A Glimpse of Something
Reviewed by Guy Beauregard
Since the 1970s, Asian Canadian cultural workers have engaged directly with questions of community, representation, history, and the collective project of social transformation. The ambitiousness of this project which is not always recognized in contemporary scholarship in Canadian literary studies has led many Asian Canadians to work in various capacities as community organizers, social activists, editors, curators, educators, social historians, and cultural critics. Larissa Lai has contributed to community projects including the catalogue for Yellow Peril: Reconsidered (1990); the Writing Thru Race conference (1994); the special issue of West Coast Line called Colour. An Issue (1994); the Prairie Asian Project and the subsequent Prairie Asians special issue of absinthe (1998); and the activist group DAARE (Direct Action Against Refugee Exploitation), about which Lai has written passionately in Fuse (2000). Lai also wrote When Fox Is a Thousand (1996), an acclaimed first novel that was shortlisted for the Chapters/Boo/cs in Canada First Novel Award.
Salt Fish Girl (2002), Lai’s second novel, links a historical narrative in late nineteenth century China with a dystopic narrative in the middle of the twenty first century in the Pacific Northwest. The novel builds on the "myths of history" Lai explored in her first novel and extends their implications to a future marked by biotechnology, cloning, corporate rule, and the exploitation of workers. Salt Fish Girl takes sharp jabs against anti immigrant attitudes, racialized sexual harassment, corporate jurisdiction over the social spaces in which the characters live, and the bioengineering of women of colour (with .03% freshwater carp) to reduce labour costs in shoe factories. The novel provides powerful descriptions of the Unregulated Zone (the bombed out social spaces outside the immediate jurisdiction of corporate rule) and, crucially, the acts of resistance of its inhabitants. As Evie quips, "They couldn’t control for everything. Maybe the fish was the unstable factor." Workers in shoe factories organize and protest, imprinting text on a newly poured sidewalk:
materials: 10 units
labour: 3 units
retail price: 169 units
profit: 156 units
Do you care?
In this way, Lai ties the narrative to contemporary protests against corporate globalization and its racialized and gendered effects.
Salt Fish Girl deliberately blurs historical and future narratives, calling into question notions of temporality, memory, and history all of which are relevant to the dreaming disease that afflicts the lives of the characters in the future. Miranda (who, along with the Prospero figure of Dr. Flowers and the Caliban figure of Evie, connects Lai’s narrative to The Tempest) attempts to make sense of her memories and desires:
I had recognized something, but had no idea what. It felt as though something inside me was stretching, had always stretched to that moment of recognition, in the past, a stretching without knowing, a longing without certainty of the object, but in that moment when [Evie] rose from the chair, pulled the needle from her arm and ran out the door, I knew. Or rather, I had a glimpse of something. I could not name it, but I knew it mattered.
Miranda’s "glimpse of something" stands as an invitation for readers to imagine the past and the future and their potential points of connection.
Despite the promise of many of these ideas, Salt Fish Girl is hurt by a meandering creation scene that opens the novel. There are also odd shifts in tone (such as when the late nineteenth century narrator shifts from a quietly formal voice to announce: "Give ’em salt fish congee early and you’ll forget about ’em sooner and vice versa") and historical anachronisms (the narrative refers in passing to a Malaysian girl at a time when there was no "Malaysia"), strange geographical references (China is referred to as the "eastern rim" of the Pacific Economic Union), maudlin passages (especially those describing Miranda’s deceased mother and her singing career), and the repeated use of coincidental meetings to keep the plot moving forward. The proofreading could also have been better. All these examples deeply compromise the readability and the potential power of the story Lai has chosen to tell. But my sense is that Lai’s novel nevertheless remains significant because it attempts to connect our understanding of Asian Canadian pasts with a glimpse of its potential futures. This "glimpse of something" can also direct our attention to the broader Asian Canadian project of representing and challenging the effects of corporate globalization in the contemporary world.
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MLA: Beauregard, Guy. A Glimpse of Something. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 149 - 150)
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