3 min

The future according to Larissa Lai

Strange odours, cloned humanoids and intense dyke passions

Credit: Kevin Teneycke

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

Our Pacific province, as envisioned by Larissa Lai’s second novel, Salt Fish Girl, has stumbled into dystopia.

Now part of the Pacific Economic Union, the former BC’s 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 cloned workers 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 to drown themselves). While born into relative comfort, Miranda 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, When Fox is a Thousand (1996), Salt Fish Girl tells a parallel story, too. 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 nineteenth century China. In both eras, 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-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 seeing news items about American gated communities, cloned sheep and shiploads of immigrant freight while she was writing passages of her novel.

The images couldn’t help but seep in.

“I’m very ambivalent about these things, even though I see them as full of violence,” she says. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for a better future. In fact, it’s the very unpredictability of how these new technologies will work out in the long run that keeps hope alive in the novel, Lai says.

One of the characters of Salt Fish Girl is an avowed feminist activist, but Lai shows little faith in offering her up as a model 21st century goddess-grrrl. In fact, all of Lai’s characters are deeply enmeshed with their society’s woes-on purpose.

“I certainly don’t set out thinking, ‘Okay, now I’m going to create some positive images of lesbians, or Chinese people,’ or whatever,” Lai says. It’s not madness in her method. Heroic characters are not the only form of positive gay and lesbian role models, she maintains.

“I think there are other ways of being political that are not necessarily about making positive representations,” she explains. “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.”

Lai is more interested in creating complex, flawed characters and exploring their less-than-best moments than whipping up typical heroes and heroines.

“For some reason, I’m particularly interested in those moments when we are less than our best selves,” she muses. “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.”

Just because Hollywood has a tradition of portraying ‘evil queers’ doesn’t mean the situation can be turned around simply by making images of ‘good queers,’ she adds. “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. The odours are far from accidental; they’re part of Lai’s complex vision of 2062.

“I use bad smells to imagine a difference that is really outside normative ways of being in the world-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,” she explains.

“Asians are not Europeans with different standards of beauty,” she says. Being culturally different is about belonging to an entirely different order of being-one that “does not centre around the same kinds of morality, the same aesthetics or the same ways of compartmentalizing the world.”

Salt Fish Girl is now on sale at Little Sister’s and at most major bookstores around Vancouver.


Thomas Allen Publishers, $23.95.