From the Stacks is a new series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.
Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu was first published in 1998, then re-issued in 2012 by Kaya Press, which specializes in Asian Pacific Diasporas. This book fell into my lap at just the right time; my best friend, who worked with Liu at UC Irvine, mailed it to me. (Isn’t it always the surprise-gift books that seem so magical, so resonant?) Catherine Liu is a professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, and she’s published a number of books of theory. I haven’t read her theory, but when I looked into her work a bit more, I found that this book didn’t receive the rave reviews I would have imagined. It seems to have been a little before its time, though I could see Oriental Girls Desire Romance fitting right in as an Emily Books pick today. The novel is poetic and not very plot-driven, with long, meandering prose detailing the thoughts of a unnamed young woman in New York City in the 80s. Through flashbacks, we come to understand that she has graduated from an Ivy League school, traveled to China to teach at a university for one semester, and returned to NYC, where she then begins graduate school in French and takes a lot of classes on theory. She dates men—a series of short, difficult relationships—and has one relationship with a woman during her last year of undergrad; what’s interesting is how little Liu dwells on this lesbian relationship. While the protagonist often interrogates her identity as a woman and as a Chinese-American, she does not contemplate the question of her sexuality. It seems she just momentarily fell in love with a woman, had some great sex, and then had her heart ripped out when she realizes it’s over. I really appreciated this nonchalance toward what is, essentially, a bisexual character, or what we could call, in today’s terms, a queer novel.
Liu’s protagonist deals with questions of identity, often trying to figure out “how to be a woman.” Recalling a childhood memory of playing chess with her brother, the memory quickly melds into an astute metaphoric observation:
“I said again that I hated the game and he said I was stupid. He told me I was just like a girl.
I did feel stupid. I felt just like a girl, though I had tried so hard not to be stupid, not to be like a girl.
I once overhead two students who looked like football players talking in the streets of our college town. One of them said to his friend, so she says to me, just like a girl she says, oh come on, let me suck your dick. Can you believe that?
I walked around the months saying, thinking, come on, oh come on, let me suck your dick. I was trying so hard not to be just like a girl, but it wasn’t working. Being a girl seemed to be about being tricked into playing games you couldn’t win and then being called stupid for it. Being a girl meant that you could be misrepresented and misquoted by a man in order to enhance his reputation. I was determined to find a way of being a girl that would get everyone back for such gross injustice. […]
Being a girl was beginning to feel more and more dangerous.” (22-23)
The title of the novel is taken from a newspaper advertisement for mail-order brides, which leads Liu’s narrator to muse on what situation could make a young woman willing to marry an American man she has never met, and the role that economics plays in marriage. She dwells often on financial stability—trying on a few different jobs, including go-go dancing—yet always coming back around to question how one can be a successful woman in the world: Marriage? Intellectualism? Profiting off of one’s sexuality? Devotion to one’s art?
An interesting foil to the narrator’s dilemma are her two college friends, girls from wealthy families who have a supposed ease with casual sexual relationships that seems so pervasive in girls in their early twenties: “I was in awe of Honey Mee and Karen. They were so anti sentimental. They never seemed to confuse love with sex. Their eroticism was based on pure distance. They always seemed amused by the people they fucked. They met men and boys everywhere they went, they slept with them, and they left them painlessly. To me, they were like Jack Kerouac and his beat buddies; they seemed masterful. They fucked who they pleased. They seemed so unconfused. I couldn’t say, like these girls did, oh, I like them thick, I like them big, but I hate those thin long ones. I couldn’t say, oh, he was fine. I thought they had it all figured out about boys and sex. They talked cock, and rapt, I listened” (65). While Honey Mee and Karen demonstrate the sort of “ideal woman” our narrator yearns to become, it’s refreshing that she can’t seem to get there; instead, she has awkward encounters and failed relationships and isn’t quite sure how to find love—all of which is much more relatable than the detached, femme fatale Honey Mees of the world.
The narrator also grapples with her Chinese-born parents, her feelings about Communist China, her parents’ loyalty as Maoists, her desire to be a writer, her struggling academic career, and her feelings about second-wave feminism in the 80s:
“Feminism seemed to say that my suffering could be cured through political action—and so I threw myself into editing the feminist journal and attending meetings in that smelly, dirty place that was called the women’s center. While working there, I found myself increasingly irritated with the feminist take on women’s problems: eating disorders and sexual harassment were the universal obsessions. I thought it would be my personal mission to make feminism more sexy, practical, and fun; I thought that if we could throw some good dance parties, we could make the feminists lose their reputation for granola eating humorlessness, bringing about a kind of cultural revolution from within the movement itself. I was a believer, and I enthusiastically took on project after project; some succeeded, many did not. […] A feminist reeducation, I thought, would arm me against the world. It turned out to be just another way of buying time. Politics did not guide me through the traps of femininity laid in my path. I had a vague intuition that becoming a woman was going to be an impossible project” (58).
Liu’s narrator is smart, articulate, critical, and extremely hard of herself (and, hey, who’s not?):
“I often felt a metabolic need to write, but I didn’t know how to begin. There were so many things I had forgotten. There were so many things for which I had so little patience. I wondered if giving up my theory habit would suddenly free me to sell my words while they were barely formed. I wanted to make money and be rich, like the young, successful novelists I had gone to school with and about whom I was always reading in fancy magazines. I was racked with self-doubt. I thought that I must be stupid for being unable to cash in on the good times, on the money that publishers were lavishing on authors of bestsellers and bestsellers-to-be. I wrote and wrote and nothing sold; nothing was good enough to go to the market. I had an unhealthy relationship to language. I was dissolute, passive, lazy, indifferent, and sensual—an opium eater and a speed freak at the same time. I was a Chinese nightmare: for me, addiction was being” (344-345).
It’s easy to imagine that this novel may be based on some of Liu’s own experiences (having a PhD from CUNY, for example, where the protagonist begins grad school), and so it’s also inspiring to know that, well, Liu seems to have ended up with a brilliant career in the humanities. Everything for this unnamed protagonist will probably turn out well in the end: she’s smart, she takes risks, she’s introspective, she tries her best to understand herself and the people around her. She’s also insecure, scared, and struggling financially. In short, she is easy to see yourself in, easy to connect with, and likable. A reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly found Liu’s narrator’s “oddly self-pitying and arrogant voice fails to provoke sympathy, or even understanding,” and “the narrator’s self-absorption repeatedly dulls our interest,” which I wholeheartedly disagree with. But that’s why this book feels so timely right now. It’s a voice and structure that reminds me of Kate Zambreno’s books, or the straightforwardness of Eileen Myles’ Inferno mixed with the despondency of a Jean Rhys narrator. It’s no wonder Kathy Acker wrote a blurb for the book, calling it an “astute social and political commentary” that “illuminated histories through which I’ve lived.” I haven’t lived through half of what Liu’s protagonist has experienced, but the success of Liu’s writing is how close you get to feeling like you have.