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How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

by Doretta Lau

In her debut short-fiction collection, Vancouver writer Doretta Lau moves characters of Asian descent from the margins of CanLit to centre stage. Though a number of the stories in this book suffer from homogeneity of voice and tone, the collection is thematically provocative and frequently very funny. Lau explores a range of themes, from the impact of transracial adoption to the ways white people fetishize and objectify Asian cultures.

The bold and distinctive title story, shortlisted for the 2013 Journey Prize, is taken from a quote from basketball star Yao Ming, describing his debt to the Chinese team that helped develop him as a young player. Its cast of five rebellious teens, who have adopted ironic monikers such as “Yellow Peril” and “Suzie Wrong,” spend a night engaged in creative, symbolic vandalism on Vancouver’s streets. In the process, they assert transgressive identities against the pale backdrop of the mainstream.

But the dynamic tone of the story, which concludes the book, is something of a departure from what comes before. Most of the stories in the collection are told from the first-person point of view of young female protagonists, many of whom share a similar voice and the same detached, wryly observant sense of humour. Adding some needed complexity and tonal variety is “Left and Leaving” (named after a song by Winnipeg indie rock band the Weakerthans), in which two half-sisters struggle to adjust to their extremely white-bread foster parents. Songs, band names, and other cultural references are scattered throughout the book, though not all are equally effective in conveying meaning or amplifying mood.

That Lau’s debut focuses almost exclusively on characters of Asian descent should not be remarkable, but in CanLit, it is. As her palette of moods, voices, and subject matter expands, Lau is a good candidate to become a writer to watch.