Book Review: Small Beauty—Jia Qing Wilson-Yang
by Kaley Kiermayr
Small Beauty by Jia Qing Wilson-Yang is a gentle, emotional exploration of the ever-expanding landscape of personal identity. Mei, the protagonist, is caught in a web of grief, memories, and liminal, unresolvable spaces. Mei’s story unfolds as she unpacks “each movement that brought her here,” to a canoe in the middle of a bay. After Mei’s cousin dies, she receives his truck, his dog, and his house in the countryside. She moves away from her urban life, leaving behind her friends and her apartment, to live in a small town where she can grieve and recuperate in relative isolation. Mei’s seclusion means that she is inescapably alone—that is to say, alone with the people, places, traumas, joys, and communities that have made her who she is.
While living in her cousin’s small town house, Mei encounters boxes of family belongings imbued with memories and finds it impossible not to confront the intergenerational interactions, queer histories, and intersectional experiences that comprise her sense of self. She discovers hidden family secrets and tensions that unlock questions about the women whose lives shaped her own. Each chapter of the novel is a return to a history—not necessarily hers—that has contributed to her own perspective and lived experience.
Wilson-Yang’s debut novel is chock full of challenges for any author: it is non-sequential, alternates POVs, and its chapters are bookended by reflective interludes. Every paragraph is dense with meaning, each one concise, descriptive, and exacting, I found Wilson-Yang’s sentences tantamount to poetry and was struck immediately by the tautness of the text. The novel’s small cast of characters is given equal moments of reflection as their experiences deftly converge and inform each other.
Small Beauty asserts that we are intersectional beings, all of us, containing constellations of influences and moving parts. We are also liminal beings, coping as best we can with the idea that we can never resolve all of these pieces into a final form. We’ll never be able to answer the question “who am I?” without constantly redacting, accounting for the influence of others, creating addendums, and trying to fit together puzzle pieces that just won’t cooperate. It’s this exhausting state of liminality that sometimes drives us to leave everything behind and take some time away in the hopes that we can somehow find a simpler existence, but Mei’s attempt to retreat to her cousin’s house—only to be followed by inexorable histories and memories—clues us into the fact that this concept of simplicity may be impossible.
Literature needs Small Beauty. Queer literature and trans literature—useful, but sometimes isolating categories, and another complicated article altogether—need this novel about a mixed-race trans woman growing up in Southern Ontario. Small Beauty situates collective identity as key to understanding the messy, unsolvable question of personal identity. Mei confronts the stories and history of trans women, lesbians, migrants, and Chinese North Americans that have shaped her. She encounters boxes (and a suitcase) full of subversive stories, a “woodsy dyke” whose opinions are contrary to her own but whose history is inseparable from hers, and literal ghosts that visit in her isolation. There are a myriad of queer stories and hauntings at work in this novel, many of them underrepresented or restricted by oppressive stereotypes in mainstream media. Small Beauty does not shy away from the hard work of addressing identities at odds with each other, but also shows us that there is always enough room for every variation of lived and inherited experience in this complex world.
Kaley Kiermayr is a writer and editor who has spent the majority of her life moving, on average, every two years. She is currently earning a graduate degree in Publishing at Emerson College. She enjoys traveling and emoting about LGBT media and related writing projects. She has a background in literature, cultural studies, and journalism, and her writing has appeared Teen Ink, Glitterwolf, and RGNN. Kaley is currently a Junior Editor for Tethered by Letters.