I just read E. V. Slate’s “Purple Bamboo Park,” intending to move through the 2009 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories in order. However, since Slate’s story focuses on a Chinese setting and characters, I decided to skip over and read Ha Jin’s story “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” for I know his work, and I thought it was interesting to find two Chinese stories in this year’s volume.
I tell you up front that I have never been impressed with Ha Jin’s fiction. I have read most of his short stories, and Lord help me, I even read his monstrously big novel, A Free Life, because The San Francisco Chronicle asked me to review it. I thought it was clumsy and clichéd.
I realize that Jin is writing in a second language, but as I hinted in my discussion of Aleksandar Hemon, I don’t find that sufficient to excuse poor prose and simplistic stories. I just don’t think that Hemon and Jin are in the same literary universe as Conrad and Nabokov.
“The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” is, in my opinion, another simplistic Ha Jin piece. He says in the author’s notes that he used to go to Flushing, New York to observe people in an immigrant community so he could write about them, taking notes of peculiar things he saw. He says he was fascinated by how immigrants survived and he wanted to write about the work they did. So he came up with a male character who worked in a sweatshop and who lived in a house of prostitutes and drove a car for them. Combining prostitution and the sweatshop would make his story “more interesting,” he thought. But he found the writing a struggle, for he did not know much about prostitution and sweatshops, and at times he doubted whether there was even a story in the material. But that did not stop him. “Gradually, as I kept writing and revising, the story took shape.” Oh, by the way, he also planted the cherry tree in front of the house.
Someone out there, please, please tell me what makes this one of the ”Best Stories of the Year.” It is a simplistic, predictable boy-meets girl-story. The fact that the boy works in a sweatshop and the girl is a Chinese prostitute in an immigrant community does not, in my opinion, make it any more than that. And the simplicity of the central POV character does not excuse such language as: “Her words made my heart leap.” Great joy welled in my heart.” “My heart sagged as I lay back in the seat to take a nap.” A very busy heart indeed!
Now back to E.V. Slate’s “Purple Bamboo Park.” Who is E. V. Slate? you might ask. The notes at the back of PEN/O. Henry reveal that Slate’s stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2005, Crazyhorse, and The New England Review. Slate lives in Singapore “and has spent time in San Francisco, Beijing, and Mumbai.” If you Google E. V. Slate, you come up with two entries, that identify her as female who lived in Cambridge, MA in 2006 and won the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. If you start poking around on the Net, you find out that E.V. Slate is a pseudonym for Olette Trouve and that she received her B.S. in biology from University of San Francisco and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2003. And guess what? Ha Jin, who got his M.A. in Creative writing at BU, became a full professor three in 2002. So, did Olette Trouve, aka E.V. Slate, study under Ha Jin in her final year at BU? I don’t know. Does her story show a Ha Jin influence? Maybe, maybe not.
The central character in the story is given no name, but is referred to only as Ayi, a name for a Chinese maid. The voice of the narrator--third person that reflects the simplicity of the central character. The POV and the central character are very similar to James Joyce’s “Clay.” Here is a description from Joyce’s story: “Maria was a very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin.” Here is a description from Slate's story: “Ayi was small, a small and stout ay. Her eyes were very close together and when she wore her spectacles she knew she looked like a pig (in spectacles).”
Ayi is older than Joyce's Maria, but she is similarly alone and similarly yearns to be a part of a family. She fancies that the family she works for—referred to as Wife, Husband, Baby—treat her like their own mother, but this is more wistfulness than reality. She is particularly drawn to the husband, who she likes to think of as her son, for her own son died as a child.
The story comes to a climax when Ayi fears that the wife wants her husband to dismiss her. In her desperation, she tells the husband that the wife wants her gone because she saw her with another man.
The resulting crisis is a tragic one, but Slate treats it almost comically. The family is in a pedal boat at a park, the Wife and Husband up front, Ayi and Baby in the back. When Husband tells Wife what Ayi has said, Wife turns around and slaps her, “and Baby, who was standing with one foot on the backseat and one on the side of the boat, caught the carom of the slap and tumbled out of the boat bottom first.”
The tragicomic crisis is very similar to the climax of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” when the grandmother causes the car accident.
Baby is rescued, but Husband, who “sat in a cushioned office chair all day long and liked to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch," dies. "He also had his shoes on, of course. Ayi watched the gray soles disappear in the water.” In the last line of the story, Ayi looks into the water where the Husband went down, “but she could only see her own reflection—a drowning pig in spectacles—and she clawed and clawed the water until the image disappeared.”
I like this story, but maybe part of that is because I hear the echoes of the Joyce story and the Flannery O’Connor story. There is also a subtext that interests me. When she was young, Ayi was a member of the students who took part in Mao’s cultural revolution, “one of the last who had arrived at the commune in 1969, waving their flags and little Red Books.” When Wife slaps her in the boat, she recalls the “boards and sticks she and her classmates had used to beat their teachers” as well as other acts of violence from her past, in which she was either on the inflicting or the receiving end. Beneath the seeming simplicity of the central character and this tragicomic domestic relationship, there seems to simmer a culture of brutality, at least from E. V. Slate's point of view.
I would appreciate hearing from any of you who have read these two stories.