(This essay is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)
May 3, 2011
Daisy closes her eyes, grateful. In the sanctified room, her family’s story bleeds into the darkness, and its end, unfinished, pains her a little less.
— Kathryn Ma, b. (c.)1957
Pennsylvania-born Chinese-American fiction writer and lawyer
from “Second Child,” in All That Work and Still No Boys
Kathryn Ma is another author — the third in this series of (now) three essays on what I’m reading — whom I can say I “met” by virtue of having sat in the same room with her where she was giving a presentation. In this case, it was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference last August, where she was a fellow. She was giving a class on dialogue, an element of craft I regard myself as particularly inept at. We were in the back classroom on the second floor of the Barn, a spot I particularly like, since in addition to its lovely view, it has broad tables and chairs instead of the cramped tablet desks most of the other classrooms have.
I’m not sure I actually talked to her personally that day, but I did take three pages of notes. The particular focus of the class was “Sustained Speech: Writing Long Dialogue in Fiction.” She included time for an in-class exercise, something I am even more inept at. But I did begin a scene in which two of my characters have that difficult breakup conversation. (It begins: “It’s not that I don’t love you,” Tonya said. She leaned forward and reached across the table to take his hand. It was the same gesture – they were sitting in the same chairs – that she’d made the night she first took him upstairs to her bed.) It is a mark of how effective a teacher Ma is, or how focused I have become (or was that day at least), that I took that fragment and worked with it again, producing a passage in which Tonya does most of the talking and Andrew tries to keep his head from exploding while he reconsiders the cross-country move that she will not follow him on.
I bought Ma’s book, a collection of stories in which she “exposes the deepest fears and longings that we mask in family life and observes the long shadows cast by history and displacement.” Born in Pennsylvania of Chinese immigrant parents, Ma knows what it’s like to be other, to be outside, a stranger in her own land.
Like many of the books I haul home from my literary gallivants, this one has resided in a pile, unopened, since I returned from Vermont in August. When I opened it today, I was drawn to the title of the second story, “Second Child.”
Ding Xiu goes by Daisy for the American tourists whom she shepherds through China on trips arranged by a company in Wisconsin. The trips are not vacations or sight-seeing jaunts. They are, instead, “affinity tours” or “heritage journeys,” or “roots trips,” designed for Americans who have adopted daughters from China to show the girls their homeland, even, sometimes, the orphanages where they spent their first years. These girls have been made available for adoption because China’s government-sponsored one-child policy, an effort in place since 1978 to control population growth, leads parents who want a son to relinquish daughters.
The story concerns Daisy’s efforts to cope with the uncooperative behavior of Sam, a Caucasian child and the only boy on this particular trip, who has been brought along with his parents and his adopted sister. He is the second child, born of a pregnancy that occurred after his parents, believing themselves infertile, undertook a foreign adoption. He disappears, behaves badly toward some zoo animals, makes the group late. He also forms a particular attachment to Daisy. Ultimately, his family and Daisy separate from the tour and she becomes responsible for getting them to their daughter’s orphanage.
The story pivots around a secret Daisy carries. She herself is a second child. Her parents left their first child, a daughter, on the steps of a police station. Daisy doesn’t know what city it was, if the child was rescued and adopted out, or maybe died of neglect. When her mother became pregnant four years later, they decided to keep her, even though she was a girl. She divulges this secret to Sam, an act she regrets. The only other person she has ever told is a lover, a British teacher whom she knew one summer. When she made her revelation, she used English, as she did with Sam. “To speak in the other language let her push the story out.”
Every family has secrets, and they are the stuff of fiction. My parents had a second child, and it is not my sister, three and a half years younger than I, but a being about whom we know little, lost when I was ten months old. Few details were ever divulged to us. My mother said once that a hospital attendant had said, “the head’s out,” and on the strength of that, I asked what had happened to the remains. My mother looked at me as if the question were the most absurd thing she’d ever heard, and we never spoke of it again.
I wrote about that child once, in 1993, early in my efforts to use words to make sense of my history. Those papers lie in the darkness of a file box I have not opened in a very long time. Maybe it’s time to bring them out again, and use the more advanced skills I have now to somehow finish the story.