Surviving Utopia: Finding Hope in Larissa Lai’s Piercing Novel “The Tiger Flu”

There is no author whose words speak as precisely to the convoluted chambers of my queer, diasporic Chinese heart as speculative fiction writer Larissa Lai’s do: over a decade ago, I first picked up her novel Salt Fish Girl and fell into a painful, poetic world of ferocious beauty, meticulous worldbuilding, and piercing moral complexity.

Here, at last, in this vision of bioengineered women, time-travelling spirits, vastly overgrown capitalism, and clandestine resistance, I saw a piece of my angry, queer teenage self reflected. Here, at last, of all the Chinese writers whose work I had so hungrily pored over, was a feminist, queer, Chinese (Canadian) author who defied the tropes of the traditional “immigrant family story” so often assigned to racialized writers in North America yet still found a way to honour the lives and teachings of our ancestors.

It is particularly exciting, then – and a particular honor – to review Lai’s latest novel, The Tiger Flu, which is her first book-length fiction work to be published in sixteen years since the release of Salt Fish Girl. Lai’s work has something of a cult following among readers of queer and feminist speculative fiction. Her work has received extensive critical and scholarly attention; particularly in Canada, where her novels When Fox Is A Thousand and Salt Fish Girl have influenced a generation of queer spec fic writers and readers.

Yet she remains relatively niche in terms of public following, especially internationally, a shame considering the undeniable brilliance that shines through Lai’s prose. Both Salt Fish Girl, now nearly two decades post-publication and The Tiger Flu, released this fall, comprise sprawling visions of the future that have much to offer marginalized readers and communities in this time of rising global fascism and environmental disaster – not the least of which is a vision of hope.

“I don’t necessarily think of The Tiger Flu as a dystopia,” says Lai in an interview with Autostraddle for this review, “I know it has many dystopian elements– how could it not, given the state of the world. But it is a novel that is actively seeking possibilities for life […] This novel asks how it might come to pass that [the figure of] the girl child/ren survives.”

Life – fierce, painful, unyielding, complicated – bursts from every page of The Tiger Flu, which tells a story of love (and hate) between women in a futuristic world overrun by corporate technocracy and the effects of climate change. The novel’s two protagonists are Kora, a working-class girl from a poor family in the urban center of corporate power, Saltwater City (the name is a tribute to the Cantonese appellation Haam Sui Fauh, “salt water city,” used by early Chinese immigrants to describe Vancouver); and Kirilow, a healer from the exiled community of mutant women known as the Grist Sisters.

Brought together by a series of complex and tragic circumstances, Kirilow and Kora are forced to work together to ensure their own survival, as well as that of the ones they love, as sinister forces within the corporate ruling class conspire to exploit and ultimately destroy them. All the while, the mysterious and deadly epidemic known as the Tiger Flu ravages society – but particularly the upper class.

The Tiger Flu also has roots in the Asian Avian Flu (H5N1) that began in Hong Kong in 2003 and arrived in Canada shortly afterwards,” says Lai. “The historical precedent for a selective virus, is, of course AIDS, which favoured a number of oppressed populations. But what if a disease came that afflicted the abusive and affluent instead?”

Rather than centering her novel on apocalyptic destruction and loss, as other speculative fiction authors might do, Lai purposefully chooses to focus on the potential for resilience, resistance, and the resurgence of life that inevitably emerge from oppression and strife: The community of Grist sisters utilises a range of ingenious biologically-based technologies to heal and enhance their bodies, Indigenous and other oppressed peoples form revolutionary coalitions, and a secret society of survivors hides in plain sight.

According to Lai, the long-awaited Tiger Flu is written in response to the works of feminist speculative fiction giants including Marge Piercy, Ursula K Le Guin, and Octavia Butler, and this lineage shows in the novel’s dizzying scope and depth of exploration into questions of politics, social organization, and human nature.

“[Speculative fiction] metaphorical possibility– that is the possibility to think through one’s stories and ways of being,” says Lai. “It offers us ways to imagine the worlds reconfigured with ourselves at the centre.”

In The Tiger Flu Lai inventively and provocatively centres the archetypes of the exile, the monster, and the dispossessed, fleshing out her characters with ferocity, genius, and vulnerability all at once – the character Kirilow is particularly spellbinding, capable of unyielding love and medical skill, as well as cruelty and foolishness. Driven to extreme heights of rage and grief by the atrocities committed against her Grist sisters by the ruling class of Saltwater City, Kirilow is forced to come to grips with her own hatred and the ways in which it prevents her from achieving her own healing.

The monstrous and exiled have always held a special interest for Lai. “I’m interested in writing from the point of view of the monster,” she says. “There are lots of precedents for this from Mary Shelley to Aimé Césaire to John Gardner. Of course, once you do this, the monster ceases being monstrous.”

Yet there is monstrosity, and violence, and bigotry in humans, and Lai’s commitment to hopefulness coexists with a frank examination of the more painful realities of sisterhood, community, and interdependence. In The Tiger Flu, some of the most painful wounds are dealt not only by the oppressor class, but by blood and chosen family.

One particularly notable example of this is tribe of Grist sisters, Lai’s rendering of a post-apocalyptic feminist community. Comprised of mutant clones who reproduce asexually, the Grists are depicted with unrelenting complexity rather than the utopian glow of other fictional all-female societies (the Amazons of Themyscira in Wonder Woman come to mind).

Historically persecuted and keenly aware of threats to their collective survival, the Grists impose a strict hierarchy upon their members and rely upon the bodily harvesting of “starfishes,” Grist sisters who can regrow their organs, in order to extend the lives of “doublers,” who possess the power of reproduction. It is the required sacrifice of Kirilow’s starfish lover, Peristrophe Halliana, that starts the chain of events that comprise Kirilow’s character arc in The Tiger Flu.

What follows is a dense, emotionally harrowing exploration of the infinite ways that women can both harm and heal each other. In The Tiger Flu, the sacrifice, harvest, and consumption of human beings – is dark mirror for all the myriad forms of exploitation that humans enact upon one another, including those we claim to love.

Lai does not shy away from the parallels between her novel and the context of queer people, diasporic people, and the politics in which she lives. “In a sense, the Grist sisters’ community is metaphorical for the community I inhabit. I already live there. I have no choice as to whether or not I want to live in it,” she says. “As a survivor of all the horrors that utopian thinking has dealt to Asians in particular, as hot proxy bodies for various ideological wars, I know better than to cling to too much purity. I’ve experienced first hand how no one can mess you up worse than your sisters in the struggle.”

The link between The Tiger Flu and real-life marginalized communities is a poignant one to make, particularly in the current political moment, when populism and identity politics are becoming ever more relevant to the struggles of everyday life.

Of Kirilow’s quest for vengeance against the “Salties” who have perpetrated genocidal violence against her people, Lai observes, “Here we have profoundly oppressed young person, using a politics of purity and expulsion– precisely the politics used against her people– in order to protect who and what she loves. Of course we have compassion for her. What she feels is absolutely understandable. And yet, she will become a murderer if she doesn’t grow.”

It is this sentiment that perhaps most succinctly captures the spirit of optimism that underlies The Tiger Flu, and Lai’s body of work in general: Against the backdrop of atrocity and despair, she illuminates the conditions which make human healing and growth not only possible, but necessary no matter the ultimate outcome.

This is what I find so captivating about The Tiger Flu. It refuses to give up on its characters and its world, even when they are perhaps beyond redemption. Lai offers us a gift, a chance to reclaim our faith in ourselves and each other, even as our utopian ideals crumble with the world around us.

Like its characters, The Tiger Flu isn’t perfect – like Salt Fish Girl before it, the book is deeply immersed in its own mythology, and the pacing moves from bracingly fast at the outset to lightning speed in the final act, which can result in some confusing moments. The plot twists come fast and furious, sometimes at the expense of allowing the reader time to sink into characters’ emotions and motivations. Yet the world and the story that Lai creates is so rich and so vivid that one cannot resist getting drawn in regardless.

The Tiger Flu isn’t just the story we want. It’s the kind of story that we need, that we deserve, that we have been waiting for in this time of utopian dreaming and dystopian reality. It’s a gift, and a reminder: We can be more than what we’ve been offered. We must choose more. We must choose each other, and life.

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Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, therapist and wicked witch who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories.  Her work has been published widely in print and online in publications including AutostraddleBuzzfeed, GUTS Magazine, Asian American Literary Review and The Capilano Review.  Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press) was a 2017 Lambda Literary Nominee.  For this novel, as well as her debut poetry collection, a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press), she is the recipient of the 2017 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBT Writers.

Kai has written 9 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve never heard of Larissa Lai until your review and cause of the line “There is no author whose words speak as precisely to the convoluted chambers of my queer, diasporic Chinese heart as speculative fiction writer Larissa Lai’s do”, I’m gonna go out and buy this book. I’m trying to fill my adult life with art reflective of me I wish I had growing up!

  2. The first time I read this, I thought “I’ll put it on the list”. The second time I read this, that became “I really hope I have the spoons to read this soon”. Thank you for signal boosting this book!

    Also Fierce Femmes is the first thing I look for in a bookstore (in multiple places because why on Earth would there be a consistent way of shelving anyone without a standard Western two name de plume argh). Do you have any plans for an ebook version?

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