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[341] Transparency: Stories – Frances Hwang

The collection of ten stories, all constructed around immigrants and their American-born children, are unflinching and compulsively readable. It’s even reminiscent of Eileen Chang, but the writing is less decorated and simpler. While the topics often echo the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, it is about individual struggle to honor personal history. The heroines are always struggling souls, social exile, alienated and introverted. In The Old Gentlemen, a woman becomes alienated from her father when he finds late-age romance. Despite his disillusion about love, the daughter is upset because her father’s finding love reminds her the hole in her life:

She had avoided him all this time, not wanting to know about his marriage because she had not wanted to know of his happiness. From The Old Gentleman [19]

Though distrustful of their overly Americanized niece, a family seeks her help to talk their daughter out of a religious cult, whose love bombing has won her over from the over-protecting parents. She has hidden from from parents, who only see the worst in her, by hiding from them her tender spots:

She wasn’t truly worried about Helen, who struck her as the sanest member of that household. It was only a shame that Helen, burdened by such a neurotic family, should try to slip free by submitting to another form of control. From A Visit to the Suns [61]

Defying taboos and superstitions, a woman accepted gift of a clock for her birthday. You don’t ever give a Chinese a clock, all right? Song zhong means “giving a clock,” but also means “going to a funeral.” Is it fate or sheer lack of luck that she comes down with cancer? To downplay her illness she hosts a Fourth of July party that celebrates her life:

In all the pictures we took of that day, my aunt is the focal point. Her presence quietly overwhelms the others. She gazes at the camera with clear, shining eyes as if she is staring into her future. From Giving a Clock [87]

In Blue Hour, the story of two recent graduates navigating love and friendship, Hwang illustrates the grief and surreal quality of watching as friends grow up, mature, get married, and sometimes leave each other behind, unintentionally.

They ate sushi in a darkly lit restaurant composed of black surfaces where Japanese anime was projected on the wall. It was hallucinatory, Iris thought, watching the radioactive glare of characters as they jumped twenty feet into the air, their mouths opening in perfect circles, though no sound came out. She felt the incongruity of two worlds — the lurid, colorful vision flashing on the walls, and the dark shining surface of the present moment, of reality, as she watched Laura’s nimble fingers fold and refold a napkin until it was the shape of a crane perched along the glossy table. From Blue Hour [93-4]

What really hits home is one’s struggle to find permanence amid the flux of modern life, in the same way it is paradoxical that we are not necessarily more connected through the power of internet and media.

In Sonata for the Left Hand, a young man, fixated on her ex-boyfriend, relinquishes her ego, merges with the void, and has no more desires for anything or anyone. Utterly skeptical of relationships.

A delightful naïveté shone on their faces, for how were they to know what was coming and who they were going to love? It was a story of two lives coming together and I thought the slide show made a convincing case for the hand of fate. From Sonata for the Left Hand [131]

A stuck-up writer who works on a story in a seaside artist colony withdraws from the world. Tired of meaningfulness in life, she develops an immunity that is rooted in the deprivation of feeling. It seems her writer’s block is more pathological than cerebral:

I had worked over my sentences for so long that they had acquired a fateful sound. Now everything was sealed under a layer of varnish. If I changed anything, the rest would begin to crack. From Intruders [180]

Transparency traverses many identities, exposing the characters’ failures, fear, frailty, and loss, but without cruel heavy-handedness. They become alive as Hwang reveals them in natural arcs. Beneath her simple, beguiling prose beats a heart of mayhem.

219 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. This is the first collection of short stories I am reading from you and you have tackled it excellently.

  2. You know I tend not to gravitate towards short story collections but this sounds FABULOUS.

  3. I loved this, too. 🙂

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