Mother-of-two Susan Conley talks to Tina Leung about surviving two years in two foreign countries: China and cancer
Fresh out of college and fuelled by wanderlust, author Susan Conley made it as far as Hong Kong on her trek across Asia in the 1990s. “I was one of those people who stood and looked over the border,” she recalls of her close call with China. More than a decade later, now married to an avid sinophile, Conley would promptly trade in her teaching job in Maine, USA, for the mainland when her husband accepts a dream job in Beijing. But why relocate halfway across the world at such short notice, with two young kids in tow no less? Conley quotes her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune: “China sat in the rooms of our house like a question.” To this, she explains, her answer had always been a resounding ‘yes.’
Still, nothing could prepare her for the overwhelming sense of dislocation and helplessness once there. Even the mundane task of trying (and failing) to buy apples at a Chinese supermarket was frustrating to Conley who did not speak a word of Mandarin. Her mothering instincts required her to maintain a seemingly unflappable front for her two little boys but, instead, she found herself inspired by their resilience and refreshingly naïve observations on life’s absurdities. Through her sons, Conley discovered the voice by which she narrates her memoir, that of a celebratory mother: “I wanted to honour that innocence in children and how precocious, how emotionally intelligent they are.”
Her attempts to befriend Beijing resulted in a love-hate relationship, with hate presiding during the early days. Yet Conley’s quiet optimism and humour saved the day, and her autobiography offers insightful glimpses into contemporary China as she warms towards it, capturing the nuances of Beijing’s colourful people and its ancient language and customs amid the country’s unrelenting drive towards modernity. Never quite outgrowing her sense of adventure, Conley found herself tracking down the elusive ‘Bag Lady’ and her fake Prada handbags between narrow hutong alleyways, or at awkward ‘sweater parties’ with other expat mums, or on family trips to the Great Wall, and horse riding in Yunnan. “I wanted to take readers on a road trip to China, and all the fun and distraction that a good road trip can offer,” she says. Yet Conley’s original idea to write a travelogue fell apart without warning, just like the world around them, when she discovered two marble-sized lumps in her breast. “My husband and I both knew [moving to China] would come at a cost,” Conley admits quietly. “We just never imagined it would be cancer.”
The family returned to the States, where Conley received treatment, but they refused to give up on China. “We went back for the simple reason that I had an intensely demanding and exciting job there. And you just can’t walk away from it,” she explains. But by then, all motivation to continue her book was lost. “I thought the book was over,” she confesses. “I couldn’t connect that mother in the travelogue with the cancer patient.” Grudgingly, however, she realised documenting the disease would be the only way to complete her book, a shockingly cathartic process wherein she eventually accepts the whole ordeal as simply “a biological fuck up.” The result is a poignant story which is at once introspective and self-aware, but never maudlin. “I tried to write this with a great deal of humility and a great respect for China,” she admits. “I wanted it to be much more than me. I wanted just to be the vehicle for it.”
If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Conley, now cancer-free, feels that she has emerged a better writer. “There’s a character in [my new] novel who was supposed to die, but I didn’t know anything about dying,” she explains. Now in its final stages, she reveals that Long Distance will be a cross-continental love story set in France and India, and will be hitting bookstores late next year. But first things first. As we discuss her return to Beijing this month to tour her memoir, the excitement is palpable in Conley’s voice: “It’ll be so fun to go back, but it’s also a surreal kind of homecoming.” The trip will likely be bittersweet, and in her words, will connect some of the dots. “[Cancer] takes a long time to process,” she muses. “So this time when I go back, I get to really enjoy it.”
Susan Conley will be in Hong Kong on Wed 22 & Thu 23 at The Peninsula and Chinese University HK MBA Town Centre respectively. Visit www.dymocks.com.hk and www.amcham.org.hk for more information and tickets.