The Red Thread, by Ann Hood
I usually try to avoid critiquing books or movies that I know are going to make me spew out negative after negative remark. I “read” this book on Audible a couple of weeks ago, and tried avoiding reviewing it, but somehow cannot. I must speak out on cultural appropriation. And on throwing in an excess of sex scenes just for better sales.
There is nothing wrong with including Chinese characters in a book about adopting baby girls from China. Obviously. There is nothing wrong either about describing what led a number of American couples to the decision to adopt a baby girl from China. But let’s do a little math. Five or six couples who want to adopt, and one or more sex scenes for each, plus six Chinese women who give away their daughter/s with one or more sex scene each, how many does that make? I bet if you took them all out, the book would become half the size! I’m not a prude, but really, too much is too much!
Now that we’ve taken care of the need for creating a rating system for books too (I’d say R-rating for this one), let’s look at the issue of cultural appropriation. I tried to be fair. I looked up the author’s biography: Yes, she did adopt a daughter from China in 2003. Good job. That’s why the American side of the story sounded genuine. On her website, she mentions trying to imagine the life of the Chinese woman who had to make the decision to give up her baby. No problem. Go on, imagine! But here is where I had to stop cheering.
If you choose to write from the point of view of a Chinese woman, or rather six Chinese women, in the style of stream of consciousness, then should you not consult with a Chinese woman, or six Chinese women, preferably from the type of socio-economic background you are describing? Or eventually, if you did not, at least ask a Chinese-speaking person to read over your manuscript and tell you whether you sound genuine?
I told myself, ah, just a commercial novel, close one eye and ignore it. But at one point, I could not ignore it any more! There’s a peasant girl in the countryside in Hunan who meets a peasant boy. Eye contact. He asks her something. She answers, “Yes.” Then in what passes for poetic prose, he goes on asking her increasingly more intimate questions which end up, yup you guessed it, in bed, or rather on the ground in the fields, and she answers to each, “Yes.” The repetition of the word Yes is supposed to be a kind of motif here with a poetical rhythm to it. Except in Chinese, there is no word for Yes.
You see, if I want to ask you whether you want to eat, I would say, literally, “want, don’t want, eat?” If you want to reply yes, you would say, “Want.” If you want to reply no, you would say, “Don’t want.” If I want to ask whether you are hungry, I’d say, “you hungry, not hungry?” and the answer would be either “I hungry”, or “I not hungry.” And so on. So there would be no poetical or lyrical repetition of the word yes except in the American author’s mind.
The other thing that grated me and forced me to stop ignoring the red blinking lights was a conversation between a mother and a daughter. The Chinese mother living in Hunan, China speaks in broken English to her Chinese daughter living in Hunan, China who answers in perfect English. Does that even make sense? It’s interesting that it does not happen uniformly to all of the families in Hunan, China. I bet the editor suddenly noticed it and fixed those she caught and missed the others. What came immediately to mind was of course The Joy Luck Club, where indeed mothers and daughters all spoke English since they all lived in America. But while the American-born daughters all spoke perfect English, the immigrant mothers all spoke broken English. That totally made sense, and it is indeed a phenomenon I do observe around me. In the scenes happening in China in The Joy Luck Club, everyone spoke perfect Chinese. Of course. Now, I realize that the book is written in English, thereby signifying that the conversations taking place in Hunan, China are all in Chinese. Yes. In perfect Chinese. Why would an older woman speak in broken Chinese??????? (Sorry for so many question marks, but it’s my blog and I’ll write them if I want to.)
While I’m on the topic of what tickled me the wrong way, I just have to mention one more thing. This stream of consciousness thing. I’m okay with someone rambling on and on like we are living in their heads. But seriously, why does every single person think alike? I don’t mean the content of the thoughts, which are thankfully different, but the way they think. For example, one person meets another and mentions how they dress, how they smell… OK, writers are taught to describe using ALL senses. That’s okay if relevant. The key word is: relevant. Now every single person who is rambling on and on notices a smell on the other person. And the smell is always a mixture of three pleasant scents. Guess what. There are some people who don’t care about smells and do not notice them or are put off by strong scents. There are people who do not notice what others wear.
Take Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. He has a strange flat emotional response but an increased notice of small physical things. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, each character thinks very differently and distinctly. If you took away the chapter’s title which gives away the identity of the thinker, you could still easily identify her from the style of thinking alone. Rachel, for example, notices dresses and social statuses of the people she meets and is concerned about herself mainly. Leah thinks rationally and we can even follow her evolution from a near-worship of her father to her realization of his failure and her gradual involvement in social and political movements. The characters’ speech, vocabulary, and mannerisms are all distinctly individual. Here, in The Red Thread, you could pick a paragraph in a certain character’s chapter and exchange it with that of another character, male or female, and no one would notice. All “can’t stop staring at his/her dimple” or eyes or lips.
I’d better stop here before my wrecking ball flies off my hands… I know how much work goes into writing a book –after all, I’m a writer myself– and I apologize to Ann Hood for my harsh words. But I do hope anyone writing from the point of view of a culture not their own will try to get a consultant to go over their writing so as not to come across as ridiculous.