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Online Feature: “The Parable of the Fish” by Marilyn Chin

The IU Arts & Humanities Council will host writer Marilyn Chin next week for China Remixed, IU’s first Global Arts & Humanities Festival.

Indiana Review is proud to share a story she originally published with us in Indiana Review 24.1, Spring 2002.

The delightful music paired with the matter-of-factness of the Grandmother explaining the history of oppression, takes us through a deep personal history. We land on the preparation of a delicious carp deftly, with a gut punch at the end of “The Parable of the Fish,” with a mastery of exactitude present in all of Marilyn Chin’s work.

 — Su Cho, Editor


Grandmother, how do you know that the fish are happy? Irreverent polyp-of-a-child, how do you know that I don’t know that the fish are happy? Well, grandma, you’re not a fish. You cannot know what fish know. Well, my ignorant gnat-of-a-girl, you are not I, how do you know that I don’t know what fish know.

One day she fetched me from school and said, “Let’s take a stroll through our honorable mayor Willie Brown’s mansion. The Gold Mountain News said that he wants all of his citizens to visit his new Japanese water garden.” So we took the #25 bus and transferred to a #85 bus at the Montgomery station where she bought me a cold can of Coke from a machine. I knew that it was going to be a special day.

When we got to the mansion, we went straight to the mayor’s new water garden. There were pink and white lotuses in bloom, assorted duckweed and hyacinth. Catkins and dwarf willows bent over; they looked like they were washing their beautiful hair in the pond.

Suddenly, without warning, my grandma stuck her hand into our honorable mayor’s fish pond and pulled out a magnificent spotted orange carp. It was at least three feet long and as it thrashed, its brilliant scales shimmered like mirrors. She pulled her smile into a deep frown then pointed to the bronze plaque on the wall that said in both Chinese and English, “A gift to the city of San Francisco from His Majesty the Emperor Hirohito of Japan.”

She then said, “Remember this, my rice cake, Hirohito was a mass murderer and rapist and this pond was built with Chinese blood.” So, she swung the fish by the tail and whacked it five times against the stone wall. When it continued to thrash and convulse, she took her trusty cleaver from her giant purse and whacked it five more times with the blunt edge. “This one for Manchuria, this one for Nanking, this for our cousin Lu…this for Auntie Jade…” When it finally stopped thrashing she wrapped it up in newspaper and stuffed it in her purse, and we walked briskly past the guard station toward the bus stop. The guard was listening to some funky tune in his earphones and didn’t even notice us.

So, we took it home on the #4 bus to Market Street where we changed to a #65 bus back to the Richmond. On the bus we met her skinny gossipmonger friend who always wore an ugly hairnet. They started talking in this ancient dialect about Mr. Wong’s whoremongering son. What a pity that the whole regal bloodline has been tainted by this whoremongering bastard. The whoremongering bastard emptied the till of the Laundromat and went to Hong Kong to continue his whoremongering activities. Then, they went on about Mrs. Tong’s slut-of-a-dead-girl, that slut-of-a-dead-girl went on to live with several white devils. They said she lived with three of them at one time. One lived in the Richmond, one lived in Mill Valley, on in San Jose. That she was always driving and stopping and leaving her grandmother in the back seat to bake in the sun. Then, my grandmother turned to me and said, “You better not do that to me when you get older.”

They rattled on like two ancient kettles. There was a mother-beating gangster named Wu, an ox-naped gigolo named Lee. A long-spined good-for-nothing named Fu… “Oh, how ironic that he was named Fu!” A cockroach-eating numbskull named Ming. A mutton-of-a-loser named Wei. How can Buddha visit such terrible creatures upon us. I said I had to pee and she said, “Hush, you should have peed in the green plastic toilets in the mayor’s house. Did you know that it took him two weeks to install those plastic toilets for his loving citizens?”

When we got home, she wasted no time to clean the fish and steamed it with ginger and onions and ordered me to climb up the back fire escape and pluck fresh spinach from our communal roof garden. “Pull out the whole root. You must leave room for baby shoots. Tonight is a special celebration,” she said. She presented the magnificent orange carp on a large celadon plate that her own grandmother had given her. She shaped the spinach into curly tidal waves all around the lip of the giant plate. She decorated the fish and capped the spinach waves with bits of candied ginger; they shimmered like diamonds. And look! The fish is wearing a pearly onion necklace! I squealed with joy as I collected the sweet gems and saved them in a little dish for later, when I would relish them as a late snack with fruit and tea.

“So, you ungrateful, arrogant drop-plum, tell me that the fish aren’t happy!” This time, I could not formulate an argument, for my mouth was already busy sucking on a fin. The inner fleshy side was especially tasty. “I must tell you, my little trinket, my hungry little glow worm, that I have no doubts, heaven has issued an edict: I know that the fish are capable of sublime happiness.”


Marilyn Chin is a poet, translator, novelist, and a professor
at San Diego State University. She is author of Hard Love Province, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Award in 2015. She is also author of Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, and Dwarf Bamboo.

Chin has received a Stegner fellowship, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles award, five Pushcart Prizes, the Patterson Prize, a Fulbright fellowship, and awards from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has read her poetry at the Library of Congress and was interviewed by Bill Moyers and featured in his PBS series “The Language of Life” and in the PBS series “Poetry Everywhere.”