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The Pathos of Ephemera: A Review of A Bestiary by Lily Hoang

By Bridget Bergin.

A Bestiary - Lily Hoang

Lily Hoang, A Bestiary (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016)

A bestiary is an allegorical or moralising story about a collection of real or imaginary animals. This definition neatly fits with the fragments that comprise A Bestiary, a book of miniature fables about the tiger, the rat, the rabbit, the human, and other beasts, by writer Lily Hoang. In an interview with her editor Caryl Pagel, Hoang describes the book as both a work of nonfiction and a collection of fairy tales. In the interview, Hoang notes how “fairy tales can interact with the real and that collision can produce something truly spectacular”. In A Bestiary fairy tale and the real collide in a series of small impacts and aftershocks, the prose skipping from the fantastically imaginary to the troublingly material in this intricately crafted text.

Hoang’s claim that A Bestiary is an incongruous combination is instructive. Elements of fable, memoir, flash fiction, lyric essay and commonplace book are placed in dialogue as Hoang leads the reader from a story about the speaker’s deceased sister’s battle with heroin addiction to a quote from David Foster Wallace, to a note on Mao Zedong’s Four Pests campaign. In some moments, one element is given prominence while the others take the background—like when a story about a young man training to kill a white tiger dominates the page, only to be followed by a section listing fragmentary notes on the measurement of time. It is this artful blending of disparate elements, in addition to Hoang’s sparse writing, that makes this book unlike anything I have read before.

The blending of fairy tale with fragmentary nonfiction essay—the old with the new—is fitting for a text that self-consciously dwells on time and doesn’t follow a recognisable trajectory. This is also true of the development of the characters—the speaker’s father’s desires “turn adolescent, child-like”, while her sister only finds happiness after her “American dream life” dissolves and she moves back in with her parents. In her telling of the story of the speaker’s sister’s life and death, Hoang doesn’t attempt to provide a cohesive narrative. Rather, she zooms in on tiny, discrete moments and expands those moments until they become overwhelming. “Our stories are porous, they are igneous rocks,” Hoang writes about a conversation with the speaker’s nephew about what went wrong in his mother’s life. When the speaker’s mother notes that her deceased daughter used the electric carver every Christmas and Thanksgiving, the speaker notes, “This is the way memory works for my mother. My dead sister had only returned to San Antonio for a few years, and time expands to make it seem like a lifetime.” The book’s time is permeable, recursive, still: “Although its math is precise, time has the texture of magic.”

Time in A Bestiary is magic because it must include alternate trajectories. Hoang explores the realisation that you aren’t your idealised self and that your relationship can’t ever fulfil your idealised love—and the grief that accompanies this realisation. The moment the speaker says goodbye to her ex-husband, the hug “contained eight years”. The section “On Catastrophe” toggles between the speaker’s dissolving marriage and fantasies of “Other Lily”, the person she would be if she hadn’t failed her parents. Hoang writes, “Other Lily doesn’t fail at marriage, and her husband is Vietnamese. He respects her, too.” Every moment expands to include an alternate path—the path of Other Lily—until Hoang erases Other Lily with five words—“There is no Other Lily”—only a few pages after she has come to life. But the short lifespan of Other Lily, the abrupt ending of a marriage, the premature death of a sibling, the fragmentary style, the rapid succession of brief thoughts or stories uncover a central message of the book: “Mono no aware translates as ‘the pathos of things’ or ‘an empathy toward things’ or ‘a sensitivity to ephemera.’ A thing’s pathos is derived from its transience.” The emotional pulse of A Bestiary is built on hundreds of fleeting moments of reality held together by a timeless thread of myth and fairytale: “Mono no aware cannot be captured in a single moment but must be followed through a span of time.”

Lily Hoang

However, Hoang’s book doesn’t feel elusive or slick; instead, it is surprisingly stable. A great deal of this stability comes from the narratives of enduring grief or love. In some moments, it reads as an elegy for lost familial and romantic relationships; the tragic loss of a sister and a series of relationships with emotionally and physically abusive partners. But A Bestiary is equally a celebration of the security of friendship: “A friend is a place; friendship a space. The scale is distance, in kilometers and honesty.” A great deal of the honesty of friendship shines through in Hoang’s writing on the process of writing and revising the book. Hoang’s self-reflexive, self-conscious account of the writing process is not one of romanticised isolation, but of support and community. One section, “Summer”, reads:

In Port Townsend, reclined in a park overlooking the farmer’s market and behind it the ocean, Rikki Ducornet and I eat salmon burgers. She says, “I don’t like this boyfriend of yours.”

“No one does,” I say. And, “But I’m in love.”

“Do you really want him in this book?”

There’s so much green here: the grass, the trees, the whole Pacific opening into Rikki’s serious eyes.

And of course she was right about everything, which became the revision.

Friendship extends beyond Hoang’s named friends—including Carmen, the dedicatee—into a community of thinkers and writers that spans from 106 BCE to the present. The section “Fugue” of the chapter “on the Geography of Friendship” begins with nineteen quotes on friendship—a conversation among Lauren Berlant, Montaigne, Aristotle, Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille, William Blake, Maurice Blanchot, Deleuze and Guattari, Cicero, Horace, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Coleridge, and Gertrude Stein. But it isn’t exactly a conversation, because the quotes complete and complicate each other, and, read without the attributions, reads like a monologue. In this way, the collection becomes the collective, and the various become the single unified voice.

“Presto”, the next section of the same chapter, begins, “The swarm bellow in language solemnly exotic to you. You search for cognates and the wind pushes through your skin and through the marrow of your bones and back out. The swarm always returns to itself, changed and whole.” The swarm is another major image in Hoang’s book; the bestiary itself requires a multitude or collection. The idea of the collective noun, first introduced at the beginning of the book, “A group of congregated rats is called a mischief”, carries through the entire book and reappears near its close: “A pack of dogs. A swarm of insects. A mischief of rats. You desire a human equivalent.” A Bestiary is a swarm of elements of storytelling, a swarm of images, a swarm of moments in time.

“The swarm is a community. It is to have a place, acceptance. Inside, there is only a beautiful feeling,” but: “To join the collective, you must un-become, lose your face and your skin, eject your identity. Then we can emerge uniform, exactly the same, just torso and skeleton. This is called belonging.” An interrogation of identity, both buoyed by the comfort of community and obscured by the pressure to conform, is at the heart of the double-sided image of the swarm:

The swarm is a feeling: of acceptance, of denial, of rejection.


The heat of rejection, as bright as memory.


You are banished by the swarm, like homo sacer, and you will never forgive yourself for the crimes you have yet to commit.


The swarm is, after all, your family.

Hoang’s speaker belongs to the second generation of a Vietnamese-American family, and her relationship to this identity is teased out throughout the book. As a child, she searches for role models and balances distinct cultures and disparate expectations. As an adult, she encounters Orientalism and racism from ex-husbands and ex-lovers as she is led to assume “that every man has an Asian fetish. This is born out of low self-esteem—and fact, it’s born out of fact.”  She hates her urge to assimilate as much as she prides herself on her success; she reconciles the child who was proud to be Vietnamese with the adult who has been drained of this confidence from life experience. The jade bracelet, commonly worn by Vietnamese women to prove their ability to endure pain because it requires the wearer to nearly break her hand in order to put it on, is a recurring image. It is “proof of our delicacy: how well we take that agony and internalize it. The tighter the fit, the more suffering a woman can persevere, the more beautiful she is considered.” Hoang’s speaker buys and wears multiple jade bracelets throughout the book—her ex-husband breaks one, she buys another in New York with a friend. She seeks out this symbol of internalised pain in the book, which details a halting, haunting, hesitant account—and perhaps, a release—of some of that pain.

The image of the bestiary—a community, a swarm, a blending of real and mythical—and the image of recursive, expansive, cyclical time convene on the final page of the book. Hoang leaves her reader with an account of The Great Race: “As the fairy tale goes, it is the Rat who crosses the threshold of the Great Race first.” The list follows: Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, “And then—finally—the Pig.” The collection of animals who fought for the finish line in the myth of the zodiac now eternally cycle through celestial time, keeping pace of our real lives.


Bridget Bergin

Bridget Bergin is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 31st, 2016.