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A Feather on the Breath of God: A Novel Kindle Edition
From Sigrid Nunez, the National Book Award-winning author of The Friend, comes A Feather on the Breath of God: a mesmerizing story about the tangled nature of relationships between parents and children, between language and love
A young woman looks back to the world of her immigrant parents: a Chinese-Panamanian father and a German mother. Growing up in a housing project in the 1950s and 1960s, she escapes into dreams inspired both by her parents' stories and by her own reading and, for a time, into the otherworldly life of ballet. A yearning, homesick mother, a silent and withdrawn father, the ballet--these are the elements that shape the young woman's imagination and her sexuality.
From Kirkus Reviews
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The first time I ever heard my father speak Chinese was at Coney Island. I don't remember how old I was then, but I must have been very young. This was in the early days, when we still went on family outings. We were walking along the boardwalk when we ran into the four Chinese men. My mother told the story often, as if she thought we'd forgotten. "You kids didn't know them and neither did I. They were friends of your father's, from Chinatown. You'd never heard Chinese before. You didn't know what was up. You stood there with your mouths hanging open--I had to laugh. 'Why are they singing? Why is Daddy singing?'"One of the men gave each of my sisters and me a dollar bill. I cashed mine into dimes and set out to win a goldfish. A dime bought you three chances to toss a Ping-Pong ball into one of many small fishbowls, each holding a quivering tangerine-colored fish. Overexcited, I threw recklessly, again and again. When all the dimes were gone I ran back to the grown-ups in tears. The man who had given me the dollar tried to give me another, but my parents wouldn't allow it.He pressed the bag of peanuts he had been eating into my hands and said I could have them all.I never saw any of those men again or heard anything about them. They were the only friends of my father's that I would ever meet. I would hear him speak Chinese again, but very seldom. In Chinese restaurants, occasionally on the telephone, once or twice in his sleep, and in the hospital when he was dying.So it was true, then. He really was Chinese. Up until that day I had not quite believed it.
My mother always said that he had sailed to America on a boat. He took a slow boat from China, was what she used to say, laughing. I wasn't sure whether she was serious, and if she was, why coming from China was such a funny thing.A slow boat from China. In time I learned that he was born not in China but in Panama. No wonder I only half-believed he was Chinese. He was only half-Chinese.
The facts I know about his life are unbearably few. Although we shared the same house for eighteen years, we had little else in common. We had no culture in common. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we had no language in common. By the time I was born my father had lived almost thirty years in America, but to hear him speak you would not have believed this. About his failure to master English there always seemed to me something willful. Except for her accent--as thick as but so different from his--my mother had no such trouble."He never would talk about himself much, you know.That was his way. He never really had much to say, in general. Silence was golden. It was a cultural thing, I think." (My mother.)By the time I was old enough to understand this, my father had pretty much stopped talking.Taciturnity: They say that is an Oriental trait. But I don't believe my father was always the silent, withdrawn man I knew. Think of that day at Coney Island, when he was talking a Chinese blue streak.Almost everything I know about him came from my mother, and there was much she herself never knew, much she had forgotten or was unsure of, and much she would never tell.
I am six, seven, eight years old, a schoolgirl with deplorable posture and constantly cracked lips, chafing in the dollish Old World clothes handmade by my mother; a bossy, fretful, sly, cowardly child given to fits of temper and weeping. In school, or in the playground, or perhaps watching television, I hear something about the Chinese--something odd, improbable. I will ask my father. He will know whether it is true, say, that the Chinese eat with sticks.He shrugs. He pretends not to understand. Or he scowls and says, "Chinese just like everybody else."("He thought you were making fun of him. He always thought everyone was making fun of him. He had a chip on his shoulder. The way he acted, you'd've thought he was colored!")Actually, he said "evvybody."Is it true the Chinese write backwards?Chinese just like evvybody else.Is it true they eat dog?Chinese just like evvybody else.Are they really all Communists?Chinese just like evvybody else.What is Chinese water torture? What is foot-binding? What is a mandarin?Chinese just like evvybody else.He was not like everybody else.
The unbearably few facts are these. He was born in Colon, Panama, in 1911. His father came from Shanghai. From what I have been able to gather, Grandfather Chang was a merchant engaged in the trade of tobacco and tea. This business, which he ran with one of his brothers, kept him traveling often between Shanghai and Coln. He had two wives, one in each city, and, as if out of a passion for symmetry, two sons by each wife. Soon after my father, Carlos, was born, his father took him to Shanghai, to be raised by the Chinese wife. Ten years later my father was sent back to Coln. I never understood the reason for this. The way the story was told to me, I got the impression that my father was being sent away from some danger. This was, of course, a time of upheaval in China, the decade following the birth of the Republic, the era of the warlords. If the date is correct, my father would have left Shanghai the year the Chinese Communist party was founded there. It remains uncertain, though, whether political events had anything at all to do with his leaving China.One year after my father returned to Colon his motherwas dead. I remember hearing as a child that she had died of a stroke. Years later this would seem to me odd, when I figured out that she would have been only twenty-six. Odder still, to think of that reunion between the longparted mother and son; there's a good chance they did not speak the same language. The other half-Panamanian son, Alfonso, was either sent back with my father or had never left Coln. After their mother's death the two boys came into the care of their father's brother and business partner, Uncle Mee, who apparently lived in Coln and had a large family of his own.Grandfather Chang, his Chinese wife, and their two sons remained in Shanghai. All were said to have been killed by the Japanese. That must have been during the Sino-Japanese War. My father would have been between his late twenties and early thirties by then, but whether he ever saw any of those Shanghai relations again before they died, I don't know.At twelve or thirteen my father sailed to America with Uncle Mee. I believe it was just the two of them who came, leaving the rest of the family in Coln. Sometime in the next year or so my father was enrolled in a public school in Brooklyn. I remember coming across a notebook that had belonged to him in those days and being jolted by the name written on the cover: Charles Cipriano Chang. That was neither my father's first nor his last name, as far as I knew, and I'd never heard of the middle name. (Hard to believe that my father spent his boyhood in Shanghai being called Carlos, a name he could not even pronounce with the proper Spanish accent. So he must have had a Chinese name as well. And although our family never knewthis name, perhaps among Chinese people he used it.)Twenty years passed. All I know about this part of my father's life is that it was lived illegally in New York, mostly in Chinatown, where he worked in various restaurants. Then came the Second World War and he was drafted. It was while he was in the army that he finally became an American citizen. He was no longer calling himself Charles but Carlos again, and now, upon becoming a citizen, he dropped his father's family name and took his mother's. Why a man who thought of himself as Chinese, who had always lived among Chinese, who spoke little Spanish, and who had barely known his mother would have made such a decision in the middle of his life is one of many mysteries surrounding my father.My mother had an explanation. "You see, Alfonso was a Panamanian citizen, and he had taken his mother's name" (which would, of course, be in keeping with Spanish cultural tradition). "He was the only member of his family your father had left--the others were all dead. Your father wanted to have the same last name as his brother. Also, he thought he'd get along better in this country with a Spanish name." This makes no sense to me. He'd been a Chinatown Chang for twenty years. Now all of a sudden he wished to pass for Hispanic?In another version of this story, the idea of getting rid of the Chinese name was attributed to the citizenship official handling my father's papers. This is plausible, given that immigration restrictions for Chinese were still in effect at that time. But I have not ruled out the possibility that the change of names was the result of a misunderstanding between my father and this official. My fatherwas an easily fuddled man, especially when dealing with authority, and he always had trouble understanding and making himself understood in English. And I can imagine him not only befuddled enough to make such a mistake but also too timid afterward to try to fix it.Whatever really happened I'm sure I'll never know. I do know that having a Spanish name brought much confusion into my father's life and have always wondered in what way my own life might have been different had he kept the name Chang.
From this point on the story becomes somewhat clearer.With the Hundredth Infantry Division my father goes to war, fights in France and Germany, and, after V-E Day, is stationed in the small southern German town where he will meet my mother. He is thirty-four and she has just turned eighteen. She is soon pr... --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- ASIN : B0058U7I9S
- Publisher : Picador; First edition (December 27, 2005)
- Publication date : December 27, 2005
- Language : English
- File size : 3938 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 193 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #185,706 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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My favorite part was definitely "Immigrant Love," the last section of the book, where the narrator has an affair with a Russian immigrant. "He has no curiosity at all about me. After all, I am only a woman; facts about me can't be very important." One of the most honest portrayals of the complexities of human relationships that I have ever read. As a dancer, I found "A Feather on the Breath of God," the third section, interesting and surprisingly foreign to my own experience, but none the less enriching to read. The novel's spare structure makes you feel the necessity of every word on the page.
An extensive novel about the diverse background of a girl with many different cultures, A Feather on the Breath of God explores the adolescence of an interracial girl and the struggle she goes through to be her own person. The novel is separated into descriptions of each of the girl's parents and herself. Her father is characterized as a reserved man with few words and actions, while her mother as a proud, German woman without a comforting bone in her body. The narrator is portrayed as a young girl with an identity crisis, not knowing whether to associate herself with her father's or mother's backgrounds and cultures. She falls in love with the art of ballet and focuses on this passion to distract herself from her unavoidable, dysfunctional family. The last section of the novel describes her as an adult, falling in love with a married Russian man and how she goes forth handling their flawed relationship.
Structured as a conglomeration of anecdotes rather than a single, continuing plotline, A Feather On the Breath of God unfortunately did not move me as much as I hoped it would. I can relate to the narrator because she has a strong, opinionated mother like I had, but I could not deeply connect with the novel on a personal level. Although, I found it extremely beautiful that the narrator realized her passion for ballet and admired her devotion and dedication to the art. I would not pick up this book for entertainment purposes; however, I understand that it is a novel of deep, profound meaning and I respect its literary prestige. Purchase this book if that is what you are looking for.
For their intended purpose, the chapters do quite well at bringing their point across. The narrator has a poor relationship with her Chinese father. Her mother is a crazy psychopath. The narrator loves to dance. That's all fine and dandy. What wasn't so compelling was the repetitiveness of the second chapter. I felt the nostalgia and love the mother expressed about Germany was one-dimensional. It did not need excessive description, nor did it require a disproportionate number of examples of said trait. The writing portrayed the mother in a very negative light by the way she dominates the household and seemingly doesn't contribute anything but her heartfelt anger about all things not German. The author does a good job writing a realistic portrayal of complex characters, where there is still a bit of ambiguity. Nonetheless, I felt like the second chapter did not work for me, mostly due to its repetitive nature.
The last chapter was a surprising find. There are few novels which I am deeply immersed into a story enough to keep turning the page. This last chapter was one of those moments. It does a good job combining themes from the last three chapters into the protagonist's interaction with Vadim, who has said, "We don't have sex, we only have children." He says this only to be sardonic, with unusual idiosyncrasies and beliefs, such as his translation of the golden rule: "Today I am unlucky. Tomorrow it is someone else's turn to be unlucky." I believe the people around you say more about you than anything else, and I believe Vadim's unique personality and peculiar wisdom spoke volumes about her character. The character accounts were splendid, and that's what made the last chapter worthwhile. Still, the rest of the novel was pretty dull, so if you can stomach it, you'll find a great story in the final section of the book.