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Book: Women of the Silk

Author: Gail Tsukiyama

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


“It would have been different if they had been sons.”

The soft cries of earthly born daughters are hastily hushed while the comforting cries of heavenly born sons are lovingly embraced. Pining mothers and fathers sit under the unpredictable skies with but only one prayer: “grant us a son”. A son is symbolic to all that is divinely handed, to all the inherent rights and privileges of human-kind. To have a son is to have an identity worth having for it means righteous continuance, celestial inheritance, and perpetual propriety. A son is the sun and all revolves around him. This is the cultural transcript that tunes the traditional structure of numerous societies throughout time, distance, and land.

But then, what of our daughters? If sons are the fabric of society, surely, there must be a place for the other kind. And what kind of a place must it be within this archaic duality? A strange but all-too-common duality it is, and Gail Tsukiyama’s first novel Women of the Silk focuses on just that. Tsukiyama depicts the plight of half of humanity even though it’s within a very specific context, culture, and time. Yet it speaks volumes about the strength of women while simultaneously redefining liberation in this fictional-but-all-too-real tale about a young girl whose fate was already sealed the day she was born, well, a girl.

The novel takes place in rural China and spans a few decades starting from 1919  to the late ’30s . These were troubling times not only because blood and turmoil continued to besiege various corners of the world as the geo-political landscape began to transform, but because social structure beseeched a cultural evolution while tradition demanded status quo. Literal wars continued, but an even bigger battle slowly brewed — one that had vibrated the core of the earth for eons — one of roles and liberation. Essentially, what Tsukiyama presents is just that, but in the form of a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Pei who gets relinquished by her father to a girls’ house for “unattached girls” in a town unfamiliar to her, abandoned by the only ones that were familiar to her.

“Pei tried to move, but her legs ached and her head throbbed with a pain she had never felt before. But it did not compare to the ache she felt at being left alone at this house with strangers. She thought of everything she had done to deserve such a fate. She tried not to cry, but the tears came anyway, hot and burning.”

The story is straight-forward as it traces the life of Pei and those that surround her as she embarks on a journey to work in a silk factory while living amongst likened faces and familiar struggles. There is an immense amount of hard-hitting realism as multiple perspectives are shown. Tsukiyama seems to have an affinity with breaking her narration out – in either entries or in chronological categorization – which can seem rather detracting from immersion, but works here to some extent. The novel parrots  a report in some ways:  highlighting events, detailing facts and conditions, and evaluating them. The multiple perspectives does well here to enhance that while coating  the stringent qualities of a report with  raw emotion, integrated themes, and powerful language that binds the novel with grace.

However, this also turns out to be a double-edged sword. There are plenty of characters introduced and all of them want to be important, but often don’t make more than a splash in the wide waters that Tsukiyama reveals. Now, for a character-driven story of this kind to be wholesomely effective, it requires an unconditional attachment to establishing and developing character metamorphoses within the frame of context and theme(s). There is a very simple reason for this. A central theme in this work is liberation. The path to liberation here is contingent on collective power which comes out with great force and resonation. Conversely, the collectivity of it all overshadowed any sort of individual distinction or depth that any one single character could convey and sadly, they didn’t. Most characters simply functioned as rotating devices or stepping stones for the “bigger picture”. This often left me jaded at points because they were outlined with such care and promising illusions, yet flat-lined in so many situations to the point of “no point”.  Certain major characters such as Auntie Yee who felt extremely romanticized and exaggerated, or Lin who was Pei’s best friend and reflective of the quintessential Chinese beauty, or Chen Ling the stoic, dedicated hard worker all were bound by a similar tragic lore and were superficially interesting, but holistically hollow. Most of them – more or less – just served to personify certain ideas that Tsukiyama wanted present to incubate the impact, rather than to integrate dynamic, interesting characters.

Yet it would do the novel great injustice if I were to reduce all characters to static pebbles skipped along the shores of the story. Granted that there is a harbored inconsistency within troupe of girls overall, but there are some standouts that tipped the scale back. Pei is one of them; perhaps it’s within my own biased light that Pei shines where others fail, but for good reason. Pei is the black sheep among the flock of white. She asks too many questions. She has little restraint. Her character is so against the grain and in your face that it’s hard to question the obvious fate that will befall her. Surprisingly, it is in that precise fatalistic conclusion that seems so downwardly real that when contrasted with the theme of the book and the eventual climax, that I was hit by an unexpected force.

Her character is marvelously constructed and nuanced by almost every frame and perspective, yet it isn’t her that becomes the catalyst for change nor is she  simply just a conduit like some of her family and friends. She moved with time; changed with the winds she spoke to, blossomed like the ponds her father tended to, wilted like the dusk flower she watched, reemerged with the sunrise she waited for, and through the thickness and thinness of it all, felt hopelessly real in all of the highs and lows she goes through. For me, Pei carried this book through – whether as a young girl or as a young woman; it was her life that spoke out among the numerous, numbing echoes  that resonated behind her. She was like them, but they weren’t like her, and perhaps Tsukiyama’s intention was just that, but it was an intention that came out a little too strong and deafening for the other characters. Nevertheless, the coming-of-age narrative was successful hugely due to Pei, and although the other characters were underwhelming and lackluster, served their proximal purpose of being the silk shards that wove the thematic heart of the narrative together.

One thing that’s indefinitely commendable is the subject matter and how eloquently the words dance with it;  sometimes with a soft waltz and others with a daring tango, both styles imbuing a sense of clarity and awareness to all that is occurring. It is fairly impressive how the novel succeeds at its bifocal approach: one to elucidate on the struggles of Pei and various other girls within the same realm, and two, to bring together those struggles to materialize a very peculiar sense of liberation through an organized strike. The first part is the infrastructure and contains all the coming-of-age/tragic elements one would expect ranging from abandonment and alienation, forlorn romances and broken hearts, friendships and family, along with some cultural shades specific to the Chinese way of life. But, it is the second part that really elevated the matter aspect and that is the core theme of the novel: liberation.

“For a moment Auntie Yee was speechless, but not out of surprise. She had always known Chen Ling might go through the hairdressing ceremony, which was the final declaration from a young woman that she wouldn’t marry, but instead remain in a sisterhood of silk workers…”

The way liberation is approached in the novel isn’t some philosophically ambiguous  concept nor is it akin to the colloquial form of “freedom” that rings throughout the lands today. When the word x-factory comes up which often roughly translates to sweat shops to some uneven degree, the western heart melts with anguish for how could those poor men and women suffer under those extreme and inhumane circumstances? The last word that would be used to describe that environment would be liberating. But, it’s precisely that. It is the factory or more so working there that liberates these women. In a culture where women are born to breed in silence, any refuge granting an expression of will, an exercise of choice, or plainly, promising independence is truly a hall of liberation. That is the sweet and bitter essence of the silk factories. This liberation was now unequivocally theirs and regardless of the hardships to come, they could not be stripped of this newfound sensation that now filled every crevice of their mind and body. It was ceremonial. It was natural. It was theirs. This is the duality that Tsukiyama paints and colors in spades of hope and necessity in a time where there was none.

“…Actually, the hairdressing ceremony is very similar to a marriage ceremony, only it’s a celebration of choice.”

“Pei stood in the moonlit darkness among Lin’s childhood possessions. The closed, stagnant air of confinement surrounded her, holding her. The room had remained the same, with nothing out of place. Pei walked to the center of the room and waited. In the darkness, she began to see the vague oulines, which grew sharper and clearer as her eyes grew accustomed. Directly in front of her were Lin’s dolls. Their white faces seemed to be watching her. Pei spoke silently to them, asking for directions. She stood waiting for a long time. Then beyond the room came the sudden creaking of the old house. When Pei returned back to the frozen faces, she saw that the dolls were only relics of a past…Pei knew she would also have to leave them…The memories fell upon her, like small whispered secrets. And what she found in the darkness was a new strength.”

Overall, Tsukiyama’s first effort within the historical fiction realm proves to be a worthy read. It’s a thoroughly researched, detail-oriented narrative that presents an age-old duality through the lens of the young and old alike. Although, it often feels heavy-handed in material and blasé in overall characterization, it provides an excellent look into the subject it tackles and presents it through a superbly-written tale. Sons and men may be the eternalized fabric of our society, but as Tsukiyama shows earnestly, that fabric too is comprised of single threads that are woven by daughters and Women of the Silk.

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