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Review: ‘Gods of Want,’ K-Ming Chang’s short stories on desire

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Gods of Need

By Ok-Ming Chang
One World: 224 pages, $27

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In “9-Headed Birds,” a narrative about midway by Ok-Ming Chang’s new assortment, “Gods of Want,” the narrator describes how her jiujiu (maternal uncle) took her to amusement parks and lent her cash to place by these penny-flattening machines. “I liked how skin-thin it was in the long run, how the penny resembled not one of the presidents,” she tells us. “I liked how straightforward its historical past was rewritten, solid into fiction.”

Chang has a particular expertise for forging historical past into fable and fable into present-day fiction. Her debut novel, “Bestiary,” “bursts open like scrumptious fruit on the sting of rot,” as Bethanne Patrick wrote in The Occasions’ evaluation, filled with lyrical imagery and a setting wherein “the truth is harsh and the magic is actual.”

Like “Bestiary,” the 16 mytho-realistic tales in “Gods of Need” are set amongst Taiwanese immigrants and first-generation People, principally in California. Additionally they use equally poetic language to discover among the identical themes — household, tales handed by generations, queer need, the aliveness of the mundane world round us. That isn’t to say Chang is repeating herself: Solely that like many authors, she orbits round particular creative obsessions and sensibilities. The tales are divided into three sections, “Moms,” “Myths” and “Moths,” though references to all three spill over into many of the items.

A number of the tales are much less typical than others. The primary, “Auntland,” is written as a breathless checklist of such ladies and their actions: an aunt who requested to get her tongue pulled on the dentist, one other who tweezed out bits of damaged tooth from the narrator’s mouth, a 3rd who kissed one other lady when she thought nobody was watching and lots of extra. Whether or not the aunts within the narrator’s litany recur or every is solely distinct is unclear — and it doesn’t actually make a distinction; the purpose is that there’s love woven into this enumeration of girls and the knowledge, foibles, superstitions, ache and pleasure they cross on to the narrator.

The second story, “The Refrain of Useless Cousins,” has a extra outlined arc. The narrator here’s a newlywed lady whose spouse threatens to depart her only a week after their marriage ceremony, a direct results of lifeless cousins wreaking havoc. The narrator’s spouse, who works as a storm-chaser, doesn’t herself like being chased by the storm of ghosts. The narrator, nonetheless, acknowledges their often-good intentions.

"Gods of Want," by K-Ming Chang

“My spouse stated they have been fluent solely within the vocabulary of mindless destruction,” she says, “however weeks earlier than we left, I noticed the cousins within the yard with shovels. They have been standing in a row like troopers, and after I requested what they have been doing, they stated, ‘We’re making you a moat.” Really, it’s a firebreak. The cousins realize it’s wildfire season they usually imply to guard their dwelling kin.

The guide attracts its title from the story “Consuming Pussy,” whose narrator is known as Pity. (“Folks at all times replied, ‘Fairly? That’s good.’ I’d say ‘No, not Fairly,’ not even after I dyed my hair ash-blond with the field dye I shoplifted from Daiso.”) One other lady, Pussy, is mocked at college for her fresh-off-the-boat identify, however Pity is enchanted together with her and suggests they pair up for the varsity expertise present.

Pity’s expertise, which she appears to make up on the spot, is with the ability to eat something, which she proves by selecting up a handful of tanbark bits and swallowing them, splinters and all. Later, Pussy challenges Pity to eat her entire and regurgitate her backstage. Pity, keen to maintain impressing her new good friend, tells her to kneel, and watches as, behind her, “within the trash creek, a raccoon [runs] throughout the clogged floor of the water, a glass bottle in its jaws, god of need.”

The story quantities to an prolonged pun on the title, making a metaphor out of the stirrings of preadolescent need. Need is likely one of the assortment’s main themes, particularly within the sense of sexual and sensual need — at all times for and between women or ladies, by no means catering to the male gaze. “Gods of Need” is in some methods a fantasy of queer freedom. Its predominant characters, all Taiwanese or Chinese language by beginning or descent, are allowed to be who they’re, to like and make like to whomever they select. This isn’t to say relationships or dalliances are at all times straightforward or profitable. In “Dykes,” the narrator wonders what her co-worker Ail’s nipples would possibly appear like. When Ail tells her she will look if she needs, the narrator is suspicious, figuring out “all needs have been weapons that could possibly be turned on you anytime.”

Along with the characters’ wishes, whether or not enacted or merely fantasized, “Gods of Need” is unified by recurrences of phrase and picture. Enamel — molars particularly — are featured in a number of tales, as are moths. At the very least two damaged noses seem, as do mouths which can be actually shot into silence; “hip,” “crown” and “razor” are repeatedly used as verbs, and heads are in comparison with melons greater than as soon as.

At first I believed these have been linguistic tics, however as I learn the guide a second time, they turned bread crumbs for a cautious reader. They provide up the chance that a number of of the tales are narrated by the identical particular person at completely different occasions of their life, or that characters in sure tales would possibly know these in others. Maybe all of them inhabit the identical fictional neighborhood, or a number of communities that mirror each other. However even when this isn’t the case, the recurrences create the sense throughout the tales of a shared historical past — of colonization of land and language, of immigration, of need — in addition to a shared wealth and depth of myths by which to view the world’s cruelties and glories alike.

Masad is a books and tradition critic and creator of “All My Mom’s Lovers.”