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Book Review: “Hunger” satisfies a bittersweet appetite

Lan Samantha Chang’s book “Hunger” delivers her stories wrapped in words that whistle sideways through the air to cut to the core of your heart. They take you by surprise, startle and snatch your breath away, as they tell their rich and complex take on the human condition. o

First published in 1998, “Hunger” is a collection of six stories: one novella length story and five short stories.

All of her stories are centered around Chinese or Chinese American protagonists. Some of the biggest themes running throughout the bittersweet collection of short stories were loss, duty, family, the pain of things unsaid—silence, generational misunderstandings and time.

The temporal nature of loss was tangible through all of her stories, whether they draw on things from the past or span years of a character’s life.

Loss shows up in all of the six stories in different ways. Sometimes it is a loss of culture, other times it is a loss of a child and occasionally those are the one and the same. Sometimes it is loss of self: in the process of assimilation, the center of their souls are destabilized, lost somewhere in between their hazy memories of their past and their discarded hopes-turned-disappointments. Sometimes the loss is physical: there are deaths sprinkled in and out of each story.

In half of the stories, there is the very tangible sense of loss that sits in the silence between the parents and their children. In “Hunger, The Unforgetting,” and “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” there is one child who leaves. Whether this is a leaving for school or a leaving for escape, or both, each parting tears something from the parents and children involved.

One of the characters has a physical reaction after traveling beyond the village she grew up in, and consequently her mother’s domain of power.

“I realized that I had said goodbye to the last of the village, and to my mother. After years of avoiding her sight, I had gone to a place where she could not see me,” the narrator said. “Suddenly I was filled with an emotion so terrible that I turned and vomited at the side of the road.”

Leaving her mother, however much she may have longed for it, still strongly affects her. These paradoxes of love and independence, freedom and constriction, family and obligations is something Chang masterfully balances.

In “Hunger,” there is an erasure of all the family members, a disconnection that, once lost, was difficult to–and often never–regained. Tian struggled to open himself up. Min was like a person watching a movie at times, distant in her own body as she witnessed her husband pushing their daughter farther and farther away. Lastly, Anna and Ruth experienced this distance themselves, struggling to break free from the only way their father could show his love, through rigorous musical training.

In “The Unforgetting,” Charles is a silent recipient of all his parents’ expectations, with little interaction, a passive absorption of the discomfort his parents have with his second generation identity. He doesn’t understand the stories that his parents have tried to forget in an effort to assimilate and make his life easier, just as they don’t understand his baffling existence as he longs for things his parents never fathomed as options for him. Similarly, in both “Hunger” and “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” each tells the tales of second generation children, and in all three the theme of gaping rifts between the fathers and children especially are prominent.

The fathers fight strongly with the daughters in “Hunger” and “The Eve of the Spirit Festival.” Both stories feature two daughters while in “The Unforgetting” Charles is an only son. However, it is not for a lack of complicated love, bringing in immigrant family generational differences, as parents carry invisible volumes of baggage that their children cannot see for parental silence reigns and there is another loss: that of never knowing how much you were loved.

“When Emily turned eighteen and did leave home, a part of my father disappeared. I wondered sometimes: where did it go? Did she take it with her?” Chang wrote. “What secret charm had she carried with her as she vanished down the tunnel to the jet that would take her to college in California, steadily and without looking back, while my father and I watched silently from the window at the gate?”

In “Hunger” and in “The Unforgetting,” the issue of language comes up, as teachers suggest that parents stop speaking to their children in their first languages.

In the title story, the narrator says “But none of the new words I learned seemed able to express my thoughts—I felt as if, in order to speak English, I would have to change the climate of my soul, the flavor of my tongue.”

There sits another loss in familial relationships.  

Each of these losses takes varying amount of time to recover from, but even for the “small” things, a comment, a movement, an expression, the effects can be devastating and last years. Loss has no time limit.

The other themes were equally as deep and nuanced, and Chang draws upon many different situations and locations to explore the nature of duty, the pain of things unsaid, and complicated ways of expressing love through all of the above.

Somehow, through the multi-layered pieces she weaves, each immense discussion is folded into paragraphs, expanding (sometimes painfully so) the reader’s’ mind and heart.