Bedeviled by the Begats
How do we honor our ancestors without boring our readers?
My mother came from a long line of Bible thumpers that stalled with her irreverent father. Canadian by birth, Wisconsin farmer by training, my Gramp used to regale his kids with dinner table recitations of what he called The Begats, which opened the Book of Matthew:
“Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; and Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; and Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon…”
And on for 16 verses until finally Jacob begat Joseph, who conspicously did not beget Jesus, since his bride Mary (also not begotten) was supposedly impregnated by “the Holy Ghost.” Gramp had rollicking good fun with that concoction, but it’s the earlier Begats that concern me here because of the dutiful brevity with which they’re listed, like inconvenient speed bumps that must be gotten over before reaching that sexy entryway to “the Holy Ghost.”
The challenge of the Begats faces every family memoirist, and right now it’s bedeviling me. How can we acknowledge the mystery and humanity of the generations that formed us without boring our readers witless? At least the Biblical Begats all shared the same cultural provenance, so their names roll out in a seamless blur. But mine jump continents and languages and alphabets, from 劉儒禹 to Maurice Liu, from Qing Dynasty China to post-war Connecticut. How do I even thinking about getting there from here, much less back again?
The simple solution, of course, is to ignore the Begats and launch my family story with my father’s birth. But the whole point of my memoir is to go deeper, to understand what shaped our collective sense of family. And the more I probe my father’s childhood in Shanghai — including his relationship with his grandmother, the last concubine of a Qing Dynasty viceroy—the larger, murkier, and more tantalizing that family story becomes. How can I simply ignore the long line of Imperial generals and officials whose education, privilege, and exploits paved the way for my father’s — and my own? But how can I hope to make their identities clear and meaningful to American readers when I can’t even translate their names?
For guidance, I’ve tried consulting other revered family memoirs. There are many to choose from, including recent bestsellers like Edmund De Waal’s The Hare With the Amber Eyes. Novelists as diverse as Vikram Seth and Kathryn Harrison have turned to this unruly genre, weaving family trees into tapestries of story. Each finds a different way to stumble through their own Begats. But most credit one specific book for sparking this genre.
I read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory in grad school and was frankly overwhelmed by it. The amalgamation of fact and fiction, history and imagination, confounded me. No one could possibly remember the kind of detail that Nabokov recorded from his earliest days of life, much less, as he writes, from “realms that existed before I was conceived.” Not to mention a cast of family characters that seemed to stretch into the hundreds and span worlds every bit as divergent as those in my own family history. I could not imagine undertaking a book anywhere near as ambitious as Speak, Memory. I still can’t. But that’s not to say I can’t study and learn from it.
And the section that concerns me here is Chapter Three. Its opening warns me not to even think about trying to emulate Nabokov:
An inexperienced heraldist resembles a medieval traveler who brings back from the East the faunal fantasies influenced by the domestic bestiary he possessed all along rather than by the results of direct zoological exploration.
Translation: It’s exceedingly difficult to imagine the truth of our ancestors’ experience because we tend to superimpose our own on them.
Nabokov then proceeds to shove his own “domestic bestiary” behind a wall of Begats dating back to 1494. This wall stretches for the better part of 13 pages, beginning with a Tatar prince. Even in Nabokov’s capable hands, all these names and dates and marriages and offspring do little to distinguish themselves on the page. Not soon enough for me, the author finally catches up with his own childhood memories of his maternal grandfather, whose taxidermied bears “stood upright with redoubtably raised front paws in the iron-barred vestibule of our country house.”
The wall of genealogy is no match for personal experience. There must be a better way to honor the ancestors. Michael Ondaatje seemed to share this opinion.
Running in the Family
Running in the Family is Ondaatje’s ode to multicultural lineage and exploration of inheritance in its many savory and unsavory dimensions. He packages his family history within the artificial confines of a composite trip back to his family home of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Already the structure of the book takes liberties with the confines of historical fact. He will not pack five centuries of Begats into a single wall of names. But he will unpack every memorable detail about his forebears that he can locate or imagine.
Moreover, Ondaatje breaks his genealogy into digestible tidbits, which he distributes throughout the book — rather than in a single wall, and each tidbit is presented in the context of his own homecoming. In other words, he acknowledges that he’s an “inexperienced heraldist” and uses that role to his advantage by inviting the reader to join him in poring over the maps of travel routes that brought his ancestors together and in visiting the church where these same forebears were buried. The physicality of his investigation helps to ground ephemeral speculation and memory.
Ondaatje then proceeds to gossip about these lost souls as if they were still very much alive. We learn about an uncle who nearly died after eating the poisonous tongue of a monitor lizard, an ancestral botanist who catalogued 55 other species of local poisons, and the “very good looking and utterly selfish man” who broke his grandmother’s heart. And any number of drunken liaisons consummated in Ceylonese gardens during the Roaring Twenties.
Each name in the Ondaatje family tree emerges as a memorable character. And if the author lacks the factual details, he simply imagines experiences such as his grandmother’s drowning in a flood.
After this brief field survey, I feel somewhat relieved to only be dealing with four generations of my own Begats. At least so far, my genealogical excursions have turned up no meaningful information about ancestors prior to my great grandfather, the Qing viceroy who left his last concubine in charge of his ancestral estate. Thanks to Ondaatje, I’m ok with that. But even if I start with the viceroy’s generation, I’m in over my head.
In his youth, my father visited that ancestral estate. He was close to his grandmother, the concubine with bound feet. And although the viceroy died 25 years before Dad was born, we inherited the embroidered panels from my great-grandfather’s imperial robes. I grew up staring at those ornate pheasants and dragons framed on the wall of my childhood home in Connecticut. I never could bridge the distance between their world and mine.
My late father didn’t help. He told no stories and claimed to remember next to nothing about China. The whole reason I embarked on this memoir was to fill that gap. Fortunately, Dad’s father was a writer. Unfortunately for me, his body of knowledge spanned centuries of Chinese history, and so do the books he left behind. Few of the anecdotes they contain are worthy of gossip, and any personal insights within them are shrouded in impersonal doublespeak.
The only way I can find to access my family’s intimate history is to take my cue from Ondaatje and start with my own relationship to these ghosts:
Though I know him only through transcriptions of his memoirs, historical record, and my father’s sparse recollections, I’ve always felt strangely close to my Chinese grandfather. For one thing, he and I are the only two authors in my family for at least three generations. For another, he died the same year I was born.
Called Papa even by those of us who never met him, my grandfather’s given name was Liu Chengyu, a variation on the name of his father, Liu Changyou, who’d served as viceroy, or governor, of several provinces, including Canton, under the Qing Dynasty. Born in 1875, Papa was educated to take his place in a long line of classical scholars and imperial officials. Instead, he became an early protégé of Dr. Sun Yatsen, modern China’s Father of the Revolution.
In 1903 Dr. Sun sent Papa to San Francisco to rally revolutionary support among Chinese journeymen. My grandfather was twenty-eight and already had written a sixteen-volume history of China’s Taiping Rebellion, though in the eyes of most Americans at the time, he was no more impressive than the “Celestial” laundry workers and gold diggers who were “stealing” white Americans’ jobs and fortunes. To bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act, Dr. Sun secured a spot for my grandfather at UC Berkeley, enabling him to enter the U.S. on a student visa. My grandmother tutored him in English.
What follows is reliably worthy of gossip. I’ve written the tale of my grandparents’ star-crossed courtship in the wake of the Great San Francisco Earthquake often enough to know that it will always hold readers’ attention. (If you doubt me, read the story here.)
But I must confess that the Begats continue to bedevil me. I’m glad I don’t have a wall of names guilt-tripping me into boring my readers with them. But I may just use those brocade panels to take me into the viceroy’s story, the same way Ondaatje used the church pavers to link him to his ancestors. And should some juicy details about the concubine’s sex life or an imperial bad-boy from a prior generation fall into my lap, I’ll be honor-bound to find a place on the page for them.
If you’re writing your own family memoir, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Please let me know if there’s a particular topic or issue you’d like me to address. I’m new to this newsletter journey and open to experimenting with new directions!
Thanks so much for reading.
Until next time,
I love this Aimee! My latest strategy is thinking of my memoir as a series, even if I never end up writing more than one. That helps me organize the stories and focus on one theme. If a particularly interesting character comes up but developing them isn’t essential to the story at hand, i put their story in “the parking lot” and promise I’ll give them more space later.