When I first read Nghi Vo’s novel, “The Chosen and the Beautiful” (2021), I had mixed feelings. It wasn’t until I read her next book, “Siren Queen” (2022), that I understood why.
“The Chosen and the Beautiful” is a re-imagining of “The Great Gatsby” from the perspective of Jordan Baker. However, Jordan is a queer Vietnamese adoptee who was “rescued” as a baby from Vietnam by a wealthy missionary. She is taken to Louisville, Kentucky, where she grows up with Daisy, her best friend whom she is quietly and desperately in love with.
At face value, this is a book I should love. It features a queer Asian woman. It has delightful doses of fantasy and received rave reviews from critics.
And yet, reading it was a painful experience.
I think part of my discomfort was orchestrated purposefully by Vo. Jordan grows up in an all-white environment where people both continually point out her racial difference and also pretend like it doesn’t exist.
For example, after Tom makes a racist remark against interracial marriage, Jordan snaps at him. He responds, saying, “There’s nothing for you to get so hot over, Jordan. You know I wasn’t speaking about you.”
Jordan’s background means that people like Tom treat her as if she was white and then respond with irritation when she does not play their game.
However, over the course of the book it becomes harder for Jordan to ignore her own racial difference because of a proposed law which would try to deport all Asians and other “unwanted unworthies” in the United States.
Although this act is fictional, Vo clearly modeled it off of the 1924 Immigration Act that made it illegal to come to the United States from any county in Asia.
By combining scenes taken straight out of “The Great Gatsby” with dialogue of white characters discussing the merits of the act, it seems Vo is trying to re-situate “The Great Gatsby” in history by illuminating the ugly racism underneath its luxurious world. Vo asks: For whom was the 1920’s truly a “Golden Age”?
I think that exploring this topic is a worthy goal. But while reading it, I sometimes felt like it was Jordan’s most important purpose as a character –– to force the white people around her to confront their own racism.
It’s a shame because Jordan herself is so cool. She is cynical and a bit sarcastic and reads people very well. She also has the ability to cut paper into intricate shapes that live and breathe; for instance, she creates a paper-Daisy to attend her own bridal shower when Daisy gets drunk in a fit of regret about agreeing to marry Tom.
Vo describes this magic in an essay as a “magic that is inherent to her lost homeland” that “serves as both a link to [Jordan’s] past and a path to her future.”
Jordan starts to reckon with her relationship to this lost homeland when she meets Khai, a Vietnamese immigrant, at one of Gatsby’s parties. Khai is part of a paper-cutting troupe who cut dragons and other miracles out of paper to entertain the party guests.
When Khai invites her to eat with his troupe, Jordan finds herself surrounded by other Vietnamese people for the first time in her life. As Jordan notices their physical similarities while also grappling with a language and history completely unknown to her, she feels a combination of attraction and repulsion.
“When you’re alone so much, realizing that you’re not is terribly upsetting,” she thinks to herself.
I found the scene fascinating, as it reminded me of some of my own experiences coming to Pomona College and finding a Chinese American community that I never had growing up.
However, no matter how interesting these scenes with Khai and his friends are, the story always returns to Daisy, Nick, Tom and Gatsby.
The weight of “The Great Gatsby” is so heavy that it becomes a vacuum, forcing “The Chosen and the Beautiful” to revolve around that story, rather than the story I personally would much rather read, which is the one composed of moments where Jordan grapples with her relationship to Vietnam, the people who took her from it and how she will find her way back, metaphorically or literally.
This impression solidified when I read “Siren Queen,” which follows Luli Wei, a Cantonese girl who dreams of becoming a movie star in 1920s Hollywood.
Luli Wei, like Jordan Baker in “The Chosen and the Beautiful,” spends much of the book as an outsider in a racist, majority white world — in this case, the film industry. But unlike Jordan, Luli’s story is entirely her own.
Luli makes many bold decisions that she must reckon with later. For example, she literally trades away years of her life for the chance to meet the head of a movie studio, and when she does meet him, she gives up her name and steals that of her sister.
“Siren Queen,” because it is not trying to re-create a story that has already been told, has the freedom to center Luli, her dreams and her relationships. The scenes where Luli finally reconciles with her sister are some of the most tender and emotionally impactful of the whole book.
I would absolutely read both of these books again, simply because I am thirsty for the stories of queer Asian femmes and Vo’s writing is vivid and arresting. But “The Chosen and the Beautiful” reads like a historical reimagining that still centers whiteness, while “Siren Queen” creates an alternative history that challenges the way we remember Hollywood’s past.
Reia Li PO ’24 would love to wear a silk dress and go to a 1920s gay bar, but settles for reading about that experience in Vo’s books instead.