You think burial is about finalizing what’s died. But burial is beginning: To grow anything, you must first dig a grave for its seed. Be ready to name what’s born.
Generational history, fabrications, mythology and wildly imaginative tales entertain the readers of Bestiary until its ‘tail’ end. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for the characters here to pour salt on festering wounds of their elders, like Ba (Agong) – whose memory is nothing but snakes. Fleeing their homeland, learning the strange new customs of the Western world, remembering rivers that swallowed young men during war and leaving behind firstborn children to birth new ones… this is the cage, the past that the Taiwanese women carry in this family.
With Ma (Ama) searching for the gold (their future, security) Ba ‘misplaced’ along with his mind, their daughters are digging holes in the earth searching. This is the freedom they first learn on new shores. It’s a strange inheritance, a pit of loss, a collision of cultures. They cannot outrun their buried shadows, as we follow three generations of women. They know too well how to scratch the earth, much like chickens, trying to make a living.
Now a mother with her own family, Ma lives in a city far enough away from Ama and Agong that she is close enough for their needs and yet comforted by the distance. With a main lander husband, more disappointment than good fortune, she waits for his checks to pay their rent while their son and daughter dig into the earth, waiting to see what it will give birth to. Feeding their heads with fantastical tales like that of Hu Gu Po (a tiger spirit that longs to be human, attained only by feasting on the toes of children) is it any shock that Daughter wakes up with a Tiger’s tail herself? Her own mother’s price were her toes, stubs now. When father lets them down, is away with the kites, Duck Uncle steps in, but nothing good can last. In Daughter, hungers rise that must be named and fed. It is beside her friend Ben “the one who’d come halfway through the year and could spit a watermelon seed so fair it skipped the sea and planted in another country” exploring each other’s blossoming bodies, that her tiger heart soars. Ben whom she shows the holes in their backyard to. Ben is a willing captive, befriending the wild beast she is becoming.
The stories are meant to save the daughters by serving as warnings but in the end Ama, Mother and Daughter are the same story, looking only for a cure, ‘which is to survive’. Survive the snakes in the river, the soldiers, lies, ghosts, the dead and anything that lives off a woman’s body. Then there are Alma’s mysterious letters, a bit like riddles, written to her eldest child first, as if she’s a corpse. A daughter whose father was imprisoned, accused of being a ‘red father’, the reason that the entire family must avoid shoelaces, like a curse.
Ama’s daughters have been made unclean by holy hands, they are born laughing, tying knots or meant for America- a strange type of afterlife. Husbands and men seem to be ‘synonymous with the missing’, either through imprisonment, abandonment or buried by their own scrambled minds. Ama’s husbands, soldiers always, aren’t the true fighters, it is Ama- the only country Agong ever needed. Ama’s warnings to her grandchild about keeping ginger root between her knees to ‘ward off boys’ isn’t so much corruption as security. Ama knows the truth of why Daughter digs holes in her yard, these instincts are in the marrow of her family’s bones.
Ma’s stories may not be as full of soldiers as Ama’s but there are always wars and struggles, living with her sister Jie, Ba and Ama in Arkansas until debts could be paid. Then to California, it’s cleaning houses, factories, fires and her beloved sister Jie fleeing the main story. With her tail twitching mean, Daughter longs to understand what her mother is trying to tell her, what Ama’s letters explain, better to return them to the holes in the ground. Did Ama feed her daughters to the river? Is she trying to kill off Agong? Can Ama ever be forgiven? Is fluency really about forgetting? Is the price of having a body really hunger? Is it wrong, the hunger Daughter feels for Ben? What are they digging for? Truth, treasure, memories? Can you dig too deep?
A beguiling, bizarre novel about family history as folktale- an engaging, unique debut!
Publication Date: September 8, 2020