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)