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A Feather on the Breath of God: A Novel by [Sigrid Nunez]

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A Feather on the Breath of God: A Novel Kindle Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 135 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

With a subtle blend of fierceness and evanescence, Nunez's debut comments profoundly on the lasting effects of the immigrant experience and the haunting powers of family. The unnamed female narrator tells a four-part story that begins with her father, a Chinese-Panamanian immigrant who moved to Brooklyn at the age of 12 or 13. She understands little about this workaholic who spent most of his time away from home until cancer felled him. Why didn't he ever learn to speak English? Why, in his 30s, did he switch his name from Chang to the Hispanic surname of his mother? Why did he refuse to discuss anything at all with his children? She can't answer these questions. She can merely collect what she does know and accept that it's too late to understand him. Her German-born mother, Christa, was her father's opposite: Full of rage, grace, beauty, laughter, and sorrow, Christa clung to her German heritage and spoke constantly of her past. The book's second section, which deals with her, is about love and nostalgia, about seeing with all her flaws the one individual who most shaped the narrator's life (``I seem to remember my mother as though she were a landscape rather than a person''). The third part is devoted to the narrator's dream of becoming a ballerina, which, as she poignantly states, ``begins with the dream of being beautiful.'' Here she makes some caustic connections between foot binding and toe shoes; she also recognizes that in ballet she sought escape and discipline. The final section revolves around an ill-advised love affair. The narrator examines the theory that no matter how far you go in life ``you must stick with your own class'' and sees in herself the intense desire to please, charm, and provoke desire. A rich, intelligent tapestry of the connections between language, love, beauty, and forgiveness. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

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 Col
n. 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.

Product details

  • 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
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.1 out of 5 stars 135 ratings

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Sigrid Nunez was born in New York City, the daughter of a German mother and a Chinese-Panamanian father, whose lives she drew on for part of her first novel, A FEATHER ON THE BREATH OF GOD (1995). She went on to write six more novels, including THE LAST OF HER KIND (2006), SALVATION CITY (2010), THE FRIEND (2018), and WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH (September, 2020). She is also the author of SEMPRE SUSAN: A MEMOIR OF SUSAN SONTAG (2011). Her honors include a Whiting Award, a Rome Prize, a Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages. Learn more at

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