You know a story has had a major impact on you when, on a packed train, squashed between a man who looks vaguely like Charles Stross and a party of shouting girls all on school holidays, your throat constricts and the tears well up. Of course, it might also have something to do with the heady mix of aftershave, lip blam and body odour that seems to be orbiting your nose, but your sure it’s because of the story.
In this case it was Ken Liu’s marvellous short piece, The Paper Menagerie, which appears in March /April’s Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Lui had already impressed me a couple of months earlier with his story in January’s issue of Clarkesworld, Tying Knots. There he dealt with cultural imperialism through technological advancement and how a society’s desire to progress and look forward to the future can have terrible consequences on a society that places greater importance on heritage and the customs of the past.
Both the Clarkesworld story and the piece in F&SF are similar in that they deal with the uneasy relationship between two very different cultures forced to co-exist with each other. In the case of The Paper Menagerie, Jack’s mother was chosen by his father from out of a catalog selling Chinese brides. As Jack’s mother later states, it’s not a very romatic story – though she does note that her husband was always kind and gentle, inspite of her language and cultural limitations.
What The Paper Menagerie does so delicately is tells us a heartfelt story about a mother’s love for her son, and the hope that he will know some of her Chinese customs and beliefs. As a young boy she makes him paper animals that she can bring to life by sharing her breath with them. It’s a clever metaphor one alluding to the Chinese heritage she hopes to imbue in her son.
But The Paper Menagerie is also a story about assimilation into the dominant society. As Jack grows up he loses interest in his mother’s paper animals and her weird ways. Why can’t she be like all the other mothers? Why can’t she speak English, or cook normal American food, or wear normal American clothes? Why must she be so different?
And it is this exploration of assimilation and a young man’s need to fit in that Ken Lui explores so beautifully. There’s a subtlety to the writing that means the story never gets mawkish or syrupy, but rather it provides a realistic picture of what it’s like to be the other in a society – whether it claims to be multicultural or not – that sees being different as a novelty rather than a way of life.
And while I stood on that packed train I couldn’t help but relate this story back to my own experience of being Jewish in a place where the majority of people are still stunned to discover that I don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah or celebrate Christmas. And I couldn’t help but recall those moments where I wondered whether following my faith was worth it, whether I should ditch the whole thing and plunge headfirst into the vagaries of Australian culture. And then having a child of my own and wondering how he will react to being Jewish and whether like Jack in this story he will push against me and his mother what with out strange customs and foods and ways of seeing the world. And whether he will turn to me one day and say that being Jewish isn’t important to him, that it’s just a cultural quirk that will soon become obselete.
All this went through my head as I finished Ken Lui’s story and the emotional impact of it all nearly overwhelmed me. But then the train stopped at my station and I gathered myself and went off to work.
While I may not have broken into tears, I do want to recognise how strongly I felt about The Paper Menagerie by giving it my very first Last Short Story 5/5. For me, Ken Lui’s work this year has been a wonderful relevation, and I hope this story gets wider recognition by appearing on years best lists.
Other than that, sadly, the rest of the issue was a real let down. I wasn’t expecting a series of 5/5 pieces, but most of them struggled to get 3s. I liked Albert E Cowdrey’s Golem inpsired story Scatter My Ashes but it’s nowhere near his best work. And I also thought that Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls by Kali Wallace was a compelling and disturbing piece of writing even if the story felt a little unfinished and under explained (but maybe that’s just me). Oh, and the James Stoddard story, If’s of Time is cute if lacking any real substance.
And once again F&SF reeks of gender bias with only 2 of the 10 stories published being written by woman. I know the big three have a bad track record when it comes to gender bias… but when you only publish 6 issues a year shouldn’t you be lifting your game?!