What’s fascinating about the stories inside Ho Sok Fong’s latest short story collection, Lake Like A Mirror translated by Natascha Bruce, is that they hit the reader hard, and at the same time they frustrate the ability of the reader to parse her scenes. With all of the ambiguity and occult that punctuate her stories, there seems to be something special in Ho’s writing that evokes such forceful emotion.
Ho’s book starts with the story “The Wall,” and the onslaught of ambiguity begins. Like most calls to action, the foundationless brick wall that is built a mere foot from the back door of an old aunty’s home is erected after a child is killed—killed by a motor vehicle flying down the highway that invades nearby backyards. It is not long before the wall falls down and the aunty is gone. However, Ho doesn’t say how, and the rest of the story follows the neighbor children’s curiosity over her disappearance. Did she get crushed when the wall fell? Did she take off, leaving behind her worthless husband? Did she die of illness? She was growing thin. Did her pitcher plant eat her? It is up to the reader to decide. This is merely a small precursor to the uncertainty that will accompany the reader and define the book’s form and style.
The themes of Lake Like A Mirror also commence with “The Wall.” The aunty is trapped between two forces of oppression: her inconsiderate husband and a municipal wall, which leaves her a total of one kitchen and a foot of backyard space to live. Ho’s succeeding story, “Radio Drama,” takes up a similar theme and joins the other eight stories in having female protagonists. A mother and daughter find themselves in a beauty salon, wherein the reflection of mirrors allows women to physically see and not see themselves—they can physically see themselves while aspects of their lives go unnoticed. Not seeing results in a conversation that is strikingly reminiscent of Mrs. Lord’s contrivance excusing her husband’s infidelity in the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, which is just as cringey. The commentary at the salon asserts, “But a mistress was only natural, once a man made a bit of money! Nothing strange about that. Most men never had any intentions of divorcing their wives; they wouldn’t be so stupid. For a wife to kill herself over it, well that was just silly.” This element of the absurd directs the reader’s attention toward women’s experiences. This is what the stories in Ho’s collection are concerned with—the spaces of women’s lives, whether at home, school, in culture, or in religion, where authority crushes.
As the stories in Lake Like A Mirror continue, they descend deeper into ambiguity.
As a corollary, stories such as “Aminah” and “Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani” can be difficult to follow (I am not ashamed to say I had to page back and reread multiple parts). Ho conducts a literary tug of war, alternating passages of lucid and affecting prose with others that are almost unintelligible or conflicting. In the latter story, Aminah, in a conversation—ostensibly, with herself—about a horse that may or may not have existed, appears to be mad and uttering nonsense under candlelight. The language is rather disorienting, and it isn’t made known to the reader until twelve pages later that the light bulbs in the girls’ dormitory are dead.
At first, it seems as though there might have been something literally lost in translation. Ho’s book was written in Chinese. The English edition, published in the U.K. (2019) and now the U.S. (2020), was translated by Natascha Bruce. However, it becomes clear that both the author and the translator were deliberate. Bruce told me that “Sok Fong described her writing to me once as being like connect-the-dot paintings, and I thought this was very apt: she wants different readers to connect different dots, and read different versions of the stories as a result.” The reader, then, is meant to have their own interpretation of her stories, and her odd juxtapositions and seemingly contradictory tellings are vehicles for those individual elucidations.
Another of Bruce’s challenges was navigating the cultural differences and similarities between the many Asian identities that appear in Ho’s stories. Bruce tried to capture the hybridity of the Malyasian-English that is widely spoken within the region by planting some Malay terms. Of course, intersections of culture are also difficult moments for the reader. Ho seems to intentionally denote her characters with national identities—Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Indian. For those who are not familiar with the resulting social and political implications, it can be hard to guess what the particular tensions are between characters. However, she does provide some context, referencing historical figures or movements.
There’s also a theme that runs through many stories about Malays passing or not passing as Chinese. It’s clear that Ho’s aim when designating someone as Malay or Chinese is to implicate certain Asian identities as being othered, and to highlight people who are living existences in-between those two nationalities—passing as both, or neither, or a combination at the same time. These paradoxes, simultaneously being but not being, seeing but not seeing, feeling but not feeling, charge through Lake Like A Mirror. Ho’s stories force the reader to cogitate uncertainty—that is the punch that Ho packs.
Lake Like a Mirror
By Ho Sok Fong, Translated by Natascha Bruce
Two Lines Press
Published April 14, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.