Among the almost universally positive reviews that Lan Samantha Chang’s first book received, there were some that inevitably compared her to other Asian women writers, such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. It is true that Chang charts some of the same thematic territory as did those established novelists, especially the familiar Asian American conflict between parents and children, the Old World and the New. However, those reviewers who liken Chang to Bernard Malamud or James Joyce are perhaps more accurate. Like those masters of the modern short story, Chang is a consummate stylist, more concerned with tightly structured aesthetic form than with abstract social issues, such as marginality, cultural diversity, and the status of the immigrant.
Also like past masters of the short story, Chang is often oblique in her narrative presentation, frequently situating the heart of the story in places other than where the reader first assumes it to be. Thus, while the title novella Hunger seems to be about the ambitious hunger of the husband, it is really about the lyrically implied hunger of the wife; and while the prizewinning “Pippa’s Story” seems to be about the escape of the daughter into the future, it is really about the hold the mother has on her through the past.
The fact that Chang’s stories have been received with wide praise for their universality, lyricism, and formal control rather than for their cultural particularity and postcolonial political stance perhaps signals that, in the late 1990’s, the multicultural and the marginal are not praised for exoticism alone; if Chang’s reception is indicative, the focus in contemporary fiction seems to be on what unites us as human beings rather than what separates us as multicultural individuals.
More than half of Chang’s first collection of stories is taken up by this novella of a Chinese immigrant violinist, his wife, and their two daughters. Although the plot focuses on Tian’s “hunger” to be a professional musician in America, the psychological interest of the novella centers on the narrator, his wife Min, on whom Tian’s passionate desire has the greatest impact. Tian’s account of swimming half a mile across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China to a refugee ship, holding his precious violin out of the water, is a central image of the hunger at the core of the story, but Min’s hunger, revealed indirectly by her simple, lyrical voice, resonates throughout the story and colors everything. Although Tian is obsessively passionate, first about playing the violin himself and then about compelling his daughters to learn to play, it is Min, hungry for the love denied to her by her self-obsessed family, who lives her life destined to receive very little of what her mother calls yuanfen—“the apportionment of love” destined for one in the world.
What also makes the story more than a domestic tragedy of one man’s unfulfilled immigrant ambitions is Min’s sense of the magic and mystery of human passion and transcendent reality; she is like a finely tuned violin, quiescent until her own passion is evoked. When Tian gives up on becoming a professional musician and loses his job at the school where he has been teaching, he turns his attentions to Anna, the oldest daughter, only to discover that she has a poor ear for music. By next directing his teaching attentions to...
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