In America, Elaine Lui, the author of the new memoir Listen to the Squawking Chicken, is probably best known as “Lainey,” the proprietress and voice behind the addictive gossip website Lainey Gossip. What makes Lainey Gossip stand out from the various trashy-feeling gossip sites out there is accuracy and tone: she is often the first to break stories about breakups that will make you a little sad (learned about Will Arnett and Amy Poehler from her, questioned my faith in love for several days), and she approaches gossip with an anthropologist’s eye. Just look at this recent post on Reese Witherspoon, where she summarizes how scandal didn’t stick to the actress when she drunkenly yelled “Do you know who I am?” at a cop last year, and how scandal hasn’t, yet, stuck to James Franco — because sexism — and how Reese will probably be coming for Gwyneth’s tarnished GOOP crown.
So when Lui had a book coming out, it was a surprise to learn that it would be a fairly straightforward memoir about her mother, better known as “the squawking chicken.” And despite the fact that some (Canadian) gossip columnist writing about her mother could be boring (although it hasn’t been — look at Jeannette Walls’ brilliant The Glass Castle, a memoir that Jennifer Lawrence is making into a film), Lui’s isn’t, and it’s treading interesting and surprisingly underwritten ground as a look into what it’s like to be brought up by a Chinese woman and first-generation immigrant.
Lui’s mother, referred to as “Ma,” but mostly, annoyingly, called “the Squawking Chicken” throughout the book, is a tough broad who had a hardscrabble childhood, and that toughness made her a fascinating maternal figure. Lui’s childhood was very different from her Western peers’. None of this coddling and winning prizes just for participating; rather, the Squawking Chicken would crush Lui’s dreams of winning a beauty pageant, say: “For the Squawking Chicken, telling me I was neither pretty nor special was just about getting real. And it was her duty as my mother to get real with me. ‘Mama will always tell you the truth. Mama will never lie to you. I am the only one. Sometimes the truth hurts.'”
This quote probably has you thinking Tiger Mom, and you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s in a similar ballpark, subject-wise, but, importantly, lacks Amy Chua’s smugness. What elevated Listen to the Squawking Chicken for me was Lui’s tight focus on “the Squawking Chicken” and what made her tick. There are whole chapters on mah-jongg and the role that Feng Shui has played in the lives of mother and daughter. It comes down to storytelling, really, and these superstitious beliefs are also ways to tell stories about your life. There’s a complicated relationship at the heart of this book, spanning so many issues, whether it’s how Eastern parents are different, the difficulties of immigration, or how mothers and daughters take out their traumas out on each other. There’s a lot of love and surprises in Lui’s memoir, and the result is a fun read.