By Terry Hong
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 cafes; 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.”
Even one generation ago, her parents’ Taiwan belonged to men: “women were not deemed worthy of education … the resources of the family were concentrated on the males. In the traditional formulation, what was given to daughters would only be wasted because they would be married off and serve their husbands’ families,” she told her Goodreads readers. Not until she was thrice Ivy-pedigreed and cruising the tenure track did Chen even consider finding herself a partner. And not until she survived cancer did she step off that academic path to care full-time for her son, and then her daughter, “who was miraculously born four years later from my single, scarred ovary.”
“Without the crutch of my professional identity, I felt like I was embarking on a journey into an unknown and disorienting land. When people asked me, as they inevitably would, what I ‘did,’ I found myself blushing and stuttering painfully, so ingrained in me was the idea that taking care of children and keeping house was doing ‘nothing.’” Even Chen’s husband – a fellow professor – assumed “that I spent my days doing ‘nothing.’”
At some point while doing ‘nothing,’ Chen’s teenage intentions, sublimated for a quarter century, finally re-surfaced, and she began to write fiction in the early mornings before her children woke up: “Unlike the frigid abstractions of academic writing, fiction celebrated the daily texture of private lives, the thousands of negotiations and shifts of power that occur within the intimacy of families.” Her first finished novel, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, targeted at middle-grade readers, pubbed in 2007. Despite its seasonal title, this is one of those sweet, timeless stories about the universal, adolescent need to belong. Peiling Wang is American. Her parents, in spite of what their passports say, consider themselves Taiwanese. Like most 11-year-olds, Peiling just wants to be like her friends. With the impending winter holidays, all the other kids are talking about Christmas, but that’s not a holiday that the Wang family celebrates. Somehow she convinces her reluctant parents to agree to the mistletoe, tree, stockings, and even hosting a traditional (American) holiday meal for the extended Wang clan, plus a surprise guest. But, of course, the celebration isn’t quite what Peiling had expected: who marinates their turkey in ginger and soy sauce, puts longyan in their salads, sings karaoke instead of “Jingle Bells,” and plays mahjong on Christmas? In a little over a hundred pages, Chen manages to weave in multiple multicultural lessons, generational conflicts, issues with assimilation, challenging relationships in school, and even a budding romance.
From contemporary American tweenhood, Chen entered the adult literary world in July 2012 with a hugely ambitious leap into the past: an adaptation of the canonical 18th-century classic, The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. Regarded as China’s most important work of fiction, Dream even commands its own international field of study, called “Redology.”
Chen discovered Dream in its original during graduate school – during which she mastered classical Chinese with “dogged persistence” – and was struck by how the “story of brilliant and talented women whose lives were constricted by lack of physical freedom and opportunity … resonated with my own family’s history: my two grandmothers were both illiterate, and my mother had struggled to gain access to the education her brothers received.” At 2,500 pages, populated by over 400 characters, Dream was not the most accessible read, “… and yet tracing with exquisite care the inner worlds of characters from princesses to maids, and unearthing the depths of feeling and disparities in power beneath the most everyday interactions, Dream of the Red Chamber more closely mirrored my experience of life than any work I had previously read.”
Written in the mid-1700s during the Qing Dynasty – China’s last imperial dynasty before it became the Republic of China – the novel was initially dispersed via hand-copied manuscripts, which resulted in historical variations. The authorship, while attributed to Cao Xueqin, continues to be debated. What is generally agreed is that the bulk of the epic is based on Cao’s own family and its participation in the intrigue and machinations of the Qing Dynasty. Cao wrote the first 80 chapters, but his original ending was lost; he died in 1763 or 1764 before completing the manuscript. That Qing scholar Gao E and his partner Cheng Weiyuan reconstructed that lost ending into an additional 40 chapters and edited the full manuscript for its official 1791 printing remains contested. More than two centuries later, Redology experts still have plenty to discuss.
As a professor presenting Dream in translation to undergraduates, Chen “came to realize how the vast majority of American readers, even if they had known of the book, would be discouraged from reading it by its length and unfamiliarity.” She began in 2002 to render the voluminous classic into a contemporary western novel, weaving in her own hybrid literary experience: “I added a question that gripped me as a modern reader and writer: in a culture where women’s opportunities and movements were ruthlessly restricted, in what ways could they shape their own destinies?“ Working mostly with the original, 18th-century vernacular Chinese text, Chen also relied on two translations: The Story of the Stone (an alternate title), translated by David Hawkes and John Minford Tools; and A Dream of Red Mansions (another alternate title), translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. She worked on the novel for eight years before handing in the manuscript to her publisher in 2010. Just as she had managed to compress the massive epic into less than 400 pages, Chen also shortened the title to The Red Chamber.
An interesting aside: Chen marked her transition from writing for younger readers to an adult audience by adding her middle initial and publishing, five years later, as Pauline A. Chen. Two Pauline Chens made their book debuts in 2007 as over-40 bloomers … and talk about coincidental doppelgängers: both are Taiwanese American children of Taiwanese immigrants; both graduated from Harvard in 1986; both share Yale credentials (one in law, the other in medicine); and both have titles published by Alfred A. Knopf. In case you were wondering, the other Pauline Chen – Pauline W. Chen – wrote the bestselling memoir, Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality.
But back to A.
In her opening “Author’s Note” to The Red Chamber, Chen immediately makes her intentions clear: “My book … makes little attempt to remain faithful to the original plot.” By book’s end, in the final “A Note on the Text,” Chen also admits, “Aficionados of the original novel may well be appalled by how I have shuffled, truncated, and eliminated both characters and plotlines of the original to create a cohesive and more compact work.”
Of the 400-plus original characters, Chen chose three women to tell the story of the prominent Jia family: controlling granddaughter-in-law Xifeng, dutiful cousin-by-marriage Baochai, and naive granddaughter Daiyu – the only Jia by blood – who returns to the ancestral compound after a two-generation estrangement. Xifeng is about to lose her position of power because she cannot produce the next generation of Jia heir. Dependable, proper Baochai and sickly, ethereal Daiyu share a tentative friendship that’s complicated by their love for the handsome, favored Baoyu who is betrothed to one but loves the other.
“In a world where women lacked power and were pitted against one another by the system of concubinage,” Chen continues in her “Author’s Note,” “these characters are strong and unforgettable, forging bonds with each other that far transcend sexual rivalry.” Even through her 21st-century filter, Chen recognized how these women’s lives could speak to a contemporary audience; she also felt compelled to present an ending of her own: “I was haunted by a sense of incompletion: Cao’s original ending has been lost, and a new ending was written by another hand after his death. What follows is my attempt to finish the story for myself, while paying homage to this beloved masterpiece and sharing it with a wider audience.”
By the time The Red Chamber hit shelves, Chen’s life was again drastically reshaped. Eight years after Chen’s mother helped her survive ovarian cancer, Chen would move back to her parents’ Long Island home to care for her mother while she fought – and lost – her own battle against pancreatic cancer. Chen would return to Ohio, and teaching: “I was ashamed at what a relief it was to put on my work clothes and call myself a professor again,” she confesses at Goodreads. Soon thereafter, she was a single mother, divorced from a spouse who still considered her writing mere “‘hobby,’” and Chen again transformed: “Nevertheless the time when I was ‘just a housewife’ had irrevocably defined who I was as a woman, as a writer, as a mother. The book that I wrote, The Red Chamber, is a testament to the soul searching of that time.”
In a post-publication interview on NPR, Chen draws an unexpected parallel – a “strange resemblance,” as she calls it – between her Red Chamber and another canonical classic, Margaret Mitchell’s 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone With the Wind.
“’In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is desperately jealous of Melanie Wilkes for most of the book because she loves Ashley Wilkes, Melanie’s husband,’” Chen explains. “’But then by the end of the book, when Melanie dies, suddenly Scarlett realizes how much they have gone through together, and that her bond to Melanie is far stronger than what she felt for Ashley.’” Baochai, Daiyu, and Baoyu’s fates are also triangulated, with the female bonds similarly tested, broken, then longed for. Centuries and continents apart, both novels also deal with grand families and their sudden loss of power and place. Chen told NPR that it was Baochai and Daiyu’s arrested relationship that “inspired [her] to write her own version of the story with a new, less tragic ending.”
Decades after losing sight of her teenage intentions, Chen clearly has resumed her writerly path with daring aplomb; what else could explain her courage – or foolhardiness, depending on your perspective – in appropriating one of history’s most revered, celebrated texts? Now as she approaches her personal half-century mark, her next endeavor will surely be one to watch. And better yet, read.
Click here to read Hong’s Q&A with Pauline A. Chen.