AVIVA-Berlin: Emily, your book "Feather in the Storm. A Childhood Lost in Chaos" touched me deeply. I had known very little about the cruel reign of Mao Zedong and to read about it from such a personal perspective really opened my eyes. I think, it is a very important book about Chinese history!
Emily Wu: Thank you! That is why I wrote the book. To recall the history, but also to remember and to understand what happened in a totalitarian country. Here in Germany, people experienced similar things under Hitler. The persecution of the Jews was very similar. Several people have compared me to Anne Frank. Innocent children were persecuted and people were suffering, because of the authoritarian government.
AVIVA-Berlin: At the beginning of the book you talk about your first name ┬┤Yimao┬┤. It means ┬┤feather┬┤ and it stems from a poem called "A Feather in Heaven" by Du Fu. Why did you get yourself another first name and why did you choose Emily? What does it mean to you?
Emily Wu: I went to the USA in 1982 and my name in Chinese is "I-Mao". Americans do not know how to spell or how to pronounce it, and they cannot tell if it is a male or a female name. So I had all kinds of problems with my name. When I got married in 1985 I officially changed it in Emily because it has the closest number of letters to Yimao. And ┬┤little Emily┬┤ is also a character in Charles Dickens┬┤ "David Copperfield" with which I can identify. She is also a child, who suffered.
My ex-husband┬┤s last name is Norman. So for many years I went by Emily Norman. It is not even me. When I got divorced I changed back to Wu. But I still use Yimao, when I publish in Chinese.
AVIVA-Berlin: Has your book already been published in Chinese?
Emily Wu: Yes, but not in China because the book is forbidden there. It is on the banned list. The week after my book was published in Hong Kong, it was banned. China is still under the communist reign. In 2007, the government defined the ┬┤most sensitive topics┬┤ for the media - for any media: books, movies, anything. One of these topics is the cultural revolution, which you can find in my book and others as well.
AVIVA-Berlin: Do you know any Chinese films which give a realistic portrait of the life in China?
Emily Wu: I think in the last few years a big one was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". There are more movies coming out about China. Because of the censorship many movies glorify China and its history.
A very, very good documentation, that I saw, is "To Live is Better than to Die". It is a wonderful documentary about a poor family that is confronted with AIDS. This film has followed them during their daily life for a year. During the filming, the wife died and her husband and children are slowly dying as well. It is a wary movie.
Another very good movie is "Not one less". I liked it a lot because it is about a 13-year-old girl who teaches children and who is very determined to keep the kids in school. She does everything she can to keep the kids, to make them study and not leave school to work in the fields. I identified with the film, because I was also a teacher when I was young. It seemed that things had not changed that much in the countryside. People are still very poor and children are still suffering because of the situation in China. Society does not take care of its children, so their maintenance is often below poverty.
AVIVA-Berlin: The Olympic Games 2008 will take place in Beijing, China. Do you think that this event could give an impulse for the improvement of civil rights or the freedom of thought in China?
Emily Wu: I think for a short time the government will try to appear as if the situation in China is improving. But only because they are under observation. They are opening up their borders, for instance, for journalists. If you are a foreign journalist you can go and interview almost anybody from almost everywhere. But for Chinese journalists it is still not that easy, and even foreign journalists are still controlled. The government would agree, if you want to see a ┬┤sensitive person┬┤, for example someone who has spoken out against the government. But when you actually try to see him, they tell you "Oh, he is on vacation." They send him away. The government people are keeping track of what is happening.
AVIVA-Berlin: Like many people of his age your father valued girls less than boys. You had to prove that you are as clever and as worthy as your two brothers. Still, you followed in your father┬┤s footsteps in many ways. You also studied English and you share his love for great English writers like Dickens and Swift. Your father wrote a book about his life in the era of Mao Zedong. Unfortunately, it has not been published in German yet.
Emily Wu: It was published in several languages. I think it was translated in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French and Swedish.
I love my father so much, I adore him and that is what I always wanted to prove. I wanted to get his attention. It is almost ironic that my brothers became engineers and that I am the only one who kept his passion for literature and for writing. Interestingly, I wrote my book originally in English and my father translated his book into Chinese - I did the same thing. So in career ways I followed his path. Now he is really happy and proud.
AVIVA-Berlin: So you are still in touch with him and the rest of your family?
Emily Wu: Oh yes, and we are all in the US. We are very lucky and very fortunate that we all got through this time. And because of that, I feel that I have the duty to tell the story of this time. It is not the story of myself, of my family. It is history. It is millions of people in China, everybody was suffering. Even people in power. They were persecuted as well when the political winds changed.
AVIVA-Berlin: Like Sun Maomao, the daughter of the headmaster. You wrote about Sun and her brothers who tortured you.
Emily Wu: Yes. And with Sun, I had a very interesting encounter later. In 1998, I went back to the University where my family had lived before. And I walked around the campus when I suddenly found Xiaolan, the girl from Hefei. That was amazing. After thirty years we were still able to find her. Later, Xialon and I were walking around, when we heard a horrible voice. There came a person with two women holding her on each side. Xiaolan was so excited "Look, who┬┤s that!". And it was Sun Maomao! She had become lunatic after all the torturing - and she never recovered. It is more than a coincidence, it is like god comes to you to let you see. Nobody was spared. Not even Mao. After he died his wife was arrested and she died in prison, maybe suicide ÔÇôwho knows.
AVIVA-Berlin: With this spatiotemporal distance to China and after everything you have experienced, where do you feel home?
Emily Wu: I have lived in America for 26 years. That is longer than I have lived in China. I still feel that I am Chinese, but also American. I am both. I love China, I love the people. I love the country, the land. But not the government and the party.
AVIVA-Berlin: Which Chinese traditions do you still practise? For example, do you cook Chinese food? How "Chinese" is your life today?
Emily Wu: I live in the San Francisco Area and it is very easy to live there as a Chinese, because there are nearly one million Chinese people. Several Chinese newspapers, radio stations, TV stations and all the traditional holidays are celebrated there. For example, the spring festival, the moon festival and the dragon festival.So it is very easy to keep the traditions. But for my children it is harder, because my ex-husband is white and he does not speak Chinese. So at home we speak English and though my children do not speak Chinese, I think they know a little more about China than regular children. And to my cooking: my children say, it does not matter what I cook, there is still a Chinese taste to it even if it is American food.
AVIVA-Berlin: You have two children, one boy and a girl. How does your own childhood influence their education? What important lessons for life do you teach them, what do you want them to know?
Emily Wu: I think I spoil my children, because I had nothing. I had such a hard life, so I go another extreme with my children: I give them everything. You know, I do, what I can. Sometimes, I tell them, they should appreciate what they have. But they grow up not really knowing. I can say, I had a hard life as a child, but what does that mean?
AVIVA-Berlin: As a child, you had a few times in which you wanted to end your life. Fortunately you didn┬┤t. What has given you hope and the will to survive?
Emily Wu: I think, it is the human instinct to survive and also my personality. I am always hoping for the better, always looking at the bright side. When I thought about suicide, I suddenly realised that things cannot get worse - they can only get better. You never know what is ahead in life, so I made a promise to myself to never ever try suicide. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things are, to never end life by myself. And then things happen and it keeps getting better and better all the time. When I wake up in the morning, I am happy. I am still alive and I enjoy it every day.
AVIVA-Berlin: What are your projects for the future?
Emily Wu: Right now, I am writing a novel. China is the background and the story is mostly my mother┬┤s family story.
AVIVA-Berlin: Your mother is also still alive?
Emily Wu:Yes, my parents live in Washington D.C.
AVIVA-Berlin: There is a documentary called : "Up to the mountains, down to the village" about you.
Emily Wu: That is a documentary about the small period in my life in the mountains. The filmcrew went back with me to the mountains and filmed the village. The village had not changed, nothing had changed there. The people are still very poor and they still do not have running water.
But they are wonderful people. My students, who were little children at the time I was a teacher, are now 40, 50 years old. Some of them are even older than me. Students may go to school and then they have to stop for several years to work in the fields. Some of my former students asked me: "Miss Wu, do you remember me?" You know, they remember me. It is so nice.
The movement was called "Up to the mountains, down to the village". All the graduates from high school and junior high school were send to the lands for ten years by Mao. That was during the cultural revolution in 1968. It was a very bad movement, it ruined the lives of a whole generation. They lost ten years of their lives, the best years ÔÇô in which they were supposed to enjoy life and pursue education.
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much!