When you pick up Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s new book, You Cannot Resist Me When My Hair Is in Braids, published by Wayne State University Press, you have to let go of the reflexive, all-too-human impulse to pinpoint its genre. Is it a collection of prose poems with photos? A kind of experimental memoir? A collection of short, lyrical essays?
I confess, I spent no small amount of time ruminating on these questions while reading the first half of Braids, since I would obviously need to describe it in a review. But here’s the thing: Once I let go of trying to figure out what Braids was, exactly — and instead got into the practice of approaching each short piece with an open mind and a curiosity about where Wang might take me next — I unlocked its power.
Take, for instance, the title piece, which captures a short, wistful moment when Wang, troubled about her finances and struggling to write, imagines a handsome young professor stepping into her favorite Ann Arbor cafe and romancing her.
There is no more to it than that, and at first it seems like a drive-by piece. But two tropes Wang unpacks in her book are those about romantic love and about Asian women, and this piece, with its winking, faux seduction (“I’ve got my hair in braids today”), suggests that Wang is both aware of and guilty of absorbing these cultural messages.
But Wang’s work is most effective when it goes deeper. The book begins, for example, with this knockout prologue passage: “Buddhists say that suffering comes from unsatisfied desire, so for years I tried to close the door to desire. Any desire. I was so successful, I not only closed the door, I locked it, barred it, nailed it shut, then stacked a bunch of furniture in front of it. / It was the only way I could survive the long loneliness that was my marriage. I was dead to desire, going through only the motions of life. I did not even dare read novels, write poetry, or watch bad romantic comedies for fear of what small hope they might inspire.”
Later, in “Falling, Mad and Alone,” a vignette heartbreakingly echoes this condition, describing how fishermen put constricting rings around cormorants’ necks and train the birds to dive from their boats to catch fish in their beaks. “The fisherman reaches down the bird’s throat, brutally pulls out the wriggling, half-swallowed fish, then sends the bird obediently back into the water for more. / And the cormorant with the colorful ring around its neck is grateful to have had the taste of fish on its tongue. / Once upon a time, that was my life.”
“I have gone off script, somebody else’s script, and it is time to save myself.”
— Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
This is not to say that Braids, as a collection, only traffics in seriousness. The piece “It’s Not a Yellow Dildo!,” for instance, explores the role race played in her marriage to (and divorce from) her white husband and the hilarious-but-pointed culture clash bound up in banana-shaped Tupperware.
One day, Wang spots an aerated, protective banana case in a Japanese American boy’s lunchbox and wants one for her son, but they’re not available in the U.S. Later, at a conference, she discovers that a sex-positive Asian American website, YellowDildo.com, is giving away banana cases as a promotion, so she grabs one, only to find it is embossed with the site’s URL. Her older daughters giggle at this, but her ex-husband is unamused. When he secretly throws it away, Wang gets a dozen more, launching an aggressive Tupper-war between exes that culminates in a shouting match in an optometrist’s office.
When reflecting on the argument’s absurdity, Wang writes: “For the first time in all our years together, I stop being defensive, I stop trying to help him. I stop responding as the obedient Chinese daughter, the good Asian wife, the accommodating problem-solver extraordinaire. Maybe that is why our story had become so surreal. I have gone off script, somebody else’s script, and it is time to save myself.”
Even so, as an immigrant, Wang’s pervasive sense of dislocation remains. “Texting Nostalgic for Kathmandu” chronicles, with photos, a trip back to her homeland, Nepal, which resurrects vivid childhood memories (“Every day, I used to plunge down that hill on my bicycle, head down, knees tucked, braids and purple chiffon scarf flying”), and in “Dreams of the Diaspora,” Wang writes, “I was born here. But I feel so far from home.”
The fact that we’re not entirely clear whether Wang refers to Nepal or America (or herself) here is part of the point, I would argue.
This ambiguity also points to a conundrum regarding Braids, though. Storytelling in any genre is a striptease, wherein the writer must thoughtfully balance how much to tell and how much to withhold, thus leaving some things to the reader’s imagination. Withholding too much can cause distracting moments of confusion, as Braids occasionally does.
But overall, the book’s moments of “wow” make its moments of “huh?” worth the trip.