It’s Christmas 1998. I’m home in New Mexico for the holidays, taking a break from grad school in New York. Later this afternoon, my dad will be pulling out his beloved Betamax and looking at his copy of casablanca for what must be the hundredth time. But right now, he’s doing something incredible: telling me and my older brother about his youth in China and Taiwan.
During my twenty-six years, he never told us anything about his past. It’s a taboo subject with us. At first we avoided him for fear of upsetting him. Eventually we ignored it, thinking it didn’t apply to us.
My pen scrambles to capture his words. I make my best guesses on the spellings of cities, towns, and relatives I’ve never heard of. I dare not interrupt, dare not break the spell. I don’t want his silence to return. When it finally stops, I’ve covered eight pages of loose-leaf paper, front and back, with a hasty scribble of names, dates, and details: a wooden monkey puzzle picture, kerosene bottles , a precious hand roller, watermelon seeds.
In the years that follow, I keep these notes, always knowing where they are, certain that they are important but not knowing what to do with them. In truth, part of me is afraid of them. Every once in a while I pull them out and reread them, checking to see if they’re still real. I wonder if, like so much of my father’s life, they should continue to be a secret. Are these stories only for me and my brothers’ ears?
How does a secret become a story? And when do we tell a story? Is that when you think it’s safe enough? When there is no longer any need to protect someone or something? Can the passage of years make the story a celebration instead of a betrayal?
From the beginning of the project, there was an urgency, a feeling that I had to write this story now. A feeling that time was running out.
Now, when I think back to the day my father told his stories, I realize he was entering a peaceful time in his life. He had just retired and my parents had moved to the city of Albuquerque. My brothers and I were all busy building careers, families, and lives of our own. He loved being a new grandfather. Perhaps, for the first time in a long time, instead of looking at the past with sadness and the future with caution, he could look at his life with reflection and hope. It was a time when he could tell the stories he had carried safely and quietly for so long.
A few years later, a handful of peach pits he threw in the garden took root and started to grow. For our family, it was nothing short of a miracle. After years of trying and failing to grow fruit trees in our old house, here in his new home he had an orchard, albeit accidental. In tribute to him and his trees, I wrote a short story about them. It was a passable story, but it didn’t do justice to who my father was and why it was important for his peach trees to grow.
By then, almost two decades had passed since the day he told us his stories. I had become a teacher, got married, had children and moved to the UK. After various teaching jobs, I began to wonder what would happen if I took my writing more seriously. Determined to improve my fishing story, I pulled out those old notes from my dad and studied them again.
The notes consisted of a list of places and dates interspersed with small anecdotes and additional comments. We are a very healthy and beautiful family. You have good health, you got it from me! and It’s hard, it’s really hard to live in two cultures. My favorite: Anyway, your dad is pretty bright. I think it’s not from my father, but from my mother. Nainai was very smart. And this heartbreaking euphemism: Chinese history is sad.
As I reread the pages, I realized that to do justice to the miracle of my father’s trees, I needed to better understand who he was and the extraordinary times he went through. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became: the story linking those notes to my father’s peach trees was the story I really needed to write.
It took some detective work to translate the notes into an actual journey. My father had a strong southern Chinese accent and I had written down the different places phonetically. I remember poring over a map of modern China, saying the names of each city out loud, trying to match the sounds I was making with places that might match.
When I retraced their possible route, it seemed incredible: almost 6500 km! It couldn’t be true, they hadn’t been able to cover all that distance, much of it on foot or by steamboat. But there were details that confirmed that I was on the right track. He remembered the times spent in the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu. He mentioned living in small towns near Beijing in Hebei Province. He recalled a time in Henan Province when they traveled along the Yellow River. The Yellow River is always causing trouble, he said. From the city of Luoyang, he recalled that In winter, the wind is so wild that yellow dust is everywhere. You have to brush it. Most people are Muslim.
I needed to know more, much more, to write a coherent story. I started researching the Sino-Japanese and Chinese civil wars. With a better understanding of the complex history of modern China, I returned to my map. Now I could see how the family moved with the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek. They zigzagged across China, driven first by the Japanese, then by the Communists. As I imagined my family’s journeys and choices, the pages of notes transformed. With streamlining here, expanding there, adding and subtracting, I was turning a timeline into a story.
Every once in a while, I considered asking my dad to revisit his memories, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the heart to ask him to think back to those sad times. Also, there was a freedom that came from not knowing the truth, or rather not knowing the exact details. Bringing fictional characters to life has allowed me to imagine situations and explore stories that go beyond my family’s direct experiences. As I moved from fact to fiction, the story I was telling became something to create instead of something to report.
I had so many decisions to make. Where should I stick to facts and where would I use fiction to float the story? There were facts that served as ballast. These were the non-negotiables. Some were tiny details – a jade pendant, a porcelain teacup, a box of memory cards. Others were real events that needed to be incorporated. But I needed to simplify. I consolidated their trip, keeping only the main cities and concentrating their trip along the Yangtze River. The manuscript has become a sort of parallel universe to my father’s notes; there is the life of real people and there is the life of my characters and from time to time these lines of life cross. The real and the fictional share a conversation, a place or a physical object, then they continue their different paths until they cross paths again.
My dad’s notes provided the physical journey, and my early drafts laid out a narrative journey, but the heart of the writing for me was developing the emotional journeys of the main characters. I felt the best way to deepen each character’s emotional journey was to fictionalize real events based on my father’s stories and research into the lives of other Chinese people who shared similar migration patterns. By reading memoirs, oral histories, and studies about this demographic, I have built an emotional appreciation of how the families lived through these difficult times. These works gave me a rich context and vocabulary for the experiences that my father’s stories only evoked. For me, the fiction of real events paved the way for exploring the immediate impacts as well as the longer term repercussions of war and displacement on individuals, relationships and families.
Even though there was a lot of research and writing that I had to omit from the final manuscript, it all informed my process. Nothing is never lost. And nothing is ever complete; I could have researched for many years and found even more angles, more stories, more complexity. But from the beginning of the project, there was an urgency, a feeling that I had to write this story now. A feeling that time was running out.
Somehow, time ran out. My father, who knew I was writing a book based largely on his life, died in early 2019 while I was still drawing. Although I’m sure he would have told a different story than the one I wrote, his life and his orchard inspired my book. It took me nearly four years and almost four hundred pages, but I finally told the story I wanted to tell about his trees. I like to think he might be somewhere smiling a bit to see how it went. As reluctant as he was to tell his own, he always loved a good story.
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu is available through Little Brown and Company.