Bone by Fae Myenne Ng: A Book Review
Bone is Fae Myenne Ng’s first novel set largely in San Francisco’s China Town. The novel narrates the struggle of immigrants and their children to discover their original identity tainted by the American values. In other words, the conflict between traditional Chinese and American values is projected throughout the novel. It can be argued that Bone is a fantastic narrative of a Chinese family trying to rediscover and preserve their Chinese identity in a foreign land. Their predicament is further intensified by the demands of the American society to internalize its norms and trends in order to survive in this new land. Given the kind of dilemma they face, the tragedy befalls them as the middle daughter named Ona commits suicide.
The framework of the story is circular and its central plot probes deeper into the inner wanderings of the Leong family. Mah, Leon, Nina, the narrator Leila and her boyfriend are all stunned and petrified by the Ona’s suicide and try desperately to figure out the reason for her act. The novel ends at a point in time close to where it began with Leila attempting to search every distinct clue that possibly led to the suicide of her daughter. She recalls all the events before and in the wake of the family’s heart-wrenching tragedy.
Leila manifests her hybrid Chinese-American values in her communications with her parents exclusively with her surrogate father and her dealing with Ona’s suicide. “Because (she is a)…first generation American, the process of (her) self-definition inevitably involves considerations of what it means to be both Chinese and American”. The way of understanding herself, and her position within her family, is demanding, since “there is no historically defined Chinese American woman”. Kafka defines Leila’s journey of self-definition across hybrid Chinese-American cultural values as one of “journeying from ‘ambiguous consciousness’ to ‘self-affirmation'”.
Dealing with Ona’s suicide becomes, for Leila, a procedure of confronting her own identity. Both Liela and Ona Ona were both overburdened with the same demands of blending and integrating Chinese and American cultural values.
After Ona’s suicide, “Leila splits her time…between the past in Salmon Alley with Mah and the future at the Mission with Mason”. The attempts to integrate her own past and present in line with her Chinese and American values is not a simple or easy process for Leila whose “identity becomes a site of struggle between her past and future, with no self-affirming present”.
Indeed, Leila “enters no-woman’s land between what she can leave behind and what she can take with her”. Leila has to travel through a present and a future that has in store an opportunity to discover her own identity, this is to say, her being a Chinese-American woman. She never fully denounces her Chinese heritage even though she rises above her original ambiguous identity so as to discover an identity in which she could fully understand and accept her hybrid Chinese-American values. It can safely be said that the process of Leila’s self-definition as a Chinese American is purely an act of individualism through which she enables herself to preserve her family and their Chinese values.
Leila’s act of self-definition takes place at the end of the novel via her “invention of new language…Leila’s neologism ‘backdaire,’ the last word of the novel”.
This single word that Leila devises symbolizes the process of integration of Chinese and American values. The novel ends on a note that hints at her finding a middle ground between Chinese and American values, “affirm(ing) a self who transcends dual personality by resisting reduction to a single ethnic identity”.
Leila’s quest for self-definition comes through within the context of a complete family trying to figure out Ona’s suicide. Particularly, the manner in which Leila’s mother, Mah, and younger sister, Nina’s attempts to cope with Ona’s suicide further epitomize the intricate blend of Chinese and American values that constitute their family. On the one hand, Mah represents traditional Chinese values while at the same time she behaves in more of an American way than Chinese.
On the other hand, Nina symbolizes largely American values with very slight efforts to stick to the traditional Chinese values of her parents. Quite evidently, “one of the themes that Ng addresses in her novel is immigration” (“Fae Myenne Ng). Mah keeps high hopes for her three daughters and their lives in America, and she displays a general viewpoint held by immigrants in describing her attempts to find a life in America. That is to say that Mah embodies “the paradox that the generation of immigrants often saw the American Dream in their children because their margin for survival in this country was not much of an improvement over their bleak possibilities in the old country”.
For Mah, Ona’s suicide does not merely imply the loss of a daughter but also the failure of mother to arrange for her daughter a better life with promising prospects. Ona’s suicide marks the end of the American Dream and possibly nothing less than a nightmare for her surviving daughters. Certainly it was not the future she had envisioned for her daughters in America.
Mah blames herself for Ona’s suicide, for she “thinks the bad luck began with her faulty choice in men-her first marriage to Lyman Fu, and especially her extramarital affair with her boss. Mah’s relationship symbolizes the rejection of Chinese values for she “”rejects the terms of her role as a green card wife when she seeks personal fulfillment beyond the given parameters of that identity” (LeBlanc). This is to say, Ma becomes somewhat Americanized and she treats her own Americanization as the upshot of Ona’s suicide.
Mah reels from guilt arising out of her extramarital affair and the license for personal and sexual freedom that she implicitly granted to her daughters. Her own illicit behavior contributed both to Ona’s tumult over her relationship with Osvaldo and ultimately to her suicide.
Leila is not a submissive stereotype when she shows her reaction to her father Leon’s buying speakers at a Goodwill store. She states, “I hate it when I get bitchy like that, but once I’m in the mood, I can’t stop” (19). She is completely a nonconformist, acting with an American sense of individualism or boldness whereas in traditional Chinese culture the role of the eldest daughter in a Chinese family would restrict her to reply submissively and diffidently to her father’s actions. Soon after when Leila takes Leon to the social security office, he says to a clerk, “People be the tell me. I never talk English good. Them tell me” (56)
Leila’s little Chinese character is also displayed by her mother. Speaking of how Leila does not hug or kiss Ona when she is crying, Mah tells her, “Where did you ever learn such meanness?” (137). Mah is imposing traditional Chinese family loyalty while Leila has privileged her own feelings; she has learned such “meanness” or individuality from growing up in America. Similarly, toward the end of the text when Leila shares with readers her wish to move away from the family’s neighborhood of Salmon Alley, she speaks of getting close to Mason and wanting her own life, not wanting to worry about Mah or Leon or anybody else. The stereotype of the dutiful, submissive daughter is negated again. Leila obviously denounces traditional Chinese values of obedience and responsibility to fulfill her desires.