In a recent interview at Fusion, the author of The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang, talked about the difficulties she experienced in finding a publisher for her novel, a process made still more bewildering by the fact that many of her peers did not encounter anything like the same obstacles:
I had a very misguided perception of what selling a book would be like. [ . . . ] I don’t think I have a single friend who had a book come out in the last ten years who didn’t get six figures for it. And so, when my agent—who I really adore—started shopping my novel around to the big publishers, I had this idea of what it might have been like, and it definitely wasn’t that. [ . . . ]
[Placing this book] dragged out, I think, for about two years. It was rejected approximately forty times [ . . .] The thing I kept hearing over and over again was that it was a very bleak book, and that was making it very difficult to market and very difficult to sell. There were many editors who talked about how they loved the prose and loved the characters, but that they needed more light or more happiness.
Wang’s debut was eventually picked up by Unnamed Press, an independent publisher with an international brief—their website declares their specific commitment to "unlikely protagonists, undiscovered territories, and courageous voices." Reading about Wang’s tortuous journey to publication left me with extremely mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt thrilled by Unnamed Press’s perspicacity in seeking out work like Wang’s. On the other, I felt furious to the point of wanting to throw things that a writer as talented and original as Wang should not be getting the kind of lucrative offers from top literary publishers that her peers seem to be enjoying. Not that said peers don’t deserve it—I don’t know them to judge—but, in a publishing climate where mainstream literary imprints constantly bend over backwards to let the reading public know how "important, timely, daring, groundbreaking and original" their latest six-figure acquisition is, a writer such as Wang—whose debut novel truly is all the above—should not be passed over.
There is something dangerous going on in the backrooms of publishing. Perhaps it has always gone on—I don’t know. I can speak only for my own time. What I do know for certain is that many of the larger commercial publishers, aided and abetted by a certain breed of young and thrusting breed of literary agent, are hard at work making manuscripts more palatable to their perceived audience, more in line with what is "daring" and "relevant" whilst also being perfectly safe and unchallenging. Nothing too bleak, in other words—or if it starts out bleak to begin with there has to be a warm and fuzzy Spielbergian payoff. Easily consumable product, with all the rough edges neatly smoothed away. What such book-doctoring fails to recognise is that rough edges are what often make a writer interesting—not to mention daring, original, groundbreaking and/or relevant. I would have thought that any publisher who still considers themselves to be serious about literature would have been proud to add Esmé Weijun Wang to their roster. Perhaps what put them off is that here is a writer—and a book—that actually has something to say, and that this something is not even remotely comfortable or easy to read.
Not that The Border of Paradise is obscure or even difficult to explain. The novel tells the story of three generations of a family, beginning with the Nowaks, New Yorkers of Polish extraction who have made a fortune in the manufacture of pianos. When David Nowak’s father dies, the ownership of the Nowak piano factory passes to him in the expectation that he will continue in the family business. David is not like his father, though. Intelligent and talented, he is also wayward and independent, a tendency that grows more pronounced and unpredictable to the point that David is the victim of his impulses more than he is the master of them.
He sells the business and travels abroad. He seeks out Martin, a friend from New York who also happens to be the brother of Marianne, the young woman David was hoping to marry but whose family urged her to reject him on the grounds that he is "crazy." Martin was serving with the Marines in South East Asia, but, on his arrival in Taiwan, David discovers that Martin is no longer there, dismissed from the navy under a cloud of unspoken scandal. Enjoying the laid-back, privileged lifestyle of the American abroad, David becomes infatuated with a young Taiwanese woman, Jia-Hui, and is determined to first win her affections and then marry her. On agreeing to become his wife, Jia-Hui asks why they cannot remain in Taiwan. She is, in her own words, "powerful there." She has misgivings about travelling to a foreign country where she will always be considered a foreigner, a fish out of water. It soon becomes clear, however, that for David the idea of making a life in Taiwan has never been an option. He takes his new bride home to meet his mother, who rejects Jia-Hui utterly in terms that make no secret of her racist attitudes. Hoping to gain some respite from society’s judgements and from the increasing predations of his own mental illness, David takes his wife to live in an isolated rural community in California. Jia-Hui soon becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a longed-for son, William. But as she gradually finds ways to accommodate the isolation of her new existence, David rediscovers his earlier romantic attachment to Marianne . . .
The main action of the novel takes place over a span of some twenty years, from David’s first meeting with Jia-Hui in the late 1950s until the early 1970s, when their children, William and Gillian, reach their middle teens. The story is told from multiple perspectives, leaping backwards and forwards in time as characters’ memories and the immediate flow of the narrative demands. Parts of Jia-Hui’s narrative are rendered in blank spaces and (untranslated) Chinese characters, presenting a radically visible demonstration of Jia-Hui’s initial difficulties with language, both in understanding an alien culture and in making her own thoughts, feelings, and needs properly known.
Central to the unfolding tragedy is the now-outmoded Chinese social custom of tong yang xi—known as Shim-pua in Taiwan—in which a more privileged family would adopt a female infant from a poorer background and raise her with their son, in the expectation that the two would marry when they reached puberty. The custom was more widespread among economically disadvantaged families, who would "sell" their own daughter and then raise a shim-pua daughter in her place, thus gaining a bride-payment for their own child, and a daughter-in-law to produce descendents who would go on to care for them in their old age.
This practice was outlawed by the Communists in mainland China in 1949, but continued in Taiwan until the 1970s, when the twin catalysts of increased economic wealth and compulsory education for girls drove it into extinction. As girls became freed from the conservative social attitudes that kept them confined to the home, so they became more likely to resist tong yang xi marriages, which were often unsuccessful in any case. It is important to note that in the traditional form of this practice, the two children would not be blood relations, and that the mutated form of tong yang xi forced upon William and Gillian by Jia-Hui would not have been countenanced.
I would count The Border of Paradise as one of the most oppressive and quietly terrifying books I’ve ever read. The portrayal of the emotional and psychological trauma experienced on some level by every character that drives the narrative is profound, unflinching, and merciless. In the end, I read to relieve myself of the weight of this story, such was its effect on me—and I say that as a compliment. I must add that the writer’s sensitivity, not only in the exquisite detail of her descriptions, the psychic acuity of her observations, but also in her masterfully clear-sighted—and yes, merciless—empathy with each of her characters, no matter how desperate or misguided their actions, was a privilege to encounter.
Wang writes from the perspective of being a second-generation Taiwanese American, someone who has observed firsthand the difficulties experienced by all immigrants—in this case her own parents—in assimilating a foreign culture. In her portrayal of Jia-Hui, she shows us a woman stripped bare of everything, including her name. In Taiwan she was powerful; in America she is less than human. She copes by isolating herself, first through fear, then through an encroaching and pathological reclusiveness that is visited in turn upon the children. Wang herself lives with schizoaffective disorder, and her insights into the far-reaching effects of mental illness and the silences surrounding them are drawn with clarity and great compassion.
The Border of Paradise is not speculative fiction so much as gothic fiction, a grand narrative of decline and fall, of the sins of the fathers, of a family tragedy of almost preternatural dimensions. There is fire and flight, revelation and deceit, unnatural affections and family secrets too portentous to mention, all readily reminiscent of the kind of epic decadence we expect to find in stories more predictably classifiable as "gothic" or "horror." Poe’s famed "The Fall of the House of Usher," is characterised by the twin "diseases" of suggested incest and prodigious musical talent, a combination potent enough to bring about the dramatic collapse of an entire building as well as the mental integrity of more or less everyone involved in the story. In Joyce Carol Oates’s saga Bellefleur (1980) and more recently Catriona Ward’s Rawblood (2015), we learn of families isolated and ultimately imprisoned within a thorny latticework of long-established, not to say cherished beliefs about their own vulnerability to curses, situations and fates that are not even acknowledged as real by the wider community. Keeping these distinguishing features in mind, it is not difficult to see how The Border of Paradise bears more than a nodding relationship to the dramatic and psychological excesses of gothic fiction. That Wang is able to take these tropes and create from them a work so thematically rich, so relevant to the concerns and stresses and shifting realities of the world we currently inhabit only makes this novel more remarkable.
In fewer than half the number of pages, The Border of Paradise is everything I wanted Hanya Yanagihara’s over-hyped A Little Life to be, and more. Shame on those publishers who couldn’t find the initiative to bring this book to the public it deserves. Congratulations to Unnamed Press for once again highlighting the importance of the independent press in supporting genuinely innovative and important writers, in infusing our too-comfortable literary culture with some much-needed fire.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #6, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a science fictional reimagining of the Arachne myth, won the BSFA Award in 2014, and her story cycle The Silver Wind was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Nina lives and works in North Devon. Find her blog, The Spider’s House, at www.ninaallan.co.uk.