I didn’t stagger out my reading so well and in the past three weeks have read two Chinese-North American novels with some superficial similarities that momentarily made my head spin trying to recall which novel I was reading.
I do believe it was Daily Candy that alerted me to Wendy Lee’s Happy Family (it was!) and I was amused how Asian-American fiction made it onto the otherwise annoyingly “witty” site. So I thought it was a chicklit nanny story and perfect for summer reading.
A careful look at the somber cover and you know it’s not chicklit. Nor does it read like one.
It turned out to be so captivating. Wendy Lee spins a captivating tale about Hua Wu’s immigration, life in New York’s Chinatown, and the backstory. You’re given a glimpse into an immigrant’s mind – the loneliness, the naivete regarding The New World, and perhaps that what she left behind was quite nice and uncomplicated while kind of repressive. At times, I did not sympathize with the protagonist or her actions but still found myself rooting for either scenario where she succeeded or the Upper East Side family “won”.
Next, I read Jen Sookfong Lee’s The End of East (henceforth she is simply JSFL) that gives the name of this blog post: four of the characters travel by boat from China to Vancouver, “the end of east, where the west begins.” I really worried in the opening pages that I wouldn’t get into the novel – there are hints of not-quite mysticism in the form of dreams as a vehicle for storytelling and “Asian exoticism” but I was gradually drawn in. The immigrant stories of father and son were well drawn out and it seemed that when their wives made it over – a female perspective – their corresponding struggles were somewhat glossed over. Well, there were other stories to tell.
JSFL grew up and still resides in Vancouver so I’m amused by her frequent description of the gray weather but looking back, I guess it was a metaphor for the family’s eternal struggles. Mind you, given JSFL still lives here, I don’t think she means to be snide or complaining. (Funniest weather remark occurred when the women were traveling by boat from Hong Kong to Vancouver: “Last week, the captain told Susie to watch out for the rain, a sure sign that Vancouver isn’t far away. ‘I don’t know how the people who live there can survive. They must be a city of water rats.'”)
I’ve probably mentioned before how I read Asian-North American literature because I’m searching… for something. Either I’m looking for my own experience to be mirrored back at me in a novel or I’m doing my “literature survey” (slowly), figuring out what has been written and how I will write my own (boring) story. I thought it was brave of JSFL to write about isolated and desperate immigrants’ wives and I’m glad she did because it really resonated with me and gave me a feeling of hope. I could also identify with the prodigal daughter who moves all the way across the wide country, the pressure when there are no sons born to a family, and the age-old mother-daughter and mother-in-law/daughter-in-law clash.
I got both books from the library and both are definite “Buys” when I make my next book order.
(Psst, I maintain a Google spreadsheet of my Asian-(North) American reads, movies, music — so far, no music — that I try to update as I plough through these books!)