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A Review of Fae Myenne Ng’s Steer Toward Rock.

Fae Nyenne Ng’s long awaited new novel does not disappoint. What I find fascinating about her prose is its density even given the relatively short and fragmented sentences. The story centers around Jack Moon Szeto, a “paper” son who falls in love with a 2nd generation Chinese American woman, Joice Quan. His intense romantic affections for Joice catalyze a series of irreversible events that determine the novel’s plot trajectory. In this respect, at its core, Steer Toward Rock, is about an unrequited romance and what occurs when affections are not at first returned.

There are three immediate responses I had to this novel and ultimately center on elements that appeared in her first novel, Bone. First, I wondered if her tender and careful representation of Jack Moon Szeto existed as a vital contrast to Leon Leong, the wayward father whose domineering nature might have contributed to the suicide of her own daughter, Ona. Jack Moon Szeto, like Leon, is a loving father, but on the level of the romantic interests that Jack’s daughter develops, he is much less controlling than Leon. Second, I couldn’t help but think that Fae Ng was invested in presenting a companion story to Chinese American identity that deviated from the female perspective so prevalent in Bone. Even though the entire novel is not narrated from the perspective of Jack, there is a concerted effort to represent Chinese American masculinity in a variety of forms, most notably through the lens of romance, paternalism, and gossip. Third, the novel continues the tradition set in Bone concerning new kinships. Leon Leong was obsessed about his status as a bad “paper” son; in Steer Toward Rock, Ng ultimately devises the complex ways in which Chinese immigrants created families even amidst immigration restrictions.

That Ng sets her novel between the 1950s to the contemporary period grants the plot a kind of trajectory that demonstrates evolving forms of racial formation. Whereas it is made clear that Jack Moon Szeto can only immigrate under the auspices of a constructed identity, his own daughter’s very “American” upbringing grants her a different narrative voice and understanding of her place within the Chinese American community. Ultimately, the novel is concerned about the split between Chinese and America and elucidates a strongly cultural nationalist trope in positioning Jack Moon Szeto, not as a man caught between two cultures, but as an American who just happens to be of Asian descent. Fittingly, the novel thus concludes with his naturalization.


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A Veritable Literary Feast

April 2019

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