my mind: “bridge”. Pearl Buck built a “bridge” between the western world and China. But now my perspective has been directed to another way that it was indeed a difficult task to build this bridge, because she spoke Chinese with yellow hair and blue eyes in China, and she found herself failing to fit into American society when she had to go back. Nobody but Pearl herself knew how much misunderstanding, stress and other hardship she had suffered. Fortunately, she was accepted by both sides: she became a Nobel Prize winner as well as a great friend of the Chinese people

Li Hu (Lily) writes:
The speech given by Hilary Spurling is quite fascinating and inspirational, which is not only about Pearl Buck and her lifetime, but also a sketch of China's 20th history. At first, she talked about
her interest in China, which originated from a book read by her mother, The Chinese Children Next Door. Hilary thought Pearl Buck's books, especially The Good Earth, open a door for westerners to learn about China, which was not possible back in several decades. Nowadays, even most Chinese people have no idea what looked like in China in 1920s, because most people that time are illiterates so that they could not put down their daily life and their feelings. But Pearl Buck did the job, and to some extent, she offers a differing perspective as an American.

Besides, there are two things which drew my attention. One is the novel (The Good Earth) itself, which is somehow not qualified for some critics, as the language itself is quite magazinelike. But
what makes it extraordinary is its unique setting, which build a connection between the west and the orient. It also help people think the misunderstanding between peoples and possibly try to find a way to warm up relations. The other thing is that apart from the fact that the Pulizer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature Pear Buck had won, the thing makes her so extraordinary lies in the fact that she did make huge contribution to understanding between the two worlds and few people have managed to do it. The realistic condition Chinese farmers in 1920s had endured arouses empathy among different groups, especially those who have similar life experience.

Sally Bavage writes: 

A chilly evening but a very warm welcome for a slightly jet-lagged Hilary Spurling, just back from Texas, as she braved the stand-up journey from London (no seats, no manners) and the flakes of snow to come to Headingley LitFest and give a rapt audience an insight into an extraordinary woman.

Her book, entitled Burying the Bones, outlines the life of Pearl Buck over the earlier part of her life growing up in China (and speaking Chinese, the ordinary language of farming folk, before she spoke English).  The title refers to the Chinese habit of burying the traumas of their life - 'inscrutable' is often used - as well as young Pearl's exploits as she played outside her missionary parents' home in the surrounding fields and interred, with dignity, the bones (and other gruesome body parts) left after feral dogs had devoured the mostly-female babies left to die or rot outside the village.  Her childhood and early years of marriage to John Lossing Buck (another extraordinary person committed to China and its people) were spent in a range of places, all providing endless degrees of hardship along with fascination for the society  and its culture.

Pearl S Buck
However, Hilary first outlined what had brought her to writing this biographical tour-de-force, winner of the James Tait Black prize, many five-star reviews and serialisation recently on Radio 4's 'book of the week'.  As a pre-school child she had adored a simple book The Chinese Children Next Door, where Pearl had used the many stories she had heard told to her missionary mother when a small child herself to craft a thinly-disguised fiction.  This picture book showed - to a child brought up in the wartime grey dullness of Stockport - an astonishing life full of colour, games, and exoticism.  Hilary's lifelong fascination for China began at three years old and has lasted for seven decades.

Hilary also gave the audience a brief contextual account, gleaned from her many research travels in the China of today, of the world that Pearl had inhabited and just how it has changed.  Pearl was always a passionate advocate of China, knowing the rural lifestyle from within, and foresaw it becoming a 'superpower' as early as 1925.  A pity, then, that she was regarded with some suspicion in the America to which she had to return in 1934 and which ignored her observations.   She was to become a Public Enemy in China, after the Cultural Revolution, where it was considered her frankness in writing about sexual mores and grinding, brutal poverty was unacceptable.  She was also outside the norm in an America that first rewarded her with a Pulitzer prize for her most famous novel The Good Earth, awarded her the Nobel prize for Literature and then put her under FBI surveillance for her advocacy of China.  Good, then, that in modern China there are now 'shrines' marking the places where she once lived.  There is still some ambivalence towards her in official circles but it is clear that her record of life during the early part of the 20th century is, quite simply, a unique record that could only have been written by the sharply-perceptive bilingual author who lived in two worlds.

In the end, Hilary felt, Pearl had cared more about her campaigning - for many causes unpopular at the time, including women, blacks, minorities, children - than fine writing.  Although she could have been a first-class writer she used her writing to explore the real lives of ordinary people - and became rich in fandom and finances in the process.  “I am an American by birth and by ancestry … but my earliest knowledge of story, of how to tell and write stories, came to me in China.” 

Pearl's writing style, immediate and vivid, was exactly mirrored by Hilary's prose in her biography and in her presentation; pacy, colourful, full of anecdote and brio, expertly built on the record of evidence that Pearl's many books and articles left us. The audience were treated to a real insight (I was going to say 'pearls of wisdom' but thought better of it) into the commitment a writer needs to illuminate the lives of others.  Pearl and Hilary both. 

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