What would you risk for love? “Steer Toward Rock”, Fae Myenne Ng’s latest novel, asks exactly this. Fifteen years after her critically acclaimed first novel “Bone” was released, Ng has captivated us again with another beautiful and well-written novel. A haunting, brave story about courage and unrequited love and desire, loyalty and family, this is not your typical love story. Grounded against the terrifying, foggy backdrop of McCarthy-era San Francisco’s Chinatown, protagonist Jack Moon Szeto’s story is a tale of the complexities of life as an immigrant “paper son”. A boy who was sold by his birth mother, Jack becomes a man ashamed of his past who longs desperately to be free and to carve out his own life.
While most of us know about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the novel explores a little-known consequence of this law: the Chinese Confession Program. According to Ng, this program, in effect from 1956 to 1965, was created by the US government to prevent communists from entering the US illegally. It targeted Chinese American “paper sons,” those who had entered the country with false papers claiming to be sons or relatives of Chinese who were American citizens by native birth, and called for them to confess to the authorities. While not officially an amnesty program, confession offered a possible adjustment of status and immunity from prosecuti
on and deportation at a cost: the confessor had to name his “paper” and blood family members, surrender his passport and could still possibly be deported. Alternately, not confessing meant living in constant fear of deportation if caught by FBI agents.
This was a tense and fearful time in Chinese American communities; families, neighbors and friends were suspicious of one another, each scared the other had confessed or turned them in, and no one could be trusted. A stamped seal carving of the Chinese characters for confess, “hon pak”, sits heavily at the beginning of each chapter—a constant reminder of the gravity of this era. One cannot help but draw parallels between the fear of this period and that of today’s immigration raids, making this an interestingly timely novel.
From the moment Jack sets foot on American soil, he is forced to work for his adoptive “paper father,” the gangster-like Yi-Tung “Gold” Szeto, to repay his debt. Jack’s life is changed forever after he falls in love with the independent, American-born Joice Kwan. Joice becomes pregnant with his daughter, Veda, but she doesn’t love him and refuses to marry him, denying him the family he so badly wants with her. The last part of Jack’s contract with Gold Szeto now poses a problem that tears him apart internally: he is to bring over a “paper wife” from China, Ilin Cheung, who will actually become Szeto’s second wife, thus making it impossible for him to marry Joice.
Although Jack knows early on that Joice is his “ghost of love, better chased than caught,” he doesn’t lose hope that she might change her mind if he confesses and renounces his fake family ties, so he decides to risk everything for this chance, but to no avail. This decision backfires in the worst way imaginable—not only does love elude Jack, but Gold Szeto is deported and exacts a horrifying revenge on him.
Joice is determined to give birth to Veda, but ends up leaving Jack to raise her. It is this tender love story about a father and daughter that is told in the second half of the novel. While Joice is unstable and moves in and out of the picture, Ilin gives Jack companionship and helps him raise Veda, treating her as if she were her own daughter. As Jack would later say after their marriage is dissolved, “we had earned each other’s comfort and company. Ours was better than a real marriage.”
Sadness envelopes Jack and his story; comfort and solace are found as he raises Veda. The first four sections (“Report,” “Respond,” “Requite,” and “Return”) are written from Jack’s point of view, while the last, “Release,” is narrated by Veda. Ultimately, as she comes to understand and free herself from her father’s past, Veda helps him become a naturalized citizen, giving him the choice he never had.
The novel is written with a poet’s sensibility, sparse and careful with language, yet full of details, and provides a unique perspective into Chinese-American history and identity. There is a delicate balance between the cold, sterile immigration language of Jack’s confession and the poetic, timeless advice exchanged between Jack and his friends through countless Chinese idioms and axioms, though at times hard to understand, which pepper their conversations.
It is this simple, yet profound, wisdom that Jack tries to impart to Veda, and which we can also take away to guide us through life’s challenges. After all, this is a story about life and its lessons.