On Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary

Catherine Campbell

Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center. 156 pages. $16.00.

“Without a leap, it’s called—common.”

In her book-length essay collection, A Bestiary, Lily Hoang takes a notable artistic leap while deftly navigating the boundaries between fact and fable. Thirteen linked essays explore the connections and gaps between familial identity, racial identity, feminism, addiction, friendship, memory, love, and reconciliation using pointillistic observations and fragmented narratives. What begins in her first essay, “On the Rat Race,” as an introduction to Hoang’s signature writing style becomes a fully developed and oftentimes discontented memoir of one woman’s yearning to feel at home within herself.

A Bestiary moves fluidly between memory, reflection, fable, and myth without batting an eye—from bra shopping with her mother to watching her writing students in Iowa successfully levitate one of their own during a classroom exercise, from a rabbit using a false identity to best a tiger to Hoang settling for her cheating boyfriend, Harold. While exploring her evolving identity and internal/external challenges living as a second-generation Asian American, Hoang breaks up what could be a linear narrative into fragmented storylines throughout the collection. As a result, the essays welcome multiple readings in which the audience can look for and manually follow one part of Hoang’s life at a time to discover different epiphanies.

Key characters in Hoang’s essays reappear throughout the collection, reprising or building personal details to form a catalog of real and fabulous individuals. In addition to Hoang’s family, friends, and lovers, the narrative stage is filled with rats, tigers, rabbits, fairy tale princesses, and mythical gods and goddesses. The reader is challenged to assemble the full story of Hoang’s family from facts and clues sprinkled among her other stories of two failed relationships (an abusive husband and a cheating boyfriend), various friendships, and plentiful helpings of retold and reimagined fables and myths. But we get a compelling full story of Hoang’s Vietnamese family. Hoang’s father instills his daughter with the impossible pursuit of perfectionism. Her brother comes out and marries his husband. Her picture-perfect sister dies from an overdose, and her nephew struggles to overcome his own heroin addiction while continuously returning to the shelter of Hoang’s home.

Inside his dead mother’s Gucci fanny pack, among the debris and trash Justin abandoned in my room after the first time he left New Mexico because he couldn’t score, I found used syringes, a bent spoon; the whole room smelled of burning.

I had given him my room and I slept in my study—because my selflessness is a flaw I inherited from my mother. I suffer very well; my altruism can leave bruises.

When the storyline involves the narrator’s mother (who is battling cancer), Hoang moves away from her signature self-flagellation and turns outward with simple, compassionate, and memorable brushstrokes. “When I was young, my mother would cuddle me closely when I was sick. She would say, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ and tell me she wanted me to give her all my sickness, so that she would be sick and I wouldn’t.”

Hoang’s self-analysis is relentless, where passages such as “I am the Little Match Girl standing outside and salivating at all that is not mine” may at times sound like dramatic single-line entries in a college diary. But the author’s unflinching pursuit to understand herself and her relationships moves away from potential pitfalls of dramatic memoir to become a brilliant experiment that involves upending our assumptions of long-held beliefs. Hoang’s collection exists to achieve a two-part goal: reconcile her heritage while fighting against the traditional structure of heritage memoirs. Hoang drips her life out in single sentences for us to consider with intention:

My dead sister’s son, I can’t imagine how the cessation of dragons feels, their slow extinction, his fall.

My brother was supposed to be a doctor. He was getting a MD/PhD in neuropharmacology. Then he quit. Then he trimmed. Now he marathons.

Rustic may be charming, but to a Westerner, which I am, there is nothing beautiful about the desolate.

The chasm in my father’s mouth where a tooth should be.

I am afraid because my dead sister and I are too similar.

What Hoang does with the book’s architecture is nothing short of remarkable. The visual shape of the writing on the page often reflects the deeper meaning and tone. The structure of the four-part narrative in “On Measurement” is carefully crafted. In part one, “Spring,” the small buds of sentences pop up like crocuses and begin to assemble an independent and confident study of time and a woman’s ability to thrive without a man intervening. Part two, “Summer,” is a short, heady memory of love that is over quickly, leaving the reader to play upon the universal theme of how often we revise what has happened to us and what we have wrought in relationships. Part three, “Fall,” stretches out like a long afternoon autumnal shadow and is one of the rare pieces in the book that is not broken up by white space. And “Winter” begins with lengthy paragraphs that, like icicles dripping at season’s end, become shorter and shorter until the narrator sees her last sunrise in Iowa.

In “On the Geography of Friendship,” the multi-part essay moves from a swarm of voices (famous quotations on friendship awkwardly butting into each other) down to six voices, then three, and finally to one—the imagined laughter of a deceased man whose death catapults the narrator into questioning why we pursue platonic connections, and how. At the heart of this essay is Hoang’s reflections on “the swarm” itself and variations surrounding the concept of identity in and out of group environments. Her meditations here could arguably be the heart of the book itself, placed structurally toward the middle of the collection.

From the outside, the swarm is menacing. It is high school all over again: the cliques and popular kids. You live in a liminal space. You don’t know what those words mean yet—but you know the emotion that necessitates the naming of things, the creation of new ideas and theories, you intuit what other people spend their careers researching.

A Bestiary is a challenging collection that demonstrates how weaving our histories is often a messy process, open to revision by us and threatened with interpretation by outside forces. No one will remember and retell Lily Hoang’s narratives exactly like Hoang can. She makes that clear. The collection begins and ends neatly with the powerful image and story of the Rat. But in the collection, some arcs are resolved, while other stories go unfinished.

“I am still trying to impress you,” the author writes with a confessional tone which the audience might take initially to be another instance of self-shaming. But is that not the primary purpose of the fairy tale—to impress upon us, to force us to look and think twice about that which we perceive to be the norm? Throughout her personal stories, the narrator struggles and yearns to be treated as normal but, in Lily Hoang’s hands, she becomes extraordinary, transcending the lumped categories of “exotic” or “other” to instead reach a unique sublime.

In the collection’s last essay, Hoang writes: “Maybe not every love story fits neatly into other love stories.” Fortunately for readers, A Bestiary does not fit neatly into what has come before it in nonfiction: we get a glimpse of what is possible in this art form.

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