Friday, January 15, 2010 |
Hello, fellow readers.
I trust you had a good reading week, and that you're full of thoughts, feelings and ideas about the book in which you're currently engrossed. I know I am. I finished The Jade Peony yesterday. (Planning to make inroads on Generation X this weekend.)
If Monday's post didn't make it clear, I'm just going to say it: there's a lot to chew on in this relatively short work. In fact, I spent many hours thinking about how to express my experience of the novel, and if what I had to say would do justice to the author's intention. (It was fun to meet Wayson Choy — see pic above — but doing so probably makes me even more anxious to give the book its due.)
Whenever I get conflicted or confused about what I'm going to say, I go back to the source. It's a practical approach I learned from one of my English professors when I was a student and especially prone to essay-related hysteria. (It's either that or clean the house, which is a handy problem-solving tip from my grandmother.)
I began to reread select passages of The Jade Peony, and slowly my anxiety gave way to enjoyment again — simple stripped-down pleasure can presage and even stimulate insight, or what I like to think is insight, anyway. What I learned on second reading was this: social status may be rigid in The Jade Peony, but anarchy reigns in the hearts and minds of its narrators. (Is there a connection there? Between a defined social order and internal chaos? Can we get an anthropologist to weigh in?) But to me, it's that struggle to understand who and what they are — socially, sexually, existentially — and in such a turbulent cultural climate, that makes Choy's three adolescent narrators so compelling and, ultimately, so human.
Let's start with Jook-Liang, our first speaker and the book's only female narrator. Liang doesn't have it easy. As a girl in a traditional Chinese family she's at a definite disadvantage. At home, she's told she's "mo yung," or useless. How's that for encouragement? That status conflict even extends outside the home, for Liang. She may have been born in Canada, but in her native country she's considered a "resident alien." Useless at home and undesired elsewhere, it's not surprising that she goes looking for a more liberating ideal in the world of the imagination. She finds what she's looking for in myth and movies. Her connection to Old Wong and her Shirley Temple fixation offer a temporary solution to the strain of being "mo yung" in the real world.
I have to wonder how the adult Liang made out. Whether she ever forged a singular identity for herself, one beyond heritage, myth or Hollywood magic? I hope so.
Jung-Sum may be a boy, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee him safe passage through the maturation process or the cultural maelstrom. As the second son — the spare, the back-up goalie in the big game of life — he's as confused as Liang about his place in the family and Canadian society. He's also smack dab in the middle of a sexual identity crisis — and in 1930s Vancouver no less. I've already expressed my admiration of how this flowering of sexual knowledge was represented in the book. But I wonder if I'm the only reader who fantasizes about popping the sensitive boy into a time machine and setting the dial for 2010? Because as we present-day readers know, Jung has a hard road ahead of him.
No one is as mixed up and turned around as Sek-Lung, or Sekky, though. Perhaps that's why I like him so much. "Born neither this or that," he vacillates between jingoistic pride and self-hatred. There's nothing clearly defined about his character — he's a work in progress and he's all over the place. At home, he makes racist jokes that attack his Chinese heritage; outside he is fixated on the Japanese as his "enemies." As the youngest, he's a sponge who picks up a lot of psychic waste. "I absorbed Chinatown's hatred of the Japanese," he says at one point. His impatience with the complexity of his own culture indicates that he's also picked up on his native country's hostility toward Chinese culture. No wonder the United Nations approach of his teacher, Miss Doyle, feels like a glimpse of "paradise" to the troubled boy.
Did any of that resonate with your experience of the novel? Or am I as churned up by the world of the novel as Choy's characters? Please feel free to share your thoughts. Here's a question: why do you think we never hear from the First Son? I've got a theory, but I'd love to hear yours.
Next week, it's Generation X. Enjoy your reading.