I soak in the silence of the rectangular hall. The muted rooftop light trickles down gently on the black-and-white paintings and calligraphy scrolls that are hanging on the wall. I am in the main exhibition room at the Freer Gallery, one of the country’s most significant museums for Asian art, where Bada Shanren’s paintings are exhibited today. Bada Shanren, the enigmatic 17th century Chinese painter who began his life as a Ming Dynasty aristocrat and then became a Buddhist recluse for over forty years, paints as if no one is left to watch him – yet there is still an intentional tenderness in his minimalist, at times painfully deserted works, which seems to defy this belief.
Somebody with an incredibly posh English accent, reminding me of voices you would hear at a Christy’s auction in London, whispers excitedly to their neighbor “Bada was the Picasso of the East! He foresaw the development of Western modernity, unbelievable”. Then another voice cuts through the silence; it is that of my little son’s. He is asking a stranger to name all their body parts in great detail, from head to toe. The voice that responds to him is a female one. Patiently and with a slightly unusual seriousness, she responds to each of his questions without hesitation. I walk over, ready to apologize for my son disturbing her in this serene hall, but she brushes it away. All dressed in black, her eyes are filled with a curious mixture of humor and melancholy, and an almost childlike oblivion of social etiquette. It turns out she is Lily Brett, the New York-based Australian writer who has just won the Prix Médicis étranger literary prize for her novel Lola Bensky, which features her experience as a rock journalist in the 1960s, and most crucially, her identity of a child of Jewish parents who survived Auschwitz.
We sit down on the wooden bench in the middle of the hall; the room has found its equilibrium again. I tell her I am from Germany, to which she responds immediately “I was born in a displaced people’s camp in Munich, one year after the war ended”. I recognize this – the comfortable rehearsedness with which people who live in the unsettling place between identities have learned to present certain brutal facts of their life story, and yet the unrelenting ferocity with which that very fact still overwhelms them every time they put it into language. She must have told this sentence countless times to bureaucrats, strangers, potential friends and lovers in her life – and yet every time she utters is, the rawness around the pain and disbelief is still there. Our meeting touches me deeply, as a German (I used to feel personally responsible for the Holocaust as a teenager), as someone who occupied herself intensely with Jewish thought and identity, and as a person who is stuck between identities.
Sometime later, after I am back home in Virginia, I start reading her novel Just Like That, which is about a daughter and her survivor parents, who as the only family members – everyone else was killed – survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The daughter is a grown-up writer of obituaries, living in New York, with her own children, but the relationship between herself and her parents is unresolved, to say the least. It has not yet reached those borders of the country we call adulthood, where we do not let others question every single step we take, where we might have arrived at some kind of rudimentary certainty of who we think we are. Instead, the protagonist’s own sense of history and self is constantly undermined (as much as it is fed) by the past that her parents survived – a past that is not her own and yet has indelibly etched itself onto every life decision she makes.
Again, I recognize this. Lily’s writing – its honesty, how it describes fundamental human relationships in such a direct and unpretentious way, its humanization of survivors as both extraordinary and resilient, but also traumatized individuals who can hurt and leash out against their loved ones, and most of all, its humor in all of it – allow me to admit the many parallels to my own Chinese parents who survived the Cultural Revolution and things they have said to me (some phrases are almost identical to what the parents say to their daughter in Just Like That) over the years. I am a survivors’ child, I think as I keep circling the pages with my fingers.
In fact, I realize suddenly that many of my friends are in some way or another survivors’ children or grandchildren of the horrors of the 20th century – did we unconsciously gravitate towards each other because of that? When I speak to my Russian friend from Siberia, an inspiring member of the next generation of public intellectuals and activists in Moscow, she shrugs her shoulders and nods at the same time. “Sure, my family has seen starvation, pogroms, labor camps, ethnic cleansing. I guess you don’t take anything for granted knowing that.” We agree that survivors’ children have a special sensitivity towards the fragility of social bonds and the institutions that sustain them, the contingency of political stability and economic wealth, the atrocities that ordinary human beings can do to each other, the way how history continues to weave itself into the consciousness of those who should be free from the burdens of the past. Through their parents, survivors’ children are suspicious of the neoliberal belief – perpetuated by our elites today – that all of life’s success depends on individual attitude and motivation, and that if one has a dream, the failure of reaching it lies nowhere but with oneself. On the contrary, we know how our own parents’ fate was completely out of their control, how the possibility of a life’s dream could be wiped out by one political decision at the top, how my own mother was sent to the countryside for reeducation under Mao as a teenage girl, never knowing whether she would see her family again.
But most of all, survivors’ children carry the echo of a suffering in their chest (that’s the physical sensation I feel, anyway) that is at once overwhelming (knowing that your parents’ bodies, which nurture you every day in such a visceral way that is utterly devoid of history, are the same bodies that were once abandoned, ostracized, beaten, starved, and escaped death in periods that you read about now only in the history books) and yet so abstract (you were not there, you were saved, you will never know how it ‘really was’, you are spoiled because you don’t know, you are nothing because you have never ‘truly’ suffered).
In a psychoanalytic study of intergenerational trauma called Landscapes of the Chinese Soul: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution (2010), a German team of psychoanalysts trains Chinese psychologists to counsel both the immediate survivors of the Cultural Revolution and their children. There are many parallels to Lily Brett’s protagonist and her parents, but of course, there are things specific to China. Up until today, there is little awareness in China of the individual, familial and collective traumas produced by war and civil war – for obvious political reasons, but also, because culturally China is not used to work through trauma in an individualistic way (other than through the work of individual poets, artists and recluses in Chinese history). You owe your duty and your sense of self to your elders and parents, but what if, as during the Cultural Revolution, those fundamental relationships between parents and children, or teachers and students, were violated, betrayed, and brutalized? How do you come out of that? How can you rebuild trust in society, if that very society turned so heartlessly on you?
As I wonder about this, I make a new friend that week – Helen Verdeli, the director of the Columbia Global Mental Health Lab – and I know almost instantly when we first talk on the phone that she, too, is a survivors’ child. She is originally from Greece but has been in the US for a long while. Her lab studies vulnerable populations in war zones and developing countries, most recently, the mental health of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Her studies show that adolescent survivors of war in Uganda suffer from a range of depression symptoms (Bolton et al. 2007), and in a 20-year study, she shows that the offspring of depressed parents are at much higher risk to suffer depression themselves, especially between the ages of 15-20 years (Weissman et al. 2006). Lily Brett writes about how survivor parents can cope with their children’s physical pain, but are unable to admit and accept their mental and emotional suffering. It brings survivors back to that place that they wanted to escape, where they themselves were utterly helpless, where they were degraded to something less-than-human. They want protect their children from that place, but history, mercilessly, moves on.
Lily is back somewhere in New York and I am writing this surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, to which I have become addicted in the past months (not so much as a climber but as an onlooker soaking up that special blueish glow that emanates from its ridges at dusk). I think back of the hall where Lily and I met, of Bada’s paintings of rocks, lotuses, ducks and fish. It suddenly comes to me that Bada himself, of course, was a survivor, too. He was only a teenager when the Ming Dynasty collapsed and the Manchus overtook major cities, starting with the Yangzhou massacre in 1645. The city was looted and the population killed and raped. It was to serve as an example to other cities not to rebel but succumb to the new rulers. Shortly afterwards, Bada, the descendant of a Ming prince, joined a monastery to become a Buddhist recluse – escaping political turmoil and the pleasures of this world.
And yet, showing both the resilience and brokenness that marks survivors, Bada left the monastery after 40 years and pursued his painting and calligraphy, which are now seen as some of the most enigmatic masterpieces of Chinese and world art. He was said to have had many mental breakdowns in his life, especially shortly before and after he left the monastery. His paintings, as I said in the beginning, are painted as if there is no one left to watch him – a cultural audience and world that had vanished from his life after the fall of the Ming. And yet there was something still, despite the brokenness and grief and years of solitude where he could live without anyone, which he still wanted to communicate to us. It is exactly this irrational, ridiculous, life-saving urge to communicate after all that our parents and we have survived that makes it possible to live on.
Bolton, J. Bass, T. Betancourt, L. Speelman, G. Onyango, K. Clougherty, R. Neugebauer, L. Murray, H. Verdeli (2007) ‘Intervention for depression symptoms for adolescent survivors of war and displacement in Northern Uganda: A randomized controlled trial’ The Journal of the Medical Association 298 (5): 519-527.
Plänkers, ed. (2010) Landscapes of the Chinese Soul: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution. London: Karnac.
Weissman, P. Wickramarante, Y. Nomura, V. Warner, D. Pilowsky, H. Verdeli (2006) ‘Offspring of depressed parents: 20 years later’ The American Journal of Psychiatry 163 (6): 1001-1008.