Forget Sorrow is a story that will let you do anything but. The title a translation of Belle Yang’s given name, Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale tells the Yang family story throughout different time periods. The structure of the book is built on Yang’s own difficulties. Homebound while a dogged ex-boyfriend stalks her, Yang busied herself with learning more about her family’s past. The narrative bounces around from tales of the trials of 1940s China to the modern difficulties of avoiding Rotten Egg, the stalker. Interspersed are some legends and anecdotes of Yang’s own trips to China.
While many stories are shared, the crux of the book lies with the father’s reminiscing of growing up in China. The drama within that story plays out between the patriarch of the family, Yang’s Great-Grandfather, her Grandfather, and her three Great Uncles, referred to as Second Brother, Third Brother, and Fourth Brother. As the child of the important Eldest Brother, Yang’s father had a front row seat to all of the falling outs within the family. As hard as it is to relate all of the family members in a review, (because there are aunts and mothers and cousins, and neighbors who are being left out), this is a confusion that does not pervade the reading. All of the family is distinct, if not in dialogue then by appearance.
No one is stuffed into the narrative without reason. Though the cast is large, they all have important parts to play. Especially for an American audience, how family is treated in 1930s-1950s China will seem eccentric. The dynamics of the family are allied to a powerful political formation. However, all of the candidates are in position for life, and you have to live together indefinitely. Your rights are determined by your patriarch, which causes great grief among the Brothers and their families. Since they are regarded differently in the eyes of their parents, the four brothers can appeal for different favors with varying results. One such appeal, that the irresponsible Third Brother take over the family farm in a time of war, drives a deep wedge in the family.
Family strife and internal struggles would be enough for any story, but Forget Sorrow relates the Yang clan’s story through a particularly harrowing period of Chinese History. The reason the family comes together in the first place is the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. This precursor to world war drives the family members that lived across China back to the family home. War and mismanagement of the family farm would see the Yang family through a tumultuous period were they first feared death by enemies abroad, then, when their supplies ran low, feared starvation. Yang’s own father has a trying ordeal simply attempting to become a student. Leaving home, fording rivers, being imprisoned, threatened, and at one point, homeless, were all part of his journey to a university.
Undoubtedly, the story of the Yang clan is riveting. Fortunately, Belle Yang has the ability to relate the family history with utmost skill. Trained as an artist, Yang knows her way around a brush. The story is all in black and white, with a simplistic look that echoes historic Chinese brushwork. Updating the style, Yang delivers a nice middle ground of strong inking with great cartooning. You’re never confused about how a character feels or how to read the story. What’s most fascinating are how sparse lines can transmit exactly what Yang wants us to see. A character may only be made of a few brush strokes, but the intimation of what the character wears and how they feel is captured. Similarly, the great variety that rural to urban China presents is captured succinctly. It’s shorthand that takes years to master, and Yang performs beautifully.
Condensed, Forget Sorrow may seem like an impenetrable read for a western audience. However, the Yang’s story, while spanning centuries, is tied together with all of the frustrations and joys that every family experiences. Told from a continent away, through a completely different history, Yang has woven and intimately relatable tale.
Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale
by Belle Yang
W. W. Norton & Company, 2011