– I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. –
Centered on a community of immigrants who have traded their endangered lives as artists in China and Taiwan for the constant struggle of life at the poverty line in 1990s New York City, Zhang’s exhilarating collection examines the many ways that family and history can weigh us down and also lift us up. From the young woman coming to terms with her grandmother’s role in the Cultural Revolution to the daughter struggling to understand where her family ends and she begins, to the girl discovering the power of her body to inspire and destroy, these seven vibrant stories illuminate the complex and messy inner lives of girls struggling to define themselves. Fueled by Zhang’s singular voice and sly humor, this collection introduces Zhang as a bright and devastating force in literary fiction.
I chose this book because…
I support Asian-American authors and stories about the Asian-American experience. Also, I was sold by the line “girls struggling to define themselves.”
Upon reading it…
My parents shielded me from a lot of the world such that all I had to worry about was doing well in school; my happiness and everything else, they took care of. I’m not grateful enough for all that I have, for all that my parents have given me. Thus, I was unfamiliar with the struggles of these immigrant families in these stories because I’ve never had any real struggles in life. Rather, I identified with the children whose lives were easy because their parents had worked hard to make a life for them in America.
Though I was unfamiliar with the struggle myself, these stories reminded me that my parents are people too, that they’re not superheroes, that I only think that they are because they work so hard and love me so much, that they have had to overcome so much, that they have had to bury so much to make me feel so safe. My parents’ stories are not the same as the ones in the book, but they had and have their own struggles too. At the very least, it’s safe to say that it’s not as easy to make it in America for people of colour as it is for white people.
The stories are told by different people but all in first person. This threw me off at first because the tone of all the stories is the same, but it didn’t bother me because I quite liked the tone and didn’t mind following it throughout the collection. My favourite story was the first one, “We Love You Crispina.” There was so much of the book I wanted to quote, but that often meant I’d have to quote whole paragraphs or pages, such was my love for this collection. While this is a good piece of literary work, it wasn’t so much the poetry of the words but the meaning of the words that really struck a chord with me.
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But what’s done is done, sourheart. Don’t you see? Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens for a good reason and we have to be patient if we want to find out what that good reason is.
Didn’t it bother him that he was teaching his students poetry when he was certain it wouldn’t make a difference in how their lives turned out? Didn’t it bother him to be so sure that it was futile to even try?
You can’t give up the rest of your life to stay this way.
We whispered our love you’s and the next morning, I woke up thinking I was born sad.
And I wondered then how magic was distributed in the world and when and if my family would receive our fair share because I was no longer worried about how we were going to travel the seventy-something miles to get home without spending the last of our thirteen dollars, I just needed my mother to turn around and look at my father and laugh at how skinny his two legs looked, sticking out from under his protruding stomach that we once joked was a home for the world’s roundest watermelon—that was the kind of magic I was after.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was also willing to kill, maybe go to outer space to fetch a burning star and bring it to me to win my heart; anything was possible when a boy loved you that much.
I wanted to be special but sometimes I couldn’t tell if I was special or if I was special, and even though they were the same word, one singled you out for deep admiration and envy and the other guaranteed you were doomed and worthy only of pity.
It wasn’t fair I had to be me for as long as I lived while other people got to be other people.
Why, why, why? my grandmother said. You waste my time with these whys. Go do something already so someone can ask you why you did it.
What allowed him to be at peace with the world when I was still so behind, waiting for the next several years to hurry up and finish so I could show everyone that I, too, would turn out this way, poised and so incredibly well-adjusted that I was a marvel to be discussed and openly pondered, perhaps even kept in a glass case rimmed with gold in a museum somewhere that charged exorbitantly for admission to see me, the special exhibit people traveled far and wide for.
It was my mother who tucked him in and told him that there exists a sort of love in the world that only survives as long as no one speaks of it, and that was the reason why he would never have to worry because my grandmother was never going to be the kind of mother who held her children in her arms and told them how smart and beautiful and talented they were. She was only ever going to scold them, make them feel diminutive, make them feel like they were never good enough, make them know this world wouldn’t be kind to them. She wasn’t going to let someone else be better than her at making her children feel pain or scare them more than she could, and to her, that was a form of protection.
I didn’t want to be saved, I wanted to be a member of the institution organizing the charity, the philanthropist dripping with generosity.
I knew in the very fuzzy part of what I paid attention to that my parents had suffered, too, they had struggled, too, and whatever happened to them in the year before I was brought to America was somehow related to their refusal to ever order beverages at restaurants because paying an extra dollar or two for something they could get in bulk for cheaper activated some kind of trauma inside them. It really did. But even more astounding was how they never stopped me or my brother from ordering those drinks.
It was only later, much, much, much later, that I understood and accepted that my parents paid for me to be free. All of it, I realized, had to be paid for by someone.
It turned out that this, too, was terrifying, all of it was terrifying. Being someone was terrifying.
“That makes no sense.”
“That’s because sense isn’t made, it’s learned.”
“Yo, you really need to get out of my room.”
Don’t be sorry, just be better.
If everything is easy we’ll never learn. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s how we know we’re learning.
Our mothers weren’t really friends. They just had to be because this was a lonely life.
We told ourselves we were going to escape one day or another, although I never figured out if dying counted as escape.
Is it normal to wake up disappointed I’ve survived another day? Sometimes I think it would be better not to wake up at all, never to have known what it was like to have lived a life. Is it too late? Will I always know this life?
My mom smiled at me like I was the very girl she was meant to bring into this world, which meant I belonged to every single place I ever stepped foot on, but most of all, I was hers, and she was mine.
It was like one of those dreams where you think to yourself while the dream is happening that you must remember the dream when you wake. That if you remember this dream, it will change you, unlock secrets from your life that would otherwise be permanently closed. But when you wake up, the only thing you can remember is telling yourself to remember it. After trying to conjure up details and images and coming up blank, you think, Oh well, it was probably stupid anyway, and you go on with your life, and you learn nothing, and you don’t change at all.
As always, everyone kept asking me, What’s wrong? Are you okay? Is something bothering you? At night I flung my pillow against my mattress and prayed to my fake jade statue of the Guanyin goddess to give me a different face so that people would stop looking at my current one and asking me what was the matter.
It’s like how Americans have a knack for laziness. No one taught them how to slack off at their jobs. No one taught them to get away with doing the least amount of work possible, and yet they’re the best at it in the whole world. They’re born with it. It’s the same thing with paying attention to feng shui for us. It’s innate.
You can’t give young people that much freedom and not expect chaos.