China Girl and Other Stories
By Ho Lin
Regent Press, 2017
214 pages, $19.00
Reviewed by Jeff Gilliland
“In China, every story, every possibility, is true.”
So says a character in “Ghost Wife,” one of nine stories in Ho Lin’s debut short story collection, China Girl and Other Stories (Regent Press, 2017). Within the world of this tightly woven, finely crafted collection, that statement proves to be absolutely right.
At its core, China Girl is an exploration of modern Chinese, American, and Chinese-American identities. Lin, a Chinese-American writer, musician, and filmmaker whose family fled after the Communist takeover in 1949, takes readers on a moving tour of East and West, through the dislocated psyche of the immigrant and deep into the collective forgetting of the world’s largest Communist nation. In stories ranging from witty, surrealistic fables to gut-wrenching depictions of the atrocities of war, China Girl collapses the world around it and carves out a space in which time is non-linear and reality can never be trusted, yet where true human connections can emerge from the most mythical of circumstances.
The sense of liminality that pervades China Girl begins with its first sentence: “She likes this American, this man with no job and nothing past a first name.” “She,” the reader will learn, is a modern Chinese woman with a robust interior life and a mind of her own, who is repeatedly objectified by, and for, the gaze of men. And “this man” is yet one more Westerner seeking a dalliance with an exotic stranger. Such is the lot of many of the characters in China Girl: though they are each individuals, they are presented as archetypes, representations of the Other that intersect for a moment, imprint themselves upon one another, and then continue on their separate journeys. Of the dozens of characters across China Girl’s nine stories, only five or so have names—the rest are labeled by their nationality, their occupation (“the journalist”), their nickname (“the Little Prince”), or most often, simply as “the man” or “the woman.”
The namelessness of characters accomplishes multiple things. First, it reflects upon the aforementioned objectifying gaze—not only of the East by the West, but of the West by the East, which in China Girl is with Hollywood movies and the music of the Beatles and David Bowie. Second, it points toward Communism’s power of deindividuation: in China Girl people are collectivized and categorized by trait, fungible property of (or enemies to) the Party. Third, it collapses the world of the book, leaving open the possibility that the woman in “China Girl” is the same as the woman in “Trio,” or that the journalist getting drunk on the beach with a Party member in “National Holiday” is also in a café in “Tableau,” recreating the same scene over and over again for the benefit of a princess lost in nostalgia. By choosing not to name his characters, Lin evokes for the reader a stirring sense that we are all living “parallel lives,” enacting our histories in a way that is (as he says in “Floating World”) “reducible to a common core…a twitch, a prejudice, a longing.”
But it is not merely namelessness that draws the world in around China Girl—it is the substance of the stories and Lin’s narrative style as well. “Blood-Stained Heroes” hops back and forth in time to tell the story of a gangster’s rise and fall, while the heart-rending “Litany, Eulogy” splices the tale of a historian researching the Rape of Nanking with her father’s recollections of surviving its horror. Two stories—“Floating World” and “Trio”—are written as film treatments, and in each the “actors” play multiple overlapping roles. Settings are repeated: a noodle shop, a café, a resort town “unbothered by the concept of time.” And nearly every story includes either a foreigner interceding in a world s/he doesn’t fully understand, a journalist attempting to reveal a hidden truth, or the spirit world colliding with the world of the living—often all in the same story. This blurring of time and space, reality and fiction can be dizzying at times, but the ultimate effect is profoundly Buddhist: “So it was, so it is now, so it will be,” Lin writes in “Tableau.”
In the hands of a lesser author, a book that tackles as many potent themes in as many ways as China Girl could grow ponderous, but Lin weaves them all into a rich tapestry through his clear, confident, and vibrant prose. “It is as if he has crossed the edge of the world and fallen off it,” he writes in “Blood-Stained Heroes.” “Still his hand grips the bow tightly. He can see the darting shade ahead, bouncing from darkness to darkness.” Lin’s prose makes the reader want to devour every word—only he knows the way through China Girl, and only in his capable hands can we unravel its many threads to reveal the truths it contains. China Girl reminds us that as the world grows bigger it also grows smaller, and that even though our lives are constrained by politics, pride, and the past, every possibility is still true.
Ed. note: this has been revised from a previous version which contained a factual error about the author’s background.