A Review Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir by Allison Hong Merrill
September 24, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Jennifer Lang
In her debut memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, Allison Hong Merrill chronicles her life from early childhood in an abusive home in one country to marriage to the man of her naïve dreams in another. Night after night, I put my legs up my living room wall or crawled under my covers in bed desperate to know she will survive and overcome the obstacles and challenges along the way: a father who disowns her, a mother who cannot mother her, a cruel husband who uproots and deceives her.
From the first sentence, “I discovered that I became a starter wife from a light switch,” the reader understands that something is amiss. There is a hint of foreign. A curiosity about a starter wife and its connection to electricity. A spark of humor.
When the first Mormon missionaries, Elder Copinga and Elder York, “both taller than the doorframe,” show up in Hong Merrill’s father’s house in Hualien, Taiwan when she is 12, I feel relieved. Hopeful. If her parents don’t understand how to love her and her siblings or how to make them feel safe or free to be themselves, whether healthy or handicapped (her younger sister had cerebral palsy), smart or stupid (Hong Merrill is the former but criticized for being the latter), then perhaps these devout American men and the religion they represent do.
Hong Merrill’s story covers myriad themes—family loyalty, true friendship, the meaning of independence, belief in a higher being, happiness—but the two that stand out are power (or lack thereof) and choice. In the beginning, she is powerless against unloving parents and choice-less amidst a culture that deems women inferior and invisible. But as she grows up, finds the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, meets the Bushmans whom she calls her rebirth parents, and moves to a country where women count, she eventually understands that she can take back her power and make her own choices in life. Because of her upbringing in a traditional Asian culture, she thinks she needs a man to take care of her, but what she learns first in Texas and later in Utah, first married and later divorced and alone, is that she needs to believe in herself. A beautiful message for all women from every culture.
Divided into 11 parts, each of the 99 chapters is short, sometimes only one page. While the story is linear, she moves within and between places, offering occasional time stamps to anchor us. Sprinkled throughout the text are Chinese proverbs, Mormon teachings, Rumi’s poetry, and wise sayings that she explains and refers to in subsequent chapters.
Hong Merrill’s capacity for reflection astounds me. She writes:
Looking back, part of me wants to warn my younger self to get on the next flight and run away from Cameron. He would become my nemesis. His words would replace mine. His voice would silence mine… But another part of me knows that the hardships I was about to suffer in Texas were the refiner’s fire. If I endured well, I would gain more strength and compassion.
And then there’s her wit; to describe the boys she deems handsome, she compares them to Hollywood actors like Cameron is Bruce Willis’s doppelgänger, Drake Hugh Grant.
Along the same lines, she has a keen ability to see and poke fun at herself, enviable for any memoir writer. When introducing herself to the building manager in Texas, a woman who had never heard her speak, she writes:
But the real surprise was hearing myself say the name that my tenth-grade English teacher had given me the way Americans do, without mixing up the L and R—one of the English-language learning curves that most Chinese people struggle with. Not Ayhreesong. I said Allison. The parting of my lips + the tip of my tongue kicking off the back of my upper front teeth + the soft dropping of my tongue + short hissing sss juxtaposed with the nasal ending = Allison. I said that.
This memoir moved me not only because it’s wrought with tension and well written but also because like the narrator, I am an immigrant living in a place where religion surrounds me: an American Jew in Israel. But the similarities stop there because unlike her, I moved here on my own accord in my early twenties, knowing I can always buy a return ticket and go home to northern California or anywhere in the United States no matter what. A freedom that I took for granted until I grew up and saw more of the world.
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, Hippocampus, and forthcoming in Consequence, among others. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she and her husband spent three decades packing and unpacking, rooting and uprooting in search of home. Finally, they settled in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and searches for a special press to publish her first memoir in vignettes.