Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection comes garlanded with praise from Lauren Groff, herself no slouch when it comes to crafting short stories. Wang explores the second-generation immigrant experience through the lens of experience, having arrived in the States with her parents aged seven. Her collection comprises twelve lengthy stories divided into three sections: Family, Love, and Time and Space.
Home Remedies begins with ‘Mott Street in July’ which sees three children of Chinese immigrants left to fend for themselves in the one-bedroom flat they’ve long outgrown, their eyes fixed on an American future. Its dreamlike quality is mirrored in the final story ‘The Art of Straying Off Course’, a whirlwind of snapshots which takes us through an architect’s life as her career progresses until she visits her ancestral home, neatly bookending the collection. One of my favourites, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, is about two seven-year-old boys, future Olympic hopefuls, who become the closest of friends but as they grow older one wants more from the other than he’s able to give. The titular ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments’ is made up of a list of emotional ills with advice for remedying them, from dealing with a crush on an ageing professor to avoiding a father’s grief-stricken phone calls when his ancient dog dies. In ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ a divorced computer scientist muses on the failure of his logical approach to his relationship with his daughter who has never known the hunger he endured and doesn’t appreciate the fact that he knows to the dollar how much it has cost to raise her. ‘The Strawberry Years’ has a photographer struggling to make ends meet and fed up with the multitude of requests to look after Chinese visitors, one of who seems intent on taking over his apartment with her burgeoning Livestream audience’s approval.
Told mostly from the perspective of young Chinese, these are poignant, sharply observed stories often undercut with a dark humour. Some explore intergenerational relationships and the gulf which exists between the expectations and experience of parents and children. They reveal the sheer pace of change for many Chinese, from the living memory of the Cultural Revolution to expectations of a future little different from those of wealthy Americans. Wang’s characters range from the spoilt second-generation rich boy, returning from the States after an act of cruelty for which his best friend may have to pay, to the young man who agrees to a marriage he knows will make him a rich man but at a high price. Her writing is plain yet striking:
His father was a coal miner, a thin, muscular man who looked permanently charred
The blue-eyed girl was still holding on to his hand and he was about to ask “Where is the party?” but the words came to him in Chinese. Then like a voice in an interrupted dream, they flew out of him in perfect English
I liked the girl I married very much, but not the woman she became after we immigrated to America
Not all the stories worked for me but it’s an interesting collection which explores a culture I’m ashamed to say I know far less about than I should.