All That Work and Still No Boys

Reckless acts small and large proliferate in this wonderful collection, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Kathryn Ma’s protagonists—whether the young women narrating painful stories such as “Dougie” and “The Long Way Home” or the older (usually widowed) ones in her most powerful tales—are often at loose ends and unclear about their own intentions, harboring secrets and jealousies and acting out in surprising ways.

Ma places these characters, mostly first- or second-generation Chinese-Americans, in the suburbs, public schools, and private universities of the U.S., as well as the larger historic world of political reality. “For Sale By Owner,” set in the 1960s, is told from the perspective of a boy whose mother’s racism brings consequences for him at school, while in “What I Know Now” the sexual liberation of the 1970s has less happy consequences for a young co-ed initiated into that world. In one of the present-day stories, “Prank,” Kang Yan Chan, a high school guidance counselor born and raised in the States, finds himself lumped into the same category as a recent immigrant—a Chinese student who, with two American boys, sets off a homemade bomb that they claim was a joke. The student, Anthony Gao, continues to rebel in ways no one can make sense of (though in reality he, like Chan, is reacting against assumptions, refusing to be stereotyped.)

Ma writes with energy and precision, her humor smart and bittersweet, without the sarcastic edge that often mars contemporary short fiction. The title story “All That Work and Still No Boys,” for instance, refers not to romantic disappointment but to a traditional Chinese mother’s proliferation of daughters rather than sought-for sons. Though they have been born and raised in America, the four daughters, as well as the eventual son, all suffer the burden of this convention—even more strongly now that their father has died and their mother has fallen chronically ill.

The theme of the under-prized female continues in stories such as “Second Child,” the only one set in China, told from the point of view of a guide who leads American families on “reunion tours” for parents and their adopted daughters visiting the nation—including the very orphanages—from which those daughters, now young teens, once issued. The story could be a perfect companion piece to Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” for Daisy, the Chinese guide, navigates the twists and turns of the physical tour as well as the emotional voyages of these families, each with their own complicated dynamic. In particular, she finds herself drawn toward the sole boy on one tour, whose troubling behavior—a manifestation of his sister’s ambivalence as they approach the orphanage—echoes Daisy’s own discomfort with a related secret in her own family.

Like Lahiri, Ma excels at precise description that captures the essence of her characters—and the way that even recognizable types become surprising and mysterious to those unfamiliar with their worlds:

…this mother, call-me-JoJo, has worn shorts and sleeveless blouses and broad ugly sandals like paws attached to her ankles. She doesn’t bother with a hat or umbrella but lets her face turn brown in the beating sun. Her husband, Huron, strides behind her. To Daisy he looks huge, nearly two meters, with alarming ears that seem to glow with pale whiteness. His eyebrows are white and most of his hair too, and he has a thick beard that started out clean and now looks dirty, stained by the air and the sweat of his exertions. His stomach hangs over the strap of his worn brown belt.

Ma’s descriptions of inanimate objects, too, ring with life, such as a slice of lemon meringue pie that “jiggles on the plate like a wagging pet” or an old woman’s “rubbled teeth … shored up from one end of her jaw to the other with beautiful gold bridgework.” Even the real estate sign in the story “For Sale By Owner” has emotional resonance:

…white letters on stiff red cardboard, tacked to a wooden pole and hammered into the grass by my father. He has written our telephone number into the blank space on the bottom of the sign and the whole appearance of it—the wobbly sign, the careful black numbers, the clear plastic sheeting stapled by my mother so autumn rains won’t run the ink—has a whiff of shame about it.

Ma is at her best when she portrays older characters, either from afar, as in “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu,” or up close, as in the quirky, oddly upbeat “Gratitude,” concerning a lonely widow who somewhat disingenuously befriends the wife of a prison inmate. Ma’s skillful introduction of the widow, Mabel, showcases her talent at quickly summarizing character and situation:

She knew it wasn’t quite nice to let Mrs. Rattle think that help was at hand, but it was only a twenty-four hour lie. Mabel had told lies that lasted far longer than that. She had told Wendell, for instance, that he could do anything he set his mind to, when she knew by the time he was eight that there were many things he couldn’t do. He chose sales, thank goodness, and managed that just fine.

Particularly good is “The Scottish Play,” in which, through voice and persona, Ma captures the (often comic) dynamics of a “friendship” between two Chinese widows, long-ago immigrants to the U.S. now entering the last, painful phases of their lives. Despite their tenure in America, they have fully imported their Eastern superstitions into Western tradition—with real, felt consequences.

If there is a fault in any of these stories it is Ma’s tendency to wrap things up a bit too quickly, rather than allowing these pieces to complete themselves organically. The overt parallels she constructs in some stories can make their conclusions feel pat, such as the prized son in the title story needing a hydrologist to help with his lawn’s irrigation (“Its not pumping like it should”) just as his mother is in need of a new kidney. Yet in “Prank,” when the explosion that the Chinese student and his American friends set off at the beginning is bookended by the provocative “gift” of little Chinatown firecrackers that same student gives Chan—the guidance counselor—at the end (the origins of those firecrackers, like Chan’s own, in China), the impulse feels genuine and meaningful. This is a very enjoyable collection.

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  1. Pingback: Tottenville Review | John Charles Gilmore

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