I thought a lot about what I’d do for a “Five Books About” column. Carnivorous vegetation? Gladiatorial sports? Cooking? I nearly went with that last one, mostly because of how crucially food features in Asian culture. Food unites. Food defines. Food serves as a basis of greeting, as a way of evaluating how much a person is loved or loathed. To withhold food from a family member is to indicate your wrath. To honor the dead, we frequently offer them consumables, tokens from life.
But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to talk about food, and the more I wanted to talk about why food is so important. And the answer is simple: family. It’s about family, whether found or biological, whether dysfunctional or nurturing. When you get right down to it, the Asian connection is food is synonymous with family. (There’s a running joke on the Internet that Chinese parents, in particular, don’t tell you that they love you but instead ask if you’ve eaten.)
So I decided to put together a list of books that investigates the ways families slot together. Partly because of those musings and partly because my first novella, Hammers On Bone, looks at how poisonous such relationships can become. While it is still very much Lovecraftian noir, it’s also, at heart, a story of domestic abuse and violence, both of which exist with terrifying frequency.
Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black
Devil and the Bluebird is a roadside bar with a resident fiddler and a crowd full of whiskey-sweet dreams, a little sad and a little broken, but somehow beautiful all the same. Of particular interest is the complicated, beautiful relationship between Blue’s mother and Trish, two women who stand as diametric opposites, fiddler and guitarist, pragmatist and romantic. Without giving too much away, it isn’t a happy ending (Blue’s mother does die, after all), but it is a kind of ending that we all sometimes dream about, or at least I do, aching and sweet and painfully real.
Fix by Ferrett Steinmetz
Although frequently billed as a magical Breaking Bad, the ‘Mancy series have always been about love to me. Every type of love and not just the romantic connection between a man and a man: love between family members, love between ex-spouses, love between friends, between employee and employer, between colleagues, between father and child. In some ways, Fix is the culmination of those ideas, delving deep into an examination of a family that has been shattered in the teeth of apocalyptic events, and then put back together in a way that isn’t quite right but is still somehow perfect all the same.
Scale Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Scale Bright is a glittering gem of a novella, not unalike the green serpent that sits at the heart of the story, with ornate prose so scintillant that it is almost distracts from the story itself. Unapologetically queer, Scale Bright, among other things, digs into what it means to be a pair of aunties who also just happen to be a pair of goddesses. Their domestic arguments, their personal interactions, their shameless spoiling of the great-niece Julienne, that moment where one of them awkwardly cooks for their cherished ward—it all comes together in a splendid evocation of Asian family life.
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
Of all the books I have listed, The Girl from the Well is, perhaps, the least immediately relevant to the title of this article, being largely what it is billed: a cross between Dexter and The Grudge. Yet, at the same time, the familial relationship between the characters are both complex and complicated by long distances: Tark, suffocated by his problems, takes his time in opening up to Callie, whose affections feel almost too forceful, the products of a wild attempt at compensating for lost time; Tark’s parents clearly love him but are trapped by their own problems, with Tark’s mother suffering the most in the tale. Layered and difficult and aching, The Girl from the Well is the first in a splendid duology that really needs to be read with its sequel.
The Devourers by Indra Das
Sexual violence is a difficult subject and often clumsily handled, deployed as shock factor or as titillation, but Indrapramit Das addresses the subject carefully and unflinchingly, neither gentling its brutality nor fetishizing its existence. Beautiful, gory, chilling, replete with bodily secretions like shit and piss and vomit, The Devourers’ approach to familial relationships is terrifying, twisted and darkened by the primal cruelty of the shapeshifters who lead the narrative. Cyrah and her slow consideration of the child growing in her womb, a product of a non-consensual encounter with the werewolf Fenris, is particularly hard to read. And I imagine that it was completely intentional on Das’ part, as he forces us to consider why some women would consider carrying such an offspring to term, and why others might not.
Top image: Lilo and Stitch (2002)
Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for micropublisher Ysbryd Games. When not otherwise writing press releases and attending conventions, she writes fiction of varying length. Her first novella, Hammers on Bone, is out on October 11th.