Essay by Lisa Liu
Art by Debbie Liang
For immigrants of any generation, or members of any underrepresented group, the pressure to define and explain one’s origin or identity is always complicated. In the novel Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai, birth and the body are reframed to justify the difficulties in classifying oneself. Through confronting conventions of birth and the use of shifting bodies, the novel challenges the notion of pure origins. In particular, I will be examining Nu Wa/Miranda’s history through the body at birth and reincarnation. From her original non-human form to her birth as human, as well as her rebirth as the durian-born Miranda and her own birth at the end of the text, I theorize that the shifting body illustrates the subjectivity of the diasporic experience.
I: Nu Wa’s Non-Human Body: Bifurcation of “Tales” and Consumption of Alternate Bodies
The novel opens with Nu Wa’s creation myth but does not follow conventional understandings of origins. Author Larissa Lai states “in Salt Fish Girl, I began with wanting to think about the whole question of origins.” (L.Lai, Future Asians 171). In particular, she states her distaste of “go back where you came from” and “so where are you from?”. Such statements turn the questioned individual into an object of gaze to satisfy the querier and restricts origin to a geographical context. To reclaim one’s identity, the novel instead promotes an anti-origin, a personal experience that is carried within the individual. Lai advocates for “a sense of history that is not factual, that is not for the historical record, but that is experienced in and written on the body” (L.Lai, Future Asians 173). This is established through the body of Nu Wa. Lai explains why she chose Nu Wa’s story as the novel’s basis, saying “it’s a Chinese story, I’m a Chinese woman. At least in one version of my history” (L.Lai, Future Asians 171). In context of multiple histories, Lai states “my Nu Wa is highly inflected with Western literary references, as well as with references to my own past.” If Nu Wa represents the Chinese identity, then her divergence to other bodies can be seen as how the cultural identity can transform. She is a diasporic figure reshaped as different cultural perspectives mixed with her own sense of self.
Unlike most creators of humankind Nu Wa is not immaculate, but flawed. Lai critiques the traditional idolization of dehumanized creators through Nu Wa’s body. After describing her anatomy, Nu Wa accuses the reader, saying “I know that eye, the eye that registers fear first, and then the desire to consume. What kind of soup would my flesh make? What would you dream after consuming?” (L.Lai, Salt Fish Girl 2). While the creator is often seen as majestic for their non-human traits, Nu Wa’s half-snake body makes her feel objectified. She claims that from this fear of unfamiliarity comes the desire to domesticate through consumption. As the embodiment of Chinese identity, the craving for her flesh reflects the widespread fetishization of female Asian bodies as domestic, submissive, and ultimately digestible. Moreover, her rebirth as a “bawling black-haired baby girl” is a result of being physically consumed by a giant woman as Nu Wa “glided down her throat and slid into her womb” (48). Similar to the assimilation of displaced cultures, Nu Wa’s body had to be objectified, then consumed, in order to be accepted as human. The intentions of the colonizer’s gaze (symbolized as the accepted human) is addressed in “what would you dream after consuming?”. This quotation foreshadows the dreaming disease, a representation of diasporic post-memory as undesirable and painful, yet here her histories are trivialized into a commodity for others to experience.
The most significant change to Nu Wa’s body in her transition is the splitting of her tail. Nu Wa’s bifurcation represents a metaphorical relationship between ‘tails’ and ‘tales.’ Scholar Kate Liu theorizes that “the word [bifurcation] refers not only to the splitting of the human tail, but also to the dual plot of Nu Wa-Salt Fish Girl and Miranda-Evie” (Liu 332). Histories and identities are constantly reconstructed and reinterpreted by different perspectives and “the creation of new bodies” are “fundamentally connected to the creation of new texts” (Latimer 125). Therefore, through the absence of one fixed body, Lai demonstrates how there is never one true beginning. As a figure from the Chinese creation myth, Nu Wa is the ‘original’ (a term I use loosely, considering the novel’s critique of absolute origins) Chinese identity, the ‘old’ diaspora to the ‘new’ diaspora, which is represented by her reincarnation Miranda. Furthermore, the act of her tail splitting is described as a “terrible burning sensation” as her “vertebrae cracked in two and the strands of the spinal cord were wretched apart” (L.Lai, Salt Fish Girl 8). The violence of her tail’s bifurcation foreshadows the pain she and Miranda will experience in their search for individualism, illustrating sacrifices from the splitting of cultural narratives.
II: Nu Wa’s Shifting Body: Constructing Histories Through Reincarnation and Shed Skin
Following Nu Wa’s rebirth as a human, it is alluded that Miranda is the reincarnation of Nu Wa. In a converging of storylines, it is revealed Nu Wa was encased in a durian and hears Aimee and Stewart having the exact same conversation that is foreshadowed in Miranda’s chapter outlining her birth. Kate Liu notes that “the “birth” or originary moment—of a person or a nation—is traditionally seen as the moment that defines the unifying essence of a personal or national identity” (Liu 319). However, as she points out, through reincarnation, “there are multiple origins”. If birth and origin are no longer conjoined to one another, their meanings are skewed. Similar to how the objectification of Nu Wa’s half-snake body reframes our idolization of the creator, the creation myth further loses its significance through the ability to ‘re-originate’ in new bodies. Instead, the subjectivity of the creation myth confronts the way history is written systematically rather than in the individual’s subjective view. Stewart Ching, Miranda’s father, alludes to this when he tells Miranda the original story about Nu Wa and her brother Fu Xi as the creators of humankind. When Miranda is disturbed that they were siblings (a commentary of a common homophobic trope that compares homosexuality to incest), he reminds her that it is “just a story,” hinting that narratives, and therefore the bodies that embody them, are fluid, and can be reframed (L. Lai, Salt Fish Girl 187). What follows is a meta-reenactment of the novel, in which Miranda draws a series of changes closely emulating Lai’s alterations to this classic Chinese creation myth, which include having Fu Xi reimagined as a woman. Not only does Miranda’s own birth embody the ability to reconstruct histories, but she illustrates it by taking on Lai’s role as a writer through these drawings.
Lai also addresses this mobility of history between physical bodies through the use of second person narration during another scene of rebirth: Nu Wa’s suicide and “pre-birth” of Miranda. There is a distinct shift from Nu Wa’s first person narration, “I looked over my shoulder once then leaned into the water” to second person in the following paragraph: “[Y]ou take a last look at the sky, a last breath, slowly” (L. Lai, Salt Fish Girl 183). Hee-Jung Serenity Joo interprets this shift as signifying that Nu Wa has once again “shifted shapes by merging with the water and leaving her body—that economically malleable form—behind” (Joo 57). If the perseverance of physical bodies is determined by their economy, abandonment of the body allows the stories they carry to transcend past its economic state. As Nu Wa transitions into Miranda and dissociates with her (now past) self: “[Y]ou have left your body far behind” (L. Lai, Salt Fish Girl 184). Nu Wa/Miranda’s change in narrative voice acts a metaphor for shedding worn out bodies for a fresh life of new possibilities. Similar to Nu Wa’s original anatomy, her reincarnation as Miranda shifts like a snake who sheds its dead skin for a new one: the animal itself is the same, but its body has been revived and it is ready to hold any potential narratives. Continuous subjectivity in narratives through rebirths of new bodies is especially reminiscent of the diaspora, and how diasporic subjects don’t just appear but emerge as a production of post-memories and other similar factors that reject linear temporality. As theorized by Niels Buch Leander in the book Narrative Beginnings, “even one’s own beginning cannot be ascertained without relying on other narratives” (Leander 25). As these identities emerge from past experiences, current diasporas (as embodied in Miranda), while taking on its own shape and identity, stem from a reincarnation of past diasporas (from Nu Wa). It is carried from body to body of individuals rather than simply through a linear progression of time.
III: Miranda’s Marked Body: Queered Birth by Durian and “Stinky” Truth
As mentioned, Lai’s history does not follow time and geography, but embodied experiences. After Nu Wa’s reincarnation into Miranda, her body still holds remnants of history. This is supported by Leander’s claim that “even a beginning that defies the notion of origin will have to establish its authority on an alternative narration” (Leander 26). Even in a new body and narrative, Nu Wa’s past is not erased and Miranda is marked by the past even before she is born. Miranda’s birth is ambiguous and differs from conventional impregnation. Paul Lai calls Miranda a “product of “queer reproduction” between her parents and the durian (P. Lai 177). Not only does this allude to the lesbian genealogy of the text, but it raises discussion as to why some truths are easier to accept than others. It is important to note that Miranda’s mother Aimee “was a good eight years past menopause” (L. Lai, Salt Fish Girl 15). Furthermore, the durians Miranda’s father Stewart brings home were actively involved in the sexual act he and Miranda’s mother Aimee engaged in, which ultimately resulted in the miracle birth of Miranda. I propose that the durian’s erotic behaviour presents the fruit as an alternative human body, another symbol of how subjective bodies are. The durian “tumbled between them, its green spikes biting greedily into their flesh, its pepper pissy juices mixing with their somewhat more subtly scented ones” (L. Lai, Salt Fish Girl 15). The diction is sensual, with “biting” and “mixing” reminiscent of penetration and the exchange of bodily fluids. The lack of logical explanation behind Miranda’s birth brings up divide between the factual and the experienced in discussing histories: why is it easier to accept that she was conceived by a woman long past menopause than by a penetrative fruit? I theorize that Aimee is the optimistic, encouraging narrative of marginalized groups while the durian represents the difficult truths and oppressive forces that these groups must come to terms with. Miranda states “if the truth must be told, I stank”, but Aimee claims “she smells delightful” (L. Lai, Salt Fish Girl 15). Throughout the novel, “Aimee strives to shield Miranda from negative associations with her durian smell” (P. Lai 180). Nevertheless, Miranda’s body is marked by the odour of the durian, forcefully impacting her identity and experiences with her environment and the people around her. The queer illusions around Miranda’s birth with the durian allow for her body to become a space to manifest outside of what is systemically expected. Tara Lee describes Miranda as a reminder “of how the body has the power to own itself and write itself into the future” (Lee 108). Using her body as a mode of constructing history, Miranda’s existence justifies the ‘stink’ of post-historic memories experienced in diaspora and gives individuals the agency to both embrace and transcend this part of their identity. Moreover, the ambiguity of Miranda’s birth regards origin as inconclusive. The questions Lai as well as other diasporic individuals dread to hear: “go back where you came from” and “so where are you from?”, are therefore de-legitimized, erasing the demand for any locative origin, nor explanation, for anyone’s identity.
IV: Our Subjective Bodies: The Ending Reborn as a Beginning
Experiences carry over through births and rebirths in Nu Wa/Miranda’s bodies This is highlighted in the novel’s final birth scene, when Miranda and Evie have sex in a hot spring, conceiving a “black-haired and bawling baby girl” (L.Lai, Salt Fish Girl 269). The newborn mirrors how Nu Wa was described when she was first reborn as human. Nu Wa’s origin story is still referenced and reinterpreted, suggesting that the queering of stories will continue beyond the end of the novel. Through this parallel, Lai reminds the reader that “history relies on memory. But memory is always subjective. (L.Lai, Future Asians 172). By ending the story at a birth, usually symbolic of a beginning, the creation of new bodies highlights the endless rewriting of subjective stories. Simply put, it is “by our difference we mark how ancient the alphabet of our bodies is. By our strangeness we write our bodies into the future” (Lee 108). Instead of being trapped within the constraints of origin, the reader is given the space to reimagine and redefine themselves to fit their understandings of self. Miranda ends the novel saying “Everything will be alright…until next time” (L.Lai, Salt Fish Girl 269). Sparking hope for a future that “will be alright” while acknowledging the existence of a “next time.” The story turns to the reader, offering a space to reflect on their own narratives beyond their bodies as “all of our tails, figuratively speaking, are already split” (Latimer 125).
Larissa Lai’s novel “Salt Fish Girl” is not a clear linear story but reflects the subjectivity of realities for many individuals. Outlined in Nu Wa’s shifting anatomy, through embodied histories and queering notions of birth, the novel challenges pure origins. Nu Wa’s body transforms from the objectified snake-woman of the fetishized Asian female, split into the possibilities of new bodies and new narratives until the narrative reaches the post-memory of Miranda’s durian-marked body and beyond. These re-births highlight not only the subjectivity of origins, but also spark hope of possibility for diasporic identities of the future.
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Lai, P. “Stinky Bodies: Mythological Futures and the Olfactory Sense in Larissa Lais Salt Fish Girl.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 33, no. 4, Jan. 2008, pp. 167–187., doi:10.1093/melus/33.4.167.
Latimer, Heather. Reproductive Acts: Sexual Politics in North American Fiction and Film, MQUP, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ubc/detail.action?docID=3332606.
Leander, Niels Buch. “To Begin with the Beginning: Birth, Origin, and Narrative Inception.” Narrative Beginnings: Theories and Practices, by Brian Richardson, University of Nebraska Press, 2008, pp. 15–28.
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Liu, Kate Chiwen. “Hybridization as the Postcolonial Anti-Exotic in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies. vol. 35.2, Aug. 2009, pp. 309-336.