These two books are both works of historical fiction, taking us to moments in the nineteenth century when the violence of labour exploitation, resource extraction, and colonialism left impacts that are still felt today. Yee, an accomplished archivist and children’s author, sets his first book for adults along the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881-1885, showing us narrow “throat[s] of rock where the river rushe[s] in a breathless gulp toward the coast, the ocean, and China”; tunnels as “black as midnight mud,” where each aching hammer-blow “rebound[s] with a shudder” and the air is “acrid” with the smell of explosives; and crowded cookhouses, where men smoke and gamble, “the cook splashe[s] food into a wok and rake[s] it with a metal scoop,” and “the helper chop[s] meat cake, a meditating monk drumming with two cleavers.” Carmain’s award-winning first novel, recently translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins, takes us to warm nights on the Chincha Islands of Peru in 1862-1866, “filled with chirping and the lapping of waves,” and into the consciousness of a Spanish sailor, who—after falling in love with a Peruvian woman—experiences the naval conflict as a dreamlike dance, where ships “square off against each other . . . salute . . . [and] eventually disperse and fill with smoke,” twirling like “floating cauliflowers.” Both of these stories are concerned with value, in all senses of the word: economic worth, national honour, personal dignity, and the value the individual heart places on love.
Yee mines the ironic potential of words such as “superior man” and “vermin” in order to describe the painful paradox experienced by early Chinese migrants to Canada: valued as economic units for their labour, yet marginalized and despised as material beings. The first-person narrator, Yang Hok, dreams of one day returning to his village with gold earrings for his grandmother and younger sister, so that Grandmother will make “old-fire soups” for him again and “scrap[e] wax from [his] ears.” But his first paycheck amounts to only $6.73 for twenty-six days of deadly, backbreaking work, two-thirds of the promised wages having been deducted for food and other necessities. He fears that he will be “fragrant”—dead—before he can ever earn enough money to be honourable. In despair, the men bring their loneliness to the brothel, rowdy “like schoolboys at end of term.” As Yang Hok witnesses the “vermin”—former coolies too poor to return to China—nap in back alleys and “scuttle” for shelter in Victoria’s Chinatown; as he participates in makeshift ceremonies for men who died without any relatives nearby to properly bury them; as he remembers that the ones who did make it back to China “never talked about life abroad,” instead “squat[ting] in the market” joining “the tail end of conversations,” he convinces himself that his fate will be different. Before his youth is over, he will return with honour and establish a family. His honour is tested in a different way than he imagines, however, when a forgotten lover appears with a half-Chinese, half-Native child that she claims was fathered by him. Yang Hok’s journey to return the child to the mother’s community over the course of the book leads him deep into the question of what it means to be a “superior man.”
Carmain’s novel takes its title from a scene where Simón, the young Spanish sailor, goes to his admiral for help in understanding why Spain is bothering to occupy the Chincha Islands of Peru. The admiral responds by taking him to a fountain whose water has stopped flowing. He runs his finger along its dusty border; instantly, the finger turns grey as though it had “rotted.” He commands Simón to smell it. Unable to smell anything, Simón asks: “What is it?” It is shit. Guano—the excrement of seabirds, prized for its high economic value as a fertilizer, but completely without any personal value. Throughout the book, the bodies of ordinary people are compared to those of seabirds, mere organic matter in the minds of higher-ups, valuable only in terms of money and national honour. Isabelle II’s minions are described in a way that is almost absurdist, “wearing frogged uniforms with épaulettes so broad they tempt the pigeons, the men all cinched and strapped in, making either chests or paunches more prominent, depending on the regimen.” But for Simón, the seabirds are beautiful, so beautiful they are unreachable. Sometimes he sees the face of his Peruvian lover “between two waves, a sort of apparition floating on the surface of the water with hair of algae. Talk to me, sing. But she moved silently, her image broke apart, disappeared in a waltz of sails. . . . Perhaps it was just a seagull.”
It is difficult to make art out of the experiences of bachelor-men whose daily lives were so marked by dirt, drudgery, and death, yet this is what both Yee and Carmain manage to do. Yee renders the Chinese cusswords of Yang Hok’s vocabulary in a way that is poetic, even humorous. “Turtle-head boss” and “oily mouth” are a few delightful examples. Carmain’s technique is just as effective: by focusing on the romantic musings of a boy who truly has a poetic soul, he is able to show us the violence of war through the rainbow refractions of a dream.