Back from a thought-provoking trip to China, I was more than happy to read Miah, Julia Lin’s first collection of short stories. The title means fate, and the characters are Taiwanese, who, like many Asians, suffered for years under the dominance of both China and Japan. Most of us are latecomers to the story brought to life by many of Lin’s characters. Long before Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, Taiwan had to cope with the savagery of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party and of imperial Japan in the Second World War. These provide the context for much of the suffering of the Taiwanese family whose members narrate much of this book. Apart from history, the power of fate grips the imaginations of Lin’s characters. Predetermined destiny is an unfamiliar concept to most westerners, but it’s the theme of this collection. Faced with crushing oppression, these people find it as a good an explanation as any. For those who leave Taiwan for Canada, fate becomes an internal demon to battle — and seldom to defeat.
Through several linked stories, the author adds unexpected dimensions to characters we thought we knew, and these shifts in vantage-point enrich the whole. In “Miah,”, Mei-Xing, an immigrant to Vancouver who speaks halting English, is about to go to Taiwan with her grown daughter Tracy (the narrator) for her mother’s funeral, one which stirs up distressing memories of her own brother (Ah-Bing) who died a horrible death. We meet Mei-Xing again in the second story (“Ah-Ging”) as a young woman, friend of her niece and witness to her anguished love affair, and we realize the terrible suffering that lies hidden behind her monosyllabic English in the first story. Likewise, her daughter Tracy, a mature woman, shows up later as a bratty fourteen year-old in “White Skin,” in which we learn that the now-dead grandmother Ah-Hong emigrated to Canada and then returned to Taiwan, unable to adapt to cultural differences (including two generations of disrespectful children). Her experience startles us; we’ve already met Ah-Hong in an earlier story (“Departure”), as an elderly lady in Taiwan before we learn that she’d once crossed the ocean to challenge her fate. By re-introducing various characters in this way, the author prods us to realize that human beings are far more complex than they appear.
To my mind, most of the stories set in Vancouver are less successful than those rooted in Taiwan. In part, this has to do with the contrast between a relatively benign Canadian society and the extreme gravity of the political crises in East Asia. Lin’s good people, up against cruel, unmoveable power in Taiwan, create dramatic tension and great empathy in the reader. Yet as serious as they are, the current troubles facing immigrants to Canada — racism, bullying, loneliness — arise in a context where fate does not determine their outcome, where hope is a possibility. For this reason, the reader begins to question the frequent tragic outcomes and sense of hopelessness that plague these characters. It’s disconcerting that one can often predict how these stories might end.
Nonetheless, Julia Lin has a rich vein of literary ore to mine as she gives expression to Taiwanese voices with both compassion and restraint. We stand to gain much insight from these stories and from her future work.
Miah by Julia Lin was published in Toronto in 2012 by Tsar Publications.