Book Review

All That Work and Still No Boys

January 11, 2010

By Kathryn Ma (University of Iowa Press)

In the title story of Kathryn Ma's debut collection, Barbara - the oldest of five grown children struggles to convince her mother I to accept a kidney transplant from the only male son In the family, the youngest sibling, Lawrence. Told mostly through Barbara's point of view, Ma beautifully captures the messy relationships between siblings, but also allows us into the mother's point of view without judgment. "No matter what anyone said about girls, how daughters were just as good as sons or even better, they didn't believe it, not fully, deep down," the mother thinks while hooked up to a dialysis machine.

Throughout the book - the winner of the illustrious 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Prize - Ma's mostly Chinese American characters confront the long arm of cultural traditions and the pain of immigration and assimilation with a pitch-perfect subtlety that many Asian American writers miss. Her detailed and intimate understandings of relationships remind me of Jhumpa Lahlri's work, but Ma brings a humor and messlness that renders Lahiri's work dry. For example, in "The Scottish Play," two elderly Chinese widows stoke a lifetime rivalry in the cafeteria of a senior citizen center. "Here we go, the grandson, and I'm not even through with my soup." In the final story, Cynthia - an urbane Chinese American mother of two - finds herself at the mercy of her Chinese nanny. Ma has a warm place in her heart for these strong-willed, tradition-bound older Chinese women whose decisions often have grave affects for their families. This happens the most dramatically in "Gratitude," in which Mabel - another widow whose husband's short fallings haunt her - insinuates her way into the life of a family who need help at the cost of her own relationship with her son.

Ma has her finger on the pulse of this community so perfectly that I missed it when she chose to write about non-Asian American characters, though a story about a college student who becomes entangled with the father of a son she tutors stands out. Ma's extremely readable prose carried me through this slim collection almost too fast, leaving me wanting more. This book is one of the most promising fiction debuts I've read In a long time.

- Neelanjana Banerjee