The Way We Live Now

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Two recent books by Asian American writers confront stereotypes while exploring the rich interiority of the characters’ lives.

Recently, I was thinking about an irritating quote from Lev Grossman’s Time profile of Jonathan Franzen:

After the literary megafauna of the 1990s—like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld—the novels of the aughts embraced quirkiness and uniqueness. They zoomed deep in, exploring subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.

Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.

The “way-we-live-now” novel. Who is this mysterious “we,” this implied audience that confers greatness on a writer? Frank Chin, in his infamous critique of Maxine Hong Kingston, had an idea about the implied “we”—or perhaps, more accurately, “you”—in her work when he wrote

What seems to hold Asian American literature together is the popularity among whites of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior; David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. and M. Butterfly; and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. These works are held up before us as icons of our pride, symbols of our freedom from the icky- gooey evil of… Chinese culture… Maxine Hong Kingston has defended her revision of Chinese history, culture, and childhood literature and myth by restating a white racist stereotype. (Emphasis mine.)

For Chin, the implied white audience in these works diminished the stories and made them less “authentic.” For Grossman, it’s what makes a work great. None of that icky-gooey quirky subculture stuff.

The question of audience and its relationship to authenticity is a longstanding one in work by people of color, and it is Angie Chau’s subtle work with audience in the recent Quiet As They Come that makes the book special among a wide field of books about immigration and assimilation. Quiet As They Come, a collection of linked stories, is set in San Francisco. The stories follow a family of Vietnamese immigrants from the 1980s to the present as they navigate a new life in America. Each story depicts a different member of the family; the combined effect is a deep, multi-angled look at the merging and clashing of cultures.

On the surface, Quiet sounds like a set of typical immigration stories, but Chau’s rendering, and her sophisticated play with point-of-view sets her book apart. To steal Grossman’s line, I felt she was telling a story of how “we” live now, and for the first time, I felt that the “we” included me.

Chau’s stories pivot on moments when the familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar. Each story begins within a particular character’s close third-person point of view. We are so intimate with the character that when Chau pulls back just enough to allow us to see the impending American misinterpretation,  the result is a feeling of inevitability and surprise. In “Everything Forbidden,” Huong, a young mother, is searching Golden Gate Park for sticks to cure her oldest daughter’s illness. After a small humiliation at the playground, where she is reprimanded by a pregnant woman for being there without a child (her youngest daughter is in the bathroom), she returns home with just the right stick. With the stick, a coin, and menthol, she works on “pulling the wind” from her sick daughter, Elle:

Outside, the city buses were loading and unloading passengers below. Huong dotted drops of the menthol oil on Elle’s back. She scraped with the coin and followed her map of green markings like roadside reflectors in the night. Her strokes were gentle without being so soft that the effects of the medicine wouldn’t absorb. She worked from the spine outward, careful to place the coin at an angle and only along the edge of each rib. The blood rose to the surface and pink dots streaked across the girl’s skin. In the areas where Elle had stored the most wind, it immediately turned the purplish yellow shade of deep bruising.

The day after Elle returns to school, Huong is home alone when the doorbell rings. The woman at the door asks Huong if she is Elle’s mother. Huong is instantly alarmed: “Is my daughter okay?” The woman responds, “I’m from Child Protective Services, Mrs. Le. That’s what I’m here to talk to you about.”

Chau avoids cultural tour-guiding or explanation. She takes what may be unfamiliar—in this case, Huong’s cure—renders it in a way that makes it familiar, binding character and reader, then in a moment, flips it back into the realm of unfamiliar. Huong suddenly sees her culture through the eyes of American culture, and the reader is given the gift of doubled vision.

The title story also offers the theme that holds the collection together. Viet Tran works in a post office. One day, his adolescent daughter comes by to deliver food. After she leaves, his male co-workers make suggestive comments about her. One, Melvin, remarks, “That Elle, wouldn’t mind having baby in bed….Who would’ve thought? Fine little thing coming outta…” Their unashamed vulgarity reveals their dismissive attitude toward Viet, who is in the room. At that moment he is the “invisible and inscrutable” Asian. But Viet is highly conscious of the entire dynamic, and aware of how they view him:

Viet didn’t talk much because his English embarrassed him. His co-workers didn’t ask much of him either. They told stories amongst themselves and whispered secrets he pretended he was oblivious to. He once heard a co-worker describe him by saying he was as “quiet as they come.” They were talking in general terms about the droves of Asians they noticed arriving in San Francisco over the past few years. They noted how passive they were and quiet too and how Viet topped them all by being the quietest of all, practically invisible.

His rage grows and, finally, he confronts his co-worker. Chau’s skill, exemplified in this story but present throughout the book, is in presenting both the surface stereotypes that surround these “quiet” immigrants and the rich interiority of their lives. Rather than merely reifying those stereotypes, or reacting to them, Chau acknowledges and disrupts them, in a beautiful reclamation of Asian American subjectivity. While many works depicting Asian Americans seem highly conscious of stereotypes, and oftentimes create characters that implicitly (or even explicitly) respond to them, Chau’s characters carve their own space.

A similar reclamation takes place in Brian Leung’s recent novel, Take Me Home, a love story between a white woman and a Chinese man set in an 1880s Wyoming mining town. Over the course of the novel, they slowly become friends, and then lovers, until a clash between the whites and Chinese ends in a massacre that drives out the Chinese and destroys their community. Leung begins the novel in the head of Adele “Addie” Maine, a young woman from Kentucky who joins her brother on his homestead in Wyoming. In Addie’s point-of-view, much is unfamiliar, including the Chinese. A woman on the train describes them with “eyes like cats and tails that grow out the back of their heads and down the length of their bodies. Front teeth like rats and skin so yellow and oily if you ever got hold of one, he’d slip right through your fingers.” Later, when Addie glimpses her first “coolie,” she says his queue “wasn’t exactly a tail, like the woman on the train said, but it was close.”

Leung complicates the question of who is looking at whom by alternating Addie’s point-of-view with that of her lover, Wing Lee. Unlike the monster Addie initially envisions, Wing is hard-working, educated, eloquent. He describes Addie’s hair as “not brown or blond but the reddish color of thoroughly ripe lychee skin. Where the sun struck it, there was a shine like the quiet embers of an extinct fire.” And though he pretends not to understand English, he later reveals that he can not only speak, but also read and write (in contrast to the semi-literate Addie). Wing’s point-of-view provides a counterbalance to Addie’s gaze, and gives him, a Chinese male, a voice in this story and this history.

The beauty of Leung’s novel lies in the author’s respectful handling of the burgeoning romance between Addie and Wing, as difference dissipates in the face of common humanity. An interracial love story set against the backdrop of one of America’s most strident immigration laws—the Chinese Exclusion Act—Take Me Home presents a subtle, even sweet, love story and uses a light touch with the issues of race, though they clearly determine the foundation and unfolding of the plot. Leung’s graceful way with the material elevates the novel.

After I finished Take Me Home and Quiet As They Come, the opening line of Don DeLillo’s Underworld kept coming back to me: “He speaks in your voice, American.” I thought of “your voice,” of “we,” of the importance of having these stories and not reducing them to mere “subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.” As Leung writes in a scene in which Wing debates whether or not to reveal to Addie that he both understands her and can speak her language:

“Wing ached to say, I do understand, and I know why you’re speaking. Because you’re as hungry for someone to hear you as I am.”

Shawna Yang Ryan is the author of Water Ghosts. Originally published by indie press El Leon Literary Arts under the name Locke 1928, Water Ghosts was a Northern California Book Award finalist. She currently teaches at City College of San Francisco. More from this author →