A Free Woman in the Other Half of the Sky

In Memory of Doris Lessing

I am interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can.

During the final stage of the Cultural Revolution, I got hold of a thick tattered book in English through the underground book club. The cover was gone, front and back, and many pages torn out. It had passed through many hands. Many pages were marked with question marks, explanations and comments in English, Chinese, Russian, and in different handwritings. The title Free Women captured my eyes, along with Anna Wulf’s words “stretching myself” and “living as fully as I can.”

At that time my English was limited to a few dozen words I had learned from the Central Broadcast Radio: long live Chairman Mao, we are Chairman Mao’s red guards, down with American imperialism. Plus a few names I learned from the Voice of America: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, adventure, raft, apple core, fence, slavery. I borrowed an old dictionary and figured out the meaning of “free,” “freedom,” which appeared over and over again. Then I looked up “women,” “stretching,” “myself,” “living,” “fully.”

I didn’t know who wrote the book, what it was called, or what story it was telling. But I was already hooked. The spirit and idea of being free set my heart on fire. I was fourteen, skinny, ugly, awkward, still without my period. I was a girl growing up during a time when freedom was unthinkable in the public imagination. We read only one book—Mao’s words—,watched one ballet and a few Peking operas and sang a few revolutionary songs, shouted one slogan, pledged our loyalty to our Great Leader. But that didn’t stop me from dreaming to be free in the other half of the sky, as promoted by Chairman Mao. I wanted to go to college, a dream I had since I was six, and persisted even when schools were closed after I finished the second grade. I taught myself with banned books through the secret book club: reading, writing, history, geography, philosophy… I loved science, often fantasizing myself as Chinese Madame Curie, as the first Chinese woman to walk on the moon…but math, physics, chemistry and astronomy were beyond my reach, since there was no textbook, no teacher, no classroom, no job, no future…

At fourteen, I looked like a nine-year-old crony, a loser, too old already, too late for everything. My life had ended before it began.

But Free Women ignited my imagination. I wanted to know the experience of becoming a woman before I got old. I wanted to taste freedom and see the world before I died. And I knew, intuitively, this thick book without a cover, missing the first 30 pages, middle pages and god-knows how many last pages, would be the key to open a new world. How did I find the key? How did I navigate the maze with a few English words at my disposal? I had no idea, but no matter. Even though I didn’t know its title, Golden Notebook, or the author Doris Lessing at that time (I genuinely thought Anna Wulf was the author of Free Women), its spirit and weight already overwhelmed me like a virus, a camp fire, a flashflood, a tsunami. I couldn’t understand 99.9% of this book yet, but could feel its vibration, as I swam in Anna’s world of fragmented sentences, undeciphered meanings, missing pages, torn apart life. It mirrored my struggles, my despair, my hope, my home, my country and my era.

I decided to decipher the book on my own, to learn how to “stretch myself” and “live fully,” and become “the other half of the sky.”

I traded the tattered English dictionary with my most treasured Complete Fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, the book I unearthed from under the chicken coop and used to launch my first underground book club. I cried as I watched my friend walk away with my beloved Little Mermaid, but I needed the dictionary as a portal.

This was how I learned English, through Free Women, through a dictionary, decoding the book, the foreign language, the forbidden dream of being free, word by word, sentence by sentence, meaning by meaning, chapter by chapter, until both books fell apart, and their energy released and transferred into my body and mind.

I copied and memorized fragments from the dictionary. I didn’t understand their meaning then, even with the dictionary, but I played games with the words, hoping something magical would be released.

Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want …

I went backwards, cut them up, reshuffled and pieced them together. Here are some results:

“want I what say will chance even combination that hoping combination word play I words with words…”

“play what combination want words hoping will I chance words even with words…”

Integrity isn’t chastity, it isn’t fidelity, it isn’t any of the old words. Integrity is the orgasm.

I looked up “integrity, chastity, orgasm…” The first two words were easy to understand as they were close to my Chinese upbringing: integrity–志;chastity-贞. The third word, however, gave me troubles. Orgasm—性高潮—sex/intercourse high tide? The definition washed over my brain like flood over stones, leaving behind more mud and debris. I asked older girls. They gave me smirks. They smiled mysteriously.

“Did you get your period yet, Little Ping? Did you ever kiss a boy?”

I blushed and ran as they laughed to my back. I put the word in the category of joy, the highest level of joy, like nirvana, a word I just learned in the dictionary. Later, I studied French and Barthes’ literary theory about “Plaisir” and “Jouissance,” and years later, I studied the brain for my medical degree. I connected the trinity. My young instinct was spot on. My mind reached orgasm through the maze under the harshest conditions: I was reading a very difficult text in a foreign language. Not only did I have no teacher or tutor, I had to hide to avoid being caught and beaten for reading a forbidden book. But my stubborn will persisted, and I reached “jouissance” over and over again.

The real experience can’t be described.

So I learned English through Free Women, learned how to play with words, semantics, meaning, life, fate…Three months before I turned 15, I moved my city residence to the countryside for the one-in-a-million chance to go to college. It was May. The rainy season had started. In the drizzle, I took the bus with my father, a captain on a navy ship. He couldn’t understand why I would not use the quota to work in a factory and earn the 21 yuan($3)monthly salary to support the family. I told him if I took the job, my sister would have to go to the countryside, and she would be too pretty to survive rough young peasants, too fragile for the harsh condition in the fields. He nodded. I knew my beautiful sister was his favorite, and deep down he was glad I volunteered going to the countryside and giving the job quota to my sister. I didn’t tell him my secret: I would have a slightly better chance as a peasant than as a worker, to go to college.

I took Free Women with me, along with The Arabian Nights, Dreams of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, Shuihu, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, and of course, my English-Chinese dictionary. At fourteen, I left home and became a farmer in a fishing village by the East China Sea. My chance to leave the village and return to the city was one in a million. I might be stuck as a peasant for the rest of my life. But I was willing to take my chance.

Work was hard in the village. The island on the East China Sea was warm enough for three growing seasons. So we farmed the land without weekends or holidays. When it rained or snowed, we worked indoors, repairing and making tools. I had to learn everything, planting, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting. I learned how to live with no electricity, running water, bathroom, toilet paper or fuel. I became the laughing stock on my first day in the village, when I went to the “bathroom” and immediately ran out screaming. It was a straw hut with a bucket half full with excrement and wiggling maggots. “Get me out of this shit hole” was my first thought, but I stayed. The peasants were kind and helpful, though they couldn’t stop teasing me.

I earned their respect with hard work and my books, especially the English dictionary and Free Women. I had hidden them under my straw bed at first. But in the countryside, you don’t lock your room. You can’t lock the room if you want to. It’s something unimaginable. There’s nothing to steal. There’s no latch or lock. One day I came home and found a group of young men and women sprawled on my bed thumbing through the dictionary and Free Women. I froze. Are they going to report me? They jumped up and pulled me down, pointed to a word, a sentence, a punctuation mark, and asked me to read it out loud. Each sound made them laugh like crazy. From then on, listening to Free Women and the dictionary became the villagers’ entertainment, even though they couldn’t understand a word except for the title. They were fascinated with the concept, the sounds, the tones, and the mystery it created. I think they too, like me, were pulled into the same energy field of Free Women.

The village life was poor and hard, but I tasted freedom for the first time: I could read any books in any language I owned, openly. I never had to hide. Nobody would scold or report me. They even called me the real “educated youth” and “little professor” because of my books.

Three years later, the village party secretary recommended me to the college. Two examiners from Hangzhou University interviewed me, one elder professor, one young plump official. The professor asked me to say a few words in English. I hesitated for a minute, then the passage by Anna Wulf slipped out of my mouth:

She was thinking: If someone cracks up, what does that mean? At what point does a person about to fall to pieces say: I’m cracking up? And if I were to crack up, what form would it take? Anna, Anna, I am Anna, she kept repeating; and anyway, I can’t be ill or give way, because of Janet; I could vanish from the world tomorrow, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone except to Janet. What then am I, Anna? — something that is necessary to Janet. But that’s terrible, she thought, her fear becoming worse. That’s bad for Janet. So try again: Who am I, Anna? Now she did not think of Janet, but shut her out. Instead she saw her room, long, white, subdued, with the coloured notebooks on the trestle table. She saw herself, Anna, seated on the music-stool, writing, writing; making an entry in one book, then ruling it off, or crossing it out; she saw the pages patterned with different kinds of writing; divided, bracketed, broken — she felt a swaying nausea…

 I had no idea why I picked this passage. It brings out similar feelings when I read Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,”  but Anna’s soliloquy felt closer to my heart. Is it because we’re both women? Is it the question I have been asking myself since my memory? In fact, it is the very first thought since my memory: who am I? why am I here?

Of course, I couldn’t have understood Doris Lessing then, because I didn’t even know the name, but our pulses somehow synced.

My examiners from Hangzhou University sat in silence, shocked. The old professor’s eyes shined, her cheeks rosy. She suddenly looked 20 years younger, completely alive. She knew what book I was reciting, but she remained quiet. Finally the official asked what book I was reciting from. “It’s not from Anna Karenina, right?” I could tell he was hoping I’d say yes, because China had just lifted ban on some authors, and Tolstoy was on the list. I shook my head, and told them Free Women.

“But Anna is a communist Party member,” I said, to reassure him that it was a good book.

They nodded and told me to wait for the result outside.

There were four candidates in total. We all looked we’d been working on the farm as the “educated youths,” except for the girl accompanied by her mother and a solider. Her dress, hair style and manner showed that she had been living a privileged life in the city. Unlike us, she had never set her lily white feet in the black muddy fields infested with leeches, bending over the rice paddies all day long to plant rice. Her narrow shoulders had never blistered from the yoke carrying a hundred pounds of yams, wood, or manure. Her pale hands had never scooped a fistful of animal excrement from the bucket and fed the crop, plant by plant. Her body language spelled her background, her connections, her daddy who held the key to open the back door for her “dream.” That means she would take the only spot in Hangzhou University? My heart sank. Her name was called. Lili. Even her name revealed her status. What hope would I have now?

She went in with a smile and stormed out in anger in less than ten minutes.

I was summoned in. The professor smiled and said, “Comrade Xiao Wang, you’ve been selected to study English at Hangzhou University as a ‘gong nong bing xue yuan—worker peasant soldier college student. Congratulations!”

I was stunned. I had been dreaming of this moment since I heard the story of Little Mermaid on the radio. The Cultural Revolution shattered my hope. I picked it up and pieced it together through an underground book club. Free Women gave me the courage to go to the bottom of the society to have a chance at chasing the dream. For three years, I worked in the fields 24/7 with the peasants, learned how to work with the earth, what it meant to live. Now I’d be a “gong nong bing” college student, product from a trial policy to reopen higher education after the Cultural Revolution. People already began to scorn the students, because many of them barely knew how to read or write, let alone keep up with the course work. There were rumors that the college exams would reopen soon, so that universities could admit real students, not the ignorant gong nong bing. But I didn’t care. I was ready to sit in a classroom and library, reading and learning.

“When would I start school?” I finally asked, whispering as if my voice might break the dream.

“You’ll report yourself to the campus on August 14,” said the Official. “We’ll send you all the paperwork, including your residency registration transfer so that you could live in Hangzhou. Congratulations again, you’ll be studying English in the most beautiful city, paradise on earth.”

I was floating on cloud nine when the door opened. Lili’s soldier rushed in with a note and whispered something to the examiners. Their faces changed as they turned to look at me. The professor shook her head, and whispered NO. But he towered over them, staring at the official until he trembled and looked down. Apparently he knew who the decision maker was. Once he “persuaded” the official, the old professor could not object. But would she speak up for me?

“Little Wang, could you please wait outside again? We have something serious to go over. We’ll call you back and explain everything,” she said kindly.

I drifted out of the room, my heart aching with despair, my mind rejecting the bad news: my college dream is over, over, over, and my body echoing with Anna’s words:

I’m cracking up? And if I were to crack up, what form would it take?

 I don’t know how long I waited, just remember everything was cracking, breaking, ending. Then I felt the professor’s hand on my shoulder, warm, moist, heavy, as if she were trying to prevent me from falling apart.

“Little Wang, please come with me.”

I followed her in. The soldier was gone already. I was invited to sit, but I stood still. I wanted to receive my blow standing.

“We can’t admit you to Hangzhou University,” said the official, waving his hand when I opened my mouth. “The reason is simple: you have a missing tooth, and that made your English sound inaccurate and weird.”

I shut my mouth fast. I did have a missing tooth, my left canine. A year after I started working in the village, my gum became inflamed and soon the canine tooth started leaking blood and pus, keeping me awake at night. A travelling barefoot dentist told me I had an abscess and if I didn’t have it pulled, the infection would go up to my brain. So I let him get rid of the tooth. I hadn’t been smiling freely since then. But it didn’t prevent me from reciting Free Women. If it had affected my English pronunciation, why did they admit me twenty minutes ago? Why didn’t he say something about the missing tooth in the beginning? What did he know about English pronunciation?

The professor said nothing, but her eyes were shining with water.

“The good news is,” said the official, “you’ll go to Hangzhou Foreign Language School to study the language. When you graduate, you’ll be a glorious English teacher.”

“What about my missing tooth?” I wanted to shout. “Wouldn’t that affect me speaking or teaching English?”

But I said nothing, just looked at the professor, hoping for an answer.

“Comrade Xiao Wang,” she said, “it’s a good school, its campus next to our campus. You’re welcome to visit us any time. You learned English through the most difficult masterpiece The Golden Notebook,” she switched to English. “Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have guts…”

Suddenly I realized she was reciting a passage from Free Women. I was stunned. Tears swelled my eyes. So she was one of us, the Free Women’s club.

“But you have guts and you’ve got a will,” she continued in English. “That means you’ll succeed anywhere. Take the offer and go to that school,  Little Ping. You’re not going to crack. You are not nothing. You shall remain Ping, because of a certain kind of intelligence!”

We looked at each other until the official coughed uneasily.

I bowed and left the room without a word.

Lili was laughing and prancing her victory lap in the waiting room. She stole my dream with her daddy’s connections. But it didn’t matter. I got the blessing of Free Women and the professor. We would see who could fly higher and freer in the other half of the sky.

I graduated from Hangzhou Foreign Language School, top of the class, and was selected to stay and teach English. That year, the college entrance exams began. I taught two years, a promise I made to the school, before I took the exams and got into Beijing University, with the blessing of Free Women. I used passages from the book to write my English essay and I got a perfect score. Then I went to NYU for my PhD, taught creative writing and poetry as Professor of English at an elite liberal arts college, and published fourteen award-winning books of poetry, novels, cultural studies, folklores…

I still remember the first day I arrived at Beida (Beijing University). I went straight to the library. I looked for Free Women. I wanted to hold and read the book without a single missing page. But it was not there. How could it be possible! This library should have every masterpiece on earth. Then I remembered the professor’s words: You learned English through the most difficult masterpiece The Golden Notebook…

 I checked. There it was, in its complete form, in its full colors and fragrance, my Anna and Molly and Professor Examiner, so broken, yet so determined, so strong, so wholesome, who had guided me through the maze of life and reached the holy grail of college, as a real student, a free Ping.

Then I saw the author’s name, for the first time: Doris Lessing, born in Iran, grew up in Zimbabwe, taught herself with whatever books she could find. I held her close to my chest.

The real experience can’t be described.

In America, I tried to teach The Golden Notebook twice. Students had no patience for it. They felt unsafe reading it. They complained it traumatized them, made them more depressed and anxious, more broken, that she was a communist, not feminist enough, not liberal enough…

They want to be free but don’t want to count “freedom” 679 times the way Anna did in the Red Book. They love freedom, but want a faster, easier, safer way to get there, without the danger of cracking, falling apart… I was heartbroken. I knew I could not be where I am without the blessings from the giants like Li Qingzhao, Qu Yuan, Zhuangzi, Wang Wei, Doris Lessing, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Rilke, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Gluck, and the nameless Professor Examiner…

The real experience can’t be described, only lived.

Nor can the orgasm, the jouissance, the sensation of freedom. It can only be experienced through endless breaking downs, fragmentations, frustrations, struggles, tears, blood, fires, floods, despair, love, hard and different each time, to each individual.

The heart is made to be broken, so that it can grow stronger and more beautiful through the art of Kintsugi. It costs dearly, but it’s worth it. No, it is the only way to be, to stretch oneself, to live fully, and almost free, in the other half of the sky.

Doris Lessing passed her books to the Harare City Library in Zimbabwe, so that little girls like her, like me, have a chance to chase their dream, like her, me, us,  who possess a certain kind of intelligence.

Holding Water

Keeping a family is like holding water on your palms. You must not let any of it drop to the ground. Your hands must remain balls of fists even if you have no use for them.

Headbutt UK

We talk, our breaths spilling in white gusts, and that old, fairytale London, where the wolves were very much real, comes back as vivid as a story whispered in a child’s ear. And something else, something surprising, begins to happen. For the first time in years, perhaps the first time ever, I’m sharing memories with my older brother.

We Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice

The doctor shows me cross-sections of my breasts on her computer screen. The images look like something from the Weather Channel, a satellite tracking a monochrome storm.

“You see here,” the doctor says, pointing out a line of tiny white spots, innocent as grains of rice. “And also here.”


At New York City street fairs, there’s always a booth claiming: We will write your name on a grain of rice.

Why write someone’s name so tiny it can’t be seen without a magnifying glass?

Who perfects an art like that?

When the doctor shows me the cross-section of my breasts, the grains inside, the microscopic tears that beckon my death, I think: Oh they’re pretty.