“A week before I woke with a tail, my mother was outside in the front yard, arguing with the new neighbor about his encroaching eucalyptus tree,” explains the unnamed daughter in K-Ming Chang’s bold and brilliant first novel, “Bestiary.” The daughter’s tail is the physical manifestation of her having been born in the Year of the Tiger as well as the tiger spirit, Hu Gu Po, that runs through the women in her family. And the appearance of a tiger tail on a girl is just one of the many surreal and poetic touches Chang uses to characterize her Taiwanese characters’ experiences as immigrants in the United States.
Chang’s novel is like no other I have ever read. She reinvents the genres of immigrant novel, queer coming-of-age story, and mother-and-daughter tale at every level, from the use of myth to the reinvention of language, mixing dialects and Chinese characters with English. Alternating between the voices of the daughter, mother and grandmother, Chang crisscrosses through time and spans oceans to describe the journey of the family from Taiwan to Arkansas and finally California.
Each woman has to face hardships that range from poverty after war, an abusive spouse, starting over in a new country with few resources, and the quest for love. None of these dilemmas is new, but the way Chang writes about them is revolutionary. For example, the grandmother’s chapters are all written as prose poems, letters that the grandmother has sent via the holes that the daughter and her girlfriend Ben have been digging and cultivating in the backyard of the mother’s house.
“Ben and I nursed the yard-holes, feeding our fingers into them, searching for another letter, one that would explain what to do with the first.” Here, Chang is playing with the old trope of “digging a hole to China,” creating a literal mail portal to the grandmother’s home in Taiwan.
The lives of the characters are difficult, marked by war and poverty, and Chang does not shy away from graphic depictions of emotional and physical violence. As the grandmother writes in one of her letters: “This/letter is not an apology . I am not writing for a / response a bullet doesn’t ask to be given back.”
Chang’s greatest accomplishment in “Bestiary” may be that her artistry allows the reader to see her characters’ great resilience rather than merely their pain.
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of a short story collection, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants.”
By: K-Ming Chang.
Publisher: One World, 272 pages, $27.