This fascinating magic realist story by John Chu won the 2014 Hugo Award for best short story. A bizarre phenomenon sets in worldwide – whenever a person lies, they’re rewarded with their own personal rain storm. We sent the rrramble team off to find out if this award winner lives up to the name.
I was drawn to this story firstly because of its unique premise – water falling from nowhere every time you lie? Cool! – and also because I’m Hong Kong Chinese and queer. I’ve been trying to read more Asian LGBTQ+ stories, and I’m pleased to say this one was a great addition to my reading history!
First off, Chu has a lovely writing style: honest, conversational, and when the moment is right, very beautiful. There’s a strong sense of imagery and sensation and I really felt like I was there in the words, with the characters. Even though this is a short story and we get little time with the secondary characters, Chu still manages to get across impressions of their personalities and mannerisms.
The water-falling-from-the-sky aspect also comes in supremely handy for ‘show rather than tell’. It was such a fun yet powerful way of illustrating the characters’ interrelationships. It also offers a level of insight into other characters’ heads that isn’t usually there in first-person narration. How far does believing something to be true actually make it true? For example, no water fell when one of Matt’s relatives said they loved him, even though to me as a reader, they were only hurting Matt. The type of precipitation varies with the level of ‘untruth’ in your statement, and I found it even cooler that a statement of pure, unquestionable verity has the power to actually remove water. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll just say that I absolutely loved that part!
Things won’t always turn out the way you expect, especially if your expectations are saturated in fear. This story actually almost made me cry! It dares you to hope, though please keep in mind trigger warnings for homophobic remarks and toxic loved ones. I also appreciated the message that even though a toxic friend/family member may claim (and legitimately believe) that they love you and want what’s best for you, if they constantly make you feel lesser-than and just plain bad, you shouldn’t have to stick around and receive that ‘love’, even if you still love them.
Chu included some Chinese phrases (complete with written characters) along with the English, which made the narration feel more natural and real. There’s not always a straight (hah) translation that follows, but they’re pretty easy to look up if you copy-paste the characters into an online dictionary or even just Google (I checked). Seeing the Chinese terms for different relatives actually prompted a discussion with my family about what we call our relatives. Being from Hong Kong, we use slightly different terms to Taiwanese, with the added difference of the Cantonese dialect that varies somewhat from Mandarin. Learning something new every day! I knew Chinese kinship terminology was complicated, but wow, my brain is melting.
The way the story ended, though, was a little abrupt. It felt more like a chapter’s ending than the close of an entire story. The point of the story itself at which it ended is perfectly fine, but rather, the last sentence made me feel like I’d taken half a step and suddenly found myself on the other end of the finish line with my foot still mid-air. That being said, I do like endings that leave room for some wondering – especially for standalone stories like this one.
Overall The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere is a quick and surprisingly emotional read with a fascinating concept that greatly aids the storytelling. I’ll definitely have to check out Chu’s other work!
The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere shows the impossibility of translation. The comparison which John Chu makes between the roman alphabet and chinese hanzi is stark. The latin letters, (to my eyes at least,) are simple and globular; the hanzi, (the same,) intricate and angular. I love that Gus doesn’t use the hanzi, he romanises those words: “poe poe and gohng gohng” as opposed to “婆婆 and 公公”. Because the two are separate. There are three levels of form here. The chinese characters, the romanised approximation, and the english translation.
Chu’s decisions in this piece highlight the awkwardness that is always present when one translates the spoken word directly to the page, and he uses this awkwardness to benefit the story as a whole. He highlights the clash of cultures occurring in this household through the aesthetic disconnect of the two writing systems. Nevermind that the crux of the story rests on the absence of gender-specific third person pronouns in chinese, and Gus’ misunderstanding of of what 婆婆 and 公公 truly imply.
I’d be unable to read this story aloud. I don’t speak han chinese. I couldn’t even stumble my way through the hanzi characters in the way that I could if I were reading a german or french text. There’s something quite cool in that. For me this story can only exist on the page.
When you read this story did you translate the hanzi? Did you copy and paste the characters into google translate to see what was said?
I don’t think it’s necessary. Enough context is given around the hanzi to work out what was said. (Another way that this story can only exist on the page for me; the way my eyes flit from the end of a sentence to the beginning, ensuring I understand the context, is central to my reading experience).
I like that I do not know exactly what is going on, that alienation feels important to me, a straight white man, reading about the experiences of a gay chinese man. There are things I can’t connect with in this story on a literal level, but that made the elements I did connect with stand out all the more. (Stark contrast seems to be the pick of the day). The love between Gus and Matt was very familiar, as were the moments when it strained. The guilt of keeping secrets from those you love, and the fear of exposing those secrets.
I love that there is so much to talk about the piece without even mentioning its elements of fantasy (I maintain that magical realism is a term for cowards). But the piece would be incomplete without them. The water stands as a judge in this world. Lies, if they are told, will be instantly identified for what they are. Without the water Matt’s inner conflict would likely be whether he deserves someone like Gus, what his feelings truly are. The water does not just adjudicate, it lets one know what is objective truth. The story is a world where one can only speak the truth, and this only serves to make Matt’s situation all the more dread inducing.
As I began reading, Lady Gaga’s ‘Rain on me’ played faintly in my head – the perfect queer anthem for the occasion. This is a beautiful story. I really wanted to stick on my graduate literary critic cap and read it for filth (get it) but John Chu had the Pixar effect. Whilst he certainly didn’t dethrone WALL-E which is, in my opinion, the greatest love story ever told, The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere packs a huge emotional punch.
We’re introduced to Matt, an anxious biotech engineer struggling to reveal the extent of his love to his boyfriend and his family. As a writer myself, I nearly always misjudge how to pace plot in a short story – the balance between world building, exposition and narrative becomes much trickier when you’re operating within a tighter framework. I think this is why Chu had me hooked right from the beginning. He ingrains the bizarre rain phenomenon within society until it’s not just a part of their lives, but dissolves into their language. Of course, we’ve got the classic “frat boys and hard men,” who use the rain for amusement and thrill seeking, but details like this fall secondary to Chu’s word choices.
My favourite phrase was used by Matt when his sister so kindly informs him that his job was to give their parents a grandson. Charming. He says, “she just enjoys showing me the dry air.” This hit different – it’s literal because there’s no rain and metaphorical at the same time because their exchange is so stripped of compassion. We’ve all felt that ‘dry air’ during a conversation we really didn’t want to have. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere opens up questions around objective vs subjective truths, where we place belief against reality and who gets to decide what is a lie. It also, helpfully, doesn’t answer any of these questions.
The surreal rain is another layer incorporated by Chu to create a story all about communication. It acts like a mirror to the language barriers, cultural expectations and internalised homophobia. I only just sellotaped my heart back together after finishing Channel 4’s It’s a Sin and the depiction of Matt’s struggle with his sexuality reminded me of Jill’s speech in the final episode. (Sidenote: watch It’s a Sin. Bring friends and an emotional support animal if you can). Jill articulates the extent to which social homophobia trickles into queer people in the form of shame for their own existence. Matt is another victim of this: ““I love you, Gus.” Now, I just have to figure out how to say it while he’s in the room.” His own heart is working against him. I wanted Jill to burst into the story and wrap her arms around him, tell him again and again what a gift true love is and to ignore his inner saboteur.
As a queer person, I spend more time than I’d like contemplating whether marriage will be a part of my life. I find such clinical depictions of marriage really fascinating. I wonder if queer people are naturally more inclined to see through the vail of romance to the functional origins of marriage. Or it’s quite possible that John Chu and I are just cynics.
Chu shows us the inherent power of language through its improper use. Communication is hardest between those who love and care for each other because these truths become weighted, much like the rain. When referring to his mother, Matt wishes “she’d just let me translate for her. In Chinese, she’s effortlessly witty and erudite. That’s the person I want Gus to know, not the inchoate stranger I knew until I’d spent a decade trying to get my Chinese up to snuff.” If his own mother can be a stranger because they speak different languages, his fear of being a stranger for living a different life is very plausible. Yet the solution is within this too – he learnt to speak her language. He must trust she will do the same. I can picture Matt and Gus living a beautiful life together. If they did have a wedding, I wouldn’t say no to an invite.
The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere is available to read for free online.