Paper Teeth by Lauralyn Chow: Director’s Cut Review

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Publication date: September 1, 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read this if you like: Historical CanLit, Edmonton and Calgary settings, funny family stories, non-traditional structure
Check out Paper Teeth on Goodreads
Thanks to: NeWest Press for the review copy and Lauralyn Chow for answering my questions

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Paper Teeth by Lauralyn Chow for Vue Weekly.

I’ve written reviews here on Reading in Bed for many years. Writing for print publications is new to me, and there are many differences:

  • Getting paid
  • Actual deadline
  • No links or gifs
  • No writing about yourself and your feelings

You also have to limit the word count. That’s not something I do here on the blog. I love a long review. I had to keep my review of Paper Teeth under 800 words, and I had about 1,500 in my first draft.

So, if you didn’t get enough of my ramblings in Vue, here’s a longer version, along with the full text of my Q&A with Lauralyn Chow. I loved this book, and if you’re into historical CanLit, especially Edmonton and Calgary settings, you’ll want to check this out.

“A Novel in Stories.” “A Composite Novel.” “A Short Story Cycle.” There are many ways to describe a set of linked short stories, somewhere between the short story collection and the novel. Lauralyn Chow describes her debut offering as, simply, “Stories.”

In the preface, Chow describes the types of menus you might find in a Chinese restaurant. These menus hint at the complex themes that follow.

First, the standard menu: “A multi-page English language menu (sometimes bilingual with Chinese writing), plastic laminated, offering forty-seven, eighty-eight, one hundred and twenty-nine, different Chinese dishes, all listed by number. Sometimes, one printed page in the menu for Western cuisine.”

Then, a menu not everyone sees: “A Chinese language menu (never bilingual) written on pink paper, sometimes in a plastic pocket inside the English menu, sometimes in a plastic page protector given only to certain guests, listing at most seven dishes.”

Finally, the hidden menu: “An unwritten menu of non-replicable Chinese dishes, food that no other table is served, after Dad goes into the kitchen, only with his son, to visit with his friends, the cooks.”

Paper Teeth presents a “menu” of ten connected but non-chronological stories to choose from, most about the Lee family, spanning from the 1920s to the present day. The Lees are: father Wing, who immigrated from China as a child; Calgary-born Mumma; and their four children, Lizzie, Pen, Tom, and Jane.

And like food in any culture, there are layers of meaning in these stories, some explicit, but many more unwritten and unspoken, and so, open to misinterpretation – as the Lee family demonstrates. In a family where one parent is Canadian-born, and one immigrated to Canada as a child, and where the Chinese parents decided not to teach their children the Chinese language, only using it when they wish not to be understood, opportunities for misinterpretation are rife.

Whereas the Chinese restaurant-inspired preface is fairly non-specific, as in, the restaurant could be anywhere in Western Canada, this story is very specific to Edmonton, and mostly, to an Edmonton that no longer exists. The Lees own a store on Rice Avenue (before it was Rice Howard Way), go to church in Chinatown, and have a memorable day at the races at Northlands. In the first story, the Lees drive over the Rat Hole, walk past the hardware store that became The Hardware Grill, and marvel at The Coffee Cup Inn, a mug-shaped cafe that sat where the Shaw Conference Centre sits now.

This portrait of Edmonton’s past is somewhat reminiscent of other local authors’ work: Wendy McGrath wrote two books of prose poetry about Edmonton in the 1960s, from the point of view of a child – NeWest Press also published Santa Rosa and North East. But because we get so many points of views in Paper Teeth, including adult perspectives, the picture is much clearer. Paper Teeth also provides a couple peeks at contemporary Edmonton, though not as detailed as Laurence Miall’s recent Blind Spot (another NeWest title) or as balanced between past and present Edmonton as Rudy Wiebe’s Come Back.

A sense of place is important to Chow and the way she tells a story, but she doesn’t think the reader needs to know what the Rat Hole was to appreciate Paper Teeth. She expects that local readers may identify some places in the book with certain memories and experiences, but she hopes that “readers unfamiliar with Edmonton and Calgary in the times portrayed in the stories, can still identify with the sense of place, without knowing it personally.”

Paper Teeth is more than a “local” book, though. The stories take on universal themes like race, language, and family, and Chow plays with form in a way that’s sure to interest readers who find traditional novels a bit boring. Consider the better-traveled routes Chow could have gone with the Lees’ story: Paper Teeth could have been a historical novel about early Chinese immigrants to the prairies. It could have been a coming of age story focused on baby Jane, who struggles to fit in, with a side plot about her favourite Auntie Moe’s interracial relationship. It could have been a quirky family comedy, full of misunderstandings fed by the intergenerational language barrier and culture clash. It could have been the story of Wing and Mumma’s marriage. Instead, Chow tells all of these stories and more in an economical 250 pages.

Readers who balk at heavy themes and non-traditional formats will find plenty to enjoy in frequent funny moments and asides. Mumma’s misadventures with a rogue sanitary napkin will make any reader who’s dealt with the “captial C, Curse” wince in recognition. Auntie Li-Ting is everyone’s eccentric aunt, with her medicinal-smelling homemade bandages, refusal to wear closed-toe shoes, and horror upon finding that her niece doesn’t own a proper tea ball. We only get one chapter with Uncle Malmo, but his quest to install an in-floor koi pond in the kitchen of his already over-to-top mod house (the clean lines and white fixtures remind him of living in a “goddamn toilet bowl”) make him one of the most memorable characters.

The cumulative effect of the non-chronological short stories, and shifting perspectives, and the wild swings in tone, is one of realism. The kids don’t have the whole story on the parents, and vice-versa. This is exaggerated with the Lees, as the kids literally can’t understand the parents because they’re speaking Chinese. Likewise, in real families, no one sits you down to tell you your father’s life story, so you come to understand the damage done in racist parochial schools. All you know is that he’s got these weird fixations, and that there was this time he took you on a road trip to meet his old teacher, Father Brady.

When asked about Paper Teeth’s rejection of traditional forms of storytelling, Chow says it was important “to not freeze these characters into a nostalgic time capsule, or thaw them out gradually from the past into the present.” And it works. The Lees feel like a real family, because the way the story is told is probably the way the story of your own family is told: in memory and anecdote, in stories shouted across a big table laden with many dishes, and in whispered asides from the person sitting next to you. Whether you sample one or take in all ten courses, Paper Teeth is sure to satisfy.

Q & A with Lauralyn Chow

Reading in Bed: Was Paper Teeth always going to be a collection of linked short stories? Did it start as individual stories, or as a possible novel?

Lauralyn Chow: Paper Teeth was always going to be interconnected short stories. I knew they would be connected, but not in a way that would be recognized as a novel. And I knew I wanted to play with time, mixing elements of the past, present and future into the stories. It was important to me to not freeze these characters into a nostalgic time capsule, or thaw them out gradually from the past into the present. The short story form played nicely with me, since I had those intentions.

RIB: The interconnected form seems to be gaining in popularity – and I found out it is known by many names, like “novel in stories,””composite novel” and “short story cycle.” Do you have any favourite collections like this, perhaps one that influenced Paper Teeth?

LC: I can’t say that I was influenced by any particular book of interconnected stories. I started this book so many years ago, so no, I just can’t think of any book of stories that may have been a favourite that influenced Paper Teeth. However, David Sedaris’ book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (which is, I think, a string-of- pearls collection of stories of real events, with some characters being fictionalized), is a favourite of mine. Was there some influence or encouragement from that book? It’s hard to say; I wouldn’t think so.

RIB: Did you have a particular reader in mind for Paper Teeth, and was that reader from Edmonton? I noticed so many little references that you’d never get unless you’re from here – like the Rat Hole and the Muttart pyramids.

LC: I think it’s important to remember that writing is not only a solitary act, it is also a personal one. The writer is the first reader of any story. That being said, other than a personal journal or diary, writers don’t typically write for an audience of one. Place is important to me, and is integral to the way I want to tell stories. The particularity of a place and how characters engage in and with a place, those elements comprise a huge part of most stories that are meaningful to me. I hope the sense of place in my stories (both in Edmonton and Calgary) is not only identifiable, but palpable, without the reader having a memory or sensory experience of the place. In other words, being able to directly identify a place from memory or experience may be a delight for some readers, but I hope that there are sufficient descriptors and energy from the narrative so that readers unfamiliar with Edmonton and Calgary in the times portrayed in the stories, can still identify with the sense of place, without knowing it personally.

RIB: I had to do some Googling to find out what was going on in Saskatchewan in the 1920s, to make sense of Dasha’s chapter, and it helped me understand where Wing was coming from too. Do you find this particular period in the history of the prairies is neglected in schools, and in fiction?

LC: I don’t have the knowledge to comment on school curriculum, nor do I feel sufficiently informed to offer an opinion on the fiction set in this historic period.

RIB: Can you tell me about the title? Google is not helping me out much here! (Although I did find a video tutorial for origami vampire fangs.)

LC: That’s fun! I belong to an origami guild, but no, the title came before my joining the origami guild! I think it’s better to let the reader discover, unfiltered by me, what significance the title has for them, if any. I will say, however, that the ten interconnected stories in Paper Teeth all have titles inspired by Chinese dishes that you would find either on the table at home or on a menu in a Chinese restaurant. There is food, or a family gathered at the table, in every one of the stories.

And, I am fascinated by the things that people feel they are fed by: what sustains them; what gives their lives meaning and hope and happiness, even bliss; what compels them to do what they do; what tells them who they are, and where and to whom they belong; and how do they respond to obstacles to being fed. I can’t cook a meal, sit down, and share stories with every reader, but I can share the times and places, these characters, their moments, and invite people to be fed through stories committed to paper.

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4 comments

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  2. Naomi

    I love interconnected stories, and these ones actually remind me of the ones I’m reading now, in The Party Wall. I’m loving how she’s set her stories and characters in different places and times. In The Party Wall, though, it’s not obvious at first how the stories are connected, and although I’m not done, it seems as though they will be very small connections. But I’m loving the journey. By the sounds of it, I would also love Paper Teeth. (lots of love here!)

  3. Roxy

    Late comment, but I wanted to wait until I actually read it. I’m so glad you did a review on this – I loved this collection and recommended it to all my friends. I married into a Chinese family – and so much of it rings true. But, as a daughter of filipino immigrants, I also did not speak the language of my parents similar to the children in this book… and that part especially resonated with me. Interestingly enough, I work with a group of women who formed a co-op as they are “informal leaders” and “supports” to their cultural community – similar to the Dad in this book. I recommended the book to the whole organization for that reason alone 🙂 it’s a role not well understood or even recognized unless you are part of a new and emerging cultural community in Canada! Thanks for the review Laura.

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