Plan for the Day
- Let’s get to Salt Fish Girl!
- A note or two on Myth
- myth: 1. a. “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon; creation myths.”
- myth: 2. a. “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society” (Merriam-Webster online…check out March 15th’s word of the day)
Remember, as members of a culture, you share and reproduce dominant ideology. That doesn’t mean you “buy into” EVERYTHING. We are herd animals and our institutions wouldn’t exist without social cohesion. The goal of a class like this is to get you to recognize the ways you privilege knowledge. We all have biases, but college-educated citizens in a (pseudo-)democracy should be able to think critically and recognize how and why they believe what they believe instead of assuming they believe what they believe because it’s absolute truth. Scrutinize your assumptions.
Pause on that definition of myth for a moment. What makes what is essentially a lie (or maybe a partial truth…distorted to fit an agenda) a “popular belief or tradition”? Consider the following myths about American culture:
- The American Dream
- “All men are created equal…” 1776
- “Land of the free…” 1812
- Paul Bailey, one white male’s perspective on slavery…2016
Referring to slavery: “We need to get over this, folks. All of us do,” he said. “We need to get over it. It’s done, it’s over, it was 200 years ago. We made mistakes. We’ve done stupid things.”
Approaching Salt Fish Girl
“This is a story about stink, after all,a story about rot, about how life grows out of the most fetid-smelling places” (p. 268)
Although we’ve discussed that there’s no single interpretation of a novel or short story (or any text), it’s difficult to have a free-for-all, anything goes position on interpretations. In order to help explain what’s going on, there need to be guidelines to keep us on track. I’d like to focus on themes as we did with Autonomous. Our goal isn’t to dissect the entire novel, but we do need to hit the main topics. I chose Salt Fish Girl because it’s very different from anything else we’ve read. It definitely falls under “speculative fiction,” mostly acts like a science fiction novel, and seems to connect to fantasy. Another genre we could argue for is magic(al) realism. This genre is characterized by having the natural and supernatural worlds blend seamlessly together: These stories don’t invent worlds; instead, they show readers the magic of their familiar world. As with any definition, we have to qualify why this novel fits into the genre, but please note that there isn’t a special litmus test that can define ALL magic realism texts. Salt Fish Girl is a very good candidate for the genre.
Literary Devices to Remember
- Foreshadow—to hint or present a situation that will be clarified or expanded upon later in a story.
- Irony—(although there are various definitions) actively working against one’s stated or assumed goals; to destabilize oneself by actions contrary to one’s professed worldview.
- Gender and Sexuality
- Food and Smells
About the Author
Larissa Lai is an American-Canadian writer of Chinese descent (however, Wikipedia claims she’s “Chinese-Canadian,” but she was born in La Jolla, CA and grew up in Canada). All her grown up life seems to be spent in Canada, and she’s currently an Assistant Professor of English at The University of British Columbia Vancouver. Didn’t we read a story set near there?
- Miranda: Our main protagonist, born from an interesting fruit.
- Nu Wa: Creates humans from mud and eventually lives among them.
- Salt Fish Girl: The focus of Nu Wa’s affection in late-19th Century China. Guess what she smells like?
- Evie Xin: Possibly the reincarnation of the Salt Fish Girl (p. 224)*; she’s technically a clone, but we know that just means she’s in the novel to represent a subaltern view of humanity.
- Stewart Ching: Miranda’s dad, the tax collector turned grocery store proprietor, doesn’t keep too close an eye on his daughter.
- Aimee Ching: Miranda’s mom, a former cabaret singer at the New Kubla Khan; she replays videos of herself singing in her younger days; she bequeaths her song rights to Miranda.
- Aaron Ching: Miranda’s brother who really doesn’t seem to have ever gotten any drive to leave and build a life for himself. He does help out in the grocery store and fixes old cars.
- Edwina: The witch of the Island of Mists and Forgetfulness, who also smuggles heroin…
- Dr. Flowers: A geneticist who clones humans for manual labor; he studies the dreaming disease, but it isn’t clear if he cares to “cure” it or just observe it’s progress in order to clone better.
- Dr. Seto: Miranda’s immediate supervisor at Dr. Flowers’s office of weirdo medicine; she was cloned to be Dr. Flowers’s wife…nothing creepy about that!
- Ian Chestnut: Evangelist without an audience and son of well-to-do parents. He’s Miranda’s only school friend from her days living in Serendipity, but he doesn’t figure much in the story.
- The Sonias: Clones Dr. Flowers made for Pallas shoes; they plan a worker uprising and cultivate an important fruit. XXXXXX* is one of the Sonias. *You’ll need to have read to know who this is.
- The Doras: If you know who they are, you’ll get one or two Test 5 questions right.
As usual, I like to focus on non-controversial topics. Evolution is both fact and theory, and I’m happy to explain what I mean. Even if you choose to ignore evolution’s validity—and I’m not going to discuss it the way biologists and most scientists would—you need to understand some of the scientific basis for Miranda’s durian hybridity and Evie’s carp hybridity.
Evolution is a fact. The scientific community doesn’t debate whether or not evolution exists but debates aspects of evolution. Therefore, it is also a theory and an established one. Your conviction that evolution is wrong is just that, a conviction and a baseless one. Do not think your conviction holds the same weight as the evidence accumulated by experts over a century and a half.
- Briefly sum up Darwin’s process of establishing evolution. Consider the finches of the Galapagos Islands. Here’s a clip from The Origins of the Species (time should be 14:27).
Going from Sea to Land
All this swimming around by early organisms was probably exhausting, so, naturally, some fishes wanted to move onto the land. In order to do so, they had to live out of water. Lungs help, and that’s what evolved in rhipidistans, bony fishes about 400 MYA. According to Berra’s account, “[t]hese fishes had muscular limbs built around bony skeletons that resembled those of four-footed animals,” which “enabled them to move about on the bottom of swamps” (Berra, p. 84). The theory goes that these fishes could breath (“gulp”) oxygen and move short distances across land. As droughts occurred, the ones best adapted to land living were able to reproduce.
Question: How might these animals have been trapped on land? What happened to their passage back to the ocean? (Dolphins-Whales-Deer)
Consider this move for a bit. I realize there are many variables that have to be aligned well enough to go from sea creatures to land creatures, but, remember, it took 40-80 Million years for amphibians to appear. That’s a long time. From amphibians, reptiles evolved, and, yes, there are transitional fossils (Berra, pp. 85-86). Seymouria is such a likely transitional species between amphibians and reptiles that scientists aren’t sure if it’s amphibian or reptilian–which category should it go? A big difference between amphibians and reptiles is birth. Reptiles developed amniotic eggs that “could be laid on land” (Berra, p. 86).
Consider this adaptation—a hard shell egg—as advantageous. It might not be perfect (but what is?), but it is said to have helped reptiles flourish. Dinosaurs are reptiles. Some are huge reptiles! As Berra mentions earlier in his book, birds evolved from reptiles. The massive extinction event 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs, but other reptiles and mammals survived and continued evolving.
Species as Percentages of Other Species
Evie mentions that she is “point zero three percent” carp (p. 261). Of course, in the novel, she’s been genetically engineered, and, as far as I know, scientists can’t create human-fish hybrids; however, you’ve probably heard someone claim that humans share 99% of genes with chimpanzees and Bonobos. Ever since the genomes of most mammals were mapped in the early 2000s, scientists directly compare the DNA gene sequences of different species to find what genes they share (more discussion on this). Prior to genome mapping comparisons, there were two additional ways scientists could determine when a species split. (All citations in this section come from Berra)
- Albumin: water-soluble blood proteins found in plasma, often referred to as blood serum.
- Index of dissimilarity: measures evenness of distribution of characteristics; units of albumin based on different amino acid sequences.
- Molecular clock: “[T]he amount of molecular differentiation between related species reflects the time since their divergence” (p. 94). The more serum proteins different species share, the more closely related the different species are (pp. 19-20).
- Assumption—the species being compared shared a common ancestor.
- Assumption—neutral changes in proteins, codon mutations (p. 10, 153) that don’t change the common amino acid, accumulate at a constant rate and that that rate is known. If the rate isn’t known or is off, the calculation will be off.
- DNA-DNA Hybridization: Berra claims using protein clocks can be sloppy and give different readings (p. 97). This method requires complementary strands of DNA from different species to bond into a double helix structure as all DNA does. Of course, being from different species, they aren’t the tightest bond. “The hybrid DNA is then heated, and the temperature at which the strands separate is recorded. The more closely related the two species are, the more bonds they share and therefore the higher the temperature necessary to separate the strands” (p. 98).
- Assumption—Secure fossil dates have been calibrated. Scientists need two known ancestor fossils of the species they’re comparing (pp. 98-99).
We can be sure of the dating accuracy because, as Berra tells readers, “[s]cientists routinely check the findings of their colleagues, by repeating their studies” (p. 100). These techniques show a history of refining the ways scientists determine how closely related species are. Evolution isn’t a done science; instead, it is continually refined as new evidence and techniques come about. If ever evidence contradicted the theory of evolution, scientists would scrutinize those results and determine whether or not evolution was wrong. Over the past 150 years, scientists have built up tons of evidence
Then again, there are Phoebes in the world who can’t have their worldviews challenged by the plethora of evidence scientists have established. (See Asimov’s article from earlier this semester)
Western cultures aren’t the only ones with creation myths. Salt Fish Girl begins with a retelling and, perhaps, reinterpretation of an ancient Chinese creation story. Nüwa and Fuxi are figures in Chinese mythology who created humanity from mud. Nu Wa of Salt Fish Girl is most likely continually reincarnated. Who does she become after drowning, or does she die?
Important note: Salt Fish Girl was nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award. That name sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The “award encourage[es] the exploration & expansion of gender” according to its homepage.
In ways similar to Autonomous, sexuality isn’t dwelled upon in Salt Fish Girl. Lai takes a matter-of-fact approach to lesbian sexuality and doesn’t create characters that condemn others who don’t conform to heteronormative behaviors (with one exception being the Salt Fish Girl’s father…and look what happened to him—yes, Test 5 question). Throughout the novel, Nu Wa and Miranda pursue lesbian experiences with the Salt Fish Girl and Evie, respectively. And what happens in the final relationship?
What I find particularly interesting are the stories Lai “drops.” What I mean is that there are threads of the narrative that seem incomplete and aren’t tied together or resolved. This is a criticism of the novel, but, as with most criticism, it’s shortsighted and probably reflects the critic’s tastes and pet peeves as opposed to intellectual acumen: Quill & Quire’s Review and Some Random Blogger’s Review. As we’ve discussed plenty of times, although readers do make meaning based on their filtering of the text and their experiences, privileging one’s tastes in a review is the same as giving a “book report” in elementary school. College students should have an appreciation of literature that elevates beyond like/dislike, which is for children or those comfortable with surface approaches to texts…and life.
To return to the discussion of sexuality and story lines dropped, Nu Wa’s husband is most likely in the closet, unable to pursue his real desire for her brother (or other men) in early 20th Century China (and Toronto, Canada where he lived briefly). Nu Wa returns home after her 50 year “trip,” and her brother is in a partnership with the Salt Fish Girl’s family’s tobacco business. Her brother (possibly named Ba [p. 174]), is the main partner in the business and (for reasons you need to know for the Test 5) wants her to marry his partner, Hap.
- p. 177: Hap “looked up to my brother who bossed him and bullied him with impunity.”
- p. 179: Hap wasn’t interested in marrying Nu Wa, but he couldn’t say no to her brother
This may seem like it’s just about honor—honoring a debt one family owes to another; however, why didn’t Hap marry? Sure, just because someone doesn’t marry doesn’t mean they’re gay. Consider the homophobia of contemporary North Carolina; then, go back 100+ years to a time where the concept of homosexuality was criminal. Let’s see if there’s more evidence…
- p. 179: “The arranged marriage of such an old man to such a young woman was considered very old-fashioned. These days, people married for love.”
- p. 180: Hap has a rather businesslike approach: “I am happy to keep you in my house more as a sister than a wife.”
Ok, it’s still not obvious, but you need to consider the book’s context: Both Nu Wa and Hap have an unspoken understanding that this relationship is for convenience, and Hap only makes one attempt to have sex with her after being goaded into it by Nu Wa’s brother. He offers to pay her to pay someone to have sex with her in order to get pregnant…
- p. 182: Nu Wa and Hap seem to have switched gender roles when it comes to household chores.
- Speaking of pregnancy, what happens at the end of the novel? Maybe we should discuss that on Monday, 11/11…or wait till Test 5.
Hap’s character isn’t fully developed, but it’s not a strike against this story. Using the broader context of the story, readers can fill in the possible meanings. Please note that this interpretation isn’t out of nowhere. Larissa Lai’s work is considered very open about gender/sexuality. Remember, interpretations are likely or unlikely, but you need to argue why.
If you haven’t started Salt Fish Girl, you’re behind. There won’t be too many questions on this Friday’s Test 4, but you need to get with the program! I’ve noticed grades are a lot lower (10% lower) on novels than short stories and class discussions.
Berra, Tim M. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: A Basic Guide to the Facts in the Evolution Debate. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.