Transparency by Frances Hwang
After finishing Frances Hwang’s luminous collection of short stories, I initially thought, “no one could be that sad.” Each of Hwang’s ten tales in Transparency seem constructed around a struggling soul, a malcontent or someone so socially awkward and isolated that following their existence is almost painful. Amidst Hwang’s beguilingly simple prose and her keen use of theme and structure are touching examples of the small human interactions, idiosyncrasies, confusion, and loss that shape a life. It is no wonder that Hwang has received the Rona Jaffe Award and been selected by Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose to appear in two new short story anthologies featuring up and coming voices.
At a little over 200 pages, Hwang trenchant talent -- the craft with which she brings forth her characters -- ensures that the reader cannot simply turn away, not even when the story has come to a close. Transparency’s magic is in the way her characters remain with the reader. The attention to detail produces quietly vivid scenes that draw you into the emotion and tension of each story. In “Blue Hour,” the story of two recent graduates navigating love and friendship, Hwang illustrates the grief and surreal quality of watching as friends grow up, mature, and sometimes leave each other behind. Writing of two female friends, she describes with evocative detail their interaction as they drift apart:
They ate sushi in a darkly lit restaurant composed of black surfaces where Japanese anime was projected on the wall. It was hallucinatory, Iris thought, watching the radioactive glare of characters as they jumped twenty feet into the air, their mouths opening in perfect circles, though no sound came out. She felt the incongruity of two worlds -- the lurid, colorful vision flashing on the walls, and the dark shining surface of the present moment, of reality, as she watched Laura’s nimble fingers fold and refold a napkin until it was the shape of a crane perched along the glossy table.
Hwang is similar to the authors she admires, Chekhov and Munro most notably, both of whom draw characters with precision and clarity, exposing their failures, frailty, or angst without being unnecessarily cruel. As strikingly clear as Hwang is in bringing forth her heroines -- for Transparency is a collection of heroines -- she does not weigh them down with too much autobiographical information. Instead, information about each is revealed in a natural narrative arc which consistently links back to the major themes of the short story and refocuses the reader on the actions, or in some cases inaction, that propel the narrative forward.
While publishers might be quick to locate and hold Hwang under ethnic literature, Hwang is busy keeping her art far broader, complex, and difficult to define. She has created a collection of truly enjoyable fiction, many of the stories following the lives of Asian American immigrants and families without centering ethnic identity as the primary trope of their lives. In this way, Hwang expands our ideas about who can speak to us, the reader and society, about universal experience. Regardless of race, class, or gender some things -- loss, grief, love, fear, separation and redemption -- traverse many identities. Hwang finally gives center stage to Asian Americans too often left out of the Western legacy of locating universal themes in an individual life.
I look forward to more of Frances Hwang’s writing and offer her great compliments on her collection. Kudos.
Transparency: Stories by Frances Hwang
Back Bay Books