I recently read four non-fiction books chronicling the stories of three women. The life circumstances of these women couldn’t have been more different, but their reflections point to the universals of human experience. I’m fascinated by the shared aspects of their lives, the ways they differ, and the power of story to reveal truth.
Two of the books are the memoirs of Iranian writer Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) and Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter (2008). The third book is Hilary Spurling’s biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth (2010). And the fourth book is by theologian Roberta C. Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (1995).
All three stories reveal the power of place (cultural and historical context) to form lives. Pearl Buck grew up as a missionary kid in China and spent a good deal of her adult life there as well. And while she herself felt more Chinese than American, being a “foreign devil” during the Boxer Rebellion and the violent conflict between Chiang Kaishek’s nationalism and Mao Zedong’s communist revolution marked her life. Azar Nafisi was raised in the Muslim context of the Shah’s Iran and lived through the radical changes, especially for women, brought by the Islamic Revolution under the Ayatollah Khomeini. Roberta Bondi spent much of her childhood in the shadow of the Christian fundamentalism of rural Kentucky and later, as a young scholar, under the contrasting influence of a rational male-oriented seminary education. All these contexts, in different ways, devalued women, setting up similar struggles for all three.
All three women found solace and hope through the power of literature and language. As a girl, Pearl Buck learned Chinese and soaked up the legends and mythology of her people. As an adult her stories of the Chinese people earned her both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel award. Azar Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, chronicles her clandestine reading group and how reflecting on the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen (all forbidden Western authors) helped her and her students find their way through the difficult days of the revolution. Roberta Bondi also writes of the books that helped bring balance and hope to her early years, but it was language itself, in particular the Hebrew language, that gave her a sudden epiphany, “a sense of cosmic goodness and joy in all created things I had never encountered before.”
All three women experienced the power of family to harm, as well as to heal, and a good deal of their personal development had to do with coming to terms with the damage. Buck and Bondi faced the trauma of harsh fathers, while Nafisi wrestled all her life in a difficult relationship with her tyrannical, emotionally unbalanced mother. In some senses, all these relationships with parents were abusive and all the women suffered the trauma of abandonment. In addition, all three entered into unfortunate first marriages and resulting divorces.
And all three women eventually find healing through understanding and forgiving their offending parent, all forming new relationships before the death of the parent.
Azar Nafisi does not write about any kind of relationship to God or the Muslim faith. Both Buck and Bondi were raised in Christian homes. Pearl Buck eventually rejected the Christianity of her parents and did not find a replacement. In contrast, Bondi outgrew the rigid fundamentalism that formed the backdrop of her childhood and slowly moved into a rich and deep Christian spirituality with a God of grace.
Pearl Buck died in 1972. Azar Nafisi lives in the United States, teaches college literature and directs the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Roberta Bondi is Professor of Church History at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Of the three, the story that impacted me the most was Roberta Bondi’s, but that’s a topic for another blog.