WRITING & PUBLISHING
When Memoir is Bedeviled by the Begats
My mother came from a long line of Bible thumpers that stalled with her irreverent father. Canadian by birth, Wisconsin farmer by training, my Gramp used to regale his kids with dinner table recitations of what he called The Begats, which opened the Book of Matthew:
“Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; and Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; and Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon…”
And on for 16 verses until finally Jacob begat Joseph, who conspicously did not beget Jesus, since his bride Mary (also not begotten) was supposedly impregnated by “the Holy Ghost.” Gramp had rollicking good fun with that concoction, but it’s the earlier Begats that concern me here because of the dutiful brevity with which they’re listed, like inconvenient speed bumps that must be gotten over before reaching that sexy entryway to “the Holy Ghost.”
The challenge of the Begats faces every family memoirist, and right now it’s bedeviling me. How can we acknowledge the mystery and humanity of the generations that formed us without boring our readers witless? At least the Biblical Begats all shared the same cultural provenance, so their names roll out in a seamless blur. But mine jump continents and languages and alphabets, from 劉儒禹 to Maurice Liu, from Qing Dynasty China to post-war Connecticut. How do I even thinking about getting there from here, much less back again?
The simple solution, of course, is to ignore the Begats and launch my family story with my father’s birth. But the whole point of my memoir is to go deeper, to understand what shaped our collective sense of family. And the more I probe my father’s childhood in Shanghai — including his relationship with his grandmother, the last concubine of a Qing Dynasty viceroy — the larger, murkier, and more tantalizing that family story becomes. How can I simply ignore the long line of Imperial generals and officials whose education, privilege, and exploits paved the way for my father’s — and my own? But how can I hope to make their identities…