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Author uses wartime romance to preach a message of peace

Updated: 2016-07-06 07:48
By Xing Yi (China Daily)

Hustlen Hazel is a novel that straddles turbulent times in modern Chinese history - World War II and the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). And countries - China and the United States. Yet it is a simple story, as all it talks about is how we should cherish peace.

Written by Chinese-American writer Yuan Jinmei, it was released by Beijing October Arts and Literature Publishing House on Friday.

The novel is about a wartime romance told through a series of flashbacks.

It starts with the search for a family history through a dust-laden collection of love letters.

The sender is a Kuomintang military pilot, and the receiver is a capitalist's daughter in the 1940s.

"I was about to write a simple love story," Yuan says in the preface. "But a love story can't be simple in China ... So, the romance was set against a war, disasters and turbulence."

The main players in the book are the pilot, Fan Jiahe, who flies a B-24 bomber in the Chinese-American Composite Wing, a joint US and Chinese Air Force during World War II, and his lover Shu Nan.

Due to military restrictions, Fan's letters are not delivered to his lover till the war ends.

Each letter is a story, in which Fan describes his missions, speaks of the cruelty of the war, tells of the brotherhood between the American and Chinese pilots and yearns for love and a peaceful life.

Although it's fiction, Yuan says she did her best to remain faithful to history.

Yuan says she read a lot of material on the war, including about the "Flying Tigers" - or the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force under the command of Claire Lee Chennault, which was a predecessor of the Chinese-American Composite Wing - and even interviewed some US veterans.

Two of the veterans she interviewed passed away recently.

In the book, Yuan also writes about post-traumatic stress disorder that veterans often endure.

"I want people to reflect on the impact of violence. It (war) is not like kids' fighting. It (the psychological impact) takes a long time to overcome," says Yuan.

In the book, Fan and Shu don't end up together after the war - each of them has families, and each family goes through harsh times in the "cultural revolution" because of their backgrounds.

Yuan says that her novel was inspired by the story of a friend whose mother fell in love with a Kuomintang pilot in the CACW.

The pilot later joined the Communist Party of China after the civil war ended in 1949, and flew a plane from Taiwan to the mainland.

The mother, who was born to a senior Kuomintang official, then abandoned Taiwan to escape to the mainland in 1954 to look for her beloved.

"That's the starting point of my novel," Yuan says during the book launch in Beijing.

In Yuan's book, Fan and Shu's offspring uncover their parents' story from the letters.

Another part of the novel describes the offspring's experiences during the "cultural revolution", such as being transferred to the countryside, forced labor, and encountering the twists of human nature.

This bit is largely based on Yuan's family experiences.

Yuan is the daughter of Yuan Chuanmi (1926-95), a well-known biologist at Nanjing University.

During the "cultural revolution", Yuan's family was sent to a farm in Liyang, in Jiangsu province. Yuan worked with farmers to raise pigs. Later, she was assigned to work in a factory which produced bathtubs.

"Our parents' generation experienced a lot of violence. After World War II, it was the civil war, and then waves of political movements," says Yuan.

"The violence affected people and made people nervous and distrustful of each other."

After the "cultural revolution", Yuan joined a university and studied philosophy.

In 1989, Yuan won a scholarship and went to do her PhD at the University of Hawaii.

Currently, Yuan teaches logic at Creighton University in Nebraska.

"When I write papers, I use English. When I write novels, I use Chinese, because I don't want to forget the Chinese characters," says Yuan, whose earlier novels and short stories have won literary awards.

Before Yuan finished the first draft of Hustlen Hazel in 2014, she went to Hengyang, in Hunan province, to visit one of the most important airfields of the CACW during the war.

It is now a training field for a driving school.

"Earlier generations have sacrificed a lot for peace. If we forget this and fight each other, their sacrifices will be worth nothing," says Yuan.


(China Daily 07/06/2016 page20)

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