Sandoval Signpost
An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Featured Artist

Signpost featured artist: Norma Libman

Author Norma Libman at home in Placitas

Gary Priester designed the Lonely River Village book cover shown above—the winner of the 2014 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards Best Cover Design.

A chart of translation—Mandarin to Nu Shu

Veiled voices: Norma Libman’s Lonely River Village

—Oli Robbins

An anonymous woman once wrote, “I find some relief in writing, for one cannot always cry.” These honest words were penned in Nu Shu, a secret language unique to, and devised by, female villagers in China’s Hunan Province. Nu Shu, or “women’s script,” exemplifies just how fundamental expression is to the human experience—for even the muzzled will find a way to speak. Developed some time between two hundred and two thousand years ago, Nu Shu was the inspiration for Placitas writer Norma Libman’s 2014 novel, Lonely River Village: a Novel of Secret Stories.

Libman has been researching the code for twenty years, and her book provides a compelling and comprehensive grouping of Nu Shu writings. The musings, advice, and events that were recorded in Nu Shu are the basis of Libman’s characters, though the identities of the original authors have been lost. These strong and intelligent women used Nu Shu clandestinely, to preserve their female relationships and give import to their own experiences and emotions during a time when they were denied the education needed to read or write. Libman explains, “They sewed their stories into fans, scarves, handkerchiefs, or napkins and sent them to each other to inform their friends of what was happening in their families, or purely to provide entertainment for their otherwise harsh or boring lives.” Nu Shu was largely overlooked by men, both because it was typically inscribed on decorative items, and women were generally viewed as unimportant.

Most Nu Shu was destroyed in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, along with other items from the pre-communist era. Or, it was burned during cremation so it could “accompany the deceased to their next existence.” But what was preserved is eloquent, often sad, and aesthetically impressive. Nu Shu reveals pockets of what it was like to be female when subservience was expected and inequality was the law. One Nu Shu excerpt reads, “It’s one thing to suffer all my life, but I don’t want my sorrow to be lost. I want people to know how I felt.” Libman hopes to grant this wish, writing, “Their voices, systematically silenced for so many years, will at last be heard.” Some women were optimistic that the future would be brighter for following generations of women: “You push aside a dark cloud and then you will see the blue sky; women wait for the hard luck to be over so they can have a better life.” And thankfully, with the rise of Communism, girls entered school and learned how to write in Mandarin. Women could now legally learn how to read and write, and as a result, they no longer relied upon the covert Nu Shu.

Although Libman didn’t study journalism or creative writing in school, she has been working as a journalist and writer since her twenties. She spent many years teaching literature as an adjunct professor in the suburbs of Chicago (her home city), and also assumed a role as a columnist and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune—for which she wrote over four hundred articles.

One of her interviewees, a Chinese-born writer who had recently published a book, indirectly led her to Nu Shu by inviting Libman to an Asian writer’s conference in Taiwan. Once there, on the advice of her editor, Libman investigated a nebulous story regarding a secret women’s code. Libman approached the head of translators at Taipei’s Awakening Foundation. The Foundation had earlier translated all extant Nu Shu writings after coming into contact with a male Chinese professor who was determined to raise interest in and translate the undecipherable script. The professor, Gong Zhe-bing, had tracked down three living women who were proficient in Nu Shu. The three Nu Shu writers taught the script to thirty volunteers, who were assembled by the Foundation and translated all remaining texts into Mandarin. Libman’s meeting with the Foundation provided material for an article on Nu Shu that was published in the early 90s in the Chicago Tribune. The article sparked the interest of many who began contacting Libman with other stories about the tacit preservation of histories and cultures, like those of the crypto-Jews—which Libman now studies and writes about.

In Lonely River Village, Libman weaves the real stories that were first expressed in Nu Shu into a tapestry of community, heartbreak, perseverance, and friendship. Nu Shu is what connects her characters, and it is essential to the survival of each of them. An anonymous Nu Shu writer assumed that the world will never “remember a woman’s passion that has never had a chance to bloom.” But if Libman’s novel achieves the acclaim it deserves, it may well prove this woman wrong.

Visit Libman’s website to contact her and read a selection of her articles: Her book can be purchased on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle. Libman will also be discussing the novel and signing copies at the Placitas Community Library on January 24, at 2:00 p.m.

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