Lan Chang captures the history and cultural experience of Asian immigrants with highly engaging and vivid prose, as each page and story explains why we are so desperate for love despite its destructive nature.
As a member of the generation that never knew the world without technology, my attention span never stood a chance during the pandemic. Long periods of stagnation have been stitched together with fast and immediate sources of entertainment like social media. I recognized the hours of screen time quickly accumulating on my phone and immediately wanted to return to the hobbies I once enjoyed as a kid. I wanted to start reading again.
When the stores started to reopen, I immediately found myself in the bookstore. I remember walking into Barnes and Nobles and being drawn to the pale blue-yellow cover of “Hunger” which had a curved neck crane on it. Never before had I turned to short stories because they never seemed to satiate me in the same way as full-length novels, but I bought “Hunger” without much thought in the hopes that it would help invigorate my patience. I haven’t touched it for months. I finally brought the novel to school hoping to find enough downtime to finish it, and when I finally picked it up, I could barely put it down.
“Hunger” starts with the titular news and is followed by a series of news. Through the lens of the Asian American immigrant experience, each story serves to comment on the unleashed havoc on body and mind as a result of the pursuit and longing for love. For Chang, love is a hole in the stomach. He is as malleable as youth. If nurtured and watered, a person’s relationship with love will develop healthily alongside it. If neglected, it will sit uncomfortable, even painfully. Neither pit ever ceases to crave, but neglected people may feel pains echoing through their bones as they cling to the nearest thing that looks like it, even though it’s theirs. hurt more.
The story is told posthumously, from the perspective of a woman named Min whose promising marriage is eroded by the past and the future shapeless. Min fell in love with Tian the moment she laid eyes on him. Bound by their shared bond of immigration to New York — from Taiwan and China respectively — they soon wed, and Min settled into the role of housewife as Tian struggled to make a name for herself. as a musician. But it wasn’t until the birth of their daughters, especially Ruth (their second), that the mundane tasks seemed to cut through their skin like finely shattered glass, tearing at the very fabric of their family. It cut so deeply that he began to reconfigure himself and cling to their identities. The promise of love, healing and approval taunts both characters and readers who become attached to this sinking ship.
Chang’s prose throughout is brilliant in every sense of the word. There is richness in moments of simplicity and examples with beautifully descriptive images. His dialogue is captivating. No word is lost. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the characters react to outside forces that drive them to become something they are not and never will be: fathers trying to sculpt daughters, spirits tempting mortals, and a promised land and its citizens refusing to welcome anything considered foreign. These delicate circumstances are accentuated by words that are both raw and multi-layered that fuel already strained emotions. It’s heartbreak in its most digestible form, and Chang hands it to readers on a silver platter.
The theme of Asian American existence and Asian culture perseveres like a steady heartbeat beneath each page. The characters are products of the wars that surround them, the superstitions that ground them, and the communities that they try to cling to in a world that prefers their aimless wandering if it means freedom from interference. It highlights the Asian experience and immigration stories through a rather focused lens. Readers can find elements of this overt identity in the characters’ beliefs and actions. Identities are embedded in our languages, and while they are often blessings, the world doesn’t always seem to agree. Society tends to consolidate and generalize the experiences of people of color, and these ideas imprinted on individuals take root differently. Many immigrants are sadly all too familiar with the bruises the world leaves on their bones and skin, and Chang washes them in white light for everyone to see.
This book ended up being one of the most rewarding reads I’ve had this year. The beauty, pain and weight of these stories captured in concise pages proved just how much real impact words have. This highlighted the appeal of slowing down and accepting an easier pace. A short amount of time can be just as empowering as a long time when you give your mind room to wander. Chang’s work is a wonder you sink your heart into, and the world feels slightly more alive when you finally get airborne.
Images courtesy of Lan Samantha Chang and Amazon