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Irving, Marra and Ma: some travels through books

Some books take you on a road trip to places you may or may not have been, but offering you new vistas and experiences.
The John Irving book Avenue of Mysteries did that for me. Having traveled in Mexico in the 70’s, I bummed around Mexico City, Guadalajara and Cuernavaca, doing the touristy thing, particularly fascinated by the skullies and macabre heads of the  dead,offered in sticky candy form on local stands. I bought exquisitely and multicoloured shifts and shirts in marketplaces that teemed with flies circling the carcasses of dead cows and flirted wildly with dark eyed fellows. I swayed to the music.But John Irving does not give us tourist, he gives us that under layerof a culture which is often hardly sweet. He gives us the children in Oacaxca who play near and in heaps of garbage, the smells of burning tires, the mysterious eyes of the statutes that track your footsteps. He gives us friendly prostitutes and parent less children and he weaves a story of an usual boy, Juan Diego, who attains success in spite of his background. Because it is John Irving, we have a background of outcast people,( here Flor and Edward, a cross- dresser and a priest)misfits who eventually find their fit, no matter how perilous that may be. We have literally circuses as the strange limitations crossing into adulthood where we are introduced to protagonists who have always had to be adult- like. We have children who must joust with windmills, and a clairvoyant younger sister, Lupe, who speaks her own language.Truly Irving gives us a gritty world as the backdrop for his hero, his books as saving  graces that have established his passport from and away from this downtrodden world. He wants and needs his memories and fears that his beta- blockers are blocking them.

 Then we have Anthony Marra’s The Czar of Love and Techno, nine related stories  of characters that are funny, ironic and bizarre but provide insight into a place whose knowledge has only been filtered by the news. Chechynia is the central character, complete with a forest cut out of metal and plastic,air so thick with refuse that it appears as snow, and lakes prohibited to swim in because of the very apparent dangers to one’s health. Amidst the rubble is the story of a swan a, ballerina, her lover, and her daughter. We follow the rise and fall of talent, the gossipy baboushkas, the secret police, the heavy watchful eye of Stalin’s government, and those who attempt to escape the webs set to ensnare any opposition. An art student turned censor adds and subtracts faces in official photographs, chronicling the life cycle of his brother; Kolya,  who becomes a contract soldier;Sergei, a teenage grifter. Marra’s language is fresh and brilliant as he describes a smashed head as a pot of borscht and observes the changes in the bodies of older women that resemble melting snow as the sun stretches their forms into shadows.  Many of ironic comments make you chortle to yourself such as” The heat- seeking desire flowing from my heart via my south- lands was indiscriminate in its aim.”
We always knew books could inform of new countries and introduce us to new protagonists.And there are memorable characters we will always carry with us: such as the knitting Madame Dufarge the observer; the runaways, the unloved or troublesome children such as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer,  Pip, sly- eyed Lolita, and Holden Caulfield who have been rendered real and recognizable to the reader.

Katherine Ma’s The Year She Left Us may or may not people our world where others have built a home in our conscious; however, I think I will always associate  Ari ( short for Ariadne) with feelings of trouble and displeasure. She stands out because although the themes of identity and loss are not new, they are taken into a new subset of themes: being an  adopted Chinese girl in the 90’s.

 Ari — her full name Ariadne Bettina Yun-li Rose Kong — grew up in the Bay Area as a member of the Whackadoodles, a collective of “Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters.” More than 80,000 Chinese children — most of them girls were adopted in the mid- 90’s because of China’s infamous one-child policy and a cultural prejudice that favors sons.What differentiates Ari  from other  protagonists is her Chinese mother so some of her disconnect with her identity should not be more than any other  motherdaughter relationship. Ari hears this again and again. She admits,“It should have been easier, but it wasn’t,” and she thinks. “I felt stupid, alone and defective.”  Obviously she resembles her adopted mother so she would not be immediately identified as adopted. Interestingly her closest friends, A.J. whose parents are Jewish, appears to acculturate herself much easier than Ari. That is not to subjugate the trauma of adoption, and referred to as the big A, abandonment, in the story. Just looking similar cannot mask problems, but it does provide one less reason to feel different in society. Her other close friend Wei-Wei creates siblings and finds fleeting acceptance in the world of entertainment, a mentor, a guide, but eventually she too is revealed as likewise troubled.

 Unclear as to why Ari’s angst has germinated, she struggles and worries before her initial trip , The Finders Trip, to China at age 12 to seek her cultural connections. Ari resents that her mother will not allow her to dress as the other girls in the final ceremony, scoffing at the picture perfect scene of red silk pyjamas, and flower entwined hair as all the adoptees preform a dance for a take home picture moment. Her encounter with an unknown man is traumatic, and perhaps builds into her emergence of self doubt and despair.

 Previously she is described as happy, intellectually challenging and well loved by her strong matriarchal family. As a baby , she is “as light as a teacup, with a big cartoon smile,”and rosebud mouth, transforming into an 18-year-old who drinks, smokes, sleeps around and has tattoos and a “metal shank” piercing her eyebrow. Exacerbated by that  unsettling event in China, Ari begins her descent into misery and eventual separation from the only family she has known. She is especially loving to Gram who in spite of her initial misgivings loves Ari. She

Gram believes the return to China is unnecessary .Ma’s portrayals of  her women are fair, but complicated, some  Americans quite accepting of their identity as  U.S. jurists and judges. Ari’s mother and aunt support causes associated with their careers, certainly striving to represent themselves as honest and just but avoiding any overlay that speaks to a Chinese bias. Not surprisingly Gram does not support Ari’s trip of identity solidarity. Her own secrets , she feels, were better left hidden back home. She has no desire to return and unbury a painful decision made there.

 Ari’s separation from her family is extreme: particularly one rather violent act that symbolically represents her split . Yet as an adolescent and young woman, Ari should not, I feel, be represented as the Chinese adoptee, but rather any young person with identity issues. Her search stands symbolic and particular at the same time. In deed, Ma reminds her readers of this fact in an afterward in her novel.

What perplexes me is Ari’s quest for her ersatz father, possibly a substitute for the man who abandoned her. Resentful and connected by a similar name, Ari’s need for this man takes her to locate his life in Alaska, place of difficult landscape, cold, uninviting weather, rigorous life challenges. Maybe again, a desire to overcome the trials one must encounter on the archetypal search towards self- knowledge( see Joseph Campbell).

The novel populated by positive , strong, supportive women is cast aside as Ari obviously  requires a male figure to ground her. This for me is the rubbing point. I do reflect that Ma’s populating her book with so many dominant females may for some cry out for balance in equalizing the genders; however, in contemporary life, many others would strongly  disagree.

Ari’s behaviour towards her mother is as well hard to swallow although, as I say, not all daughters love their mothers or treat them well; however Ari does connect and confide  in her aunt Les and the bond between grandmother and granddaughter is true and loving.

 Although the Chinese adoptee theme is central to the story, perhaps Ma is discounting it by presenting the reader with a confused hero who might just be Chinese or Vietnamese or Rumanian. Reading responses from GoodReads by adopted mothers suggests that Ma has raised an issue of pain mainly unrecognized by this group. That racial identity is an issue cannot be discounted but I do ponder that Ma has used a Chinese adoptee to a Chinese mother to showcase the girl’s angst and presented her objective to locate a man in her life – as arising topics for debate.

For all the above reasons, I have always loved books for the ideas, revelations and journeys they offer through the printed word.


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