A Bestiary by Lily Hoang: Exploring Gender and Race Identity Through Fairy Tales
With intense and raw emotions, Lily Hoang transforms her work, A Bestiary, through the contemporary form of writing, using non-fictional experiences and fairy tales. The revival of fairy tales and myths adds to the multitude of diverse perspectives, which challenges the reader’s insight and understanding of the female gender role and Asian identity. Hoang is not afraid to make herself vulnerable in which she skillfully connects to the reader, revealing the anxieties of the self and the world around her. Reflecting on Hoang’s experiences, the challenges of growing up with embracing my half Asian heritage, brings to mind the constant struggle with my culture and self identity through the troubled efforts in fitting into the ideal Asian female image. In the past, I was repeatedly reminded by others that my “Asianness” was never enough or that I was liked only for my passivity and shyness. Hoang constructs a powerful voice that acknowledges the issues of Asian identity and Asian female gender role, where she questions the negative stereotypes and fetishes placed on Asian women. As readers, it is important to review her work to establish discourse and dialogue in promoting diverse literature as an educational mindset in engaging today’s youth.
Lily Hoàng’s collection of essays, A Bestiary, explores the ideas of Asian identity and female agency by focusing on the issues of gender roles, stereotypes, and fetishization in and outside of Asian-American culture. Growing up as a Vietnamese-American, Hoàng questions the idea of what it means to be Asian, which reveals the anxiety and trauma of identity and acceptance. The spaces that Hoang creates are through the conventions of a fragmented structure that convey references to myths and fairy tales: each establishing a connection with personal instances of her past. The fairy tales and myths set a presence that allows for a space to delve into the anxieties of acceptance and expectations of the female gender role placed on Asian women. She recalls on the anxieties in which Asian women experience within their culture while in the process of assimilating into a new culture; therefore, female racial stereotypes are developed and create tensions from both Asian and American cultures.
The title sets a tone in which “bestiary” references to the meaning of stories about mythical or real animals that teach moral lessons. Hoàng rewrites the stories of the Chinese zodiac animals and fairy tales like red riding hood, snow white, and sleeping beauty as part of her reflection of Asian identity and female agency. As a result, the conventions of fragmentation and the magical real are part of the narrative form and structure in which the author uses fairy tales and myths to connect to gender and racial issues. Fragmentation is a technique used in literature that intentionally breaks down the text into separate parts with a purpose of reflection on the mind and the self. Hoàng’s conventions of fragmentation through language indicates breaking down the process in representing the way she sees the world through the decay of memory and trauma being told by experiences of abuse and addiction. Spaces of the magical real are created as a conversation that can view the world differently to understand it at its fullest. Hoàng demonstrates her perspective, expressing that “I call a thing ‘magic’ if I cannot immediately understand the process by which it is made, like electricity and felt, happily ever after…like discrimination and cruelty, like the residual buzz that rattles in the small of your ear when all you should hear is silence, like a threat”. Magical realism is the interpretation of the world through the usage of myth and fantasy, which allows the characters to rely on the magical real to create spaces of the Asian female gender role.
Examining the Asian female gender role closely, fairy tales challenge female agency. The passivity of Asian women becomes a negative stereotype and fetish. Hoàng uses fairy tales to illustrate her anxieties on the female gender role, stressing that “[l]ocation, location, location. Traditional fairy tales are all about location: namely, nature, frightening nature, it’s magical – this nature – expansive and haunted…nature is the wildcard obstacle – if the heroine wants to win, that is”. She encourages female agency through understanding traditional fairy tales of the heroine in which nature creates liminal spaces for the heroine to move freely outside her passivity, establishing a sense of liberation to move pass domesticity and femininity as stereotypes of the female gender role. Nature represents vulnerability towards female agency in which as Asian women we struggle with identity and acceptance through the unrealistic ideals of femininity and beauty, becoming vulnerable without authority of the self. Even though there is this sense of vulnerability and the lack of control from nature, there are two perspectives in understanding that nature as a force that relinquishes a power of choice and freedom to give the self authority. Where instead of trying to conquer nature, it’s what we do with it that provides an outlet of freedom and independent thinking.
In chapters, “on Catastrophe” and “on Oriental Beauties”, exploring the Asian female gender role through the allegorical figure, the “Other Lily”, questions the domesticity and femininity of the ideals of the patriarchal society and Asian influences. Asian women suffer from challenges of expectations from society as part of assimilating into a new culture in which stereotypes and fetishization reinforce the issues of identity and acceptance. Identity and acceptance are further analyzed in the passage expressing that “‘[y]ellow skin mean you have to work twice as hard as white people. Or they never respect you’…My father’s broken English resonated with my own experience… so I worked harder and felt proud when I was recognized as different…I was proud to be Vietnamese”, which emphasizes the issues of intersectionality of the influences placed on race and gender. 
Through Asian influence, beauty is represented through pain and suffering, stressing that “[t]o prove our renowned endurance of pain, Vietnamese women adorn their wrists with jade bracelets…I have yellow bruises for days…this is proof of our delicacy: how well we take that agony and internalize it. The tighter the fit, the more suffering the woman can persevere, the more beautiful she is considered" . She reflects on the struggles of Asian women of the anxieties of identity and acceptance in which she shares the experiences of the migrant and female body to convey beauty as the representation of survival.
We have come to a point in time, where culture and self identity are controversial issues to the challenges of society’s perpetual way of categorizing individuals based on gender and race. With tremendous accomplishment, Lily Hoang addresses the issues of gender and race that sets out to create ground breaking efforts of what it means to be Asian. She strives to explore new avenues of literature through the use of fairy tales and myths to allow the reader insight into differencing perspectives. I would highly recommend Lily Hoang’s book, A Bestiary, for readers struggling with issues of culture or gender identity as it will give them a good origin point to further explore these issues within themselves.
1, 2, 3, 4 - Hoang, Lily. A Bestiary. Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016
Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA
Originally from the Bay Area and a recent graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.