Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, The Book of Dead Birds tells the story of a mother and daughter and the hardships they must face due to the cultural obstacles that define their lack of common language.
Protagonist Ava Sing Lo holds a Masters in Communications but can barely communicate with her mother Helen. The two must learn to accept themselves and each other in order to find common ground.
Ava Sing Lo is biracial. She is half African American and half Korean but does not feel she belongs anywhere. Her sense of not belonging causes her to want to find her place. Ava looks African American but does not feel comfortable with either identity. She is forced to live a life in between identities without being able to identify with being either African American or Korean.
I unwrap a Crunch bar, let my teeth pass through the deep brown chocolate, the pale crisped rice inside. Such an easy balance between the two flavors; such an easy balance in my own life –chocolate battling it out, creating something different, something nether flavor can really claim.
Ava notices how people look at her and she knows that she is different. She sees how the Koreans do not immediately accept her because she is not fully Korean. Ava has no true connection with either one of her ethnicities since her mother is very reserved about her past and she doesn’t know much about her father.
Her mother has been haunted by her past for decades. As a young girl in Korea, Helen was introduced to prostitution in an American army base. She was brought to California as a bride by a young white American soldier. Once she gave birth to a black baby, her new husband abandoned her. Helen was left to raise the baby on her own and learn to live in a foreign country.
The disconnection between mother and daughter is very apparent in the plot. Ava has a hard time understanding her mother’s sorrow yet is always trying to obtain approval. She cares what her mother thinks because she has always had her mother. Ava recalls spending time with her mother at the park when she was a child.
Ava is a very studious woman yet when she graduates college she has no sense of direction. She is still trying to find her path in life which causes her to analyze her mother. Her mother has always had birds and Ava has always accidently killed them.
Helen keeps a scrapbook with the feathers of the dead birds to document what Ava has done. In an effort to get closer to her mother and make amends for killing the birds, Ava leaves San Diego and volunteers to save endangered pelicans at the Salton Sea, determined to prove that she can do something positive.
The novel is very descriptive and contains a lot of symbolism. It is very well written and Brandeis did an amazing job of truly capturing the mother and daughter relationship. The Book of Dead Birds captures a young woman’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s past while she searches for her own place in the world.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage, and Delta Girls. Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Brandeis holds a BA from the University of Redlands, and an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Antioch University. She is on the national staff of the women’s peace organization CODEPINK, and is a founding member of the Women Creating Peace Collective. She currently lives in Riverside, California with her husband and two children.