Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu

My LiveJournal friends list is full, today, of commentary on the Hugo Awards, and on the war being fought this year over cultural and gender diversity within them. Somehow this led to a dredging up of winning stories from past years that did reflect cultural and/or racial diversity, and a debate on the literary merits of those stories. One thing that got dredged up was a 2012 LiveJournal entry criticizing the story "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu, arguing that it did not deserve to win a prize (it won three of them: it swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards in 2012), and suggesting that a different story, "Tiger Stripes" by Nghi Vo, would have been a better candidate. Specifically, that LiveJournal user asserts that "Tiger Stripes" is a better story because the ending made her cry, while the ending of "The Paper Menagerie" did not.

A different LiveJournal user, who shall remain anonymous here because the entry was friends-locked, novalis, felt a need to respond to the accusation that "The Paper Menagerie" won specifically due to a desire to include stories reflecting a multicultural and racially diverse society. He responded that although the story "The Paper Menagerie" is so terrible that one might reasonably think "nobody could possibly enjoy such tripe," the story probably did not actually win for political reasons but rather because "the truth is just that otherwise reasonable people have terrible taste sometimes."

So I read both stories. I read "Tiger Stripes" first. It was okay. I found the tiger's sudden, inexplicable transformation into a human a little awkward at first, but the story did have some good points; overall, I didn't dislike it. The ending certainly did not make me cry, though. Then I read "The Paper Menagerie" and liked it better. Then I got to the end of "The Paper Menagerie," and . . . it made me cry. I mean, not inconsolably or anything, but it made me tear up for a moment. So, uh, I guess that pretty well settles the question of which story I feel deserved to win prizes . . . I'm on the side of the story that actually won them.

One of the arguments some people made for why "The Paper Menagerie" should not have won these awards was that the fantasy element, the origami animals that come to life, supposedly was not integral to the story, but rather tacked on just to qualify the story for entry in these contests. I completely disagree. If you excised the origami animals from the story, could you still create a story with what's left? Sure. But would it be at all the same story? Absolutely not. It would be a profoundly different story - one with, in my opinion, rather less literary merit.

But what baffles me most is the idea that "The Paper Menagerie" was chosen for its progressive commentary on cultural diversity. If I were looking for a story to make progressive commentary on cultural diversity, this one would absolutely not be my choice. The whole trope of the Eastern culture being associated with magical powers while the Western culture is not? It would not be all that difficult to accuse the writer of "exoticizing" Chinese culture in a rather politically regressive way. I don't quite mean to accuse Ken Liu of actually doing that; there are in fact some literary merits to his choice, as a representation of the character Jack's perception, and I don't want to say that no writer should ever make that choice. What I do want to say is that it's a questionable choice to make; it's playing with fire, and sometimes playing with fire is worth the risks involved, but it isn't always . . . so if I were choosing a story specifically as a model of anti-racist literature rather than as a model of great literature, I would choose one that made politically safer choices.

And another thing: I found it confusing that the mother in the story, who is from China, makes origami animals, which are a Japanese tradition. The Chinese have their own paper-folding tradition, called zhezhi, but it does not usually involve folding the shapes of animals. So if I were looking for a story specifically to reflect cultural diversity, I'd probably look for one that reflected it less confusingly.

But in terms of their power to bring tears to my eyes, I found "The Paper Menagerie" far more effective than "Tiger Stripes." So yes, some of us do in fact enjoy "such tripe."
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