“Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu: Unsucky Symbolism


Unqualified Analysis / Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

We all had to learn about symbolism in highschool, right? As I recall, a bunch of (probably not) well-meaning teachers tried to instill in me an appreciation for such classics as The Scarlet Letter, where we all agreed, wholeheartedly and humorlessly, that the fucking letter on the woman’s chest was a symbol of stuff. Whoop.

I am not a fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne because I think he’s heavy-handed and bad, and subsequently made me feel, from fourteen years of age and onward, that symbols are best used in literature when the reader hardly knows they’re there. Otherwise they’re these unwieldy, cumbersome things taking up the bulk of the text screaming HEY, I’M A SYMBOL.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was traipsing around online and stumbled upon Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie,” a short story that won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. And then I was like, “oh, symbolism in literature is great and super poignant, I get it.”

So, first you should go read the story. It’s online here. Go.

Back? Can you read this analysis through the tears you’re no doubt crying? Great. And if you didn’t read it and then you read this essay and you’re mad I ruined it, you have no one to blame but yourself. I gave you the link, dammit!!

“Paper Menagerie” is told from the first-person perspective of Jack. Jack is raised by a white Connecticut man and a mother from China: his father had “picked Mom out of a catalog.”

For a Hugo/Nebula winner, this story is light on the fantasy/sci-fi, incorporating magic in a natural, gentle, and ambiguous way. Jack’s mother saves scraps of paper. The magic: she shapes them into animals, then breathes life into them so that they play and caper with Jack when he’s a young child. The animals are alive.

Eventually, Jack grows older and the paper animals lose their appeal. The living, breathing paper tiger he loves becomes just a toy to him. A toy that’s actually not as cool as his American friends’ plastic toys with blaring lights and sound effects. Jack grows distant from his mother as he ages, exposed to his xenophobic classmates and the pressure of conforming to white, homogeneous Americanism. He is unable to relate with her, ashamed of her difficulty in speaking English, and generally made uncomfortable by her otherness within a culture that is cruel to anything other. He stops playing with the paper menagerie, his rejection of the animals symbolic of his gradual distancing from his mother and her culture.

Mother and son drift apart.

So far, the paper animals stand for several distinct but related concepts. They’re certainly symbols of childhood and innocence, and the love between mother and child that’s so tangible it takes form. They symbolize aspects of Jack’s mother: her otherness, her distinct culture, her magic. 

Later on, after his mother’s death following their vast emotional distance from one another, he finds the paper menagerie she’d made for him when he was young. Laohu, his favorite paper tiger, still contains its initial magic. And even when the paper tiger crumbles, as material objects of love do, he finds a note inside the paper from his mother, written in her native Chinese dialect.

“The animals will stop moving when I stop breathing. But if I write to you with all my heart, I’ll leave a little of myself behind on this paper, in these words. Then, if you think of me on Qingming, when the spirits of the departed are allowed to visit their families, you’ll make the parts of myself I leave behind come alive too.”

(That’s about where I started crying)

 In this note, inscribed inside the abandoned animals, we see just how intertwined the menagerie is with his mother’s culture, how symbolic is her act of collecting scraps of paper (memories, recollections, experiences) and shaping them in her new world (with a son, in America) into a tangible and cohesive reminder of what she’d left behind (her homeland) and who she is now (a mother).

“Sigulu is famous for its zhezhi papercraft, and my mother taught me how to make paper animals and give them life. This was practical magic in the life of the village. We made paper birds to chase grasshoppers away from the fields, and paper tigers to keep away the mice. For Chinese New Year my friends and I made red paper dragons. I’ll never forget the sight of all those little dragons zooming across the sky overhead, holding up strings of exploding firecrackers to scare away all the bad memories of the past year.”

So the paper animals represent all these things: innocence, childhood, heritage, home. But by the end of the story we see that they’re a symbol of something besides childhood innocence, beyond heritage, something so profound it’s difficult to convey without symbolism: the force and power of a mother’s love; the forgiveness and acceptance woven into the relationship – words scribbled on the inside of a paper tiger. The note she writes inside the paper encapsulates all the love she’s held, all the love she poured into him and into the paper menagerie she built for him. It also offers Jack her own childhood story, giving him the chance for understanding and redemption. It’s an incredible gift.

Jack’s mother never surrenders the closeness she once shared with her son. She simply wraps it up, tender and safe, within a paper tiger – a symbol of a mother’s love past death.

This is a simple short story with a simple message, and that message is carried throughout the story on the back of the paper menagerie, a neat bit of unsucky symbolism that gives the narrative its cohesion and force.

Side note: am I the only person who hates Nathaniel Hawthorne? I consulted the Urban Dictionary entry on The Scarlet Letter and felt vindicated (also scandalized, the LANGUAGE in that entry) but… am I being unfair? Did boring high school English teachers just totally demolish my appreciation for an (I’m sure) perfectly wonderful author?

6 Replies to ““Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu: Unsucky Symbolism”

  1. Symbolism — after the fact.

    So often literary folks get a hold of a good story and read into it all these social/humanist constructs. When in fact, the author just wrote a story from their heart and mind. “I just wrote a story” so many authors are heard to say. “I never meant to have my story become the bane of existence of ninth graders everywhere.”

    Symbolism might be all good and well, but don’t you find that it’s humans that extract the symbols from media (for the most part)? Sure some works are intentionally meant to be stand-ins for cultural pariahs. But more often, I’m sure, narrative works are just stories that end up becoming proxies for teaching humans about the foibles and failings of other humans.

    Nicely written review.

    Oh, and I hate Shakespeare. Not for what he created — for his time and place. But because literary humans think to foist such 500 year old SPOKEN, adult Old English onto 20-21st century 15 year old’s minds. Fuck that noise.

    1. Yes – I can get down with Shakespeare for SURE, but I think it’s utterly bizarre that 14-year-olds are made to read super dated literature like good old Nathaniel Hawthorne or even (sorry) John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. So many people my age and older admit that they got turned off to literature in high school, and just never gave it another try.

      And yes – I think symbolism is definitely a product of the reader’s intervention. Which is why Ken Liu’s story was so beautifully done, I thought: it allowed the reader to make all of those emotional connections without being heavy handed. When I write, I don’t think to myself “Hmmm, sure could use a SYMBOL here.” However, I’ve been finding more and more in the rewriting process that I subconsciously insert certain motifs into the story and when I draw them out and build on what was already there, I’m able to create a more cohesive narrative.
      In theory.

      1. The craft, I’m finding, shifts from the raw mechanics to the subtle application of intents. One of them potentially being symbolism. Beliefs, religious, political, moral, (immoral), I find, I can now inject into story — now that I’ve gotten over the ugly hurdles of early technique. So maybe the really good writers CAN and do purposefully weave symbols into their writing. Then again…

        1. Oh, those ugly hurdles. I think I’m still struggling with those. But I guess it depends what you mean by really good writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne definitely uses symbolism purposely (just read “Young Goodman Brown” as an example. He’s considered one of the greats, but to me it comes off as clumsy and awkward. It’s a subtle line, I think.

  2. What a beautiful, tear jerker story, and I love your reflection on it. The symbolism is both subtle and obvious, if you know what I mean. It’s there but it whispers. The line that struck me most about your commentary is that what was truly being conveyed was “something so profound it’s difficult to convey without symbolism.” Yes! This is the true power of symbolism (and metaphor) to make a reader understand and feel in a way that is beyond words. Great post.

    1. Thank you so much! I too thought his story was so simple and beautiful. And yes, I know exactly what you mean – he’s able to use symbolism without artifice but without having it blare in the reader’s face. So glad you enjoyed it, thank you!

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