Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is part of the emerging wave of new feminist science fiction written by women of color in what has traditionally been a genre dominated by white authors. The narrative intertwines the lives of a seemingly immortal woman, alternating between the tale of Nu Wa in 19th century China, and Miranda in the future Pacific Northwest. There are a few articles dedicated to examining this underrepresented text (Bleeding Chrome, and Stinky Bodies), and I’d like to offer up my own interpretation of this work. Discourse around disability and disease play a prominent part in the narrative, so I’ve decided to focus on a queer/crip reading of Salt Fish Girl.
When Nu Wa transforms from a snake woman into a human, she gains the ability to walk in exchange for chronic pain, “The pearl will keep you alive forever, but you will never again be without pain” (Lai 8). This echoes the original The Little Mermaid written by Christian Anderson, a classic story that is ripe with disability metaphor. Additionally, the figure of the mermaid was often featured in freak shows, including P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid, a mummified monkey and fish hybrid. While Nu Wa transforms into a human, Miranda obsessively draws images of mermaids and snake women. Salt Fish Girl interrogates and denaturalizes essentialist notions of “human” by featuring bodies that refuse containment. The mermaid is one of the quintessential boundary blurrers, both monstrous and desirable. The freak show is perhaps the most visible piece of disability history in the West, and human animal hybrids were prominently featured (ie. The Elephant Man, Lobster Boy etc). Mermaids, and other hybrids, play off of the cultural anxiety surrounding disability and boundary blurring. Disability scholar Alison Kafer touches on the possibilities of examining boundary transgression between human and organism, “A cyborged disability politics can provide astute theoretical insights into the boundary blurring that occurs between disabled people and our attendants, or between disabled people and our service animals, or among disabled people in community with each other and our allies” (Feminist, Queer, Crip 119).
[See also: Bifurcated]
Salt Fish Girl explores human/organism hybridity by questioning the ethics of cloning and bio-technology. In the future Pacific Northwest, clones are not legally defined as persons due to their genetic splicing with other non-human entities. Evie, Miranda’s lover is .03% fresh water carp. Corporations take advantage of this legal loophole, and utilize an enslaved clone workforce, consisting entirely of women of color. Lai uses cloning to question constructions of authenticity, and the impact that bio-technology has on reproduction and race. Clones and the bodies of people with disabilities are viewed as less “natural” because of hybridity, and the (perceived) role of technology.
Smell and Pathologizing Difference
Miranda’s smell permeates the whole narrative, and is a source of great anxiety and disturbance within her family. She reeks of durian, the fruit her mother ate on the day of her conception. The durian odor seeps into everything around her. Additionally, Miranda has two leaky fistulas above her ears, seems to shed scales in the bath, and dreams of her past life as Nu Wa. This atypical embodiment comes to be pathologized in Miranda and in others as The Dreaming Disease. Others with the Dreaming Disease stink of different scents — oranges, carnage, freshly baked bread, salt fish — the smell is unique to the individual. Durian is a fruit mostly despised by Westerners for its pungent scent, describe by some as cat pee or rotten eggs. At one point, Miranda’s father says “Only barbarians eat those kinds of things” (Lai 32), illustrative of the view of many in the West. Miranda’s embodiment is atypical both for her durian smell and her racialized otherness, she is described as being the only Asian girl in her class at school. Durian is “exotic”, unregulated, anti-colonial, and its smell refuses containment. By privilege smell over other senses, Lai offers up a crip interpretation, where smell rather than sight is the characters dominant vehicle for experiencing their surroundings.
In Salt Fish Girl bodies are presented as permeable, leaky, and vulnerable. Miranda’s father is particularly disturbed by her smell, obsessively seeking medical intervention and diagnosis. There is one specific moment where Miranda comes to understand herself as sick, “ I did not understand my condition as a ‘condition,’ nor did I know that there were others in other compounds or out in the Unregulated Zone who were afflicted with variation of the same bizarre symptoms….suddenly, and for the first time, I felt dirty” (72). This passage signals a paradigm shift in Miranda’s understanding of herself, from able-bodied to sick. The things that were normal parts of her body and functioning are suddenly under scrutiny as being unnatural, diseased, and requiring of cure. Salt Fish Girl critiques the way that atypical bodies become pathologized through medicine.
Building off of Judith Halberstam’s conception of queer futurity, Alison Kafer presents crip time in Feminist, Queer, Crip. One of the tenants of crip time is the notion of “strange temporalities”. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, many gay communities deflected attention away from the future, living only in the moment. Kaffer presents this as an instance of queer/crip time. Heterosexual able-bodied/minded culture creates a linear timeline of development and firm delineation between past/present/future. Disability is a disruption in the temporal field. The instant that Miranda comes to understand herself as “sick” interrupts her orientation in time. Suddenly her whole developmental timeline through the phases of life is ruptured, and she is forced into the liminal temporality of illness. Miranda experiences parallel temporalities through her dreams of her previous incarnation, Nu Wa. She exists in two temporal planes — dreams and smell establishing a connection to her ancestor. Not only does the Dreaming Disease pathologize physical difference, it also pathologizes collective memory and ancestral connection. Miranda is able to reproduce asexually, unknowingly impregnating herself when she eats an unregulated durian. This queer/crip form of reproduction is grounded in the landscape, requires no man, and produces more people with “strange” embodiments. At the end of the book, as Evie and Miranda transform back into snake/fish/mermaid hybrids and entwine each other with their tails while giving birth, Miranda remarks, “By our strangeness we write our bodies into the future…by our difference we mark how ancient the alphabet of our bodies” (Lai 259), clearly articulating her atypical embodiment as a threat to futurity.