How closely they guarded their lives, those Chinese-Americans pressing the clothes, so that we were never able to focus on them or comprehend their outlook. Concealment thwarted the gods, the author of these extraordinary memoirs reports, and their American-born children too—always trying to get things straight, to name the unspeakable. But her mother talked stories in warning, and these merged into dreams, hopes, new stories. One aunt, cast out by the family, drowned herself and her newborn bastard daughter in the well: Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch their own chicks and eat the embryos and the heads. . .—could such people engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was waste enough. But if women must be slaves, they may also be warriors (the book is hospitable to paradox) like the warrior woman Fa Mu Lan, whose story becomes the author's as—no maidenly Joan of Arc—she rides into battle with her childhood friend/ husband at her side and her infant son inside her armor. (My American life has been such a disappointment.) Her mother studies medicine and, to impress her schoolmates, routs a ghost; she yanks bones straight in a silk robe and western shoes (until my father sent for her to live in the Bronx). An elderly aunt from Hong Kong is goaded into reclaiming the husband, since remarried, who has not seen her—but has supported her—for thirty years. The tightknit story of their confrontation is the author's invention, an intricate Chinese knot like the one once proscribed to protect the knot-maker's eyes: If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker. Still, she wants to go back to China to sort out what's just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just the movies, just living. The several strands, inseparable here, create a spirit-presence you won't soon forget.
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