Go Gently Into the Night, Maureen Mitchell Kirk

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Beautiful Maureen

Author’s Foreword: I published a blog about my two mothers just over two years ago on Mother’s Day, and today I’m sharing it below, to pay tribute to my Mother-in-law Maureen Mitchell Kirk (November 1933 – November 2017), who passed away in a home in Derbyshire, England on Friday night, 18th November 2017. She died after fighting a painful and sustained battle against the terrible disease of Alzheimer.

Rest in Peace, Maureen! As a born Catholic, you are now no longer suffering the pain and strife of this world, and you are in a happier place. May God be with you!

 

My British and Chinese #Mothers: Two Different Lives

While browsing through posts by friends on social media, i.e. Facebook and Chinese equivalent WeChat, as I usually do first thing in the morning, one post caught my eye: 中国老人抱怨儿子儿媳不孝顺,英国老人说的一段话让所有人沉默了…. To roughly translate into English: When the Chinese elders complain about son and daughter-in-law for not being filial, what do the British elders say in response?

I have seen it before. It is a mock dialogue between an elderly English parent and an elderly Chinese parent, and it started something like this:

Chinese parent: My son has no conscience, no heart.

British parent: What do you mean?

Chinese parent: He asked me if I was willing to live in an Old People’s Home!

British parent: Old people’s home is very good. I live in one.

Chinese parent: Oh? How could you go to such a place?

British parent: Why not?

Chinese parent: That is a place for the lonely old people. If I went, I would be the laughing stock among my relatives, and my life would be cut short.

British parent: That so? When you’re at a certain age, living in a Home is very convenient. How could it be a laughing stock?

……

This conversation goes on, talking about Chinese parents living with their children and grandchildren, British parents choosing to live on their own. There are also debates about why British children strike on their own from age 18, and they don’t give their parents money nor expect their parents to look after the grand children etc.

Obviously this conversation never took place for real, but I can easily imagine the scene if it did. You see, I have a very typical Chinese mother, who gave birth to four children and lived in China all her life. My mother-in-law, a beautiful Derbyshire woman, also has four grown-up children, like my own mother.

Today, I want to tell you a little bit about my two mothers, and how vastly different their lives have been. To show their differences, I’d like to start with the similarities between them.

My Mother Yijun and Mother-in-Law were born in the same year, 1933; my mum six months older. While my mother grew up in Sichuan province, had an University education, worked in a secondary school all her working life, retired when she was fifty-six and now happily living in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. She never lived anywhere outside of Sichuan, and the furthest she has ever travelled to was Hong Kong. (It’s a real pity that she has never been able to visit me in the UK, but that is another story).

My Mother-in-law Maureen was born in Chesterfield in Derbyshire, the eldest daughter of a coal miner. Her family didn’t have enough money to send her to University. Working as a secretary she married an engineer who joined the RAF and travelled with him to Kenya, and then the USA before returning to the UK.

Both my mother and mother-in-law were politically active in their time. While my Mother is a Communist Party member and spent many years of her life teaching political science in school, while I and my siblings were being brought up by our grandmother (as was the case for Pearl Zhang in The Same Moon). My mother-in-law, on the other side of the globe, was active in the British Labour Party while working and bringing up her four children. Although they both shared an enthusiasm in politics during their prime, I suspect that my mother’s motivation was more a case of being embroiled in the political heat rather than a matter of choice.

In the last twenty years or so of their lives, while my Dad was still alive, my parents lived in a number of places in Sichuan, sometimes with one of my brothers, other times on their own with a full-time nanny – My father suffered from poor health and needed full time care for the last ten years of his life. After he passed away in 2006, my mother has kept a full-time nanny of her own – my brothers are busy businessmen with families and children of their own.

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My parents with me, their first born

My mother-in-law has separated from my father-in-law for more than twenty years, so for many years she lived on her own. We once offered for her to come and live with us. She didn’t even want to entertain that possibility, being the independent soul that she had been. It saddened me deeply when she was eventually diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease. For the past few years, she had full time care in her own house, and as her conditions became so poor that she was transferred into a specialist care home.

My own mother, on the side of the world, has fared better health wise. We talk on FaceTime sometimes and she even started using WeChat, downloading Music and ordering Uber from her home, although I know that she had never used a computer and sent an email. But hey, this is the Internet Age and even an 84 year old dog can learn a new trick or two.

thumbnail_IMG_1023Author’s Endnote: I ended the above post on a positive note when it was first published. Today I am in a different place emotionally, having just lost my mother-in-law. I am deeply saddened, and relieved at the same time. Maureen is free of the dreadful disease which ate away at her elegance, her intelligence and her sanity. She is now in a peaceful place where she is meant to be. Here is a poem by Dylan Thomas which I dedicate to my late mother-in-law.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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My mother-in-law with three of her 4 children: John, Mike & SJ

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The Best of My Trip to #China 2017: A Picture Tour

I love words and I enjoy writing, but sometimes they are redundant when a picture can tell us just as much, and often more. So today, I’ll try to be economic with words and let pictures speak for themselves. I hope that you will enjoy what you see.

Family Reunited: With my 84 year old mum and extended family.

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Food: The spicier, the better!

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Friends: Old and New

Fun times to treasure

Finally: a bit of work just in case that I forgot what I was in China for 😉 

Thank you for stopping by and joining me in my travels for work and leisure.

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Appreciating “The Same Moon” on Mid-Autumn Day

libaipoemI witness bright Moonlight in front of my bed.
I suspect it to be hoary frost on the floor.
I watch the bright Moon, as I tilt back my head.
I yearn, while stooping, for my homeland more.
–Li Bai, Tang Dynasty

Every Chinese child three years or older can probably recite this most popular poem by the most famous Chinese poet Li Bai; Every Chinese adult, especially those who have travelled, away from home, far away, can relate to the poet’s sentiments, as I did, when I left China for the United Kingdom decades ago. Millions of Chinese migrants, to all corners of the world, will inevitably find their hearts and souls, resonating with the deep-rooted yearnings of Li Bai.

This poem marked the beginning and end of my book The Same Moon, charting an unforgettable journey of my protagonist Pearl Zhang.

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Cited below are two recent reviews in 2017 by Amazon readers from the UK:

5.0 out of 5 stars
Epic and beautifully painted adventure that will keep you enthralled!

A fascinating epic story of a woman’s journey from east to west. The characters are utterly absorbing, subtly explored and completely believable. I am finding it really hard to put this book down as I follow the twists and turns of the main character, Pearl’s, eventful life. I love how this book gives me a glimpse into another world as we see China going through major political upheavals through the eyes of the main character. I’ve been to China quite a few times, and love how this book resonates with what I’ve seen and experienced, and made me aware of aspects of the culture. Even if you’ve never been and have no interest in going, the story is a really epic tale with twists and turns all the way that keep you rooting for Pearl as she meets it all with integrity and strength. This is just a perfect book to curl up with and become totally absorbed, I love how the rest of the real world disappears while I explore Pearl’s world. If you like to lose yourself in a book and savour the journey of a character that is painted with intimacy and care, I think you’ll love this book.

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5.0 out of 5 stars
Feel Like I’ve Walked Hand in Hand With Pearl!

“Pearl grows up during Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution and has aspirations uncommon to most within that society at that time. However, she has to make some huge sacrifices along the way, to make those aspirations a reality. Take a walk with Pearl to discover a fascinating ( if troubling ) look at a completely different world.

The style of writing felt almost biographical at times, and took me into a world of which I had little knowledge. I particularly liked the first part of the story in China, though having said that, Pearl has such an interesting life wherever she is! Junying writes in such vivid detail that I felt as if I was there with Pearl, and what an amazing journey we’ve been on! We may all live under ‘the same moon’ but the diversity of our lives was never more clear than it is here, particularly for those of us who grew up in the West. A well written book, with a brave and determined lead character, make this a very interesting read.”

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I’m glad that six years on since it was first published, there are still readers enjoying The Same Moon. I hope that with tonight’s full moon, no matter where you are, our hearts will beat the same rhythm as Li Bai when he poured out his heart on ink and paper, and leaving us a lasting legacy which will forever enrich our souls.

Happy Moon Festival! 中秋快乐!

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#Writing an Engaging #Story: #Character, #Plot & #Conflict

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I am in the middle of writing a new book, as well as reshaping this blog site to a good standard like the one I had before, hence I’m updating some of my previously published blogs. Today’s post is to remind me and fellow writers what makes a story engaging. For me, the key elements of good story-telling include: unforgettable characters, conflicts between them (good vs bad, but not necessarily exclusively so, as often good people fight each other too!), and gripping plot lines.

Building Characters – Strong and Unique Protagonist/Antagonist

A great book usually introduce the main character(s) early on, and they will form the artery of the book. Good characters have believable motives, actions and relationships, and whatever they do or say should be credible. Well-rounded characters are more likely to engage readers, hooking them to what is happening in the book, absorbing their attention from beginning to the end.

Great characters live on, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Tess from Thomas Hardy, Anna Karenina of Tolstoy and Salander by Stieg Larsson. There are many examples of memorable characters – I believe that is one of the reasons why these books are widely read and become literary classics.

Allow me a moment of self praise and boasting ;-). I think the protagonist of my trilogy “Journey to the West”, Pearl Zhang, is a great character. Some of my readers agree. Donna Carrick, a Canadian writer, reviewed my debut The Same Moon: “I found this to be a wonderfully-rendered character study. I gave this book 5 stars for honesty, the development of a compelling character, the depth of cultural understanding the author brings to bear and the compassion and generosity evident in each step of Pearl’s long journey toward self-actualisation.”

How do we create and build characters that are strong and unique? In every day life, we meet people of different kinds, some come and go, without leaving a dent in our memory, while others make an imprint, forever remembered. What are the characteristics that make them unforgettable? The way they look, walk, talk, or act? Something about them, perhaps their persona, their personality, or a simple gesture? It could be something in their past, or an endearing/disgusting habit of sorts, the kind of impressions that either attract or repel us.

Another element of building characters are through the relationships. Strong emotions like love, or hatred, must be clearly demonstrated in a book. It is often through the interactions between characters that make them come alive through the pages.

Plot & Conflicts

Apart from building characters, writers need to have a credible plot, or several plot lines. Decisions have to be made as to what is important in the story and why.

When I began my first book The Same Moon, I did not intentionally “construct” a plot – I have had the idea of re-telling the story of a woman’s life, her journey from a country in the East to a country in the West. In a sense, it was an easy plot for me. All I needed to do was to decide which parts of her life were significant to be included, and which parts were best left out. Numerous decisions had to be made, from conception to conclusion. For instance, where do I begin? which are the highlights? what kind of conflicts between the characters need to be told, or better still shown?

Writers are faced with questions all the time. We ask ourselves: are our characters believable? Are their actions credible? Do I care about them? Will my readers care about them?

Books do not need too large a number of characters, and in fact, too many characters will distract from the theme and interrupt the flow of the story. So a good start of plotting is to condense the actions of minor players whenever possible. Again, focus on creating strong, unique main characters and focus on their actions and situations involving them.

Be it a film, or a book of fiction, it is essential to have conflict or conflicts. All successful films have a ‘crisis of confidence’ somewhere in the story, even a cosy romantic story. Conflicts should be introduced at a proper time and move the story along. Without conflicts, stories will be bland at best, and most likely unworthy of being told.

Great writers create tension and maintain it throughout the book. Tensions/conflicts built in the plot are what engage readers and make the story-telling compelling.

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Writing, not unlike a human body which has different blood lines for us to function, consists of a number of themes, the main plot plus various side plots. A story can have several themes or story lines running side by side, but it is important to have a vital artery running through it all. Too many extraneous incidents can weaken a reader’s interest in the main story.

I included several story lines in Land of Hope. A reviewer from GoodReads commented: “The characters are well drawn with good dynamics between the main characters. The story is tightly plotted and keeps your attention throughout. Every piece of the story is there for a reason.”

What is your view on an engaging story?

 

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The Soul of #Sicilia (2): A Story of #History, #NaturalBeauty & #Romance

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Many years ago in the heart of China, as a school girl, I heard a beautifully touching story from the radio, one of the few means of reaching out beyond the Great Wall of China at the time. That story was translated into Chinese from Italian: Lemons of Sicily. It tells an emotionally charged story of failed romance between a couple of young Sicilian lovers, him a poor flute player who did everything to help his lover to reach career heights as a famous singer and who finally abandons him. The story starts with him visiting her in her luxury home in Naples, bringing her a basket of Sicily lemons.

 

Actually I remembered little else except the title of the short story which has stayed with me all these years. Sicily became a symbol of romance for me from that point on. I never expected that one day I would be visiting this far far away place in the West. Even though I have been living in the UK for many years since then, it did not occur to me to visit until now. One of the reasons, of course, was the other dominant legends, Mafia (see previous blog post).

So before my feet touched the Sicilian soil, I knew roughly three things about this Island: Romance and Lemons, Mafia, and location for a TV series I faithfully followed on BBC 4 and absolutely adored: The Young Montalbano – guess apart from solving murder mysteries, he is the romantic lead of a typical dark and handsome heart-throb who set millions of viewers’ pulses racing  😉

 

So Agrigento, where the author Luigi Pirandello came from inevitably became the destination of our day trip, as you can see the picture of me next to the bronze bust of the man who created that story which imprinted itself on my impressionable young mind (picture above). Apart from him, Agrigento is home to the famous Valle dei Templi, which the Greeks built three millennia ago, then fell into the hands of the Romans.

A slow walk into ancient history in the steaming heat of 41C was well worth it, despite the heat stroke I suffered by the end of that sweating saunter into the past.

 

En route, we also paid a visit to Villa Romana del Casale where we saw some of the best preserved and the most extensive set of Roman mosaics in the world. The lavish Roman hunting villa took over 50 years to construct beginning towards the end of 3rd century AD, and the remains we were able to see were absolutely amazing.

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Another place with a wow factor was the Greek theatre carved out of the hillside in Taormina, a popular and obligatory tourist town, as it was one of the stops of the Grand Tour. The amphitheatre overlooked the deep blue of the Mediterranean with Mount Etna in the distance. It has amazing acoustics and spectacular views.

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Other wonderful sights we managed to see included some of the most stunning and impressive churches we had ever set foot in. The churches in the capital Palermo, and the Cathedral in Monreale (My King) were simply out of this world and beyond what words can describe.

Then, of course, there was the vast landscape and supreme beaches and sunsets. The natural beauty in Sicily alone is worth a visit.

 

Our week-long holiday to Sicily was too short to explore it thoroughly and to my heart’s content, but that may not be a bad thing. It leaves something for us to go back to. Next time, we’ll be sure to follow Young Montalbano’s footsteps to discover some of the hidden gems, and if I was lucky, I may even dip into the waters where he did his morning and evening swims. Time will tell.

Finally, a few more holiday snaps to tempt you, including a selection of delicious culinary and sweet treats we indulged in.

 

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