by Corrine Watson
June 3, 2021
Corrine Watson is a freelance writer and editor based in Charlotte, NC with her baby dragon, Ophelia. Corrine enjoys writing speculative fiction that hovers on the edges of reality and dares to dip into the mysterious. Keep up with Corrine on Twitter @CorrineWatson6
We Two Alone by Jack Wang; House of Anansi Press; 296 pages; $19.95
Jack Wang’s We Two Alone is a striking collection of stories depicting a wide range of historical experiences and the diversity of Chinese immigration. These character-driven narratives dramatize some of the subtle complexities of love and loss, while depicting people struggling to find their identity and acceptance in systems, organizations, and cultures that are actively pushing against them. As a whole, We Two Alone is an exploration of love and desire whether it’s romantic, achieving goals, or finding belonging.
The collection opens with “The Valkyries,” where we meet Nelson, a laundry boy living in early 20th century Canada who desperately wants to join a hockey team. After being rejected by the boy’s team, Nelson disguises himself as a girl to play in the emerging women’s league. While Nelson finds belonging through his team, he knows it’s contingent on maintaining the lie. While the conflicts here are more overt, it sets up the collection by illustrating the intersectional range of issues at play between race, economic status and gender.
While major historical moments are central to the context of the stories in the collection, Wang writes them in the periphery. From a Chinese family trying to buy a home in South Africa under Apartheid to a Canadian couple living in Shanghai during the Second Singo-Japanese war, we see the various conflicts that the characters face on a cultural scale, but Wang often puts his characters at a distance and utilizes the perspectives of the character separated from the direct conflict. This is accomplished through the perspective of children. In “The Night of Broken Glass,” a Chinese diplomat and his family are living in Vienna during the rise of Nazi violence against Jewish people. While this is the cultural conflict, the story is told in hindsight from the perspective of the son who was trying to understand the cultural turmoil, the fracturing of his father’s marriage to his American step-mother, and the complexities of his father’s friendship with a Jewish woman. Following the son’s narration gives the story a powerful nuance as the narrator illustrates the dynamics of his family and surroundings, while trusting the reader to interpret the significance of things left unsaid.
The collection wraps up with the novella “We Two Alone” which follows Leonard, a struggling actor at the decline of his lackluster career and marriage. He’s a middle-aged man who’s dedicated his life to an industry that’s never loved him back, yet he can’t seem to let go of the idea that his big break is just around the corner. One of Leonard’s more notable accomplishments and passion projects is founding an Asian American Shakespeare company. In a conversation with a fellow actor, it is argued that:
“Shakespeare does not represent humanity. He represents the dead white European male notion of what it means to be human… Shakespeare isn’t a mirror held up to nature. He’s a mirror held up to Western ontology.”
Leonard argues that through their performance, they’re “advancing the radical notion that [they’re] Westerners, too.” The conversation triggers his fear that the acting company is more of a novelty act rather than the serious work he’s been longing for. Through the various roles Leonard auditions for or performances he sees of other Asian actors, it’s clear Leonard doesn’t see himself reflected in any of them. In many ways, the roles and Asian representation in media that Leonard wants to see are encapsulated by the characters in this book. They have mundane marital problems, familial obligations, and drudge through day-to-day life while maintaining their own individual, multifaceted complexities, which makes them feel distinctly universal.
While each of the characters shares commonality in their Chinese heritage, they each stand out as Wang masterfully structures his stories around them. From the nuances of desire, longing, and heartbreak and the pitfalls of race and class disparities, Wang creates a realistic, resonating portrait of human conditions.
Exploring Love and Desire: Identity and Acceptance in Jack Wang’s We