Cover image for Troublemaker and other saints
Troublemaker and other saints
Chiu, Christina.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, [2001]

Physical Description:
278 pages ; 23 cm
Nobody -- Doctor -- Matriarch -- Mama -- Troublemaker -- Gentleman -- Star -- Trader -- Beauty -- Copycat -- Thief.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Wild and eclectic members of three Chinese families clash and connect in a series of intertwined stories of family, sex, disillusionment, and love. "Fresh, daring, Troublemaker and Other Saints introduces an exciting new voice that eagerly explores the neither-here-nor-thereness of young Chinese-Americans as they bridge the gap between two complex and troubling social orders with humor, pathos, and heart. How often have you heard the phrase 'a writer to watch'? Christina Chiu is a writer to read." --Helen Schulman In Troublemaker and Other Saints, the life of one character weaves into that of another, and then another, as unlikely figures are brought face to face, strengthening and illuminating one another in surprising ways. But who are the troublemakers? Who are the saints? In "Troublemaker," a young tough finds his humanity when he is forced to care for an old man he has assaulted with a beer can. In "Doctor," a family's golden child marries a black man and is shunned by everyone--except her schizophrenic uncle. In "Mama," traditional parents come to the rescue of their bisexual daughter, who has broken up with her lover. In "Gentleman," a wealthy alcoholic Hong Kong businessman facing financial ruin fails to connect with those around him, including a nymphomaniac niece and a mother who speaks to the dead. And in the closing story, a thief stumbles across his past while committing what he intends to be his final robbery. East and West, old and young collide in a struggle to advance and to belong. Christina Chiu's stunning debut illustrates, with humor and pain, that just as there is a bit of troublemaker in each of us, there is something beautiful and, ultimately, redemptive.

Author Notes

Christina Chiu has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has received numerous residencies, from, among others, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the U Cross Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. One of the original founders of the Asian American Writers Workshop, she has received its Van Lier Fellowship. Chiu lives in New York

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Eleven stories encircle each other, each linked by major and minor characters--and a goldfish named Yu, the Chinese word for fish. Very contemporary concerns--family rivalries, anorexia, interracial relationships, and bisexuality--intersect with deeply traditional Chinese family ties and expectations. In "Nobody," the opening story, Laurel, longing for her dead grandmother, is tormented by her parents, her classmates, and the girl next door, whose own sorrows come full circle in "Copycat." A young punk catalyst in "Troublemaker" turns into the desperate robber of "Thief." Laurel spirals into anorexia and is treated by a young Chinese doctor who has a history of bulimia herself in "Doctor." The language throughout is dark and vivid and spares no one; even Yu comes to a sorry end. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

Tragedy and epiphany strike with equal force in this collection of 11 related short stories featuring the Chinese-American members of an extended network of family, friends, lovers and neighbors combating their private and public shames and struggling to find a place to call home. In "Troublemaker," Eric Tsui, a teenager growing up in a squalid corner of New York's Chinatown, suffers physical abuse at the hands of his brother and rediscovers both his national identity and his humanity when he's forced to reconcile with an elderly neighbor he injured in a prank. Eric's abusive brother, Jonathan, resurfaces in two other stories: "Trader," in which his engagement falls apart when his fiance is overwhelmed by his uncontrollable anger and feelings of inferiority at being Asian, and "Gentleman," in which he participates in a dramatic one-night stand in Hong Kong on the night of the handover. After years of racial slurs, his Hong Kong lover, Amy, an "Asian beauty," turns the Asian sexual fetish on its head, trying to regain her sense of self-worth through encounters with men she meets through the personals; in "Beauty," she brings white men to their knees, but her thoughts drift to the only Chinese lover she's had, Jonathan. The list of issues confronted in the stories is grim domestic violence, suicide, crime, sexual abuse, anorexia, racism and yet Chiu somehow manages to avoid cynicism or despair. Torn between the Asian inclination to save face and the American penchant for sharing troubles and emotions, her characters are tenderly and skillfully drawn, and, as the title suggests, most ultimately find redemption. In sharp, witty, heartbreaking prose, Chui communicates the Asian-American experience as adeptly and freshly as Sherman Alexie describes the Native American experience, or Junot D!az defines Latino life in the U.S. (Mar. 5) Forecast: Advance praise is already pouring in for this impressive collection it is an alternate selection for BOMC and QPB, and a nominee for a BOMC First Fiction Award, and likely will be one of the most talked-about literary debuts of the year. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This debut offers a rich but wholly edible slice of diverse contemporary Chinese American life. Chiu's 11 stories are so tightly woven together that they read like a novel. Shifting from New York City to Hong Kong, the stories occur mostly around the time the British were returning the latter to China and expertly chronicle the daily struggles of their characters. The "troublemakers and saints" who appear prominently in one story often reappear as secondary but supporting characters in another's poignant narrative. Thus, in "Troublemaker," skateboarding aficionado Eric must do penance for seriously wounding an elderly neighbor by daily tending to the old man's needs. Eric materializes again in "Trader," his brother Johnnie's testimonial about how not to negotiate lasting love and affection. After tasting this creative morsel, readers will be hungry for Chiu's first novel or second work of collected stories. Recommended for all collections.DFaye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt Nobody It's snowing. My fingers itch from the cold, but still, I can't go in. The house is too quiet, too empty. Without Grandma, it's got that too big, hollow feeling. It's been three whole weeks, but still, whenever I get home from school, there's a part of me that goes, Please be there. When she isn't--when she doesn't call, "Meme-ah? Is that you?"--I feel this hole getting larger inside me, and if I don't watch out, it'll swallow me up.     Grandma once said, "When someone dies, Meme-ah, maybe she becomes a bird or a butterfly." So who knows? I go around to the back of the house, move Grandma's lawn chair to the wall of bushes between our house and the Sheng-Stevensons', and plant my butt in its snowy seat. The lawn is frosty white and full of animal tracks. Birds. Maybe squirrels. They disappear into the woods, where the ground is covered with pine needles.     I take out my book and read--slowly and clearly, the way Grandma liked--and what comes back is her pruny-mouthed smile and those fogged-up blind eyes. Snowflakes slip into the back of my collar. I shiver. ROMEO Tut, I have lost myself; I am not here;   This is not Romeo, he's some other where. BENVOLIO Tell me in sadness, who is that you love. ROMEO What, shall I groan and tell thee? BENVOLIO Groan! why, no.   But sadly tell me who. ROMEO Bid a sick man in sadness make his will:   Ah, word ill urged to one that is so ill!   In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.     A branch twitches in the woods. A gray squirrel hops into the yard. It sees me and freezes.     "Grandma?"     My voice scares it. The squirrel scurries up a tree. It hops from one to another, and is gone. Snow falls harder, sticking to my lashes. I wait. But no more squirrels. No birds. The sky hangs dusty white. Scattered clouds drift around like sad feelings. Soon it's too dark outside to read. My butt's all wet and frozen, and I'm shaking all over. I know I've gotta go in, but the house is so dark and lonely.     Next door, Sarah, a girl in my English class, comes out on her back porch. Every day it's the same thing. She smokes one Camel Light, finishing it before her mom comes out of her study. Sarah leans against the porch railing and stares at the woods. She listens for the six-o'clock train to pass.     Does she see me? I duck low in the chair and pull the top of my jacket over my mouth.     Sarah puffs and exhales as if the world's this huge problem.     Yeah, right. What problems you got, huh? Sarah's got Chinese eyes but a tall American nose. She streaks her hair blue and paints her nails silver. She wears big turtleneck sweaters with really short mini-kilts. She blasts her music so loud the whole world can hear it, and she doesn't turn it down, not even when her mom yells. Thing about Sarah is that she goes out with this senior, Evan, so she's got a trillion friends.     It isn't like I care or anything. Grandma once said, "One good friend is better than ten bad ones." She also said books were more reliable than people. They could disappoint you, she said, but they never just up and disappeared on you. Not like some people I know.     "Tryouts are Monday," Sarah says.     "Yeah?"     It's a guy's voice, so I think it's Todd, Sarah's brother, who's the biggest jock in the whole school.     I peek through a hole in the back of the chair. Gross--it's Evan, not Todd, behind her, kissing her neck. He sticks his hands up the front of her sweater. She squeals.     Gross. I shut my eyes and turn around.     "I'd make a good Juliet, don't you think?" Sarah says.     "Fuck the play," he says. "You've got your Romeo."     Sarah giggles.     "What? Am I not or am I not?" he asks.     Blah, blah, I think, wishing she'd finish her cigarette already.     "Really, Evan," she says. "It'd be so totally phat being up there in front of everyone."     I shouldn't look, I know I shouldn't, but I peek over again. Evan takes a puff from her cigarette. Smoke funnels out his nose. "Hair's a little blue, don't you think?"     "So I'll dye it back."     Evan smooshes her boobs. From the look on Sarah's face, it can't feel good. "I don't know," he tells her. "I don't want some dumbfuck feeling you up onstage."     The six-o'clock train blows by. The rails clink, and all at once it's gone. Sarah puts out her cigarette. They go inside. Mom and Dad bring takeout for dinner. General Tso's chicken for me, mapo tofu and beef-and-broccoli for them. We eat Chinese style: chopsticks and a bowl of white rice, the dishes in the center of the round table. I've changed into dry jeans and a thick sweatshirt. My toes and fingers still burn from the cold. Dad takes off his tie and jacket and hangs them on the back of his chair. He runs a hand through his hair as though he's got a lot of it. Outside, the sky is black and moonless. My throat feels funny. Maybe I'm going to be sick. Then I'll be stuck at home by myself. No Grandma to collect snow in the frying pan to make red-bean ices. No Grandma to read to.     "What should we do about that Ametex order?" Mom asks Dad. They've got a textile-exporting business, and they love to talk drapes and upholsteries.     "What can we do?" Dad replies. "They want to hold off. See what happens." He's talking about Hong Kong. Grandma said the British took it from the Chinese and pretty soon they've gotta give it back.     Mom sighs. The strand of white hair she plucked last month is back, the short stub poking in the air. Dad dishes beef onto his plate. He smashes it in his rice and draws his bowl to his mouth. He shoves it all in. "Did you bring home the fax?" he asks, his mouth full.     "What fax? I didn't see a fax."     "Can I get a dog?" I ask.     "No," Mom says, adding broccoli to the beef on Dad's plate. She knows how he sneaks out of eating vegetables. This way, because it's on his plate, he's got to eat it.     "The fax," he snaps. "Asiatex. I gave it to you."     "Please?" I say. "I swear I'll take care of it and walk it and feed it and you won't ever have to do anything."     "I said no," Mom says, spooning tofu onto her rice. It's greasy red from chili sauce. She turns to Dad again. "You never gave me any fax."     "I did."     "Why not?" I demand. "Why can't I? I'm the only one in the whole world who can't have a dog."     "Laurel," Mom warns. "We've talked about this before, and I don't care to bring it up a hundred times. What about Yu? Don't you like it anymore?"     Right. Like a fish and a dog are the same thing?     "If you have so much time on your hands, you should help your mother more," Dad says, pulling a folder from his briefcase.     Blah, blah.     "She shouldn't have to work all day, then worry about making dinner when we get home. Your grandmother wasn't so good at this kind of thing because of her eyes--"     Something catches in my throat, and I cough. Dinner? That all she means to you?     Dad plucks a paper from the folder. "Ah-see?"     I stare at my food and don't feel even a little bit hungry. "May I be excused?" I ask Mom.     "Finish," Dad says, pointing at my bowl with his chopsticks. "Don't waste. One must never waste."     No, I think, I won't finish. I won't, you can't make me.     I chew each piece of chicken twenty-five, twenty-six times before swallowing, and eat my rice one grain at a time. Finally, when he's done with dinner, Dad leaves the table and goes to the living room. The TV switches on.     I look at Mom. Now can I go?     She tips her head: Go, then.      Upstairs in my room, Yu sees me and swims to the surface of the water. She's orange with black spots, and she has one clear eye and one solid black. Her tail fans out behind. "Don't take it personal or anything," I say, feeding her. She sucks a flake into her mouth and spits it out. The next morning, I wake up sick. My cough's so bad Mom tells me to stay home. After she and Dad leave for work, I get the courage to go into Grandma's room. Incense, Vicks cough drops, dusty books. The smell of her is still there. Maybe it's in the bed or the carpet. Maybe it's the books. I lie down and close my eyes, and for a moment I can almost hear her reading to me. Thing is almost. All I've really got of hers are two shelves filled with books and a bureau with a porcelain Guan Yin. There's also a small night table with a framed picture of me on it, and a twin-size bed with my old Pooh comforter.     Before I know it, I've got my jacket on and I'm racing outside. I brush the snow away from the chair and sit down. While I'm reading, my breath comes out in smoky puffs. The cold makes me start coughing, but I don't care. I can't move until Grandma gives me some kind of sign: something, anything.     Later on, the sun starts to go down, but I'm still waiting. An icicle drips from the gutter. Otherwise it's all quiet. So far I've spotted a chipmunk and a couple of black crows. A swallow appears in the dogwood by the back door. I'm eyeing it when Sarah comes out to her porch. She bangs the screen door. The sound scares off my bird.     I watch through the bushes. Evan's there.     Does going out with someone mean you've got to be with him every single minute? I mean, how could you think with someone squeezing your boobs all the time?     Sarah lights a cigarette. "I don't see what the big deal is. It's just a play."     "You my girl or what?" Evan asks. "You want to be my girl?"     "Yeah."     "Well, I need my girl with me," he says, drawing her close. "You know, here by my side."     He kisses her and reaches a hand up the back of her sweater. All of a sudden he jams his fingers into the waist of her skirt.     "Stop," she says, holding his hand. "My mother."     But even I know it'd take an earthquake to get Sarah's mom out before six, and so he reaches up her skirt and tugs down her pink panties. She grabs his hand and loses the cigarette. "Evan--cut it out."     "You a tease or something?" he says.     I shrink into the chair. My chest gets that itchy going-to-cough feeling.     "The guys are right," he says. "Maybe you ought to go back to your crib." He hops the porch to the snow-covered lawn and heads down the driveway to the street. I can hear the crunch of his boots in the snow. He gets into his Corvette and screeches away from the curb. Sarah kicks the railing and turns to face the screen door. Maybe she's looking at her reflection, because she says, "It's no fucking big deal. Just let him do it and get it over with, okay?"     Then the worst thing happens. I cough.     "What the hell..." she mutters.     I peek over the bushes and wave my book. "I'm, uh, reading?"     Her face gets all scrunched up. She jumps the porch and pushes through the bushes. She comes at me. "You fucking lesbo pervert," she says.     "I wasn't--" I jump to my feet. "I didn't--"     She's shaking she's so mad. Her hand jerks into the air.     She going to hit me? I wonder. Everything goes into slow motion. Her arm swings down. I go for the block and grab her wrist. I hold it there, and she stares. Stunned, she pulls free.     "If anyone finds out, you're dead meat," she says. "Got that?"     I look at her. Yeah--I got that.     "You're a fucking nobody," she says. "A big fat nothing. Know that?"     She retreats into her house. I'm still standing there when the train rushes by. The woods are dark. Somewhere out there, the rails clink like loose keys. I lie low for a few days. My body's this giant shell ready to crack open. Sarah's right--I am a big nobody, a nothing. I'd be better off dead. In English, Mr. A gives another pop quiz. I look at the five questions, and think, Who cares what Mercutio says? How's foreshadowing important in real life? I write my name at the top of the sheet and hand it in. I tell Mr. A that I'm going to the bathroom.     In a locked stall, I sit and try to get my head right. There's a chance that Mr. A has looked at my quiz by now, so I've got to kill time until the bell rings. The stall is green and covered with graffiti: "Wild girls '99." "A.H. + Z.W." "Eric S. is short for shithead." I notice purple marker: "S.S. thinks she's so cool." "S is for SLUT." "For a good time, call Sarah..."     The bathroom door bangs open. A bunch of girls pile in. A lighter clicks on. One of them says, "Right there, fucking in the backseat of his car." From the purple boots, I know it's Sarah's friend Diane.     "He told you that?" someone else asks.     "Tells me everything. Says Sarah just lies there. He calls her 'dead fish.'"     "No! That's so gross."     They start laughing, and I'm thinking, They call each other friends? Then, all at once, they go quiet, and I know they see me. I get up and flush. When I come out, they look at me all relieved. Oh, it's only her. They brush their hair and put on more lipstick. Diane takes her cigarette from the edge of the sink and disappears into a stall with a thick purple marker. I wash my hands and hurry out.     Mr. A snags me the second I get into the hallway. The bell rings and everyone in the classroom files out. Sarah meets up with her phony friends. Mr. A motions with the crook of his finger for me to step into the classroom. From the look on his face, I know I'm in deep shit. After an hourlong "discussion" with Mr. A, Mom and Dad bring me home from school. Dad drives. He clears his throat a trillion times. Mom shakes her head and sniffles. She's got to be thinking about Chrissy, my older cousin, who's so totally perfect and pretty and smart. Neither Mom nor Dad says a word the entire way home. I look out the window and think, Now what?     At the house, Dad loosens his tie. "Sit," he says.     "It's not my fault," I explain.     Mom takes the paper from her purse and shoves it in my face. "Not your fault? Whose? The devil erase everything? He sign your name at the top?"     "It's just a quiz," I say.     "Just a quiz?" Dad retorts.     I shut my trap and cross my arms over my chest.     Mom shakes her head and looks at me: How could you do this to us? "To go and tell your teacher--a stranger!" she says. "Tell him you want to die. To die. Imagine. What do they think about us, your parents, uh?"     "I didn't mean it like that," I say. "It's not like they think anything."     "Oh? They think those Chinese parents don't know how to raise a child. They think our daughter's crazy--needs to see jing zeng bing doctor."     "Ungrateful pig," Dad adds, his nostrils flaring large and round. "You know how hard your mom and I work? Morning to night. Think we enjoy to do this? Think we work so hard because we feel like it? We have fun working ourselves to death?"     "No."     "You have it too easy, I tell you."     Mom nods. "Too easy, too easy." She digs leftovers from the fridge and sets them on the table, then sticks yesterday's rice into the microwave. I watch the timer count down from two minutes.     "You don't know," Dad says. "So spoiled. We should send you back to China. Taste bitterness. See how you like it."     So, send me back, see if I care. Hate you, I hate you, I hate you.     "Look at her face," Dad says, waving a finger at me.     Mom shakes her head.     "What?" I say.     "You know exactly what," Dad says, his voice quivering.     That's right--I hate you.     Mom sighs. "Okay, enough. Say you're sorry, Laurel. Say it and promise it won't happen again. Let's eat."     No, I won't eat. I won't. If Grandma were here, she'd give me one of those "Do what your parents say" kind of looks, and then I'd have to. But she's not here, she's not, so I turn to Mom and say, "For what?"     "You dare talk back?" Dad yells. Mom squeezes his shoulder, and he stops.     I know I should say it--that it's an easy one--word solution to a bad thing about to happen--but my jaw clenches, and I just can't.     "Your mother," Dad says to Mom now. "See how she's ruined the girl?"     I jump up. "Don't talk about her like that! You've got no right--"     Dad leaps to his feet and upturns the table. Everything goes flying. I stumble back into my chair. Dishes smack against my chest and crash to the floor. The rounded edge of the table lands in my lap.     This weird numbness fills me up. There was that spanking I got a few years ago--Dad tried to beat the stubbornness out of me--but Grandma put a stop to it. "You want to hit her again, you'll have to strike through me first," she said, shielding me with her body.     Now when I look at Dad, I want to say, Go on, you big jerk, beat me up if it makes you so happy. See if I care.     Mom looks as though she has a trillion things to say all at once, but when she opens her mouth, everything sticks at the back of her throat.     "Just go," Dad snarls at me. "Get out of my sight."     Mom lifts the table enough for me to get up. She thumps the thing to the floor. I take my knapsack and go upstairs. I don't hurry. My legs throb and it hurts to climb each step. A piece of chicken drops from my shirt to the carpet. In my room, I lock the door. As soon as the light goes on, my fish swims out of her castle and turns a quick circle. She rises to the surface of the water. Her fins look silky and soft.     "They'll be sorry," I say. "You'll see." I picture myself at my own funeral. I'm lying in a casket, and Mom and Dad are standing next to me. They cry and cry, and say, If only we hadn't been so mean...     The fish's mouth puckers and opens, puckers and opens. Maybe she's trying to say, Love you, love you. I know I should feed her, that those flakes of shrimp food are really what she's looking for, but that empty feeling fills me up again, so I switch off the light, hug my legs to my chest, and listen to Mom and Dad arguing. Copyright © 2001 Chistina Chiu. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Nobodyp. 1
Doctorp. 31
Matriarchp. 57
Mamap. 77
Troublemakerp. 103
Gentlemanp. 129
Starp. 155
Traderp. 181
Beautyp. 207
Copycatp. 231
Thiefp. 253