Hollowed by Lucy Zhang

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Front cover of the flash fiction collection "Hollowed" by Lucy Zhang. Image of a light blue background with two upturned halves of an eggshell in the foreground. The shells are pinkish and cast shadows. The word "HOLLOWED" in a stencil font is on the inside of the half-shell on the left and "LUCY ZHANG" in the same font on the inside of the half-shell on the right.

Hollowed by Lucy Zhang

Lucy Zhang’s recent flash fiction collection, Hollowed (Thirty West, 2022), is full of surprise and wonder as it explores identity and agency. Her tone seems matter-of-fact and nothing in this collection is straightforward. Quite the opposite. The short stories and flash are bursting with organic and surreal images juxtaposed to the expectations of others that clearly and interestingly intersect. Zhang’s thoughtful prose is also dazzling. There is much to say about the depth and breadth of the stories in Hollowed. This is my short take.

One striking theme is the immigrant experience. Being first or second generation and straddling two worlds. Two identities. Who am I? Who do I want to be? In “Soft-Shelled Turtle,” Zhang writes with authority about the visceral experience of eating turtle as a young girl and later as an adult traveling from Chinatown with a live turtle on the subway and the looks from others who notice and perhaps disapprove.

Why can’t they eat chicken like normal people? said the man’s facial expression. Stop staring, I thought. Stop staring…

The turtle itself may be a mechanism, a metaphor, if you will, for what is really going on in this story, the turtle being a traditional Chinese delicacy as well as traditional medicine:

It’s good for you, lots of protein, helps with anemia and fertility, my parents told me as I forced it down. (5) 

When this character receives a live turtle at age thirty, she is disturbed by the gift, knowing it is another message from her parents who make no bones about their thoughts of their single and childless daughter living independent from them.

The story also has an added surrealness. I wondered about the fairies in the kitchen playing mahjong for hours. The protagonist decides to join them, which I thought was hilarious. But before she does they insist:

We don’t want your nonexistent firstborn, they titter. We want your soft-shelled turtle. (4)

They seem not to be bothered with preparing the turtle, running counter to the protagonist who is doubly not happy about the gift she would have to kill in order to consume. The fairies presence brings a chaotic element to the story that has purpose, perhaps reflecting or balancing the duality and agency surrounding the young woman.

Another theme in the collection is the feminine. The stories, “Stone Girl” and “Thigh Gap” resonate with feminist ideals relating to body image. “Stone Girl” is also the name of the main character who is made of stone and presently being created. She doesn’t want perfection. Perfection is found in the imperfection. A beautiful asymmetry that she decides. “Thigh Gap” also relates to body image and self-infliction. This story evokes negative self images that the main character wishes to change. Cutting. Carving. Creating a new self that is disturbing and, in the end, not satisfying to the character.

Some of the stories in Hollowed invoke not just the female but an added existential ingredient. “Hatchling” begins with an outrageous first sentence: “When the egg popped out of her vagina…”  An unexpected pregnancy complication for sure! The story flashes back to childhood and an incident that happened when collecting chicken eggs. It returns to the present dilemma of this egg, which is “about the size of a duck egg, [yet] heavier…” (19). Should she tell her husband? In the meantime, the protagonist goes about cleaning up the delivery scene. It’s an absurd situation Zhang creates in a curious exploration of motherhood that goes deeper when the egg cracks.

Zhang uses various vantage points to tickle the reader. “How to Make Me Orgasm” is one of the stories where she does this in surprising ways. The metaphors—spectacular!  The structure is in the form of instructions just as the title hints. Yet each instruction is a unique story in itself.

Hold enough conviction. Don’t adjust your movements before they’ve registered with nerve endings. This is how restaurant butchers operate: unlatch a crate, lock their grip around a snake, slap it onto the ground, like whips striking tile. Aunt says snake soup is a delicacy, good for the skin. Clean and clear with big chunks of meat and a few pieces of star anise, ginger, and wood ear. Tough enough you must strain your jaw to rip sinew from the bone. Soft enough to emasculate fibers into pulp. They grip, shifting their belly scales to alter friction, rippling over hands and elbows. You’ve got to catch it by surprise. Try again if you fail. (7)

“Room Tour” held up a mirror to the protagonist when a future lover traveled back in time to see her older version, the seed of what she once was, in small gestures and remarks that take on a larger meaning: “You know, you’re not like how you are in my time” (22).  Zhang’s character begins to consider her choices and her own fabric. Does she become what her mother wished? Meet someone? Have the “nuclear” family…?  Zhang leaves the reader dangling a little bit with this familiar notion: Can people change? Should they even have to? The main character ponders the idea of a different self despite having a strong preset sense of self:

I know reality is just settling and compromising and accepting some things will never go away… (23)

Then:

But I wonder what’s so great about that: growing up, getting married, having kids, retiring old and weary and well-traveled, when instead you can live as though time stands still. (25-26)

Zhang’s transitions are seamless, rendering character backstory with carefully chosen prose. A word. A string of phrases. Elegant. Tender. Surly and ravenous. She is a master of sentence construction. Lucy Zhang’s Hollowed explores some of the biggest questions, never missing a beat as she scoops out the guts while carefully and lovingly exploring the traces of what’s left behind.

*

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fireside Magazine, Toasted Cheese, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and Absorption (Harbor Review, 2022). Twitter: @Dango_Ramen.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Poof the Sheep

Flash
Lucy Zhang


Photo Credit: S I/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Poof the sheep didn’t stare when you pulled the lid off your plastic container of rice mixed with egg and ground pork—a yellow-grey mush catalyzing questions you’d rather not answer: the girls asking what is that, the boys trying to toss tater tots into each other’s mouths. Poof didn’t laugh at your new haircut, the pink bobbles once tied around your pigtails now gathering dust in the corner of the bathroom counter, the frayed strands of hair above your ears, leaving your neck exposed to the morning cold. The guy who would drop out of high school in a few years, who sat across from you on the school bus, laughed and said you looked like a boy as the vehicle swerved into the neighborhood ghetto where both of you lived. Poof didn’t follow you, a twenty-something-year-old with long, thick hair past your shoulders, around at two a.m. while you navigated to an Airbnb, the apartments too closely stacked, Google Maps in a kerfuffle. Poof didn’t offer car rides to directionally-challenged foreigners and expect affectionate pets and nuzzles and kisses in return.

Poof did offer a warm body covered in wool for you to lean on after you’d attempted to gift the stranger who drove you to the sliding doors of the Airbnb a 3D-printed, bright orange ornament held together by interweaving stripes of ABS plastic, a product of your hours spent extruding shapes, chamfering corners, sweeping polygons along lines, but the driver said no thank you and instead asked for just a kiss on the cheek to which you declined, except you’re not sure you ever really learned how to say no so if it’ll get the driver to leave—even if a kiss on the cheek becomes a kiss on the lips and a hand between your legs and eventually the driver who found you leaves you to your own devices, unpacking your toothbrush and phone charger from your suitcase, lying on a futon mattress on a tatami mat, thinking about tomorrow and the izakayas you’ll visit, the underground book stores you’ll discover, because the jetlag refuses to let you sleep. Shush brain shush shut up; you’re counting sheep now—just one sheep, just Poof grazing on grass, untrimmed wool like cumulonimbus clouds, stopping sporadically to chew its cud and stare.

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Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Her work has appeared in Atlas & Alice, Okay Donkey, Jellyfish Review, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @Dango_Ramen. Email: lucy.7a11[at]gmail.com