‘The Paper Menagerie’ is a heartbreaking story of family and immigration, told in just a few pages
You don’t always need hundreds of pages to tell a moving story. Or at least that’s the case with “The Paper Menagerie,” the titular story of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.
“Paper Menagerie” is a short story about a bi-racial boy named Jack, who has a white dad and a Chinese mom, who immigrated to America. When he is a kid, Jack’s mom creates an origami menagerie for him, and when Jack’s mom breathes into the origami, the menagerie comes to life, jumping and playing with him.
After a fight with schoolmate who teases Jack about his Chinese heritage, Jack discards the menagerie, and rejects his mom, who grows increasingly silent. As Jack grows up, he distances himself from his mom until their relationship is uncomfortable and strained. But when his mom dies, Jack discovers that she has been writing letters in the paper of his menagerie, and she has her own story that she has been struggling to tell.
“Every story in the book has this enormous heart, this enormous underpinning of sweet sadness to it,” says Mashable’s Peter Allen Clark of the book and the story.
The story is a powerful allegory about the experience that so many children of immigrants have. But in addition to describing an allegory of how we relate to our heritage, the story is also a heartbreaking look at the ways children relate or distance themselves from their parents as they grow up.
“I cried reading it on the subway,” says Martha Tesema. “It’s so heart-wrenching, and I, being a kid from immigrants, felt it on such a deep level.”
Part of the reason the story is so effective is because it’s so sparse. In just a few pages, Liu explores immigration, identity, and culture, with so much heart, joy, and brevity, that “Paper Menagerie” will leave you both devastated and wanting more.
“There’s no excuse for you not to read it,” says Martha. (You can read the story online here.)
This week on the MashReads Podcast, we talk about Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie.” Join us in the episode above as we talk about the magical realism of Liu’s story, the way the novel portrays immigration, and the heartbreaking twists of the story.
Then, inspired by “Paper Menagerie,” we discuss our favorite stories and books about immigrants and/or stories that highlight the immigrant experience including Exit West by Mohsin Hammid (be sure to check out the MashReads interview here), White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and
And as always we close the show with recommendations:
Martha recommends Netflix’s new show On My Block. The show follows a group of black and brown kids who are starting high school, and dealing with classic teenage things, but also dealing with things like gun violence, gang activity, love. “It’s fantastic. It’s just really easy to watch and breeze through, even if you’re not a fan of high school-based television shows. It’s just sweet.”
Peter also recommends a Netflix show: Wild, Wild Country. The show is a documentary series about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the commune he formed in eastern Oregon, and the weird and escalating antagonism the commune has with a nearby town. “It starts a little slow, but it gets really wild. There are drugs and sex and guns and plots and poisonings and electoral fraud. It goes places.”
MJ recommends The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. “It’s so great. It’s a feminist manifesto disguised as a coming-of-age novel.” He also recommends a video by Twitter user @longlive_nixon, who remade a Migos’ song “Walk It Talk It” but with the Dr. Seuss book Wocket In My Pocket. “Words don’t do it justice, how much joy this video brings me.” You can find the video here.
Next week we are reading Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s short story collection Merry Spinster. We hope you’ll join us.