You Can't Wrap Fire in Paper: A novel about her grandmother, Irene Corbally Kuhn, an American journalist and broadcaster in 1920s Shanghai

You Can't Wrap Fire in Paper: A novel about her grandmother, Irene Corbally Kuhn, an American journalist and broadcaster in 1920s Shanghai

by Heather Corbally Bryant


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HEATHER CORBALLY BRYANT just knew she had to follow in the steps of her grandmother, trail-blazing journalist Irene Kuhn. After all, she grew up listening to the stories of her grandmother, and Irene never let Heather forget that a woman’s place was not in the kitchen or by her husband’s side but in the forefront of adventure as a writer. Like her famous grandmother as well as her mother, Rene Kuhn, Heather was a natural.

Heather’s reimagination of her grandmother’s life in glamorous and exotic Shanghai of the 1920s is fascinating in its detail which closely follows the real events of Irene’s career and of her momentous meeting with Heather’s grandfather, Bert Kuhn. It’s not only a memoir of the stories Irene told Heather, but it is the touching story of a fiery passion between fellow adventurers and journalists which ultimately resulted in tragedy as well as great happiness. Read You Can’t Wrap Fire in Paper and you will see that the title is appropriate. Irene Corbally Kuhn was not a woman to be subdued but she was like any woman captured by the fires of obsession and love.

To be strong their love had to be more than paper.


IRENE CORBALLY KUHN, my maternal grandmother, and I are standing outside the Hotel Vancouver in late June of 1981. It is a rare sunny afternoon and we are returning from a cruise to Alaska, her graduation present to me. She is eighty-four years old, still writing, and I am twenty-one, a month past my Harvard commencement. For my grandmother, the trip is one of hundreds she has taken. For me, it is a continuation of our long and close relationship starting with the summer I spent living with her when I was three.

I have grown up on tales of her travels, but this is the first trip we have taken together. Along the way, we have talked about her unwavering conviction I must be a writer, her memories of being a foreign correspondent covering the world, but most of all, we have talked about China and how much she misses it. We have just finished lunch and are walking around the gardens of the hotel. My grandmother’s deep chocolate eyes are focused on a sight far off in the distance, a place I cannot see. She stands tall, at five feet six inches, wearing heels higher than I have ever worn. Her sense of fashion owes much to her days as a reporter for the Paris Tribune. She is wearing a navy blue dress, tucked in at the waist. The only time I’ve ever seen her in slacks, as she called them, was when we jumped rapids outside Juneau.

After a few minutes of quiet she speaks, “Here,” she says, “Here is where my life ended.”

I say nothing in response; I have been trained to let her emotions pass.

“Here,” my grandmother repeats, “here is where I lost everything.”

Although I have heard many times about her beautiful life in Shanghai in the 1920s, her whirlwind marriage to her first husband, Bert Lewis Kuhn, the birth of my mother in Honolulu nine months later, Irene’s departure to the States to visit family, and Bert’s subsequent and mysterious death at the age of 30 in China, I know few details.

I do know that my grandmother keeps dried eucalyptus in a blue and white vase in her Greenwich Village apartment; the smell, she says, reminds her of Shanghai after the rains.

On a small table she keeps a black lacquer box decorated with children chasing butterflies carved in colored jade. I peeked inside once. The box is full of musty papers, layers of envelopes with Chinese stamps held together by fraying rubber bands. My grandmother told me to close the box; she said the contents were very important, but that I was too young to understand them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938667824
Publisher: The Ardent Writer Press, LLC
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Pages: 350
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

HEATHER CORBALLY BRYANT (formerly Heather Bryant Jordan) teaches in the Writing Program at Wellesley College. Previously, she taught at the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Michigan, and Harvard College where she won awards for her teaching. She received her A.B. with honors in History and Literature from Harvard where she received the Boston Ruskin Prize for her thesis, "Sight and Sensibility: A Study of Praeterita." She received her PhD in Modern British and Irish Literature from the University of Michigan where she was a Regents Fellow.
Her academic publications include, How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War (University of Michigan Press, 1992). This study of the relationship between war and literature was awarded the Donald R. Murphy Prize for best first book. In addition, she has assisted in the research for the Cornell Yeats Series as well as publishing articles on Bowen, Yeats, O'Faolain, and T.S. Eliot. She has given papers at international conferences and was a plenary speaker at the centennial celebration of Elizabeth Bowen held at University College, Cork.
Beyond her academic publications, Heather Corbally Bryant has published five books of poetry. The Finishing Line Press published her first poetry chapbook, Cheap Grace, in 2011. In addition, she has published poems in The Christian Science Monitor and the 2007 anthology of poetry, In Other Words. The Parallel Press Poetry Series of the University of Wisconsin Libraries published Lottery Ticket, her second chapbook in 2013. She has given readings at The Pennsylvania State University, The University of Wisconsin at Madison, The University of Illinois at Chicago, Southern Florida University in Ft. Lauderdale, Folio Bookstore, San Francisco the Palmer Art Museum in State College, the Transatlantic Connections Conference in Donegal, Ireland, Wellesley College, the University of Kentucky, Notre Dame, Georgia State, and Harvard College. Compass Rose, her third poetry collection, from The Finishing Line Press appeared in March 2016. Her first full-length collection of poetry, My Wedding Dress, was published by the Finishing Line Press in November 2016. Her fifth volume, and second full-length collection, Thunderstorm, appeared from the Finishing Line Press in the summer of 2017. And her sixth book of poems, Eve's Lament, will be published by The Finishing Line Press in the winter of 2018.
Her work of creative non-fiction, You Can't Wrap Fire in Paper, will appear in the spring of 2018, along with the reissue of Assigned to Adventure, her grandmother's 1938 autobiography (Ardent Writer Press).

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