Remember when I mentioned that I’d been reading about lesbians in China in the 1920s?
A week ago I discussed my various reading moods and the fluffy books I read in February. Once I finished Midnight Pearls, I started craving something with meat again. I picked Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama because I knew the person who gave it to me for Christmas has an excellent taste in meaty literature. (Of course, half way through the book, I remembered that the person who gave it to me was actually not who I THOUGHT gave it to me and had in fact never read the book, but I loved this book and I’m so glad I made that mistake.)
The story starts in 1919 and shows the main character, Pei, as a child. Within a few pages, Tsukiyama has painted the little farm she grows up on as well as its relationship to the broader society of rural China. It immediately gives us a glimpse of what women’s lives are like, which will be very important as the story develops.
She portrays the struggles and expectations so well that the reader is hardly shocked, let alone mortified, when Pei’s father takes her to a girls’ house in the city and leaves her there without looking back. There, Pei sets about fulfilling the words of the fortune-teller, who said she would love many but there would be “complications” so she would never marry.
(Spoiler alert: the complication is that she’s totally a lesbian.)
Pei and her sisters at the girls’ house face many challenges, including the “Japanese devils” who are beginning to invade their country, unfair working conditions in the silk factory, and just the general struggles that comes with growing up and, as she begins to notice the way people look and judge her, growing up different. She learns to be independent from a young age and some of her sisters go through the “hair-braiding ceremony,” which is just as final as a wedding and signifies that they are going to move into the Sisters’ House and stay unmarried throughout their lives.
Through all of this, Pei’s relationship with Lin develops, touching and being touched by every aspect of their lives. As their relationship grows, Lin takes Pei to her brother’s wedding and Pei lets Lin convince her to visit her parents one last time.
What I love most about their relationship is how naturally intimate it is. There is one scene where a physical consummation is more implied than anything else, but from the beginning, there is no room for doubt about what they mean to one another. When Lin’s family comes to discuss the possibility of her marriage and she decides to go through the hair-braiding ceremony instead, Pei immediately wants to do so as well. They spend all their free time together, they discuss everything, and they encourage and reassure one another through all the changes in their lives.
The novel is filled with strong female characters, ones who make mistakes and do the best they can and always always always have their sisters’ backs. Booklist described it as “a soft ring of feminism,” and it is definitely soothing like one. While staying true to its historical nature, it also proves that strong women are not limited to a single time or place, and true love does not have to be declared but acted upon to exist.
I suggest you read it. I suggest everyone read it. The writing is beautiful, the story is moving, and the characters are vivid. Basically, it’s going to be joining The Truth About Forever, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Things They Carried in whatever bag I pack whenever I leave my house for longer than a weekend. It’s one of those books I hugged to my chest because I just wanted to absorb it into my heart. It has found a place there and I will remember it for a long time to come.