Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Review: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

I love Nghi Vo's writing enough to have pre-ordered this one, even though I don't find studio-era Hollywood (or Hollywood in general) all that interesting. And while I was correct that the plot, the setting and the character's motivations inspired little excitement in me, I still delighted in reading this novel. 

I enjoy how Vo writes narratives about being a queer asian woman in unusual settings (for example, The Chosen And The Beautiful featured a queer asian woman as Daisy's best friend in a re-telling of The Great Gatsby). Her characters' experiences with their identities are sometimes at the forefront of the narrative, and sometimes they fade to be barely perceptible yet ever-present. In this novel, an aspiring actress and second generation chinese immigrant negotiates a studio contract that excludes roles for maids or with "funny accents." We see her struggles to make it in Hollywood with this narrow path forward, hiring directors completely at a loss for what to do with her. Eventually, she is cast as a monster. Her relationship with her race and others' assumptions about accents shapes her life, and colours her internal voice:

I steamrolled my native accent as flat as a sheet of gold leaf. I had told Oberlin Wolfe no funny accents, and I meant to hold up my end of the deal. That was where I lost the very last of my Cantonese, and it died with a soft aspirate, a consonant rhotic.

She also frequently remarks upon the accents of others ("Ukrainians who came to Hollywood to make their money on the silver screen before their accents excluded them from the talkies", "a restrained Mid-Atlantic accent called for me to come in", "an Indian girl with a Brooklyn accent"). 

We never learn the main character's name. We see several names that are given to her, each marking her as foreign in some way:

Of course I had a name. I still do. It's mine, and now I keep it in a carnelian box, hinged and clasped with gold, carved to look like a creamsicle egg. It's Chinese with an ugly American cognate. I take it out and look at it sometimes. It fits like something made for me, though the maker didn't quite know my measurements and guessed at the colors that might suit me.
Jacko called me the Chinese Kid, or CK when he was being whimsical. I thought it was affection or plain American disinterest, but a caterer explained it to me one hot June day.
"That man doesn't do anything by accident," he snorted. "He's making sure that you don't belong to the studio, not yet, not until he can get a good fee for bringing you in."

Like accents, names also become a recurring background beat. Names mark who you are by the accident of your birth, who Hollywood wants you to be, who people see you as. Names are marketing gimmicks, and they're personal, and they're how you become immortalized forever. 

I could go on and on about little motifs carried throughout the narrative. It really is so beautifully woven.

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