Date of this Version
October 23, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
In 2005, when Rachel DeWoskin published her memoir of living in Beijing during the 1990s, I was so excited that I immediately bought the first copy I saw in a Hong Kong bookstore. Foreign Babes in Beijing represents a rare female voice among the expats-in-China genre of books, and DeWoskin’s tales of working in public relations and acting in a Chinese soap opera are deftly and humorously written. It’s a book that I still recommend to people who want to know more about living in China, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film version that’s currently in development.
After leaving China in 1999 (she has since returned, now living in both New York City and Beijing), DeWoskin earned an MFA in poetry and taught writing at NYU; earlier this year, her first novel, Repeat After Me, was published by Overlook Press. Readers of Foreign Babes will quickly realize that while Repeat After Me is fiction, it is also a vehicle for DeWoskin to reflect again on her years in China, and the novel’s protagonist, Aysha, serves as a stand-in for the author.
DeWoskin builds the story of Repeat After Me around an unusual structure, making each chapter represent one month spanning many years (that is, all events that happened during the month of May, whether in 1990 or 2003, occur in the same chapter). Bouncing back and forth between two main time periods (1989-1991 and 2002-2003), Aysha relates the story of her young love affair with a Chinese dissident living in New York in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and as her older self, raising their daughter in Beijing and struggling with single parenthood.
Aysha meets Da Ge in the fall of 1989; both are in the early stages of piecing their lives back together after tragedy and upheaval. The previous spring, Aysha spun out of control during her senior year at Columbia, building up to a manic breakdown, while at the same time, on the other side of the world, Da Ge joined in the Tiananmen protests, only to escape to the U.S. on the orders of his wealthy father. Now taking Aysha’s ESL class in New York, Da Ge is plagued by survivor’s guilt, depression, and anger, which give him a sullen, resentful air that Aysha finds irresistible. Their brief relationship, and its tragic ending (foreshadowed before the book even begins, with a poem by Anne Carson), do not come as a surprise, but the plot is skillfully handled by DeWoskin. The conversations between Aysha and Da Ge — disjointed, elliptical, and frequently frustrating — will ring true for all readers who have struggled to express themselves in a foreign language.