The fascinating American writer May-lee Chai, one of my most treasured Twitter-friends, has recently published a Young Adult novel, called Dragon Chica, about the the experience of a Cambodian-Chinese family settling into small-town America.
It so happens that I am at the moment working on my own book about Cambodia, so I was doubly fascinated to read Dragon Chica. And I was not disappointed. Based on a brief experience in her own life, when as a youngster she met an exotic family of Cambodian-Chinese running a restaurant in a rural district of America, May-lee Chai has been working on Dragon Chica for the best part of 10 years, and the care and time taken seems definitely to have paid off. It is a beautifuly nuanced work of enormous appeal, not just to its intended Young Adult audience, but to anyone interested in the themes of race, belonging and the mysterious dynamics of family. It is also an exploration of outsider-ship, that meta-theme of all young adult fiction. And while specifically (and masterfully) dealing with questions of racism and ethnic identity, it is ultimately much more universal in its story. It is about the great pain and torment of all adult awakening: the struggles with sexual identity, the search for a more strongly (and separately) identified self and the enormous resentment at family strictures and eccentricities. One of the themes that spoke strongly to me as someone who grew up in a regional area (as did May-lee Chai) was the fury at being isolated at a point in life when experience and glamour seem to be the very most important elements of existence. The dullness of a provincial teenage existence and the constant thwarting of adolescent fantasy are brought to life in the pages of Dragon Chica in a way that brought constant smiles of recognition (and occasional pangs of long-forgotten angst) to my reading face.
The characters are rich and complex in a way that would be enormously attractive to a YA reader. What it also does, with great sophistication and lightness of touch, is bring to life the rich, complex and shifting cultures of the Chinese diaspora, and the special (and harrowing) historical circumstances of the Cambodian-Chinese in particular. There is a magic in Chai's treatment of legend, folklore and superstition, and the characters - especially the older ones- occasionally lapse into a kind of dream-world of memory that is at turns whimsical and harrowing. There is, too, an exquisite and subtly-played symbolism to these stories, as when the hapless Uncle, the family's struggling patriarch, reflects on his experience of the Buddhist tradition of releasing caged birds to cultivate merit. He recalls his wife's words in the face of his scepticism about the project:
"Maybe they like to fly in the air for a day? Even if they return at night, how do you know they don't enjoy their freedom durng the day?"
All this in the context of his own horribly caged existence, limited, ironically, by that same wife's tenuous grasp on reality and her inability to overcome the tragedy of her past.
Of course, mine is a particularly adult reading, one especially intererested in the nuances of remembering and the play of culture and tradition in the narrative. I mustn't ignore the main part of the book, which is the journey of the lovely Sourdi, the big sister charged with caring not just for her siblings but for her impossible mother; and the novel's true heroine, the gutsy and terribly real teenaged girl Nea, who isn't even that interested any more in any identity that isn't her own. It is Nea's growth into adulthood that is the novel's central story.
Chai's intention with this book seems to have been an ambitious one, describing the tensions of race and identity that are a unique part of multicultural societies - tensions which are not necessarily resolved till several generations have passed, and which are frequently played out, as in Dragon Chica, among the more aware and more socially equipped generation of migrant's children. The ambition has, in my opinion, been rewarded. Dragon Chica is a beautifully written, clever and perfectly crafted novel, one that succeeds at every level without ever falling into the embarrassing and cringe-making didacticism that can frequently plague the "issues" novel, particularly one directed at young people. Chai speaks perfectly to her young readers, trusting in their intelligence, their sensitivity and their great desire for subtlety.
For me the most intriguing character was the tragic, scarred and monstrously selfish Auntie. She is almost an archetype, and a figure that is easy to recognise if anyone has had anything to do with migrant families. Auntie's is the life that is lived on the knife-edge of tragedy; she is the one who bears the pain of exile, lost forever in the old stories the others can't afford to recall. Neurotic, spiteful and attention-seeking, Auntie is both the family's matriarch and its ultimate betrayer. She uses her health and her fragility to manipulate those around her:
"She insisted that we take her back to the house even though it was a busy night...she had to go home immediately. She couldn't wait . She'd forgottten her medicine. There was no telling what would happen if she delayed."
It is May-lee Chai's genius that she delivers such a familiar figure so sensitively and, I should add, with a wonderful dose of mystery and intrigue that has the reader guessing right to the very end. The author's sympathy for the outsider is palpable, and allows each of the characters to be fully human in their greater or or lesser alienation.
I adored this book, and would recommend it to any young person, particularly those with an interest in Asia and the Asian immigrant experience. May-lee Chai deserves to be better known in Australia, and Dragon Chica is the kind of book that almost any young Australian could indentify with.