Monday, October 1, 2012

"Bone"

"This telling had a stillness, not time stopping, but time hurting."

I've finished reading Fae Myenne Ng's novel Bone (1993), and quite frankly, I can't say enough good things about it.

If you're a fan of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club or Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, you should read Bone.

Ng's novel is closer in style to Tan's, but I found the substance of her work more complex and interesting.

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed The Joy Luck Club the first time I read it (although the movie was truly atrocious), but I never felt like there was much there that I could return to.

Once you absorb the dynamics of generational conflict and get a sense of how Tan's characters ultimately succumb to or transcend those conflicts, I kind of feel like you're pretty much done with Tan. (I was ultimately so disappointed with Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, that I haven't returned to her work since. But I should, obviously.)

That is not the case with Ng's first novel. Not by a long shot. I've been sadly ruminating over the fact that, as the student worker pointed out when I checked the book out of the College's library, no one had checked it out since 1999.

I couldn't quite comprehend why this would be the case, so I did some poking around and it turns out that, upon publication, Bone was criticized for not being "representative" of "the Asian American experience."

This is a huge debate within the Chinese American literary community, one that has spanned decades. When Maxine Hong Kingston's work was first published, novelist Frank Chin criticized her for manipulating and refabricating Chinese legends in order to (in his opinion) pander to the tastes of a white American audience. (Disney's production of "Mulan" would seem to support Chin's criticism.)

Chin argued that the immense popularity enjoyed by Tan and Hong Kingston suggested that they had sold out, opting to create a version of Chinese American identity that Americans could feel comfortable with.

Without delving too far into the specifics of the debate, it clearly raised fascinating issues. Hong Kingston argued that, because she was not Chinese, but Chinese American, it was her prerogative to artistically recreate and reconfigure Chinese legends to incorporate a (decidedly feminist) perspective that was not necessarily integral to the original story.

Or was it? Hong Kingston provocatively questioned what it meant to convey an "authentic" myth--itself the product of a centuries' old oral tradition--in a work of contemporary fiction, published on another continent and in another language entirely.

Ng faced similar upbraiding for the "non-representativeness" of Bone, to which she purportedly responded, "I can't represent all of China." Ultimately, Ng's response raises the question of what it means to "represent" a socioeconomic, national, racial or ethnic group, and highlights what is at stake in attempting to do so.

Literature is always both aesthetic and political. It is always a form of artistry undertaken in a specific, social context. Artists are typically paid for their work--sometimes meagerly, sometimes handsomely.

When a literary text is produced by a member of a socially or culturally dominant group, there is a tendency to "erase" or "naturalize" any elements of social and political commentary that it might include. They become somehow secondary to an allegedly "neutral" artistic vision and the artwork is (purportedly) capable of being read "on its own terms," because the writer is perceived as speaking for "everyone."

In short, it is awarded "universality." It "represents" "all of us"--our unified hopes and dreams.

In the case of literary texts produced by members of a historically oppressed group, however, this neutrality is always unavailable. Their work is seen as "necessarily" possessing greater political importance. Writers are identified as "speaking for" a specific group, in its entirety.

But every group is always by definition composed of unique individuals. So really, what does it mean to speak "for" everyone?

This detour leads me back to what I like about Ng's novel Bone. Although the novel incorporates the concept of generational conflict that often marks Chinese American novels, Ng complicates the conflicts. The narrator, Leila, is shown interacting with her stepfather, Leon, and her boyfriend, Mason, as much as with her mother, Mah, and her sisters, Nina and Ona.

Although the novel begins with the now-familiar invocation of the stereotypical Chinese hostility towards girls ("We were a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn't lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story"), the rest of the novel systematically calls that stereotype into question.

Leon and his wife, Mah, clearly value their daughters a great deal.

Likewise, instead of simply orienting (pun intended) her text around issues of generational conflict and gender, Ng uses the sudden and seemingly inexplicable suicide of the middle daughter, Ona, as a way of shaping and problematizing the relationships of all of the characters to one another and to their society at large.

Ona's death becomes a way for each of the characters to reflect on what it means to leave and what it means to stay--a key concern of any text that deals with the immigrant experience. Her suicide also becomes a way of reflecting on the passage of time--an overarching frame that, in my opinion, gives the representation of generational conflict an interesting degree of existential depth and nuance.

At one point, after visiting a cemetery, Leon notes that the dead outnumber the living. Leila will eventually revise this position, however, as a result of her reflections on her sister Ona's personality. Noting that "Ona was a counter" (88)--someone who liked to tally up the number of occurrences of random events--Leila concludes,
Ona was right about the counting. Remembering the past gives power to the present. Memories do add up. Our memories can't bring Grandpa Leong or Ona back, but they count to keep them from becoming strangers.
...If Ona were here, she would count the living; Ona would tell us that there are more living than dead. (88-89)
Perhaps the most interesting motif that Ng employs throughout her novel is the one invoked by the title. Ostensibly, the reference to "bone" refers to the tradition of returning the bones of the dead to China for burial.

And yet, the novel's references to "bone" are always multifarious: bone never refers to only one idea or tradition, and the multiple references intersect in intriguing ways.

In the end, it is up to us to discover their interconnections and their significance because, as the narrator Leila observes in the final pages of the novel, "what we hold in our heart is what matters" (193).

 This is the beauty of Bone.

2 comments:

  1. This truly sounds fascinating! I had not heard of this before, so I think you for highlighting it! -Sarah

    ReplyDelete
  2. It really is a fascinating and very readable novel. Definitely recommend it!

    ReplyDelete

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