Shelves: asian-literature , historical-fiction Let me start off by saying Bone by Fae Myenne Ng is a good novel. The storyline is interesting, the characters are real, and the choice of words Ng uses to convey ideas to the reader are clean and beautiful. I gave the book 3. This is the story of two generations in a Chinese family in America.
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Courtesy Hyperion. Fae Myenne Ng and I spent six hours spread over two days girl-talking—sharing immigrant stories we inherited as first generation born Americans. Fae Myenne Ng invites reflexive intimacy into dilemmas of migration, assimilation, acceptance, and passage … story-telling as if she ate away at the flesh of these issues to get to the bone: Bittersweet.
Ships are massive but the ocean has simple superiority. Forward and forward and then back. A motion of a traveler on a ship. Many Chinese immigrant men worked in the shipping industry. I wanted to know how conscious that was when you were writing? The image of a ship moving through the sea seemed to be the best way to talk about that. The image comes from life, Leon crosses the ocean to come to this country.
I wanted to remember that crossing and to think about what he held onto, this ideal of coming to a better place, making a better life for future generations.
I think of Mah and Leon, immigrants, as sacrifice characters. Once they set sail, their personal lives were essentially over. I wondered what they thought about, what they hoped for on that three month voyage? One of the emotions that all characters in this book share is the desire to escape, which is one way of talking about change. Speaking Chinese but needing English. Mah and Leon came to this country for a better life, but they are shut inside a ghetto.
What it felt like for their daughters to live in a glass globe, looking out at the world and sensing all the possibilities but not being able to leave. What it felt like for Lei to find the courage to marry for love when her own mother married for convenience. I also wanted to look at the old Chinese bachelor society and ask, what of that is our inheritance, what of that tension still separates men and women?
Mah works in the sweatshops, Leon at sea. I wanted to know, in what space does their marriage exist? I wanted to write about what it is like for the children to inherit a better place, the gratefulness and the great guilt that comes with it. I grew up among the Chinese bachelor society, a generation of old timers who, because of a whole series of conditions—exclusion and miscegenation laws, revolutions in China—came to this country to work and ended up not being able to return home.
The book raises the questions. The reader answers. It was very important to respect the reader. Reading is a very private experience and the reader brings their own worlds of insights and possibilities to the book.
Why did Ona do it? Every leave-taking has its consequences. Everybody she leaves behind has to find their own way to go on. Maybe everyone in the Leong family does so by leaving it alone.
I wanted to write about how each family member has to learn how to live with not knowing why Ona did it. A way to be. She leaves a place no longer nurturing, much like how Leon and Mah left China.
All the sisters deal with it differently. Lei finds a way to straddle the worlds. Live because she made a decision to love. The tremendous burden on the child who wants to make things better for the parents. And the children, because they love their parents and want to see their parents have a life will take on this job. Lei is a woman who feels very badly for having more opportunities than her mother.
For having an opportunity of love. In love and marriage, she has better than her mother and she suffers for this. I wanted to write about that kind of connected space. Just like the bones of old timers which were all eventually intermingled in the ground, no longer separate and contained within their own gravesites. It speaks to the conditions of working class life here.
Eventually, we all blend into the earth, we all are of this earth. America was work and China was home. I included bone among the five chinese elements: fire, water, metal, earth, and wood.
I thought bone was the best metaphor to speak about the enduring quality of the immigrant spirit. Ona jumps from a place called the Nam, a name with significance. That when Ona dies, she jumps, it is toward Chinatown, not facing the outside world, and that she breaks all her bones. What would you call that transformation? What do you see in that for future generations? They had a generosity in their passing.
I felt that they gave us the whole world. And I was grateful for this and I tried to give that sense of appreciation to Lei. AS Bone was very successful in addressing issues of identity in terms of race and class and gender without reducing their complexity in our everyday lives. Did taking 10 years to write this novel have anything to do with your process of understanding these issues? The book needed that time. In this book, I wanted to chart time through relationships. I wanted to look at how people loved, how people choose their family.
Mason allows his wife, Lei, to lean on him, but not to the point of damage. He gives her the space and the courage to face her fears.
Two hands praying. Two fists sparring. I wanted the language to have a certain leanness. I wanted to write as hard as they worked. No fat. That was inspiring. There was a beauty about their ability to exist in a very clean space. So I wanted to capture that spatial quality in the book. The image I had was of a woman in her chair, sewing, a man on a park bench, sitting.
One guy came up to me after the reading and told me that this was his first reading, his first book signing. I liked the loyalty he showed my brother, and who knows, maybe a tolerance for me, and a curiosity about books. Maybe he had a moment where he felt like he would have an authoritative opinion about whether or not this book was true. It must be difficult to try to share this novel with them.
I do it in small steps. They love that. From that they can understand the heart of the book. I learned from them. That was their gift to me. They offered their suffering. They give in an absolute way. I lived a life that was given to me through their courageous example. I felt like an immigrant writing this book. I took one step off land and pushed off into the unknown. I had no guarantee.
There was no sure route. But I had witnessed my parents suffering. What could go wrong, what could be harder? Angel Velasco Shaw is a multi-media artist.
Fae Myenne Ng