Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 20, 2017
Well, yes, it’s been quite some time since we’ve had a megareview. Our immense apologies, but between ongoing commitments and some technical troubles related to the blogging platform, we’ve shifted our “server” and come to dreamwidth. Fortunately, we managed to import all entries, so the content has still been preserved!
AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.
With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with any concerns you may have.
In any case, in this post, reviews of: Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma (Bloomsbury USA, 2017); Julie Shigekuni’s In Plain View (Unnamed Press, 2016); Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch (HarperCollins 2017); Sonia Patel’s Rani Patel in Full Effect (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016).
A Review of Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma (Bloomsbury USA, 2017).
Ratika Kapur’s stateside debut is the novel The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, which ingeniously employs an unreliable narrator to provide a rather scathing commentary on modern Indian lifestyles and upper middle class pursuits. The titular Mrs. Sharma is our first person narrator, who lives what seems to be a rather nondescript life. She works as a kind of clerical assistant for a doctor, but finds herself transfixed by a fellow train rider. At first, it seems as if this infatuation is merely an innocent crush, but readers soon discover that Mrs. Sharma is actually married with a teenage soon. Her husband is working overseas, and she also lives with her in-laws. Naturally, she must keep her budding love affair a secret from her family. Eventually, her affair with the aforementioned man and fellow commuter, Vineet, becomes more complicated, especially she confesses to him the fact that she’s actually married and has a child. Though she believes that this information will not necessarily alter the status of their relationship, Vineet becomes increasingly convinced that Mrs. Sharma will leave her husband for him. Mrs. Sharma, trying to remain calm and retain control over her life, tries to find ways to break it off with Vineet. Given the incredibly problematic circumstances, we are not surprised to see that Kapur move this novel into a more naturalistic territory by the conclusion. Kapur’s larger point conveys a kind of domestic malaise that envelops the modern Indian family. In this case, it becomes evident over time that both Mrs. Sharma and her son are incredibly bereft of a more stable home life. Mrs. Sharma’s own affair seems less about any social transgression than about the failure of her life: she feels as if she has no control, especially over her husband and his overseas work preoccupations. Her son, too, seems to be acting out due to the lack of a parental father figure. Mrs. Sharma’s ineffectual attempts to push her son toward a more productive occupational direction only exacerbate her sense of hopelessness. What Mrs. Sharma does not expect is that Vineet will also attempt to influence her life. In this way, Mrs. Sharma’s desire to control her image (and the ways that she is perceived) ultimately shrouds her narrative reliability, leading to a rather catastrophic set of final pages. This novel is one of the first I’ve read in awhile that I’d be willing to consider teaching for its formal techniques, especially because the narrative unreliability unfolds in increasingly complicated layers. A promising debut by Ratika Kapur.
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A Review of Julie Shigekuni’s In Plain View (Unnamed Press, 2016).
Julie Shigekuni has always been a favorite writer of mine, especially because I adore her second novel Invisible Gardens (and still indisputably my favorite of her four publications at this point). Shigekuni is also author of the novels A Bridge Between Us and Unending Nora. Her most recent offering is In Plain View, which effectively showcases Shigekuni’s development as a writer. The novel might be termed a neo-noir; it’s appropriately set in Los Angeles. Narrated in the third person, the novel’s perspective most closely follows Daidai, once an art curator, but now taking a break from her academic career in order to conceive. She is married to a fellow academic named Hiroshi, who is the head of a prominent Asian American Studies program. The opening of the novel sees Hiroshi hosting a party for new admits; it is there that Daidai meets Satsuki, a beautiful, young new admit to the program who hails from Japan. Daidai is immediately drawn to Satsuki, despite having conflicting feelings about the way that Satsuki seems to be connected to her husband. The novel’s initial chapters are intriguing because Shigekuni is telegraphing the systemic unease populating Daidai’s life. It’s clear that she loves her husband, but it’s equally apparent that their marriage is not entirely stable. Specifically, the challenge of conceiving a child causes strain between Daidai and her husband. The stage is thus set for the neo-noir to begin, especially once Satsuki’s mother, who Satsuki had thought had disappeared when she was just a young child, is discovered to have committed suicide and that she had been living in a nunnery in Los Angeles, of all places. This event naturally throws Satsuki’s life into chaos, which in turn affects her connection to and nascent friendship with Daidai. The plot gets ever more intricate once Daidai agrees to travel with Satsuki to Japan. As they get to know each other better, this trip also provides Daidai a chance to find out more about Satsuki’s complicated background; Satsuki’s father, in particular, is a prominent art dealer, which of course interests Daidai, due to curation background. It is while in Japan that Daidai begins to realize that Satsuki’s father harbors a dark secret related to his art business. When the tsunami hits (it’s 2011), yet more chaos is thrown at them. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the last half of the text moves in a far darker direction, especially as Daidai begins to investigate Satsuki’s life even further. It becomes apparent that Satsuki’s entire family is shrouded in a larger set of mysteries that endangers Daidai.
As a general fan of this genre, my response to the novel was mixed. I really enjoyed the neo-noir element, but I found the primary connections between Satsuki and Daidai to stretch credulity. Given the suspicions that Daidai harbors early on in the text, I didn’t quite understand why Daidai thought it would be a good idea to go to Japan with Satsuki. I guess her ethos might have been the axiom that “you keep your friend close, but your enemies closer.” Nevertheless, the signature texture of Shigekuni’s writing always anchors the work: we have a very strong sense of place and time, giving the narrative a solid foundation upon which to deploy this mystery. Additionally, the political nuances of this novel are especially evident in Shigekuni’s complicated portrayal of Japanese American lives. Daidai, who we come to discover is half-Japanese, is often made to feel like an outsider because of her mixed race background. Issues of authenticity and identity are thus central to this work and make it a fitting companion to the many provocative mystery novels that take up similar contexts such as Don Lee’s Country of Origin and As a final note, I’d also like to mention the press itself that published this novel. Unnamed Press is one of the nifty independent presses who continue to innovate and to offer up intriguing literary offerings, so please take a look at the link below to check out other publications. I earlier already reviewed Janice Pariat’s Seahorse and Esme Wang’s The Border of Paradise; see those reviews here.
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A Review of Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch (HarperCollins 2017).
So, I’ve been meaning to read this particular memoir for awhile, one that seems especially pertinent in this contemporary climate of nativism borne out of the “make America first” slogan. In any case, we’ll let the HarperCollins site provide us with some preliminary contexts: “In the 1970s, Nigeria is flush with oil money, building new universities, and hanging on to old colonial habits. Abeer Hoque is a Bangladeshi girl growing up in a small sunlit town, where the red clay earth, corporal punishment and running games are facts of life. At thirteen she moves with her family to suburban Pittsburgh and finds herself surrounded by clouded skies and high schoolers who speak in movie quotes and pop culture slang. Finding her place as a young woman in America proves more difficult than she can imagine. Disassociated from her parents, and laid low by academic pressure and spiralling depression, she is committed to a psychiatric ward in Philadelphia. When she moves to Bangladesh on her own, it proves to be yet another beginning for someone who is only just getting used to being an outsider - wherever she is. Arresting and beautifully written, with poems and weather conditions framing each chapter, Olive Witch is an intimate memoir about taking the long way home.” This description condenses the entire memoir into a paragraph and basically skips the bulk of the middle section, the portion involving Hoque’s “spiraling depression.” During her college years, she begins dating a classmate named Glenn, much to the consternation of her parents, who expect her to marry a “good” Muslim Bangladeshi. From this point forward, Hoque seems to internalize the kind of pressure placed upon her by her parents, who are what some might consider to be the “quintessential” tiger parents who prescribe to the model minority paradigm. Hoque’s father, in particular, is an academic, and basically expects Hoque and her two siblings, a younger sister named Simi, and the baby brother, Maher, all to follow his path by getting PhDs or equivalent higher level degrees. To a certain extent Hoque complies by going into a PhD program, only to realize that her heart isn’t in it, that she’s losing her sense of self by circumscribing her life to what her parents want. Therein lies the predicament of the “model minority” child, who realizes the extent of her parents’ sacrifices, while still needing to negotiate her own survival. After surviving a suicide attempt brought on in part by these pressures, Hoque eventually comes to the decision that she must explore her interests in writing and enrolls in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. Once there, she makes ends meet, taking part-time jobs and pursuing her dreams. Especially crucial to Hoque’s work is the fact that her parents aren’t demonized. There’s an obvious reason for their high expectations. As Hoque eventually travels to Bangladesh, on sort of ethnic reclamation quest (one that she’s well aware is only ever going to be partial), she learns more about her father’s history, the challenges of growing up under a postcolonial milieu in which nation-state development was hardly assured, and the fact that he was once a writer himself. This portion of the narrative is particularly rich and affecting, as Hoque sees herself through the eyes of native Bangladeshis: the fact of her foreign-ness is ever present despite the way that she looks and her ethnic heritage. Hoque’s reflective tonality is most assured here, as she embraces the complexities of her parents, especially her father and comes to a sort of rapprochement with him, especially finding a way to contextualize the austere upbringing that so stifled and suffocated her. Hoque also happens to be the author of a linked short story collection (The Lovers and the Leavers), which is out by a British publishing house. We’ll hope that it eventually gets a stateside debut. There’s obviously more to look forward to from this writer!
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A Review of Sonia Patel’s Rani Patel in Full Effect (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016).
I was really excited to see this Sonia Patel’s debut Rani Patel in Full Effect come out of Cinco Puntos press, which some of our readers may know is also the publisher of the absolutely amazing Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (by Benjamin Alire Saenz). Now’s a good point to drop in a link for the press itself:
The official page at this site gives us this pithy description of Patel’s work: “When Rani’s father leaves her mother for another woman, Rani shaves her head in mourning. The visibility of her act of rebellion propels her onto the stage as a hip-hop performer and into a romantic relationship with a man who is much older. The whirlwind romance, coming on the heels of her father’s abandonment, make her begin to understand how her father’s sexual abuse wounded her in deeper ways than she, or her mother, have ever been able to acknowledge. Meanwhile, she seeks solace in making lyrics and performing as well as in her boyfriend’s arms. Rani’s friends warn her about him but she fails to listen, feeling as though she finally has something and somebody that makes her feel good about herself—not recognizing that her own talent in hip-hop makes her feel secure, smart, and confident in ways her boyfriend does not. Indeed, as the relationship continues, Rani discovers her boyfriend’s drug use and falls victim to his abuse. Losing herself just as she finds herself, Rani discovers her need to speak out against those who would silence her—no matter the personal danger it leads her into.” This description does a decent job of explaining the intersubjective dynamics going on in the work, but we should add some important key details without ruining all of the plot. First, Rani’s in high school, not quite an adult, and her father rents out a sort of goods store that the family has been running on Molokai. Since I recently vacationed in Hawaii, I’ve been interested in the many islands I did not get to go to, including the one depicted in the novel: the aforementioned Molokai. There is certainly a regionalist approach to this debut novel, as Patel wants us to understand the small town life on an island has its definite drawbacks. Everyone in the local community seems well aware of what’s going on with Rani’s family, but Rani begins to find an outlet through her rapping. The other important detail relates to a problematic relationship that Rani explores with a much older man by the name of Mark (who I believe is in his thirties if my spotty memory is correct). Patel is already coding a definite red flag at the beginning of this relationship by introducing this intergenerational romance, and we’re not surprised to see it show fairly immediate signs of disintegration and rupture. Sometimes, the novel can verge on the formulaic, at least with respect to the young adult genre, especially with the female empowerment-through-artistry narrative that can be found in a number of other works, but Patel’s ace in the hole is her intriguing exploration of South Asian American contexts from the framework of Hawaiian local cultures. She offers us an interesting paradigm to consider the immigrant narrative from the perspective of newly minted islanders, who must find a sense of belonging in an ethnically diverse, but nevertheless fractured community.
For book buying options and further information on the novel, go here: