written by: Liam Watts
I am fascinated with other cultures. Whether it’s their food, their fashion, or their fun, I love trying new things and learning what makes each culture unique. So, when I picked up The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu, and discovered it was a collection of short stories blending sci-fi and historical elements to tell tales of Chinese Americans; I was intrigued. I fell in love with short stories while reading Neil Gaiman’s books in middle school, and this collection seemed like a chance to combine these two interests. There’s something wonderful about the way short stories can soar over all the explanations and expositions that can clutter longer literature. There just isn’t enough time or space within a short story to fully explore each idea that arises, which means anything that is developed must be tightly wound to the theme and the message. This, along with their shorter length, has the consequence of making short stories a powerful medium for reflection. As a translator, the author, Ken Liu, has made his living learning how to bring American and Chinese culture together. By combining his understanding of both groups, and utilizing the medium of short stories to their full potential, Liu manages to craft a window into the world of Chinese American culture with fifteen powerful, moving short stories that are collected in The Paper Menagerie.
I won’t summarize every story that Ken Liu tells in The Paper Menagerie, but I will outline some of my favorites. In The Literomancer, we meet Lilly Dyer, who has just moved with her parents from Texas to Taiwan in 1961. There she meets Ch’en Chia-feng and his grandfather Kan Chen-hua. According to Ch’en, Kan Chen-hua is a literomancer who uses the ancient art of literomancy to divine someone’s fortune through the characters in their signature, and the Chinese characters the signature relates to. Whether Lilly believes literomancy is real or not, the literomancer Kan Chen-hua begins to unravel the sorrows in her past, and in doing so, he begins to share the sorrows of his own life. As Kan’s story inches closer to the present, Lilly worries that the shadows of his past may finally catch up to him.
Meanwhile in The Waves, we follow Maggie Chao as she travels in a colonial spaceship, The Seafoam, sent to populate the planet 61 Virginis. Partway into her 400 year voyage, Maggie and the rest of her ship receive a transmission from Earth detailing the secret of immortality. Unfortunately, The Seafoam does not have the resources to sustain an ever-growing population, or even the current population if no one ever ages. This leaves the crew with the impossible decision of deciding who should be immortal, because for each person who lives, someone else must die. This is only the beginning of Maggie’s story; however, as her tale stretches across time and space, she begins pondering the merits of change and asking what it means to be human.
Finally, of course, there is The Paper Menagerie, the tale after which the collection is named. This is a multigenerational story about a boy named Jack and his mother whose name we never learn. Jack’s mother was born and raised in China, and she lived there until she moved to America to marry Jack’s father. The most interesting thing about her, however, is the origami she learned from her village. After folding an animal, she can breathe her life in to it, causing the origami to animate. Jack’s mother uses this magic to connect with her son, creating a paper menagerie of origami animals for him. Unfortunately, she finds herself trapped at an impossible crossroads, as the magic and culture that she holds so dear are the very things that are driving Jack away from her.
All the stories in The Paper Menagerie collection have something to teach, but, as much a joy as learning is, it’s even better when it’s fun. I want to emphasize this aspect of the collection as well. While these stories are interesting from a cultural perspective, they are also wildly inventive and wickedly smart. Take, for example, The Literomancer, the narrative about magic unlocked with calligraphy and script. While one learns about the history of communism, Chinese language, and Chinese calligraphy, one also enjoys a story with interesting characters, drama, and action. In the same way, while the story The Paper Menagerie is busy teaching about origami, the issues of poverty in China, and what it’s like to grow up as a mixed child with two racially different parents, it’s also breaking hearts with the emotion of Jack and his mother.
When I first looked at The Paper Menagerie collection and saw all the praise this book was receiving, I knew that the stories were going to be good. And, as I’ve said, they are great! What I didn’t expect, however, was just how powerful they would be. As I read through these stories, I constantly had to stop. There was just so much to absorb and reflect on, and I couldn’t keep going till I had processed it. So, whether you’re looking for smart and unique stories, or moving and thoughtful literature, or if you’re just looking to learn about something new, The Paper Menagerie is the book for you. I can’t recommend this book enough.