Did You Plan on Taking the Easy Road?
Bonnie Chau’s debut story collection, All Roads Lead to Blood (Winner of this year’s 2040 Books Prize), explores life from the perspectives of young, second-generation Chinese-American women. In these sixteen stories, themes of loneliness, alienation, and wantonness connect each character as they struggle with dilemmas of self-identity. In “Monstrosity,” for example, a young woman has an out of body experience after sleeping with a man she hardly knows. Her Chinese self separates from the self that wishes to not be identified as Chinese: “We will both be you…and it will be so much better for us. You be you, and I’ll be the other, we will contradict each other, but not ourselves.” The choice to focus on each character’s interiority, rather than setting, adds weight to each short story and the entire collection. More importantly, the shortness of each story keeps the reader reading, effectively threading Chau’s characters together as she intended.
While Chau’s cast of characters are almost entirely young Chinese-American woman, they each offer fresh perspectives. Their conflicts revolve around the weighty subjects of contemporary American existence: aging, parents, romance, heritage, memory, and self-identity. Perhaps Chau’s biggest strength is the way these conflicts constantly overlap and fluctuate between realism, fabulism, and stream of consciousness. In “Ghosts,” the narrative is broken into five chapters, each chapter describing a ghost that the character knew or heard of, until she becomes a ghost herself in the final chapter: “Now that I am no longer solid, now that I am slippery and borderless, if I stay still like that, I become a secret. Perhaps only one person ever invented me, and I’ve been forgotten. Perhaps I was never there at all, and am not there now.” She obsesses about becoming invisible to her family, her friends, and herself, until she feels unable to keep her life or herself together.
Chau’s characters often feel a great disconnect between themselves and everyone around them. Perhaps no story illustrates Chau’s range as fully as “Somebody Else in the Room,” in which we find Lucy questioning her identity: “If enough men press their penises into her vagina, maybe she can turn into someone who does not get asked this question. What are you? A poet. No, no. What are you? Like…Oh. I’m American. No, you know what I mean. Where are you from? California. No, like, what are you? Like, Korean, Japanese, Chinese… Are those my only options?” Pages later Lucy deals with a naked ghost man in her apartment as a gulf expands between her and her boyfriend. These combinations of perspectives, of mundane issues mixed with the fantastic, force readers to enter Chau’s world, where being a woman is nothing to be ashamed of, much less being a woman of color.
Chau’s ability to blend the fantastic with the real also ties her collection together, as “Triptych Portrait with Doors in Closed Position” demonstrates. This story traverses between three separate points in time, accumulating with a love letter. It’s here that I believe Chau bares the heart of her collection: “Here. Now. These are deictic words, as the artist once explained to me, which only accrue their meaning given the contextual information.” Clairvoyant moments like these are what make the characters compelling and give hope to the reader that they are not as adrift in life as they seem. Each story stands individually, but this collection is truly meant to be read as a whole.
Comparative to narratives like The Pursuit of Happiness and often reading like a mix of ZZ Packer and Karen Russell, All Roads Lead to Blood heralds a writer who is up and coming. Chau’s debut collection deservedly won its award for being unafraid to be what it is – an important entry into the conversations of women and people of color and the issues they face, an invitation to observe and engage: “Before me are road trip clouds stretching to the very edge of what I can see,” as Chau writes. “Look, they beckon, look at us, look at this world, look what’s ahead, and just for a moment, I take my foot off the gas petal.”
header image: "have a balloon," jorge gonzales / flickr