Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl (v2)

Love it, or doubt it?

Poster for an integrated arts stage production
based on the novel
As I said once before, it's going to be so interesting to see how my students respond this fall to Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl when we cover it in English 456 (Literature of British Columbia). As one critic has argued, it's a work of insurgent transfeminism, by which Nicholas Birns refers to "a feminism that defines the 'trans-' prefix in a a maximally heterogeneous way, focusing on transnationalism and transgendered articulations of identity in understanding the cultural formations at play in the identity of women in the twenty-first century" (p.1).

In other words, Birns' article isn't for the faint of dictionary, but he's saying that Salt Fish Girl doesn't give you an easy feminism, whatever that might be, and that whatever else the novel might be, it's also a call to specifically disruptive action.

Mind you, Larissa Lai's novel is also fantasy, rather than the more or less realist fiction that most English courses deal in. Myth-like origin stories (ancient and future), cloned humans, inter-species mashups, prolonged dream sequences that might not be dreams: this isn't meticulously rendered realist fiction, with repressed middle-class characters living lives of quiet desperation, worried about politics and employment and educational prospects, so it's ....

Hmm. Thing is, the book really IS about repressed middle-class characters living lives of quiet desperation, worried about politics and employment and educational prospects, just in a future Vancouver threatened by social collapse and featuring human cloning, corporation-run municipalities and police forces, and apparently magical durian fruit.

As someone more familiar with realism (and kind of more comfortable with it, embarrassingly), I kept wanting Salt Fish Girl to give me something more recognizably predictable, and to resolve for me the assorted minor paradoxes, lacunae, and hiccups that sparkle throughout the narrative. It never did, though, and even if the ending seems to me more familiar than I'd like (Stanislaw Lem's Return from the Stars, Douglas Coupland's "One Thousand Years (Life After God)," etc., though I'm not going to give it away here), Lai's novel is original enough that it deserves all kinds of attention. Lai seems to be a fave for a lot of academics, though, and that's rarely a good sign for how broad an author's readership might be.

In what ways might it be a valuable book for thinking about British Columbia? Well, if you're thinking about taking English 456 with me, you might want to know that I once taught Stephanie Meyer's Twilight in a graduate course on West Coast literature. "Straight" might not be the angle you'll want to take on any of our readings....

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