Jiaozi and Pirozhki

  • Zoë S. Roy (Author)
    Spinster Kang. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Eleanor Ty

Spinster Kang is both a typical and untypical novel about an immigrant. Zoë S. Roy weaves a traditional story of a new immigrant to Toronto from China with the story of a Russian Jewish woman writing a memoir about incidents that happened to her some forty years before. The link between these two women is the intriguing kernel that the reader discovers by the end of the novel.

Both women are struggling to expand their intellectual horizons, and, in the course of their studies, manage to also stumble upon love. Both are sexually innocent, and their fear of romantic entanglement—an interesting story in itself—is linked to the constraints imposed by their families, to traumatic experiences in the past, and to the strict cultural codes of the communities in which they live.

The first part of the novel provides details of the thirty-something-year-old unmarried Kang settling down in Toronto, making new friends, getting used to Canadian food, walking around the city, and working in a coffee shop. At one point, cleaning tables in a Tim Hortons, Kang picks up a Toronto Star and reads the headline, “Outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.” The article talks about “Sui-Chu Kwan, a Chinese Canadian woman in her seventies, who had travelled to Hong Kong in February and died of SARS in Toronto.” Then Kang’s reflection: “now she understood why the woman on the subway train had moved away from her. It also explained why the customer line-ups in front of her had been shorter.” Not all incidents are so pointed; many simply record Kang’s day-to-day experiences as she works towards her teaching certificate.

The pace picks up in the second part of the novel as Roy inserts a story within a story. In the process of narrating the Russian Jewish woman’s memoirs, Roy reveals the similarities between the repressive regimes in China and the Soviet Union. We learn about the Cultural Revolution under Mao as well as what it was like to be a Jewish intellectual in Moscow in the 1950s. In both cases, romance and dreams become secondary to duty to one’s country.

This is an ambitious book, raising a number of issues that are important, though they are not all resolved. These questions include the effects of secondary trauma, the recognition of Hmong peoples in China and the diaspora, the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in immigrant communities, and ways to deal with mental illness. With all these matters, the novel is surprisingly light and encouraging. The protagonist Kang cheerfully plods on in spite of her fears and self-doubts. I particularly like the fact that whenever she is faced with an unfamiliar task, she goes to the library to read about how to do it. Kang is a well-read woman, often alluding to Chinese (Five Golden Flowers), Russian (War and Peace, Eugene Onegin, Fathers and Sons), and English (Wuthering Heights, The Matrix, A Christmas Carol) literature and film. Roy reaffirms our beliefs in the resourcefulness and resilience of immigrant women, and the positive effects of kind friends and welcoming communities.

This review “Jiaozi and Pirozhki” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jan. 2020. Web.

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