Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sriduangkaew, Scale Bright (2014)

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Scale Bright. Immersion Press, 2014. Pp. 110. ISBN 978-0-9563-9249-7. $14.00.

Reviewed by Su J. Sokol

In Scale Bright, Benjanun Sriduangkaew takes an ancient Chinese legend and pulls it forward into modern-day Hong Kong, crossing centuries, gender and genre along the way. A mythical tale of goddesses and demons, Scale Bright is also an urban fantasy set in the contemporary world, and a coming-of-age new adult story that explores family, love, and courage. That Sriduangkaew can pull this off without too much strain on the reader’s suspension of disbelief is impressive. That she can do this while creating so many moments of literary beauty is what makes this work exceptional. She has also presented a tale that challenges mainstream and western readers to step outside their comfort zones. Winning these readers over is perhaps her biggest challenge.

Scale Bright is a stand-alone novella that has its roots in three earlier short stories by Sriduangkaew: ‘Chang’e Dashes from the Moon,’ published in 2012 in Expanded Horizons; ‘Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon,’ published in Giganotosaurus also in 2012; and ‘The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate,’ published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2013. The novella is also based on the Chinese legends “Chang’e and Houyi the Archer” and “The Legend of the White Snake.”

Sriduangkaew’s tale starts with Julienne, a young woman approaching her mid-twenties and struggling to become the strong, sure adult she longs to be. Julienne is sensitive, insecure, and a little neurotic. There are hints of a dysfunctional family, of loss, of struggles with mental instability or illness (“tinted bottles lining up at the vanity”, “appointments in fluorescent-lit clinics”). Julienne thinks it isn’t right that at twenty-four, “…she still finds herself with problems that should’ve been shed with adolescence, like bad hair and acne.” For those of us who have had similar thoughts, it is a relief to hear them articulated so clearly and so well from such a likable character.

Julienne has two immortal aunts, namely Chang’e and Houyi. Technically, it is Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, who is Julienne’s aunt. Houyi, the Archer, is her aunt’s wife. Of course, the Archer of legend is generally presented as male, but in Sriduangkaew’s tale, she is female; thus Julienne is gifted with both an aunt and an aunt-in-law to look after her.

Houyi is strong, fierce, intelligent and loyal. Viewed by some as a cold-blooded killer, her character is balanced by a sharp sense of humor and an integrity it is impossible not to admire. She is the type that has “don’t fuck with me” practically tattooed on the forehead, who is usually portrayed as male, or if portrayed as female, leather and whips are often involved. There are no whips here but, like her male counterpart, she also embodies a certain amount of sexual buzz:
Houyi stands on the first letter of HSBC, ancient myth-feet resting on logo black on red, under which throbs a mad rush of numbers and commerce and machines: trades riding cellular waves and fiber optic, fortunes made and shattered in minutes. She does not shade her eyes (emphasis mine).
Legend has it that Houyi the Archer, when called upon to save the world from the danger of ten suns in the sky at the same time, shot nine of these suns down with her bow and arrow. Unfortunately, these suns were the children of Xihe and Dijun, immortals. Thus, Houyi’s act of heroism made her powerful enemies. This is nothing new, though—it happened countless centuries ago—but while immortals don’t measure time like we do, we are reminded that “immortal doesn’t mean immutable.”

To be clear, Scale Bright is not a modern re-telling of this old tale, or it is not merely that. The story of Houyi the Archer and Chang’e the Moon Goddess serves as the background for what is happening now, in a world where ancestors and history are alive and present in our contemporary lives, continuing to exert influence in the world. These histories and legends also intersect with one another, and this is where the White Snake comes in.

“The Legend of the White Snake” is, more accurately, a legend of a white snake and a green snake, two magical serpents that are able to take human form. Interestingly, even the original ancient Chinese legend is a story that involves a strong love between two females. In short, the white snake becomes imprisoned for eternity by a jealous spirit. The green snake, with a loyal and selfless love for the white snake, attempts to free her. Although the green snake refers to the white snake as “Elder Sister” there is also an unmistakeable romantic aspect to the love she bears her.

In Scale Bright, the green snake is a demon by the name of Olivia Ching or Xiaoqing. Although she is called a demon, she is not presented as particularly evil. Olivia is pursued by the maniacal monk Fahai, an ally of the immortal emperor Dijun (father of the suns) who is also the enemy of Houyi. It is hinted that Dijun may, in fact, have purposely induced Houyi to kills his nine sons for his own selfish purposes.

When Julienne becomes entangled with Olivia and her aunts step in, worlds and legends collide and an adventure ensues. This adventure takes Julienne to Banfaudou, the “place in between,” as well as to the heavenly realms. Like the best literary adventures, our protagonist learns about her own world as well as other worlds, about who she is and what she really wants, and about what she is capable of doing when the stakes are high.

It can be difficult to describe a story which is a myth or fantasy without it sounding slightly ridiculous, but make no mistake, this novella is a serious work that succeeds on multiple levels. The story contains messages about the importance of family, about the possibility of enduring relationships of tenderness and strength that break traditional rules, and about courage, loyalty and tenacity. It also speaks to the possibility of growth and learning at any age and stage of life. Moreover, the characters in Scale Bright are interesting, nuanced and believable. I would personally have liked to see one or two positive male characters; however, given that the number of important protagonists in this story is limited, this is not a significant lapse. As far as the female characters go, they run the gamut from flawed to heroic, and often both at once.

The plot of Scale Bright is fairly straightforward and contains no real surprises. This is probably fortunate, because at least for Western readers, a certain amount of confusion arises simply from the names, the places, and how the worlds of legend function in the story. For example, the character Hau Ngai is also called Houyi and the Archer; Seung Ngo is also Chang’e and the Moon Goddess; Olivia Ching or Xiaoqing is also the green snake, the serpent, and a demon; Bai Suzhen is the white snake; there is some kind of a fox associated with the names Daji and Nuwa; and there are the parents of the suns—Xihe, and Dijun, who is likewise an emperor. It is not completely clear which of these characters are gods and which are immortals and whether there is a difference between the two. And where exactly do demons fit into this hierarchy? Other questions also arise, such as what rules restrict access to Banfaudou and the heavenly realms. The reader might also like to know exactly how Julienne came to have immortal aunts, since it is hinted that this is a very recent development.

These questions and observations are by no means a criticism of the novella. Those of us who were raised on a certain kind of literary white bread would do well to get our brains outside our usual stomping grounds once in a while for a stretch. In any case, it is important to learn that the world is a complicated place. When Julienne speaks to her aunt Hau Ngai about whether she is only immortal on a technicality, we are told that:
Heaven comprises of nothing save technicalities. There are eternal scribes devoted to the task of documenting such.
Other words of existential wisdom abound in Scale Bright. There is Olivia’s realization that “…she is only human in outline, a vessel into which the serpent is uneasily poured.” While Olivia may, at times, long to be human, Julienne longs to be more like her immortal aunts. “To have poise without trying, to have beauty without effort. To be impossible.” Later in the story, Julienne’s body “… thrums with an urge to run, to leap, to be more than it is.” These sentiments are universal, expressing the frustration of living with limitations, the weight of mortality, the shame of imperfection, and the pain of being able to imagine but not realize a better, more perfect existence. More mundanely, this story tells of the courage needed not only to be more than you thought you could be, but also to ultimately accept yourself.

As our bodies are a vessel for our natures, this story is a vessel for certain truths and ideas, and also for Sriduangkaew’s gorgeous writing. As a novella containing elements of a number of different genres, the reader has the opportunity to appreciate writing with a variety of rhythms, flavors and textures.

For those who appreciate horror, there is “a smell of butchery thick as velvet,” blood-stained clothes that have “browned in the way of wilted leaves,” and creatures that “eel through the mists of heaven’s borderlands, spirits of stationery and instruments.”

There is also a satisfying amount of cyber-punk aesthetic. The evil monk, Fahai, is described as someone who “annexes the dimensionality of the chair, of the space around him.” Later, after a scene of physical conflict, the reader’s eye is drawn to “a laptop tossed into the fountain, where it lies parted and silver, an oyster of silicon and circuitry.” In another realm, “opaque fog churns thick with nothing, heavy with nowhere,” while here in modern Hong Kong, we are shown this:
At eight, buildings across the harbor ignite, LEDs running in colors that—filtered through Hau Ngai’s touch—give her the smell of lotus-seed paste, the richness of salted yolk. Spotlights and lasers vivisect the night.
Surrealism has also flavored this literary meal. “The sky outside roils. Planets hover far too close to be true, a ringed giant that might be Saturn, a red bonfire that might be Mars.” We shelter beneath “a pavilion of fabrics that whisper among themselves, under a paper roof of folded animals.”

Some writers have a talent for beautiful description, but Sriduangkaew goes beyond this by finding disparate methods for evoking an image that is not only true but presented in a way that is utterly unique. Some examples include: “The day slants yellow and red, striping her a crayon tiger” and “laundry strung out from window to window like dead moths.” Visual imagery in fiction is more common than other types of description. I am particularly impressed when a writer is able to get a sound just right, like Sriduangkaew’s description of a loom: “Clacking of wood on wood, the purr of thread turning into fabric.”

There is very little to criticize in the writing. There were certain moments when I felt that the author used more words than necessary to describe something, taking an extra step or two past where she should have stopped. In most of the novella, there was an impressive economy in the language, but ever so often, it was as though Sriduangkaew did not have the confidence to realize that she had already nailed it.

I could go on with examples of beautiful writing (“holding herself upright on the vertebrae of her pride,” “the market was frayed with the lateness of the hour,” “her professionalism twitches, trying to crawl away”), but this would be tedious, and maybe I have already nailed it. I will allow myself one more quotation, because it is both where the book begins and where it ends:
What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”
Scale Bright asks not only this question but whether you have the wisdom to recognize this thing when you see it and the courage to hold onto it once you have found it.

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