The Outlaw Life

running, reading, blogging, loving

January Short Story: “Paper Menagerie”

origami animals

I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring. ‘Zhe jiao zhèzhi,’ Mom said. This is called origami. I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

If you guys will recall, one of my goals for reading in 2013 is to read more short fiction – I’m beginning to write more and more short fiction, and I love the beauty that tends to hide in so many short treasures, so I’m looking forward to exploring more than just the short stories I read in high school. I also want to read more globally. So, imagine my UTTER DELIGHT when Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness over at Books on the Nightstand decided to declare 2013 their year of the short story as well! Part of their short story project involves featuring a different short story every month, and the story for January is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (which, my lucky dears, can also read online here, which I of course recommend you go do IMMEDIATELY!)

“The Paper Menagerie” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2011 and is the first work of any length to have ever won all three major science fiction awards – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. It’s a novel about imagination and friendship, about American culture and Chinese culture, about the way kids relate to their parents and the way that, as we age, our current self relates to all our former selves. I will admit, the first time I read through the story I didn’t really pick up on the science fiction/fantasy aspects of this story (bonus, for those of you who might find the genre titles a little off-putting) and it read to me much more like Marquez, or any of the other Latin-American magical realists. But I’m not sure that it’s easy to draw the line between when ‘magical realism’ ends and ‘fantasy’ starts, and furthermore, I don’t think it’s the fantasy parts of this story that give it the take-away. I think it’s the very-much-so real and human parts that pulled me back to this story for multiple readings.

Every once in a while I would see her at the kitchen table studying the plain side of a sheet of wrapping paper. Later, a new paper animal would appear on my nightstand and try to cuddle up with me. I caught them, squeezed them until the air went out of them, and then stuffed them away in the box in the attic.

Which of us, at one time or another, hasn’t thought that our parent’s didn’t understand us, and if only the could or would see things our way, then they would finally ‘get it’ and things will be better. I find this dynamic so much more pronounced in cross-cultural or multi-generational immigrant stories, and I think that the pull of that here in Ken’s story really just pops off the page. By the time we get to the end of the story, we, along with the narrator, see what true magic Mom possessed, and what kind of story it take to bring a Chinese woman to a Connecticut suburb. The story plays really well the concept of language, and whether or not the language you can speak with your lips is a vital or as necessary as the one you speak with your heart. I walked away from the first reading of the story feeling profoundly sad, but profoundly grateful that I feel I understand my parents, and they understand me, pretty damn well. Still, I had to wonder – what don’t I know about them, and what may I not know for a very long time?

Rating: OMFGZ!

PS: Wanting more Ken Liu (I know I was after I finished!)? Try “The Illusionist”, “Memories of my Mother”, or “The Box that Eats Memories”

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