Book Review: Potlatch Blanket for a China Man by Mei-Li Lee
Review by Rita Button
Often, in looking at history, lip service is given to the fact that various forms of prejudice have been experienced by minority groups. Usually, a sentence or two creates the realization for the reader who then moves on to the next paragraph.
Mei-Li Lee’s literary history set in British Columbia, spanning the mid-nineteenth to late twentieth century, is different. It doesn’t allow the reader to understand without involving his/her feelings when the experience of discrimination is presented in a nearly objective way. One chapter, set in Victoria’s Chinatown, illustrates the racism the Chinese and other minority groups experienced.
Lee doesn’t belabour the inequities of the times such as those supported by the Anti-Chinese League, a society supporting the law that Chinese people were to be employed only by Chinese people, never by those of European heritage; or when a Chinese child was home schooled for a year as the result of the Victoria School Board not allowing Chinese students to attend public school along with the rest of the population.
She looks at the events with a clear eye seeing commonalities of humanity. Another character, of Chinese and First Nation parents, experiences a young adult life mirroring that of most young adults, no matter their heritage: “Youth and inexperience create a vulnerable state,” thinks the sixty-year-old Ngin Ngin as she remembers the heat of her loss of innocence. Who of us has not had this thought as we look back at our initiation into the adult world of experience?
And, gently, Lee reminds us, “Time changes not only the way people look, but the way they look at things.”
Lee reveals that one of her purposes in writing Potlatch Blanket for a China Man is to give those who have been silenced a voice, and although I was privileged to read only a chapter of this narrative, I heard the voice of the disenfranchised in a way that makes me understand with an open mind and with a need to see people as individuals who compose groups that are humans in their talents and vices—just as we all are.
I am looking forward to reading the whole book upon its publication in June. I recommend it because of its unique focus on the extraordinary depiction of the ordinary person who shows us how to understand—in Mei-Li Lee’s words, “Bending can be good if it doesn’t break who you are.”
Watch for details about the June book launch in James Bay where copies of the book will be for sale. After that, check bookstores near you.