07 August 2012

China Cowboy

At the most rudimentary level, Kim Gek Lin Short's China Cowboy (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012) tells the story of a depraved relationship between La La and Ren, with Short building her nonlinear narrative through a series of fragmented prose poems that alternate between the years 1989 and 1997. The story's premise focuses on Ren, an American from Missouri, who kidnaps La La, a twelve year old Chinese girl from Hong Kong, and sexually assaults her over the course of eight years.

But outside of the obvious themes of sexual abuse and criminal behavior, China Cowboy offers an interesting exploration of identity formation in an era of global capitalism. In one of the first prose blocks, the collection's narrator informs readers that “La La always wanted to be a cowgirl” (5), a desire fueled by a childhood set to the soundtrack of American country music:

La La liked to listen to music music all day she played her records. Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls. La La never asked for anything but one day she asked for a guitar. Her mother was hanging laundry out the kitchen window. Her mother blared COWGIRLS DON'T HAVE FLAT FACES gave her daughter a clothespin. La La put it on her nose. Wore it to school. Wore it to bed. Did not take it off even dyeing her hair. (5)

La La idolizes Lynn, Cline, and Harris, but her mother chides both this infatuation and request for a guitar as ridiculous due to her “FLAT FACE.” According to La La's mother, physical appearance dictates identity and, therefore, is to a great extent immutable. Undaunted, La La wears a closespin on her nose, risking pain and public humiliation in order to change her facial features and realize her dream of becoming a American cowgirl singer.

But it's not just her facial features that La La seeks to alter. The narrator also mentions how, when she was “five or six,” La La sang “in her corner of the bigger room practicing losing her accent” (49). It would appear that her presistence pays off; in the prose poem “Fist City,” the La La of 1997 has successfully transformed her vocal patterns:

Y'all, where I come from there are no maps to it, and what y'all don't know I trick it up. I had experience before I even met Ren, and some of it weren't girls...Ya'll, I would've been out of your league at 12. I'm only tattlin' now. (17)

Employing the Southern-inflected “y'all” and “tattlin,” La La not only loses her accent, but tailors her new voice to a particular region of the United States in order to sound more like a cowgirl. Of course, by erasing a past and replacing it with one that never existed, La La must now admit that “where I come from there are no maps to it.”

Just because La La can't map where she comes from, though, doesn't mean she can't imagine an origin. While living in captivity, La La:

hears synthesized theme music from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and sometimes sees Clint Eastwood poncho-ed and posing in the doorframe of the bathroom...From the look on Clint's face she know they are thinking the same thing. She thinks, it is like they are the same person. She thinks, it is like he is my blood father. (46)

In La La's imagination, Clint Eastwood's character Blondie from the 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,literally, becomes her biological father. On the one hand, the construction of an originary tale based upon a movie starring an American celebrity, no doubt, speaks to the all-consuming nature of American entertainment and its hegemonic grip on global culture; on the other hand, Sergio Leone, an Italian director, filmed the movie in Spain primarily using European and Mexican actors. The American-self La La constructs, in fact, is a transnational product from the beginning: a European facsimile of an American Wild West that, itself, never existed: imagination layered in imagination covering a forgotten past.

La La, eventually, questions the authenticity of Patsy Cline and the American life she imagined. Before her kidnapping, she thinks:

When I get to America I will have my own room children in American have their own rooms. It will have a lock on the door like when I'm famous and have curled hair. When I get to America I can be anything I can be Patsy Cline I have her wrists. (18)

After Ren kidnaps her, though, her dream of a private room with a lock, fame, and curled hair vanishes. La La can only wonder at “why the white devil wants to hump so much” (13). First-hand experience allows her to see through the smoke, mirrors, and movie sets of the American Dream, revealing instead a “white devil” who “humps so much” and leaves her covered in “semen loose warm stream dewlap my hair saltwhite smeared” (28). In this depraved confusion, La La turns to song in order to question how that dream and her imagined American identity managed to fail her: “Why can't Batman play the guitar? / … / Why can't Elvis fly a spaceship” (101)?

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