By: Xunjun Eberlein
Reviewed by: Treasure Ingels-Thompson
Livingston Press, 2008
The claim is made often that people are the same wherever you go. This statement seems trite in the shadow cast by Xujun Eberlein’s first short fiction collection, Apologies Forthcoming. Set in China during and after the Cultural Revolution, this book proves that our human similarities are strengthened or negated by personal experiences.
Containing eight stories, Apologies Forthcoming tackles issues at the forefront of our American consciousness, but Eberlein’s approach is unlike anything I have ever read. Deftly and subtly, Eberlein paints pictures that speak, empowering her characters, both male and female, to make their own defenses and apologies. Their lives are as real as any nonfiction, but their tales are unusual this far west. Eberlein’s prose is nearly poetry, her respect for history approaches glorifying reverence, and her sense of grief is pervasive but not imprisoning. Revolutionary and effective, Eberlein’s prose questions the inequities—gender inequities, economic inequities, and the inequities between the haves of those in power and the have-nots of those controlled—that seem to arise in nearly all civilizations.
Grounding each of the tales either in the time of the Cultural Revolution itself or in the aftermath that put China into a sort of dark age, Eberlein shows that the success of a people depends largely on its senses of perseverance, community, and hope. In proving this, Eberlein demonstrates that the failure of the Cultural Revolution was not a matter of innate villainy; rather, it was due to a false sense of community that pitted factions against each other. According to Eberlein, many of the social battles fought by the Red Guard were noble ones, but not all of the soldiers were up to the task and many of the workers failed to see their part as "a gear or screw on the revolution machine."
For those characters who do understand their part, a certain humility becomes foreground. As one woman who has served as an "insert," or youth being re-educated to a rural lifestyle, puts it in "The Randomness of Love," "humility somehow eased the strangeness between us." This humility, and Eberlein’s humble technique, is crucial to the success of Apologies Forthcoming.
Like whispers uttered in the dark, each of Eberlein’s characters is breathed into life. Eberlein’s description of each character’s very human hardships becomes both a mantra for world improvement and an apology for good intentions gone strangely awry. As Eberlein’s characters realize their purposes in the "machine" of society, these tales come together to share the story via myriad perspectives. Gracefully, the humble understanding the reader gains from the montage eases the strangeness between cultures to remind us of our greatest similarities.
Treasure Ingels-Thompson lives and writes in Montevallo.