Every mother-daughter relationship is multifaceted -- simple yet complex at the same time. But celebrity gossip blogger and television host Elaine (Lainey) Lui's mother looms larger than most.
"This is how it's been for me my whole life: every thought has been shaped by the Squawking Chicken, every opinion I have is informed by the Squawking Chicken; everything I do is in consultation with the Squawking Chicken."
In Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Lui has penned a true love letter to her mother. Honest, fearless, funny, smart, wise and irreverent, she honours her mother by telling her story with pride.
Fans of her blog will recognize Lui's fresh and conversational style in this, her first book. Louder than everyone in the room, Lui's mother doesn't fit the stereotype of the demure, passive and dainty Asian woman. Her nickname, Squawking Chicken or "Tsiahng Gai," was given to her as a young girl, and Lui uses it as a term of endearment.
She's very honest about her mother's rough childhood and how she struggled to raise her daughter. Growing up in Hong Kong, Lui's mother had to care for her younger siblings while their parents gambled. She was a good and dutiful daughter, but learned she had to control her own life after she was raped at 15.
"She taught me that if you can tell the story of the worst thing that has ever happened to you, you'll never be silenced."
After she married, the family moved to Canada and had one child, Elaine. Standing up for herself, she divorced her husband when Elaine was seven and moved back to Hong Kong. Elaine lived with her father and visited her mother for holidays and summers. When Lui was 16, her parents reunited, a fulfilment of her mother's promise that she would return if he made something of himself.
Throughout her life, the Squawking Chicken has told her daughter stories with such conviction that Lui has to believe, stories that would otherwise be called fables or myths. The stories were to teach her lessons about hard work, about being smart rather than just being beautiful, to keep moving forward even without the praise of others, to take pleasure in your work and accomplishments without making it who you are.
Lui credits her success to these lessons, which also includes standards for "low-classy" behaviour. Leg-jiggling, leaning, pouting or wearing clothes with wrinkles? All low-classy.
Yet Lui doesn't shy away from her mother's own low-classy moments. She shares stories about her mother's inability to understand the actions of others, and even her penchant for haggling in stores as evidence of her mother's hypocrisy about low-class behaviour.
The author is also honest about how her mother approaches friendship -- while she's good in a crisis, maintaining the day-to-day connections are hard for her. Lui believes she learned to be a better friend from her mother's mistakes.
Throughout the book Lui explains rather than defends her mother's decisions, showing the love she has for her and her appreciation for the sacrifices she has had to make.
Listen to the Squawking Chicken is a generous and open look into the lives of Lui's mother and her family.
Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.