Translator, Shelly Bryant
Back in 1976, when an earthquake shook Tangshan, China, a mother was forced to decide which of her twin children to rescue. When the earth tore apart, Xiaoda, and his sister Xiaodeng, became trapped under a slab of concrete. Deciding which direction to move the slab required a decision by the mother, Yuanni.
Decades later, Xiaodeng’s memory of her mother’s voice haunted her: “Xiao…da.” Her mother had chosen her brother to live, and to leave her to die. But as the slab was being moved the earth shook again, and Xiaodeng was tossed into the air some distance away.
Her mother, Yuanni, searched after the quake for her daughter to no avail. And because Xiaodeng felt betrayed, she denied her mother’s existence. Instead, she claimed her entire family had died in the quake. Xiaodeng was taken to an orphanage from where she was later adopted.
This story begins in 2006 with Xiaodeng visiting a psychiatrist in Toronto. She is a successful writer, married with one child. But she is tormented by her past and has attempted suicide three times. Meanwhile, back in China, Xiaodeng’s mother is still grief-stricken over the loss of her daughter. Xiaoda, who lost an arm when the slab was moved, also misses his sister and knows his mother would have preferred to save her. It appeared she saved him because he was the only grandson from her husband’s family.
The author traces the parallel lives of Xiaodeng and her family in China, her education, marriage to a schoolmate, the birth of her child and her fellowship grant to a university in Toronto. In China, meanwhile, her mother refuses to leave her village where she has placed two grave markers, one for daughter and another for her husband. She believes their spirts will come and find their resting place. Yuanni’s pain is like “someone trapped in a tunnel with both ends blocked, with no hope for escape even if they crawled a thousand miles.”
The heart-wrenching drama is a part of Zhang Ling’s short story, “Aftershock,” which was an instant box-office success in China. Now, a decade later, her short story which has evolved into a novel, has been translated into English. Ling’s heartbreaking tropes and her overuse of metaphors offers us a read like a tragic epic poem.