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Butterfly Tears is a collection of short fiction set in different parts of China, Canada and the United States.
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Butterfly Tears is a collection of short fiction that depicts the experiences of Chinese immigrant women facing the challenges of life in a new country. The stories are set in different parts of China, Canada, and the United States and examine Chinese women’s cross-cultural experiences in North America as well as women’s issues and political discrimination in China. The stories, or parts of stories, set in China give the reader interesting glimpses into events such as the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death. In the title story, an ancient Chinese legend about two lovers and memories of a violinist who commits suicide during the Cultural Revolution haunt a young woman who fears her husband is having an affair. Leaving her abusive husband, a woman and her young son in A Beaten Mandarin Duck move to New Brunswick where they form a new family with a visiting professor from China. Twin Rivers tells the story of a female engineer who ends up in jail as a result of her love affair with a married man. Feminism and changing male/female relationships form another important theme that runs through many of the stories.
A witty presentation of Chinese women’s experiences in Maoist China, Canada, and the United States, the women in these stories are haunted by their past in China as they struggle with the challenges of life in a new country. Written with clarity and preciseness, these stories are deliciously symbolic.
—li zeng, Associate Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Louisville, Kentucky
In her bra and panties, she ran along the bank of the St. Lawrence
River. Footprint by footprint, one deep, the other shallow. Her left leg became heavy. The river reflected a sad, white glare in the sunset. Several blonde men and women in colourful bathing suits played in the ankle-deep water. Their cheerful splashes and voices echoed along the beach. Nobody noticed that a half-naked Chinese girl filled with shame was desperately chasing a man. The man had been her lover, but he deserted her after stripping her of her clothes. Unable to keep up with him, she burst into tears.
Jiang woke up, weeping. Her tears soaked her pillowcase. Her cozy bedroom seemed empty in the dark. Silvery moonlight slowly streamed in through the window and outlined her pale cheeks and puffy eyes. The night before, she had dropped by Limin’s apartment again.
Knock! Knock! Knock! No one answered the door, but she could hear noises coming from inside. He must be watching TV, she thought. Anger spurted in her, and she kicked the door so hard that it finally opened.
A man in his late thirties stood near the door. He did not look at her when she entered. Instead, he shook his head as he turned and strode back to his seat. The television was on. On the coffee table lay a bottle of beer, and an empty can of pork with mustard leaf pickles. Jiang knew Limin would have also eaten a piece of apple pie or a Mae West cake. He enjoyed Chinese food combined with a western-style dessert.
“Why are you here again?” he asked, refusing to look at her.
“You must make a clear commitment to me!” Jiang shouted.
“I’ve already told you I’m unreliable.” Limin shrugged. He was short, with round shoulders. Shrugging made him look funny. “Forgive me. You’ll find a better man.”
Listening to his pitiful tone, Jiang felt a twinge of sympathy for him. But when she visualized losing the only man in her life and remembered her lonely past, desperation filled her. She glimpsed at the framed portrait of Limin and his wife that he had just recently displayed on the table. They looked as if they were grinning directly at her. Jiang even recognized the smirk that glared out of the photo. Her face clouded over with anger, as she grabbed the frame and flung it onto the floor. “If you don’t marry me, death is the only way out!” Her voice sounded like the cracked glass from the frame shattering into tiny pieces. Limin gaped at the bits of scattered glass,
then at her. She slammed the door shut on her way out. After her nightmare, Jiang was unable to sleep.
Jiang had not found a boyfriend because of her lame leg. She was convinced of this. Many Chinese women her age – thirty-five – had by now become wives and mothers. Years ago, when she was a student, she thought she had a chance at love. Once, she went to a student dance. She was so nervous about it that she had practiced dancing with one of her friends for weeks before the event, perfecting every movement, working hard at disguising her limp.
That night, a male student invited her to dance. Nervously, she joined him. They waltzed. She concentrated hard on following him, raising her left foot often to compensate for her limp. She did well. Looking at her partner’s smiling face, she felt happier than she had been in long, long time. Practice helps me, I can dance well! She was grateful for her girlfriend who had practiced with her and encouraged her to come to the dance.
The young man seemed interested in her. He suggested they take a walk outside. He led her to a path flanked by gardens behind the dance hall. The heady scent of flowers mingled with the night breeze elated her. She felt confident. When he turned his head, she was startled to see that he had noticed her clumsy gait. “Did you hurt your leg while we danced?” he asked politely.
“No. I … I enjoyed the dance,” Jiang hesitated to explain. “I had polio as a child.”
The young man seemed frozen for a second. “Is that true?” he said, his hand brushing the hair off his forehead. “Why don’t I get you something to drink,” he added. He made his way quickly to a vendor selling bottled juice on the sidewalk, as if he had fled from a corpse. When he returned, he passed the juice to her. “Let’s go back.” Without waiting for Jiang’s response, he strode purposely back to the dance hall.
Jiang’s heart sank. She felt certain that her lame leg was the reason for his sudden change of heart. In china, a disability could mark you for life. In Canada, she had hoped things would be different. She worked as a civil engineer after graduating from a Master’s program at Queen’s University in Kingston. On weekends, she liked to go to the university library’s reading room to pour over newspapers and magazines in Chinese. She enjoyed reading in Chinese as it helped release in her the mixed feelings she had about living alone, studying hard, and striving to succeed in a new country without any relatives or close friends to turn to.
One afternoon, while immersed in a copy of Readers magazine, Jiang was interrupted by a male voice. “Excuse me, is that Issue Eight?”
She raised her head. “Yes, it is.”
“Are you a student?”
“Just graduated. How about you?”
“Interesting.” Jiang was curious. “Where did you get your Ph.D.?”
“Wow!” she said, “You’ve been to England!”
They got along immediately. Limin looked modest and amiable, which made a good impression on Jiang.
They discovered they had, at one time, lived in the same province in China. Sharing their memories of the well-known local foods of Jiangsu Province made conversation easy. They recalled delicacies like the dry bean curd strips of Zhengjiang, the mini steamed buns stuffed with crab ova of Yangzhou, and the salted duck and boiled hatched eggs of Nanjing.
From "Twin Rivers"
By Karen E. H. Skinazi
…There is a chasm, however, between the two worlds these characters inhabit. When told of a woman in China who did not want to divorce her cheating husband, Sunni typifies women of China, responding, “Only in China. . .” Her friend back home resents this summation and responds: “Hey, these kinds of things must happen in the States too, right?”—a comment that sets off Sunni in turn, causing her to defend the Canadian-American border, as so
many Canadian characters have in Canadian literature. Indeed, literary critic Russell Brown has called this kind of scene the “primal scene” in Canadian literature, finding similar moments in
the literature of A.M. Klein, Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, and others. Sunni reminds her friend, “I’m in Montreal, Canada, not the United States,” but her friend insists
on the conflation: “Canada and the United States are on the same continent. They aren’t such different countries to me.”
There is also a chasm between mythical China—that of Liang and Zhu—and Maoist China. The first story in the collection touches on the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in the summer of 1966, a moment of transition Roy returns to throughout her fiction. Maoist China not only lacks the music and myth of its earlier iterations, but it also lacks the history that can only be later, and somewhat haltingly, reclaimed. Children, brainwashed, recite phrases that are empty of meaning to them, and live in dorms that they can barely recognize as former temples or convents—signs of previous histories layered on top of each other, ignored by children who spend their time going to street demonstrations and denunciation meetings, worrying about
their family backgrounds, or helping in factories. The death of Mao appears in “Balloons,” a story that allows for the return to history, not by the Chinese of China, but, tellingly, by the Chinese
diaspora in North America. Here, “the lives of the two brothers, unknown to each other for forty-six years, were suddenly connected. . .Via truck, train, airplane, telephone, and computer, the messages crisscrossed between Xingjiang Province and Newfoundland, between Taipei and Chicago, and between Chicago and St. John’s, as they traced the brothers’ family” (80)…
Amerasia Journal 2011 164
Sept. 1, 2010
By Rose Gold
The stories are simply told and move effectively and seamlessly through time and place. Throughout the pieces, we are given sometimes glimpses and sometimes enduring images of a lost world, of a new world as seen through the immigrants’ eyes, and of the relationships caught between both worlds. It is intriguing to learn about the Cultural Revolution in China and to see how ruinous and stultifying those years were. At times it is almost hard to believe the extent to which individual freedoms were suppressed. In several stories, public denunciations occur. In “Ten Yuan”, for instance, a man is denounced for telling a joke, and in Twin Rivers, a woman denounces her own husband. The paralyzing fear of the regime is an ever-present undercurrent in these stories, and some scenes seem almost prototypical of Orwell’s 1984.
See the complete review at
August 23, 2010
By Lois Henderson
This collection of seventeen pieces of short fiction is as delicate and fine as the most intricately woven filigree. Telling the tales of women who have emigrated from China to Canada or to the United States, the work reveals the complex nature of having to contend with multicultural, and often contradictory, forces both at home and abroad. Emerging from the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-tung, the spirit of the women that is the backbone of these stories shows how, despite the harshest discipline and the most dehumanizing conditions, some women still have the strength to endure the most adverse circumstances, and, rather than becoming embittered by them, can remain sensitive to both their own needs, as well as to those of others. The nobility of these daughters of China recalls the proud heritage from which they have emerged into contemporary Western society.
Born in China, Zoë S. Roy, the author of this collection, was an eyewitness to the red terror under Mao’s regime. The stories have the immediacy of someone who has seen the best and the worst of times – no stranger to the idealism of Communism, she also has a clear-sighted view of the horrors and deprivations of such a regime. Unable to bear the humiliation of public denunciation, several of the minor characters in the stories commit suicide, having been guilty of nothing other than a desire to reap the benefit of their own labor. The upending of an entire society and the morals and integrity of a centuries old way of life are nowhere laid more bare than in the tale ‘Herbs’, which tells of a man’s sexual promiscuity, and his attempt to force such lack of ethics on his wife. She is told by her unscrupulous husband, from whom she later flees, “You just don’t know how to enjoy sexual freedom. Everybody around the world wants this, and you can have it. And your husband doesn’t mind.” But she does, and so do the rest of the major characters in these tales.
See the complete review at:
May 6, 2010
By Sheila Cornelius
These haunting tales of unrealised dreams and nostalgic regret read like chapters of a novel about the same character. Within the subgenre of the Asian immigrant experience, the protagonists are female in all but one of the fifteen stories, women whose lives mirror and echo similar experiences.
Moving between China and North American or Canadian cities, married or single, childless or mothers, women’s lives are changed and families divided by China’s Cultural Revolution.
"Revolution is an act of insurrection whereby one class overthrows another." Mao Ze Dong’s words quoted by the author are the key to understanding the catalyst to this particular migration. In swift transition, an elite class became persecuted outsiders in their own society. In Frog Fishing a teacher suspected of ‘rightist’ tendencies , is saved from an accusation of political disloyalty when a bolder colleague defends her. The story Ten Yuan, the only one with a male main character, conjures the atmosphere of political repression; a young man’s professional future hinges on a chance unguarded remark.
Children become victims of events they can’t control or understand. In Balloons, for instance, schoolgirl Suyun has mud thrown at her and is called a "stinking capitalist". This is in strong contrast with the status of children of later stories who become the focus of ambitions and a means for their mothers’ to integrate into an adopted culture, although not the sole cause. In A Mandarin Duck, for instance, the abused mother Huidi is awakened to a need to assume responsibility and prompted to learn English when she realizes "she could live in Canada not only for her son, but also for herself".
Recurrent flashbacks to a former life are ambivalent, both signposts and distractions as the woman comes to terms with her new situation. Glimpses of traumatic post-Mao China depicted in the stories are balanced by memories of idyllic rural scenes. In the title story, Butterfly Tears, set in Montreal, Sunni’s memory is haunted by dreams of her home, and the recall of Chinese legends and music. Her concerns for her son and her husband’s infidelity contrast with childhood security and memory of her grandmother’s stories. In Wild Onions Sha, whose mother died in China, is only able to come to terms with her new life after seeking out a grave in Montreal.
See the complete review at:
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Reader Reviews for "Butterfly Tears"
|Reviewed by Lisa de Nikolits
|Exquisite writing, delicate stories of bravery and courage. I lingered on every word.|