In "Feathers," the third story in Xujun Eberlein’s debut story collection Apologies Forthcoming, a young Chinese girl named Sail is forced by her mother into subterfuge to keep her grandmother from finding out that Sail’s sister has been killed while away at school. The lie continues for years, forcing ever more elaborate fabrications from Sail:
Every few weeks Sail wrote a letter in Jia's name and read it to Gaga. They sat down on the narrow sun porch of their apartment, Gaga lying on the weathered bamboo chaise, squinting in the spring, summer, or autumn sun. Windy stuck a bamboo-claw into Gaga’s collar and scratched her back, and Gaga sighed with joy. “What a luxury, what a luxury.” Then she fell into an attentive quietness as Sail cut open the glued envelope. Illiterate Gaga had great respect for the written word. She nodded every so often to what Sail was reading, and each nod gave Sail warm encouragement, while Windy ran around Gaga's chaise and Sail's wooden stool. It was almost a perfect, happy scene, except Mother neither read nor listened to the letters Sail wrote. As for Sail herself, at times she believed the letters were real. More real than Jia's death.
In this way, many of the characters in Eberlein's stories must create their own stories – their own myths and poems – to fill the void left in their society by China's Cultural Revolution, as well as the more personal tragedies of their lives. Despite the similarity of setting, each story feels distinct and fresh, written with a keen understanding of how the political impacts the personal at every level of a society, whether the characters are poets or revolutionaries or children.
If there is anything that detracts from these stories, it is that the history lessons sometimes intrude too much, but even this is a minor complaint. Mostly, the information is necessary for the intended American audience of these stories, and without it the reader would be lost. Thankfully, Xujun Eberlein is an excellent guide to the foreign experiences of both China and Communism, and her characters provide rich human points of focus that easily stand out against the larger social and political backdrops of this fine debut.