Friday, 12 February 2016

Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong


As a memoir, this is fine. It did, however, spark me to sit down and have a conversation with my husband about memoirs and why I generally find them so unsatisfying. There are a few that I think justify the genre, but then there's a lot that just make me shrug my shoulders and not care very much. 

I know it's strange, as I'm getting close to finishing my Ph.D. in history, but I think perhaps that it's because memoir occupies a strange space between two things I love, and because it doesn't really keep the best parts of either, it's dissatisfying. Most memoirs don't have the invention and ability to bring out themes that fiction does, and very few are beautifully written. And yet they lack the roughness of a primary source, the pages and pages you have to read through to get a complete picture. 

So it's not this book. It's that memoirs aren't really my thing. (Well, it is also that this is a memoir written by a 25-year-old, and any time that happens, there's a whole lot of raising of eyebrows. Seriously? At 25? For goodness sake, you've barely lived yet, let alone had the time to sort through your experiences from some remove.)

Fifth Chinese Daughter is written well enough, which is to say that the prose isn't terrible. It's not fantastic either, but it's as serviceable as much of what I read. There's a little niggling voice in the back of my head that tells me that maybe this was published for the exoticism market. Not that that's what the author's trying to do, but it feels like it's what the publisher might have been after.

The inner world of Chinese-Americans in 1930s and 40s! How different! How strange! How exotic! I mean, good on the author for getting published, but again, a memoir at 25? I just keep circling back to it, wondering why this was published, and that market is virtually the only reason I can come up with.

Because the memoir itself is not that exciting. She has some clashes with her parents, but they're not that large. There are times she feels misunderstood, but most people like her and help her and her way through college is made clear by friendly administrators at a women's college, and there's just so little conflict. 

It's a very paced walk through her life, little drama, and although it's well enough written, it really doesn't hold the attention. (Which brings me back around to "at 25? A memoir?")

Jade Snow Wong grows up as the fifth daughter in a family of nine children in San Francisco. Her father runs a small clothing company. He values education, even for his daughters. Jade Snow goes to school. She gets given more responsibility around the home. She learns to question her parents and to try to find some middle ground between Chinese and American philosophies. She wants to go to college. She works, mostly for very nice people, to finance it. She gets a scholarship. She discovers pottery and the joy of working with your hands.

It's all the sort of thing that might denote a good life, it's just not that exciting a book. Books aren't life, and real life is not always that interesting. There's a difference between writing fiction in such a way that it feels real, and writing it down, just as it happened. 

If you like memoirs more than I do, though, you might enjoy this? I'm not sure.

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