Feathers From a Thousand LI Away

Last night, having cocooned myself into bed, I chewed my way through the last of my book and decided to start a new one before sleeping. I’ve had Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club lying around in my possession for quite a while and have heard good things about it, so I decided to give it a go.

I only got through the prologue, a mere 288 words, but WOW, I am impressed. I am simply amazed and more than a little bit jealous of her simple elegance, and just how much she managed to cram into her introduction while not making it too crowded, either. It’s a delicate magic act.

I want to share it with you, so here it is in its entirety, accompanied with Tan’s own narration, if you like to hear it read aloud:

The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look!–it is too beautiful to eat.

Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan–a creature that became more than what was hoped for.”

But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory. And then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind.

Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.

There is such a lot to unpack here. Firstly, I love that the story is focussed on a segment of society that doesn’t often have the same voice as the rest of us. It is the story of an old woman, a mother, a Chinese immigrant. It has a fable-ish quality to it: a goose that became a swan, a woman who travelled an ocean in search of a new life. Wishes for the future. There’s a bittersweet quality, of dreams that were fulfilled, but not quite in the way the woman imagined. Being close to her daughter, but nevertheless holding this experience that her daughter can’t understand. Wanting to proudly assimilate into the new culture, but with difficultly, unlike her daughter who has been born into it.

I’ll post about it again when I’ve finished the book, and we’ll see if I still enjoy it as much by the end.

And finally, lest any writers be intimidated by her writing, Amy Tan was featured in a book I read recently called Drivel, a collection of awful early writing by various famous authors. It’s a pretty hideous contribution. It goes to show that good writing is earned with practice. Keep working at it, and maybe you too can transform from a duck to a goose to a swan.

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