Daughter of Heaven by Leslie Li

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Daughter of Heaven

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Critically-acclaimed writer Leslie Li recounts the awakening of her heritage through encounters with her paternal grandmother in Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir with Earthly Recipes. Li's enlightenment begins in New York City in 1958 when her grandmother arrives from mainland China.

Recalcitrant tomboy Leslie is trying to please her rigidly traditional Chinese father, who wished for a son, and her half-Chinese mother, who is modern and ambitious with little interest in traditional roles. For Leslie's mother, mealtimes especially are a chore to be slogged through. Leslie and her sisters are accustomed to American-style meals of fried chicken and spaghetti, and the simmering differences between their parents.

Into this cultural ambiguity comes Leslie's paternal grandmother, Nai Nai. Nai Nai is the primary wife of Li Zongren, China's first democratically-elected vice-president. Her husband has taken a second wife, but Nai Nai's status as first wife is intact and her domestic skills unquestioned. Still married but physically replaced, Nai Nai is able to wield her undisputed cultural authority when she comes to live with her son and his family.

Nai Nai takes over mealtimes and creates wonderful but “foreign” dishes. Leslie and her sisters enjoy the new cuisine but are loathe to admit it because they resent the sudden changes in their lives. Trying to fit into an American way of life, they are suddenly steeped in Chinese customs. Leslie's father is pleased by the restoration of Chinese culture in his home; his wife is happy to relinquish mealtime duties and concentrate on her work outside the home. The discord between them continues to grow, however, and Leslie's father eventually leaves his family for another woman.

Nai Nai returns to China, where as an adult, Leslie visits to write of her heritage. The result is a compelling stew of history, culture, self-discovery, and the intricacies of Chinese cuisine: a memoir with recipes.