An Asian Canadian Literary Landmark

Reviewed by Lily Cho

A few years after the first publication of Disappearing Moon Cafe in 1990, I got up the courage ask my Canadian literature professor for permission to write my term paper on this novel. I was an English major in the second year of my honours BA program at the University of Alberta. The novel was not on the syllabus, but my professor encouraged me to go for it. I don’t know how I knew about the novel. I must have come across it at the library. Up until that point, I had not read any literature by an Asian Canadian writer in my school work. Lee’s novel and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan were the only Asian Canadian texts I would be “taught” throughout the rest of my academic training. As I recently recounted at the launch of the Asian Canadian Studies Reader (a textbook I really could have used to help me think about Disappearing Moon Café), I wrote a terrible paper on Lee’s novel. I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that the book mattered to me because it was the first time I encountered cadences and rhythms of a world that I knew intimately, but that I had thought was irremediably separate from my life as a student of English literature. I had not thought there was room for the sound of Cantonese, for talking about ghosts and haunting as an unexceptional part of daily life (my mother still refers to some places as “dirty,” by which she means too full of ghosts), for the painfully tight bonds of shame and history, and for telling stories that were not for telling.

In my family, the most important stories were the ones that we knew should never be told. As Lee understands, there is “a secret code” that guards these stories from the ears of outsiders. It was a silent pact leading to more silence. And yet, here she was, telling stories that busted injunctions of shame and silence. Here was a book that knew the risk and cost of what it means to tell such stories, and it did so with care and tenderness. These were not quite my stories, but I knew them. And, as Lee suggests in the interview with Smaro Kamboureli that accompanies this new edition of the novel, these were not quite her stories either. Lee tells Kamboureli, for example, that there is a “barbershop tale” embedded in the novel, a tale that Chinatown bachelors would have told one another sitting on the bench of the barbershop, warming up by the stove and trying to stave off loneliness by “shooting off one’s mouth.” She tells us that in her own “barbershop gang” (who would become the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop and contributors to Ricepaper literary magazine), a “photographer-poet-postman named Jim Wong-Chu” told her that “he had a woman’s story” for her. Given the enormity of his contributions to Asian Canadian literature and culture, it is so fitting that Wong-Chu is threaded through the story of the stories in this novel. These are stories that have been passed on, that have been told, but only within the enclosure of the family, the gang, the barbershop.

This novel tells a lot of stories and, in doing so, breaks open a world of Asian Canadian literature that would come. Disappearing Moon Cafe is a landmark. In 1990, it marked out a new and necessary site in Canadian literature, and this beautiful new edition, accompanied by an afterword by Chris Lee and by Kamberouli’s telling conversation with SKY Lee, affirms the status of this novel as a singularly core text in the canon of Asian Canadian literature. How lucky we are that the first major contemporary Chinese Canadian novel would also engage so brilliantly and so presciently with issues that remain vital: the construction and constructedness of family and kinship; queer desire; settler colonialism; relations between and across immigrant and indigenous communities; and feminism. Lee accomplishes all of this through an engrossing story of betrayal, adultery, loss, and deep, deep love. Canadian literature has been graced with this novel for almost three decades. It remains an urgent and necessary novel.

This review “An Asian Canadian Literary Landmark” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 167-168.

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