“Who can say if the thoughts you have in your mind as you read these words are the same thoughts I had in my mind as I typed them? We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousness are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe.
And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.
Does the thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?
We live for such miracles.”
– Ken Liu, Preface to The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)
I just flipped the last page of this lovely (and at times disturbing) collection of magical realism/science fiction short stories featuring Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese narratives. The writing has a beautiful ability to make you feel comforting familiarity, revulsion, sadness, or intense curiosity–sometimes all at the same time. My friend Fernando gifted it to me for my birthday and told me he read the title story at a hike’s cliff-side resting point. He finished reading, burst into tears, and called his mother. Knowing this, I sat alone enjoying a bowl of Okinawan soba (white wheat noodles garnished with pork belly and pickled ginger) at Onna Soba waiting out the pounding rain and for my bus to take me back to Naha when I cracked open The Paper Menagerie. Between mouthfuls of soba I felt tears welling and then streaming down my face, my fellow diners furtively casting confused looks my way whilst I put down my book and dabbed my face with an already damp oshibori. I also called my mother later that night.
I love to read and it’s been a long time since a book has made me feel so much. Touching upon perspectives I grew up with or have come to know well: the image of a woman, a Chinese immigrant, a person in love, a child of an incredible mother, or a contributing citizen to Japanese society, I felt a deep affinity with Liu’s words and his considerations of good, evil, and mystical are both poignant and incisive. Reading these stories simultaneously took me outside myself and urged me to consider my own experience as an Asian American. This book review describes the feeling very well.
Ken Liu is also a living interpretation of a version of my own dream. He is amazingly expressive in two languages, professionally trained as a lawyer, and simultaneously pursuing a path as a dreamer/writer. I have come away from this book with a new source of inspiration and I am so grateful.
You can read The Paper Menagerie here. Please tell me what you think.
xo your friend alice
Location: Tokyo, Japan