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Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World    by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathieu order for
Leaving Mother Lake
by Yang Erche Namu
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Yang Erche Namu was born 'Always an outsider, always different' to the matrilineal Moso in what the Chinese call the 'Country of Daughters' in the mountains of the borderlands between China and Tibet. Anthropologist Christine Mathieu has studied Moso culture and history, and they co-authored Namu's memoir, Leaving Mother Lake.

In her Afterword, Mathieu speaks of 'the unique genius of a people who have made freedom to love the keeper of their collective happiness.' There is no marriage in Moso society, but rather a large extended family lives together in a log home. A woman, Dabu, heads the household. Women run the house, work in the fields and raise the children; their brothers travel, trade, and herd yaks in the mountains. Adult women of the household have their own bedrooms, 'flower rooms', where they entertain lovers; men sleep at their lovers' or in outhouses. The Moso believe that 'Women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons - it comes and goes.'

Namu grew up too like her mother (her Ama) for either's comfort. Her mother created a minor scandal when she fled her own mother's home to set up a new household, and her daughter Namu seems to have grown just as strong-willed and spirited. As a child, she cried so much that her mother consulted a lama and then tried several exchanges of children - none worked and she took her daughter back again. For several years, Namu was companion to a lonely herder uncle in the mountain 'world of hairy yaks and vapory dew', until she reached puberty and returned home to have her coming of age 'Skirt Ceremony'.

Then Han Chinese officials from the Cultural Bureau invited Namu to participate in a singing competition in the city, and eventually in Beijing. Namu's eyes were opened to new possibilities, which alienated her from the restrictions of village life. Echoing her mother's past actions, Namu eventually risked everything to try for a place in the prestigious Shanghai Music Conservatory. Through a foreign friend she learned of even more worlds that might open up to her. Successes followed, but eventually Namu visited her home again and reconciled with her family.

There are funny scenes, as when Ama feeds an expensive can of coffee to a soon to be very hyper pig, because it 'tasted horrible', and there are sad times when the Red Guards harass a gentle old woman during the Cultural Revolution. But what makes Leaving Mother Lake such a fascinating read is its myriad of details on Moso culture like the Skirt Ceremony; New Year celebrations (including the reason the Dog receives a full human meal at that time); the way in which Namu becomes 'blood sister' to a Yi girl; or the legend of the mountain goddess and her lover.

Read and enjoy Leaving Mother Lake for its exploration of an unusual, disappearing culture; as the memoir of a young woman with the strength to follow her dreams; and for its depiction of love and conflict between generations of mothers and daughters.

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