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Author Topic: PC165: The Paper Menagerie  (Read 34017 times)


  • Castle Watchcat
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on: July 12, 2011, 08:35:10 AM
PodCastle 165: The Paper Menagerie

by Ken Liu

Read by Rajan Khanna

Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. “_Rawrr-sa_,” it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.

I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring.

“Zhe jiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.

I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

Rated PG.


  • Matross
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Reply #1 on: July 12, 2011, 02:43:12 PM
I am the king under the water and this is the first post in this thread!

Another really touching story. I loved the way in which the mother's story was held back until the end, so that neither we nor the main character realised just how hurtful and tragic his actions were. I thought they way in which the magic was used in a really subtle way, rather than dominating the story was really well done, especially when the practical use for the origami was revealed at the end. It's a really good example of how to effectively use magic in a story and integrate it into the world, while still having a story where the focus is on the characters and the emotions, not the magic itself.

I also would really like an animated origami tiger. If someone knows how i can get one, pm me, please.


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Reply #2 on: July 12, 2011, 03:54:13 PM
Yeah, warned me, but I was dubious and didn't wholeheartedly believe you.  I was wrong.

A very touching story.  It plucked the heartstrings for me, but I think I'm probably a bit out of the ordinary.  I connect with the alienation a child feels for their parents.  My father was the Superintendent of Schools for the small, 400 student school I grew up in.  While a PK feels the pressure of what could be conveyed on Sunday, a TK feels the pressure of teachers looking for an opportunity to feel vindicated because of tension with their supervisor.  It makes for a heavy weight upon the shoulders that usually ends in outright rebellion, or a moderately disassociated social life.  My folks are still happily married now for more than 40 years, and the older I get, the "cooler" my parents become.  We're a pretty tight-knit, extended family.  Our Thanksgiving holiday is a 75 person affair, so for me, it isn't as hard to touch my heartstrings with a story like this, talking about the relationship between a son and his Mother.

Now, I need to go find a podcast that's as intersting, but isn't likely to make my eyes all teary.  Well done.

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Reply #3 on: July 12, 2011, 04:01:59 PM
Ouuuuuch. Oh, the shame and the parental guilt, and that feeling of "Don't do that to your mom before she dies..."

I'm not even Chinese and I already have issues on this topic, eh?

I also want some animated origami. HOW CAN YOU NOT APPRECIATE ALIVE ORIGAMI, KID?!


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Reply #4 on: July 12, 2011, 09:18:26 PM
Make me cry at work, will you? I had to stop during the reading of the mother's note. I'm in love with the paper tiger, what a wonderful reinterpretation of that old metaphor!

(Check the Wikipedia listing of "Paper tiger" (zhǐ lǎohǔ) for elaboration on the Chinese connection.)


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Reply #5 on: July 12, 2011, 09:23:07 PM
Ouuuuuch. Oh, the shame and the parental guilt, and that feeling of "Don't do that to your mom before she dies..."

I'm not even Chinese and I already have issues on this topic, eh?

I also want some animated origami. HOW CAN YOU NOT APPRECIATE ALIVE ORIGAMI, KID?!


Seriously. My mom is a raging ball of crazy. I wish I had a mom who was half as patient, loving, and willing to share as this kid's mom.

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Reply #6 on: July 12, 2011, 09:37:31 PM
Only redeeming quality for this story is the living origami. The rest of the story was one big tug on the heartstrings of anyone who has ever had a mother, which isn't really fair. Especially because at the end I wanted to hear what was in the other letters in the animals. And I really want a menagerie of real origami animals to play with.

I don't know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you'll do as I tell you, okay?

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Reply #7 on: July 12, 2011, 10:23:23 PM
As this story was reaching the end, I thought, I really hope this gets translated into [or, maybe better, was translated out of] Chinese; it'd be a shame if her Uncle* didn't get to hear it.

Just now, I went to the author's site and read, 6/2/2011, sold Chinese translation rights to “The Paper Menagerie” to 科幻世界 (Science Fiction World Translations) and that made me happy.

I was disappointed in the main character's father. There was much opportunity for him to either explicitly teach his son about standing up and being himself, or, better, showing him how to demonstrate that he is a valuable person just the way he is (he speaks two languages, for crying out loud!). But he let himself be weak and take the easy way out. Of course, since he did that to find a wife in the first place, I suppose it's not all that surprising.

*Yes, I know it's fiction; he stands for all the family members left behind.

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Reply #8 on: July 13, 2011, 02:30:07 AM
Anyone else cheer when the paper tiger kicked Obi Wan's ass?

I loved the story. Yeah, it tugged on my heartstrings a little bit, but mostly it really made me appreciate the loving family I do have. More to the point, it also made me think about the many different friends I've had where they either choose to fully embrace their ethnic heritage or refute it completely to be 'All American, bro!' I was a bit irritated the guy was so heartless as his mother lay dying, but what irritated me the most was the father's complete lack of everything. A wife and a child aren't like furniture you trot out to show the neighbors. They aren't some sort of action figures you pull out to impress your friends.

I also gotta say Dave's story in the intro took me back to the days where Luke Skywalker and his band of lego jawas stormed the mountains of Navarone in an attempt to stop an alliance between the Imperial Empire, COBRA and Skeletor. Many lego jawas were lost that day, but a tiny band of commandos yelling 'yo joe!' appeared just when things were darkest and He-man was able to banish Skeletor back to Eternia.

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Reply #9 on: July 13, 2011, 09:26:45 AM
i have similar experiences with Lego, my brother and I fought endless wars between pirates and native Americans.

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Reply #10 on: July 13, 2011, 11:03:45 AM
Well, my heartstrings were certainly plucked with this one.  As soon as the son found the Chinese characters on the tiger (my favorite character, roarsa!) I started welling up.  I'm pretty sure I saw some other drivers look sideways at me and the tears streaming down my cheeks.  (And, it was my commute home at this point, luckily, so I didn't have to face my co-workers with teary and red eyes!)  

I agree that the father should have stood up for the wife, I felt so badly for that poor, lonely woman.

The story was well-written and I loved the reading, it really did bring up some heavy emotions.

Now, as far as listening to the outros, of COURSE I do!   ;D  Every second, even the quotes at the end.   ;D  (And I think being Regent of the PodCastle Paper Menagerie would be an honor and a whole lot of fun!!)


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Reply #11 on: July 13, 2011, 02:10:47 PM
More by Ken Liu and read by Rajan Khanna! Please, please, please!
This story was just about perfect. It was magical, but grounded in the reality with that cruelty of children and the aching beauty of realizing too late just how much you love someone.
Even though I was forewarned, the tears came unbidden while I tried to stay on the road.

The "friend" tearing up the tiger made me shocked, then angry.

But the moment that will cling to me is Jack tracing the character for "love" through every line of the letter from his mother, trying desperately to find a way to show her that he was wrong; that he loves her.

Dang, there I go again. Where's the tissue?

This story is definitely being shared.


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Reply #12 on: July 13, 2011, 02:12:18 PM

I also want some animated origami. HOW CAN YOU NOT APPRECIATE ALIVE ORIGAMI, KID?!

I know, right?


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Reply #13 on: July 13, 2011, 09:35:25 PM
OK.... chocked up? Check!
At work? Check!

This hit home because of health issues with an elderly parent. Things are better now, but two or three weeks ago this would have killed me.

I loved the origami menagerie. I loved the matter-of-factness about it to the young narrator. I loved that writer did almost as good a job of making the animals alive as the mother did. I thought all the characters were well-done. Yes, he's an ungrateful little shit, but most kids are at some point, and he's in a very difficult position. No, he doesn't act ideally, but he behaved perfectly believably. His father, too, was of a recognizable type. And then there was his poor, wonderful mother, completely confused and just wanting her boy back again (*sniffle*  :'( )

Wasn't there another Podcastle story with origami ... and a bookstore in the American frontier with a Japanese immigrant woman??


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Reply #14 on: July 13, 2011, 09:45:16 PM
I cried.


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Reply #15 on: July 13, 2011, 11:51:40 PM
It was a very sweet story. I didn't get choked up, but I am a hardened ol' hag. :)

I appreciated the light fantasy touch in this one, too. Live origami is way cooler than Star Wars action figures. 


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Reply #16 on: July 13, 2011, 11:56:07 PM
I ended up thinking of the various members of my own family who left one culture behind to marry and live in another culture - probably not in as dire a situation as the mother here, but with stories I barely know the tip of.

A lot of painful truth in that story.

I was surprised, though, at the reading of the letter. It seemed to have exactly the same timbre, meter, idiom, as the narrator. Maybe that's fair enough for a retelling of a translation, but it felt off-kilter even as it revealed the tragedy.

Oh, and my software said there was a parsing error in the feed, so I had to download it manually. I guess I should go look for a technical bit of the forum to discuss this.


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Reply #17 on: July 14, 2011, 05:52:56 AM
I really loved this one, it was very well painted.  Or maybe folded?  Anyway, I found it quite touching, and loved all the little details of the menagerie.  The kid's attitude, though regrettable, rung true.  I'm just glad he'll be getting lots more of these little notes as the years go on, and more visits from his animal friends.


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Reply #18 on: July 14, 2011, 10:30:52 AM
As pure and true and sweet and beautiful a story as I've heard. May be my favourite this year. Tears? Yes.


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Reply #19 on: July 14, 2011, 12:00:39 PM
Haven't yet read the comments, but just wanted to say this was a truly outstanding piece. I would love to hear more from Ken Liu, and the narrator was also pretty darned good.

he he...ok, just read that bit about the origami kicking Obi Wan's butt. Absolutely. Go paper tiger!

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Reply #20 on: July 14, 2011, 07:28:00 PM
This was beautiful, I love the animals (like most other commentators it seems). I felt I had a connection to this one, my boy friend is half Korean and I know his mother had a hard time when she came over to the US with a child and a new husband. I don't know her whole story, and I don't know if it has much in common with the one in this story, but knowing how strong she is allowed me to understand the mother better.

Great work!

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Reply #21 on: July 14, 2011, 07:39:03 PM
Another beautiful story, showing that fantasy doesn't always have to be large and noisy, and that magic sometimes is more powerful for it's subtly. A bittersweet reminder that you will one day run out of tomorrows to tell the people you care about how much you care about them, so you'd better do it today...and yes, I did start tearing up at the end.

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Reply #22 on: July 14, 2011, 07:40:57 PM
Very beautiful story with a touching look into the life of an immigrant, and her family's story.  Part of me worried that the MC would fall in love with the girl translating his mother's letter, but I'm glad it ended the way it did.

For me, it was legos.  Lots and lots of legos.  My friends, brother, and I all pooled our Star Wars legos to make a 5 ft long star destroyer, before any such kit was available.  

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Reply #23 on: July 15, 2011, 10:52:18 PM
I'm a cynical bastard, I guess.  It was a nice story, but I found it a little too overt in its attempts to pluck my heartstrings.  It just lunged right in with both fists; didn't even buy me a drink first.

On the other hand, I do tend to dislike direct sentimentality in general.  Here, Mom's letter was just... it was like getting hassled by an emotional panhandler.  "Give me some wistful tears or I'll cough on you!"  Ah, well.  The living origami was fun.  I enjoyed how it was central to the story without being the point of the story. 

Overall, I liked "State Change" way, way more.  This wasn't bad, it just wasn't at all suited to my tastes. 

(I was strongly reminded of "American Born Chinese," a graphic novel that deals with many of the same issues, and likewise has a light and deft touch of fantasy to it.  If you liked this story, give that book a try.  I had similar reservations about it, but if you loved this story, then you already know that you don't mind that stuff.)

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Reply #24 on: July 18, 2011, 07:59:00 AM
The story was heart-wrenching and well-executed without a lot of unnecessary exposition.

Great reading, too, though typical of Mr Khanna. That said, one of troublesome things about reading stories is, of course, the rare mispronounced word. They crop up from time to time (I seem to remember a 'propriety' pronounced as 'property' in a story not too long ago) and are forgivable, certainly. The trouble is, though, they are jarring when you hear them and take you abruptly out of the story for the moment. While most Americans are becoming increasingly familiar with Spanish and say quesadilla correctly, most are not so familiar with Chinese. But mispronounced foreign words are just as jarring as mispronounced English words for those that are familiar with the language. So, I think next time, a bit of research should be done to make sure the foreign words are a bit more accurate and we're not yanked prematurely out of our reverie.