Thursday, July 29, 2010

Falls Short On Substance: "Short Girls" by Bich Minh Nguyen

If I hadn't read Bich Minh Nguyen's bio and seen the litany of awards she's received for her work, I'd think she was a twenty-something writer who just graduated from some creative writing course at some liberal arts college in Cali or the East Coast.  I was surprised - no, shocked - to discover that she actually teaches creative writing at a university.  And then I realized that her professorship speaks volumes of the state of Asian-American literature and the study of Asian-American literature today.

You see, I think the market for Asian-American writing and stories is so incredibly starved that editors, publishers and even Asian-Americans, will jump at the newest-thing-since-Amy-Tan (who isn't even good and actually infuriates me, but that's another story for another time).  I mean, I jumped.  I read the blurb on the back jacket and thought, hey, maybe this will be it - maybe this will be that amazing tale of the struggle Asian-American women face in seeking their identity through their families, friends and partners (past and present).  Maybe this will be that book I've been waiting for - that thing writers like Amy Tan didn't get.   I thought I'd finally found a book I could personally relate to.

The premise of the story revolves around two sisters, Van and Linny, who are supposed to be polar opposites - one, outgoing, beautiful and laid back, the other, introverted, uptight and ordinary looking.  Both return home to help celebrate their inventor father's oath of American citizenship as he plans to submit his invention, the "Luong Arm" (a device that enables those who are vertically challenged - notice I did not use the word short, hehe - to "grab" objects from unattainable heights), to a reality TV show contest.  And surprise, surprise, each sister has a "secret" about her personal (read: love) life she is hiding from the other out of pride, fear, or both.  Sound like an absolute mish-mash of conflicting and incongruous ideas?  It is.

I've never been more disappointed.  Not only is the prose itself static, stilted and - for lack of a better word - dull, both characters (sisters, who were supposed to be foils to one another) have as much personality as a limp dish-rag.  You know, which is, like, perfectly fine if that's what you intended.  But somehow, I don't think it's what Nguyen was aiming for.  Furthermore, any remote semblance of personality injected into either sister was scripted and cliched beyond belief.  But perhaps the biggest flaw in the novel (and my personal gripe) is Nguyen's perpetual failure to "show, rather than tell" - that age-old adage every single creative writing professor, no, high-school English teacher throws at her students on the first day of class.  We are repeatedly subjected to new characters who are introduced in a formulaic "this is so-and-so.  I know him from such-and-such.  He used to be like this.  Now he does that.  My opinion of him is this.  He is a [insert categorical stereotype here, e.g. goth, punk, hipster, etc.]."  And yes, she really does this (if you want page numbers, I can give them to you, because I folded over each page where this occurs). 

I know I haven't been particularly generous here.  But what I will give kudos to Nguyen for, however, is the insight to address the complexity of an Asian-American identity that is grown and developed in small-town America.  She successfully highlights the paradox of desperately wanting to fit into the so-called "white" and/or "Vietnamese" community but not being able to feel a sense of belonging or loyalty to either through Van's tendency to shrink deeper, deeper within herself to escape these pressures.  She illustrates the painful relationships many first and second generation Asian-American children have with their parents through Van's and Linny's pleading attempts to gain their father's approval (or at least some show of affection or love) and his blatant refusal to give them either.  And it's not done in a cold-hearted way, but performed rather as a denial.  A lack thereof.  That's the stereotypical (but often true) Asian-parent way.  When Van informs her father of her imminent divorce from her controlling, manipulative husband, her father immediately blames her, saying, '"I like Miles ... he's a nice guy.  What did you do?"  A troubled look spread over Mr. Luong's face and stayed there.  He didn't offer anything more - not an I'm sorry or what happened or what can I do, the normal American things people were supposed to say.'  It's Van's and Linny's constant hunt for so-called "American normalcy" that strikes a chord with me.  And even though Nguyen doesn't do it perfectly, she does bring the reader's awareness to (what I believe to be) the core of the Asian-American identity crisis.  What does it mean to be normal?  In a town where neighbors refer to you as "gooks" (Van's) and laugh at you in Target because "you can't even speak English" (mine)?  What does it mean to be American?  Asian?  Asian-American?  There's a lot there that warrants further discussion.  Unfortunately, the sheer boredom of reading the book itself overshadows the important issues it raises. 

In summary, an amateur effort at best, from a professional.  A major disappointment, but highlights some key issues facing the Asian-American community today.

Have you read it?  Will you read it?  Let me know your thoughts.

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