Butterfly Tears
 by ZoŽ S. Roy

Inanna Publications
2009, Paperback
First collection

Born in China ZoŽ S. Roy was an eyewitness to the red terror under Mao’s regime. Her writing has appeared in Canadian Stories, Thought Magazine and The Northern Light. Her debut short fiction collection, Butterfly Tears, was published by Inanna Publications and Education Inc. in October 2009. Awarded an M.Ed. from the University of New Brunswick and an M.A. from Saint Mary’s University, she lives in Toronto and works in adult education.

Read an interview with ZoŽ S. Roy

"Nina raised her head and looked deeply into Gui’s Wife’s eyes, knowing with certainty that she could not stay. The green sheet of paper that unfolded in front of her, granting her asylum, looked shiny, as if a sparkling star had emerged in a starless sky."

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius

These haunting tales of unrealised dreams and nostalgic regret read like chapters of a novel about the same character. Within the subgenre of the Asian immigrant experience, the protagonists are female in all but one of the fifteen stories, women whose lives mirror and echo similar experiences.

Moving between China and North American or Canadian cities, married or single, childless or mothers, women’s lives are changed and families divided by China’s Cultural Revolution.

"Revolution is an act of insurrection whereby one class overthrows another." Mao Ze Dong’s words quoted by the author are the key to understanding the catalyst to this particular migration. In swift transition, an elite class became persecuted outsiders in their own society. In Frog Fishing a teacher suspected of ‘rightist’ tendencies , is saved from an accusation of political disloyalty when a bolder colleague defends her. The story Ten Yuan, the only one with a male main character, conjures the atmosphere of political repression; a young man’s professional future hinges on a chance unguarded remark.

Children become victims of events they can’t control or understand. In Balloons, for instance, schoolgirl Suyun has mud thrown at her and is called a "stinking capitalist". This is in strong contrast with the status of children of later stories who become the focus of ambitions and a means for their mothers’ to integrate into an adopted culture, although not the sole cause. In A Mandarin Duck, for instance, the abused mother Huidi is awakened to a need to assume responsibility and prompted to learn English when she realizes "she could live in Canada not only for her son, but also for herself".

Recurrent flashbacks to a former life are ambivalent, both signposts and distractions as the woman comes to terms with her new situation. Glimpses of traumatic post-Mao China depicted in the stories are balanced by memories of idyllic rural scenes. In the title story, Butterfly Tears, set in Montreal, Sunni’s memory is haunted by dreams of her home, and the recall of Chinese legends and music. Her concerns for her son and her husband’s infidelity contrast with childhood security and memory of her grandmother’s stories. In Wild Onions Sha, whose mother died in China, is only able to come to terms with her new life after seeking out a grave in Montreal.

Inter-gender relations are another stumbling block. Given a language divide, close relationships are only possible between members of the same ethnic minority. Typically, men are abusive husbands, as in Herbs, or wish to stifle their wife’s career aspirations, as in A Woman of China. Seemingly unattached, they often have ties elsewhere. The boyfriend in Twin Rivers, for instance, casually reveals that he has made arrangements for his wife and child to join him in Canada. Here the dialogue, as in many of the stories, helps to emphasise differences of personality and expectations between the characters:
"What arrangements?" Her voice quivered. "Do you mean they’re coming to Canada?"
"Of course." He looked at her and added, "We will have to stop; they’ll be here soon."
She cleared her throat.
"But what about our future?"
"We do not have a future. Why would you think this?"
Fortunately, few women react in such an extreme way as the heroine of Twin Rivers, and many find female allies. Lesbianism in two stories is seem as a viable alternative to oppression and exploitation. Fortune Telling has an unusually upbeat ending, when two friends look towards a happy future, their understated sexual bond largely forged by disillusionment with men.

In stories where transition is a major theme, planes, boats and trains are recurring motifs as a conduit for separation. By contrast, media brings news and hope of reunion; emails and letters, television reports and newspaper notices are points of contact. This is demonstrated most clearly in Balloons, the title a metaphor for the fractured family which is partially enabled to partly reunite. For the most part the time switches are well-managed and the use of symbols and motifs adds greatly to the literary aspect of the stories - exotic details which give a sense of complexity. A good example of this is Wild Onions, where the simple plant sought as a dietary addition becomes a symbolic reminder of China itself.

A few of the stories are less unsuccessful, such as Gingko with its melodramatic ending. Unlikely coincidences mar the funny and upbeat Blind Date while the surreal eco-friendliness of Jing and the Caterpillar strikes a false note. Most are compellingly authentic portraits of women who draw strength from the past to cope with uncertain futures.

Sheila Cornelius is a London-based writer who has worked as an editor in China. As well as reviews she writes magazine articles and is the author of New Chinese Cinema (2002). She also greatly admires the short story form and has tried her hand at writing some.

Sheila's other Short Reviews: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Liz Niven and Brian Whittingham (eds)  "Bucket of Frogs"

Andre Mangeot "A Little Javanese"

Steve Morris "In All Probability"

Lorna Page "Ebb and Flow
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Aili Miu, Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt (eds) "Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short Shorts"

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Asian Review of Books