Wang Ping’s latest book isn’t a typical memoir, but then, her life has not been ordinary, especially in contrast to our comfortable standards. Read “Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and Mississippi,” and you will note — possibly with some surprise — that you have led a privileged life.
Wang Ping was a little girl when China’s Cultural Revolution began. The government closed factories, stores and schools. Books were banned. Her father was sent into exile; her mother was placed under house arrest. At 6, to feed her younger siblings and grandmother, the author “walked six miles every dawn through minefields, chicken wire, checkpoints, and flying bullets to find food and fuel.”
At 14, she signed on for years of hard labor as a peasant, dodging attempted rape, for a remote chance to attend college (which she did).
Her determination and curious spirit fuel “Life of Miracles,” an autobiography and examination of what binds us though we’re worlds apart. Wang Ping offers personal sketches about her remarkable childhood, her move to America, life with her partner and two children. Then the story flows outward and onward, much like the two mighty rivers in the title.
Water has deep significance to the poet, writer and professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul. She was born at the mouth of the Yangtze River and now lives in Minnesota, the birthplace of the Mississippi. “The two great rivers run through my mind and body every day,” she writes.
This unique perspective inspired her Kinship of Rivers project, through which she uses prayer flags to connect the people of the Yangtze and Mississippi. Each painted flag, she writes, is “a bridge to bring the world together through prayers.”
She writes movingly of China’s environmentally dangerous Three Gorges Dam and risks imprisonment, beatings and possibly worse to talk to some of the 1.5 million people displaced by the project. In the United States, she discovers similar stories: towns and lives shattered by greed, environmental disaster and acts of nature.
Wang Ping generously steps aside, allowing other voices to tell their stories. In one amusing chapter she narrates from the point of view of a Chinese driver eyeing her skeptically, calling her “Maverick” and wishing he’d never laid eyes on her.
“Life of Miracles,” winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award for creative nonfiction, revels in its spirituality, stirring outrage at the horrors and compassion for the river people, although occasionally patience is required. The author may believe that her boyfriend was derailed by the Devil at the crossroads, ala Robert Johnson, but the fact that he’s just acting like a jerk seems far more likely.
Still, “Life of Miracles” remains a testament to human resilience. How do we face loss and hardship? With hope and defiance — like a river. After all, “no border, dam or politics can stop her flowing to the sea.”
Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.
Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and Mississippi
By: Wang Ping.
Publisher: University of Georgia Press, 336 pages, $26.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 18, University Club, 420 Summit Av., St. Paul.