Move Over, Tiger Mom: This Mother's 'On Fire'

Mother on Fire
Mother on Fire
By Sandra Tsing Loh
Paperback, 320 pages
Three Rivers Press
List Price: $15
Read An Excerpt

Amy Chua, author of the controversial parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Like many Americans, I had recently spent a great number of hours talking with virtually everyone I know about Chua's book.

Since many of those conversations focused on what some took to be stereotypes of Asian-Americans as hyperachieving do-gooders, I was happy that they gave me an opportunity to bring up a decidedly different book by a female Asian-American author — Sandra Tsing Loh's manic 2008 memoir, Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting.

If Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother seemed to suggest that all Asian-Americans do is practice the violin and study quadratic equations, Loh's book offers a kind of antidote — one that involves averagely performing kids, moms who break wind and drink a lot of rum and coke, and families that muddle along just like everyone else.

The book takes place in the year of Loh's 42nd birthday, a year in which the Atlantic Monthly and public radio contributor saw her life begin to crumble. Part of this is a seemingly inevitable crisis brought on by the author's almost unbearably high-strung personality. The other part of it is that parenting has snuffed out her already fragile sense of self, her social life and eventually her doomed marriage. Everything Loh thought she had been — in her career, in her personal life, as a wife, a parent and a child herself — had come into question, and her sense of self-confidence was ebbing at a time when the only thing she was sure about — her family — needed her terribly. Specifically, her 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, hadn't been admitted to a school that Loh could either afford or stomach sending her to in the educational wasteland of Los Angeles.

And so begins Loh's search, not just for Hannah's future educational home, but for her own missing self. To understand what that self might look like, imagine an email sent to you at 2:30 in the morning written in ALL CAPS and liberally splashed with exclamation points. Picture Loh's minivan, a "rolling mildewed chariot of typhus" that her own children resist getting in because ants live inside the seats. Think of Loh's family, which she describes as "probably not dangerously gifted," meaning normal, in other words — and, like most normal families, even some Asian-American families, not hyperachieving do-gooders.

Ben Ryder Howe is a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He is the author of My Korean Deli.

Ben Ryder Howe is a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He is the author of My Korean Deli. Courtesy of Ben Ryder Howe hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Ben Ryder Howe

But what makes the book such a great read isn't that it captures normality, or the quality of Loh's writing. The narrative in Mother on Fire isn't shaped. In places, it doesn't even show signs of being proofread. But the force of it is so inflamed, so crazy-get-out-of-my-way-or-I-swear-I'll-run-you-over, that you have no choice but to sit down in one of her ant-filled seats and hope you survive.

Memoirists are often praised for being candid, but many settle for mere revealing instead of the kind of punishing scrutiny Loh inflicts on herself. Loh might be the mother of all oversharing memoirists, but as a result, when she approaches redemption — a process that begins by sending her daughter to a public school that initially terrifies the author — it doesn't feel forced or wanting, and when she says, "Everything I assumed about running my life is wrong," she really means it. Nothing is off the table. She's going all the way, whether you like it or not. And in the end, you can either turn your head away or appreciate the ride.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.

Excerpt: 'Mother On Fire'

Mother on Fire
Mother on Fire
By Sandra Tsing Loh
Paperback, 320 pages
Three Rivers Press
List Price: $15

This is a story about the year I exploded into flames.

Which turns out to be more common than you'd think, among forty-something humans. Yea, we can hold it together in our thirties, with a raft of hair products and semi-tall nonfat half-caf beverages and much brisk walking to a lot of interesting appointments.

Come the forties, though, cracks begin to appear. One staggers suddenly along life's path; gourmet coffee splats; the wig slips askew.

In other words, my friends, THE WHEELS COME OFF. Whatever vehicle you were so confidently hurtling along in in Act One of your life, that sped you to age twenty-six, thirty-four, thirty-nine ... even forty-two? Yea, that buggy will skitter sideways into a ditch, flip over, burst into flames; firemen will have to use the Jaws of Life to get you out. And if you do not find another car to climb into, well ...

"Look at Anna Karenina!" I remember exhorting my female writing students at Marymount College, spreading my arms wide, and expansively. The Rebecca A. Mirman Chair of Creative Writing — this was my Second Act, the sudden forgiving windfall of a plum teaching job, complete with a year's worth of truly excellent health insurance, and I played it to the hilt, never mind that I was sweating a lot. Even trying to figure out the faculty parking made me sweat. Anyway, I'd been trying to describe the difference between metaphor and metonymy, how Anna Karenina's little red handbag sitting by the side of the train tracks does not "symbolize" her but actually "is" her, which is to say it STANDS for her, in the manner of a linguistic SIGN ...

When all at once I heard myself veer off into a tangent about how depressed I am that over and over I read that novel, year after year, and things never turn out better for Anna. By my count, the last time Anna is happy is on page seventy-six out of a five-hundred-page tome. She peaks at the ball, where she dances with Count Vronsky — and it's not even during the WHOLE ball — it's not during the waltz, the gavotte, the schottische, or the fox-trot but in particular during . . . the MAZURKA.

That's how it was for women in those days, it was all about the MAZURKA —

And then, inevitably, the MAZURKA ends and now come four hundred pages of falling action, of dragging tediously around Europe with Vronsky, consuming all those carbs together, putting on weight, particularly around the neck (with a potato-based diet, all the weight for those Russians would certainly fly to the neck). It's all about overpriced English baby prams and go-nowhere piazza remodeling projects in Italy (It is! Reread it! Feel free to skip the endless Levin/wheat farming parts, I always do), modern plots for women in the post–Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice/Elizabeth Bennet era boiling down to just four words:

No More Darcy

Indeed — with sudden inspiration, I turned and wrote, in giant letters on the board:

Mr Darcy

And then I drew a circle AROUND and a diagonal slash THROUGH Mr. Darcy, as one might on a verboten no fumar sign at the train station of life.

"Portrait of the narrative in the postfeminist age?"

Cross Darcy

And I felt my Marymount College girls actually shrink, and gasp.

"But that's what true liberation of the soul means!" I cried out, smacking my chalk triumphantly on the board, like a teeny tiny epee. "It's not like you put on your 'Save Darfur' T-shirt, march . . . and then go home to Mr. Darcy . . ."

At which point we entered a brief conversational snorl in which one of the girls argued that HER Mr. Darcy might well encourage her to march, as long as she went home every night to Mr. Darcy's estate at Pemberley, which she felt she could live with. Another imagined she could share a tent with HER Mr. Darcy in Darfur, perhaps Mr. Darcy was even the co-organizer of the Save Darfur effort . . . And now imagining the safari wear, the eco-carbon credits, and the tangle of yellow rubber Lance Armstrong bracelets, I was struck with a distinct, dismal Jane-Austen-novel-remade-as-a-summer-cable-TVmovie-starring-Matthew-McConaughey feeling. No!

"What I'm saying is, no matter what you do, at age forty . . . THE WHEELS COME OFF!

A pierced-nose student in a Frida Kahlo muscle T clarified it for her more flighty, foolish sisters: "She means for women, at forty, the TRAINING WHEELS come off — "

"No!" I yelled. My upper lip was beaded with moisture, the room felt so hot. "THE WHEELS OF YOUR CAR! THEY SIMPLY! COME! OFF!"

The tragedy for Anna Karenina, of course, is that she lived in St. Petersburg in the 1870s rather than America in the 2000s. One no longer has to hurl oneself under a train upon turning forty — there is medication for that. No, nowadays forty and all the ages like forty (which apparently can range up to fifty-two or even sixty-one) are a mystical opportunity to begin an inward journey of fabulous wisdoming. (On the back of a tea packet I saw it recently, used as a verb: "Wisdoming." Even the prose of our herbal tea nowadays is amazing!)

No, with proper hormonal and nutritional supplements, and a full tasting menu of Pfizer antidepressants, it's no longer necessarily a bad thing, this bursting-into-flames, this midlife "transition," this second adolescence —

(Well, perhaps for the men it is bad, particularly for those who've already managed to live THEIR ENTIRE ADULT LIVES in a state of adolescence, and here I am thinking not of Count Vronsky of Russia but of my ex-boyfriend of Culver City, Count Bruce.)

Forty-something women, though—this kicking off of their calcified/thirty-something/Gail Sheehy/Passages lobster shells is the golden time. By God, they've EARNED their raucous "You go, girl!"s, their giddy high-fives with somewhat flabby upper arms (upon which shudder bold temporary tattoos), their raspberry-flavored tequila shots, their "Woo woo!"s gaily Dopplering out the back of the speeding-off Mustang. Lord love 'em, they deserve escape, these sparkle-eyed, plus-aged women, and makeovers, and perhaps a fashion spree, or at least a mad, buffalo-sized wicker basket of wildflower soaps, raffia twine tumbling everywhere amid a crazy menagerie of rose petals and tiny mad bottles of lotion ... AROMATHERAPY LITERALLY UNBOUND.

Yea, these women deserve it all, so long have they plowed in the arid fields of their marriages, with dull oxen husbands, in that ceaseless drumbeat of domestic tedium. Divorce is tragic ... but becomes a bold new start as, wiping tears, our heroine manages to pack just the one overnight bag and grab the red-eye to Portugal or Bali to live in a thatched-roof beach hut and feel the sand in her toes and wear a sarong and drink sangria and have a hot affair with a poetry-writing swordfisherman named Paolo who helps her shed her puritanical type A ways and teaches her about the tides. Come midnight, they tear off her bra and BURN it, howling, like wine-drunk Santa Fe coyotes, up at the stars!

Excerpted from Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! by Sandra Tsing Loh. Copyright 2008 by Sandra Tsing Loh. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press. All rights reserved.

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