April 30, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Julie Wu's compelling debut novel The Third Son works on many levels, as immigration tale, historical fiction, and pitch perfect love story.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"Twin dramas — an unusually awful sibling rivalry, a stunningly pure and inspiring love story — center a book that spans decades and continents. This is a deceptively simple, deeply compelling debut."
The Third Son Sings
In the process of writing the first draft of my debut novel, The Third Son, I listened to boxfuls of CDs of Taiwanese folk songs. Some were familiar to me because my parents had sung them at home, or more accurately in my father's case, in the garage, which he enjoyed because of the way it amplified his already ringing baritone. Since I don't read Chinese, I asked my parents to translate the lyrics of songs I recognized or liked, and I sprinkled several of them through my first draft.
In subsequent drafts, I worked on unity both in the actual text and the songs I used within it. I included two well-known Taiwanese folk songs: one that was historically important, and one that integrated perfectly with the structure of my book. I also showed a contrast between the singing of the Republic of China's national anthem in Taiwan, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the United States.
"Rainy Night Flower" – Taiwanese folk song
In The Third Son, Taiwanese dissidents sing "Rainy Night Flower" in the streets. Of all the Taiwanese folk songs my parents sang when I was growing up, "Rainy Night Flower" was the one after which my mother would put her hand over her heart and shake her head. "This song means so much the Taiwanese people," she would say. "Only Taiwanese know what this song means, how much we suffered."
She translated it for me:
Rainy Night Flower
Blown to the ground by the wind and rain
No one sees you or heeds you
When you fall, you will never return to life.
A lovely, simple tune. Too bad about the dire lyrics, I thought.
I was American born and raised. My parents' dinnertime anecdotes, while including references to difficult times during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and the subsequent takeover by the Chinese Nationalists, who established the seat of the Republic of China in Taipei, did not fully explain to me why a song this bleak would speak so strongly to the Taiwanese people.
It was only when I was an adult that I learned that my parents' anecdotes were sanitized for children's ears. It turned out that the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists had each killed 10,000-20,000 Taiwanese soon after gaining power over the island, and the Nationalists continued to execute and incarcerate undocumented thousands of people at will for forty years. It turned out that I wasn't the only one in the dark about Taiwan's tragic history; both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists had done a rather superb job of covering everything up. The United States, allied with the Nationalists against Communist China, was happy to go along with the cover-up.
The resonance of "Rainy Night Flower," then, is not so much with the fact that the titular flower is dying, but with the fact that it is dying unseen and unheard. When Taiwanese dissidents sang "Rainy Night Flower" in the streets in 1949, they risked their lives. Singing any song publicly in Taiwanese was illegal at the time, as it was forbidden to use Taiwanese dialect rather than the Mandarin Chinese imposed by the Nationalists. Singing this folk song in particular was an obvious act of rebellion, along with many others that the government wanted to and, as I describe in The Third Son, did suppress.
"Repairing the Fisherman's Net" – Taiwanese folk song
As a musician myself, I have often thought of musical structure while writing. In The Third Son I wanted to use sequential stanzas of a folk song to help secure the book's structure. I wanted a song that echoed the themes of the book, that followed its progression, and that had a happy ending. But the vast majority of the Taiwanese folk songs I found had, like "Rainy Night Flower," unending stanzas of doom and despair.
I found, at last, "Repairing the Fisherman's Net." The first stanza is bleak, of course, but the narrative progresses in a way that dovetails perfectly with my story, and different characters sing the song's stanzas at key moments throughout the book:
Looking at the net, my eyes redden—such a hole!
I want to repair it but have not a thing.
Who knows my pain?
If we let it go today, our future is hopeless.
Alone and miserable, my lover has gone hiding.
I sew but have trouble controlling the needle and thread.
My long needle connects West and East.
My thread is a bridge to the Milky Way.
The sky clears after the rain, fish fill the harbor.
We are the happiest couple in the world.
Today's reunion warms our hearts.
We need never repair the broken net again.
The National Anthem of the Republic of China and "The Star Spangled Banner"
The main character of The Third Son, Saburo, travels from Taiwan to the United States, and one of the shocking things he notices is that the majority of Americans cannot sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" from memory. Having been forced to hear and sing the National Anthem of the Republic of China several times a day, he could most definitely sing it in his sleep and couldn't forget the words no matter how hard he tried. And thus he does not view the casual ignorance of Americans as collective stupidity, but as exhilarating proof of a lack of autocratic control. Every time a born-and-bred American mixes up "O'er the ramparts we watched" with "What so proudly we hailed" is to him one more example of how, in America, we are free to do and to sing whatever we like. Even "Rainy Night Flower."
Julie Wu and The Third Son links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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