Here’s an sneak peek at TIGER GIRL, my new novel coming out in stores and online this October 7, 2013.
Check out this four-minute excerpt:
Posted in Asian American Literature, Asian Pacific American, Book Club Guide, Cambodian Culture in America, Chinese women, Film, Interviews, movies, photos, pictures, Tiger Girl, Writing Process, Young Adult, tagged Cambodian Americans, Dragon Chica, GemmaMedia, Inland Empire novels, Inlandia Literary Journeys, sequels, Tiger Girl on September 23, 2013| 2 Comments »
Here’s an sneak peek at TIGER GIRL, my new novel coming out in stores and online this October 7, 2013.
Check out this four-minute excerpt:
Posted in Asian American Literature, Book Club Guide, Cambodian Culture in America, tagged Cambodian Americans, Dragon Chica, Khmer Rouge survivors, LSU, Penelope Dane, Questions on Nea and Sourdi, racism, Saving Sourdi on November 19, 2012| Leave a Comment »
I was honored to learn that students at Louisiana State University are reading my novel Dragon Chica in Penelope Dane’s English 2025:Fiction class this semester.
I recently participated in a Q&A with them about the novel via email. I thought their questions were so good that I’m posting them online—with their permission– in case other students reading Dragon Chica were interested. (Some of the questions may also be helpful to students writing papers about my short story, “Saving Sourdi,” as the novel and the short story are about the same family.)
I’d like to thank the following students for their questions: Courtland Douglas, Frank C. Wilson, Steve Ochsner, Sydney Carlton, Alfonso Croeze, Brittni Naylor, Megan Templet, Caitlin Waldo, Katie Jenkins, Sara Sonnier, Megan Prudhomme, Gretchen Goodman, Danielle LeBlanc, Morgan Matthews, Maddy Womack, Tyler Harris, Caroline Lero, Chelsie Draughter, Adi Brannon, Blake Broussard, David Bastien, Paige Smith, Stephanie Harper, and Alise Stauder.
And many thanks to Penelope Dane for teaching Dragon Chica and arranging this exchange! I’m always excited to hear from students from around the country.
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read the novel yet, plot points are revealed in the following questions and answers. You may want to stop reading here.
Q1: Do you believe memories and time spent together are more important than biological links? If so, would you reveal the truth to Nea if you were placed in Ma or Sourdi’s scenario?
1) I believe there are many kinds of families: the people you are biologically related to, the people who rear you, and the people you choose to have be your support network. Sometimes one family can be all three, but not always. I know why Sourdi told Nea—she loves Nea and believes she should have this knowledge. In this sense I do believe that knowledge can be empowering. I felt Ma was afraid to tell Nea—afraid it would hurt Nea and afraid it would hurt her relationship to Nea. Whether Nea can forgive Ma (and what Nea does with the secret Sourdi told her) are actually the subject of the sequel!
Q2. Is Nea overreacting and spoiled at heart or do the people around her make her life more unbearable due to their opinion and views on revealing the truth?
2) I am completely biased in this regard: I think Nea is great and do not think she is spoiled. I think she has to fight for some very basic rights and she is willing to fight on behalf of her family against injustice, which makes me like her very much. 3) I think Nea’s family members just really have difficulty understanding her. They are caught up in their own emotions and are often overwhelmed by their own traumas and memories of the past. This makes it very difficult for them to be present for Nea and try to understand how she is processing the world around her.
Q3.I would like to know if you agree with Ma’s decision to marry off Sourdi?
3) In real life I would be totally against marrying off a young teen to anyone, much less an older man. As a teacher, I believe it’s most important to stay in school and get as much education as possible. HOWEVER, in real life I do know of many girls who married quite young, some even younger than Sourdi. I’ve also met many women who came to America as refugees and who were put in arranged marriages as teenagers by their parents. So Sourdi’s plot line is to honor these women and girls I’ve known and their particular life struggles. In the novel, I’m not trying to render a judgment so much as illuminate why such choices were made at a particular place and time. I’m hoping it will create understanding and discussion. I am not advocating for such early marriage any more than I’d be advocating for a hurricane or an earthquake or murder if I were writing a book in which one of those events occurred.
Q4. What kinds of discrimination did you face when growing up?
Q5. What do you think about the current state of race relations in this country?
4) Ah, these are huge questions. Let me just say I faced different kinds of discrimination at different times in my life depending on where I lived. When I was very young 6 and under, I lived in a university town in Southern California, and felt very safe and protected from the outside world. From 6-12 I lived in a diverse, immigrant community in Northern New Jersey in the New York City metropolitan area. There were race riots—literally—at my father’s school in NYC yet again I really didn’t face much discrimination. When I was 12, we moved to a rural community in South Dakota. No one had seen a mixed-race Chinese-White family before. Now people followed us down the street or turned and stared at us. Men drove by our house in the countryside and shouted names out their windows. Eventually men shot and killed six of our dogs over the years. My brother was attacked physically time and time again. I was called every name possible by classmates and even random adults. I was told mixed-race people were a sign of the Devil and the coming End Times. It was pretty awful. I also witnessed terrible discrimination against other people—including Cambodian refugees who’d moved to our town to open a restaurant. So these things did inspire me to write this book. I wanted to bear witness. Speaking up is one way to help overcome prejudice.
5) As for race relations in this country, we’ve made a lot of progress and there’s still a long, long way to go. I think we need to get to know each other—as real people—not as “types” and show respect for our histories and our experiences. Then we can stop being afraid of each other. I know that sounds very kumbaya-esque, but I believe it’s possible!
Q6. Why did you pick the story to take place after the Khmer Rouge and not during? Do you think this affected the reader’s view on the book especially if they did not know about the Khmer Rouge?
6) I really like this question! I thought a lot about this issue actually when I was working on the novel. I decided I wanted to set it in the US *after* the family has already survived the Khmer Rouge for a number of reasons. 1) Plot-wise it’s hard to compete with the Khmer Rouge for drama. If I put those scenes in, they tend to overwhelm everything else. 2) In real life, most Americans knew next to nothing about the Khmer Rouge when Cambodian survivors started arriving in the US in the early 1980s. Therefore, starting the novel with the family already here mirrors the real-life experience of Cambodian refugees and the communities they ended up in. It was like suddenly here are these people and no one in the town apart from the families themselves really knew the history about WHY they were here. The American bombing campaign of Cambodia had been kept secret from the American public during the Vietnam War. Most schools taught nothing about Vietnam and how the violence spread to affect Cambodia and Laos. There was very little media attention—the media were obsessed with Japan in the 1980s and the Soviet Union, not that much introspective stories looking back at the American War in Vietnam and its lingering consequences. I wanted to reflect this historical reality in the novel.
Q7. Does Ma make up the dreams that she has that prompts them to move?
7. No! In my mind, Ma takes dreams very seriously. She has had to follow her instincts and “trust her gut,” as we say these days, because she had very little objective information to go on her whole life, not during the war or under the Khmer Rouge nor afterwards in America.
Q8. Did you know someone who experienced the Khmer Rouge Regime?
8. Yes! I first met Khmer Rouge survivors when I was fifteen. A Sino-Khmer family moved to our town in South Dakota to open a restaurant. The mother was very nice and kind to me and she ended up telling me about how her children died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Later, when I went to college in Iowa, which was a designated refugee relocation state in the 1980s, I met many more refugees and KR survivors. As a journalist after I graduated, I interviewed survivors for the AP. I still know many survivors and their children. What’s really interesting is how the American-born generation is now going back to Cambodia to both seek their roots and help their families’ ancestral homeland. What’s cool is that nowadays many children of survivors and survivors themselves are going back to enjoy the resurgence of Cambodian traditional culture. Pol Pot tried to destroy the arts and culture of Cambodia, but now there is a thriving arts scene with new music, dance, literature, etc. and there are also many business opportunities, all of which is appealing to a new generation world-wide.
Q9. Do Cambodian families arrange marriages often to benefit their families financially?
I’m going to end with this question because I think it lends itself to some interesting cross-cultural comparisons that would be great for discussion. Throughout human history, most marriages were probably arranged. I think non-arranged marriages and the whole concept of marrying someone for love are relatively recent ideas.
My suggestion: please discuss the following couples and the rationale (stated and perceived) behind their marriages.
1) Kim Kardashian and Khris Humphries
2) Royal couples: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Charles and Diana, William and Kate.
3) George Takei and Brad Altman
Thanks, everybody, for your questions!
Posted in Asian American Literature, Asian Pacific American, Book Club Guide, Dragon Chica, Reviews, Saving Sourdi, Writing Process, tagged Asian American, Asian American Literature, Cambodian Americans, crossover novels, Dragon Chica, feminist, gringolandia, immigration, Khmer Rouge, Nea, refugees, Saving Sourdi, young adult novel on October 23, 2011| Leave a Comment »
(My publisher Trish O’Hare at GemmaMedia just sent me a link to this review of Dragon Chica by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of the novel Gringolandia about life in Chile under Pinochet. This review just made my day! Writing can be a lonely affair, as writers never know if our works will be meaningful to other people. When I hear back from readers that the story resonates with them, I am cheered immensely!–May-lee)
Reading Ann Angel’s review of Carlos Eire’s memoir Learning to Die in Miami—and then reading the book itself—got me thinking about the crossover genre, books originally published for adults that have found a wide audience of teens, or books published for teens or younger children that have become adult favorites. My own Gringolandia first came out as a YA novel but is now showing up in college classes and on bookstore shelves in the adult section. In various stops on my blog tours several years ago, I participated in thoughtful discussions on why the novel was published as young adult rather than adult, as its teen protagonists moved almost exclusively in an adult world, with the high stakes reflected in this exchange between Daniel and his girlfriend after they’ve entered a brutal dictatorship (Chile under Pinochet) with forged documents:
With her finger, Courtney traces the map in the guidebook. “We have to be back before curfew.” She flips to the previous page and says, “It’s kind of like the government is our mother.”
“Yeah. Except she doesn’t ground you when you miss it. She shoots you.” (208)
The same high stakes characterize May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica, published by indie press GemmaMedia as an adult novel but of interest to teen readers who appreciated An Na’s award-winning YA novel A Step from Heaven. Like A Step from Heaven, Dragon Chica is told in chronological vignettes that end with the Asian-American protagonist about to leave for college after a series of crises that threaten to divide her family forever.
Dragon Chica doesn’t begin in the old country, however, but in Dallas, Texas in the 1980’s, where then-12-year-old Nea’s mother has abruptly taken the family and from where they will leave just as abruptly. Nea’s mother is accustomed to fleeing under cover of night. The family—including Nea, her older sister, her younger brother, and younger twin sisters—have escaped Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge for asylum in the United States following the death of the children’s father in the camps. Leaving Dallas, the family arrives in Nebraska, where Nea’s aunt and uncle own a struggling Chinese restaurant. Once prosperous, Aunt and Uncle have found few customers and much prejudice in their small town. Ultimately, Uncle will sell both the restaurant and Nea’s older sister’s hand in marriage to a wealthy and somewhat sketchy former business associate who is establishing a chain of Chinese restaurants in the Midwest.
In contrast to her submissive older sister, Nea quickly embraces the ways of the United States and of every place she has lived—hence the tough “Dragon Chica” image (and Spanish accent) she has adopted from her months in Dallas. She chafes against a family that sees her only for the labor she can provide and a community that refuses to accept her as an equal. She wonders why her mother, aunt, and uncle don’t treat her the same way that they treat her siblings, but her memories of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and her life before are dim and reflect the trauma of having survived the genocide.
Dragon Chica is a powerful and gripping story that offers a model of strength and survival to young people going through difficult times. Nea is far from a stereotypical “good girl” and her toughness and willingness to stand up to injustice add to her appeal. Although published as an adult title—and certainly of interest to adult readers—Dragon Chica belongs in teen collections. It is a story that transcends age, ethnicity, and immigration experience to cast light on all of us struggling against the forces that constrain our lives.
Posted in Asian American Literature, Asian Pacific American, Book Club Guide, Dragon Chica, Interviews, photos, pictures, Saving Sourdi, short stories, Writing Process, tagged Aigerim Zholmurzayeva, Anna May Wong, Cambodia, Cambodian Americans, Colin Madondo, Colin Modando, Debra Lew, Dragon Chica, Dragon Chica sequel, Elizabeth Jug, Emily Romanko, Foothill College, GemmaMedia, Ksenia S., Madame Chiang Kai-shek, meaning of the title Dragon Chica, Saving Sourdi, Scott Lankford, sequels, Soong May-ling, Tahoe Beneath the Surface, Vivian Reed, Women's History Month, Writing Process on March 20, 2011| 11 Comments »
“How liberated were you by the title ‘Dragon Chica‘?” a student asked me recently.
Let me just say that is one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked about any of my books. Ever.
I was visiting Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California for Women’s History Month and had been talking about my novel. This question really thrilled me.
“Liberated” is exactly how I felt when choosing this title. I just never thought of it as “liberating” until this wonderful community college student, Colin Madondo, thought to phrase his question this way!
So for everyone who’s written to me and asked about the title, here’s my answer:
I chose the title Dragon Chica to address a number of issues I felt strongly about. 1) I wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the old stereotyped notion of the “Dragon Lady,” a term used in America to deride Asian women historically. In the 1930s and 40s, it often was used to characterize an Asian femme fatale who used her feminine wiles to seduce some hapless white man and then tried to harm or even kill him. (The wonderful Anna May Wong was obliged to play many such roles in her Hollywood film career, for example.) I thought the term had died out long ago, but then it showed up again in an obit for Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) in the Washington Post! As I was working on the manuscript that would become Dragon Chica at that time, I decided to let my protagonist Nea take on the “dragon lady” term and trope. (If you’ve read the book, you know it’s explicitly referenced in Chapter 14.)
2) The title also refers specifically to part of the plot that develops Nea’s experiences in America. When she first starts school in a very small town in Texas, she is put in an ESL class for Spanish speakers. There was no ESL class with Khmer-English instruction as her family was the only Cambodian family in the town! So her introduction to America is in a mix of Spanish and English, and her first language becomes a kind of Spanglish. I liked this metaphor for the mix of cultures in the U.S. I also felt it dovetailed nicely with the plot as it reflects the ironies many Cambodian refugee children faced when entering the American school system. Schools had no experience teaching Cambodians, they didn’t have Cambodian language teachers, they didn’t have the resources available when refugees from the Khmer Rouge came to America beginning in the 1980s, and so many kids had to learn to adjust to this new American culture with very little guidance.
3) Lou Dobbs and his constant rant about Mexicans in America were driving me nuts. Many students I’ve met don’t remember him anymore (blessedly), but he was a constant fixture on CNN during the past decade (when I was working on the novel) and he made it his niche to rail about “illegal Mexicans” and about Spanish being spoken in the U.S., as though English and English-speakers were literally under siege. I thought, “This is ridiculous. There have been Mexicans in America well before many states became part of the U.S. Spanish doesn’t threaten English.” So for my title, I liked the idea of mixing English and Spanish with an overt Asian theme. That mix seems very American to me!
4) I thought Dragon Chica sounds cool. I noticed when I was teaching at various colleges that many young women of all ethnicities now refer to themselves and their friends as “chicas.” In some places the term has almost become as ubiquitous as “guys” has become for young men and boys. I liked that.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to campus and discussion with sixty some students, all of whom have read Dragon Chica in Prof. Scott Lankford’s English literature and writing classes. Dr. Lankford is himself an author, and I am a huge fan of his nonfiction book Tahoe Beneath the Surface. Even if you’ve never been to California’s Lake Tahoe, this book weaves together fascinating stories from American history using Lake Tahoe as the touchstone for topics as diverse as how California almost became a slave state, the first victims of the Donner Party, the (mis)treatment of Chinese laborers, the discovery of prehistoric fossilized trees at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, mobsters and even the Kennedy assassination.
I can tell Dr. Lankford, in addition to being a wonderful writer, is also a great teacher by the thoughtful responses of his students.
Another question that took me by surprise was “Will there be a sequel?”
I asked the students if they’d liked to read one. And the overwhelming answer was “Yes!”
In fact, I’ve had a hard time leaving Nea and her family. I still think of them as though they were real people and not characters in a novel. And I often think about what would happen to them after the events in Dragon Chica. In fact, I was working on a number of short stories about the future lives of the characters, not because anyone asked me to, but just because I myself wanted to explore possible trajectories for the characters.
I happened to mention to my publisher that Foothill students had asked me if I would write a sequel and that I was very happy to hear they liked the novel that much. My publisher, to my surprise, immediately emailed me that the Board for GemmaMedia also had wondered if there was going to be a sequel and had been asking for it!
So guess what? I’m going to write that sequel!
I’d like to especially thank Aigerim Zholmurzayeva, Emily Romanko, Vivian Reed, Elizabeth Jug, and Ksenia S., who went out of their way after the event was over to urge me to write a sequel to Dragon Chica.
Events like this one both humble and inspire me. Writing can be a lonely process and an act of faith. There’s no way to know in advance that what I write will ever mean anything to anyone but me. Thus, it is always a joyful experience for me (and I dare say most writers) to discover OTHER PEOPLE actually like the stories and characters we’ve created!
Finally, the students at Foothill College truly inspired me with their intelligence, humanity, brilliant questions and insight. I was blown away by them. (And thank you, Shervin Nakhjavani, for your comments about a Dragon Chica movie. That would be cool indeed!)
I don’t have time at this moment to write about all the issues they brought up with their questions and comments (about Nea’s use of “cutting” to deal with her inner pain, the theme of dreams, the character of “the Witch,” the particular difficulties Nea’s brother Sam must negotiate as a male and an immigrant male, the long-term effects of the escalation and spread of war from Vietnam and America to include Laos and Cambodia and the impact upon all of Southeast Asia, etc.), so maybe I will have to write a sequel to this blog post, too.
Posted in Book Club Guide, essays, photos, pictures, Questions from readers, Writing Process, tagged Chinese American, Combatting stereotypes, Fearmongering, hapa, Hapa Girl, Media, Media and Violence, Media scapegoating, Mexican American, mixed race families, Race baiting, writing on January 11, 2011| Leave a Comment »
Today I heard two stories, one sad and one heartening. Both relate to the media and stereotypes that lead to violence.
Sometimes when I see a particularly noxious person on the news receive a lot of acclaim and money for trafficking in the worst kind of race-baiting and fear-mongering stereotypes, I feel completely disheartened. How can we fight against these forces that would have us turn off our minds and react like Pavlov’s dog? BE AFRAID OF SUCH-AND-SUCH! Shout it once and I might wonder, Why are you shouting? Shout it enough from a big enough bully pulpit and it might permeate my subconscious, as much as I might hope that it won’t.
Often these days I feel too exhausted by the negative media barrage to muster the energy and will to fight back against the lies.
So what am I talking about? Here are the two stories. You’ll see why one is discouraging, one encouraging. Both show that we mustn’t give up. We have to speak up against racist stereotypes, again and again and again.
1) a sad story from a friend, who is a very well-known and bestselling author. Today he received a package in the mail from some jerk, who called him all kinds of racial slurs, blamed my friend for inciting violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and then enclosed a bunch of loony and nasty DVDs. My friend is one of the sweetest people I know…and the least violent. His books are not about promoting violence, as you might have guessed, but because my friend is Mexican-American, this crazy person who wrote him felt as though my friend embodies all the negative stereotypes ever reported about Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Although my friend also received much support from his fans, this episode clearly hurts his heart. I understand. It hurts. It will always hurt.
2) But then there are also moments that are completely unexpectedly wonderful. Today I also received a letter from a reader about my book Hapa Girl. And he understood exactly what I was trying to get across! That makes me happy. It makes the years of writing and re-writing worth it. Here’s the letter:
Sent: Mon, Jan 10, 2011 11:29 pm
Subject: hapa girl
I just finished reading your memoir, Hapa Girl, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was especially moving and relevant for me because I am an Asian man married to a blonde girl. We have two children, a girl and a boy. It’s also funny that I grew up in New Jersey, and now we happen to live 10 minutes from Redlands, in California. As I read your memoir, I often thought of my daughter and the world she will grow up in as a biracial girl. I’ve always told my wife that I have fantasies about one day moving to a place in middle America, like […], and buying a farm and “living off the land.” Your memoir showed me a different side of that idea!
I would hope that we live in a different era now.
I am glad for the sections which included some historical, economic, and political context to the racism that you encountered while growing up. It would have been too easy to just portray those people as evil ignorant hicks. I thought it was important that you tried to show that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Thank you for a great read! My wife also read it and enjoyed it.
btw we bought your book as an e-book from B&N
[And here’s my response:]
Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful letter!
The Redlands-New Jersey connections and similarities in our families are indeed interesting! (And as you know, families such as ours are not considered “weird” in Redlands, Ca. or New Jersey.)
My goal in writing Hapa Girl was very much to put what we experienced into a historical and media context as I know that the media’s fear-mongering doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Back in the 80s, all the hateful stories about Japan’s rise and the Native American civil rights movement created an atmosphere conducive to violence. And I think that while our type of family isn’t targeted in the media today, the heated rhetoric in the media is having ill effects yet again.
Today I worry about the anti-Muslim statements, anti-immigrant movements, fear-mongering over the state of a rising China, and the extreme anti-government rhetoric. I know from experience that fear mongering works: it produces both fear and big ratings. Maybe the bigwigs on TV and the pundits won’t feel it, but the rest of us will have to deal with the fallout sadly enough.
Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me and for telling me a bit about your family. I appreciate knowing that somebody liked my book, and also I’m very happy to know that you liked my efforts to put the racism into a context. I agree with you 100 percent. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum!
Best wishes to you and your family for a Happy 2011 and a Happy Year of the Rabbit!
(P.S. Cool to know Hapa Girl is now available in e-book form!)
Posted in Asian American Literature, Asian Pacific American, Book Club Guide, Dragon Chica, Reviews, Writing Process, tagged Cambodia, Cambodian Americans, Dragon Chica, Khmer Rouge, Nea as protagonist, Saving Sourdi, Walter Mason, YA review of Dragon Chica on January 3, 2011| Leave a Comment »
Australian author, Walter Mason (Destination Saigon, 2010), posted the most beautiful review of Dragon Chica today. I was deeply moved by his insights and his lovely prose. This kind of profound reading is what makes all the years of writing and working on a novel worth the effort!
The fascinating American writer May-lee Chai, one of my most treasured Twitter-friends, has recently published a Young Adult novel, called Dragon Chica, about the experience of a Cambodian-Chinese family settling into small-town America.
It so happens that I am at the moment working on my own book about Cambodia, so I was doubly fascinated to read Dragon Chica. And I was not disappointed. Based on a brief experience in her own life, when as a youngster she met an exotic family of Cambodian-Chinese running a restaurant in a rural district of America, May-lee Chai has been working on Dragon Chica for the best part of 10 years, and the care and time taken seems definitely to have paid off. It is a beautifully nuanced work of enormous appeal, not just to its intended Young Adult audience, but to anyone interested in the themes of race, belonging and the mysterious dynamics of family. It is also an exploration of outsider-ship, that meta-theme of all young adult fiction. And while specifically (and masterfully) dealing with questions of racism and ethnic identity, it is ultimately much more universal in its story. It is about the great pain and torment of all adult awakening: the struggles with sexual identity, the search for a more strongly (and separately) identified self and the enormous resentment at family strictures and eccentricities. One of the themes that spoke strongly to me as someone who grew up in a regional area (as did May-lee Chai) was the fury at being isolated at a point in life when experience and glamour seem to be the very most important elements of existence. The dullness of a provincial teenage existence and the constant thwarting of adolescent fantasy are brought to life in the pages of Dragon Chica in a way that brought constant smiles of recognition (and occasional pangs of long-forgotten angst) to my reading face.
The characters are rich and complex in a way that would be enormously attractive to a YA reader. What it also does, with great sophistication and lightness of touch, is bring to life the rich, complex and shifting cultures of the Chinese diaspora, and the special (and harrowing) historical circumstances of the Cambodian-Chinese in particular. There is a magic in Chai’s treatment of legend, folklore and superstition, and the characters – especially the older ones- occasionally lapse into a kind of dream-world of memory that is at turns whimsical and harrowing. There is, too, an exquisite and subtly-played symbolism to these stories, as when the hapless Uncle, the family’s struggling patriarch, reflects on his experience of the Buddhist tradition of releasing caged birds to cultivate merit. He recalls his wife’s words in the face of his scepticism about the project:
“Maybe they like to fly in the air for a day? Even if they return at night, how do you know they don’t enjoy their freedom during the day?”
All this in the context of his own horribly caged existence, limited, ironically, by that same wife’s tenuous grasp on reality and her inability to overcome the tragedy of her past.
Of course, mine is a particularly adult reading, one especially interested in the nuances of remembering and the play of culture and tradition in the narrative. I mustn’t ignore the main part of the book, which is the journey of the lovely Sourdi, the big sister charged with caring not just for her siblings but for her impossible mother; and the novel’s true heroine, the gutsy and terribly real teenaged girl Nea, who isn’t even that interested any more in any identity that isn’t her own. It is Nea’s growth into adulthood that is the novel’s central story.
Chai’s intention with this book seems to have been an ambitious one, describing the tensions of race and identity that are a unique part of multicultural societies – tensions which are not necessarily resolved till several generations have passed, and which are frequently played out, as in Dragon Chica, among the more aware and more socially equipped generation of migrant’s children. The ambition has, in my opinion, been rewarded. Dragon Chica is a beautifully written, clever and perfectly crafted novel, one that succeeds at every level without ever falling into the embarrassing and cringe-making didacticism that can frequently plague the “issues” novel, particularly one directed at young people. Chai speaks perfectly to her young readers, trusting in their intelligence, their sensitivity and their great desire for subtlety.
For me the most intriguing character was the tragic, scarred and monstrously selfish Auntie. She is almost an archetype, and a figure that is easy to recognise if anyone has had anything to do with migrant families. Auntie’s is the life that is lived on the knife-edge of tragedy; she is the one who bears the pain of exile, lost forever in the old stories the others can’t afford to recall. Neurotic, spiteful and attention-seeking, Auntie is both the family’s matriarch and its ultimate betrayer. She uses her health and her fragility to manipulate those around her:
“She insisted that we take her back to the house even though it was a busy night…she had to go home immediately. She couldn’t wait . She’d forgotten her medicine. There was no telling what would happen if she delayed.”
It is May-lee Chai’s genius that she delivers such a familiar figure so sensitively and, I should add, with a wonderful dose of mystery and intrigue that has the reader guessing right to the very end. The author’s sympathy for the outsider is palpable, and allows each of the characters to be fully human in their greater or lesser alienation.
I adored this book, and would recommend it to any young person, particularly those with an interest in Asia and the Asian immigrant experience. May-lee Chai deserves to be better known in Australia, and Dragon Chica is the kind of book that almost any young Australian could identify with.
[Note: You can follow Walter Mason on Twitter: @walterm and read about his nonfiction book, Destination Saigon, which was named one of the top ten travel books by the Sydney Morning Herald (see: The Couch Potato\’s Getaway), and follow his travel tweets @DestSaigon. Walter is an accomplished writer, world traveler, scholar (he speaks and reads many languages, including fluent Vietnamese), and blogger: www.waltermason.com]