Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Telling the ghost story from the limited point of view of the younger daughter, Claudia, allows Lan Samantha Chang to keep the reader guessing at some of the reasons behind Emily’s rage at their father and her apparently cruel defiance of him. It also keeps her a bit remote and mysterious, quite befitting to a ghost story. What drives Emily is revealed only gradually, and sometimes implicitly, through Claudia’s own musings and the unfolding of the plot.

From its first sentence, the story introduces the world of the Chinese American characters through Chang’s masterful control of the language used by her narrator. Claudia tells of the family’s Buddhist beliefs and practices in a straightforward, descriptive manner. This form of narration makes ceremonies and religious objects such as chanting and incense look self-evident and normal, despite many readers’ unfamiliarity with them. Claudia’s narrative also uses specific metaphors that show how deeply she has internalized the Chinese part of her heritage. She likens the stiffness of Emily and her body to that of temple gods and wonders about a secret charm emanating from her sister while she is present in Claudia’s daily life.

The dialogue captures the immediate feelings of the characters. In the kitchen with Claudia, Emily cruelly exaggerates their father’s Chinese accent to show how unlikely he is to be accepted as equal by his colleagues. There are detailed descriptions of objects with significance for the story, such as Emily’s hair.

With remarkable narrative economy, Chang tells a meaningful short story in only eleven pages. From the first to the second death, some thirteen years, key episodes are visited that lead to the climax. The plot follows an interesting doubling, with relevant variations. Two parents die, yet only one reappears to one of the two daughters. Two parties are described, one during and one after the father’s earthly life. Emily’s hair gets cut twice, both times on Gujie, but with different results. When the father’s ghost appears, it is only to Emily. Troubled by love and self-doubt, she needs a second chance to find closure with him and all that he represents.