Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 2, 2017
It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up.
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 Sabina Murray’s Valiant Gentlemen (Grove Press, 2016); Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s The Autobiography of Someone Else (White Pine Press, 2016); Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016); Tara Sim’s Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, 2016); Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow (Prospect Park Books, 2013).
A Review of Sabina Murray’s Valiant Gentlemen (Grove Press, 2016).
So, this novel was definitely one of my highest anticipated reads for 2016, simply because Sabina Murray is one of my favorite writers. It’s been about a couple of months since I finished Valiant Gentlemen, and I’ve wanted to let the novel simmer with me a little bit, since there’s so much really to discuss. As with most of Murray’s previous works, this one is also a historical fiction, focusing on an imaginative reconstruction of Roger Casement’s life. For the uninitiated, which includes me, Casement was an Irish dissident, who was executed for treason. When you have a historical novel like this one, one of my first questions to ask is: why does the novel have to be fictionalized? In this particular case, there is a very specific answer. Casement’s trial and subsequent execution were complicated by the publication of something called his Black Diaries, which were purportedly to be some sort of journal in which Casement detailed numerous homosexual encounters, many of whom were with young men of color that he met while working in diplomatic capacities in the Belgian Congo and other such locations. Murray had to make a difficult decision, regarding whether or not to consider the Black Diaries as something that Casement actually wrote, which is still the subject of debate today (though some would argue that these diaries have now been officially authenticated). In any case, Murray takes the middle ground in what is an elegant and beautiful rendering of Casement’s life. What makes this novel so striking is that Murray focuses on Casement’s close friendship with a fictionalized character (probably based upon some composites) with a man named Herbert Ward. Their friendship is put to the test, but also made much stronger through their experiences in the Congo, which include the transport of goods as well as surveying type work. Much of the novel moves back and forth between these two characters, and their diverging life paths. Herbert eventually gets married to a wealthier, older socialite name Sarita, who is the daughter of a very successful businessman. They have a number of children. On Casement’s front, he continues to engage in various diplomatic duties, while also developing a secret life as an Irish revolutionary. Obviously, much of these subversive activities were motivated by the many direct observations he made concerning colonial atrocities that extended not only to Ireland, but any of the United Kingdom’s colonial holdings. But again, what makes this work more than a historical document is Murray’s choice in portraying Casement with such subtlety, especially with respect to his same-sex proclivities. The prurient tonalities that might be read in the Black Diaries are not evident here, and Murray’s reminding us that perhaps what is most important about Casement, rather than his sexual escapades, is the centrality of his political vision and the fact of his alternative kinship with Herbert. In focusing the novel in this way, Murray creates an extraordinary fictional composite of this actual life, which in turn encourages us to read further into Casement’s various exploits.
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A Review of Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s The Autobiography of Someone Else (White Pine Press, 2016).
So, this title was one of the big anticipated reads for me this year, because I have already read (and appreciated) Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s poetry. You can find some of these earlier reviews on Asian American literature fans. The question that this book immediately presented to me upon finishing was: if this narrative is the autobiography of someone else, does it make it even an autobiography? LOL. In any case, the B&N page does very little contextual work here, and I was disappointed by the fact that the back cover does not even hazard any summary of the work. The rough narrative goes something like this: Alec is our protagonist. At the beginning of the novel, he has endured some sort of psychiatric institutionalization as a result of a suicide attempt. He’s an actor who has taken on a kind of stage name (Cayle, but pronounced closer to Kyle). While he is able to negotiate time away from the institution to perform, he still must pass a bunch of psychological evaluations if he is to be permanently released. In any case, much of the novel functions through analepses, as we begin to see what brought Alec to commit suicide. On the basis of the narrative alone, it would seem as though Alec’s complicated romance with a peer named Jenny leads him down this path of self-inflicted violence. At the same time, there are moments that suggest familial discord plays a large part in his feelings of isolation and melancholy. But, there are tremendous gaps in this narrative that make it difficult to hazard exactly what has gone on with our protagonist: was his suicide influenced not only by a failed relationship, but also by the fact that his parents seemed to have abandoned him? I couldn’t quite understand how to situate the disparate strands of this work, though Lee is quite adept at philosophical lines of inquiry. One of the strengths of this work obviously lies in Lee’s poetic writing. In particular, Lee threads the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a kind of parallel to the relationship between Alec and Jenny. In this modern-day case, Alec’s powers can do little to bring Jenny back to him, but I still wondered about Alec’s family and whether or not a deeper cultural trauma casts an expansive shadow over this doomed relationship. A thought-provoking if uneven work by Lee.
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A Review of Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016).
Well, there is a very controversial “love” story at the center of Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones. This novel is Chung’s second, after Long for this World. I delayed writing my review for some time after reading the novel and spent some time speaking with other folks about the plot point that is sure to generate much discussion. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s sort of difficult to review the novel without explaining at least some of the complicated dynamics at play in this work. We’ll let the Relegation Books page do some plot explication for us: “In this masterful novel of inheritance and loss, Sonya Chung (Long for This World) proves herself a worthy heir to Marguerite Duras, Hwang Sun-won, and James Salter. Spanning generations and divergent cultures, The Loved Ones maps the intimate politics of unlikely attractions, illicit love, and costly reconciliations. Charles Lee, the young African American patriarch of a biracial family, seeks to remedy his fatherless childhood in Washington, DC, by making an honorable choice when his chance arrives. Years later in the mid-1980s, uneasy and stymied in his marriage to Alice, he finds a connection with Hannah Lee, the teenage Korean American caregiver whose parents’ transgressive flight from tradition and war has left them shrouded in a cloud of secrets and muted passion. A shocking and senseless death will test every familial bond and force all who are touched by the tragedy to reexamine who their loved ones truly are–the very meaning of the words. Haunting, elliptical, and powerful, The Loved Ones deconstructs the world we think we know and shows us the one we inhabit.” In terms of comparison points, the novel reminds me of the problematic romances at the center of works such as Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh and Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. Chung’s novel strikes uncomfortably because it questions the nature of consent and trauma; characters like Charles Lee are rendered with an internal complexity that make it difficult to vilify him as a categorical monster. Nevertheless, the novel raises questions about what makes someone a perpetrator and a victim, especially as those markers become increasingly blurred over time. Of the characters, Hannah is certainly the most intriguing to me, as she is rendered as someone who has been cursed. She seems resigned to this fate, as a child born under dark signs and who must bear the burden of karma not necessarily of her own making. Her disaffection and quiet acceptance of her life and her station are perhaps the most tragic elements of this novel, as Chung’s depictions continually imply that we cannot escape the fates that are bestowed upon us by the sins of other generations. Out of such inheritances, Hannah attempts to carve out some measure of happiness: through her love of French, her ability to swim, and a protective detachment that belies a reflective interior. A complicated topic, but the novel is beautifully written and many passages ring out with a poetic elegance sure to stay with readers long after the final page is read.
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A Review of Tara Sim’s Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, 2016).
I’d been nursing a cold, so over the New Year’s period, I settled in bed with a number of novels. It’s been so long since I’ve just sat down and read that I wondered if I had lost the ability to rampage through books, as I have in the past. I shouldn’t have worried too much. I started on Tara Sim’s lovely debut Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, 2016). As per usual, we’ll let B&N do some contextual work for us: “In an alternate Victorian world controlled by clock towers, a damaged clock can fracture time—and a destroyed one can stop it completely. It’s a truth that seventeen-year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart knows all too well; his father has been trapped in a Stopped town east of London for three years. Though Danny is a prodigy who can repair not only clockwork, but the very fabric of time, his fixation with staging a rescue is quickly becoming a concern to his superiors. And so they assign him to Enfield, a town where the tower seems to be forever plagued with problems. Danny’s new apprentice both annoys and intrigues him, and though the boy is eager to work, he maintains a secretive distance. Danny soon discovers why: he is the tower’s clock spirit, a mythical being that oversees Enfield’s time. Though the boys are drawn together by their loneliness, Danny knows falling in love with a clock spirit is forbidden, and means risking everything he’s fought to achieve. But when a series of bombings at nearby towers threaten to Stop more cities, Danny must race to prevent Enfield from becoming the next target or he’ll not only lose his father, but the boy he loves, forever.” So this description gives us some of the most important plot details, but I have to provide some spoilers, so I’m giving you the warning now. Apparently, all clock towers have spirits contained inside of them, though their knowledge of time and their “sentient” lives is limited. These clock spirits are naturally curious about humans, but their relationships with mechanics, in particular, can end up becoming disastrous, so Danny’s budding relationship with the clock spirit in Enfield (who is named Colton) is a precarious one. Sim populates her fictional world with a cast of memorable side characters, including Cassie, who is Danny’s best friend. She’s a car mechanic rather than a clock mechanic. Since Danny’s dad went missing, he’s maintained an icy relationship with his mother, while he still finds a measure of comfort from his mentor, Matthias, a sort of surrogate father figure. Sim complicates some of the more standard tropes of the young adult genre, especially on her focus on a young male teenager. Further still, the alternative Victorian fictional terrain presented itself with unique and dynamic world building conceits. I especially found the premise of a fictional world populated by clock towers that regulated the movement of local and regional time frames to be quite interesting. I did wonder about the mechanics of this regulation, especially since I’m sure more rural locations would not have had any clock towers at all. Sim’s narrative also suggests that there are clock towers all over the world, so time regulation and the need for mechanics to repair these clocks is apparently important everywhere. Colonial history is also introduced in Sim’s subtle integration of Indian cultural contexts and history. A major rival of Danny is a biracial Indian teen named Daphne Richards. Definitely, one of the more striking young adult fictions I’ve read in awhile. If Goodreads is to be believed, Timekeeper will have at least one sequel, potentially two, thereby following the requisite trilogy form of young adult fictions. Definitely on the must read list for fans of the paranormal/young adult genre.
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A Review of Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow (Prospect Park Books, 2013).
I’ve been meaning to catch up on the Mas Arai detective series; one of the latest is Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow, which is the fifth in the series (after Summer of the Big Bachi, Snakeskin Shamisen, Gasa Gasa Girl, and Blood Hina). I remember when I first saw this book listed on amazon with its cover, I thought the book would be something about a hot air balloon because there was this gigantic red, roughly oval object on the cover. That object was actually a giant strawberry. In any case, B&N gives us this useful plot description: “Curmudgeonly Japanese American gardener and unwitting detective Mas Arai is back in this fifth in the Edgar Award–winning series. Naomi Hirahara has created a memorable protagonist unlike any other: a Hiroshima survivor, Los Angeles gardener, widower, gambler, grandfather, and solver of crimes. In Strawberry Yellow, he returns to the strawberry farms of his youth and encounters family intrigue, danger, and murder. The series' most compelling and evocative mystery yet is set in the strawberry fields of Watsonville, California, where young Mas first arrived as a Hiroshima survivor in the 1940s. He returns for the funeral of a cousin and quickly gets entangled in the murder of a young woman. Was his cousin murdered, too? Mas has to figure out what happened, keep himself safe, and uncover the mystery of the Strawberry Yellow blight and a new strawberry varietal so important that it could be inspiring a murderer.” This description is quite on the money: there are not one, but two possible murders to investigate. This novel, much like the previous ones in the series, engages a complicated and expansive historical tapestry. We discover that Mas was born in Watsonville and actually had a lengthy history as a participant in the agricultural industry, developing friendships with a number of other peers who are main characters and suspects (and corpses) in this story. The cousin is none other than Shug Arai, a strawberry farmer, who we discover had been trying to develop the science around a new strain of product that would be sweet, easy to cultivate, and easy to store. The night after the funeral, Mas and Shug’s son Billy, end up going to an old family farm, which has long since been abandoned. They end up staying the night there, but when Mas wakes up Billy is long gone, and Billy’s mistress, a woman named Laila, is discovered to have been murdered. Did Billy kill Laila? And for what reason? Shug’s own death is suspicious because it seems as though he had created enemies in his search for the newest cultivation of strawberries; rival strawberry companies (Sugarbears vs. Everbears) pit family members, scientists, and businessmen against each other, leading to an ever-enlargening pool of suspects. Though Mas is guided by his internal moral compass, his investigation creates more peril, and he himself is targeted when he fails to leave Watsonville not long after the funeral. The most compelling aspect of this novel for me as an academic is Hirahara’s understanding of Japanese American history, especially related to California’s agricultural industry (and how that history was complicated by World War II, the internment, and interracial/ interethnic politics). This kind of background makes this work an immensely teachable text for any course on Asian American Studies, and the novel would pair particularly well with books like Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart and Bhira Backhaus’s Under the Lemon Trees (which I think is already out of print). My one minor quibble with the novel is Hirahara’s use of the third person, which can lead to some plot telegraphing. At certain points, other narrative perspectives cropped in, which allowed, I think, too much information to be gleaned in relation to possible motives and suspects for the murder(s), but I generally find the third person to be difficult to navigate in detective fiction, and prefer the investigatory claustrophobia/ limited perception of the first person when it comes to this genre. Another solid outing in the Mas Arai series; looking forward to catching up on the next (Sayonara Slam).
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A Review of Jai Arun Ravine’s The Romance of Siam (Timeless, Infinite Light 2016).
So, pylduck reviewed Jai Arun Ravine’s and then entwine awhile back, and I was jazzed to see Ravine coming out with a new creative work, The Romance of Siam, out of an independent press with the best name ever (Timeless, Infinite Light). While I was browsing over at the official web page, I wasn’t surprised to see that Karen Tei Yamashita had blurbed the book, as it reminded me a lot of what Yamashita actually did with Anime Wong: The Fictions of Performance, especially the last section from that collection. Ravine’s both critiquing and having a lot of fun with appropriations of Thai culture, especially as they arise through the cultural productions of “foreigners,” whether from British, American, or other perspectives. My favorite sequence in Ravine’s tragi-comic creative nonfictional work, which can’t quite be called a poetry collection (though it does do some creative work with sestinas), was related to the litany of film connections that the author compiles together. One of the best sequences is a mash-up of Claire Danes and Leonard DiCaprio movies. For instance, Ravine refers to their starring roles in Romeo and Juliet, which was itself an “appropriated” version of the original Shakespearean play. From there, Ravine sees fit to remind us that both Danes and DiCaprio will later separately star in movies set in Southeast Asia; the former in Brokedown Palace and the latter in The Beach. But these films are part of a longer lineage that Ravine traces in which Thailand and associated cultures in the Southeast become part and parcel of a postmodern fantasy: the country becomes the ever-changing tabula rasa for a touristic discourse concerning consumption, exoticism, and Orientalist desires. Ravine traces this kind of objectification through other popular works such as the fictions of Maugham and Anna and the King. As Ravine’s work moves fiercely onward, the textured and overlapping significations achieve a ludicrousness that makes the actual appropriation of Thai contexts seem both profane and nonsensical, but we’re struggling to see what might lie beneath the critique. Certainly, we’re not necessarily starved for the authentic Thailand, Ravine being sure to relate how constructed so many of our perspectives will be, but nevertheless, with so much “white desire” and associated distortions, one gets a sense of being permanently adrift in an unending sea of simulacra. Finally, Ravine makes very excellent use of the travel guide through the tongue-and-cheek usage of footnotes and “key information” excerpts, but what might have pushed this approach to the next level would have been some actual photographic or visual archives. This intervention seems necessitated by Ravine’s choice to invoke the discourse of museums and curation, so I can’t help but wonder about that extra layer of postmodern slippage through the visual realm, especially since Ravine went absolutely all-in with the textual engagements. Hang on to your seats folks, you’re in for a self-consciously, satirical, exotic ride.
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