February Lit: Excerpt from "The Hidden Girl" by Ken Liu

February 25, 2020

Every year, I teach a story or two from Ken Liu's 2016 collection, The Paper Menagerie, and it's always a joy to see my students' work afterward — the inspired homages, the efforts to understand and emulate work they haven't quite seen before. Reading Liu's writing has a tendency to change one's ideas of what's possible in the world and on the page, so I'm thrilled that he has a new collection out today and we're able to share this excerpt with you.




     At the top of the mountain, far above the clouds, the monks of the Temple of Xu spend their days cutting words from their holy book.

     The monks' faith originated a long time ago. They deduce this by the parchment on which the Book is written, which is brittle, wrin­kled and damaged by water in places so that the writing is hard to read. The Abbot, the oldest monk in the temple, recalls that the Book already looked like that when he was a young novice.

     "The Book was written by people who walked and talked with the gods." The trembling Abbot pauses to let his words sink into the hearts of the young monks sitting in neat rows before him. "They re­corded what they remembered of their experiences, and so to read the Book is to hear the voices of the gods again." The young monks touch their foreheads to the stone floor, their hands splayed open in prayer.

      But the monks also know that the gods often spoke obscurely, and human memory is a fragile and delicate instrument.

     "Think of the face of a childhood friend," the Abbot says. "Hold that image in your mind and write a description of it, giving as much detail as you can marshal.

     "Now think of that face again. It has changed subtly in your mem­ory. The words you used to describe that face has replaced some portion of your memory of it. The act of remembering is an act of retracing, and by doing so we erase and change the stencil.

     "So it was with the people who composed the Book. In their zeal and fervor they wrote what they believed to be the truth, but they got many things wrong. They were only human.

     "We study and meditate upon the words of the Book so that we may excavate the truth buried in layers of metaphor." The Abbot strokes his long, white beard.

     And so, each year, the monks, after many rounds of debates, agree upon additional words to cut out of the Book. The bits of excised parchments are then burnt as an offering to the gods.

     In this way, as they prune away the excess to reveal the book be­neath the book, the story behind the story, the monks believe that they are also communing with the gods.

     Over the decades, the Book has grown ever lighter, its pages rid­dled with holes, openings, voids where words once rested, like fili­gree, like lace, like a dissolving honeycomb.

     "We strive not to remember, but to forget," the Abbot says, as he cuts out another word from the Book.



                                                                                                is brittle,



      by people who


                                   in neat rows

                                                        experience ,



pray .                                                                                                                                                                                          


 memory is           fragile and delicate                           




     the people who




                                  buried in layers of metaphor.





holes, openings, voids                         


strive         to remember,         to forget.     


remember          to forget.



Excerpt from THE HIDDEN GIRL & OTHER STORIES. Copyright 2020 by Ken Liu. Reprinted with permission from Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Author Website: https://kenliu.name/

For more information: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Hidden-Girl-and-Other-Stories/Ken-Liu/9781982134037

Cover Image: Courtesy of Saga Press

Author Photo: Lisa Tang Liu


Ken Liu

Ken Liu is an award-winning author and translator of speculative fiction. He has translated many works of Chinese science fiction, including the New York Times bestseller, The Three-Body Problem. His original fiction includes The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, The Grace of Kings, and the Star Wars tie-in novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker.