“A Red Sweater,” The American Voice, vol. 4, 1986
“False Gold: My Father’s American Journey,” 1993
Bone, the novel by Fae Myenne Ng (ihng), depicts a cultural divide between her own assimilated generation and that of her Chinese working-class parents, who had immigrated from China and are unable to read the novel that is a tribute to their own heroic struggles in a new country. After growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Ng acquired an excellent education at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Columbia University, where she earned an MFA. Her first novel took ten years to write, during which time she supported herself as a waitress and by doing temporary work as well as with fellowships from foundations such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Leila, the narrator of Bone, Ng is a well-educated, modern young woman who also understands her parents and their world of manual labor. Mah, the strong-willed mother of the Leong family, is a poorly paid, overworked garment worker. Leon, the father, holds down a series of dead-end jobs that include janitor, dishwasher, houseboy, and laundry worker. They are a couple who work their fingers to the bone to provide for their daughters.
Ng’s language in the novel indicates the frugality of the Chinese workers and their plain, harsh lives. Ng also uses English in such a way as to suggest the cadence of the Chinese language, thus establishing the bicultural quality of the novel linguistically as well as thematically. Ng thereby also commemorates her heritage.
Bone is a tribute to the generation of Chinese men who sacrificed their personal happiness for the sake of their families. Ng grew up seeing old Chinese men living alone and impoverished in single-room-occupancy hotels in Chinatown. These men–laborers who had come to the United States to work gold mines, build railroads, and develop California agriculturally–became men without roots in either the new or the old world. Ng derived the title of her novel from the Chinese practice of sending relatives’ bones back to China for burial, a gesture of respect and consideration that became the impetus for her own salute.
Bone, a spare and restrained novel, was the product of intense research into Chinese history and culture. While incorporating her knowledge of Chinese traditions into the novel, Ng also depicts the difficult psychological and cultural negotiations that face the children of immigrants. This second theme in the novel is focused in the conflicts between the family’s three modern daughters and their old-fashioned parents, whose roots are still in the traditional Chinese culture. The central event of the narrative is the suicide of the family’s middle daughter, Ona, who has thrown herself off the thirteenth floor of the Nam, the last of the four Chinatown housing projects. The novel is driven forward by the effort of all the characters to come to terms with this death, which becomes the symbol of family failure. Ona’s death was the tragic outcome of the conflict between traditional Chinese and modern American cultures. She could neither adjust to the world outside Chinatown nor maintain her identity within as a dutiful Chinese daughter. On the other hand, Nina, the youngest daughter, who has dismissed her parents as irrelevant and behind the times, escapes to a life in New York. It is Leila, the eldest daughter, whose identity is a complicated combination of the old Chinese and new American cultural patterns, who resolves her relationship with the past most satisfactorily. Her identity as a liaison between her parents’ generation and her own permits her to live in both worlds. Although she moves to the multicultural Mission District of San Francisco with her boyfriend Mason, she maintains connections with her parents and their Chinese traditions. Leila achieves the balance between rootedness and migrancy, connection and departure, that Ng suggests is the task of the children of immigrants.
Like Nina, the rebellious daughter, Ng moved to New York City, where she lives with her husband, the writer Mark Coovelis. Nevertheless it is the character Leila, with her ability to assimilate the new while keeping faith with the past, who most mirrors Ng’s identity as an Asian American.
Ng’s work is part of a wave of Asian American writing that adds to the tradition of the American immigrant novel and has been welcomed into the literary community as part of an enlightened interest in America’s ethnic diversity. In Bone, Ng depicts the themes of assimilation, acculturation, and ethnic pride that were part of an international pattern of migration characteristic of the twentieth century.