Tolstoy begins “Anna Karenina” with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Fast forward 100 years to the humble origins of an immigrant Chinese family in Boston, and you’ll be in the territory of “Transoceanic Lights,” S. Li’s debut novel about the trials and tribulations of immigrant life while pursuing the American Dream.
Li has written an intense work that provides a rarely seen aspect of the Asian-American experience. Rather than goofy grins and happy-go-lucky attitude of an American family, here is rawness and pain. The novel is a dark, panoramic portrayal of boyhood, growing up in a first generation immigrant multi-family household set in a familiar Boston but interspersed with memories of China.
Although the unnamed narrator speaks with an authoritative “I,” he also moves into the minds of the other characters, most notably, his mother, “Ma.”
Despite being a young mind — “I” has just begun learning his ABCs in elementary school — Li infuses his narrator with a sophisticated voice balanced by childhood fears and whimsies. He describes the harsh New England winter as, “The fallen snow, sprinkled with sand, dirt, and cigarette butts liquefied into slush on warmer days … Before the dirty mounds punched with deformed footprints could melt, another freight of frozen winds dressed the ground in flawless white.” The original verbs add verve to an otherwise bleak landscape.
Li also moves through time effortlessly, painting vivid flashbacks to poignant moments of a life left behind in China, one that included reciting poetry, attending an elaborate wedding banquet and discussing the dream of America. These flashbacks are then juxtaposed with a present that is rife with discontent and chaotic relationships. At times, Li’s prose evokes visceral reactions to pants-soiling, car crashes and countless, never-ending arguments. Herbal medicines are listed like authentic window displays of “dehydrated longan pulp, twigs of Chinese tamarisk, dried pomelo peel, sweet wormwood, ma huang, strychnos seeds, lingchi mushrooms, cockleburs, croton seeds, dried wolfberries.” On the other hand, Li’s descriptions of Boston’s urban landscape, complete with stark winters, abundant restaurants and houses, both cramped and luxurious, invoke a sense of familiarity that bridges the gap between the narrator’s and the reader’s understanding of American life.
Rather than depict a fairy tale life, Li instead chose to present an unflinching novel about being trapped as a helpless child growing up amidst a difficult marriage, complicated by debts owed and unpaid, as well as separation from aging parents. “Transoceanic Lights” is a singular contribution to the immigrant narrative and a necessary new voice to the growing genre of Asian-American literature.