Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 192 pages; 2021.
If America is a nation of immigrants, then this debut novella is a quintessential American story.
A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez, was first published in 1995. It’s framed around an American woman looking back on the lives of her working-class immigrant parents and includes aspects of her own struggle with identity as a multiracial person.
The novella is structured in four parts — the story of the narrator’s Chinese father, the story of her German mother, her own life as a ballerina, and her love affair with a Russian immigrant — each of which could be read as a standalone story in its own right. (This is not to say there’s no overarching thread tying everything together, for there is, and that comes in the first-person narrator telling the story, but the overall narrative feels slightly disjointed.)
An unlikely partnership
Both the first part, Chang, and the second part, Christa, are detailed pen portraits of two very different people.
Chang is a quiet, introverted man, who was born in 1911 in Panama of Chinese parentage, and despite more than 30 years in America has never quite mastered English. His wife, the narrator’s mother, is the complete opposite. She’s loud, confident, speaks excellent, if heavily accented, English, and is proudly German.
The pair met shortly after the end of the Second World War when Chang was stationed in a small southern German town (he had been drafted into the US Army and saw action in France and Germany). He was 34 and Christa was 18. In 1948 they settled in the US, where they set up home in the housing projects of New York, and had three daughters, two of them born out of wedlock.
Their relationship is complex and fraught. The narrator does not understand either parent, or their marriage, but in looking back at their lives she begins to empathise with their situations, their struggles and the ways in which their different backgrounds came to shape their personalities and, in turn, her own identity.
By putting herself in her father’s shoes, for instance, she begins to see how life as a father of three American daughters must have been for him:
We must have seemed as alien to him as he seemed to us. To him we must have been “others”. Females. Demons. No different from other demons, who could not tell one Asian from another, who thought Chinese food meant chop suey and Chinese customs were matter for joking. I would have to live a lot longer and he would have to die before the full horror of this would sink in. And then it would sink in deeply, agonizingly, like an arrow that has found its mark.
There are similar revelations about her mother, who refuses to apologise for being German despite the atrocities of the Nazis coming to light:
It was not to be hoped that any American — let alone an American child — could grasp what this unique quality of being German was all about. I don’t recall how old I was, but at some point, I had to wonder: If you took that quality away from her, what would have replaced it? What sort of person might she have been? But her Germanness and her longing for Germany — her Heimweh — were so much a part of her she cannot be thought of without them. To try to imagine her born of other blood, on other soil, is to lose her completely. There is no Christa there.
Forging your own life
The second half of the novella explores the narrator’s own life. As a ballerina, the goal was to be as light as “a feather on the breath of God” (hence the book’s title), which meant constantly starving herself. This is a direct contravention of her childhood, in which her mother, brought up during the war, insists everyone eat every little morsel on their plate.
I was never thin. Not even at ninety pounds. To see how long I could go without solid food (up to five days) was a favorite game. How beautiful the hollowed gut, the jutting bones.
Later, as a teacher of English as a second language, she embarks on an illicit affair with a married Russian student who has a shady past but is dedicated to learning the language. This reminds her that love and language are intertwined, furthering her inability to comprehend how her parents ever communicated with one another.
Whenever I praise his English he says: “I did it for you.” Not the whole truth, of course, but it cannot be denied: he studied hard for me.
“My dear, can I say, ‘I dote on you’? Is it correct?” “Can I say, ‘I adore you’?” “I search my dictionary for ways to tell you.”
My heart runs out of me.
In all those years, my father never learned enough English to tell me how he felt about me.
A Feather on the Breath of God is an intriguing story of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture and a new way of life as seen through the eyes of their youngest daughter.
As a tale about personal identity — specifically how much of it is shaped by our ethnicity and cultural upbringing — it is unwavering in its lack of sentiment. It’s bold and brave and compelling.
I have reviewed several books by Sigrid Nunez in recent years. You can see all my reviews here.