Nghi Vo’s Into the Riverlands highlights the duality of reality and stories, the ways in which stories are told, experienced, and consumed, their truths and falsehoods, and how they help piece together the past—although the resulting picture may not be one that is exactly complete. This novella features a wonderful cast of characters that band together to cross the titular riverlands, and whose qualities shine through more and more as the journey progresses.
Into the Riverlands brings us on a journey through legends, offering stories that have been passed down from previous generations, showing us how they might have changed with each retelling. The novella emphasizes the varying ways a story can be told, and how it might change depending on who the teller is—how there will always be inaccuracies no matter how truthful or honest a teller may think their depictions are. There is a focus on oral storytelling and its tradition, the relationship between the teller and the listener, and how these stories might also change along with the different audiences a teller may come across because of their differing interpretations.
Early on, we are introduced to Lao Binyi and Mac Khanh, individuals who prove to be more than who they seem; sworn sisters Wei Jintai and Sang; and Chih the cleric with their companion Almost Brilliant, a knowledgeable neixin. Chih and Almost Brilliant seek to travel through the riverlands with the goal of recording the legends of the martial artists who lived through the history of the region, with their companions offering protection given the persistent dangers that the pair may, and do, encounter on their journey. They first begin to witness legends come to life when this group encounters a dead body hanging in the back of the shed marked by the Hollow Hand, and with it come the stories of Wild Pig Yi and Gravewraith Chen. The legends being told come alive at night through the shared stories of the travellers—though they are in fact re-enacted, unknowingly, during the day as the group journeys through the riverlands with the master martial artists as their guides.
As Khanh is about to tell his own story, describing himself—“a man came out of the trees, his pace slow and deliberate” (p. 60)—in the same way that Chih later describes him in combat, he is interrupted by Almost Brilliant, who claims that the protagonist of Khanh’s story sounds suspiciously like Gravewraith Chen. There is the hint that Lao Bingyi is in turn Wild Pig Yi, as both individuals use lances in combat. It is interesting how Chih first mentions that “one of the first rules they learned on the road was that it was exceedingly bad manners to tell someone their own story” (p. 61).
Chih and Almost Brilliant, among others, witness the skills of Wei Jintai, and in this process, a new legend is created in the riverlands. This becomes a story that will be told to others on the journeys Chih will embark on in the future. We first get a hint of the inaccuracies and endless iterations of these legends in the story of the Hollow Hand: Lao Bingyi encounters a group of individuals who resemble this infamous group and notes, “‘The Hollow Hand counted sorcerers among their number, who could raise the dead and make them walk. What bad imitations you are, bad imitations of fools who died long ago.’” (p. 78) This raises the question of how the Hollow Hand might have changed from the past, whether they still exist, how only those who have lived during the times when a legend is created will ever know the truth, and how those who have only been told of the stories will not know all the details—or know what to expect if they experience such legends in reality. Chih explains, “[t]hey saw how young the Hollow Hand was, boys in their teens and early twenties. She saw how hungry they were for whatever it was their leader had promised them, and how they would kill for it, and how easy it would be for them” (p. 98). That is, whether all the details of the legends heard and known by Chih and Almost Brilliant are completely accurate or not, each still holds aspects of truth, is embedded somehow in the real world. As Chih reflects, “Whether the attackers were actually members of the Hollow Hand or simply crude imitators as Lao Bingyi insisted they were, they were dangerous, and they were deadly” (p. 92). The question raised here is perhaps not whether the legends are true, but which parts are true.
The difference between witnessing legends as they are created firsthand and simply passing them on as retold stories, recording them as heard from others, is further emphasized by Chih’s thoughts: “I’ll remember that I was terrified […] I’ll remember what it was like to see a battle between people who don’t fight like people, who are what legends come from” (p. 93). Again, Chih reflects further on this by saying, “‘Maybe you get told about it two or three times, and you just don’t know what you’re hearing’” (p. 105). There is a shift in the passing-on of stories and legends from the oral form to written when Chih decides to record by hand the stories they hear rather than have Almost Brilliant store them by memory, which brings us to contemplate the way we store, experience, and talk about memories now.
The novella seems to call to attention the importance of a story and its reception by others, how others perceive it, how it changes over time and more importantly, how it may be altered depending on shifting culture, traditions, and beliefs. With these changes, the way people remember the past in the present context will be largely influenced by current living—without the knowledge of what the story may have been like in the past, like a broken telephone, where bits and pieces change or are missing. The novella shows this through the discussion of the opera, The Cruel Wife, and what is considered a good or important story: “You could do worse than to take in some xauhi opera if you get the chance. That’s the good stuff, they don’t make them like that anymore” (p. 85). The production of The Cruel Wife has also changed from a time, “when everyone went to temple and children respected their elders” (p. 86).
Yet, Into the Riverlands emphasizes how stories do not serve only as a recording of the past, but also as a source of comfort, as escape, a soothing force in moments of despair—to get away from dangers, looming death, terror, and fear of a current situation or the world, even if only just for a moment. Sitting in a shelter, Chih, with children gathered around them, thinks, “[They] didn’t spend very much time with children, but they lived in stories, and for a little while, they could invite the children of Betony Docks into the house they made, offering them the fragile shelter of a story they had all built together” (p. 97). Here, a story function as almost a literal escape.
The end of the novella sheds light on another interesting question about the nature of stories through a conversation between Lao Bingyi and Chih:
“Not all stories are worth telling, cleric.”
“But it would be your story,” Chih said, trying not to insist. “It would be the truth.”
“What my story is, cleric, is mine. You have the rest, and you’ll tell the rest. Be happy with that.
“My story’s mine, and you don’t get to have it.” (p. 107)
This passage calls for us to question who gets to tell what story, what and which stories should be recorded, who owns the legends and has the right to pass them on or alter them. Vo challenges us to wonder about and rethink our own stories, the way in which some of us live our lives while trying to recreate the stories we receive: how we record history, and how we often live in the past through its retelling in the present. And what about the future? Oftentimes, we live the stories others want us to live, expect us to live, allowing those around us to write our journeys, both past and present, for us—when we should be writing it ourselves.
Near the end of the novella, the nature of Lao Bingyi and Khanh’s pasts are exposed when Lao Bingyi says, “Half of the stories never remember Khanh anyway. What good is that?” (p. 107) To be a part of stories and legends—but to be not included or remembered, when only those present in those legends can recall those that have gone amiss: is it enough only to be remembered in one’s own memory, or in those of the people who were part of the legend but will no longer be there to pass it on in the future? To think about our reliance on memory—to retell these stories and legends, accepting the deceptiveness of them and the ways our minds change what we see—can emphasise to us that it may not be accurate or reliable.
This brings us to two interesting lines, the first by Lao Bingyi—“You have one [story] now. I imagine you even think it’s the truth” (p. 108)—and the second by Chih— “I’ll do my best to be honest” (p. 109). How honest can we be, and how honest are our memories? And as a result, how honest are stories that depict reality? Vo’s novella challenges us to ask ourselves: what is our own story … and where do we want to take it?