An interesting take on ancient Chinese myths, and the game of Mahjong
The Seed of Immortality is not a book you easily come across, it literally disappears behind all the naked torsos that dominate the Gay & Lesbian section. Yes, it’s on sale on Amazon, but I don’t think I’ve ever searched for a book under “Chinese” or “Historical” in my life. Instead, I happened to talk to the author, Wayne Goodman, about his writing after he’d interviewed me for his podcast Queer Words. Coincidences. He graciously made the book available to me and I read it with gusto over the Holidays.
I’ll be frank and admit that I have no clue how to play Mahjong and after reading the story, I’m no more interested to learn the game than I was before. To each their own. But even if you’re like me, you might enjoy this book for its story. This is an extremely well-written tale, and I don’t say that out of a false sense of gratitude toward Wayne for granting me a spot on his podcast. No. I really think this is an interesting story, in part because he so aptly captured the way Chinese conversation flows, how he depicts the time period and the flow of the narrative.
A great fan of China
The author is a China aficionado, he clearly loves the culture and the heritage that stretches thousands of years back in time. It’s easy to agree with him. I’ve traveled to China twice and the Chinese have a lot to offer the world in terms of knowledge, philosophy, and life wisdom. Sadly, the west doesn’t seem to appreciate the Asian cultures and their millennia of culture and history (nor Africa or the Americas for that matter.)
There are a great many words and terms used in The Seed of Immortality and the author explains them at the end of the book. I read it on my phone and it makes the getting back and forth a bit cumbersome. I would imagine this being a lot easier on a paperback with a bookmark at hand. Alas, it is what it is. But I applaud Wayne’s decision to not explain the terms in the story as he tells it. It would distract and it would risk pulling you out of the comfort of slipping back in time to the period in which the story is told, a good two-thousand-two-hundred years ago, starting with the reign of emperor Qin Shi Huang. The story ends a couple of hundred years later, but I won’t spoil that for you.
How to tackle homosexuality centuries before the expression was coined?
How do you write a story about gay people (and I use the term as loosely as I can) millennia before the term was first used? In an era where people’s thinking about gay people and gay acts were completely different than what we consider today? Well, Wayne Goodman does a marvelous job. See, we’ve always been part of human society, and if you doubt that you probably belong to the group of people who also believe that dinosaurs were part of Noah’s Ark. Hashtag facepalm. I’ve used Alexander the Great as an example, who lived in those days, and we have Hadrian, the builder of the wall between England and Scotland, the first man in history we know of to get married to another man. So much for “traditional marriage”… Alas, I’m digressing.
The real difference is that back then, people didn’t use sexuality as an identifier or a way to distinguish themselves from others. I just read an article about contemporary Afghanistan, and the ancient tradition of Bacha bazi, a form of gay behavior that still isn’t seen as such, not unlike similar traditions in ancient Greece. In Turkey, to this day, you’re only considered gay if you’re bottoming in a relationship. Odd, I know, but imagine if you don’t even have a word for it? As a linguist, I’m familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which roughly states that we are unable to imagine that for which we have no word. On the other hand, we can easily imagine things we have a word for, even though they don’t exist, e.g. Warp speed or “beam me up”. A simplification of course. What the Chinese of the period did was to circumscribe behaviors, mannerisms and Wayne makes good use of those terms. They’re also defined in the glossary of The Seed of Immortality.
But more importantly, the characters don’t define themselves as gay. At first, I found that almost offensive (to me, as a gay man), but I have to hand it to the author. How could they when they “literally” couldn’t? The way–and I won’t offer any spoilers–the author delicately describes the altering attitudes and behavior on an individual level, particularly within the mind and thinking of our main protagonist, Hao Lan. Color me impressed!
The story pulls you in, like a fairytale, and keeps you hooked
I won’t offer a synopsis of the story, as it’s weaved like a tapestry of small scenes within the larger arc that is the immortality and how to stay immortal for the eight immortals that exist in Chinese mythology. The story is told from Hao Lan’s perspective, from his arrival at a health retreat to play Mahjong and regain his health to the end of the book where he departs on a mission west on behalf of the Chinese emperor, two hundred years later, right around the time our modern time begins, with the alleged birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
The story weaves in dream sequences where Hao Lan is in communion with a mythical blue dragon, who provides Hao Lan with foresight and also gives him tasks to accomplish. These dreams form the backdrop that weaves the tapestry of the arc story and they lead our protagonist and his huoban from tale to tale. It is most intriguing.
The dialogue is exquisite. I find it hard to put my finger on exactly what it is because obviously the story is written in contemporary English, but the dialogue feels Chinese, reminds me of how my Chinese friends and business associates speak English.
Mahjong or not, give this story a try…
I don’t play Mahjong, not sure I ever will. I learned long ago never to say never. I thoroughly enjoyed The Seed of Immortality, including its rather abrupt ending (how else can you end a tale about immortals?) There might be a continuation at some point and Wayne recently told me that it was originally conceived as a trilogy, so who knows. For now, this serves as a most excellent stand-alone. Don’t let the cover distract you from the treasure within! This is a book I most certainly will return to, knowing that more details are hidden, things I may have overlooked the first time I read the story.
To learn more about the author and his work, contact him on this Facebook page. Wayne Goodman is also curator of an excellent new podcast I regularly enjoy listening to, whether you’re an author or reader, Queer Words.