Reading is a search for identity. We look for ourselves between the pages and sometimes we get lucky. For me, the first time was Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. It’s a mixture of memoir, Chinese myth and family tales of life in and outside of China. She called her style of writing talk-story: reminiscing about the old country.
My copy of Woman Warrior was published in 1977, the year I started college. I had started to radicalize then, claiming my identity as an Asian-American and joining a group called the Third World Writer’s Collective.
Laughable really, since we were all Americans at the University of California Irvine. Let’s call it radicalism as a matter of degree.
Until Woman Warrior, I had only known heroines like Alice in Wonderland with her blond hair and blue pinafore or Elizabeth Bennet flouncing about a Regency period drawing room. To realize that literature could also be about people like me: it was a thunderbolt.
Not that every book about Asians will appeal to all of us. I loved The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan for its oh-so-familiar portrayals of women playing mahjong. It captured the essence of my mother’s Cantonese identity: the food, the chatter, the endless gambling.
My father hated it, probably for exactly that reason. He preferred Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, a devastating account of life in 20th century China from the time of the warlords through the Cultural Revolution. It may have been his way to recapture his own identity as a Chinaman, so many years after his escape to the US.
I would rather read fiction, having no head for dates, though only where the characters feel real to me. It’s such a shame when a character is reduced to a prototype: the bad guy or the comic relief. One character can be so many things: a daughter, a sister, a friend, a lover, a whore and a killer, like Song Anyi, the heroine of my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.
If I had to choose one writer whose fiction resonated with my identity as an Asian-American, it would be Eileen Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang led a life worthy of a novel. Her family was rich and powerful until the Qing dynasty was overthrown. Her opium-addicted father beat her and her Westernized mother abandoned her. Chang nonetheless achieved great artistic success. Then her career was broken: by war, the rise of Communism and exile to the United States. She died alone in Los Angeles in 1995.
Her death reawakened an interest in Chang’s work. It’s a craze that continues to this day for works of Asian literature in general and hers in particular. Just two weeks ago, Granta named Love in a Fallen City (a collection of short stories and the title novella) as the best book of 1943. In 2007, Ang Lee adapted another Chang novella into the erotic thriller Lust, Caution.
Here are the opening lines of her short story Aloeswood Incense. They have nothing to do with my identity. It’s just fabulous writing.
Go and fetch, will you please, a copper incense brazier, a family heirloom gorgeously encrusted now with moldy green, and light in it some pungent chips of aloeswood. Listen while I tell a Hong Kong tale, from before the war. When your incense has burned out, my story too will be over.