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