Water into Wine by Joyce Chng (novella)
Well this is a rather heartbreaking read swirling around hope and identity, war and loss. It features Ping Xin, a person who inherits a winery from their grandfather and promises to themself and to the memory of their grandfather’s kindness that they will make it flourish. That they won’t fail. Traveling with them are their three children and their aging mother. Together they arrive at their new home and hire a man, Galliano, to help with details they aren’t familiar with. All this, right as a war breaks out and plunges the region and the planet into chaos. It’s a gripping premise told with a very forthright and open style, almost a confession. Xin doesn’t hold anything back, puts all of their feelings and thoughts down in a clear and concise manner. And in many ways the piece is about language, too, about Xin’s struggle to find the language for themself, caught between that of their family and that of the present moment and the language of their heart. It’s a touching and often uncomfortable look at one person seeking meaning and structure and growth in a setting dominated by destruction, loss, and grief.
This is not exactly the happiest of reads, either. Focusing as it does on war, much of the piece is about Xin’s struggles against the bad luck of living in this place at this time. All they have are their family and their vineyard, and they hold to both as tightly as they can while still trying to struggle themself out. Assigned female at birth and living as a man at the start of the story, taking hormones, Xin finds at the world just doesn’t fit them. The pronouns and the genders, while at times being comfortable enough, don’t offer the clarity or the feeling of rightness that they crave. It means they go through their life hurting most of the time, feeling this acute sense of not really fitting in. It’s something that doesn’t exactly get between them and Galliano as the two come to mean something to each other, but fate has other curve balls in store for them. And really the piece is dense and difficult, full of shattering moments that threaten to make everything unravel. I love the moment in the piece where Xin notices some shattered wine, a possibility when storing it, and mourns it even as they move on, clean it up, face forward. It’s a tactic that they keep on coming back to, by necessity because so much is uncertain, and so much is shattering all around.
And what I really appreciate about the style and voice of Xin is that it got me through this story, these events. There’s a certain numbness that happens, that carries through the words and the voice. This feeling that the world has always fit just a bit wrong, and it’s allowed Xin to distance themself from the bad things, from the death and the loss and the uncertainty. They feel deeply the grief around them, cry at the injustice, worry about the future. But they maintain a balance that keeps them pointed into the future, that keeps them on their feet and always moving. Somehow, and I say somehow because so much goes wrong for Xin—somehow they manage to maintain a hope and a vision of a better day, of a better world. And they work to make it happen, pouring themself into the vineyard and their family, protecting what they can and honoring what they can and alive, so defiantly alive, defining themself when the world failed to do a good enough job of it. It’s a beautiful story that manages to build a sliver of light in the darkness, and it makes for a wonderful read!