After blazing onto the SFF scene in 2020 with The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo has gone from strength to strength. An animating concern of all her work is the question of how to navigate power from its sidelines. The titular empress of Vo’s debut novella rises to her ruling position by making canny use of people and objects considered beneath the notice of the ruling class. In The Chosen and the Beautiful, Jordan Baker runs up against the limits of the belonging, and even the identity, afforded to her by the white, wealthy Daisys and Gatsbys of the world, including the woman she has known as her adoptive mother.
The unnamed(-ish) protagonist of Vo’s latest book, Siren Queen, suffers no illusions about the obstacles that will face a Chinese American girl hoping to break into the movies in the (so-called) Golden Age of Hollywood. In her earliest years of going to the cinema, before she ever has aspirations to stardom, she sees that the only Chinese actress on her screen plays the same role over and over again, perpetually culminating in her death. Still she dreams of becoming part of the Hollywood machine, seeing stardom as an escape from a life where other people’s dismissive looks determine who she is and what she deserves.
I wanted what Clarissa Montgomery had, the ability to take those looks, to bend them and to make them hers, to make the moment hers, to make the whole world hers if she wanted. I wanted that, and that want was the core of everything that came after.
That she hopes to escape from the limiting roles her own world offers her by fitting herself into fictional roles scripted by prejudiced men with profit in mind is a driving tension of the book. Luli Wei, as she comes to be known professionally, prides herself on her practicality and clarity of vision, but her steely ambition cannot be untangled from her bottomless, sincere love of the movies. She determines from the beginning that she’ll steer herself clear of the stereotypical roles available to non-white actresses in the era. She won’t faint, she won’t do comedy accents, and she won’t play maids. In pre-Code Hollywood, this means that the studios don’t quite know what to do with her, and every day she can’t get work heightens the risk that she’ll disappear into the sea of failed starlets the studio heads have sacrificed to maintain their own power and fame.
I use sacrifice here advisedly—and literally. The world of Siren Queen is not the Hollywood of our own world, though Vo’s invented films sound so plausible that I kept scurrying to IMDb to double-check that they were fictional and therefore not available on streaming services for me to watch in real life. (To save you the effort of doing the same: she made them all up.) (I am like 75 percent sure she made them all up.) Luli’s Hollywood is a world of magical circles, changelings, and Wild Hunts. The first time Luli ever goes to the movies, she pays the cost of her admission into the cinema with an inch of her hair.
“An inch of hair is two months of your life,” [the ticket agent] said. “Give or take. An inch … that’s your father coming home, your mother making chicken and sausage stew, skinning your knee running from the rough boys …”
It made sense, or at least I didn’t want her to think that I didn’t understand.
Neither Luli nor the reader ever comes to a full understanding of the dark magical bargains that underlie the glamorous world of the movies. Vo has a knack for sharing exactly enough information to put a chill down our spines, but never enough to let us feel that we have a solid grip on the possibilities of the world. It’s a very deliberate choice that leaves the audience in much the same position as Luli and her colleagues: even as they begin to learn more about the world in which they reside and the risks they run simply by existing within it, there are always a hundred horrifying possibilities that just haven’t occurred to them yet. For every step Luli takes along the path to hoped-for fame, she must pay a price. And at every step, she’s at risk of toppling into the darkness and losing herself altogether, as has been the fate of so many actresses before her.
Abigail McKinnon had been white with slick black hair, my height and my build—we could have shared clothes if anything had remained in her that cared about clothes. The nodder that was left after Abigail got pregnant and refused to give up her baby got more work than I did.
Have you ever seen a movie where a part was simply filled? There’s no life or wit to the person spilling the drink, or running from the riders, or smiling in the crowd scene, but they’re there and you don't notice until much later how stiff they were, how awkwardly they moved. ... Even after what was lit up in [the nodders] had been extinguished, they still took direction, even if they did it clumsily and badly.
Siren Queen is packed full of such Shirley Jackson–esque details, so that neither the reader nor Luli is ever able to forget the very real, very sinister danger that awaits her if she goes too far, if she crosses the wrong person, if she is ever too much her authentic self. Luli is perpetually navigating the fraught question of her own agency. On one hand, she’s walked into this life with her eyes wide open, giving up pieces of herself—and of her family—for the slim hope of becoming a star. But like all the other women in her position, once Luli is in with the studios, she’s relentlessly policed, controlled, and terrorized, not just by predatory contracts and the day-to-day indignities of institutionalized prejudice (misogyny, racism, queerphobia; the list goes on), but by the constant threat of being consumed by the dark powers the studio heads wield.
Within a world that sharply constricts women’s choices, Vo’s characters all make their own compromises with the powers that be. Luli’s first maybe-love, Emmaline Sauvignon, possesses the type of (white) beauty that’s instantly legible to the studio heads. As a queer woman, though, her success in the industry is contingent and precarious. She works hard to conceal her queerness and resents Luli for not making those same compromises. Another love interest, a writer called Tara, can be more open about her sexuality, in part because the industry doesn’t quite see her as a person in the first place. Jewish, a writer rather than an actor, not the right kind of beautiful, Tara goes to gay bars and won’t kowtow to the ideal of femininity that Emmaline represents. Louisa Davis, an actress whose career recalls that of Hattie McDaniel in real life, reminds Luli that she’s not better than actresses who do take the roles Luli’s determined not to take, “but we all know why you have to say you are.” And while Luli gives up twenty years of her life for a chance to break into the film industry, we also see multiple women who offer up their flesh in order to get out. Vo shows us a world—surely nobody living in the now times can relate!—that offers very few good choices, and the characters must choose what parts of themselves they’re willing to give up. Having it all was never an option.
All of this sounds terribly allegorical, and in a sense it is. To the best of my understanding (which has been formed entirely by the Coen brothers’ movie Hail Caesar and a few episodes of You Must Remember This), the Golden Age of Hollywood was a pretty dark time for everyone except straight white men, and it wasn’t much of a picnic for them either. Nghi Vo is far too good a writer, though, to slip into pure allegory. Siren Queen sends a chill down your spine precisely because the monkey’s-paw pacts and dark fae magic of Vo’s imagination map so cleanly onto the extractive and exploitative nightmare that was, and is, Hollywood. The people who made the machine go in those early days powered it with their bodies and their talent, often in the full understanding that they would be thrown aside when they ceased to be hot, alluring, and useful.
As a queer woman of color, Luli Wei is at particular risk of being thrown aside, and it’s no coincidence that her success arrives when she starts to play monsters. In the eyes of so many people in her industry, Luli’s monstrosity is inherent to her identity as an ambitious woman of color and daughter of immigrants. By refusing to accept the thin, confining space offered to people like her, Luli forces that space to broaden, forces her industry to make room for her. Even when she gets her big break as the siren queen, the role of monster offers its own set of perils and pitfalls: when a fire breaks out on set, her costume is so physically heavy that it comes close to preventing her from fleeing the flames. Nor can her own conscience ever be clear, as her career is predicated on a—there’s no other word for it—monstrous theft that she perpetrates against her own sister.
Siren Queen is the clearest illustration you could ask for that Nghi Vo won’t be a one-hit wonder of a novelist. It’s a book packed with memorably spiky characters, keen insight, luxuriant prose, and eerie fantastical detail that lingers in the mind like a vividly unsettling dream.