China Cowboy tells the story of La La, a twelve-year-old Chinese girl from Hong Kong who is kidnapped and made into a sex slave by an American soybean farmer named Ren (pronounced “run,” as in “run, La La! Run!”). But is she actually kidnapped, or is the kidnapping a ruse designed by La La herself to get her to the U.S., where she can become the next country superstar, her dream? Through the figure of La La, a tragic (child) victim/heroine not unlike the stars La La idolizes, Kim Gek Lin Short explores questions of agency and exploitation—emphasis on exploitation.
Short is an elegant, entrancing writer, and her second book-length collection is both devastating and uncomfortably enjoyable. China Cowboy is a loosely constructed, fluid narrative, told via prose poetry that adopts the double tone of a tragicomedy: La La taking a carnivalesque romp through a sorrowful Patsy Cline album. It moves freely between the grotesque and the surreal, and reads simultaneously like a concept album and a biopic. This multilevel formal hybridity reflects and informs its investigation of La La’s hybrid existence as a Chinese girl with American dreams, a hybridity that is also reflected in its design: the book’s cover and section title pages are fashioned after film posters that mix the iconography of classic American Westerns and ’70s-era Chinese martial arts films.
China Cowboy’s design speaks not only to the book’s hybridity but also to its relationship to cinema. La La and Ren experience their relationship through various cinematic roles. At one point, Ren recites scenes from “that movie by Zhang Yimou” to La La, likely referring to the 1987 historical melodrama Hong Gao Liang (Red Sorghum), which involves the romance between a young girl and an older suitor. This recitation takes place in a poem with a title, “Butcher Holler,” that invokes the childhood home of Loretta Lynn, who married 22-year-old “Doo” at the age of 15, a tumultuous relationship that is dramatized in the biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). La La says: “In my sleep I am starring in Coal Miner’s / Daughter. I am as convincing as Sissy Spacek except I am Chinese / and just can’t help it. I can’t.”
If these roles provide La La with ways of understanding her situation and the performances expected of her, they also fuel her fantasies of following her idols’ paths from humble beginnings to fame and wealth. Her identifications with stars like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline are frustrated by her ethnicity—“La La always wanted to be a cowgirl” but “COWGIRLS DON’T HAVE FLAT FACES,” her mother insists. La La doesn’t care: “When I get to America I can be anything I can be Patsy Cline I have her wrists.” Used and exploited by Ren, she makes it to America—though this is questionable, as it’s possible La La’s fantasies have taken over as a form of dissociation. Within this abusive relationship, she does, in a sense, become Patsy (or at least the movie version), and ventriloquizes Cline’s mournful songs of wretched love as a survival strategy.
“La La”: short for song, and short for Lolita. While China Cowboy is the story of La La, it is the story of all the other La Las, too, and the various frames that contain them. There are three La Las alluded to in the book, all of them the same/different. La La is not only the three La Las: she is also Patsy, Loretta, Jessica Lange as Patsy, Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Heidi (who has “more clothes than La / La but La La still has enough to be Heidi”), as well as Shirley Temple, yodeling at the empty sky. She is the child wife in Red Sorghum (1986/1987); she is Humbert Humbert’s fetishized Lolita; and she is “not La La” at all. La La is both alive and dead—she tells the reader (whom she addresses as “y’all,” serious about...