By Calton Breen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Alex Kuo’s latest book, “White Jade and Other Stories” rides a rocky divide. Writing from a ChineseAmerican perspective, the short pieces that make up this collection support his personal political agenda. As such his voice does need to be heard, but literature does not sit easy with work that is one-sided, driven by emotion instead of reason and flagrantly guilty of the twin sins of omission and distortion.
The collection is made up of a novella that gives the book its title and seven shorter pieces. These shorter pieces are, for the most part, placeholders. Not well thought out, they read as early drafts the author added to the collection in order to flesh it out to standard book length.
Each of the seven is based on a high-concept abstraction, like stories of an over-educated, under-employed Chinese man who feels persecuted. There is one about a military plane carrying a Chinese American soldier that is forced to land at a mainland Chinese airbase, and one about locals playing soccer against a government team for the right to oversee a protected forest. These are non-stories where event follows event. They answer the question “What next?” but do not answer “Why?” and “What does it mean?”
These stories are frustrating due to their throwaway attention to craft. Characters are types with no psychological make-up. The dialogue is bald exposition. Sensuous detail is lacking. Additionally the narrative diction often falls annoyingly into pop media jargon. (The phrase “shock and awe” should have been banned years ago.)
What makes these stories borderline offensive, though, is their perpetuation of racial, cultural and regional stereotypes. Villainy is not this easy. Neither is heroism, family relations, the military or politics. A story of bigotry, no matter how blameless and justified in its anger, turns easily into cliché when it is drained of oppositional complexity.
Good literature asks tough questions. It shakes up the status quo. Propaganda and prejudice, on the other hand, offer pre-packaged answers, light fare that goes down smooth but has a poisonous aftertaste.
The most ambitious of these shorts is “Regrets Only,” the story of a Chinese American airman assigned to a U.S. spy plane forced to land on Chinese soil. The main character Seymour finds himself straddling the political divide between his Chinese heritage and his U.S. citizenship.
Held for 10 days, he finds himself culturally assaulted on both sides, from both his Chinese captors and the other American captives (read Christian and white). When finally set free, he’s one small step closer to understanding his ethnic dilemma as a hyphenate American.
Yet, there has been no conflict to bring about this change. Both sides of the divide, Chinese and American, are presented as stereotypical members of monolithic cultures. While Seymour is defined as an outsider, the real heart of the matter hasn’t even been broached: How do you relate being Chinese, an ethnic, racial designation, with being American, a political one?
The majority of the book is taken up by the novella, “White Jade.” This is by far Kuo’s strongest work. Claiming to be the author’s autobiography, it is “written” by the author’s long dead mother, and covers her life, not his. Here the details, though sparse, feel authentic. The psychology may still be opaque, but the sense of history carries the story along.
Once again, the material is nothing more than an unshaped record of events, but one has the impression that this story is real, in part because Kuo has cannibalized whole pieces of his life told earlier in the collection, “Lipstick and Other Stories.”
As the story ends, we discover the mother’s intentions in telling her story while claiming it as her son’s. It takes several people to write an autobiography, she says. For authenticity and value, you must have multiple generations in the telling. After all, she concludes, we discover meaning in the gaps. These thoughts are generous in spirit and profound in application, but unfortunately, they are more a justification on her part than a narrative reality. ♦
“White Jade and Other Stories” is by Alex Kuo. Published by Wordcraft of Oregon LLC, 186p., paperback, 2008. $13.95.
Calton Breen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.