“The Paper Menagerie”: A Short Story Review
Do you know anyone who hides their cultural identity to fit in? “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu is a story that explores the theme of racial identity, family relationships, and discrimination through a sentimental plot and ending. Since being published in 2011, this emotional story has received the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction.
The short story “The Paper Menagerie” is about a Chinese-American boy named Jack. Throughout his childhood, Jack enjoys playing with the origami animals that his mother creates. One day, a classmate named Mark begins to bully Jack for his Chinese culture. Soon, Jack no longer wants to embrace his Chinese culture, which affects his relationship with his mother and eventually scars his life with regret forever.
Many elements of “The Paper Menagerie” are exceptionally enjoyable, but its characterization and descriptiveness stand out the most. Throughout the short story, Ken Liu demonstrates excellent characterization by portraying characters as dynamic. At the start of the story, Jack acts angry at his mother and demands she “speak English [and] eat American food.” In this section, Jack has no regret for his hostile behaviour. Several pages later, Jack begins to experience remorse after reflecting on his poor choices earlier in the story. Apart from portraying characters as dynamic, the author also describes characters through both indirect and direct characterization. For example, the author indirectly describes Jack as imaginative when he pictures an origami tiger “growl[ing] and leap[ing] at Mark’s face. Meanwhile, the author also directly calls Mark fearful when Mark becomes struck by a piece of paper.
In addition to excellent characterization, the author Ken Liu also exhibits strong descriptiveness by using a variety of senses to vividly describe each scene of the short story. For instance, the author utilizes visual, auditory, and tactile sensory descriptions in the short scene where Jack and Mark play with their respective toys. To demonstrate visual description, the author states that Mark “balled up the two pieces of paper and threw them.” The author also demonstrates auditory description when Jack hears “Mark scream out of fear and surprise.” Finally, the author demonstrates tactile description when he states that “Mark grabbed Laohu and his snarl.”
This story should be recommended to teenagers aged 11-15 who are afraid to express their real culture due to the pressure of fitting in with society. For example, new immigrants may feel they must act like their Western peers to fit in. By reading this short story, they will understand the drawbacks of abandoning their culture to fit in with Western society.
Across multiple book review sites, “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu averages a rating of around 4.5 out of 5. Based on my reading experience, I would rate this story 4 out of 5 stars. I thoroughly enjoyed the short story due to its characterization and sentimental ending.