The Literary Horizon: Love in a Fallen City, The Poker Bride

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.

via Amazon

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.

via Amazon

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.

6 thoughts on “The Literary Horizon: Love in a Fallen City, The Poker Bride

  1. If you want to make your reading list less “shockingly white,” you’d probably love Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

    And this looks interesting. . .and I’m glad you covered Tolkien! 🙂

  2. I hope you enjoy Love in a Fallen City! Isn’t the cover awesome?

    I hear you on the shockingly white reads thing. I used to be like that too, before I started focusing on it more. Now I have all sorts of new fave authors!

  3. Underlying racism in Firefly? Are you being serious? I can’t think of anything more absurd. Could you perhaps explain the reasoning behind what is otherwise a completely arbitrary comment? Something with evidence/examples would be nice.

    • Consider this: in a world we are told that is half-Chinese, there is only one Asian character in the entire series (film included) who has a speaking line in English- one of the prostitutes from “Heart of Gold”. Other Asian characters are relegated to the background, most noticeable in the unaired pilot. The Mandarin curses the crew regularly tosses out are mangled (which, of course, can be seen as in-universe appropriation or lack of care on the production’s part).

      This isn’t to say that Whedon intentionally did this- Kaylee was meant to be played by an Asian actress, but Jewel Staite blew them away, and the production tossed in Chinese names regardless of race to indicate interbreeding. And, of course, the entire series runs less than seventeen hours. But it’s still there, you know? (And while I’ve never watched Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I understand that there’s issues with Nikki Wood and her coat being appropriated by Spike. I can’t comment on that, but it is an issue for fans.)

      This is the magnificent video I was talking about, and its critique of the invisible Asians of Firefly is astounding. I recommend giving it a watch. This post on Firefly‘s use (or lack of use) of Asian actors and this general post on Whedon and race are also good reading in this area.

      Now, all of this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Firefly– I do. Zoe is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. But it’s there, and it can’t be ignored.

  4. It’s not so much that the world or universe in this instance, is half-Chinese as it is that China and America have formed an Alliance that has come to dominate the mode of governance. For the record, Mal and his crew are renegades, they do not work for and have actively fought the Alliance so it makes sense for the crew to be of non-Asian descent. They live on the fringe as well, so those they associate with would also be of the same ilk, although it’s by no means set in stone.

    I would imagine the Chinese, in this case, would be in the profitable major cities of the world. But this is all presupposing that hundreds of years in the future, the concept of what is ‘Chinese’ is the same as it is now. Which is by no means certain. Perhaps they are all considered Chinese, perhaps not – the fledgling universe never had the chance to fully develop, so I think it’s premature and presumptive to make accusations of racism.

    The culture, however, is unmistakenly a part of the universe – it permeates every level of the show in a very subtle fashion that I think is commendable and indicative of superb writing. I haven’t watched the video yet (it being barely 9am here in Sydney) but I look forward to doing so.

    • I know Mal and the crew are renegades. That’s why the lack of Asians doesn’t bother me as much as some fans; they’re the losers and they’re on the fringe, as you rightly point out. However, if the idea was to subtly tie race and class together, it’s completely lost- we never see any Asians in positions of power, and the Tams, the upper-class to contrast against the rest of the crew, are white.

      I’m not talking about Chinese identity- the main political identities appear to be Alliance or Rebel, as several scenes in the series seem to indicate. I’m talking about Asian visibility in a world with obvious Asian influences. Even if the upper classes are supposed to be more Chinese, than what about the descendants of Asian-Americans? It’s their relative invisibility in a universe that uses Chinese writing, wears Japanese kimonos, and eats with chopsticks that feels racist. What you may see as subtle others may see as using a culture as decoration. That Racialicious article puts it pretty succinctly: “If “Asian” clothes, music, swear words and parasols are so great, why don’t actual Asian human beings get to be in the show too?”

      The visibility issue, I hope, will improve as the comics continue, although Those Left Behind and Better Days don’t seem to stray far. I do have higher hopes for Float Out, since it deals with Wash’s pilot friends and not the crew. Who knows?

      Your mileage may vary, of course! I just want you to realize that people legitimately view Firefly as racist, and I definitely see a problem with a lack of Asians in an Asian-inspired world.

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