In her debut collection examining the myriad identities of modern Asian and Asian-American women, Cleo Qian does not shy away from both the real and surreal aspects of longing. Indeed, longing is the most palpable feeling of Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, and Qian embodies this feeling in all its dimensions. Whether the desire for beauty in “The Girl With the Double Eyelids,” professional identity in “Wing and the Radio,” or personal fulfillment in “The Virtuoso,” Qian examines the boundaries, both internal and external, placed on womanhood and stymying these longings. The result is a multifaceted collection that is beautifully paced and deeply introspective.
Most striking in Qian’s collection is her embrace of speculative ideas, which is subtle in the first few stories but reaches its peak in “The Girl with the Double Eyelids.” In this story, when a girl undergoes controversial double eyelid surgery due to insecurity and societal beauty standards, she must navigate a troubling sexual relationship between a friend and teacher, as well as the occurrence of strange images on other people’s bodies. The connections between her hallucinations and the recent surgery are tenuous, and at first, chalked up to mental illness, but the borders of reality continue to come down as interpersonal conflicts around her spiral out of control. Perhaps the most explicitly speculative story in the collection is “Power and Control”, one of the collection’s strongest as well. A young woman begins a relationship with a girl nicknamed Keychain, and through her feats of alchemy and her own desire for control, tries to entrap Keychain into an ultimately abusive relationship. Showing us the perspective of the abuser does not mitigate Greta’s unhealthy influence, and if anything we are more privy to Greta’s wrongdoings due to her use of otherworldly power. Other stories in the collection call upon speculative elements as well, to varying degrees, and having this possibility exist in the back of our mind while reading expands our definition of what is plausible and probable in the space of a single short story.
Qian also does not limit her story to characters of the Asian diaspora, and often we enter places such as China and Japan to meet our characters there, to understand their actions and thoughts in a disparate social context. Casual yet clear lines make these settings come alive. For instance, in “Zeroes:Ones” our narrator is working in Suzhou, China, and she describes her setting as such: “my view of the city was lazy and gray, with chain stores and clusters of orange bicycles and laundry airing on balconies underneath an always cloudy sky. Which is to say, it was not a familiar view, and I never forgot I was a stranger to this city.” No image occurs without insight, and this rumination is a common characteristic in many of Qian’s stories. Beyond setting, this use of introspection tells us something else, broader and haunting. In a rapidly changing social climate, with racist and patriarchal ideas often threatening the health and safety of the average Asian woman, especially in pandemic years, introspection is not just an impulse, but a necessary survival instinct. Qian’s characters often move on instinct, both self-preserving and self-destructive, and in many cases, we exist as hapless witnesses to a real, palpable doom.
What Qian demonstrates for us is nothing groundbreaking in its composition or structure, but rather succinctly written stories with vibrant language and methodical pacing. The craft elements are clear and apparent, and whether they ring true to the reader’s lived experience or rattle in the brain as something new, they are ultimately memorable, unforgettable little tales.
by Cleo Qian
Tin House Books
Published on August 15, 2023
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms