starlady: Korra looks out over Republic City (legend of korra)
2010-12-20 03:14 pm

When Fox Is a Thousand.

Lai, Larissa. When Fox Is a Thousand. Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004. [1995]

Do they put something in the water in Canada that makes fiction by its chromatic woman authors especially awesome? Because this is a phenomenal book, and I think all of you on my reading list would like it a lot.

I was recommended this book and Larissa Lai in general by [livejournal.com profile] merin_chan, and I'm so glad I found it at the public library sale (I can't decide whether the old guy at the sale who thought I was talking about Margaret Atwood when I explained my gasp of joy by saying that it was a book by a Canadian woman author who hasn't been published here was him thinking I was a moron or just laughably wrong mansplaining). But you don't care about that, you care about what the book is about.

So. This is Lai's first novel, published in 1995 at the height of the discourse of "multicultural Canada" and set in three different times and places at once: the ageless time of Fox, the title character, who is about to achieve her 1000th birthday and immortality and who has recently emigrated from China to Canada; ninth century China and the poet Yu Xuanji, who was executed for supposedly murdering her maidservant; and contemporary Canada, where Chinese adoptee Artemis Wong and her friends are trying to figure out adulthood as well as how to live in their adopted country as themselves as well as Chinese Canadians. Along the way, Wu Zetian makes persistent appearances. (I should note I'm using Pinyin, since I'm familiar with Mandarin, while the book uses Wade-Giles and the characters are familiar with Cantonese.)

It's hard to describe this novel in a cogent way; suffice to say there are lesbians, magic, murder, hauntings by foxes, Asian women challenging cultural stereotypes, and a lot of surprisingly direct discourse about racism, colonialism, history, and the relation of advanced nations to those of the Third World, as well as the relation between China and the West. It's an amazing melange, and Fox and Lai are both deliciously sharp-tongued at times; Lai in particular gets in a lot of good lines, particularly in the afterword to this revised edition:
Within the processes of race and racialization in this country there is a tendency to look to those with bodies like mine--dark-haired, dark-skinned and dark-eyed--as carriers of a certain kind of authenticity, or to put it another way, as a kind of native informant on an exotic and distant culture. … I have very little interest in those old colonial tropes of the "authentic" because they are invested in the production of an exotic other in order to maintain the centrality of the white European subject. I like the idea of quoting anthropological texts back at the anthropologists, infusing it with my own social and political interests quite explicitly before passing the parcel on. It amuses me, because those texts themselves are so infused with the ideological interests of their producers, even as they pretend objectivity.

I want to be firm that the idea of the traditional itself is highly constructed and highly ideological. This version is one among many. There is no original, only endless multiple trails that point into the past. We can never grasp that past. These stories are always about the present. (257)
All narratives of the past are constructed, whether fictional or non-fictional; the differences lies primarily in what the narratives are constructed out of, since whenever we propound a narrative about the past we are constructing or foreclosing possibilities for the present, which is always slipping into the future. Lai's explicit linkage of the past and the present into one is fairly radical, though the story she tells is not so much radical as usually unheard, and it deserves to be heard. An excellent, excellent book.