NONFICTION: “Made in China” by Anna Qu; Catapult (224 pages, $26)
To write about trauma, memoirist Debra Gwartney advises, “when the action is hot, write cool.” Anna Qu’s debut memoir “Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor” embodies this guidance. Qu writes with clarity and restraint about her Cinderella-terrible childhood spent working in her parents’ sweatshop and eating alone after her stepsiblings finished. Facts like these don’t need embellishing to cut deep.
However, as stark as these details seem, when adult Qu pores through social service records and reflects on her mother’s life, she learns her childhood is part of a larger story with myriad complexities.
Qu’s story begins in Wenzhou, China, where she was born when her mother was 18. Her father died when she was a toddler, and her widowed mother left Qu with her grandparents and headed to New York. In 1991, when Qu is 7, her mother brings her to the U.S., not because she misses her — but rather to display her financial status: “To have your children with you was a talked-about privilege.”
While Qu was with her grandparents, Qu’s mother had married the owner of a labor-law-violating garment factory in Queens, settled into a well-appointed home, and had two more children. “My mother expected me to understand the delicate dynamic of our situation,” Qu writes. “I was the child of her last marriage and I should tread lightly so as not to offend my new benefactors.”
Qu’s role is part ghost, part maid. She must clean into the night whenever her mother fires the latest housekeeper. She must hide whenever an unexpected visitor arrives. She must trim threads at her parents’ sweatshop.
Although Qu struggles with academics because her mother permits no time for homework, at school Qu learns about rights that Americans are promised. She eventually confides in a counselor, who, with Qu’s consent, reports her case to social services.
Qu discovers it takes more than a lack of affection for social services to label parental behavior “abusive.” Still, with limited help from counselors, Qu enrolls in college and frees herself.
As “Made in China” skips through college and early jobs to alight on an ill-fated startup Qu works for when she’s 30, the reader, who has grown so invested in her story, and wants to learn how she managed to become a successful, independent adult, might yearn for her to slow down. But if she did, “Made in China” could become a litany of jobs. As Qu writes, “I want to be me instead of the work I do,” declaring herself free of her mother’s ethos.
Qu’s indelible account of her lonesome childhood should gain her everything she lacked then — confidants, witnesses and fans — who will cheer when she finally reconnects with a long-lost beloved.
Jenny Shank’s story collection “Mixed Company” won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and will be published by Texas Review Press in October. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver.