05 Oct / All That Work and Still No Boys by Kathryn Ma
Winner of the 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Ma’s debut collection is made up of 10 stories that each explores the nature of power – from subtle to blatant – in various types of relationships. The strongest is undoubtedly the title story, taken from an off-hand comment made by a tsk-tsking relative who ungraciously remarks about a family’s then son-less state, rudely dismissing the four daughters with, “All that work and still no boys,” to the distraught mother. Decades later, that mother insists that one of those daughters must be the one to donate a kidney because she refuses to risk the health of that precious son who finally arrived to make the family whole, that miraculous son for whom she risked her own life to birth, who is now the ailing mother’s best donor match.
Other stand-out stories include “Second Child,” about a Chinese tour guide who is forced to confront her own family’s painful past when she must take a visiting American family with a Chinese adoptee to a village orphanage, “The Scottish Play,” when two lonely, elderly widows who have been friends for decades as couples find their hesitant companionship is anything but lasting, “Gratitude,” about a lonely widow who unexpectedly becomes a supportive friend to the family of a (possibly wrongly) convicted man, and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu,” in which a Chinese American working mother learns that choosing the best caregiver is not necessarily her choice.
Lonely, wanting people miss communication, miss connections with others throughout Ma’s stories. Written with simple grace, Ma’s characters will certainly feel familiar, especially in today’s too-often disconnected, harried lives. Ma’s final story ends with one character laughingly saying to another, “I can’t tell you how Chinese that story is.” Indeed, “I can’t tell you how human that story is,” would also suffice.