"White Jade and Other Stories," Washington State University writer-in-residence Alex Kuo's newest collection of short fiction, tells of the anger, humor, irony and confusion you feel when you come from two worlds, neither of which really accepts you.
Alex Kuo’s newest collection of short fiction consists of seven stories and one novella. Although very different in time, place and content, each piece in “White Jade and Other Stories” (Wordcraft of Oregon, 188 pp., $13.95) contains Kuo’s signature theme, which is best expressed by the narrator of “White Jade”: “Ah, that magic of words that connect and separate us!”
For Kuo, writer-in-residence at Washington State University, language is always political. As an Asian-American writer, Kuo has spent a career writing and living in China and the American West. The tension in his fiction is the anger, humor, irony and confusion you feel when you come from two worlds, neither of which really accepts you.
Two stories, the quietly sardonic “10,000 Dildoes,” and the suspenseful “Regrets Only,” confront this situation head-on.
In the first, Li Fangzhi, a Chinese research scientist, spends his days in limbo in the Southwestern American desert. As he puts it: “So what can a recent immigrant and political dissident of Tiananmen Square do in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the middle of the George Bush I presidency?” Turns out, not much.
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When Li receives a mysterious shipment of defective sexual aids from Shanghai, he begins to see a way out of his political dilemma.
“Regrets Only” takes its plot from a real-life international incident that happened in the early days of George W. Bush’s first administration: the grounding of a U.S. spy plane in China. Written like a straight-ahead news story, “Regrets Only” deftly shows what being Chinese American can mean when you are a pawn in a show of geopolitical gamesmanship.
“Subsistence,” a story about a cash-strapped mathematics instructor and some weekend hunters in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, is as dark as it gets. Here there is no illusion about being caught in the middle — there is only survival or death.
The companion stories “Chink Food” and “The Rockets’ Red Glare” introduce us to two good friends from Pendleton, Ore., with limited options. Junior has just been discharged from the Army, right before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Moon is back at his dad’s restaurant, the Golden Dragon, on break from college. Kuo focuses on the easy give and take of their relationship and their yearnings for a new life, tempered by a love of where they grew up.
“Free Kick,” a kind of shaggy-dog story, and “The Lunch,” a slight tale of generational squabbling, are the only dead wood in this collection.
Which brings us to Kuo’s novella, “White Jade,” a recounting of a tumultuous time in the history of China — the 1920s to the 1950s — told by Katherine Ling, a departed spirit. The narrator states she is relating the autobiography of her novelist son, who “… is a good writer, mind you, with prestigious awards and grants and all the rest of good table manners. So he is capable of writing his own autobiography. But he does not do autobiography.”
It’s a nice joke on Kuo by Kuo, and one that allows him to shift out of the third person and bring out other facets of his talent as a writer — a gift for setting down the facts of daily living within an ever-changing political climate, in this case, a conflict that will affect “the lives of close to one billion people.”
“White Jade” traces Katherine’s life as a schoolgirl in the suburb of Tai Chung outside of Shanghai through her university years and later, her marriage to a celebrated medical researcher and their life together. It is a life that moves from East to West, then back again to China.
It is a life as scary, quiet, funny and puzzling as yours and mine, and Kuo tells it with the steady gaze of a poet and with great empathy.
Richard Wallace is the interpretive programs coordinator for The Museum of Flight.