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Excerpt from Siren Queen by Nghi Vo, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Siren Queen

by Nghi Vo
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  • First Published:
  • May 10, 2022
  • Paperback:
  • May 2023
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Print Excerpt


Wolfe Studios released a tarot deck's worth of stories about me over the years. One of the very first still has legs in the archivist's halls, or at least people tell me they see it there, scuttling between the yellowing stacks of tabloids and the ancient silver film that has been enchanted not to burn.

In that first story, I'm a leggy fourteen, sitting on the curb in front of my father's laundry on Hungarian Hill. I'm wearing waxy white flowers in my hair, and the legendary Harry Long himself, coming to pick up a suit for his cousin's wedding, pauses to admire me.

"Hola, China doll," he says, a bright red apple in his hand. "Do you want to be a movie star?"

"Oh sir," I'm meant to have replied, "I do not know what a movie star is, but would you give me that apple? I am so very hungry."

Harry Long, who made a sacrifice of himself to himself during the Santa Ana fires when I turned twenty-one, laughed and laughed, promising me a boatload of apples if I would come to the studio to audition for Oberlin Wolfe himself.

That's bullshit, of course.

What halfway pretty girl didn't know what the movies were? I knew the names of the summer queens and the harvest kings as well as I knew the words "chink" and "monkey face," hurled at me and my little sister as we walked hand in hand to the Chinese school two miles from our house. I knew them as well as I knew the lines in my mother's face, deeper every year, and the warring heats of the Los Angeles summer and the steam of the pressing room.

The year I was seven, my father returned from Guangzhou to stay with us in America, and they built the nickelodeon between our laundry and the Chinese school. The arcade was far better than any old apple, and from the first, I was possessed, poisoned to the core by ambition and desire. The nickelodeon took over a space that had once sold coffins, terrible luck whether you were Chinese, Mexican, or German, but the moment they opened their doors and lit up the orangey-pink neon sign overhead, COMIQUE in the cursive I was having such trouble with, they were a modest success.

Luli and I were walking home one hot day, and we would have kept walking if the tall woman lounging in her ticket booth hadn't tipped an extravagant wink at me. Her skin was a rich black, and her hair was piled up on her head in knots so intricate it hurt my eyes. It wasn't until we got a little closer that I could see her eyes gleamed with the same orangey-pink of the sign overhead, and even then, I might have decided it was too late.

"We're showing Romeo and Juliet today," she said with a wide smile. "If you hurry, you can still get seats."

"I don't have anything to pay with," I muttered, ashamed to even be caught wanting, but the woman only smiled wider.

"Well, it's a nickel if you're ordinary, but you girls aren't, are you?"

Up until that very moment, Luli and I would have given absolutely anything to be ordinary, to live in one of the pastel boxes off of Hungarian Hill, to have curly blond or brown hair instead of straight black, and to have pop eyes instead of ones that looked like slits carved into the smooth skin of a melon.

The way the beautiful Black woman spoke, however, I started to wonder. If I couldn't be ordinary, maybe I could be something better instead.

Maybe I could get into the nickelodeon.

Luli tugged at my hand fretfully, but I squeezed tighter, comforting and bullying at once.

"We're not ordinary at all," I declared. "And we don't have any nickels."

The woman touched a neatly manicured nail to her full lower lip, and then she smiled.

"An inch of your hair," she said at last. "Just one inch for two of you."

"Sissy, let's go home," my sister begged in Cantonese, but I scowled at her and she subsided.

"Just one inch," I said, as if I had any control over it. "And why do you want it, anyway?"

Excerpted from Siren Queen by Nghi Vo. Copyright © 2022 by Nghi Vo. Excerpted by permission of All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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