Chai Ao, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
Hualing Nieh Engle’s Three Lives (2011) expands on her 2004 One Tree Three Lives. Although the latter’s preface consist of just four short sentences – “I am a tree. My roots are in China. My trunk is in Taiwan. My leaves and branches are in Iowa.” – it clearly alludes to the writer’s diasporic experience: She has lived in three different places and experienced three entirely different lives. The book is divided into three parts, one for each of the locales the writer has called home – China, Taiwan, America. Hualing Nieh Engle begins the book with a short history of the Republic of China, revealing the historical background she and those of her generation share.
Although Three Lives is temporally divided into three parts, the book doesn’t follow a linear timeline; rather, the author employs a pointillist style to depict old friends, relatives, and the writers she has known. Thus, Three Lives read like a series of biographical sketches, each chapter devoted to a single individual’s interactions and friendship with Hualing Nieh Engle. Some are close to the writer, others farther removed, such as the scribes from around the world who took part in the Iowa International Writers’ Workshop – the pages devoted to these writers sheds light on Hualing Nieh Engle’s life while underscoring literature’s international development.
Although the book is autobiographical, it is also highly literary. Hualing Nieh Engle captures characters’ interactions and conversations in vivid detail, particularly in the second part, where she reveals the warmth within philosopher Yin Haiguang’s stern bearing.
Structurally, the book is similar to the author’s Mulberry and Peach. The first part, “Hometown,” revolves around figures from the writer’s youth – her mother, a wet nurse, her grandfather and his youthful concubine – the characters serving as a backdrop to the author’s childhood. Here the writer is more like a reader, only indirectly involved, moving seamlessly into the past. Hualing Nieh Engle’s father’s sudden death of is a turning point in the book’s first part, after which the family splits up and the author begins her life as a “student in exile,” embarking on a path of no return. The second part deals with the writer’s time as an editor at the Free China Journal; this section centers around two important figures at the journal, Lei Zhen (Lei Chen) and Yin Hai Guang. From a bystander’s point of view, Nieh Engle interprets Hu Shi’s ambiguous attitude toward Lei Zhen when the latter was arrested and imprisoned on charges of treason – White Terror pressures and intellectuals’ strength of character are interwoven in some of the book’s darkest and brightest passages. Part three focuses on the author’s relationship with her husband, the poet Paul Engle, and the Iowa International Writers’ Workshop they created together. One section in this part sketches various writers who took part in the workshop, also recalling literati of the past. Paul Engle is the central figure here – Three Lives ends with his unfinished poem, “When I Die,” a remembrance of the dead and reminder to the living.
|Related Literary Themes：||Diaspora Literature|