Unbound: A Tale of Love and Betrayal in Shanghai was such a brilliant debut, and I’m excited to share this Q&A with the author, Dina Gu Brumfield with you!
In a nutshell (Publisher):
The sweeping, multigenerational story of two iron-willed women, a grandmother and granddaughter, Unbound is also a richly textured, turbulent portrait of the city of Shanghai in the twentieth century–a place where everyone must fight to carve out a place for themselves amid political upheaval and the turmoil of war.
Mini Pao lives with her sister and parents in a pre-war Shanghai divided among foreign occupiers and Chinese citizens, a city known as the ”Paris of the East” with its contrast of vibrant night life and repressive social mores. Already considered an old maid at twenty-three, Mini boldly rejects the path set out for her as she struggles to provide for her family and reckons with her desire for romance and autonomy. Mini’s story of love, betrayal, and determination unfolds in the Western-style cafes, open-air markets, and jazz-soaked nightclubs of Shanghai–the same city where, decades later, her granddaughter Ting embarks on her own journey toward independence.
Ting Lee has grown up behind an iron curtain in a time of scarcity, humility, and forced-sameness in accordance with the strictures of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. As a result, Ting’s imagination burns with curiosity about fashion, America, and most of all, her long-lost grandmother Mini’s glamorous past and mysterious present. As her thirst for knowledge about the world beyond 1970s Shanghai grows, Ting is driven to uncover her family’s tragic past and face the difficult truth of what the future holds for her if she remains in China.
Thank you, Smith Publicity for providing this special Q&A with the author of ‘Unbound: A Tale of Love and Betrayal in Shanghai’.
Question: What inspired you to write Unbound?
Dina Gu Brumfield: My experience growing up in China stayed with me all these years. I thought by telling the story of those around me I could also tell a history that is largely forgotten.
Q: Unbound dives deep into the culture of China from the perspective of multiple generations. Why did you decide to showcase it from those perspectives?
Brumfield: On one level, I felt it made for a good story. Ting is a great vehicle for telling a family story—she provides the open eyes and wide curiosity without any baggage, but over time she begins to develop her own perspective as a young adult and that makes the grandmother’s story not merely history, but reminds us that history can be deeply personal.
Q. How does highlighting the stark differences between 1930s and 1980s Shanghai play into the overall story?
Brumfield: The 1930s and 1980s were indeed very different, particularly for women. The China of the 1980s was a huge leap forward for women—there was no polygamy, no foot-binding, and women could engage more directly in the outside world—go to college, for example. But women in both of those times also faced incredibly oppressive personal limits, both subtle and overt, on how to live their life and what to pursue. So, in ways the two eras shared much even as how people lived their lives was so radically different.
Q: Do you see any relevance between your book and what is happening in China today?
Brumfield: Of course. What is happening with Hong Kong breaks my heart. Making laws that make it easier to lock someone up for what they say, or what they support. More generally in China there continues to be the deliberate hiding and shading of truth. When I was growing up, I never knew what was true, or what was happening beyond what I was taught. In my book, people rely on rumors because you can’t turn to newspapers for the full picture, or even part of the picture. Now the media options are more diverse and sophisticated, but they are just as curated to the same end—a tactic for controlling what people learn and see to limit individual expression and difference of opinion.
Q: What was it like to live in Cultural Revolution China, and how has that experience transferred over to your writing?
Brumfield: It was a time of constant struggle. We struggled to get food, and any basic needs. Everything you did involved a long line.
There was not much pressure from school, though. When I was in grade school, we didn’t have any classes—we just read Mao’s old three pieces, which was contained in a small book that could fit in the palm of your hand—like a small iphone. It had a plastic red cover, often with Mao’s photo on it. It came with a small bag with shoulder strap and we worn it like a school bag every morning. I was not allowed into classroom without it.
It is a huge contrast to live in the United States. I was in awe when I stepped into Safeway for groceries just after I came to this country. The fact that I was allowed to touch anything I wanted to buy before I paid for it was a new concept to me.
Someone growing up in today’s China would not live my experience. China has since raised itself to be a big world player. Most young people in China have no idea what was like during Cultural Revolution and the suffering people went through. Moreover, many young people mistake China’s new found economic power as a sign that China is a free society without realizing the core of the country is very much the same. In my case, I had to absorb force-fed information when I and everyone around me was poor, and they have to absorb the same with a full belly and more money in their pocket. So, I decided to tell this story. History shouldn’t be forgotten.
Q: Unbound has truly been a labor of love and a remarkable accomplishment. Having taken 10 years to write and publish with English being your second language. Do you have any plans for continuing the story or writing a new novel?
Brumfield: I am working on a second novel. It’s an entirely different story, and it’s too early to reveal anything. I’ll just say it touches on similar themes: persistence, love, freedom, but also jealousy and atonement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dina Gu Brumfield was born and raised in Shanghai, China. She came to the United States to join her family as a young adult in late ‘80s. After earning her MBA, she worked as a consultant in New York and at various Silicon Valley companies. It took her 10 years to write and publish Unbound, as English is her second language – a true accomplishment and feat.
My review of her book here.
Thank you for stopping by!