Dear Ms. Hoang,
When I first saw the cover of your book, before its release, I was intrigued. There was something about the small, swirling flowers that reminded me of a Flemish tapestry, a unicorn perhaps laying in wait. And then I read about its insides: a collection of fragmented sections, organized according to the zodiac. Done. And so when I left Florida, fearing a hurricane, I brought your book with me. This, I thought, this will help.
Art lifts us up beyond our personal experiences, but it also validates. Each is important. This is to say, Ms. Hoang, that for this reader, your book did both. A Bestiary tugged at my soul-strings.
Your book is beautifully constructed, the threads—sister, lover, mother, self, nephew, father—interwoven like the brocade of which the book’s cover reminds me. Though each piece stands alone, connected by the animal it pivots around, together they cohere to form a portrait of a life, seen through a kaleidoscope of refracted art and myth. In the first chapter the nephew is “a recovering heroin addict,” later, we see him calling from “Rehab for Felons”; we see Lily as she is, later, we see “Other Lily”; the chapter for the year of the snake is titled “On Oriental Beauties” and it is about woman after woman after woman. Things are as they seem, but they are always, also, greater than, more, and other.
There is a breathtaking vulnerability to the narrator’s confidences, as if she is whispering to us, a friend. It is not shock and awe, but rather, the complicated inner-workings, the small (and not so small) lies we tell ourselves and others that land with force: “I can’t stop saying that my friend Jimmy Martinez is dying of AIDS. I like to feel the dramatic weight—except that he is neither my friend nor dying of AIDS.” It is a clear seeing of one facet of the self.
But it is also what is not said, the blank space between juxtapositions, that speaks loudly. “‘I’ve never been here before,’ my first boyfriend told me on our first date. This place is kind of a meat market.” / “When I leave my parents’ house, my car is filled with groceries from the Vietnamese market.” This is the art of allowing the happenings of our life show for us where we were and are, and who we are and have been.
Ms. Hoang, I broke the jade bracelet my aunt gave me when we all realized my grandmother’s wouldn’t fit over my ungainly hands. I wore it always, its translucence turning ever-so-slightly-greener (or was it just my wishful imagination?), until it cracked. Its replacement, on my wrist now, is cloudy, a pale green, unchanging.
The book did help. I emerged unscathed and grateful.