Listening to an interview with Amy Tan, for the Guardian book club, I was struck by the fact that she lifted many of the stories from her mother’s life for the pages of her work.
Yet, while reading Lives of the Family, it is easy to imagine so many of these stories slipping into the stuff-of-novels. (FWIW, Amy Tan’s mother was reportedly not only complimentary but grateful.)
And even for those readers who might normally gravitate towards fiction rather than non-fiction, Denise Chong’s narrative style pulls readers into these stories, steadily and determinedly.
At first, it might seem like a lot to absorb, only a single chapter to acquaint a reader with a single story. But this is a deliberate choice and very quickly there are patterns and interconnections which knit the varied experiences together for the reader.
“I honed in on the lone Chinese family and their restaurant in a Canadian town as a way to convey the immigrant experience. Behind that sign on the business, and in the rooms behind or the apartment above, the everyday life of the family would test their ability to adapt.”
The period during which lives were most affected was between 1923 until 1962.
In 1923, Canada replaced the head tax with the Chinese Immigration Act, aka The Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration. This meant that ‘bachelors could not bring wives and children to Canada and residents couldn’t become naturalized. Whether a Chinese person was Canadian-born or had immigrated, s/he was labelled ‘alien’.
This policy persisted until 1962, when new immigration regulations expanded the categories of admissible Asians (followed by more changes in 1967 which eliminated the official policy of discrimination with respect to immigration.
There policies might be difficult to comprehend for those who do have personal experience of them, difficult to grasp across time and space perhaps. But within the context of the stories in this volume, these policies take shape and the individual lives affected by them stretch beyond the page.
In some ways, these are age-old tales. “Each of the families in these pages is emblematic of the migrant in the immigrant on the move not only from their homeland to a new land, but from their past toward an uncertain future. Taken together, their stories travel the arc of that adjustment.”
Particularly in the world of Canlit, stories of such adjustments abound. From Dionne Brand’s In Another Place Not Here to Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms, from Aga Maksimowska’s Giant to Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts: this arc can fill the pages of fiction as well as non-fiction.
“One can imagine, for a moment, the process of immigration as similar to passage through a sieve that separates two worlds, the homeland from the new world. The family begins with the weight of yearning for a better life and hopes to be left with the essential attributes of success.”
But there are also details, within these familiar themes, which allow individual stories to resonate with readers’ senses. Sometimes, for instance, details of fabric and fashion stand out.
“Fay-oi Lim, resigned to her limited choices, selected a white jacket, made of taffeta and trimmed in gold thread, and a long black skirt. Another hand-me-down. Not in the sense of faded colours, frayed edges or telltale adjusted hemlines, but rather of formal wear long out of style. Certainly not something seen in the hallways at school. At least it fit.”
“The boy’s friends had already claimed a table near the dance floor and stage. Suddenly, Marion understood why her date was so miserable; the two other girls in their party were in knee-length skirts and twin sweater sets.
Marion and her date sat in stony silence.”
“Throughout the year, they set aside gently used clothing for Mr. Ling to take home – once, a fur coat. As Sarah did with every item of clothing, she took apart the coat at the seams in order to get maximum use of the material, to re-make it into something else.”
Passing through the sieve, there are many shared experiences. Whether in a small-town or the capital of Canada, there are many similarities in these families’ experiences.
“More than that, all the pairs of hands shuffling the tiles, reaching for them, stacking them, and then starting anew, was not just comforting, but like a kind of life force. Lai-sim already had in mind a name for the mothers who could come together over a mahjong date: the sisterhood.”
One of the common difficulties was the difficulty (sometimes impossibility) of communicating with and about family members lost or left behind in China.
Even when presenting almost overwhelmingly sad stories, Denise Chong presents her material with delicacy – and, often, beauty – so that readers are left with a sense of promise.
“She said she had a son who went to school in the district market town. In such towns, which could serve as many as thirty satellite villages, stray bits of information about lost family members eventually found a nesting spot, in the way that swirling leaves settle into a pile.”
When people do reconnect, when the lives of the families in this work intersect, there is a sense of a collective sigh, and readers are included in that swell of emotion. It is truly a pleasure to read of the updates to the families’ stories in the epilogue, even though it is disappointing that the book is barely 200 pages long.
“The tales in these pages of the immigrant’s life are a tribute to life lived in the middle – finding one’s bearings while longing for home, remaking one’s future while wrestling with memory.”
But wishing that there had been room for more memories is a solid testament to Denise Chong’s stortelling: Lives of the Family is definitely a worthwhile read.