Made In China is the product of Anna Qu's reckoning with the mistreatment she experienced as a child at the hands of her mother.
After her father dies when she is just a baby, Qu's mother leaves her with her grandparents in China to seek a new life in America. Finding meagre employment in a New York sweatshop, she went on to marry the manager and have two more children. When Qu was five, her mother brought her to the US, where she was treated as a dirty secret; hidden from visitors, made to eat apart from the rest of the family and exploited in the home and at the sweatshop.
By contacting child protection as a teenager, she achieves minor improvements in her treatment, but can't understand why the intervention is minimal. When she obtains her file as an adult it is riddled with errors, and she realises the caseworker privileged her mother's testimony over hers. The success of a memoir lies in how the author addresses the societal structures and historical currents that have shaped their life experiences. Any instance of child abuse and neglect is abhorrent, but it is unfortunately widespread with complex structural and intergenerational roots.
This poses a particular difficulty for memoirists recounting abuse. While it is important for victims' voices to be heard, it is also important to attend to the forces that facilitate abuse.
Brutality should be examined closely so that we can reckon with it. Bri Lee's 2018 memoir Eggshell Skull is an illuminating example; it is both a personal account of the trauma arising from sexual assault, and an examination of violence against women, its link to patriarchy, and how the legal system fails survivors.
Qu has opted to hew closely to the intense self-focus redolent of memoir's "misery" subgenre. The painful legacy of her treatment at her mother's hands is palpable, but, while there is no excuse for it, the question of what shaped her mother's antipathy to her own daughter is left hanging.
Qu has opted to hew closely to the intense self-focus redolent of memoir's "misery" subgenre.
Qu does not seem interested in garnering the details of her mother's early life, and resorts to cliché in the place of research, concluding: "I am beginning to realise that we are all raised by children. Children that are shaped by their own traumas, some of them unable to forget or overcome what happened to them before they passed it along." This is true enough, but it cannot sustain a whole memoir. The premise of the book is Qu working towards this realisation, when really it should have been the starting point.
Qu's lack of research is especially frustrating as there are so many angles she could have pursued: Chinese immigration to America, the department's mismanagement of child abuse allegations, the conditions of sweatshops in both America and China, and China's turbulent recent history. She makes a token gesture towards the history of sweatshops by briefly alluding to the Industrial Revolution, but neglects to contextualise their twenty-first century incarnations, or the particular circumstances of Queens' immigrant communities.
The book's title brings to mind the West's reliance on sweatshops in China, but this link is not explored at all, even though there is a wealth of information available. Similarly, although her child protection file raises serious questions about the competency of New York's child protection services, she doesn't probe the potentially systemic nature of the department's failings.
Perhaps Qu thought paring the narrative back to her personal experiences would be a more "literary" approach, but that really only holds if the writing is excellent, and this book has surprisingly little to offer at the level of the sentence. Alternatively, it is possible that she was seeking catharsis by telling her "side" of the story. But, as the American writer Dani Shapiro argues, it is a mistake to conceptualise memoir writing in this way; rather than "purging yourself of your demons" it "embeds your story deep inside you ...by freezing a moment in time."
Published amid the ongoing #MeToo movement, Made In China reminds us that women can be abusers too. But the question remains, why this mother, and why this daughter? It is asking a lot for someone to paint a complex portrait of the conditions that enabled their abuse, but ultimately writing for publication is not therapy. This is a missed opportunity to grapple with the legacies of some of the most dramatic upheavals and transformations of the last century.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.