Welland, Sasha Su-Ling 1969-
Welland, Sasha Su-Ling 1969-
Office—University of Washington, Box 354345, Seattle, WA 98195-4345. E-mail—[email protected]
University of Washington, Seattle, assistant professor of anthropology and women's studies.
Editors's Choice selection, Booklist, and Original Voices Nonfiction selection, Borders Books, both 2006, both for A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters.
A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 2006.
Contributor of scholarly articles to journals, including Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. Also contributor to Chain, ColorLines: Race, Culture, Action, Flyway Literary Review, and Hedgebrook Journal.
In A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters, anthropologist and biographer Sasha Su-Ling Welland writes the history of her own family—specifically, the stories of her grandmother and great-aunt—and examines how these two remarkable individuals challenged traditional views of women: her grandmother as an immigrant medical student in the United States in the 1920s, and her grandmother's sister as a fiction writer and essayist in pre-revolutionary China. In a review of the book in the Honolulu Advertiser, Lavonne Leung wrote, "The daughters of an imperial scholar and his fourth concubine, the two sisters grow up privileged in pre-communist China, an exotic, intrigue-filled world. … This story of two very different independent women, the hard choices they made as strangers in strange lands, and the descendant who found her own story in uncovering theirs has an appeal that crosses state lines." Seattle Times contributor David Takami remarked, "Scholarly and ‘serious’ in its depth and breadth of research, Welland's book is also highly readable and full of rich detail. She more than rises to the challenge of reconciling her subjects' conflicting (and vexing) recollections of the past." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the biography "restrained and melancholy," concluding that it is replete "with fascinating glimpses of 20th-century Chinese women's intellectual history and insights into the Chinese-American … experience."
Welland told CA: "My grandparents lived in Indianapolis for most of their time in the United States, but they retired to San Francisco. Several years later, after growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I followed them to the Bay Area to attend college. When my grandfather died during my sophomore year, I felt a lot of remorse about not having known him better. I was also unsure about what I wanted to study, and I took some time off from school. I worked in a restaurant and regularly went to the city to see my grandmother. She began to tell me stories about her childhood and youth in China, and I was fascinated by this whole other realm of experience—her life before coming to the United States—about which I knew so little. I was especially drawn to her stories of struggling as a young woman to get an education and have a say in society. She came from a generation of women who, swept up by a larger social revolution, emerged as real fighters. This personal history really ‘undid’ for me stereotypes of weak, passive Asian women. I started taping and transcribing her stories. Having the past come alive through oral history gave me a new focus, and I went back to school to explore the question of how certain stories—especially those of women and minorities—get pushed to the margins of conventional history.
"Shortly after, I had the opportunity to study abroad in England. This experience radically changed the family history I'd been recording. My grandmother's sister had immigrated to London in the late 1940s. By the time I arrived, she had passed away, but I was able to meet her daughter in Scotland for the first time. She gave me a book called Ancient Melodies, an English-language memoir that her mother had published in England. This book came as a surprise in two ways. My grandmother had always told me that her sister was a painter. Her sister did paint, but she was much more significantly a writer of short fiction. In fact, Ling Shuhua was a very well-known writer during her time, one of the first women to begin publishing modernist fiction in the 1920s. Peers called her the ‘Chinese Katherine Mansfield.’ My grandmother had hidden this fact from family in the United States, I think, because she didn't like what her sister wrote. Ling Shuhua wrote semiautobiographical stories about what one critic has called the ‘everyday feudalism’ of women in traditional households. Here was the second surprise. The family tree that my grandmother had narrated to me resembled an American nuclear family with one father and one mother. Her sister's memoir opens with a family tree that includes one father and six mothers. The gap between the two sisters' versions of the past initially frustrated me but eventually led me to want to understand more about why they were so different.
"In trying to assemble these stories, never flush with one another, I wrote off and on for years. The story kept changing as I uncovered new details, as did my writing style as I matured. One of the challenges about biography is that just when you think you understand someone's life, you learn some new fact about her that completely changes the picture.
"I really struggled with trying to find a model for the kind of mixed-genre book that I realized I was writing. It is deeply researched in a historical sense, has been informed by narrative theory, and has moments of literary analysis, but I didn't want it to be a strictly academic book. I wanted to make the story accessible to a more general audience, while also showing some of the tracks of my detective work—the kinds of mixed efforts it took to research and write this story—because I think they are techniques that many people can use to understand their own families better and to contribute to a people's history made up of many, many voices. That said, I found Julia Blackburn's Daisy Bates in the Desert a very provocative book early on in my process because in it, she struggles to tell the life of an extraordinarily independent woman who was only able to become that by being an inveterate liar. Blackburn's writing is also very poetic and is interspersed with glimpses of her as the biographer assembling the pieces of an improbable story. Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman about the different, posthumous interpretations of Sylvia Plath's troubling life, likewise, stuck with me because of its moving reflection on the moral contradictions of biography, and how life is always messier than it ends up on paper. And I really admired Katherine Frank's A Passage to Egypt: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon for how she was able to recreate a pioneering woman's life primarily from written, archival materials, but in a way that felt very present and engaging, and for the restrained manner in which she very occasionally inserts herself as biographer into the narrative, so that she's there but never intrudes on the story of a woman whose journey she followed in order to write about it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August 1, 2006, Steven Schroeder, review of A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters, p. 33.
Honolulu Advertiser, February 18, 2007, Lavonne Leong, "Two Sisters, Two Remarkable Lives."
Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006, review of A Thousand Miles of Dreams, p. 153.
Seattle Times, September 29, 2006, David Takami, "Trailblazing Women: A Grandmother and Great-Aunt."
Stanford Magazine, May-June, 2007, Charles Matthews, "The Paths That Led from China."
UC Santa Cruz Currents, January 8, 2007, Jennifer McNulty, "Alumna's New Book Puts an International Face on Feminism."
Sasha Su-Ling Welland Home Page,http://www.sashawelland.com (August 22, 2007).
University of Washington Web site,http://faculty.washington.edu/ (July 8, 2007), author biography.