One of the things that has always irked me about education here is the U.S. is the focus on Western authors. British and American literature dominate, with a little European and Russian lit tossed in as an afterthought. I mean, I appreciate the Western canon of literature as much as the next reader, but what about Asian literature? Asian authors?
I’ve been trying to rectify this over the past few years by broadening my horizons and exploring Asian literature and authors. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. My most recent read, Conservation of Shadows, is a short story collection by Yoon Ha Lee, a Korean-American writer based out of Houston, Texas. The collection contains stories that straddle the line between science-fiction and fantasy with a strong influence of Korean myth.
I picked up the book as part of a Humble Bundle deal a while back. I hadn’t heard of Lee at the time and wasn’t familiar with his work so I went into reading this with a blank slate, no preconceived notions, no idea of what I was getting myself into. Full disclosure here – I’m one of those readers who likes to know a bit about an author before reading a book or short story collection. I’m not looking for spoilers. I find (or seem to think) that knowing a little bit about the person behind the words gives them more meaning. The stories aren’t written by some faceless entity…there’s a human being back there pulling the strings (or typing the keys). Maybe that’s a carry over from when I was taking literature courses in college and the instructors were telling me that knowing who an author is – where they come from, how they grew up, how they lived and loved – provides context. Or maybe I have minor stalking issues.
The point is, I didn’t even read any reviews of the book, no synopsis, nothing. And I’m glad I did.
So on to the stories…and I usual, I’m not going to get into the details so as to avoid spoiling anything. To begin, I read the first two stories thinking the author was a woman. The narrative voice had a feminine feel to it…I don’t know why. Maybe it was the way things were described, the way characters moved or spoke, or the things they noticed. Regardless, I’m not educated on Asian naming conventions, so I simply assumed Lee was a woman. Interestingly enough, I later found out that Lee is a trans man who identifies as queer. So that feminine quality I sensed in the writing wasn’t too far off the mark. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen Lee referred to as both “he” and “she” in write ups online, but for the purpose of this post I’ll simply use “he”.
Regardless, the writing is excellent. Lee’s narrative voice is so smooth, gently carrying the reader along. It doesn’t matter if it’s a musician sitting quietly in her room or a starship captain in the midst of a battle, the stories never feel rushed. The thing that really got me, though, was the was Lee incorporated Korean mythology and culture into the stories so seamlessly. The first story, “Ghostweight”, opens with the following lines…
“It is not true that the dead cannot be folded. Square becomes kite becomes swan; history becomes rumor becomes song. Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.”
And I was led into a story that combined death and origami. The story is powerful, and despite the oddness of it, I never once questioned the feasibility of it. I should probably clarify this. Years ago I was in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State. One of my writing instructors (who shall remain nameless, but you’ve probably seen him on bookstore shelves) was adamant that fiction had to be feasible. He argued this with me over a short story I had workshopped that he didn’t care for. His reasoning was that the basic premise wasn’t believable. To bolster his point, he told me about a story another student had written years earlier about a guy and his talking snake. He felt that everyone knows that snakes can’t talk, so the basic premise of the story is unbelievable and therefore shouldn’t be used. I countered that it doesn’t matter what the premise might be…if the story is well-written then the reader will suspend their disbelief.
With Lee’s stories, you have to suspend disbelief. The mythology he incorporates into his stories is just that…mythology. No, it’s not realistic that someone can reanimate the bones of a giant in order to storm a castle, but in a well-written story you don’t question it. Lee makes it easy to forget your skepticism and let yourself be carried away by the prose.
There’s a lot to unpack with these stories and they deserve a re-read, which I plan to do in the near future. There’s so much poetry to them, some wonderful twists and turns, and a nice bit of magic realism. I wish I could say I had a favorite story in this collection, but they were all special and unique in their own way. They all has something interesting that kept me interested and wanting more. I think it’s safe to say that they way Lee has written these stories you could easily assume they are in the same reality, but at different points in time. There’s also this ancient feel to some of these stories. It’s strange because even the ones set in space feel old, like there’s a lot of untold history. It makes the stories feel more weighty, more real.
I think that Lee will easily become one of my favorite writers. I wish I could go into more detail about Conservation of Shadows, but it would be too easy to spoil the surprises. And yes, there are some wonderful surprises hidden in there.
Conclusion – This is a fantastic collection of short stories that, to me, are a fine example of Asian-influenced speculative fiction. Highly recommended.