Stories to Live By

  • Hiroshi Nakamura and Ansel Adams (Photographer)
    Treadmill. Mosaic Press (purchase at
  • Sheung-King
    You are eating an orange. You are naked. Book*hug (purchase at
  • Kim Fu
    Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century. Coach House Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Kelly Baron

There is, and always has been, an unstable binary between fiction and reality. In recent years, that binary has become even more precarious, causing renewed fascination with the author, with the real. Autofiction blurs the real and the fictional, leaving readers to wonder what elements of the novel actually happened; historical manuscripts, discovered by academics in archives, result in a renewed interest in the authors behind them. Magical realism blurs the limits of reality, sometimes resulting in a reality that feels closer to home than anything realism can achieve. Sheung-King’s You are eating an orange. You are naked, Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, and Hiroshi Nakamura’s Treadmill illustrate the unstable binary between fiction and the real, while demonstrating the vast range of storytelling from Asian Canadian and American authors.


Sheung-King’s You are eating an orange. You are naked. is an autofictional novel that tracks a fragile relationship, one between the unnamed narrator and a woman referred to only as “you.” It is, primarily, about their travels together, and the narrator’s love for her, but the relationship is made tenuous by the woman’s disappearances, by her inability to reciprocate the love that he extends to her. Much of their time together is mediated by their storytelling and by scholarship. He wonders, early in the narrative, if she is a 50-year-old fox, after recounting that Guo Po, the ancient Chinese scholar, wrote that “at the age of fifty, a fox can transform into a person,” before continuing to detail the magical abilities of elderly foxes (9). This initial story serves almost as instructional for the rest of the novel. Their interactions together are interspersed with Chinese folktales, with the narrator frequently reflecting on her character and his love for her. Stories, for Sheung-King’s narrator, are how he understands his existence and his love. It makes sense, then, that Sheung-King’s novel is eerily close to the details of his own life; a translator himself, having lived in Toronto and Hong Kong, he resembles his unnamed narrator; in his acknowledgements, he thanks “M” for inspiring the character “You.” You are eating an orange. You are naked. is a gorgeous book, and it is as much about a relationship in decline as it is about the value of storytelling, of using fiction to mediate the real, demonstrating what excellence in blending that unstable binary can look like.


Lesser Known Monsters in the 21st Century is similarly about the stories we tell ourselves to understand reality, but rather than blending fiction with reality, it stays in the fictional realm, drawing from the magical and the monstrous to provide poignant insights on contemporary life. Fu’s writing is clear and engaging; the magical and the monstrous seem inevitable in her stories, serving to highlight flaws in our contemporary condition. “Liddy, First to Fly,” for example, details the story of a young girl who one day grows wings from her ankles, later cliff-diving to test her new-found flying abilities. As the mothers of Liddy and her friends rush to stop the girls, the narrator reflects that if it had just “been one adult, the magic could have lasted;” four, however, can “talk to each other until reality straightens, until doubt is crushed, until their memories unstitch and reform” (35). Fu’s story serves as a useful reminder of the diminishment of magic and creativity in adult life. Her storytelling is at its peak in “Bridezilla,” a story about a woman who reluctantly decides to get married, interspersed with details of what appears to be some form of massive sea monster, a result of climate change. In “Bridezilla,” the woman tracks the sea monster while planning her own wedding, an event she had dreamt of as a child but lost interest in as an adult. Her partner is indifferent; her friends mock the concept of weddings, even while married themselves. She agrees to a simple, boat-cruise wedding package, but accidentally leaves her partner at the altar, stepping off the boat briefly right as it was leaving the harbour. “Bridezilla” is a marriage story which fixates on the ugly instead of the beautiful; in her final scenes, she is subsumed by the ocean, and it is unclear if she becomes the sea monster from the opening scenes. Fu’s collection is a clear, intriguing, and entertaining form of storytelling that bends the limits of what fiction can achieve.


Hiroshi Nakamura’s Treadmill provides a very different kind of narrative. Published after the author’s death, the novel was transcribed by Dr. Peter Suzuki, a former professor at the University of Nebraska, who found the manuscript in an archive. It is unique in that it is the only novel of Japanese internment during World War II written while the author was in the internment camps; the plot focuses on the poverty and extreme weather conditions endured by Japanese Americans during their enforced segregation. As a historical document, it shows how little has changed in the last 80 years. The characters wonder if they will ever be accepted as Americans before Mr. Itaya, an Issei, a Japanese immigrant to America denied citizenship rights, begins a speech that could easily be told today: “There’s no use trying to delude ourselves that we’re American. If our skins were white, it would be another matter. Look at the Indians around here. They say they’re discriminated against even yet. Then look at the white-skinned immigrants. They don’t even have to be born here to be considered full-fledged Americans” (153-154). The novel is a rare historical document, one that serves to highlight the legacy of anti-Asian racism in North America. Together, these three releases demonstrate the exceptional range of storytelling from Asian Canadian and American authors, while further destabilizing the formal limits of fiction as it engages with historical and contemporary reality.

This review “Stories to Live By” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Jul. 2022. Web.

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