Karen Gernant,
Imagining Women: Fujian Folk Tales
(Interlink, 1995)

Any book that sheds light on the mist-shrouded Chinese culture ought to be good, if only for curiosity's sake. A book about a rebellious Chinese minority group and their folktales ought to be fascinating, if only for the double-layered opportunity to understand this mysterious world. But American college professor Karen Gernant is simply not up to the challenge. Her book Imagining Women: Fujian Folk Tales commits every error of bad folktale telling: poor writing, over-analysis and bad scholarship.

The book opens with a longwinded hypothesis that boils down to this: don't believe stereotypes. As basically anyone that's spent time in the developed world can attest, we are all well aware of this particular axiom and don't require 16 pages of (unfactually supported) supposition to play along. You can read the historical overview if you want -- it does contain some items of interest, but, surprisingly, does nothing to further her argument, that these particular tales prove the women of Fujian (a Chinese province located on China's southeastern coast; not to be confused with Japan's Mount Fuji or the island of Fiji) lived outside of the Confucian stereotype of subservience to men and elders.

I'd be willing to forgive Gernant her poor scholarship if she did justice to the interesting material shimmering beneath her fingertips. But she totally fails to convey any sense of mystery and magic in her collection -- even though, in these tales, mountains fly and canes turn into trees. She tells these stories in a stilted, pedantic voice. Worse, half the time she gives away the ending with her opening commentary and analysis. Given the potential inherent to her source material, this is a crime. And a shame.

To be fair, Gernant is really the editor and translater: the actual tales were collected by various individuals. But many another editor has translated collected works with flare and intelligence, so this is no excuse. If you want an interesting glimpse into Asian folklore, I would look elsewhere, because Imagining Women fails to give anything but the frustration of an opportunity wasted.

- Rambles
written by Tracie Vida
published 11 September 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.