What’s the big deal about a Chinese woman in a mystery novel anyway?
Growing up in 1960s Hawaii I was one of those avid readers who would borrow my limit from the library every week and read books under the covers with flashlights after lights out (aided and abetted by my older sister of course). I loved finding a book series and reading through them – the Betsy and Tacy books, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Books, and later on anything by Agatha Christie.
It never occurred to me that I was missing any Chinese role models in my fiction reading. I was a fourth generation Chinese growing up in a middle class suburban neighborhood. My local librarian was a white woman and 99% of the books in the library were filled with white characters – l loved them. I went through many great adventures with them, learning about life, language and the endless world beyond Hawaii as I went. It’s no wonder that I grew up longing for curly blonde hair and a soda fountain in the basement.
It wasn’t until college and my first fiction writing class that I started to hunt for literature that spoke to my own identity – stories that had Hawaii as a backdrop or modern Chinese woman characters. Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR was a revelation. After decades of hunting I’ve accumulated a nice collection – almost a half bookcase worth. Thankfully fiction, like food, has become multi-ethnic. Still these books are pitifully small in number compared to the overall number of published books out there — And if you like a good mystery, the selection featuring Chinese women in Hawaii are very slim indeed.
That’s why I got so turned on when my friend Clarissa gave me Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu books to read. Not only are many set in Hawaii, they feature a strong, independent Chinese woman in fun mystery stories with great period details. Hawaiiana experts may find some of the Hawaiian culture details misleading or inaccurate, but Sheridan has a sharp eye for characters and the racial nuances that existed in Hawaii and the mainland in the 1930’s and 40’s. Janice Cameron, the haole (Caucasian) novelist who narrates the stories and is Lily’s partner in crime solving, tends to idolize Lily (a little like Watson and Holmes) but describes enough of her faults to make her a likeable heroine that you’d be happy to go out drinking with. Besides her expertise with a gun, Lily’s way of putting down a snobby heiress or prejudiced policeman with a well-turned phrase is one of the things I like best about her. Her fearless approach to life is something any fiction-reading woman, Chinese or not, might want to emulate.