Review: “Gods of Want”, K-Ming Chang’s short stories about desire
On the shelf
Gods of Want
By K-Ming Chang
One World: 224 pages, $ 27
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In “Nine-Headed Birds”, a story about halfway through K-Ming Chang’s new collection, “Gods of Want”, the narrator describes how jiujiu (her uncle) took her to amusement parks and lent her coins to put through these crowns – flattening machines . “I loved how thin it was in the end, how the crown looked like none of the presidents,” she says. “I loved how easily its story was written about, tossed into fiction.”
Chang has a special talent for conveying history to myths and myths to today’s fiction. Her debut novel, “Bestiary,” “cracks like delicious fruit on the brink of rot,” as Bethanne Patrick wrote in The Times’ review, full of lyrical images and a setting where “reality is tough and magic is real.”
Like “Bestiary,” the 16 mytho-realistic stories in “Gods of Want” are set among Taiwanese immigrants and first-generation Americans, mostly in California. They also use a similar poetic language to explore some of the same themes – family, stories that have passed through generations, queer desires, the lively world around us. This is not to say that Chang repeats herself: only that she, like many writers, revolves around specific artistic obsessions and sensibilities. The stories are divided into three sections, “Mothers”, “Myths” and “Mills”, although references to all three are included in most of the pieces.
Some of the stories are less conventional than others. The first, “Tanteland”, is written as a breathless list of such women and their actions: one aunt who asked to have her tongue pulled at the dentist, another who pinched pieces of broken tooth from the narrator’s mouth, a third who kissed one another woman when she thought no one was watching and many more. Whether the aunts in the narrator’s litany are repeated or each is completely different is unclear – and it really does not matter; the point is that there is love woven into this enumeration of women and the wisdom, weakness, superstition, pain and joy they pass on to the narrator.
The second story, “The Chorus of Dead Cousins,” has a more defined arc. The narrator here is a newlywed woman whose wife threatens to leave her just a week after their wedding, a direct result of dead cousins ravaging. The narrator’s wife, who works as a storm hunter, does not like to be chased by the ghost storm. However, the narrator acknowledges their often good intentions.
“My wife said they just mastered the vocabulary of meaningless destruction,” she says, “but weeks before we left, I saw the cousins in the backyard with shovels. They stood in line like soldiers, and when I asked them what they were doing, they said, ‘We will make you a moat.”“It’s actually a fire pit. The cousins know it’s forest fire season and they mean to protect their living relatives.
The book takes its title from the story “Eating Pussy”, whose narrator is named Pity. (‘People always said,’ Pretty? ‘) Is ridiculed at school for her fresh name, but Pity is enchanted by her and suggests that they go together for the school’s talent show.
Pity’s talent, which she seems to invent on the spot, is to be able to eat anything, which she proves by picking up a handful of tan bark pieces and swallowing them, splinters and everything. Later, Pussy challenges Pity to eat her whole and sit up behind the scenes. Too bad, eager to continue to impress his new friend, begs her to kneel, and looks like behind her «in the trash, a raccoon [runs] over the dense surface of the water, a glass bottle in its jaws, god of loss. “
The story is an extended pun on the title, and makes a metaphor out of desire before adolescence. Want is one of the collection’s main themes, especially in the sense of sexual and sensual desire – always for and between girls or women, never accommodating to the male gaze. Gods of Want is in some ways a fantasy of queer freedom. The main characters, all Taiwanese or Chinese by birth or descent, are allowed to be who they are, to love and make love with whoever they choose. This is not to say that relationships or dalliances are always simple or successful. In “Dykes”, the narrator wonders what her colleague Ail’s nipples might look like. When Ail tells her that she can see if she wants to, the narrator becomes suspicious, knowing that “all wishes were weapons that could be turned against you at any time.”
In addition to the characters’ wishes, whether adopted or just fantasized, “Gods of Want” is united by repetitions of words and images. Teeth – specifically molars – are mentioned in several stories, as are moths. At least two broken noses appear, as do mouths that are literally shot to silence; “hip”, “crown” and “razor” are repeatedly used as verbs, and heads are compared to melons more than once.
At first I thought these were linguistic tics, but as I read the book for the second time, they became bread crumbs for a careful reader. They offer the possibility that several of the stories are told by the same person at different times in life, or that characters in some stories may know them in others. Maybe they all live in the same fictional community, or several communities that mirror each other. But while this is not the case, the repetitions create the feeling across the stories of a shared history – of colonization of land and language, of immigration, of lust – as well as a shared wealth and depth of myths to see the world’s atrocities and glories .
Masad is a book and culture critic and author of “All My Mother’s Lovers”.