From the Author:
For a long time, I thought this book was about China—how I missed living in a place that had accepted me as a visitor while keeping me apart as someone who would never belong. As it turned out, I was writing about longing, and trying to cross distances that can’t be crossed. A separation from China brought me to the page, but an entirely different loss ended up giving the book both its shape and its purpose.
When I began working on Rebellion, it had been four years since I’d left Ya’an, the town in China’s southwest where I lived from 2004 to 2006. I still felt as if there were two different versions of myself in existence: the me that resided in America, anonymous, individual, largely unaware of the cultural and historical forces that shaped me, and the me who had lived in China, an envoy from a foreign land who had never really understood her own country until she was away from it. In America, I was often reserved, even reticent; I was afraid of appearing vulnerable; I was cautious with my smiles. In China, on the other hand, I was affable—even open—and made friends easily. My humor was of a slapstick variety, which went over well with the host of young children, the sons and daughters of my friends, and friends of friends, to whom I was Moli Ayi (Auntie Molly).
Several years later, enrolled in a writing program and dreaming up stories, I found myself imagining a young woman who took herself far from everything she once knew. Clear-eyed in her mission at first, she would find herself growing unsure of herself and her purpose over time. The China she lived in was not the China I’d left. In writing her story, I turned backward to the Boxer Rebellion, a flashpoint between China and the West, when foreigners in the empire had to face the resentments and anger that had been boiling around them for decades. Here was Addie, a Christian missionary, who led me into the novel.
I had been writing for some months when another character—a wry, no-nonsense, intelligent woman named Hazel—appeared on the page. As I hovered my fingers over the keyboard, this woman who seemed to have no connection at all to Addie began telling her story. She was living on a farm in Illinois in the late 1950s. She was middle-aged and recently widowed. She was, I realized, the voice of my grandmother, Viola Stille, who had passed away just a year before.
I was missing my grandmother then, more and more as time passed, rather than less and less. It had to do with the fact that she had told me so little about her life. For ninety-five years, she lived in the same white clapboard house on an expanse of flat land, surrounded by corn, and for more than three decades she was completely alone. I’d spent plenty of time with her over the years, not only with my family but one-on-one, yet I couldn’t remember a single conversation about her; our talk was always of food and the weather and what I was doing in my life. Who was my grandmother, and what was her story, once I took out of the equation her relationship to me?
In the last year of her life, she no longer lived on the farm. She resided in an assisted living facility, where she didn’t know the tread of the carpet or the path to the bathroom in the dead of night, where the water had a different taste and the only routines that remained from her past involved watching television. After her death, I began to realize how much history was closed up inside her, and to regret that I had no way to hear it. Even when she was alive, I wouldn’t have been able to get it out of her. She wasn’t a woman to speak of what she had experienced, or what she felt, or who she was, independent of her family.
Hazel shares some elements of Viola Stille’s life—the geography of a house, the broad outlines of a marriage and widowhood—but they are not the same person. And yet, I am grateful to Hazel because in borrowing her perspective, I grew closer to my grandmother, who I still admire and miss, every day. And I am grateful to her, too, for helping me to understand what this book is about. In writing Rebellion, I was calling out to a place I no longer live but which continues to shape me; to a past version of myself; to a grandmother I loved in the simplest of ways when she was alive, and have missed in more complicated ones since her death. Calling out across the void may sound like a lonesome act, but I can assure you it wasn’t. There’s comfort to be found, after all, in listening to echoes.