Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl

It's going to be such fun, seeing how my students handle Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl in the fall of 2013! Mind you, I'm going to have to figure out before then how I'm handling it myself, and I'm not quite sure just yet.

Image from a blog I can't read
The back cover describes the book as "a remarkable novel about gender, love, honour, intrigue, and fighting against the dark forces of biotechnology," so clearly it's a novel for everyone. In terms of the novel's insurgent transfeminism ... sorry, what? You disagree that just anybody will enjoy it?

Well, you're not the only one: critical opinion is divided on Salt Fish Girl, not entirely along gendered lines, but oddly near to it. Guy Beauregard in Canadian Literature wasn't keen on the novel, and Craig Taylor in Horse & Hounds Quill & Quire wasn't sold on it, either, though both were generally complimentary in spite of their overall meh. The brilliant Rita Wong, on quite the other hand, has a great deal to say about the book's artistry and activist potential (PDF auto-download), and Elizabeth C. Harmer has thought carefully about Lai's overlapping use of mythos and cyborgs. Less academic are these very positive reviews by Genie Giaimo and Anne Jansen.

The novel's braided stories do come together, but the way they reflect on each other left me productively uncertain about how I understood the novel and its characters. One portion of the novel is set in 19th-century China, the other in mid-21st-century Vancouver, but the novel opens with something of a creation myth, too, the timing (and intended reliability) of which continues to puzzle me. I'm comfortable being puzzled, distrusting certainty as I so confidently do, of course, so that's not a complaint.

A decaying future Vancouver; the triumphant survival of shoe companies, right to the edge of global apocalypse; escapes into forests; lesbian clones; procreation in a world that hasn't earned our trust: Salt Fish Girl gets a lot of West Coast alt-lit checkmarks, and yet it's a version of BC that I haven't quite seen before. Totally worth your time -- though you might hate it anyway, in which case I get it, but you're wrong.

This isn't the first time that I've committed to teach a book before having read it, and while it isn't a comfortable experience, I've always come away thinking that it was the right decision. The mixed critical reception has me thinking that working through the novel in class should be interesting indeed!


六十前後 said…
Thank you for choosing my photo of the book "Salt Fish Girl" with a link to my blog.
I "composed" this photo as it is what this book reminds me of - the smell from a China Town grocery store.
I enjoy reading this book! Although Larissa Lai has put too many "ingredients" in this book, I still find it fascinating!
richard said…
You're very welcome! I really liked the image, and I'm glad you didn't mind: that's why I put a link to your blog in the caption under the picture.

Is that roughly what your blog post said, that Larissa Lai put too many ingredients into this book?
六十前後 said…
Other than the brief summary and the topics touched on by this novel, here are my thoughts of the novel, as written in my blog:

As most novels give me a lot of visual elements, this one gives me elements of scent/smell – smells from a fishing village in South China (where I came from), the open-air fish markets, fruit markets, Chinese grocery store in China Town, the moist from the swamp and so on.
I find that Larissa Lai is full of imagination, as well as ambition. She tries to cover a lot of topics in this novel, from family value, to bioethics. Somehow each topic is not fully developed. However, it does not weaken the literary, artistic and entertaining value of this novel. It is a surprise to me as I accidentally find this novel.
六十前後 said…
I confess that I do not read enough Canadian novels!
But I enjoy reading Wayson Choy most!
I will keep following your blog to learn more about reading/writing!
Thanks again!
Greg Garrard said…
So ... how did it go? I'm thinking of requiring it for a course.
richard said…
It went mostly great, Greg, and I'd use Salt Fish Girl again in a heartbeat. Lots of conversations about form and ideology, about the intersection between literary choices (how do I tell a story?) and political ones (what's my message, and how do I communicate that?).

One interesting piece: to me it's just part of the normal world, but one of the main characters shifts between identities and genders, and there's a lesbian relationship near the core of the novel. A student came to me, though, overwhelmed (in a positive sense) just to be represented in a course text, and loving that she felt so complicatedly and non-tokenly represented. I'm glad about that, but I'm used to the idea that such folk need to be at least as present in our culture's texts as they are in our world, so it was more the case that I was disappointed that she hadn't yet had that experience.

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