Migration Songs, by Anna Quon

Migration Songs, by Anna Quon

Migration Songs by Anna Quon is a most worthy addition to the CanLit mosaic. The book’s own mosaic is a sympathetic and memorable cast of characters of varying pedigrees contending with literal and figurative migrations in their respective personal journeys.

By the dictionary definitions, a migration is the seasonal passage of groups of animals for survival, feeding and breeding, or the movement of a person or persons from one country or locality to another. While one sounds natural, normal, organic and positive, the other sounds possibly artificial, forced or prompted by negative reasons. This dichotomy distinguishes the types of migrations of various characters surrounding the troublingly static main character, who is finally compelled and inspired to set her own migration in motion.

The narrator of Migration Songs is reclusive, rueful Joan, a 30-something variously un- or underemployed loner. She sits at the eye of a storm of swirling and intersecting migration paths that enfold and perhaps protect, but increasingly intimidate, confuse and paralyze her. Joan’s mother Gillian is a fiercely determined Chinese-Canadian immigrant who forged her own migration from her parents’ tradition by resisting an arranged marriage to find her own choice of partner, David, who in turn migrates from England to start a new life with his wife. He had perhaps already set his personal migration in motion before even meeting Gillian by diverging from his British upbringing to become an avid if perhaps naive Maoist. David and Gillian’s transition into marriage and parenthood ultimately separates into divergent personal migrations.

As influential as her parents are to Joan is Edna, a feisty Hungarian immigrant who works as a live-in housekeeper in Joan’s family’s neighbourhood. Edna becomes a de facto parent, mentor and champion for the often fragile Joan. The true extent to which Edna’s own life was a series of daunting migrations – not just from one country to another, but over and through harrowing personal terrain – does not emerge until Edna has aged, has moved to a retirement home and is starting to descend into dementia. When Joan is finally in a position to both repay Edna’s devotion and pay tribute to her personal courage, she is able to set in motion her own migration, unfurl her own migration song and confidently take hold of her own life.

While there is much to recommend this book, Quon particularly excels at capturing the perceptions and wonderment and misapprehensions of a child as she traces Joan’s life and arrested maturity. While fragile, Joan is still extraordinarily faithful and stalwart, and even determined in her fashion. Quon has managed to create an indelible character in Joan who is comparable to young, troubled but striving heroines from Anne Shirley to Madeleine McCarthy of The Way the Crow Flies to Thebes Troutman of The Flying Troutmans.

Is having migrated in one form or another (through parentage, heritage, what one calls home) a self-fulfilling or self-denying construct? Some survive and thrive when they migrate, others allow the fact of having migrated in one form or another – or maybe to have been denied the opportunity to migrate – to always impede them. As frustrating as Joan’s inertia and reticence can be at points throughout the book, the reader is always rooting for her, hoping she’ll ultimately find some direction for her own migration.

Author Anna Quon offers some inspiring insights into her own journey or migration to write this book in the following interview:

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