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Chao, Patricia 1955–

Chao, Patricia 1955–

PERSONAL: Born July 9, 1955, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA; daughter of Howard S. (a journalist) and Chie I. (a teacher) Chao. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1979; New York University, M.A., 1992. Hobbies and other interests: Latin American dance and music.

ADDRESSES: Home—55 W. 14th St., No. 11M, New York, NY 10011. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishing, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.

CAREER: Writer. Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, undergraduate writing workshop teacher.

AWARDS, HONORS: Rose Low Memorial Poetry Prize, Brown University, 1978; second prize in poetry, Pen and Brush Club, 1987; fellowship, New York University master's program in creative writing, 1990–92; Dean's Fiction Prize, New York University, 1992; finalist, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, 1997; New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship; New Voice Award for Poetry, for Breaking on Two; recipient of residency fellowships, including the MacDowell Colony, Sacatar Foundation (Brazil), and Fundacion Valparaison (Spain).

WRITINGS:

Monkey King (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

Mambo Peligroso (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.

Also author of children's stories, including On the Silk Road, Macmillan; Mimi and the Tea Ceremony, Macmillan; and The Lost and Found Twins, Modern Curriculum Press. Author of poetry collection, Breaking on Two. Contributor, Pearls of Wisdom from Grandma, edited by Jennifer Gates Hayes, Regan Books (New York, NY), 1997. Editor, Global City Review, special issue, fall, 1996. Contributor of short fiction and essays to periodicals, including Ark and Global City Review. Music reviewer, Global Rhythm.

SIDELIGHTS: Patricia Chao's debut novel, Monkey King, is a complex story detailing the narrator's emotional breakdown. The book drew widespread critical praise. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Philip Gambone called Monkey King "a considerable achievement, the work of a writer worthy of serious attention." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called attention to Chao's "sharp, ironic prose," and critic Judith Chettle of the Washington Post Book World declared that Monkey King is "so uncannily in sync with the Zeitgeist that one is tempted to suspect the writer of having access to a secret band of literary futurists who offer hot tips to a select few." Teresa Wiltz, reviewing the novel in Chicago's Tribune Books, wrote: "With cleanly understated prose and exquisite imagery, Chao skillfully laces past and present, China and America into a compelling tale of one woman's fight for her life and her identity."

A complex and multilayered work that takes its title from a Chinese legend, Monkey King is narrated by Sally Wang, a twenty-eight-year-old Chinese-American artist. Smart, successful, and working as an art director in Manhattan, Wang suddenly, without understanding why, leaves her husband and her job. Familiar objects become threatening and she finds herself cutting "tiger stripes"—precise, long wounds—into her arms with an artist's X-acto knife. Having lost the ability to read, paint, or make sense of her surroundings, Wang attempts suicide, swallowing one pill for each of the thirty-six hours her mother had been in labor to give Wang birth. Failing suicide, Chao's troubled protagonist then must confront the painful process of emotional re-birth. Structurally, the narrative resembles a jig-saw puzzle that moves back and forth between Wang's present life and her memories until she is finally able to make meaning of her existence.

Monkey King is the story of repressed, painful memories and, like memory itself, its narrative structure is elliptical, following the intuitive logic of memory as Wang slowly begins to understand the relationship between past and present. The novel opens with Wang subject to an around-the-clock suicide watch at a mental institution that reminds her of an old boarding school. Chao describes her protagonist's fellow inmates with great compassion and humor: anorexic Lillith, who thinks that she's Joan of Arc, and nineteen-year-old Mel—flirty and prone to violence but nevertheless protective of Sally. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Andy Solomon observed that Chao "shows sophisticated restraint" in presenting Wang's journey back to wholeness in all its messiness and complexity.

The memories that haunt Chao's protagonist are unspeakable, and even though her family enters into therapy with her, her mother and sister would prefer not to listen. Wang's father, now dead, repeatedly molested her when she was a child while her younger sister Marty looked on. While clearly damaged by the incest, Marty also feels jealous of her father's inappropriate interest in Sally; as an adult, she now skips from man to man, uses drugs more than casually, shoplifts, and is contemptuous of her older sister. Sally's mother, a university professor, does not want these memories spoken aloud and silences her daughter's attempt to speak ill of the dead. Even though Sally feels her mother's disapproval, she persists in speaking her memories.

The relationship between Wang and her father in Monkey King is complex, and Chao ties the theme of childhood abuse to larger themes of dislocation and loss. As a child, Wang is told by her father that she is not "really" American: "In your heart, you are Chinese." Yet, while she values the jade hairpin she inherited from her Chinese grandmother, Wang does not want to identify with a Chinese culture that seemingly devalues women. Eventually disassociated from the traumatic childhood incest, as well as from her family's Chinese past, the adult protagonist lacks a sense of herself as a coherent whole. In this manner, Solomon observed: "Chao successfully mines … themes of alienation, rootlessness and estrangement" that dominate modern American literature.

Several reviewers have praised Chao's ability to write about recovery from mental illness without lapsing into what Chettle called "psychobabble." Solomon wrote that, while The Monkey King "swells with the self-discovery and reflection frequent in first novels, it never degenerates into self-pity." Recovery is not learning to move beyond pain, the novel's protagonist learns; rather it is keeping "everything, pain and pleasure, in your heart." Chettle found the concluding insight, while "less than original," a "good enough" reason for Wang to go on living. Despite the novel's abrupt ending, a Publishers Weekly critic maintained that "Chao's vivid, intelligent voice and masterful detailing contribute to an engrossing work," and a Kirkus Reviews critic called Monkey King "Moving, lively, relentless, and deeply sad: an uncommonly accomplished debut."

Chao's second novel, Mambo Peligroso, reflects the author's passionate interest in Latin dance, particularly the mambo. The story concerns Catalina Ortiz Midori, a woman of Cuban and Japanese heritage who was raised in New England. Midori studies dance with El Tuerto, a dancer with a stellar reputation who exhorts his students to remember that the mambo is more than a dance—it is a way of life. The story becomes more complex when Midori travels to Cuba, where she becomes entangled in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. "Chao takes readers for a floor-scorching spin in this novel set in the sensuous world of salsa dancing," reported Allison Block in Booklist. The narrative begins rather slowly, according to Sofia A. Tangalos in the Library Journal, but as the story goes on, the pace picks up and builds into a complicated story full of "intense passion, energy, and sexuality."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Chao, Patricia, Monkey King, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1, 1997, Jennifer Henderson, review of Monkey King, p. 817; April 15, 2005, Allison Block, review of Mambo Peligroso, p. 1430.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1996, review of Monkey King, p. 1618.

Library Journal, December, 1996, Anna Quan Leon, review of Monkey King, p. 142; April 15, 2005, Sofia A. Tangalos, review of Mambo Peligroso, p. 71.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 30, 1997, Andy Solomon, review of Monkey King, p. 10.

New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1997, Philip Gambone, review of Monkey King, p. 21.

People, February 24, 1997, Jill Smolowe, review of Monkey King, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly, November 18, 1996, review of Monkey King, p. 62; April 18, 2005, review of Mambo Peligroso, p. 45.

Time, May 5, 1997, Christopher Farley, review of Monkey King, pp. 101-102.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 23, 1997, review of Monkey King, p. 3.

Washington Post Book World, February 23, 1997, Judith Chettle, review of Monkey King, p. 8.

ONLINE

HarperCollins Web site, http://www.harpercollins.com/ (May 18, 2006), biographical information about Patricia Chao.

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