Literary Postmortem: The Flowers of War

No one ever thinks of war with an air of pleasantry, but I must admit I never stretch my imaginings of the true horrors far enough – a realization that came to me quite early on reading this book.

Everything I assumed would happen never did and every single climatic moment in the novel came as a shock, often accompanied by tears. It was a heart wrenching read. I suspect that it is why it took me so long to read (about five months I think).

It isn’t a long read at all and it’s beautifully written, with a flow that hooked one instantly, but I could only deal with it in small chunks at a time. A way to apportion the pain I think. It was astounding to me how inhumane people became with the power of gunfire in their hands and a band of cowards behind them, cheering their brutish behavior on.

The novel written by Geling Yan is set in China in 1937, during their occupation by the commanding island that is Japan. The novel is set a few months after the Second Sino-Japanese War started – a war that lasted almost ten years. Although the novel is a brief glimpse into a short time during the war, I loved how Yan mixed fiction and history – simultaneously educating and entertaining me.

Yan focuses on a singular location in the novel, an American church in Nanking which is housing a number of orphaned teenage school girls who had not managed to escape the country in time. Throughout the entire book I was under the false illusion that because of where they were the girls would be safe. But chapter by chapter, as the Japanese soldiers’ stomped their way through the pages, that hope waned. I soon realised that these girls couldn’t possibly evade the Nanking Massacre that was happening around them.

Things got all the more dangerous for the girls when a group of prostitutes and wounded Chinese soldiers turn to the church for refuge. What follows are scenes I have had bad dreams about for the past few nights. I recall one particularly grisly chapter set at an execution ground. Shucks, I was never ready for that chapter.

Every death was a blow, as it should be. It’s so easy these days to shrug off death at the hands of violence because “we know it happens” or it’s just all around all the time. But it shouldn’t be like that. It’s not normal to live in a perpetual state of continued violence. I think what this novel taught me was that yes war time is horrible, but it made me realise that maybe wars don’t really end. Yes soldiers leave and there are treaties signed and what not but people don’t necessarily stop living in horrible conditions without the threat of rape and murder. But I digress.

On the positive side this was the second book I have read about women in war and again I was shown what resilient beings we can be. The women in this book were very inspiring, they were “naturally” the most vulnerable people throughout the novel but somehow they survived it and not by chance either.

Anyway this is one I would definitely recommend, for both your intellectual and social edification.

In-depth wrap up [3/4]

The end is so close yet so far. Yesterday we spent the entire day indoors. Writing and re-writing (mostly re-writing) the drafts of our features. We also read and re-read one another’s features.

It was crunch time, time to make two weeks of running around Joburg looking for sources, being put on hold and having our emails pied over and over again. It was a day of reckoning, a day to do what you could with what you had. A day to take in all the criticism with your sensitivities set aside.

The week that was saw us trying desperately trying to fill the gaping potholes in the tarred road of our stories. Yesterday was about finding the nearest bucket of something to fill that hole no matter what or in some cases off-ramping just before the hole onto another path completely.

This morning we came in bright and early with one stressor put firmly behind us, ready to tackle another – Multimedia production.  We have less than 48 hours to put together the multimedia elements that will accompany our features.  I have not been looking forward to this part of the game.

Being a person who likes photo’s I originally intended to do a photo essay but I realised a very long time ago that my topic does not allow for that and I just didn’t want to deviate from my topic to accommodate my initial plans.

I now have an alternate plan – one that has to come together very quickly. I can only hope it does, let me get to it.

In the deep end

Last week I had all this unconstrained excitement for our in-depth project to begin. All the preparatory and introductory speakers and an outing made me super keen to dive in, to get in there.

Then Friday came along and took at least 50% of the built up excitement away. We had pitch meeting’s in our groups and then went on to pitch our story idea’s to the rest of the class. I was really excited about the two idea’s I had come up with until I heard them being pitched by other groups. Shit. That word became the opening for my pitch, the pitch I had imagined would be all fresh and original. I suppose that’s what happens when there are other geniuses in the room 😉

Anyway after some discussion I then settled for a new story altogether. Development or under development of Chinese spaces/infrastructure in the city, a look into the future of Chinese spaces in the city.

I woke up with no plan and no direction. Yes I had a topic but what I’d do with it was my worry and the biggest challenge of the day. At first I figured it might be a good idea to work backwards by going down to Old Chinatown, to get a little historical context and all. But that idea didn’t really tickle me.

FIRST STOP: Rivonia Oriental City Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
FIRST STOP: Rivonia Oriental City Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

So I read up a little bit in the morning and found some great research done by Dr Yoon Jung Park, a senior research associate at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. Her research focuses on Chinese migrants in South Africa. Her work looks into perceptions, ethnicity, identity, class/power dynamics and more.  Upon reading she highlighted “new” spaces that Chinese people are occupying to branch out (in lack of a better phrase). This then made me do a little noodle dance that saw me heading out to Rivonia.

Rivonia Oriental City opened up just over a year ago. It’s not a ‘typical’ Chinese mall as there is a lot of integration and diversity. There are a hybrid of different stores including commercial South African staples like Pick n Pay and Truworths, we also saw a Kenyan coffee shop, well to say Kenyan is a stretch, they had pap and vleis as the meal of the day, but I digress. There was also a black hair salon next to a discount variety store.

However, there was not much difference in the Chinese stores present in the mall. There were clothing stores and gift and variety stores that sold the same merchandise. Interestingly there was a corridor next to the Pick n Pay that lead to the kind of oriental stores we have become accustomed to. Something about the low lighting and lack of activity making it not so ‘typical’.

GET CLEAN: Miracle soaps being sold at a stall on wheels. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
GET CLEAN: Miracle soaps being sold at a stall on wheels. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

Speaking to people at the mall proved challenging, a strong language barrier being the catalyst. The people we did manage to speak to had been in the country for some time and as a result could speak English. It was interesting to hear one guy Nathan Cai say he had “too little” Chinese friends and only wanted more, while someone else, Rose Zheng said she had “too many” and wanted to diversify her friend group.

Rose also said that she liked that this mall was different to China Mall: Dragon City, where she had worked previously. She liked the diversity of shops and people she was surrounded by, pointing out that all the businesses are not all Chinese owned and run. “It’s nice because we are in South Africa,” she added.

Being at the mall and getting insight from some of the people there did not make my angle any clearer but it did give me direction, I was heading North and now in a more North Easterly direction. Ooh suspense.

Let the hunger games begin

Okay I might have added some spices in that headline, what I mean to say is ‘Let the in-depth games begin’.

Today was our first real introduction to our in-depth projects. A month dedicated to writing and producing in-depth features on a certain topic.

This year’s topic is ChinaJohannesburg – a look at the Chinese diaspora in this city.  A topic that didn’t come as a surprise to most of us because there was a leak (journalists, can’t tell them anything).

We were all divided into groups, each getting a sub-topic and a mentor. My group got given the topic ‘history and the future’ – a topic I begin to appreciate more and more as the day went on. Our mentor is the one and only, Kenichi Serino (yays).

Basically what we have to do over the next four weeks is immerse ourselves fully in this community in order to produce a long form feature with multimedia components (ranging from video, photography, audio and and and).

Our prep consisted of a number of guest speakers to give us some background and advice on our topic. It was a long day but a very informative one. Ideas were coming in and out of my mainframe all day. Especially because a bulk of what the speakers had to say touched heavily on my group’s topic.

Hearing the stories about the realities of being a migrant and of life in China made it abundantly clear that the next month would be an enlightening one. In a real and genuine way, in a way that would bring me closer and deeper than any documentary or article could.

My favourite quote from the day came from Emma Chen, owner of restaurant Red Chamber in Rosebank, she said: “Nobody dislikes the Chinese government as much as the Chinese themselves”. A loaded statement, that left me with much to think about (and investigate).

Tomorrow we have a field trip planned, I can barely contain my excitement. Let the adventure begin J