Cranesong by Rona Wang. Half Mystic Press (2019, 76 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.
Rona Wang is, in Carissa Dunlap’s words, a “badass creator,” and I couldn’t agree more. Wang is the type of creator who gives other creators pause, who makes one ask, what have I been doing with my life? Not nearly as much as this sophomore at MIT who is already a prize-winning writer (Wang won the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose and a 2018 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize from MIT’s Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, just to name a couple) and has created a writing mentorship program, an online learning platform and community, been named one of “22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women” by Her Campus, and has written a gorgeous and gut-wrenching debut of short stories. And she’s only 21.
Cranesong, published by Half Mystic Press, is a collection that puts the rest of the world on mute as each story peels open. In one story, a “barely-eighteen college freshman” returns home for Thanksgiving and realizes “[e]verything [she] knew of home is gone,” and some things can’t be replaced. In another, a village is transfixed by the “Guiyang girl in the rice paddies,” her power transcending death. And in another, a young Chinese girl finds a precious moment of friendship in a war-time America determined to erase everything she cares about.
Wang’s skills as a storyteller are a joy to behold. She shifts smoothly and seamlessly from one point of view to another, from present to past and back again, from realism to magic realism and back. Legend can sit beside YouTube; each element, no matter how quotidian, jumps forward into something close to wonder, but the painful kind, like sunlight bouncing off snow. In another writer’s hands, these shifts would be incongruous. But in Wang’s, they’re magic.
And Wang’s characters are so real: they lift makeup they can’t afford, “stealing promises for the lives we yearned for,” crave connection so hard that when they look at the person they love, they “wanted to crawl inside of her, make a home out of all that tenderness,” and say yes against their better judgment because “it feels so good to be seen.” And they’re often in free fall, trying to find their place in a world that asks them to break themselves against its closed, and often locked, doors.
As they deal (but not always cope) with culture, language, sexuality, loss, and racism, and yearn for love, beauty, and home, it’s impossible not to ache right along with these complex characters, many of whom exist with a foot in two or more different worlds, watching, being watched, and sometimes targeted by those that “shimmy like they know they belong in this moneyed, neon world.” In “Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar,” Liv says, “Some people would walk for years to have something magnificent and entirely theirs.” These are characters walking, getting a little messed up in a messed up world, and the reader gets a little messed up, too.
Wang has a talent for slipping the floor out so that each paragraph, each story, reverberates through muscle and bone to something central. Her imagery is so arresting (“skies that swung open like switchblades” in “The Evolution of Wings”), her diction so startling and fresh (“Skeins of green grains embroidered her limbs and neck” in “The Girl in the Rice Paddies”), the whole of her collection so true to the raw emotion roiling under each surface, that I’d be willing to follow Wang pretty much anywhere. Better pay attention to this bright, vibrant new voice.
Cranesong is available here.