When Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young boys moved from Maine to Beijing in 2008, she had plans to write about her experience as a mother in that huge, foreign world. After all, Conley — a poet, novelist, journalist, and co-founder of The Telling Room, Portland's non-profit literacy organization — was used to processing life through words. She was someone, as she says in her forthcoming memoir, with a "need to unravel the day's events through a series of sentences."
But the story changed: Conley got breast cancer. In China. Far away from her friends and family in the United States. With a language barrier blocking her from fully understanding what was happening to her own body — her own suddenly incomprehensible body.
"Having cancer in China . . . made it even more foreign," Conley said over coffee at Arabica this week (she and her family have been back in the States for one year). Needless to say, her plans were derailed.
"The book stopped," she recalls. "I'm not writing that book," she told herself at the time. "I'm not writing a cancer memoir."
After one surgery overseas, she came back to Boston for a mastectomy, and then returned to China; cancer quickly displaced Beijing as the source of her cultural dislocation. She struggled to talk to her boys about her illness; she felt alone "in a cancer lake." She looked for talismans, for hope on the Great Wall. And eventually, as all writers do, she figured out how to write about it. She collected the pre- and post-cancer scenes and put them together.
"I realized that I could take the cancer story, and I could take the mother story, and meld them," she says. The result is The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf), which comes out next week and made it onto Oprah's must-read list for February. It's a non-cloying travelogue of several journeys: the one through China, the one through cancer, and the one through motherhood. "I always wanted to keep it a parenting story," Conley says. "I tried to keep cancer somewhere more metaphoric."
Indeed, while The Foremost Good Fortune contains moments both heartwarming and heartwrenching, Conley never strays into maudlin territory. Throughout the book, there is humor and insight mixed with anger and fear. The boys learn dirty words. The family grows used to Chinese customs. Conley and her husband argue. There is always an undercurrent of understanding — or struggling to use — language.
"My cancer, like so many, struck without warning — quickly, in the middle of the proverbial night — and it would be great if someone could just give me a hand," she writes. "If someone could help translate what in God's name just happened to us, and tell me where, by the way, my left breast has gone."
In this memoir, Conley achieves on translation of her experiences. And she tells these stories as though she is telling them to a friend — not leaving out the messy parts, but recognizing which ones need to be told.
Susan Conley Book Launch | February 10 @ 7 pm | at Longfellow Books | One Monument Way, Portland | 207.772.4045 | longfellowbooks.com