(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Moon Cakes, Andrea Louie’s first novel, builds upon the question: “What becomes of an eleven-year-old child whose father suddenly dies?” Suffering the pangs of increasing anger, alienation, and isolation, Maggie tries to restore balance and give meaning to her life as she searches for answers to this question. The transience, fragmentation, and truncation that dominate her narrative become a conceit for the emotional and social disruption characterizing her life since her father’s death. The opening dream sequence, for example, introduces a little girl, wearing a “pint-size knapsack with an appliquéd penguin made of black and white felt” and pulling behind her a wagon. She is on an impossible quest to find what none have seen or heard of before, something called “moon cakes.” This dream-quest impinges upon Maggie’s life in the form of her journey into personal discovery and self-worth.

Born in a small town in the middle of Ohio, a place where “the land is very flat and well kept,” Maggie has grown up with the stereotype of the all-American family, the embodiment of fantasy-like perfection, down to the last detail. Her father was a successful and altruistic physician. Her mother miraculously balances careers as a brilliant biochemist and university administrator. Her older sister juggles cheerleading and rigorous medical residencies, matriculation at an Ivy League university, and marriage as “a Chinese Martha Stewart.” The second daughter of such a “model minority” family, Maggie, or “Xiao Li,” as her father affectionately calls her, is from birth nurtured behind the veneer of assimilation. Her family heaps upon her the bountiful rewards of their American Dream. Innocent to the spiritual costs of their blind acquiescence and easy balance, she, too, embraces this world of mixed signals.

Her father’s death removes this veil of innocence. The veneer that had stood between her and the world peeling away, Maggie finds a stuttering uncertainty, a void within herself. Those memories of her father—the cacophony of Cantonese opera as he calmly pressed his shirts, his childlike passion for ice cream and his stoicism when eating moon cakes once a year, for example—no longer seem “inner-resting,” as her Ohio-bred neighbors once pronounced, but are inscribed with contradiction, opposition, and discord. The stability of his presence afforded no more than an illusion; she turns to the “seamlessly normal” world of sacrificing mothers with their outlandishly blond coiffures and blue-eyed lettermen sons to provide the yardstick by which she can measure herself. Such a yardstick seems ill-suited as she recognizes the depth of her differences. “I am,”...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Awkward, Michael. Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Personality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Brewer, María Minich. “A Loosening of Tongues: From Narrative Economy to Women Writing.” Comparative Literature 99, no. 5 (1984): 1141-1161.

Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. “Gender, Truncation and Ideology: Women and Autobiography.” In Literary History, Narrative, and Culture, edited by Wimsal Dissanayake et al. Honolulu: The East-West Center, 1989.

Langbaum, Robert. The Mysteries of Identity: A Theme in Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.