It is tempting to classify Dear Chrysanthemums as an Asian American novel — it has many of the hallmarks like a focus on food, intergenerationality, and feminine relationships. However, with only a handful of pages set in New York, Fiona Sze-Lorrain responds to the Asian American canon and pushes its boundaries. Sze-Lorrain describes her “origins and upbringing” as “a hybrid of East and West.” Living in Paris, Sze-Lorrain offers an alternative perspective on an Asian diaspora through the lens of Chinese women.
This work is not autobiographical, or so it seems — there are numerous characters before the final story, none of whom are Sze-Lorrain. However, there are moments where Sze-Lorrain’s expertise and life experience come through. For instance, the musical motifs throughout the work are haunting and specific. It is not just the sound of music that comes out of the novel, but the playing of music that is described. In moments when memory is fading, duets offer respite.
Furthermore, the variety of locations and characters illustrate flexibility on the part of Sze-Lorrain. There is a creation of numerous temporal spaces — a reader might wonder if this is in part possible due to Sze-Lorrain’s own history. With a structure that resists focus on one character, the ending comes as a surprise.
This work is especially reminiscent of The Woman Warrior in the ways in which the “I” functions. But focusing on just a reading of the novel as a response to Asian American literature would gloss over the intricate work that has been done to innovate the form of the novel by Sze-Lorrain. Five parts and twelve stories, this work is, as advertised, “a novel in stories.” A musician, translator, and poet is making her way into the world of prose, within 160 soft pages: the texture of this work is poetic.
Each section begins with a Japanese haiku — which the notes carefully document. Sze-Lorrain frames her work as “after” the work she draws from, with detailed notes that create a web of intertextuality paralleling the interweaving of the stories throughout the novel. This focus on others’ works and the almost academic style of citation draws attention not only to the works that influenced Sze-Lorrain, but also to the fact that the narrator does not know these works. It is moments like these when stylistic choices such as the use of italics create a curated aesthetic. The experience of reading this novel is visual. Moments that reference other texts are in italics; so too are translations and words for emphasis.
For instance, Dear Chrysanthemums begins with a chapter titled “Yi — Means One.” At first glance, it seems that a dash separates two sections. But no. It is the character for one. In the midst of phoneticization and translation, the character hovers. This attention to detail, especially with respect to numbers and music, is part of what makes the novel a joy to read. The description of the writing of a single line, a single character, a start that proceeds section one is enough to be captivating.
The first story is dark. Ling notices the coffins. Arriving each morning, their movement is regular and expected. Less expected is the sudden appearance of comrade Shao… “moving the dead is less a burden than inciting the living to action, as long as the death doesn’t drag its feet.” This opening story of death, surveillance, and loneliness is an example of what is to come. With a rotating cast of characters, the idea of a main character is destabilized. Especially so in combination with the strong linkage between each story.
Later stories, such as “Back to Beijing,” are written in letter form. In a touching compilation of one-sided letters, the reader slowly realizes the connections to other characters in the text. With this epistolary style, set in the year 2016, the letters write not only to another person, but to another time, and another place.
In another story, “Cooking for Madame Chiang,” the chef Chang’er shows off her knowledge of food — it becomes a tracking of the food and a push against the “authenticity” of food. This story revolves around sela, first described as a Western cold dish. Then, it is Shanghainese, learned from the Russians. This story, set in 1946, is deeply historical. Everything, from the ingredients, to ways of speaking, to the characters themselves are saturated with contextualization. The pure milk and bean curd that linger in the garden are physical reminders of the markets that have been disrupted by war. Madame Chiang turns out to be Chiang Kai-shek.
It is not just vignettes in the form of short stories that Sze-Lorrain utilizes. Much of her work revolves around the expert work of translation. For instance, she writes about the sound of a name: Qing. With three different drastically different translations, Sze-Lorrain explores the space between different readings. This work is some of what allows Sze-Lorrain to question the boundaries of Asian Americanness. In a global diasporic story, what role does the label of “Asian American” play?
It seems one answer lies in the interweaving of the stories and the location of those stories — New York does not dominate the narrative. Instead, these stories are placed around Asia, Europe, and the Americas. This pushes back against any sort of narrative imperialism where the USA dominates. Furthermore, these are not just individual stories. Many of these stories focus on groups of people or have multiple primary characters. In these ways, Sze-Lorrain pushes the boundaries of the Asian American novel beyond the expected LA or New York and into a global conversation.
Sze-Lorrain is clearly a careful reader of Asian American novels. Her innovation in the form of the novel echoes those of famous works such as The Woman Warrior,The Joy Luck Club, or Pachinko. She blends prose with the poetic and further provides a global representation of the Asian diaspora throughout her dreamy and haunting work Dear Chrysanthemums.