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The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

March 11, 2016

A few years ago, Ken Liu published The Paper Menagerie, a short story that explored issues of Asian American identity and the immigrant experience. Its mix of magical realism and the Asian American experience resonated very strongly with me – and with a wider audience. The story won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

So I was overjoyed to learn that Liu was publishing a new collection of stories, including The Paper Menagerie. There are fifteen stories in total, covering (and freely mixing) a wide range of genres.

Paper_Menagerie_cover_blog

There’s a piece of historical fiction set in 1800s Idaho, following the plight of Chinese railroad workers. Another work begins with elements of Chinese mythology and somehow morphs into a steampunk take on Hong Kong (a genre Liu himself terms “silkpunk”). And one story, The Literomancer, follows a young American girl living in Taiwan during the White Terror – a period of martial law that lasted decades, but was rarely publicly acknowledged until recent years.

The narrative style sometimes changes drastically from one story to another. For example, The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species reads like an excerpt from an encyclopedia, a sort of whimsical and meandering look at imagined worlds and species. In contrast, Simulacrum is structured as a pair of interwoven interviews with two “historical” subjects. The word “story” is loose in this sense, as some pieces – even those with a more traditional narrative structure – seem more like explorations of ideas rather than characters or people. Personally, I enjoyed the variety.

Although none of the other stories hit me with the same intense emotional catharsis as The Paper Menagerie, I took something away from each one. In particular, State Change and Good Hunting told stories that perfectly utilized elements of magical realism to explore deeply human experiences. And The Perfect Match told a story of a near-future dystopia that felt very real, with issues that are pressing and urgent, and just so happened to feature Asian American protagonists.

I can’t recommend this collection enough, for people who enjoy the side-by-side exploration of characters and ideas. Even more important, this book offers something for people seeking stories that reflect the Asian American and immigrant experience. Not every story touches on Asian themes or characters, but the ones that do offer something unique – and, in our often monochromatic pop culture landscape, something refreshing.

Categories: blog

About the Author

Mike Le is the Media Liaison for Racebending. A native-born Californian, he objects to shoveling snow and is a strong proponent of pollo asado fries. Mike has been interviewed about media diversity by dozens of news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, BBC Radio, and Public Radio International.

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