We don’t publish a lot of fiction — it’s hard to compete in the marketplace with the big names — but occasionally we find an author with a set of stories so relevant we have to go with it. Such was the case with Xujun Eberlein’s Apologies Forthcoming, a collection of short stories set in and around China’s Cultural Revolution. The tales are fictional but Xujun drew on her own personal experience of those times to write them. The book won the third annual Tartt Fiction Award in the US, and opinion on this side of the Pacific has been equally encouraging:
“Chinese-American authors such as Iris Chang and Amy Tan have made a significant contribution to factual and fictional literature, but few have a tale to tell as piquant as Xujun Eberlein’s.” — South China Morning Post
“Laudable in its own right, Eberlein’s collection is also a reminder of all the great stories that could and should be written in China today. Unfortunately, exile continues to be the home of China’s most honest and moving narratives.” — Asia Times
“With subtle political censure, Eberlein brings to life characters that draw out the helplessness, hope and heartache of the people who lived through the decade and its long, awful aftermath. The author has a way of delivering pathos that leaves a pang in the chest.” — Time Out
Below we print one of the eight stories from the book. In Feathers, a teenage Red Guard dies from wounds suffered in a clash between opposing factions, but her mother and sister hide her death from her doting grandmother.
On Wednesday, three uninvited messengers came.
That morning, ten-year-old Sail was bending her head low over the square dining table, concentrating on making a paper-cut of a scene from The Red Detachment of Women, the model ballet. A few weeks ago, Sail’s big sister Jia, a Red Guard in the 3rd middle school, had brought home several paper-cut patterns, and the novel activity spread in the neighborhood like spring flu. With the same zeal they had collected Chairman Mao’s photo buttons a year before, the kids now made, collected, and traded paper-cuts of everything: revolutionary heroes, flowers, animals, and landscapes. They showed off their collections to each other and competed. Regardless of their parents’ political factions, the ones who collected the most patterns won the looks of admiration. Sail wanted to be the biggest collector of paper-cut art in the world.
Sail was home alone: Jia was in her school “doing revolution” and wouldn’t be back until the weekend. Their little sister Windy had gone with Gaga, their grandmother, to the countryside, to hide from the armed fights between two factions of the Red Guards. Her father was at work — or more precisely, was under the scrutiny of the Revolutionary Rebellion Team. Her mother, a school principal with no functioning school to run, had gone to a grocery store before it opened, to ensure an up-front spot in the long line.
About eleven a neighbor peeked in the window. Sail glanced up and saw Uncle Luo, the head of the Revolutionary Rebellion Team. “Are you looking for my father?” she said. “He’s not home yet.” The man’s eyes searched inside; he shook his head slightly and left without a word. There was something strange in his stern face.
About noon appeared three uninvited guests, all teenage girls of Jia’s age. Sail recognized one who wore a Red Guard armband as Jia’s close friend, nicknamed “Foreign Ginger” for her pale skin.
Sail jumped up, “Is my big sister coming home early?”
The three teenagers looked at each other, none eager to reply. Foreign Ginger said, “Where are your parents?”
“They’re not home. I’m in charge,” Sail said. “Does my big sister have a message for me then?”
Foreign Ginger said with great hesitation, “Your sister . . . she was wounded.”
“How? How bad is it? Where is she now?”
“She is in the hospital. No, not too bad. We came to fetch your parents.”
Sail exhaled in relief as her father walked through the door. All the girls fell silent again. “Sail, go to the dining hall and get lunch for our guests,” her father