Toward the North: Stories by Chinese Canadian Writers is a thoughtfully coordinated anthology by editors Hua Laura Wu, Xueqing Xu, and Corinne Bieman Davies. Each story feels like it is presented in exactly the right place and at exactly the right moment in relation to the other stories it shares a cover with. The over-arching theme of the entire collection is Chinese transnational and cross-cultural life experience, and some other common shared themes include the relationship with one’s family, the significance of names, language barriers, and Western vs. Eastern ideologies.
Some Selected Stories
The first and last stories in the collection, “Jia Na Da/Canada,” and “Toward the North” respectively, are in large part about how Chinese and Canadian Cultures fit with one another in a shared space. While the introductory story suggests a disconnect between the two groups, the concluding story reveals many similarities in a community with Ojibwa, Han Chinese, Tibetan, and white peoples. In “Jia Na Da,” Feng Jian desperately wants to have a son in order to maintain Chinese tradition and fulfill the “revolutionary mission.” Feng Jian’s obsession with having a son comes into conflict with his wife who feels like she is being used as a breeding machine. Much is done with names in this story especially. “Fengjian” means feudal or feudalistic. The story concludes with twins being born, one boy and one girl. All four childrens’ names together form “Canada and flower.” Naming the children “Canada and flower” at the end of the story feels forced because the excitement is in the realization of a goal in a feudal Chinese tradition that in fact goes against much of what we value in modern Canada— like the freedom for a woman to choose, for the wife in this story does not want to get pregnant again after her first two children.
The concluding and title story, “Toward the North” instead shows readers exactly how well the Chinese, Tibetan, and Indigenous peoples get along, and further need one another. The story delves into herbal medicines used by both Asian and Canadian Indigenous peoples, and at one point Dawa is asked if she would take her deaf son—Neil— back to China and Dawa recognizes that what her son needs is the community he is in. Placing these two stories where they are suggests movement from a “multicultural” society where values between neighbours are significantly different and don’t mold with each other without being forced, to the conclusion that many groups can live together with both differing and shared values and have it make sense. Nothing is forced in the concluding story; the community makes sense.
Many Lives, Many Perspectives
Many stories in the collection feature abuse and partners who are unfaithful. One of my personal favourites is “Vase” by Yafang, which is in the perspective of a vase witnessing domestic abuse. After reading many sympathetic stories about abuse or maltreatment, “Surrogate Father” by Bo Sun stood out to me because it is in the perspective of an unfaithful husband, who has always been “lucky.” This husband impregnantes his wife’s best friend and suffers no repercussions. The choice to place this story after many that are sympatheic to wives who are abused or whose husbands are unfaithful reads as though the editors don’t want readers to be sympathetic towards Qiao Guangzong in “Surrogate Father.” However, nonetheless choosing to include this story deems it necessary to the collection’s overall purpose: to communicate Chinese-Canadian life experiences from many different perspectives. Qiao, though not particularly likeable to readers like myself, contributes to this goal.
One last honourable mention is “The Abandoned Cat” by Ling Zhang. I enjoyed this story because I thought it was an honest portrayal of mental illness. Often, folks with serious mental illness are encouraged to get a pet because they are more likely to get up to care for an animal than they are for themselves. The main character in “The Abandoned Cat” connects with her cat when she has no connection elsewhere. She does not speak English well, her husband leaves her, and she struggles with seemingly easy tasks like brushing her teeth. The cat whom she saves ultimately saves her.
I have only mentioned five of the thirteen stories in the collection here — not even half! Towards the North: Stories by Chinese Canadian Writers is a piece of work that any Canadian who believes in Canada’s claim to multiculturalism should read. Each individual story can stand alone but together are so expertly arranged that when read in order it takes the reading experience to a new level. The stories reveal to readers, through fiction, the lived experience of Chinese-Canadian immigrants and the struggles of building a new life across the globe, and of not only learning to communicate enough to get by but of adapting in order to live in an environment with often drastically different ideologies without losing or rejecting your past.
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