Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Review: Frances Hwang. Transparency. Stories.

ISBN:0316166936 9780316166935

Michael Sedano

Frances Hwang's ten short stories, collected in Transparency, provide brief moments of enjoyment. Of course, any good short story does that. Sadly, short stories plant only a crumb here a morsel there before winding down to the final, too abrupt, period. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say. It's why I prefer poetry or novels to short fiction. Yet, I found myself drawn to almost every story in this collection, in part owing to the author's focus on Chinese immigrants, and a preponderance of East Coast--read winter--settings to enrich narrative, however fleetingly. Consider these three stories:

In the lead story, a daughter interferes when her widower father marries a woman who wants the marriage only to establish credentials for her own green card. The irate young woman breaks up a mahjong game with the straightforward question, "Why aren't you sleeping with my father?" Later, the daughter threatens the immigrant, "If you don't sleep with him, I'll send a letter to the immigration office. I'll tell them that you only married him to get a green card!" Finally, Agnes' father can brook no more. He explodes, "Who are you? You've become someone...someone completely without shame! " It's only a moment in a story of a father's deterioration and his daughter's alienation. It's one of the frustrations of the child becoming the protector.

The second story comes with a chilling irony that passes soon enough. "A Visit to the Suns" plays into the stereotypes rampant after the Virginia Tech shootings. June picks up an LA Japanese newspaper to read about "hikikomori, socially alienated youth who rarely come out of their rooms." But the story isn't about shooting rampages, nor even shouting, but the quiet desperation that goes about in June's uncle's home. The uncle wants June to talk to cousin Helen, the college age daughter, who's joined a cult and is flunking out. But it's the younger cousin, Gerard, who worries June. A once lanky boy, Gerard has become a kind of misfit, too, like Helen's own brother. Odd, that every teenage male in the story is a social misfit.

The final story, "Garden City," introduces an anglo social misfit, a tenant known to Mr. and Mrs. Chen as "the Christian lady". The Chens remain bitterly disappointed that their investment apartment doesn't rent. Mrs. Chen hectors her husband for the investment and for his failure to find renters. When the Christian lady stops paying rent, Mrs. Chen dishes out more vitriol. Eventually the Chens hire a lawyer to evict the Christian lady. She had gone slowly crazy in those four walls and one day finds herself and all her possessions piled streetside. Mr. Chen apologizes for the forced move. Upstairs, alone in the vacated apartment, Mrs. Chen starts to talk as if she'd like to move up here and live out the rest of her life.

There's a lot of danger about reading too much into the ethnicity of a writer. Frances Hwang's stories prove that. Hwang's young women characters are good at saying "No" to men. For the most part, the Asian characters date European men, it seems, but that is not an issue for the writer nor the characters. Two of Hwang's best pieces, Transparency and Sonata for the Left Hand, are the least "Chinese" of her work in this collection. And, with alienation, family and social disintegration, featured in almost every story, should readers conclude therefore that there's an epidemic of hikikomori or wah ching across the nation?

In all, the writer's stories use cultural foundations sparingly, which is to say, Hwang's stories are about people who are immigrants, rather than immigration stories. There's never danger in talking about literature, though, and the publishers have included a brief conversation with the author and a set of simple discussion questions designed to turn the reader's focus back upon herself himself. That might be a useful approach to prevent ethnic overgeneralization.

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