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ABCs. New York writers Blossom Kan (left) and Michelle Yu, pictured here at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, visited Portland recently on a book tour for their debut novel, China Dolls.
From The Asian Reporter, V17, #11 (March 13, 2007), page 13.
Opening our big world, entering a fertile genre
China Dolls co-authors at Powell’s City of Books
By Ronault L.S. Catalani
An odd crowd welcomed New York writers Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan to Powell’s City of Books on the first Friday of March. Everybody was bundled in Northwest winter-wear, everyone was wet. Nothing unusual about any of that.
We were a mixed bunch: middle-aged Portlanders with husbands; young Asian women with China Dolls, Ms. Yu and Ms. Kan’s recently released novel, on their laps; three lively Persian ladies; and of course your regular assortment of Asia-philes, Orientalists, and the like. Still nothing’s odd, no one’s out of place on Powell’s tidy metal folding chair rows — with the big fat exception of my Mexican photog and me.
Here’s the thing: Between us two glodoks, we’ve got a pretty good combined number of books on shelves, books holding spider plants up to southern windows, books holding doors wide. The problem is, you won’t find a single instance of contemporary women’s writing at his place or mine. No chick lit.
Call us woodenheads. No wonder we’re hanging out at damp bookstores on big city weekend nights.
It’s aaall changing now, I hasten to add. Now that China Dolls sits prominent on my desk. For all to see.
Sure that’s something, but the really big thing is these two ABC (American-born Chinese) cousins’ entrée into this women’s literary genre. That’s very good news.
Significant sociological corners are being turned here and now, by Ms. Kan and Ms. Yu. Never mind China Dolls’ sleek cover art and sassy PR campaign. Forget for a moment the book’s accompanying China Doll Collection (of lip care, kind soap, and a fragrant candle, from New York’s upscale Ling Spa). Smart marketing, all of that. But most meaningful, from a much wider camera angle, is Ms. Kan and Ms. Yu’s book’s marking access into a vibrant stream of mainstream culture. Into women’s literature, certainly. But more importantly: into women’s work and women’s evolving social authority.
A wider world
Says China Dolls co-author Michelle Yu: "I love women’s fiction, but there’s been a homogeneity to the genre. We wanted to enrich it with multiculturalism and at the same time focus on professions now dominated by males."
Without overstatement, the authors are doing for chick lit what Oprah’s done for daytime talk television and women’s periodicals. They are diversifying our world by entering a field already proven wildly popular by the television series "Sex and the City." Savvy women talking story.
No doubt, the authors are mindful of their market potential. And also of their social responsibility. Said co-author Blossom Kan after their Powell’s reading: "This has not only been our chance to tell our stories, but also an opportunity to inspire other ethnic minorities. It’s about dialogue, about opening up possibilities." She makes an example of the 1995 Hollywood blockbuster Waiting to Exhale (starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett), which is of course most immediately an ethno-culturally specific story, but it is more broadly about the film’s protagonists "struggling to be modern American women."
"That’s what we’re trying to do," Ms. Kan went on to say. "China Dolls is a book about culture and tradition, but there’s also the universal themes of family expectations, of our professional challenges, and of women finding themselves."
And that’s what happened at downtown Portland’s Powell’s, during the authors’ last stop on St. Martin’s Press’s ten-city cross-country publicity tour. Not even a publisher’s plant could’ve made it better. One of those Iranian ladies asked about the staying power of Chinese culture. "You’ve been in America so long and still Chinese are so strong. We’ve only been here 25 years and our kids are — uh, so American."
Ms. Yu’s response was essentially about the gravity of her Chinese family. Their expectation of participation. "They get hurt if you don’t keep in regular touch with them."
"They hold on, almost to a fault," Ms. Kan added. "We know it’s a protective thing. ‘But why,’ they want to know, ‘why do you want to move out? We have everything here. Your own room. Grandma’s cooking.’"
Just as emotionally generous, if a bit more politely politique, was Ms. Yu’s response to a line of the inevitable kind of comments made by men of an entirely different generational and cultural milieu. Without going into painful detail, these questions were about keeping Asian girls "respectful," about "honoring men, unlike American women."
"Yes," Ms. Yu replied without a pause. "Mothers teach our kids about respecting their father’s hard work. How hard it is for them to make sure we are successful." Uh huh.
That’s when I got it. Maybe other guys too. This, aaall this, and so much more is all in print. It’s all in there, between China Girls hardback covers. Ms. Yu and Ms. Kan’s work is so true, it’s so important, a whole other world of bookstore sections and Blockbuster sections, of afternoon talk shows and grocery-line magazines, is now opening for those of us a little slow in arriving.
* * *
From The Asian Reporter, V17, #11 (March 13, 2007), page 13 & 15.
Women at work
Sharing moments, expanding America
By Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan
Thomas Dunne Books, 2006
Hardcover, 278 pages, $22.95
By Ronault L.S. Catalani
I’ve not strayed this way before. Not to these bookstore shelves. Not only because newcomers don’t read a lot. Immigrants are a practical crew. Work comes first, kids second, sleep when you can. Besides, I’m a brown boy, bad to the bone — any literature lying around is bound to be about downspouts and gutters. A couple of big TIME/LIFE picture books on plumbing, on how to hammer up a porch and nail down a deck.
Like I said, I’ve never done this kind of thing before — "chick lit," co-author Blossom Kan kindly offered when I struggled for genre. Right. Now I have a name. Now too, I’m glad I went. Glad I spent a week of lazy late nights reading Ms. Kan and Michelle Yu’s debut novel China Dolls. It was important. It is important, not only for Indo meatheads in rainy North Portland, but for ethnic minorities coast to coast, indeed for our entire energetic American market.
Big boost, I know. But before I’m called to account on possible excesses, let me tell you a bit about China Dolls. Of course it is "The Joy Luck Club meets ‘Sex and the City,’" as promised by its book cover exclamation. But it’s much more. So much more.
The book’s main characters are three: M.J. Wyn, Alex Kwan, and Lin Cho. One local sports journalist, one Manhattan lawyer, one Wall Street stockbroker, all bright and ambitious late-20s ABCs (American-born Chinese). They work hard. They work very hard in their professions, with their love interests, at their mothers’ respect, and most of all: on their sisterhood. On and with each other.
It’s a man’s shop
"We intentionally chose male-dominated professions," said co-author Michelle Yu at their recent Powell’s City of Books reading. And their placement does the job. Each protagonist struggles, sometimes in sheer joy, other times to tears. Each working woman takes on the enormous burden of the thick good-old-boy organizational culture of these three staid professions while wading through America’s erotic-exotic fetish.
In a scene set at Alex Kwan’s law firm’s anniversary party, during a reluctant dance in front of her whole work world with colleague Max "Fingers" Caldwell, Alex has to pry his persistent hand off her bottom. "What did I just tell you?" she says through gritted teeth. "Hands above the waist."
Sportswriter M.J. Wyn’s a bit more abandoned dancing with an NBA player gets her plastered on the next morning’s sports page. The photo captions reads: Dribblin’ and Nibblin’. M.J. first hears about it when her ma’s shrill phone voice pierces her morning hangover. "Who is he? Your new boy friend?" her mother shouts. "Your grandma … keep on pointing at him and calling him huck gwai! [Black guy!] She thinks you’re a disgrace!"
M.J.’s meek protests — this doesn’t happen to male journalists, this wouldn’t happen to a white woman — don’t count. Not for much.
Stockbroker Lin’s sweaty little career moment is way too much to give away here. Go to Powell’s, they have signed hardbacks. Twenty-three bucks.
There’s a lot of relationship action and narrative in China Dolls. Intimate relationships (I can only imagine) are at the core of many if not all chick lit and chick flick and TV female talk-show venues. I suspect there’s complexity and depth most men dare not engage. Some may even dread. Add to this brew America’s endemic cross-cultural brawling, then add our pathologic anxiety over race, and there you have it. Suzie Wong. Miss Saigon. China dolls.
Always present in this savvy and sexy and subtle book is the sisterhood of M.J. and Alex and Lin. They laugh, they blubber, at the end of a bad workday, at the close of a good chapter. It all makes me envious. It makes me wonder what I’ve missed by not turning on Oprah, not renting Waiting to Exhale.
Most prominently, and I would suggest, most significantly in these erosive times on our chaotic American continent, is what the book’s authors place firmly at the hub of all their characters’ sometimes wobbly, but always wide orbits through scary new territory. And that is familia. The middle kingdom of the authors’ Chinese families.
Some of China Doll’s matriarchs are unconditionally encouraging, some are constantly critical, but all are characterized by Ms. Yu and Ms. Kan as resolutely engaged with their struggling, star-trekking daughters. Heart and bones. China Dolls starts and ends in the old yet fertile soil of vigorous Chinese family. And we are all redeemed.