‘How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?’ by Doretta Lau

How does a single blade coverReviewed by Will J. Fawley

Doretta Lau is making a name for herself as a journalist, fiction writer, and poet. If you haven’t heard of her, you will soon, because her debut collection stands up to the work of some of today’s most successful writers. Lau combines the satirical wit and humour of Gary Shteyngart, the imagination of Karen Russell, and the artistic brilliance and freedom of Ali Smith, to launch her global perspective and honest portrayal of the modern world and its inhabitants.

The collection opens with “God Damn, How Real Is This?” a story about something called Communicative Time Travel, which allows people to communicate with their future selves. This mostly involves people receiving warnings and snide remarks from their future selves via text message. This story reminded me of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, but with a Lau twist that is unmistakably hers. The story is engaging and honest, especially at its funniest moments. Here’s one of the many humorous excerpts:

Two months ago, Wilson’s future self went silent. No texts or email. He concluded that his future self was dead, so his motto became carpe diem. He made a bucket list, which included things such as climb Mount Everest, learn Japanese and eat yogurt for the first time ever. Everest was a bust (summit, avalanche) and he’s lactose intolerant. I suspect this list could be the reason for his early demise, but I haven’t said anything because I don’t want to be a killjoy.

This technology-focused story is followed by another speculative story, “Two-Part Invention,” which is about a woman who decides to date dead guys. There’s no explanation of how dating a corpse or ghost works, or any implication that it is strange, which gives the story a magical realist quality. It opens with a simple, effective hook, “The neighbours who live in the apartment above mine are having loud sex.” Who wouldn’t want to keep reading?

Though Lau’s beginnings are strong, the endings of these stories sometimes feel a bit forced, or too easy. But the stories themselves are such perfect views into a life and a culture, and the language is so beautiful and the stories so unique, I became indifferent to these shortcomings.

After the first two stories, the speculative themes fade out of Lau’s fiction, and they become more realistic pieces about a diverse cast of Asian Canadians. At first this shift disappointed me, because I loved her imaginative stories—they were what initially drew me to her writing. But Lau’s brilliant prose and honest perspective into an unfamiliar world kept me reading.

“Rerun” is a more realistic story about an actress who is trying to figure out her place in her real-life family, and her on-screen pretend family. A pivotal moment is when the main character’s mother marries her fiancée and travels the world with him in a reality show where they go “all the places they always wanted to see but couldn’t because of their children.” These passing references to our media culture and digs at her characters are classic Lau. The reality show is strange, painful, and surreal, bringing back the otherworldly quality of some of the more speculative stories.

The theme of film and image is strong throughout the collection as well, something that complements Lau’s visual aesthetic. In “Writing in Light,” a screenwriter/photographer in NY is told by her professor, “writing and photography were the most similar of all the arts.”

In the same story, Lau writes, “photography is derived from a Greek word that translates to writing in light… I concluded that every art form was a way of telling a story—a record of a particular moment in time—even in cases where there was no discernible narrative.” This is exactly what a short story is. A record of a particular moment in time. Lau’s work possesses a sense of itself that is not overtly meta, but decidedly self-aware.

“Robot by the River” is another realistic story about a young woman learning to be alone in Vancouver while her boyfriend is away for school in London. This story is only twelve pages long, but spans a period of months effortlessly in a way that evokes Alice Munro’s ability to capture an entire life in the space of a short story—effectively recording a particular moment in time.

As I read on, my disappointment at the shift to realism became an understanding of what Lau was really getting at. The opening stories are a hook, much like the opening of “Two Part Intervention.” They pull you in, these wild, provocative ideas, and then Lau opens her heart and introduces you to her real story. Once the conceits of the first two stories are abandoned, it’s easier to see Lau’s subject raw and centre-stage.

These are stories about Asian Canadians: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, living their daily lives. Usually their race doesn’t drive the story, but sometimes it is brought into focus, like in “Little Miss International Goodwill,” which opens, “More than anything in the world, eight-year-old Clementine Wong wanted to be blonde when she grew up.” But she also wants to be a real Chinese girl like her sister. “She tried very hard to hold her chopsticks correctly so her parents would love her as much as they loved Constance.”

Though the stories in this collection aren’t all set in BC, they often centre around Vancouver’s Chinatown. The stories focus on the lives of a displaced Asian population dispersed across Canada and the world as they struggle to find their place in the cracks between cultures.

A little over halfway into the book, Lau brings us back to the absurdity of the opening stories. “O, Woe Is Me” is about a Japanese football star who breaks his leg in an accident that kills his high school girlfriend. He loses a scholarship and ends up working a boardwalk freak show called “whoop the freak,” where people pay five dollars to shoot and slingshot rotten fruit at him. Competitive eating also plays a role in this story, and these two over-the-top elements remind us of the book’s imaginative, delightfully bizarre beginning.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the quality of absurdity never completely vanishes from Lau’s collection—it’s simply dispersed throughout the stories, sometimes emerging as a bizarre carnival game, a surreal reality show, a sense of alienation, or an indescribable feeling that can’t be shaken off.

These feelings of otherness largely stem from the sense of displacement which echoes through Lau’s stories, giving readers a glimpse into her world. And that world is a place I wanted to stay, a place full of interesting characters, big ideas, emotions, and humour. All of these elements are blended together seamlessly by an engaging new literary voice that invites the reader to follow each character, whether theirs is a journey through time, or just across the street.


Nightwood | 120 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0889712935

Be Sociable, Share!
MORE >

Articles

Interviews

New Work

  • A Poem by Brenda Schmidt

    A Mining Town View of a Hot Holiday

    A jet burns across the sunrise,
    takes a shortcut across the north,

    heading to Hawaii, Puerto Vallarta,
    Bora Bora, or wherever people go,

    its electrical wiring harness
    controlling futures just so.

    Between my fingers the contrail
    is not much longer than the scar

    a splash of molten slag left
    on the arm that supports me.

Excerpts

  • from 'The November Optimist' by David Zieroth

    I saw you on the bus, on the 239 going up Lonsdale while I was walking down. That street is either up or down and never level, and always someone is going the direction I am not. I hadn’t thought of you as a bus rider but someone in a sporty foreign car. I wanted to wave to you. I wanted to free you from the reverie of the bus rider who gazes out as the world flows past in the reflected moody face in the window. MORE >

Book Reviews

  • ‘By The Book,’ by Diane Schoemperlen

    By the Book coverReviewed by Jason Marcus-Freeman

    Simply put, Diane Schoemperlen’s By The Book is an odd duck. Subtitled “Stories and Pictures,” By The Book stretches the boundaries of both terms, perhaps to their breaking points. Even making the simple distinction of fiction or non-fiction is difficult. Or is it poetry? An art book, maybe? MORE >

  • ‘The View from the Lane’ by Deborah-Anne Tunney

    The View from the Lane coverReviewed by Donna Janke

    The picture on the cover of The View from the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney shows tire tracks in a snow-covered lane leading to a large, old house. It is night time and a street light illuminates the entrance to the yard. Even in darkness, the house feels welcoming. One can imagine it teeming with life in the daytime, full of tales of everyday life like those contained in this debut book of connected short stories. MORE >

  • ‘How To Breathe Underwater: Field Reports From an Age of Radical Change’ by Chris Turner

    How to Breathe Underwater coverReviewed by Tim Runtz

    When a young Chris Turner flew to the Caribbean on his first major assignment out of journalism school, it’s not entirely surprising that the resulting dispatch channeled the voice of David Foster Wallace. After all, what writer, “terrified, beyond clueless,” and cutting his feature-writing teeth in a foreign country, wouldn’t err on the side of imitation? MORE >

  • ‘Between Clay and Dust’ by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

    Between Clay and Dust coverReviewed by Amy Attas

    Between Clay and Dust is a story about pride. It is a story about the young and old failing to communicate, and failing to capitalize on each other’s strengths. MORE >

  • ‘Gina French is Not a Waste of Roofies’ by C.J. Anderson

    Gina French coverReviewed by Ian Goodwillie (originally posted Nov. 20, 2014)

    The old school cliché says “don’t judge a book by its cover.” While the core lesson is correct, anyone who has worked in a bookstore or library knows that people do just that every day. MORE >

  • ‘Gifts for the One Who Comes After’ by Helen Marshall

    Gifts for the One coverReviewed by Keith Cadieux

    The acknowledgements page of Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After reads like a who’s-who of contemporary genre authors and editors. Among her colleagues, friends, and early readers she counts Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Ellen Datlow, Michael Kelly, Stephen Graham Jones, Simon Stranzas and a great many others. MORE >

  • Subscribe2