The stories in Chinese/American/Australian writer Paige Clark’s debut collection, She Is Haunted, deal with relationships—both romantic and those between mothers and daughters—and mortality. The lead story is titled “Elisabeth Kubler-Ross” after the psychiatrist who framed the five stages of grief. Many of the female characters are named Elizabeth, including a Paige Elizabeth, or variations of that name and Clark dedicates her book to “all the Elizabeths who have lived through this and more”.
The Chinese identity in Clarke’s stories tends to manifest as explicitly Cantonese. In “Lie-In”, an unnamed ballerina is home in Australia recovering from an injured ankle while her dancer husband is off on tour alongside a guest principal ballerina from Japan. To pass the time at home, the injured dancer studies Cantonese, a language she has wanted to learn for years because it was her ancestors’ mother tongue.
Studying Cantonese, the rush of being a student returned to me. I downloaded two apps, a Cantonese-to-English dictionary and an ebook with an audio companion zip file. It took me an hour to learn three words. I could say male or son (naam4), female or daughter (neoi5) and person (jan4). I also had a basic understanding of the six tones. I was ready to enroll in face-to-face instruction. It would be my first time back in the classroom in nearly twenty years.
(For the uninitiated, the number in the Jyutpin romanization of Cantonese is the tone.) Yet as the dancer immerses herself in Cantonese, she worries about her husband becoming more than just a colleague to the guest ballerina. When the two women meet face-to-face back in Australia, it’s at a performance the injured dancer attends with her Cantonese instructor and ends up feeling like the beginning of a new chapter in her life.
Similar Cantonese cadences play out in “In a Room of Chinese Women” in which a Chinese American woman lives in New York City with her white husband. His former girlfriend is a young widow and, as part of her mourning process, wants to visit them in New York because she knows she will find empathy there. The ex-girlfriend is also Chinese American and it becomes obvious that the husband still has feelings for her.
One day the women venture out to Chinatown together, without the husband, and get to know each other better. They bond as the narrator introduces her husband’s ex to Cantonese food.
The woman had never had deep-fried dough coeng fan before. I told her it was my husband’s favorite. She said my husband hadn’t been as Chinese when they were dating. It was the first time she had mentioned aloud that they had dated. I said he still wasn’t very Chinese. I told her about our trip to visit my family in Mainland China. My six-year-old cousin offered to teach my husband the language but taught him Mandarin instead of Cantonese as a joke. After his lesson with my cousin, my husband tried to speak to me. I had to break it to him that I didn’t know a word of Mandarin.
“I don’t know if I would know the difference either,” she said.
At the end of the story, the narrator learns she and the ex have more in common than just the man that brought them together.
The stories stand alone yet some overlap with small details like dogs (chihuahuas), names, and places. They all have an underlying sense of melancholy since they either involve troubled relationships or death or both. But in the end, in the last story, “Dead Summer”, death isn’t as scary as it may seem when the narrator writes about grieving her mother.