Short Story 4: Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie

In September last year, I saw Ken Liu talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. He was serious, dressed in an overcoat (I might be projecting this), and his responses to the host were always long and detailed, but fascinating.

It was clear that this was a writer who thought a lot about a lot of things. It wasn’t just that he thought, it was that you could feel the emotion connected to the story he was telling, and to his writing. I can’t remember if he read a section from the Paper Menagerie, or just described it, but the imagery was vivid. It seemed like he was a writer who felt deeply, and someone who would definitely be worth reading.

After hearing his talk I went out to buy the collection, but on that day it had been sold out at the Fugard. A month later, I got a book voucher for my favourite bookstore, The Book Lounge, as part of my bachelorette gifts, and I knew exactly what I was going to buy.

The collection of short stories is called The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. It has a beautiful cover, and the list of accolades that Liu has accrued and achieved is detailed on the back and is extremely impressive, and when I searched for some podcasts featuring him I learned that he also writes Star Wars stories. He is a busy man, and he is extremely talented.

I picked up the collection one evening during the holidays while my husband was ill, and read him The Paper Menagerie. Filled with feeling and depth it is a truly magical story, one that will leave you thinking about it for weeks to come. You can read the whole story here, but I’d really recommend going and buying the collection because the other stories in it are incredible too.

First Line: One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing.

The story describes a child’s relationship with his parents as he grows up in America in a multiracial family. He struggles to make friends, and so his mom crafts him a menagerie made of origami and breathes life into it. The creatures come alive and are his companions in a world that is not always easy to live in. His father is American, and his mom is Chinese. He describes her being picked by his dad from a catalogue, but the real story is far more complicated.

As he grows older, his relationship with his mother grows fraught, as he longs for a ‘normal’ American mother who speaks with him in English. He wants more than anything to fit in, and this comes at a high cost. His father tries to heal the relationship but is not successful. One day in an argument his mother responds that when she says love in English, she feels it in her mouth, but when she says it in Chinese she feels it in her heart. I think we all know the difference between saying and feeling love, and this just puts it so beautifully.

The story is so beautiful, vivid, and full of emotion. He uses images to connect times and spaces so skillfully. I had to pause at some points in order to be able to carry on because I was overwhelmed by the emotion of the character. It is a story that gets to the heart of love and the way we treat those closest to us, the easiest people to bully and belittle, but also the people who give us the most love, even when it seems we don’t deserve it.

I have been slowly reading through the rest of the collection, not because the stories are dense or difficult, but because the sheer force of feelings of each story means you need to sit a while between them. Sometimes days.

But you will want to pick them up again. Because they are powerful stories, and powerful stories feed you, even when they are sad. Perhaps especially so.

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