Is immortality pleasant? Certainly not for some of the Chinese mythological creatures in Lindsay Wong’s new collection of 13 short stories, including the diao si gui (Red-Tongued Ghosts) who face ghost hunters and psychics after bringing death and suffering to tourists at a hot springs resort, or the oldest woman in the world of the title story, who, after having lost her ears, fingers, and toes, fears the day the rest of her body parts follow suit. With angular, gold-black-peppered tones, a rich mix of tragicomedy, comedy horror, and fantasy, and a generous sprinkling of creatures from Chinese folklore, Wong’s Tell Me Pleasant Things about Immortality introduces a new mythology for Chinese-Canadian immigrants and re-examines tales and moments of Chinese history through a feminist lens.
In “The Ugliest Girls” Wong turns a fairytale-like narrative on its head, asking what happens if a girl is not beautiful and poor, but instead born ugly and poor? Young women are lured to Gold Mountain thinking they will find husbands, but instead their sadness and suffering becomes a commodity to be sold; their “thwarted desires and lifelong disappointments” are sucked out through their tongues by leeches that will be prepared as delicacies for rich buyers and enjoyed as three-course meals. After all, “Bitterness [is] sweet; sadness [is] hearty.” In a similarly violent and tragic tale, “A Bloodletting of Trees,” two sisters – child concubines who can no longer walk because their lotus feet have been broken three times – are carried by their Big Uncle and cousins to a forest to be sacrificed after their husband, Baron of Anding, sets fire to the household upon hearing news of the invasion by the Shan. The girls are not meant to outlive their husband, but their uncle also hopes to sell them to merchants so he can buy off the marauding soldiers to save his own family; even a farmer offers to buy the girls to feed his wife and infants.
Despite these heartbreaking situations, elements of comedy create moments of levity and the slightly snarky but honest and matter-of-fact worldviews of the characters often inject humour. In “Happy Birthday!”, Johnny notes his sister “was pretty, but she always looked like she was twelve days constipated.” Meanwhile, the huli jing (nine-tailed fox demons) in “Sorry, Sister Eunice,” struggle to keep their identities secret after relocating from their eastern caves to San Francisco State U’s all-Asian sorority, Sigma Omicron Pi. They are bound to work together by a house rule and a very real fear: “Thou shalt not kill or maim a huli jing sister until threat of extinction is over,” even if “By dessert time, which is always raw liver, [they] think about smothering each other with fluffy pink pillows.” In these sometimes comedic, sometimes gritty explorations of the Other, pain and tragedy are normal – the characters often suffer to survive, and in surviving, must learn how to live.
Along with themes of survival, fantasy elements are introduced to create a Chinese-Canadian mythology, as a heartbroken and timid father turns into a sofa in “Furniture,” and a grand-uncle changes into a crow and disappears after losing a game of dice in “Wreck Beach.” To understand one’s immigrant history can often be a harrowing and difficult endeavour: “So much guesswork in our ancestral migration. Secrets, undignified, woven into a patchwork history.”
Boldly mythological, the stories nevertheless feel timeless – legends retold and recorded after the characters experience generations of violence, struggle, oppression, and desire.
Told in a darkly comic manner similar to Wong’s award-winning memoir (and Canada Reads finalist) The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, the stories in Tell Me Pleasant Things about Immortality are rich with uncanniness and humour, highlighting the sorrows, longings, and textured relationships of marginalized voices, rediscovering and pulling characters – human or other – through new myth-like narratives that create a vivid past of their own.