Recently, I watched a magnificent video that really drove home the underlying racism in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a space western. While I’ve been just as concerned about the racism in the live action production of Avatar: The Last Airbender (behold as the two Inuit characters turn sparklingly white!), Firefly has the real life analogue of the Wild West. That’s really all I have to explain this week’s selections for The Literary Horizon–a selection of short stories by a celebrated Chinese author finally in English after several decades, and a book about the Chinese and the American railway.
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
Eileen Chang is one of the great writers of twentieth-century China, where she enjoys a passionate following both on the mainland and in Taiwan. At the heart of Chang’s achievement is her short fiction—tales of love, longing, and the shifting and endlessly treacherous shoals of family life. Written when Chang was still in her twenties, these extraordinary stories combine an unsettled, probing, utterly contemporary sensibility, keenly alert to sexual politics and psychological ambiguity, with an intense lyricism that echoes the classics of Chinese literature. Love in a Fallen City, the first collection in English of this dazzling body of work, introduces American readers to the stark and glamorous vision of a modern master.
First off, I apologize for the terrible image quality of the book cover! I can’t find any better, I’m afraid. I stumbled across this over at A Striped Armchair–Eva’s praise was so ebullient that I was so curious I put it on my reading list. I’ve noticed that my reading list is shockingly white, and Eileen Chang sounds like a good start to make my reading list more colorful.
Eva, of course, loved it, saying that even if you don’t like short stories, you’ll probably like Love in a Fallen City. As someone who tends to love plot over more elevated aspects of stories, this is great–short stories tend to focus more on that. The Independent praises Chang’s gift for economic world-building, and notes that Chang is merciless when it comes to her characters. It certainly sounds like it’ll be refreshing.
Love in a Fallen City was published on October 10, 2006.
The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett
When gold rush fever gripped the globe in 1849, thousands of Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco on their way to seek their fortunes. They were called sojourners, for they never intended to stay. In The Poker Bride, Christopher Corbett uses a little-known legend from Idaho lore as a lens into this Chinese experience.
Before 1849, the Chinese in the United States were little more than curiosities. But as word spread of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, they soon became a regular sight in the American West. In San Francisco, a labyrinthine Chinatown soon sprang up, a clamorous city within a city full of exotic foods and strange smells, where Chinese women were smuggled into the country, and where the laws were made by “hatchet men.” At this time, Polly, a young Chinese concubine, was brought by her owner by steamboat and pack train to a remote mining camp in the highlands of Idaho. There he lost her in a poker game, having wagered his last ounce of gold dust. Polly found her way with her new owner to an isolated ranch on the banks of the Salmon River in central Idaho.
As the gold rush receded, it took with it the Chinese miners–or their bones, which were disinterred and shipped back to their homeland in accordance with Chinese custom. But it left behind Polly, who would make headlines when she emerged from the Idaho hills nearly half a century later to visit a modern city and tell her story.
Peppered with characters such as Mark Twain and the legendary newswoman Cissy Patterson, The Poker Bride vividly reconstructs a lost period of history when the first Chinese sojourners flooded into the country, and left only glimmering traces of their presence scattered across the American West.
I read about this book in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, but initially passed it over. After I watched the video I mentioned above, I went back to the review immediately. The Asian view of the American West is one that I don’t know and one that sounds immensely fascinating. This is probably territory I’ll cover when I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but I’d rather read about it in-depth while I’m in the reading mindset for it.
The New York Times praises Corbett’s research of a community outside the usual data available to historians, and giving a voice back to the titular Poker Bride, Polly Bemis (although, they note, he can be a little insensitive when it comes to the sex trade). The Wall Street Journal, however, thinks Corbett’s research can be too much of a good thing, sometimes hindering the flow of the stories. In telling a history like this, though, I’d prefer more information than not… but I guess only a reading will tell!
The Poker Bride was released on February 2.