3 min

Smells fishy

Something's rotten in the future state of lotus land

Picture British Columbia circa 2062. What would you see? The possibilities are infinite: environmentalist’s paradise, ravaged earthquake victim, newly annexed American state.

As envisioned by Larissa Lai’s second novel, Salt Fish Girl, the Pacific province has tumbled into dystopia.

Now part of the Pacific Economic Union, the former BC has become an ailing territory run with zeal by multinationals like Saturna and Nextcorp, amoral corporations whose questionable methods include casual use of crowd control technology and workers who are cloned or else engineered with the genetic material of freshwater carp.

Into this brave new world Lai throws an unusual woman named Miranda. Born in Serendipity, the territory’s walled metropolis, she’s cursed with a troubling “cat-pee odour” and an exotic illness that usually induces its carriers to dream (and later drown themselves). While born into relative comfort, she and her parents are soon forced to move into the decayed Unregulated Zone beyond the walls.

And that’s not all. Like Lai’s debut novel from 1996, When Fox Is A Thousand, Salt Fish Girl tells a parallel story. This time it’s a fantastic one about Nu Wa (the snake goddess responsible for creating the first humans), who is reborn as a “bawling black-haired baby girl” in late 19th-century China.

In either era, love between women offers necessary respite from cultural storms.

Carp-women and corporate rule. It’s a heady mixture for sure, but is it one so far removed from today’s headlines?

Lai doesn’t think so. The on-the-move activist/novelist/scholar/art critic – she was born in California, raised in Newfoundland and resided in Vancouver between 1985 and 2000 before moving to England for her MA and then to Calgary, where she’s now completing her PhD – recalls being attentive to news items about American gated communities, cloned sheep and shiploads of immigrant freight when she was writing passages of her novel. Her feelings about them seeped in.

“As with all new developments,” says Lai, “the ones I’ve mentioned are unpredictable, and I wanted to capture that. I’m very ambivalent about these things, even though I see them as full of violence. I suppose where hope lies in the novel is in the unpredictability in how new technologies or new ways of constructing the social world work out in the long run.”

Though one of the characters of Salt Fish Girl is an avowed feminist activist who responds to these developments, Lai shows little faith in offering her up as a model 21st-century goddess-grrrl. In fact, all Lai’s characters are deeply enmeshed with their society’s woes. Yet it’s not madness in Lai’s method. “I certainly don’t set out thinking, ‘Okay, now I’m going to create some positive images of lesbians, or Chinese people,’ or whatever. But I think there are other ways of being political that are not necessarily about making positive representations. Rather, it’s about really exploring certain subjectivities, in my case, ones that aren’t often explored in mainstream fiction, and trying to figure out what makes them work.

“For some reason, I’m particularly interested in those moments when we are less than our best selves. I guess because I think most of us are less than our best selves most of the time. I’m interested in characters who are complicated and fucked up, but are still really trying to be good, and just can’t quite seem to get there. I suppose I think that just because Hollywood or the mainstream publishing industry has a long tradition of showing us ‘evil queers,’ it doesn’t mean the situation can be turned around simply by making images of ‘good queers.’ It’s a lot messier than that.”

Politics are shot through the novel’s fabric, but it’s the tang of urine, fish scales, fermented tofu and durian fruit that may linger longer in the reader’s memory. But odours, too, are implicated in Lai’s complex vision of 2062.

“I use bad smells and other images of less than perfect bodies to imagine a kind of difference that is really outside normative ways of being in the world and in the body, as though to say, yes, lesbians are not just straight people who happen to love women, we are different at a much more fundamental level. Asians are not Europeans with different standards of beauty. To be culturally different is not the same as being culturally opposed, but to belong to another order of being that does not centre around the same kinds of morality, the same aesthetics or the same ways of compartmentalizing the world.”

* In Fantasies And Fictions, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore presents Larissa Lai reading from Salt Fish Girl and Tamai Kobayashi reading from her new book Quixotic Erotic. The free event is at 7pm on Tue, May 20 at TWB (73 Harbord St); call (416) 922-8744.