Elevate Difference

A Thread of Sky

Six Chinese American female characters form the main narrative perspectives of Deanna Fei’s ambitious first novel, A Thread of Sky. There is family matriarch Lin Yulan, once a revolutionary for the nationalist party in China, and her daughters Irene and Susan. Irene is a bereaved widow looking to herself reconnect with her three daughters: Nora, a finance and marketing success; Kay, the one most connected to her Chinese ethnic roots; and Sophie, the youngest who struggles with an eating disorder and was just accepted to Stanford University. Irene’s grand plan to unite the family is to plan a trip to China, a venture in which only women will be invited.

Lin Yulan’s revolutionary past is one that sets the tone for the generations that follow, as she raises both Irene and Susan to be independent women who strive for careers of their own. When Irene’s career as a scientist begins to find a renaissance after the birth of her first two children, she discovers she is pregnant again. Irene’s mother wants her to abort the child, but Irene does not, and yet, despite Irene’s own commitment to raising a family, the values instilled in her by her mother regarding the importance of self-sustainment are also ones she hands down to her daughters.

There are many complications on the trip, and all revolve around romance and relationships (perhaps with the exception of Sophie). Nora’s crumbling relationship with her Caucasian WASP-y husband leaves her in an escapist mindset when she assents to go on the tour. Having arranged a meeting with her grandfather while she was in China previously, Kay possesses her own agenda about the impending trip. (Lin Yulan and her husband, Kay’s grandfather, parted on bad terms when she left for the United States, making Kay’s overtures both risky and somewhat sentimental.) Sophie would rather stay at home preparing for her freshman year and developing a relationship with her African American boyfriend, Brandon. She also finds herself dealing with an eating disorder that arises not long after her father dies. Susan, a poet, although seemingly happily married to Winston, still finds herself thinking about an ill-conceived affair with a former creative writing student named Ernesto.

At one point early on in the novel, The Joy Luck Club is referenced. It is an apt moment that recalls the self-consciousness of many Asian American writers publishing today. In that novel, Jing-mei returns to China, sets foot on what is believed to be a kind of homeland, and finds some sort of resolution within the last handful of pages. This kind of return journey is not the one that Fei has planned. Indeed, the tour of China is just the beginning of a narrative about the complications of intergenerational relationships between these Chinese American women. Fei lets her characters find footing by exposing their flaws and judiciously characterizing their various goals and motivations. The novel finds its surest stride within character construction.

There is, of course, one other major “character,” which is the way Fei configures China. The Chinese American women struggle to find clear and transparent attachments to nation and place. China is not a landscape that yields easily to them, but Fei is clear to mark these women off differently than other tourists and mobile elites. Indeed, there is a large discourse related to China’s modernization that is being interrogated any time the six women find themselves in bazaars or markets, where global capitalism is ambivalently represented.

There is a delicate balancing act in the characters' desire to root out problematic inequities arising from China’s modernization while simultaneously discovering that such problematics are difficult and thorny to address. The most compelling parts of the novel are rooted here, especially when Kay attempts to constitute a mode of transnational feminism that is thwarted at almost every turn by the way upward mobility becomes one of the ways by which China’s future is brokered. It is clear that Fei’s novel does not broker to presenting China as an exotic, unchanging landscape that can be claimed by the credit card. Rather, it is complex and shifting, a place that is constantly being razed and rebuilt, preserved in some locations, but disintegrating in others.

A Thread of Sky does not conclude with easy answers and, instead, leaves many open questions. In this suspended state of expectance, the novel resolutely moves outside of sentimentalism and resides in a domestic drama that unfolds unceasingly and with admirable restraint. In this regard, A Thread of Sky manages to offer a visually stunning tableau of China’s evolution in the twenty-first century without shifting into the superficiality of a travelogue, letting the reader’s sense of an already complex geography change as her characters do too.

Cross-posted at Asian American Literature Fans

Written by: Stephen Hong Sohn, May 25th 2010