Butterfly Tears

Butterfly Tears
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Butterfly Tears is a collection of short fiction that depicts the experiences of Chinese immigrant women facing the challenges of life in a new country. The stories are set in different parts of China, Canada, and the United States and examine Chinese women’s cross-cultural experiences in North America as well as women’s issues and political discrimination in China. The stories, or parts of stories, set in China give the reader interesting glimpses into events such as the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death. 

    The immigrant experience, the predominant theme, encompasses a number of aspects ranging from issues such as language and food to education. Feminism and changing male/female relationships form another important theme that also runs through many of the stories.


A witty presentation of Chinese women’s experiences in Maoist China, Canada, and the United States, the women in these stories are haunted by their past in China as they struggle with the challenges of life in a new country. Written with clarity and preciseness, these storiesare deliciously symbolic.

Prof. Li Zeng of Chinese Studies at the University of Louisville

YouTube Video

Guest speaker

Guest speaker at York University

Butterfly Tears

Lecture in the Chinese Canadian Literature class at York



  • The staccato cadences of Roy’s collection still finds a general adherence through the themes of Chinese female life paths and thus it might be better to regard Butterfly Tears as a loosely linked story cycle. Roy’s collection certainly can be taught alongside a number of others, and I especially see that this work would resonate alongside others with strong Chinese diasporic and transnational sentiments; these include Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Ha Jin’s A Good Fall, and Xu Xi’s Access
  • Roy's writing is a joy to read. Her sentences flow with beautiful word choices, descriptive yet not flowery. Each story was a pleasure for me to read, even when I did not actually enjoy the theme of the story.
                                                                                                                                                                                      Nicola Mansfield
                                                                                                                                                       Back to Books

  •  There is also a chasm between mythical China—that of Liang and Zhu—and Maoist China. The first story in the collection touches on the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in the summer of 1966, a moment of transition Roy returns to throughout her fiction. Maoist China not only lacks the music and myth of its earlier iterations, but it also lacks the history that can only be later, and somewhat haltingly, reclaimed.

  • These are stories about women — only one of the fifteen stories has a male protagonist— but as with many women’s lives, theirs have been, and often continue to be shaped by men. One of those shapers was Mao Zedong. Zoë S. Roy herself witnessed the destruction of that time, and this lends an authenticity to the stories set in China and in North America. Despite the physical distance separating the old and new worlds, the protagonists understand that no amount of distance can heal the wounds made by the ruin of so many lives at the behest of so few; the wounds may scab over but they open again and again, and weep.
                                                                                                                                                                          Sharon Hunt
                                                                                                                                                                          The Fiddlehead 
                                                                                                                                              No.  248 Summer 2011 
  • …In “Ten Yuan”, for instance, a man is denounced for telling a joke, and in Twin Rivers, a woman denounces her own husband. The paralyzing fear of the regime is an ever-present undercurrent in these stories, and some scenes seem almost prototypical of Orwell’s 1984.

    There is a distinct feminine and feminist perspective in the stories. Many of them deal with women who cast off traditional values – Confucian or Maoist – to begin a new life in North America where they must confront unexpected challenges and troubles in family relationships. In “Butterfly Tears”, for instance, childhood memories of a crazed old man abandoned by his wife, entwine with an old Chinese myth of thwarted love and with disturbing dreams to torment a woman who is about to separate from her husband.

    This collection offers the reader many captivating cameos of the Chinese/North American experience as seen through women’s eyes. The stories are believable and direct and do not fail to engage the reader with their weave of dream, memory and often surprising turns of fate. Especially intriguing are the stories and scenes set in Mao’s China, which give us a rare glimpse in to the dark and frightening world of the Cultural Revolution, the totalitarian nightmare which in some way or another haunts every one of these stories.

                To read the entire review, follow the link!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Rose Gold
                                                                                                                                                                                                      Her Circle Ezine

  • Zoë Roy’s collection of short stories, Butterfly Tears, is compelling at a number of levels. The fifteen stories are poignant and sensual, as Roy’s characters find their way through the webs of complex relationships and the demands of both urban and rural environments. Drawing out the experience of migrants to North America from the China of the era of the Cultural Revolution, these stories also form an exploration of the subtle consequences of immigration, the gains and the lingering sense of loss.That the main characters are women, and women in whom vulnerability and strength coexist, adds a gender dimension to a collection in which the food and the secrets of its preparation continually symbolize the nuances of both painful and comforting passages of life. 
                                                                                                                                                                                 John G. Reid
                                                                                                                                          Author of The people and Josh Wilson
  •   ...
  • The nuances of intense and deep-felt passion resonate throughout the text. The female protagonists are all capable of responding with a sensuality which belies their being robbed of self under the autocratic Communist regime. The freedom to which the women have access in the West is starkly contrasted with the repressiveness of the modern-day East. An exotic flavor, nevertheless, tinges these pages, and the richness of the Orient is omnipresent in the imagery which Roy uses throughout the book.
    This is a collection to be treasured and admired. Both thought-provoking and mysterious, Butterfly Tears evokes the strength and endurance of womankind across the cultures. A work that will best be appreciated by those with an ear and an eye for the unusual and the unique, don’t let this one slip out of your sight too soon, else you might come to regret it. 
    To read the entire review, follow the link!
                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Lois Henderson

  •         The themes in Zoe S. Roy’s first collection of fifteen short stories, Butterfly Tears, are universal. They explore whether our lives are predestined and, if not, whether we are free and have the courage to better our lives. This exploration differs from the usual, because the life questions are explored through fictitious narratives depicting Chinese women living in China, or as immigrants to the United States and Canada, and they relate to life between 1949 (the time of the Long March) and 1996.             
             To read the entire review, follow the link!
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Marlene Ritchie 
                                                                                                                                                                                             Canadian Women’s Studies 

                                                                                                                                                        Volume 28, Number 1

  • The lives of Chinese women, shaped by forces beyond their control, is the thematic underpinning of Zoë S. Roy’s debut collection of short stories, Butterfly Tears. Formed by cultural attitudes, national politics, or random acts of fate, the characters in these understated narratives find that personal relationships are often at odds with individual happiness. To them, the usual indicators of emotional success are sources of discontentment: marriages fall apart, children are abused, and careers are secondary to their husbands’ own professional achievement.

    Roy, who was born in China and now lives in Toronto, weaves her scenes out of the everyday drama of ordinary people. Through subtle prose, she tempers the current of oppression running through the lives of her female characters and offsets the book’s emotionally charged scenarios with restraint. “Her heart sank the next morning when she opened her eyes and touched the empty pillow beside her,” writes Roy, at the end of one heroine’s affair. “His clothes and suitcases were gone. Unable to hold herself up, she fell to the floor and wept. She knew he had left her life. And now she was alone again.”


    To read the entire review, please buy the issue 15-2 of the ricepaper magazine!

    David Chau
    Asian Canadian Arts and CultureIssue

  • These haunting tales of unrealised dreams and nostalgic regret read like chapters of a novel about the same character. Within the subgenre of the Asian immigrant experience, the protagonists are female in all but one of the fifteen stories, women whose lives mirror and echo similar experiences.

    Moving between China and North American or Canadian cities, married or single, childless or mothers, women’s lives are changed and families divided by China’s Cultural Revolution.

    "Revolution is an act of insurrection whereby one class overthrows another." Mao Ze Dong’s words quoted by the author are the key to understanding the catalyst to this particular migration. In swift transition, an elite class became persecuted outsiders in their own society. In Frog Fishing a teacher suspected of ‘rightist’ tendencies , is saved from an accusation of political disloyalty when a bolder colleague defends her. The story Ten Yuan, the only one with a male main character, conjures the atmosphere of political repression; a young man’s professional future hinges on a chance unguarded remark.

    Children become victims of events they can’t control or understand. In Balloons, for instance, schoolgirl Suyun has mud thrown at her and is called a "stinking capitalist". This is in strong contrast with the status of children of later stories who become the focus of ambitions and a means for their mothers’ to integrate into an adopted culture, although not the sole cause. In A Mandarin Duck, for instance, the abused mother Huidi is awakened to a need to assume responsibility and prompted to learn English when she realizes "she could live in Canada not only for her son, but also for herself".

    Recurrent flashbacks to a former life are ambivalent, both signposts and distractions as the woman comes to terms with her new situation. Glimpses of traumatic post-Mao China depicted in the stories are balanced by memories of idyllic rural scenes. In the title story, Butterfly Tears, set in Montreal, Sunni’s memory is haunted by dreams of her home, and the recall of Chinese legends and music. Her concerns for her son and her husband’s infidelity contrast with childhood security and memory of her grandmother’s stories. In Wild Onions Sha, whose mother died in China, is only able to come to terms with her new life after seeking out a grave in Montreal.


    To read the entire review, follow the link!

    Sheila Cornelius
    The Short Review

  • In BUTTERFLY TEARS, ZOE S. ROY's first collection of short stories, the author (herself a Chinese immigrant to Canada), must tread a fine balance between writing what she intimately knows and yet finding something new to add to a genre -- literature of the Asian immigrant experience -- which so many have and continue to write about.

    With 15 stories in the collection, the book certainly has highlights. The stories are told from a woman's perspective and to Roy's credit, some of her female protagonists question the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood, others yet still reject them in favour of a career or for a chance to live their lives as they see fit. "Frog Fishing" juxtaposes a pastime as mundane as frog fishing against the backdrop of Mao's death. "Twin Rivers" shows heartbreak at its scariest and the consequences that that come with being unable to move on. "Herbs" centers on a woman's decision not to join her husband once she arrives in the United States: a twist in the ending shows that at least this character is eager to break out of her assigned stereotype.


    To read the entire review, follow the link!

    Melanie Ho
    The Asian Review of Books

  • Butterfly Tears, the first published collection of short stories by Zoe S. Roy, is set in Mainland China, the United States and Canada. The stories reflect the tensions, challenges and rewards of immigration, life during the Cultural Revolution in China and explore personal relationships in both cultures.

    Through the everyday routines of the characters, whether working in a field, a factory, at school or at home, Roy builds images of their lives. Nature becomes almost another character in her stories as the smell of wild onions or the sight of ginkgo leaves evoke memories of the past. Chinese folk tales such as the one in the title story as well as folk songs and poems also are used as a bridge to connect the characters between their past and present lives.

    Some of the stories such as Yearning, Wild Onions, Balloons and Twin Rivers refer to the Cultural Revolution, at which time Roy was still living in China. They illustrate how in the fervor of the revolution, trust in interpersonal relationships and even between family members was broken and young people lost their own family histories.

    Most of the stories feature strong women characters and are narrated in the third person. These women are striving for independence and a sense of purpose in their individual situations. In Ten Yuan, however, the author surprises us with a male protagonist speaking in the first person.

    In my opinion, Roy fails to establish as clear a sense of location as she does of character. This is particularly true of the settings outside China and some of the Canadian locations but the fifteen stories in this collection show a versatility and imagination which makes them very readable and interesting. There are even a few love stories for those who like me enjoy happy endings


  • Zoe S Roy’s fiction Butherfly Tears gives a picture of both life in China during the Maoist Cultural Revolution and the experiences of Chinese immigrant women in Canada and the U.S. Many of the titles of the short stories are symbolic. The content of the stories is instructive, and the book is a pleasure to read.

    Rose-Mary Babitch

  • Zoë Roy's well-written fiction has two major themes:
    • On one hand, it is an interesting portrayal of the adaptation to the cultural revolution of Maoist china of educated Chinese women.
    • On the other hand, the story candidly portrays the cross -cultural experiences of the same category of women who had emigrated either to Canada or to the U.S.

    Florent Garnerot



In her bra and panties, she ran along the bank of the St. Lawrence River. Footprint by footprint, one deep, the other shallow. Her left leg became heavy. The river reflected a sad, white glare in the sunset.

      Several blonde men and women in colourful bathing suits played in the ankle-deep water. Their cheerful splashes and voices echoed along the beach. Nobody noticed that a half-naked Chinese girl filled with shame was desperately chasing a man. The man had been her lover, but he deserted her after stripping her of her clothes. Unable to keep up with him, she burst into tears.

Jiang woke up, weeping. Her tears soaked her pillowcase. Her cozy bedroom seemed empty in the dark. Silvery moonlight slowly streamed in through the window and outlined her pale cheeks and puffy eyes.

     The night before, she had dropped by Limin’s apartment again. Knock! Knock! Knock! No one answered the door, but she could hear noises coming from inside. He must be watching TV, she thought. Anger spurted in her, and she kicked the door so hard that it finally opened.

      A man in his late thirties stood near the door. He did not look at

her when she entered. Instead, he shook his head as he turned and

strode back to his seat. The television was on. On the coffee table lay

a bottle of beer, and an empty can of pork with mustard leaf pickles.

Jiang knew Limin would have also eaten a piece of apple pie or a Mae

West cake. He enjoyed Chinese food combined with a western-style


“Why are you here again?” he asked, refusing to look at her.

“You must make a clear commitment to me!” Jiang shouted.

“I’ve already told you I’m unreliable.” Limin shrugged. He was short, with round shoulders. Shrugging made him look funny. “Forgive me. You’ll find a better man.”

Listening to his pitiful tone, Jiang felt a twinge of sympathy for him. But when she visualized losing the only man in her life and remembered her lonely past, desperation filled her.

She glimpsed at the framed portrait of Limin and his wife that he had just recently displayed on the table. They looked as if they were grinning directly at her. Jiang even recognized the smirk that glared out of the photo. Her face clouded over with anger, as she grabbed the frame and flung it onto the floor. “If you don’t marry me, death is the only way out!” Her voice sounded like the cracked glass from the frame shattering into tiny pieces. Limin gaped at the bits of scattered glass, then at her. She slammed the door shut on her way out.

After her nightmare, Jiang was unable to sleep.


Jiang had not found a boyfriend because of her lame leg. She was convinced of this. Many Chinese women her age – thirty-five – had by now become wives and mothers.

Years ago, when she was a student, she thought she had a chance at love. Once, she went to a student dance. She was so nervous about it that she had practiced dancing with one of her friends for weeks before the event, perfecting every movement, working hard at disguising her limp.

That night, a male student invited her to dance. Nervously, she joined him. They waltzed. She concentrated hard on following him, raising her left foot often to compensate for her limp. She did well. Looking at her partner’s smiling face, she felt happier than she had been in long, long time. Practice helps me, I can dance well! She was grateful for her girlfriend who had practiced with her and encouraged her to come to the dance.

The young man seemed interested in her. He suggested they take a walk outside. He led her to a path flanked by gardens behind the dance hall. The heady scent of flowers mingled with the night breeze elated her. She felt confident. When he turned his head, she was startled to see that he had noticed her clumsy gait. “Did you hurt your leg while we danced?” he asked politely.

“No. I … I enjoyed the dance,” Jiang hesitated to explain. “I had polio as a child.”

The young man seemed frozen for a second. “Is that true?” he said, his hand brushing the hair off his forehead. “Why don’t I get you something to drink,” he added. He made his way quickly to a vendor selling bottled juice on the sidewalk, as if he had fled from a corpse.

When he returned, he passed the juice to her. “Let’s go back.” Without waiting for Jiang’s response, he strode purposely back to the dance hall.

Jiang’s heart sank. She felt certain that her lame leg was the reason for his sudden change of heart. In china, a disability could mark you for life.

In Canada, she had hoped things would be different. She worked as a civil engineer after graduating from a Master’s program at Queen’s University in Kingston. On weekends, she liked to go to the university library’s reading room to pour over newspapers and magazines in Chinese. She enjoyed reading in Chinese as it helped release in her the mixed feelings she had about living alone, studying hard, and striving to succeed in a new country without any relatives or close friends to turn to.

One afternoon, while immersed in a copy of Readers magazine, Jiang was interrupted by a male voice. “Excuse me, is that Issue Eight?”

She raised her head. “Yes, it is.”

“Are you a student?”

“Just graduated. How about you?”


“Interesting.” Jiang was curious. “Where did you get your Ph.D.?”

“London University.”

“Wow!” she said, “You’ve been to England!”

They got along immediately. Limin looked modest and amiable, which made a good impression on Jiang.

They discovered they had, at one time, lived in the same province in China. Sharing their memories of the well-known local foods of Jiangsu Province made conversation easy. They recalled delicacies like the dry bean curd strips of Zhengjiang, the mini steamed buns stuffed with crab ova of Yangzhou, and the salted duck and boiled hatched eggs of Nanjing.

From "Twin Rivers"

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