Chi­nese or­phan’s iden­tity cri­sis drives wedge into adop­tive fam­ily

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Trevor Smith

THIS de­but novel from Kathryn Ma is some­what rem­i­nis­cent of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which, like The Year She Left Us, ad­dresses the re­la­tion­ships among var­i­ous gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can women liv­ing in San Fran­cisco. Penn­syl­va­nia-born Ma’s par­ents were from China; she cur­rently lives in San Fran­cisco. A pre­vi­ous book of her short sto­ries won Ma the Iowa Short Fic­tion Award, as well as the David Nathan Meyerson Fic­tion Prize. The Year She Left Us, also set in San Fran­cisco, ex­plores the con­nec­tion be­tween a sin­gle Chi­nese-Amer­i­can mother and her adopted Chi­nese daugh­ter. The tale un­folds through al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters told from mother and then daugh­ter’s per­spec­tive — with the oc­ca­sional chap­ter from the per­spec­tive of other fam­ily rel­a­tives — yet it is es­sen­tially Ari’s story. The novel starts with Ari, the pro­tag­o­nist, hav­ing a re­al­iza­tion of guilt for be­ing a Chi­nese child of an adop­tive par­ent in Amer­ica. A vic­tim of China’s one-child pol­icy, Ari’s birth par­ents re­jected her be­cause she wasn’t a boy. Though she grows up in Amer­ica, Ari’s Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can mother (Char­lie) and grand­mother (Gran) en­sure she is well-con­nected with San Fran­cisco’s Chi­nese com­mu­nity in or­der to strengthen her cul­tural iden­tity. Like many of her Amer­i­can friends, as Ari grows up she de­vel­ops teenage angst and rebels via tat­toos, goth-style makeup and show­ing up for school drunk. That’s just the start of the prob­lems for Char­lie. Far harder to ac­cept is the grow­ing gulf that de­vel­ops be­tween mother and daugh­ter — the lit­tle girl who once let her help and soothe her is now a stranger. There’s a men­ac­ing aura sur­round­ing Ari as an ado­les­cent, in one way drag­ging her back to the or­phan­age in Kun­ming, but also hint­ing at some­thing darker. Ari’s psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems deepen; for rea­sons known only to her­self, she mu­ti­lates her body by cut­ting off her own fin­ger. De­spite Ari’s prob­lems, there’s a lot of love in her small fam­ily — her mother, an aunt and a grand­mother — and the story ex­plores that love as well as events that come to a head the year af­ter Ari runs away from home. It’s a slightly dys­func­tional yet lov­ing fam­ily — they all deal with their own prob­lems in their own pe­cu­liar way. Ari’s jour­ney, for ex­am­ple, takes her first to Alaska, with the hope of self-dis­cov­ery, and then in­evitably back to China. Her mother, mean­while, ob­sesses over a client’s child, an ob­vi­ous dis­trac­tion from fac­ing the re­al­ity of her own life. The grand­mother also faces up to her past, which also takes her back to China for Qingming, the an­nual tomb-sweep­ing fes­ti­val. And it’s here, amid the dis­ap­point­ments and short­com­ings of their lives, that they meet and re­con­nect, help­ing each other along in their jour­ney of life. As an adult, it’s some­times hard to re­mem­ber child­hood feel­ings of in­se­cu­rity. Ma’s writ­ing makes this pos­si­ble, re­mind­ing the reader that the seem­ingly triv­ial can cause deep anx­i­ety for a child — es­pe­cially an or­phan. Trevor Smith is an en­gi­neer­ing re­search tech­ni­cian at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba and a lo­cal com­mu­nity

jour­nal­ist.

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