This summer I traveled to China and spoke, with effort, in Chinese and English. I saw the crush of people in crowded Chengdu, and I witnessed intimate conversations between lovers.
The mode of transport? “Heart Radical,” Anne Liu Kellor’s true story of one woman’s odyssey into the language and country of her ancestors.
When I opened the book and read Kellor’s list of heart-connected Chinese words — shang xin for wounded heart, nai xin for patient heart, zui xin for enchanted heart — my first thought was a negative one.
This writer and I have nothing in common. Forever I’ve been fascinated with languages like Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, but visiting China and comprehending Chinese felt far out of reach.
How wrong I was. Having read many memoirs and novels, I should have known better. Of course another human’s story, told from the heart, is made of elements that resonate like drums beat in unison.
“Heart Radical’s” subtitle is “A Search for Language, Love and Belonging,” which sums up the search I’ve been on, whether traveling solo in Spain, Mexico, Cambodia, Bali or San Francisco. Aren’t all of us, at one time of life or another, seeking the sound and spirit of home?
Kellor grew up in the Pacific Northwest with Chinese and American parents; she goes to live in China and teach English but quits the university job to travel around the country. She begins a romance with “Yizhong” — the names in the memoir have been changed — with whom verbal communication is quite the learning experience.
“We have slow, unhurried conversations, two dictionaries between us. One of us might say, ‘Describe yourself’ or ask, ‘What is important to you?’” The two trust each other and become close.
“It doesn’t matter that our conversations are simple; it’s almost a relief to be excused from the controlling grasp of language to define us. In this space, we can take our time in communicating one word, one thought, one emotion — like the first time he whispered to me, baobei … treasure, or baby, in Chinese … a word reserved for children, or for lovers, or for some soft space in between.”
Living abroad — and coming to know herself in another language — changed Kellor’s life. An accomplished writer and teacher, she wanted to share the story through a memoir.
Publishers and editors rejected it some 100 times, she told me on the phone this week.
“I shelved the book for many years and worked on other projects,” but “I never gave up.”
“Heart Radical” will be released by She Writes Press next Tuesday. It can be ordered through our local independent bookstores; links to her online book launch Sept. 14 and Sept. 28 can be found under Events at anneliukellor.com.
Publishing this book at last, some 20 years after Kellor began the journals that fed it, feels “wonderful,” she told me.
“It’s so redemptive to finally have readers tell me how it resonated with them. That quest to find our voice, our place in the world,” is at the heart of a memoir.
“The other layer is finding the courage to tell your story,” she added.
“Early on, I thought I needed to include more research and be a China expert,” but then came the realization that her book is an inside job: about learning to accept weaknesses, feel compassion for others and recognize one’s inheritance from parents and ancestors.
Two decades later, Kellor is deeply rooted in Seattle. She teaches at Hugo House, the nonprofit writing center, and is mom to a middle school-age son. Extended travel looks unlikely — yet “who knows?” she said.
No matter what, we’ll have each other’s stories, such as “Heart Radical,” to share.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] dailynews.com. Her column runs the first and third Wednesday of the month; the next one will appear Sept. 15.