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Liu: The Paper Menagerie (Mar./Apr. 2011)

(4 posts)
  • Started 9 years ago by geoffhart1962
  • Latest reply from Christine Jackson

  1. geoffhart1962

    After Liu’s previous harrowing turn in “The Literomancer” (Sept./Oct. 2010), this story comes as a distinct relief—though not one unaccompanied by a hefty dose of pain. “Menagerie” (a clear tip of the hat to “The Glass Menagerie”) is told from the POV of Jack, first as a youngster and later as a teen and young adult. Jack’s father, a white American, “bought” a Chinese bride and brought her home with him to America, some time around the late 1970s. At the time, she spoke no English, and though Jack’s father clearly loved her and treated her well, he never made an effort to learn any Chinese to ease the burden of her entry into American society, and the prejudice against Asians that is so pernicious and omnipresent and (worse, in some ways) so heedless further isolated her. Like any new mother, she doted on her son, trebly so because he was the only one she could speak to in Chinese with all her “ai”, her heart. (One of the pleasures I find in Liu’s writing is the ability, with my primitive Chinese skills, to pull out occasional bits of nuance from the bits and pieces of Chinese language scattered through his stories.)

    Thus, it’s a deep wound for her when Jack distances himself from her. Jack is grappling with all the usual problems a child has of fitting in within a new community, exacerbated by being a halfbreed (a term I chose deliberately to emphasize the venom with which he’s treated when he initially clings to some of the Chinese ways his mother teaches him). This is a classic tale of love and magic gone bad: early on, Jack’s mother makes him toys—living pets, really—out of origami animals crafted from Christmas wrapping paper, with the difference that she knows the magic of breathing life into them with her own breath, and they live for as long as she draws breath. For many years, these animals are cherished toys and friends (particularly the tiger, symbolic of the Year of the Tiger in which Jack was born), until the day one of them damages a friend’s Star Wars toy and the friend nearly destroys it in a rage. (The friend, heedless, sees none of the magic in these animals, spoiled for such things by the far lesser magics of television and Star Wars. In a sense, this is a very Bradbury-esque aspect of Liu’s writing: hidden and wonderful magics that only children or those who have not lost their “childish” sense of wonder can truly appreciate.) It is then that he makes the decision to sever himself from his Chinese heritage and become fully American. He even boxes up his old animal friends and stores them in the attic so he can no longer hear them call to him. The resentment he bears his mother over what she made him (an outcast, at least initially) eventually drives such a distance between them that they rarely speak again, not until the final day of his mother’s life, when she dies of cancer at the young age of 40. He returns to university, seemingly unmoved by her death.

    [Spoilers] Two years later, Jack is living with his girlfriend, who has discovered the old toy animals and brought them out as decorations for their apartment. Inspecting the much abused tiger (laohu), he discovers a hidden long letter she wrote to him when it became clear they would never talk again, and that she would die before they were reconciled. So great is the distance from his heritage that Jack has created, he’s forgotten too much Chinese to read it, and must ask someone to read it to him. In the letter, we learn his mother’s story, but never her name (a nice touch): she was orphaned by the atrocities of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, fled to Hong Kong in search of an uncle who was her only surviving relative, and was sold into domestic slavery, only escaping by offering herself as a mail-order bride. Her story is poignant and deeply affecting, and quintessentially Chinese. (I judge this from what I’ve learned over the years about Chinese culture through Chinese friends and colleagues.) But it’s also a story that should resonate with anyone who’s ever distanced themselves from a parent over something that later proves to be trivial (i.e., for most of us).

    The letter remind Jack that each year, on the date of Qingming, the Chinese day of the dead, there is a bond created between him and his deceased mother that will let her spirit animate the toys once more, and thereby let him communicate with her. In the final moments of the story, Jack traces the word “ai” (love) over and over again on his paper tiger—telling his mother, many years too late, that he still loves her and is sorry for how he treated her.

    Liu manages to create emotions so subtly you almost miss how they’re creeping up on you. Thus, when the climax of the story comes, it delivers a surprisingly strong emotional punch. I got all dewy-eyed over the resolution, though I confess to being a major softy. *G* Based on the two Liu stories I’ve read thus far, it seems Liu has the rare gift not only for empathy with his characters, but for us helping us to share that empathy through a simple but powerful telling of how real people overcome their tragedies to find beauty in life, even when life has other plans for them and won’t let them enjoy that beauty for long. There is magic in Liu’s writing, and not just the overt trickery of bringing paper animals to life through zhezhi magic; the real magic lies in the simple, quintessentially beauty of his (often Chinese) characters and how he can make us feel their pain even if we’re not Chinese. This is a second powerful story in a row, moving Liu to the top of the list of writers I plan to keep an eye on.

    Posted 9 years ago #
  2. arowhena

    This is an absolutely wonderful story!

    Posted 9 years ago #
  3. Anonymous

    I know, it's awesome - and it's made me into a bona-fide squealing Ken Liu fangirl. His story in the current issue was also really interesting, I love how he alters his style so completely depending on the setting.

    My favourite bit from Paper Menagerie? When the paper tiger breaks the Obi Wan Kenobi toy. Hehehe.

    Posted 9 years ago #
  4. Christine Jackson

    I loved this story and the previous one as well. I haven't yet read the one in the current issue, but I'm looking forward to it.

    Posted 9 years ago #

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