Thursday, November 8, 2012

Emotional Honesty

Liu and Martinez with their daughter
Wife-and-husband team Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez reveal remarkable emotional honesty in Little White Duck. Because young Na, called Da Qin (or "Big Piano") by her family, is so young and unguarded, her expressions are raw.

When Chairman Mao dies, she cries in response to her parents' sorrow rather than because of any attachment she herself felt to China's famous leader. Yet through Martinez's illustrations, readers who know nothing of Mao's impact on China can see what an influence Mao had by the banners, the murals, and Da Qin's recounting of how Mao's policies helped her working-class mother get the surgeries she needed to recover from paralysis caused by polio.

Da Qin's youth ensures that there's no political slant here. We see through her eyes the poverty in her grandmother's rural town; we hear from her mother about times when there was literally nothing to eat. It's a portrayal of a people ravaged by poverty, even though Da Qin's family makes enough to feed and house them comfortably. We also see how content Da Qin is in her family life, how close she is to her parents and her sister. She thinks it's perfectly normal to brush your teeth with an outdoor spigot.

Da Qin's mother tells the girls how difficult life can be for many people, but Da Qin sees this for herself when she goes with her father to visit his mother in a rural area. The children have never felt anything as soft as the little white velvet duck sewn onto Da Qin's coat. She wants to be generous even as she sees that they are soiling her white patch.

A mural of Chairman Mao in Little White Duck

It's an instinctive act of kindness. Of her childhood home, Na Liu explained in an interview with me that she was part of a “transitional generation—a generation caught in between one way of life and another, between the old and the new.”

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