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Cultural clarity

Frances Hwang sees somberness and beauty


“It was hard not to feel limited by your family,” writes Frances Hwang in a short story about a college student, June, who visits her uncle’s family. “[June] always tried to hide from them her tender spots, her weaknesses, as best as she could. Why was that?”

Contemplating the odd mix of emotion June felt during the visit with the strange mix of relatives—her uncle, a salesman of cheap trinkets; her cousin, a member of a religious cult—an answer to her rhetorical question emerges: “There was a gap, she felt, a flaw in their understanding. Their way of looking at things, their assumptions about her and other people, so often seemed wrong and she had learned to shy away from their judgment and even their sympathy.”

That realization also triggers the next: June’s understanding of her own family was equally flawed, especially toward her brother, a computer aficionado and homebound recluse. “What did she really know about his life? She didn’t know what he did with his days, who his friends were in college, if he had ever kissed a girl or been in love.

“At some point, a veil had fallen between them, and now so many things were left unsaid.”

And that—those things left unsaid among family members—is what’s at the heart of Hwang’s elegantly crafted collection of short stories, Transparency, which was released late last year. The University of Montana creative writing graduate presents a series of characters wrestling with their obscured understanding of those people closest to them.

In “The Old Gentleman,” a grown daughter is surprised and disgusted by her elderly widower father’s October romance with a woman seeking asylum from Taiwan. In another, the title story, Henry Liu is withering away under a nameless terminal condition, enduring an agonizing family car trip—until an encounter with a woman with the psychosomatic need to drink water forces the realization on him that he loves his wife and children. In “Giving a Clock,” a young woman visits her favorite aunt, dying of colon cancer, and is startled by her aunt’s love for her sister, the girl’s mother.

In each, the main character starts with a frozen view of the world around them. Only momentous events—death, love, marriage—stir things enough to reveal old secrets and emotions. Family members suddenly reveal their complex, passionate histories. The once easy world of family is shaken.

But with revelation comes renewal—the previously familiar families are now strange and mysterious. There’s a new chance to bridge the old fights and unhappiness.

Transparency is also the story of immigrant Chinese families in America. But unlike, say, Gish Jen, whose novels pit her Chinese heritage against American culture and its notion of race and self-identity, Hwang’s stories depict her heritage as an interesting and complex background for the play of anguished emotions and family discovery at the center of the book.

In “The Modern Age,” for example, a dinner party of 20-somethings of Jewish and Chinese descent each tell their own “persecuted ancestor” story: grandfathers and grandmothers who run from Chinese Communists or Nazi Germans, getting kidnapped by bandits or hiding in Polish farmhouses. A young woman named Milly muses afterwards, “Well, all of this makes me think how insignificant my own problems are.” Her friend, Cornelius, wonders, “Where do you think our sadness comes from?” And then concludes it’s created “internally” from “depression” and “isn’t anything really to despair about.”

The narrator adds: “But even so, isn’t that person’s suffering real?”

When the narrator returns home to a boyfriend who was absent from the dinner party, she’s filled with the wonder of the “terrible, miraculous things that happened to our families,” and likely eased by their sufferings from her own. She’s met, however, by misunderstanding. The boyfriend ignores the stories and criticizes a minute detail—how the dinner was made—revealing his dislike for the others who were at the party. Heritage is the vehicle to the core of the story: the sad gulf between the lovers.

It’s all marred by sadness. In small doses, the mood of Transparency can be poignant. But the cumulative effect after reading story after sad story is wearisome. The angst of youth is interesting in bits, but in a great big gulp, it can be trying.

In a moment from “Intruders,” Hwang perhaps acknowledges this in a moment of clear—and beautiful—self-awareness: “These morbid writers who can only write about their mother dying!” says a writer in the story to an aspiring author. “What I want to know is why is everyone so depressed? Hardly anyone ever writes about joy anymore. You know why? Because it’s harder to write about joy. It’s easier to hit the note of sadness than anything else.”

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