Ling Ma’s short story, “Peking Duck,” questions itself. The story is recent, one of my favorites from her collection Bliss Montage, and I’ve read it dozens of times. As someone who loves intergenerational narratives but fears exploitation and cringe, I find “Peking Duck” comforting. It’s relentless and tender at the same time. In the story, an unnamed narrator recalls moving from China to the United States as a child and reading books in the library at the encouragement of her mother. The child grows up and becomes a writer, and she writes stories about immigrant mothers and their daughters:
Now I understand. “Do you think it’s you in these stories?”
“There are so many mothers in your stories, what am I supposed to think?” My mother is suddenly indignant. “But they’re all so miserable. Does there have to be so much suffering?”
I look down at my plate, a mound of rice covered with gushy mapo. “Well, they’re not all about you. I wasn’t trying to capture your experience.”
“You weren’t trying to capture my experience,” she repeats, as if to herself. “Then why did you write them?”
I’m surprised by this question. “Well, the nanny story was more based on you, compared with the others. It was about what happened to us when you worked as a nanny. I wanted to show how terrible—”
“But how would you even know what happened? It happened to me, not to us. You were too young to understand. And you weren’t in the room. I made sure of that.”
I’ve been thinking about rooms. In A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand writes, “one enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives.” The weight of history—Brand studies the Black diaspora—can be felt and seen, everywhere, in the present. For Brand, the present-ness of history connects us all to the past. It gives us a claim to the people and experiences that came before us.
The narrator’s mother in “Peking Duck” refutes this premise: what the hell does her daughter know about sitting in the room with history, with the mother’s experience, when she wasn’t in the room to begin with? When the mother made sure her daughter was nowhere near?
In this self-reflexive exchange, Ma questions whether sitting in rooms with history is an inevitability or a right. The narrator was not in the room when a strange salesman wandered into the home where her mother worked, demanding that she cook and clean for him. Nor was the mother in the room when the only other Asian student in the narrator’s MFA program described the story she wrote about the incident “a kind of Asian minstrelsy.” I am inclined to believe that there is a difference between standing in this room and standing outside with your ear smushed to the door, as the narrator did. This might be a way of saying that I think the mother in the story is right: there are doors other people can stop you from entering, even if they can’t stop you from eavesdropping. Besides, writing is a kind of trespassing. It obscures what belongs to us, what belongs to others, and what is shared. Writing means listening through doors, sneaking in rooms, unsure where we’re allowed to sit. Perhaps the unease of it all is proof we’re sitting with history, strange pokes from the past.