2011’s One Book Community Read: Midnight at the Dragon Café

The literary and operatic launch event for Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Café is tomorrow evening, so it seems timely to offer a reader response to this year’s One Book selection .

I finished Bate’s novel in four days and felt a little lost when there was nothing more to read about the struggles of an immigrant family in a small 1960’s Ontario town. The narrator is a child, Su-Jen Annie Chou, whose parents and half-brother toil long hours in the Dragon Café by day and then climb stairs clogged with restaurant supplies to sleep in the living quarters by night. As the story unfolds, Su-Jen becomes an anguished witness to the unspeakable secrets and resentments that lock her mother, father, and adult brother in conflict.

Interested readers will want to check out the book for themselves, so I won’t clog this post with too many details. I’d just like to highlight one of the truths that Midnight at the Dragon Café seared into my heart: the emotional price of immigration.

Although I haven’t experienced the bitter hardship Su-Jen’s family endured, reading their story triggered a painful memory of September 11, 2001 and the isolation it made me feel. I had been an American immigrant in Scotland for almost three years when the planes crashed into my psyche. And when the towers fell, the borders closed, and the phone lines jammed, I was suddenly aware of how profoundly stranded I was.

Su-Jen’s mother seemed to have felt something similar every single day in Canada, not just on one terrible day: “For my mother . . . home would always be China. In Irvine she lived among strangers, unable to speak their language . . . . There was so little left from her old life . . . . But she described (it) with such clarity and vividness that I knew all those memories lived on inside her” (48-49).

I have a very personal wish for Torontonians, immigrants and non-immigrants alike. I wish for the ability to enjoy our lives in the present. I wish for inclusion, belonging, and community. That’s why I enthusiastically recommend the experience of reading Midnight at the Dragon Café together.

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