Friday 18 August 2023

Once Our Lives, by Qin Sun Stubis

Qin Sun Stubis speaks to Devika Misra about the power of literature and story- telling.

Born in a Shanghai shantytown and brought up during the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, Qin Sun Stubis is a Chinese American writer based in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. She has worked as an international communications specialist providing translations and  contributions to Gallup, the Wall Street Journal, and the Getty Center. She is currently a columnist for the Los Angeles based Santa Monica Star.  She also writes poems, short stories, essays and Chinese folk narratives.

Her debut historical memoir, Once Our Lives, explores the deep trauma that tumultuous events in Chinese history inflicted on four generations of the Sun family. From the Second Sino Japanese War in 1937 to an era well past the brutally repressive Cultural Revolution in 1966, the writer’s parents found themselves impoverished and in a constant struggle for survival. Qin was their second daughter; one of four girls. 

Stubis’s journey began as a poverty stricken “paraplegic” child in a shanty town in Shanghai; she now lives a comfortable life as a writer, wife and mother in suburban Maryland in the United States. Her one constant, she says has always been stories…fiction, poems, writers and tellers of a good tale.

QSS: “My mother told me that she used to give my sister and I each a few pieces of candy, those little tiny milk candies, like three pieces. And that would be the dinner. And then tuck us into bed when the sun was still up. Because she said, if you fall asleep, you won't feel the hunger. And of course, being a child, you know, eyes wide open, I would always listen to her, her voice telling stories of the past. She created excitement…she was captured by pirates and you know, those stories gradually as we aged became more complex, with details and contents. She would make our life very exciting…We went through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution…I can tell you the thing is, as far as my own life is concerned, I'm a pretty lucky girl.”

This “lucky girl” could barely stand when she was two years old due to the abuse and neglect she had suffered at the hands of extended family members. Apart from her own mother’s stories she turned to others for sustenance.

QSS: “ I always did well in everything, but the life that I shared with my parents was also misery. We had nothing, my father was always in prison. We were like little women, you know, Louisa May-Alcott also inspired me because of the book Little Women, how four sisters didn't have a father. I thought of  myself as Joe, the second sister, who would help the mother. The little women found ingenious ways to thrive…somehow, they managed to live and live a pretty good life. People are always like, oh, you know, horrible, everything's horrible. No, actually, out of all of the most miserable things, situations, come the sweetest, the best memories anyone could have.”

After the Cultural Revolution she managed to attend university and chose to get a degree in English Language and Literature. 

QSS:  “I am a very romantic person by nature so I think that's why I turned to novels. All literature affected me…Thomas Hardy, I adored him, Charles Dickens, I adored his writing….I studied Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare,  you know I adored a lot of poets - Tennyson, Romney, Shelly, Keats.”

In fact she describes herself more a reader than a writer.

QSS: “I was an adoring person of other writers and in awe of how they could write; that's me... because English was my foreign language, I spent 29 years of my life in China and l came to the United States with two suitcases, a dream, and the book which never left my night table  - 101 Poems, an anthology of world famous poems which included as well Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, all sorts of things; I used to read it before going to sleep every night and be inspired by the poems so when I came to United States my boyfriend, now my husband, he used to give me for my birthdays, for holidays, always books.”

Upon emigrating she was drawn to other Chinese American women writers who also explore the intersection of their own cultures and history with family experience, the likes of Amy Tan, Gish Jen, Lisa See, Maxine Hong Kingston, whom she acknowledges as “inspirations and idols”. However, those writers are generally recognized as having contributed to the genre of fiction. 

Qin Sun Stubis on the other hand, has used the real names of her family members and states that as far as she knows everything in her book is true. 

Her own book she says was completely unplanned. She was “not one of those people  whose lifelong dream it was  to become a writer”. What precipitated the change?

QSS: “My parents passed away one after another. And my father was only 65, my mother 69 after three and a half years of battling ovarian cancer. I tell you, I felt that my entire life collapsed when my mother died. I somehow was in inconsolable grief and obviously depression as well. So what helped me was my mind went in a place…I went all the way to the past. I tried to recall all the stories my mother had told me and the life that I had lived with my family all those years. And suddenly all the stories played out like a movie in front of me. I was surprised by myself, how much I could see colours, clothes, patterns and the people's facial expressions, I remembered how during the Cultural Revolution people ditched us, neighbours, my father's colleagues, family members and how poor we were, how I accompanied my mother to pawn shops to sell one thing after another… to sell it to have a handful of rice to live on.  And I found a coping mechanism - I picked up a pen and I started to write longhand - I never understood why, but I could not type and think at the same time. Somehow my Chinese mind would not let me do that. And so I started to write with a pen, the old fashioned way…I just felt that it was deeply human stories I wanted to bring to the world. And that was the reason I started to write.”

Today Stubis sees her parents’ story as a representation of the lives of so many others of a particular time and generation… “honourable, brave and extremely ordinary” . Her book she says is borne  from a determination to keep their story alive.

Details: Once Our Lives is published by Guernica World Editions (USA) in paperback, priced in local currencies.