“My mother always says that the story you believe depends on the body you’re in. What you believe will depend on the color of your hair, your word for god, how many times you’ve been born, your zip code, whether you have health insurance, what your first language is, and how many snakes you have known personally.”
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang is the story of how three generations of Taiwanese American women’s desires, secrets, and history come together for Daughter, the main narrator of the novel. Rated at almost four out of five stars on goodreads, K-Ming Chang’s debut novel is eloquently written with vivid imagery and mysticism, while also telling important stories of race, culture, and sexuality. Folktale and storytelling have such an impact on Daughter as she navigates her youth. Decisions arise based on the stories she has swallowed. One day, Daughter wakes with a tiger’s tail, embodying the myth she’s been told of Hu Gu Po, who likes to eat children’s toes. Even stranger things begin to happen afterwards as other tales begin to unravel in Daughter’s life from within her.
This story tells matriarchy and the identities that rise from that. Queerness is a huge topic throughout the novel, where Daughter falls in love with Ben. As her young lover, she helps Daughter unfold the mysteries and magic surrounding them as they fall in love. But Daughter soon learns she is not the only person in her family who has queer desires.
Chang retells Taiwanese myths through Daughter. Through the diasporic lens of Daughter, we see life for her and her family, where we learn about their immigration to America and what that has meant for each of them. Not only do we see Daughter’s present, but we see Mother and Grandmother’s pasts, along with her Father and Grandfather. All of these pasts shape the future and their destiny. Daughter wakes one morning growing a tiger’s tail. The story of Hu Gu Po and other tales seem to come from her, as she becomes the leader of her family and their future. Generational trauma is hers to break, with the help of Ben. Even with the violence Daughter encounters and witnesses in her family, we get their own individual histories. We get a glimpse of how they were treated in their own youth or adulthood, what life was like for them all, and possibly what shaped them to become the way they are.
“When I didn’t speak, he showed me the edge of the roof and tested me, pointing at far away things and asking for their names in Mandarin: Sky. Cloud. Bird. Car. Crosswalk. Airplane. Night. Child. Then he pointed at himself. Man, I said. He cinched his fist around my wrist, and I felt the bones rub like flint, starting a fire under my skin. No, he said. Father.”
Magical realism flows so effortlessly for K-Ming Chang. The entire novel feels imaginary and real all at once. This story encompasses so much: violence, coming of age, immigration, girlhood, queerness, etc. Violence takes on many forms: physical, emotional, and even in the language and history. Chang’s electric descriptions make even the most terrible or even basic aspects magical. What Daughter inherits from her family is also for her to decide. She is their destiny.
“While Ama was dropping her daughters into the river, trying to skip the last baby like a stone, she thought of water as the best of all mothers. Water had none of its own wants: It served only the thirst of others. Ama knew being needed was a kind of divinity, and she was tired of being that good, that god. When she dropped my mother into the river last, Ama thought: I am returning her to the river that will rinse her better, raise her like a flood I will run from.”