From the PEN/Malamud Award-winning author of Lucky Girls comes an intricately woven novel about secrets, love, art, identity, and the shining chaos of every day American life.
Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident, has accepted a one-year artist's residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm's School for Girls, teaching advanced art, and hosted by one of the school's most devoted families: the wealthy if dysfunctional Traverses. The Traverses are too preoccupied with their own problems to pay their foreign guest too much attention, and the dissident is delighted to be left alone—his past links with radical movements give him good reason to avoid careful scrutiny. The trouble starts when he and his American hosts begin to view one another with clearer eyes.
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About the Author
Nell Freudenberger's collection of stories, Lucky Girls, was a New York Times Notable Book and won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2005 Freudenberger was the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She lives in New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:April 21, 1975
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Harvard University, 1997; M.F.A., New York University, 2000
Read an Excerpt
The DissidentA Novel
By Nell Freudenberger
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Nell Freudenberger
All right reserved.
I was not meant to be a dissident. I was not supposed to live outside of China. I never intended to be a guest, for an entire year, in the home of strangers, dependent on their charity and kindness. Who would have imagined, watching me grow up in Harbin--sitting quietly with my father in our old apartment behind the Russian church, or clutching my mother's hand as she haggled good-naturedly with Old Yang over the price of scallions--that I would wind up in Los Angeles, living in the guest room of people who could not find the province of Heilongjiang on a simple English map?
I am tempted to say it was an accident. Certainly I would not have gotten involved in politics, or in the artistic community of the Beijing East Village, had it not been for my cousin, also an artist--I will call him X. (Because of his continuing activity in China, I am forced to conceal his identity here.) But it also began with my mother, who always hoped I would become a famous artist and go abroad, and with my father, who sent me to have drawing lessons with his old friend, the painter Wang Laoshi. Quite possibly it began with Wang Laoshi, who saw my early efforts, and encouraged me to pursue absolutely any other profession.
But I hesitate to putresponsibility on others. In the end it's my fault that I am so easily persuaded. I have always been impressionable, skilled at mimicry. I am, as my teacher admitted, a brilliant copyist. On paper, I could reproduce Audubon's and Bada Shanren's birds; I could make my mother laugh by imitating the gestures and mannerisms of people we knew (for example, my father's postprandial expression of despair); even the pronunciation of foreign words was not difficult for me. In school, English was my best subject, not only because of this talent for imitation but because of my mother, who had been born in Seattle, Washington, and much later became a teacher of Business English at the Harbin University of Science and Technology.
My mother went to China for the first time in 1953, three days after her twelfth birthday, when her parents decided to return to their motherland and do their part for the glorious new People's Republic. My grandfather, an electrical engineer with the Boeing company, had been deeply honored by a personal invitation from Zhou Enlai. As it turned out, however, my grandfather's timing wasn't good. A little more than a decade later, my grandmother and my mother were sent to separate "cadres' schools" to be reeducated, while my grandfather eventually went to a much harsher place--a work camp in the Great Northern Wilderness--where he died, six years before I was born.
When I told this story--as if it had happened to distant relatives rather than to my immediate family--my American hosts were horrified. I think they were also a little thrilled by the tragic irony: it was as if, Cece Travers said, my relatives had been American Jews, returning unknowingly to Germany in 1939. I couldn't explain to the Traverses that a Chinese person did not think of the 1960s and '70s in this way: that those years represented a perversion of our own ideals, some of which we still cherished, rather than an atrocity visited on us from outside. The fact that my relatives had been in a work camp was enough for Cece. "Perhaps they aren't telling you everything," she said, in a way that made it clear she thought I was being callous about the sufferings I described.
In fact the opposite was true. I had my reasons for concealing my background from the Traverses, but I have never been comfortable telling the story of things that happened before I was born. I always feel that I'm making things up. In Los Angeles, I found out how much easier it was to tell my own history as if it belonged to someone else: at the end of my account, I was surprised (and a little proud) to find tears in the eyes of my American audience.
After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 (and incidentally my birth, in 1975) my mother became an English teacher, if a reluctant one. Her former passion for literature, in particular the Romantic poets, was not relevant to the business English courses she was assigned, and she never returned to the original poems and translations she'd begun as a university student in the early 1960s. Her talents as a teacher were thus primarily focused on me, so that by the time I was in high school, I already spoke English more fluently than my classmates and even my teachers. My mother and I used to laugh at the book I used in school, Idiomatic English, which purported to teach us how to speak like real Americans. The book was full of dialogues between John, Mary, and (inexplicably) someone named "Batty," of which the following is an approximate but unexaggerated example:
John: I am thinking to get a gift for our friend Batty. Monday is her birthday. A necklace or a bracelet would truly fit the bill.
Mary: No one knocks on the gift horse's mouth. But you had better not have a chat with Batty before the big day. That is to say, you are a chatterbox. You will certainly let the cat out of the bag.
John: Mary, you are a strict taskmaster! Why do you say that I am a bean-spiller? I am as silent as the mouse, and also the grave.
Mary: Because right now, John, you are talking my ears off!
When I finally met my cousin X in Beijing, I found him studying from this same textbook, practicing John, Mary, and Batty's lines quite seriously. This was midway through my first year at Beijing Normal, when my cousin still imagined he might go abroad and study. He had come to . . .
Excerpted from The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger Copyright © 2006 by Nell Freudenberger. Excerpted by permission.
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“Ambitious, entertaining new novel. . .”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An uneven novel from the female wunderkind of the New York literati. The scenes that take place in China are well imagined and delivered. The West Coast dysfunctional family is trite.
A Chinese artist associated with the radical "East Village" movement comes to LA to exhibit and teach at a girls' private school, while staying with a Beverly Hills family. The book is over 400 pages, yet the characters and plotlines are not all fully developed.
The dissident in question is a controversial Chinese artist, who comes to California on an exchange programme, living with a local family and giving art classes at a girls' school during his stay. But the story is at least as much about the family he stays with, well-off but dysfunctional, and their extended circle. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, many of the same themes run through both halves of the story - art, creation and fakery, the closeness and simultaneous tension of family relationships, intergenerational misunderstandings, reality and image, and the role of chance in defining your life. At the same time, the story is not at all heavy - it's very readable, and funny. The use of language to differentiate the characters is another delight - the prissy, short-story writing older sister is very precise and hates cliche, the dissident speaks precise but slightly formal and long-winded sentences. This lifts the story and stops it being dominated by its symbology - for example, the father of the family could be a real stereotype, the psychology professor who has no idea how to interact with his wife or children, but he is drawn with accuracy, economy and wit. The only fault, for me, was the final chapter, which tried to tie up at least a couple of loose ends, but felt like a cop-out - a tacked-on happy ending which didn't follow on from what came before. But as that was only the last three pages, I only docked it half a point.
I loved Freudenberger's short story collection & eagerly picked up /The Dissident/ when I saw it in the library. The characters are as lively and fully-conceived as those in /Lucky Girls/--lively enough that in the end I felt like only one thread of the story had been tied up, and all the rest left hanging. But a good read, and an enjoyable fictionalization of the eighties art-scene in communist China.