Bestiary by K-Ming Chang (One World 2020)
Reviewed by A. Mana Nava
Bestiary is a nonlinear, multi-generational experiment exploring how stories are passed down from generation to generation. K-Ming Chang plays with narrative structure by blending the epistolary form, fables, oral storytelling, and close third-person narration. In the narrative, the character Mother tells Daughter a story about a hungry tiger who eats toes to explain why she cut hers off and keeps them in a tin. Then, one day Daughter wakes up with a tiger tail. This novel turns impossible tales of rivers impregnating women, flying crabs, and holes carrying letters across the country into a plausible reality. There is no line between fantasy and reality as the two are brilliantly woven together.
In current Euro-centric communities, hell and heaven are real. Demons and the Devil are the embodiment of evil. These motifs are accepted by Western readers because these mythological creatures are deeply embedded in their culture. The problem here is that the basis of Western Civilization is founded on the absorption and destruction of communities West of the Caucus mountains.
However, not all communities and cultures have the luxury of their mythos heavily featured in the Western canon. While some cultural absorption has occurred, a lot of mythologies are lost or remain underrepresented in the literary canon, despite colonization and cultural appropriation across the globe. A lame argument to explain the absence of non-Western mythologies in literary culture is that they are too complex and resist translation. Chang disproves this argument with Bestiary’s rich Taiwanese mythos, as she pokes fun at Western Civilization’s ignorance.
In the novel, Chang briefly features White American characters who lump all Asians together. These characters do not understand the linguistic, genotype, and cultural differences between Asian cultures. This juxtaposes the differences our narrators make between “mainlanders” and themselves. These observations can only be made by people who exist within the culture.
The moment “mainlander” appears in the text, East Asians can immediately recognize the narrator as Taiwanese. Chang captures linguistic nuances and dialect observations through Daughter’s child-gaze.
This inter-generational novel is a collection of tales told by Grandmother, Mother, and Daughter. The reader witnesses the body of these stories alter and change shape with each retelling. This technique mimics the river, which is heavily featured throughout the novel. The symbolic usage of water as sustaining and carrying life is not far off from its true function. In Chang’s fiction, bodies of water are a vessel carrying, creating, and retelling family bloodlines.
When the human body is depicted in fiction, it’s often romanticized for description. Not in this book. Here the reader is forced to witness a wide spectrum of bodily functions. The function of the body in Chang’s novel is to establish an intimate relationship with these characters. Intimacy is often incorrectly thought of as romantic, when in fact it shows how close one is with a person. True intimacy is peeing next to someone, changing someone’s surgical wound, cleaning up another person’s vomit. These hyper-realistic depictions of bodily functions everyone pretends don’t occur are at the forefront of this novel. The reader becomes familiar with Chang’s characters through grotesque details. There are various scenes featuring flaccid penises, snot, feces, and painful depictions of skin. One of the consistent linear plotlines in the novel is Daughter’s tail. We fixate on its movements, the state of its fur, and how it’s positioned against the rest of her body. This mark of otherness makes for a painfully intimate depiction of the body.
Chang opens the novel with a family digging holes to find lost gold. Mother is one of the children digging these holes, trying to find something her father misplaced. The holes motif reoccurs in this novel. After all, all family histories have holes. Generations of family and cultural history are lost in diasporic communities.
One of the largest holes in family histories is queer members. Statistically speaking, there should be at least one or two queer people in one family line. Unfortunately, their legacies have been cut due to homophobic and transphobic cultural ideologies. However, if one is clever enough to read the gaps and context clues, it’s possible to uncover queer family members. Daughter looks for family members whose lives mirrored her own otherness. She grows a tail and starts to have romantic feelings for a girl named Ben. She begins to piece together Grandmother and Mother’s stories and retells them to Ben. Daughter takes creative liberties, embellishing events, and characters. After all, these stories are now hers. Early introductions to stories are often fairy tales, fables, and family stories to teach children how we understand the world. Inherited family histories are personal creation myths. Family stories are more precious than material items that get confused as heirlooms. K-Ming Chang’s debut novel, Bestiary, is the perfect epitome of the title. It is an animal mythos with deep, familial and cultural roots.