Bone (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The children of immigrants have often been called upon to translate for their parents. Their ability to switch from the language of their parents to the English of their birthplace makes them the bridge between the customs of the old world and the expectations and demands of the new. Not only are these children faced with a generation gap, but they must also cope with a cultural gap. This enormous responsibility can become an overwhelming burden. In Fae Myenne Ng’s first novel, Bone, the narrator Lei, the “First Girl,” and her younger sister Nina, the “End Girl,” confront this burden over a dinner conversation.
Nina’s voice went soft. “Look, you’ve always been on standby for them. Waiting and doing things their way. Think about it, they have no idea what our lives are about. They don’t want to come into our worlds. We keep on having to live in their world. They won’t move one bit.”
She looked straight at me. “I know about it too. I helped fill out those forms at the Chinatown employment agencies; I went to the Seaman’s Union too; I listened and hoped for those calls: ’Busboy! Presser! Prep man!’ And I know about should. I know about have to. We should. We want to do more, we want to do everything. But I’ve learned this: I can’t.”
Nina’s inability to shoulder this burden of translation has caused her to move to New York, far away from San Francisco’s...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The children of immigrants have often been called upon to translate for their parents. Their ability to switch from the language of their parents to the language of their birthplace makes them the bridge between the customs of the old world and the expectations and demands of the new. Not only are these children faced with a generation gap, but also they must cope with a cultural gap. This enormous responsibility can become an overwhelming burden. Fae Myenne Ng’s first novel, Bone, confronts and explores this responsibility and burden. Ng, who grew up in San Francisco, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants and in an interview explained the title of her novel: “Bone is what lasts. And I wanted to honor the quality of endurance in the immigrant spirit.”
Bone relates the story of the Leong family, which has recently suffered the death by suicide of the “Middle Girl,” Ona. Ona committed suicide by jumping off one of Chinatown’s housing projects. She left no note, and although the police reported that she was on downers, there was no apparent cause for the suicide.
The novel is narrated by “The First Girl,” Leila Fu Louie, Ona’s half sister and the eldest daughter in the Leong family. Lei’s attempts to come to terms with her sister’s death, and thereby her own life, lead her to muse about incidents from their childhood and the everyday circumstances of the present. The story unfolds in a series of...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone continues in a tradition of Asian American novels and memoirs by women that includes Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), and Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World (1989). These works, of necessity, mediate between demands of gender and ethnicity. Asian American writers first gained prominence in the mainstream of American literature in the 1970’s. Writing from a strongly patriarchal cultural heritage, Asian American women novelists have had to create new strategies and invent new plots in order to express the paradox of resistance to and affirmation of that cultural heritage.
One of the strategies employed to lessen the masculinist impact has been the diminishment of the power of the father within the family structure. Fathers are often absent, whether through death or abandonment or from the necessity of employment, as with Leon in Bone. Also, as immigrants, the fathers have been disempowered by their lack of status and success in the new country. The task for the daughters of such fathers is to make some kind of accommodation in their lives in contemporary American society for the traditions and histories of their families.
Each of the three daughters in the Leong family approaches this accommodation in her own way: Ona jumps out a window, Nina carves out a life for herself as far away from the...
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Most of the events in Bone take place in a relatively small area of San Francisco known as "Chinatown," an area built and inhabited primarily by Chinese immigrants and their descendants. In Bone, Chinatown is a world apart, not only because of physical boundaries marked by streets and parks, but it is distinguished by a culture with distinct differences from surrounding communities. Ng brings to life this community with careful character studies, showing how different generations make their marks on Chinatown and how each generation of Chinatown's inhabitants react to the culture they find there, and how they adjust to the larger American culture. Some inhabitants choose to have little interaction with the outside world, living their lives in Chinatown; others, like the girls' father, Leon, find work elsewhere, but always return to Chinatown; still others never feel fully part of Chinatown or America and yearn to return to China, even if it is only after death, too poor to pay their way to China while alive.
Much of the appeal of Bone for young adults probably lies in Ng's vivid portrayal of a well-known yet not well-understood American community. Ng's novel is about a real place, and she populates with realistic, although fictional characters. One need not actually visit or live in Chinatown to visualize a place that Ng considers as much a part of one's heart as a part of San Francisco.
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Readers are sometimes confused by the opening of Bone, in which New York and San Francisco are jumbled together and what was going to happen to the main characters is stated in the first chapter. Bone begins at the end and works its way back through Lei's memories and the history of Chinatown to arrive at an understanding of the main events. Understanding does not necessarily mean explanation, for the exact reasons for Ona's jumping to her death are never made plain, although there are several inferences to be made from her tortured love life. However, the structure of backward storytelling is an accepted literary practice, although rare in American fiction, and explanations are not necessarily the goal of Lei's narrative.
Ng says that as a youngster she read many Chinese classics, which means it is likely that she is familiar with the Confucian approach to writing. Americans are used to the Aristotelian form, in which narrative has a logical progression dictated by the goals of the writer. For example, if one writes a family history, one generally begins with background on the family and follows with a chronological account beginning with forebears and ending in the present. In Bone, this structure is absent. Instead, one finds the Confucian approach that emphasizes the reasons why something happened over what actually happened; the point of the narrative is the narrative itself. Thus, Bone is about the getting there,...
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Bone covers a significant aspect of American history and culture. From the era of California's Gold Rush to the present, Chinese immigrants have made significant contributions to the nation's economy, helping to improve travel and transport, establishing farms and bringing new crops to their new country, establishing shops and building businesses that employ millions of people, thus generating tax revenues and prosperity beyond their communities. Bone does not cover all that Chinese Americans have accomplished, but its attention to the particulars of Leon and Mah and their relationships offers a picture of what motivated immigrants and their children, as well as how they strove to make the American Dream their own.
Hard-working Leon is frustrated by the promise of the American Dream and the failure of his life of labor to make him and his family rich. His children are torn between the culture of their elders, especially their attachment to China as their real home, and the larger American culture to which they and their elders contribute and enrich. Lei lives at a time of transition, when the elders are aging and dying, while she and those of her generation feel the forces of America working on them—pulling them away from their elders and their ties to China. Nina makes a clean break by moving to New York. Lei recognizes the change from one generation to the next as it occurs and chooses to remain in San Francisco, close to the elders...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What does Lei mean by "Inside all of us, Ona's heart still moves forward"?
2. Leon "said life was work and death the dream," according to Lei. What would Leon mean by this? How does his life illustrate what he means?
3. What is meant by "The heart never travels"? How does it apply to the characters in Bone?
4. Lei mentions that Ona abused drugs but does not say much about where Ona would have gotten the drugs. Why would she leave out the details of the drugs?
5. Why would Ona choose suicide over marrying a man her father detests or dropping the man as her father wants? Or did it have nothing to do with that choice?
6. Lei points out more than once that Leon was not her biological father, who had moved to Australia, but that Leon was a real father to her. Why make this point? What does it suggest to us about how Lei views her family as the events of the narrative unfold?
7. In the first chapter of Bone, Lei tells all the main events to come: Ona's suicide, her own sudden marriage, and the breakup of Mah and Leon. Why would Ng have her readers find out what is going to happen when the novel begins? What perspective on events is she creating with this technique?
8. Most of the characters in Bone are people who work with their hands—they sew clothes, do laundry, wait on tables, repair automobiles, and the like. Why not include college professors and...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What was the tradition of sending an immigrant's bones to China for burial? How was this done, what was required to be done in the process, and why?
2. When was San Francisco's Chinatown established? How was it established? Who lived there? How was the culture of Chinatown created?
3. In Bone there are allusions to laws that restricted Chinese immigrants. What were these laws? Why were they enacted? How were they enforced? What effect did they have on Chinese Americans? When did they end?
4. What did Chinese immigrants and their descendants contribute to California's agriculture?
5. Some Chinese immigrants were gold miners. Where did they mine? How did they fit among all the other miners? What did they achieve?
6. Chinese immigrants to California in the nineteenth century are famous for their contributions to building the railroads of the West. Why did they come to the United States for the hard work of building railroad tracks? What did they achieve? What effect did they have on San Francisco's Chinatown?
7. Although several American cities have "Chinatowns," when someone says "Chinatown" the Chinatown of San Francisco is usually meant. What makes San Francisco's Chinatown special? How does it figure in the culture of Chinese Americans nationally?
8. Ng often mentions street names and landmarks in her novel. Make a map showing where these places are in San Francisco. Do not...
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For Further Reference
Brabander, Jennifer. Review of American Eyes: New Asian-American Short Stories for Young Adults. Horn Book (July-August 1995): 464. Highly recommends American Eyes, edited by Lori M. Carlson (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), in which chapter 12 of Bone appears.
Carroll, Mary. Review of Bone. Booklist (September 15, 1992): 100. A brief summary of Bone that also praises the novel.
"Fae Myenne Ng: Bone." In Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook, 1993. Edited by James P. Draper, et al. Detroit: Gale, 1994, pp. 81-88. A gathering of several reviews of Bone and interviews with Ng, mostly from newspapers.
Eder, Richard. "A Gritty Story of Assimilation." Los Angeles Times (January 14, 1993): E5. Writes Eder, "Bone, although it can be facile and sentimental—Leila's boyfriend is too much of a perfect prince, for example—tells a gritty and moving story."
Garcia, Cristina. "Reading Chinese Fortunes." Washington Post (January 10, 1993): 8. Garcia is unhappy with what she considers the poor characterization of Ona, but, "Despite its shortcomings, Fae Myenne Ng's fine, moving novel [Bone] leaves a bittersweet wake in the heart."
Jones, Louis B. "Dying to Be an American." New York Times Book Review (February 7, 1993): 7. Jones calls Bone a "sophisticated first novel." He says that it "is written in a perfectly clear, undecorated prose...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Belles Lettres. VIII, Spring, 1993, p.21.
Cheng, Lucie, et al. Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 1984. The authors discuss problems of Chinese women as they become Americanized in Southern California. The women of the Leong family, including the mother and three daughters, confront these obstacles.
Chicago Tribune. February 25, 1993, V, p.3.
Hunnewell, Susannah. “When the Old Begin to Die.” The New York Times Book Review (February 7, 1993): 9. This article describes the sweatshops where Ng grew up in Chinatown, San Francisco, California, and where many older people worked hard to give their grandchildren a better life. Ng’s novel pays tribute to the dedication of her grandparents’ generation.
Kim, Elaine H., with Janice Otani. With Silk Wings: Asian American Women at Work. San Francisco: Asian Women United of California, 1983. Kim lists problems of Chinese and other Asian American women on the job market. Particularly relevant to Ng’s novel are the depictions of women in a sweatshop such as the one in which Mah Leong works.
Knoll, Tricia. Becoming Americans: Asian Sojourners, Immigrants, and Refugees in the Western United States. Portland,...
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