Walking between buildings so short she can still see the sky, Corlissa forgets to miss San Francisco. So used to the city lights reflecting back orange off the night fog, she had forgotten stars. Locke. A man's town. The cruelty of laws has twisted the place into a Wild West throwback, where men outnumber the women twenty to one. Despite her own marriage, she still feels a distaste rising up at the unusual coupling of white prostitutes and Chinese men. Aberration added on to vice.
While sorting through books for some of my beautiful new bookshelves* the other day, I came across Shawna Yang Ryan's lyrical, understated debut Water Ghosts (2009; originally published in 2007 as Locke 1928), and realised that I never got round to posting about it here. Having bought it on the back of coffeeandink's recommendation some years back, I actually read it all the way back in 2011. The latter half of 2011 was not a time of much blogging for me, and so it fell by the wayside. But then I picked it up again at the weekend, and found myself re-reading passages; so I thought I'd dig out my notes and get a few words down about it, because I do think it deserves a wider audience.
Water Ghosts is set in Locke, a small town in Sacramento, California, that was founded by Chinese immigrants to the US in the early 20th century. It's a waystation for traders travelling up the river, and while in some ways it's a refuge and a haven from the hostile white-dominated towns in the region, there is a pervasive sense of fragility, of transience to Ryan's portrayal. This is nicely reflected in the cover images chosen for the two editions of the novel: the original a sepia-tinted portrait of a Chinese woman, this one - in hardcover, at least - a pale watercolour backdrop with lettering whose ink has run, giving an impression of damp paper and blurred edges.
Blurring edges is, in many ways, the project the novel is engaged in. Ryan uses a few lines from Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize speech as her epigraph:
Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.
Ryan's characters are all, one way or another, set adrift: immigrants, prostitutes, long-abandoned wives, a preacher's daughter discovering something she "had never even conceived of: that a girl could love a girl". She is interested in those who usually hover on the margins of frontier stories, exploring how longing shapes identity and hierarchies inscribe themselves on the body.
Fong Man Gum came to America as a young man, head full of tales about the wealth and opportunities to be found on the other side of the ocean: the streets are made of stones, not gold, he was told, and "the houses are ugly, but inside is furniture made of silk, beds full of feathers". But the idea of America, to him, is tantalising for much less tangible reasons:
His father's courtyard was large. Small maples grew in the corners. He swung open the door to the cool, European-style home. Two stories, many wide windows. His hand glided up the banister as he headed to his room. All the signs of modernization, but he knew that his father's tiled atrium, the stereoscope, the telephone, the Bible, were just Western surfaces. He wanted to remake himself all the way to the core.
Everything about it is sleek, and shiny, and bigger: Lau Sing Yan, a man lately returned to China and regaling Man Gum and his friends with stories from the other world has, we're told, "silky" hair and a "well-fed body, stuffed full of American food". For Man Gum, the old world has come to feel small and faded, a reflection of his insecurities as a young man growing to adulthood and fretting under the yoke of family responsibility; the legend that is America seems to be synonymous with everything that is new, and fresh, and modern. He notices that Lau is "hiding his callused hands with careful gestures", but with the prickly pride of youth he dismisses this evidence of hardship as a sign of Lau's inadequacy rather than a warning he might heed for himself.
Renaming himself Richard Fong, he abandons the barely pubescent girl his family has recently made him marry for a new horizon and a new self. When we meet him, he's running a gambling hall in Locke and having an afair - abusive, we later learn - with a white prostitute named Chloe at the local brothel. Even achieving this relative measure of security and status, though, has drawn long years of struggle from him, and Ryan sketches Richard's loneliness with moving, minimalist clarity. We're told, briefly, of the days when, "He needed to feel his body was real; it had gone without touching for so long." Women are vanishingly rare in Locke - a law banning Chinese immigrants from bringing their wives with them has been on the books for five years - and so Richard found comfort elsewhere:
And then, finally, there was that of which he would never speak. Near the end of the harvest. [...] One hand trying to stay the falling of pears from the bag, a foot that slipped on the last rung; the sudden warmth of a steadying hand at his back. Richard sank into it. The other man, Ah Lum, maintained his touch.
Chloe, for her part, has fetched up as a prostitute in "the Chinamen's town" because she had nowhere else to go. She arrived sixteen years old and heading into labour, having been taken in by the wrong man's sweet talking; stopping a woman in the street to ask for directions to the doctor, she was sent to Madame See's brothel instead. The novel is intensely interested in women's spaces and women's statuses in the uncertain environment of this frontier town, all bound up in race and class and expectation. The women Chloe asks for help cannot fully understand her, and in case she "saw Chloe only as a whitegirl. Whitegirls, she said, go to Madame See's". Almost by the time her baby is birthed, stillborn, Chloe's fate is sealed:
This she had not imagined. She wonders if any woman in Madam See's had - no, this was the alternate future, the life that tumbles down when being a nurse or a schoolteacher or a secretary or a shopgirl fails.
Madame See herself, like Richard, has remade herself, adopting a modified name for new shores (Poppy, from Po Pei); unlike Richard, she arrived from China at a much younger age, with her parents. As an ageing woman, she occupies a diminishing space in Locke, unable to compete with Chloe's desperate youthful appeal, even as she profits from her. She dreams of drowning women ("bodies with seaweed-strewn faces under water, glistening and pale, with bloated fingers and Delta crawdads scuttling through the water-heavy locks of their hair") and younger peoples' futures, and keeps an altar with incense and rice.
Corlissa is the only white woman in Locke who isn't a prostitute, but she, too, is there on the margins because there is nowhere else for her; her marriage to a Chinese man has seen her cast out from her family. Having spent years scraping together the money to feed the family because her husband's charity was always directed outwards rather than in, she now spends her time engaged in battles for supremacy with her teenage daughter (in an effort to combat "the impertinent lip, the unashamed stare", she cuts off Sofia's braids and forces her to throw them into the town's rubbish incinerator), and disapproving of the inter-racial sex going on at Madame See's (the quotation at the head of this post is hers). She maintains a carefully buttoned-up existence, but the novel repeatedly associates physicality - and especially food - with her, as it does with the other women, underlining their places in the home and in the community at large in terms of who they prepare food for, and who they eat with.
Richard and Corlissa alike take out their vulnerabilities on those below them in Locke's society. Richard abuses Chloe at least in part - I speculate - because it reminds him that, for all the harsh truths life has dealt him about his status in this new land, he is still better off than someone. He always feels guilty, we're told, "(never more than that first time, when she cried like she'd never been hit before)"; being a prostitute, Chloe is not accorded the same expectation of physical safety as other women (of course she must have been hit before, Richard tells himself). Corlissa, meanwhile, seems to exorcise her sense of exile by congratulating herself that she's just that little bit more respectable than everyone else, and trying to ensure her daughter remains the same. But this makes her sound spiteful, and she is not; but she is all too aware of how precarious her place is, and how quickly she could slide out of it.
Sofia, meanwhile, dreams of white, 'exotic' Chloe; and here we get a much more overt intrusion of the narrator, who addresses Sofia in the second person:
She was pretty, and you compared her to the only truly beautiful thing you had seen in your life - strips of burnt wallpaper floating across the bay and falling into the sea. She was pretty like singed paper on the wind.
But you didn't have these words - only a faint sense of the image and the feeling that arose. You couldn't even really think about your pulse, as you felt it in your chest and neck and wrist and thighs, or what your skin-flush in the spring morning sun meant, because this you had never even conceived of: that a girl could love a girl.
Irony is layered over this, because the reader knows, as Sofia does not because she is too young to remember, that her romantic imagery derives from a house fire that featured in the novel's prologue: a house fire, specifically, that began with a woman distractedly cooking a meal while she day-dreamed of flowers. Home, again, is precarious: it can be swept away in an instant, and what was beautiful to Sofia was destitution for many.
Into this anxious jostling for position and security come three women, who have apparently managed to get themselves smuggled across the ocean; they instantly become an obsession for the single men of the town, who follow them around like lost souls, and compete to give them gifts of "glass jewels, curls of poems, and softening fruit". One of them is Richard's abandoned young wife, Ming Wai, through whom we glimpse the reality of the delicate bound feet that one of the homesick men of Locke reflects on with such longing and wonder ("such little feet you could cup in a hand [...] small limp hummingbirds"), remembering his own wife left behind in China. When Richard brings her to his American home for the first time, more or less the first thing he does - even before showing her how to turn on the stove, and "how he likes the dishes stacked, the food placed" - is deal with her feet:
He begins to catch his breath. He wants to vomit; he wants her to stay. He slips off her split shoes, untucks the end of her cotton binding, and begins to unravel. He frees the toes that press into her arch. He releases the scent of sloughed-off skin - flesh wet with rot from its own humidity. He tips his head and concentrates on the task with lost face. He leaves ten feet of soiled cotton binding in a loose pile beside him, then massages Ming Wai's feet, gently, working blood into her famished limbs. Despite the pain, she is silent.
It is a stark, beautiful, touching scene; and yet the silence that gives it weight and solemnity is also oppressive: he does not ask if he may expose her feet like this, and she does not tell him how it feels. It is heartbreaking solicitude, but it's also a violation of her privacy, presuming on a relationship that exists between them only in name and memory (they have been ten years apart, and she was eight years old at their wedding).
Richard's gesture is one the novel repeatedly complicates. As noted above, as the novel goes on we learn of Richard's lonely longing for physical contact, and can see a culmination and fulfilment in this that he has been waiting for without fully realising it. At the same time, for Ming Wai it is not the immediate liberation we might imagine. A little later, we see Ming Wai struggling to walk, leaving a trail of blood across the floor, which Richard finds himself cleaning up before he can stop himself. He urges her not to re-bind her feet; they just need to heal, he says. "They are healed," says Ming Wai. "You'll have to break them again if you want me to be modern." The past, and one's home, are not so easily left behind, and we might question what is lost, what is gained, and where Richard's priorities lie.
Gradually, first Poppy and then Richard come to the realisation that the three women are not quite what they appear to be. Poppy dreams again of water, and remembers a woman who drowned herself after she slept with Poppy's father, and then came back as a spirit to haunt him, appearing in every surface of water and glass. Richard struggles to connect with the wife he idealised but barely knows, and begins to sense a subtle wrongness in her:
steps forward to rouse her, pauses. She smells unclean, as if the baths he insists she takes, the perfumes he insists she wears, cannot scrub the sea from her.
Only in recognising and surrendering to what she is - a water ghost, a resentful spirit returned to make him face his responsibilities, at last - does he finally begin to understand her situation, as the girl left behind by the heroic pioneering man gone off to make his fortune in an exciting new land:
The fingers settle, one by one. The lightness of her land-touch is gone.
He cannot leave. He becomes her. She had barely known him before he left. She shivered beneath him on the last night, her last chance to secure her position in the household with a baby boy. But there was no baby, and living in the household of his younger brother, she lost all status. [...]
She mended clothing and cleaned toilets while the servants watched.
So: lives lived on the margins, all washed up by the same slow river in the most marginal town of all.
[* Without wanting to boast or anything (much), I should note that these are just a few of the bookshelves. Elsewhere in the house, we have AN ENTIRE LIBRARY, people. I am the happiest little bibliophile in all the land...!]