CAOTD: Larissa Lai — a Chinese Canadian “speculative fiction” author whose first novel showed how extreme the contempt is from artsy, liberal Asians towards Asians they see as inferior
I’m starting a new series, Chinese American of the Day (CAOTD). It’s going to include Chinese Canadians, people associated with Taiwan, and ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia. These people may not be truly, wholly, or even generally included among Chinese Americans — but for the sake of simplicity, and because the acronym CAOTD has a better ring than others I’ve looked into, and in the spirit of “inclusion,” I’m just going to shovel various Asian Americans and Asian Canadians under my CAOTD acronym.
Of course, the focus is going to be on ethnic Chinese born or raised in North America, not necessarily people who have immigrated as young adults or later in their lives — where their identity as Americans is not as extreme, and they’re still fully formed as Asians, where they’ve lived their formative years.
Anyway, I’ve wanted to write about Larissa Lai for a long time. Her first novel, When Fox is a Thousand (1995) — has an awkward title that’s hard to remember. More importantly, it really drove in how hipster artsy Asians look down on, and harshly judge, Asians they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be less “cool” than they are. Of course, the broader world looks down on Asians like there’s no tomorrow. And Asians suffer from internalized racism, making them look down on Asians that they see as less white, hipster, liberal, cool, or creative than they are.
As we saw with all the wrath against ultra-creative Arthur Chu, the 11-time Jeopardy! champ — Asians who look less conventionally attractive, and more stereotypically nerdy — are excluded from creative circles and subcultures — even if their creative endeavors are much more established and higher-quality than the more impressive-looking Asians who are automatically included in hipster/creative circles.
Lai’s first novel is actually a very impressive feat of literature. Like many Asians in Western countries, she was able to create the most complex, imaginative, gimmicky work of art — like Ted Chiang’s cerebral puzzle-stories, or any M. Night Shyamalan film, or Naomi J. Williams’ Landfalls, an experimental novel about an old-timey sailing ship, with multiple narrators (Davis, CA resident, of course). Bicultural Asians get to think more deeply and thoughtfully, as part of their unique lives and worldview. It’s just built into the fact that they’re Asians in North America, with all its complications and nuances — so they’re able to naturally weave many dimensions and disparate perspectives into their creative endeavors.
It’s not surprising that When Fox Turns a Thousand was Lai’s first novel, written when she was just in her 20s, fresh out of college. It wasn’t completed and published until years after she started, though — like many novels. People’s first novels are often the best — they fall into a sophomore slump later, as many rock stars/musical artists do. And the extremely detailed, eloquent way of writing seemed indicative of a new college grad whose writing was still perfect and hadn’t fallen into laziness yet.
Typically, I have nothing but genuine respect for Asian writers, where ever they are — whether in Asia or the diaspora. But Lai’s novel was incredibly irritating, and obviously written by a young person who was too caught up in looking “cool,” and looking down on people she perceived as less “cool.”
That’s the story of San Franciscans — and “cool” people never outgrow this desperate need to be seen as cool, and to only interact with people that they deem cool enough. There are plenty of graying 70-year-olds in SF with glasses that are cooler than Weezer’s, and piercings that out-do any punk rock star’s, and the most arrogant attitude as they whiz around on their Segways like they’re the coolest things on earth. There are too many of these types of geriatrics in SF, LA, NYC — and any rich, trendy city that’s too full of itself.
You’ll learn a lot in the novel — about the most hip, avant garde, most alternative Canadian subcultures never written about before. I knew Canadian lit from the 90s — but it was more Douglas Coupland — cool and on-trend, very zeigeist-oriented, but not especially alternative, and definitely not avant garde artsy. Coupland is more like David Foster Wallace — creative, but stuck in his white world, and hindered by those white limitations. Coupland seemed to have been THE literary voice of the Gen X “slacker” 90s — but I don’t think he really wrote about anything at all. I think he’s been all but forgotten since the mid-2000s.
Apparently, Vancouver in 1989 was as punk rock and experimental as what I’d imagine London or NYC to be back in the day. It looked like it had its own Keith Haring or Suzanne Vega sort of subculture back then. Video artists, extremes of LGBT, sleeping with everything and everyone — so impressive, as as was everything else about the novel. I’m very impressed how a young undergrad was able to do all that stuff. Lai really was something. The novel was, of course, autobiographical, as first novels tend to be.
The novel’s protagonist was a pretentiously-named Artemis Wong. That sounds like something only the most wordsmith-y Chinese North American can come up with. I’m sure Artemis had some sort of meaning, though the novel doesn’t make that apparent. It’s a beautiful and stylish name, even today, and recalls how hip and feminist-y a Greek goddess can be. This was even decades before fancying yourself as a “goddess” became a cheesy subculture in itself — and that’s very Australian around 2012.
The problem with this novel is how Artemis had so much contempt for her fellow “Chinese girl” in her Humanities major — which Lai ruthlessly called “Mercy” — really driving in her anti-Christian stereotypes and stigmas — which I’m very familiar with, as a native of San Francisco, where religion is practically a four-letter word. The condescending words and harsh judgment from Artemis towards Mercy was obvious from the very first pages of the novel. Artemis, and therefore the author, was a pretty nasty person — but unlike most novels, Lai didn’t try to hide her nastiness or try to come off as more angelic than she was. I couldn’t believe Artemis, the main narrator (this novel, of course, had multiple narrators, as avant garde novels require), actually said she befriended Mercy because she was the only other Chinese girl in their Humanities major! Wow, is that a reason to befriend someone? And she obviously looked down on Mercy, whom she was stereotyping as a goody-two-shoes, milquetoast good Christian girl — far inferior to the hipster LGBT girl that was Artemis.
Mercy broke her supposedly bland good-Christian-girl facade when, towards the end of the novel, Artemis saw her on the bus completely transformed, at least on the outside — with a shaved head, leather bomber jacket, piercings, and all the trappings of a pretentious late-80s punk rocker. I admire very young people who are able to transform their outer look so overtly and completely like that. Unfortunately, the same tired punk rock look is still going loud and strong, at least in 2014 — it seemed both the American and Swedish film versions of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo had a girl with the same boring hair, outfits, and piercings.
Mercy, overriding her supposed goody-two-shoes vibe — was not just punk rock in appearance, but in what she actually did. She became, apparently, an avant garde photographer. What else? The narrator described how the officials (border control?) were inspecting all of Mercy’s experimental black- and-white photography — good grief. I’m totally picturing the bizarre, self-indulgent photography exhibits at Pacific Film Archives before it became BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives). The novel, and therefore the author, was too many hip late-80s artsy pretentions rolled into one — exploding at the seams in the novel. It would’ve been much-improved if she kept all the imaginative multiple-narration artsiness and eloquent writing style, but left out the posturing, pretentions, and looking-down of people like Mercy.
And of course, Mercy changed her name — from a godawful, overtly fire-and-brimstone one to a perfectly Chinese Canadian one — Ming, of all things. Ming sounds like a name only the most writerly dork can come up with. There’s Ming Dynasty, and Ming Tsai the chef, and it’s easy to pronounce, and sounds good, too. It’s like how Natalie Portman called her kid Aleph — in an embarrassing and misguided attempt to pay homage to “her culture” — blech. Just look at what actual Israelis write about her — totally ridiculous to name a kid after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Portman is so annoying and dumb in many ways — just see what actual Harvard people write about her in their overrated Harvard Crimson. I’ve never seen a publication from the most esteemed institution in the world with such poorly-written, SJW-strewn garbage. It seems Harvard only accepts the 8% of Asian applicants who are overtly non-stereotypical — and millions of times more impressive than the non-Asians they accept. So Asians are among the most irritating and SJW of Harvard grads — just look at Ellen Pao (CAOTD profile surely coming up).
Lai was born in La Jolla, CA — the beachy college town where UC San Diego is located — and raised in Newfoundland, lived in Vancouver for a while, and now teaches in Calgary. Most people around the world, including Americans, know nothing about Canada, or anything much at all. Most people are just incredibly dumb — but even the highest-achieving, most academically-accomplished people can be dumb — in their snootiness and discrimination against people they perceive as lower than they are. People are usually within a very narrow mindset — only knowledgeable about what they’ve experienced or have been exposed to — including all the affluent hipsters in SF, or well-regarded writers, or other notable people.
Lai is like many Asians who grew up in predominantly white areas — very full of herself, whitewashed, with a sense of entitlement and superiority towards Asians she perceives as less “white” than herself. I can’t speak completely for Canadians, but I know its white-worshipping vibe has to be at least as strong as America’s — especially for people in SJW/liberal subcultures, like Lai and her fellow “creatives.”
When Fox is a Thousand is probably too old, and too niche, to really build up any sort of following these days. No Asian American Studies/Literature classes have picked up on her at all — though I don’t know if they’re supposed to include Asian Canadians. It’s unclear to me if, and how much, Asian Canadians can possibly fall under an “Asian American” banner. As with all groups, I’m not sure if they should be included in the spirit of “inclusion” and solidarity — or if they’d be offended at being called Asian Americans instead of a proper and separate identity as Asian Canadians. Also, there may be certain Asian Canadian facets and intricacies that I’m not fully aware of, as an Asian American.
Lai, in her website, looks like those whitewashed middle-aged types with the bright hipster cat-eye glasses — OMG, kind of like me, except I’m not recognized as being part of that “tribe” — and I’m actually much younger than her. There’s no greater exclusion than from artsy “creatives” towards people that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be less “liberal” and “cool” than they are — I know that, sorely, from being a lifelong San Franciscan. Being artsy and writerly is “tribal,” as I learned from a poetry instructor — and their exclusion of people who look uglier, fobbier, or otherwise more inferior is very extreme.