Another urgent and powerful collection from Atlantic Books.
Xuan Juliana Wang provides us with a gripping and impressive collection. A collection that is told in three distinct parts – Family, Love & Time and Space. Each part of the book focuses on real lives, circumstance, immigrant life, the loss of culture, the fading of the old ways of life and the new way of life in China and of those struggling to free themselves from the shackles of a culture that inhibits the way of life they want to lead.
The collection is touching and Wang’s voice is like a roaring lion within the pages, shouting about the way things are and the way society should have them be. It’s a bold and daring collection that covers many themes, many of the stories focusing on lives under the microscope – relationships at breaking point, people at a crossroad, and how life continues in the strangest and most painful of ways.
There are a number of great stories in this collection and I’ll touch on a few of my favourite, but due to the reoccurring themes that run through Home Remedies some stories I believe are stronger than others, there’s a bit of repetition – but on the whole it is a mesmeric collection that showcases an astute and unique voice, giving the reader a glimpse into Chinese culture and the desperate search of a new way of life.
Mott Street in July – opens with the views of a young protagonist detailing the lives of her immigrant parents, and the racial tension that is boiling under the surface of a modern day America. We discover that her parents and the Chinese community are feeling under appreciated, their looked over and passed over by everyone. Wang details perfectly how ghost like this community are to Americans, when she says the only time they were noticed were when take out food came late, socks were mismatched at the laundromat, deliveries were late and dumplings weren’t cooked right. It’s these small intricacies, these small observations that all add up to Wang’s message and showcase her storytelling brilliance.
We also see the heartache of a family torn apart as her Chinese father becomes more Americanised, cultural appropriation taking place with tiny details given, it’s a slow process that Wang details honestly and powerfully. Wang highlights superbly the need to fit in, to be accepted and conform to the way of the world (no matter the cost) – it’s heartbreaking and the aftermath, the way things run their course is astute and captures again the urge to belong to something / anything.
The imagery that Wang uses for this whole piece is around Chinese Carp. That these fish were introduced to American waters with the first wave of Chinese immigrants, and now they have taken over, eating all the native fish, big hulking beasts of the water that can swallow down birds and pluck small dogs from the shore – there is a subtleness here to the racism on show in America, with racial tensions running high, how immigrants are taking over – it’s deftly handled by Wang, I could be wrong, maybe she didn’t intend this observation, but it’s something I picked up nevertheless.
‘What made Lucy feel guilty was that part of her wished that Mom would die. Mom was just so unhappy; Lucy couldn’t understand how it could possibly be worth it to live like that. She was fat as a seal. What fairness was there that Dad got to stay this great sculptural masterpiece and Mom was like some kind of leftover piece of dumpling dough? It was obvious that Dad didn’t love her at that moment, but why did she have to go that far, to say that she was never lovable?
Days of Being Mild – is set in Beijing, we follow an art crowd of hipsters trying to make it big in their own ways – we’ve a writer, a filmmaker, a photographer and a producer. The producer is our main protagonist and who we learn fairly quickly doesn’t have any artistic qualities about him, but does have the money they all need from his rich family – a family that are still trying to get him to conform, aiding his fanciful lifestyle, until he wakes up and eventually conforms to what is expected of him. The pressures of the family mantel lay heavy on him like a yolk, until he finally succumbs to his expected fate and expected role within the family unit.
The story follows the group attempting to make a music video for a new band and the way Wang depicts this young group of Chinese friends is similar to the disenfranchised youth of America that Bret Easton Ellis used to write about (Less Than Zero and The Informers) – full of angst, failures, struggling against the power struggle of society and culture, whilst also trying to make themselves stand out from the crowd, reinventing themselves and desperately trying to shed a culture they were born into and the ways that the world would have them act.
Each character in this friendship group feels the pull, wants to shed their previous lives but to sever all semblance of this seems unimaginable, a fight they are not ready to enter. For them to be the person they were born to be they’ve got to kill the person they were born to be… and for some, it’s just too hard.
‘We are the generation who awoke to consciousness listening to rock and roll and who fed ourselves milk, McDonald’s, and box sets of Friends. We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.’
For Our Children And For Ourselves – was one of the best stories in the collection in my opinion, it was raw, hard hitting and unapologetic in it’s tone – everything I look for in a short story.
Xiao Gang, a poor Henan countryside man stumbles almost by accident into a proposition that will transform his life. A way to have everything he’s always wanted and more, all he has to do is marry Melanie the daughter of a very powerful and rich woman who is visiting his place of work. It’s a chance encounter that could change his life forever. This story asks big questions, questions about arranged marriages, the power of money, disability and what you would do or sacrifice to have riches beyond your wildest dreams.
The story is well paced from the outset and Wang delivers subtle clues to the young woman Xiao is about to marry, it is clear that she is different, and from the opening of the story (his farewell drinks with friends) we get a sense that things are not quite as they seem. Wang sews small fragments of Melanie’s disability into her writing from the get go and sprinkles these throughout until Xiao finally meets her over dinner (where we learn that she has downs syndrome) – the story is focused on Xiao and the decision he has to make, and we watch painfully as he weighs these options up in his head, a chance to get everything he ever wanted, but is his choice made because of charity, love, obligation, or necessity – only he really knows.
For Our Children and For Ourselves is such a powerful story, on the one hand it is about the love of a mother trying to offer her daughter the best in life, but on the other it is about greed and what someone would do to have it all. It’s balanced on a knife edge and the tension is palpable – asking one last big question – who is actually looking out for the daughters best interests and well-being, when everyone is looking out for themselves?
‘Perhaps she was like a business deal that he could invest a few years of his life in and then move on. With her he could finally buy things he’d always wanted, women included. These opportunities don’t come every day, he thought. If Vivian wanted it, he could keep his eyes closed and put a baby into Melanie. He could do that.’
There are other stories throughout Home Remedies that are as equally brilliant to those I’ve highlighted – such as Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments that sees Wang weave a more sarcastic and comedic tone to her writing. Then there is the strange and weirdly brilliant Future Cat – if you like absurd and quirky fiction then this ones for you!
The only negative comment I have is that some of the stories were quite repetitive, maybe due to the clear tone and themes that Wang focused on, and they didn’t really stand out against the stronger stories in the collection. But on the whole this is a fabulously rich collection from a brave voice, Wang’s storytelling brilliance is never in question.
Home Remedies is astute and direct, powerful and relevant – Wang is a force of nature with a devastating and masterful touch!
Home Remedies is published by Atlantic Books and is available here.
Xuan Juliana Wang
Xuan Juliana Wang was born in Heilongjiang, China, and moved to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She lives in California.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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