[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 13, 2016

In this post reviews of Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books); Jenn P. Nguyen’s The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016); Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, 2016); Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).

A Review of Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books)

So I’ve been catching up on the Asian American poets being published out of Four Way, slowly but surely, and Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books) was next up on my list. Based upon the title, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into because this collection is obviously far more than about blood and birds. This kind of collection is one that leaves you a little bit out of breath because the lyrics are so utterly ferocious: you have a lyric speaker that is obviously working through a very traumatic past, one which includes domestic violence and parental abandonment. Issues related to the speaker’s ethnoracial background are also very subtly woven in, so that you can tell that there are Korean American and Korean transnational cultural contexts being invoked. If the title does key the reader into certain themes that the collection will engage, they are related to brutality—hence the reference to blood—and religion—as, sparrows are emblematic of the divine in some circles. For the lyric speaker, there is an obvious desire to make sense out of the turbulence of her childhood: what better way to reconstruct some semblance of order out of chaos than through poetry, she seems to suggest, especially since the project she sets out to complete is obviously so tortured. There is so much to patch together we begin to realize, so the lyrics begin to lose some coherence, yet accrue the proper sublimity and tonality for what is at stake here. An example of what I mean emerges perhaps best in “We Called it the Year of Birthing” (66), which begins with an ominous enough phrase: “God handed me a trash bag bloated with feathers” and proceeds to direct the lyric speaker to create a bird from the contents. This opening is later referenced elliptically through a later stanza: “When beaten hard enough, some people scamper into corners/ sordid with similar beaten people. Others of us—/the stubborn, unbreakable humans—weld our wounds/ to form tools. Then we spend our days mending bent humans or wiping the humans/ mired by all the wrong fingerprints” (66). To a certain extent, the bag of feathers given to the lyric speaker by God seems to suggest that He’ll be giving her a life in which she will have to make something out of broken parts, leftover things which are already starting to decay. The power of Leigh’s work is that she gives her lyric speaker the chance to find strength in remaking wounds into something new, perhaps even beautiful in these twisted reconfigurations. Is this approach not the best a confessional poet can do in the face of such great trauma? This collection is a perfect fit amongst the others I’ve read from Four Way Books; the editors and publishers of the press are well aware of the ways that confessional poets lyrically confront such deep wounds to remind us that the elegance is in how we choose to recover.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Jenn P. Nguyen’s The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016).

So, I’ll admit: at first, I really wanted to hate Jenn P. Nguyen’s debut young adult fiction The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016).  This novel emerges out of a new era in publishing that is somewhat crowd-sourced in the sense that you can put manuscripts online and have people vote on them and provide feedback. Those manuscripts that receive the most readings, support, and votes in online contests have a chance to be published. Swoon Reads is one of the imprints devoted to this new model of publishing, and Nguyen’s debut emerged as one of the first titles to appear. So, why did I want to hate this novel? For starters, the protagonist and one of two narrators is a high school student named Taylor, who is absolutely convinced that she’s going to be a lawyer, that she’s going to Columbia, even though she got wait-listed, and that she’s far above the high school classmate she wakes up in bed with one morning after a night out partying. Taylor comes off as entitled and certainly not far from the “ice queen” moniker she’s been given, but when she comes up with the idea that she’s going to pretend that she’s actually in a relationship with the guy she ended up falling into bed with (a popular high school lothario named Evan), I didn’t know if I could take much more of this character. In any case, Taylor’s motive for pretending that she’s in a relationship with Evan is to repair her damaged reputation. The thing is: Taylor didn’t sleep with Evan, even though it seems as if she might have. But, the damage has already been done, so she thinks that if she’s actually seen to be in an actual relationship with Evan, then she might have a chance to change the minds of her judgmental peers. In fictional worlds, this kind of plan obviously will work, and of course, the formula for the young adult romance is set into motion. Sometimes formula can seem repetitive and thus boring, but Nguyen really manages to make it work, making Taylor much more likable over time, and even making Evan seem far more complex that he at first comes off. Of course, Nguyen builds in romance triangles into both sides of the “fake romance” equation. Taylor’s competition for Valedictorian is none other than the smart, but cute Brian, while Evan still maintains a connection to a former fling, the more sexually available Lauren. Each character also has a key bestie: Taylor’s is Carly, who is the one to encourage Taylor to get out of her shell, go to the party that ultimately gets her in trouble, and later suggests Taylor “game” the titular “walk of shame” by propositioning Evan with the fake contract. For his part, Evan’s “bro” is Aaron, a football player, who manages somehow to provide sage wisdom at precisely the right time. While Taylor and Evan seem to be polar opposites—she’s smart, he’s not; he’s popular, she’s not—we know Nguyen is setting us up to see that they’re actually “tailor” made for each other. Both come from non-traditional families, and each sees in the other something inspirational, something different, and something that will help him/ her to grow. I’ll admit: Evan’s evolution as a character was the most difficult to swallow, even as I cheered this kind of developmental trajectory onward, as you can’t help but want Taylor to find someone to balance her “type A” ways. If there are other issues to discuss, it’s that thorny question of race in a seemingly racially unmarked world. I don’t recall ever having a moment where it was clear that there was anyone at all racially marked at any point in any manner, except perhaps by surnames. Even in these cases, it wasn’t clear if these characters were racial minorities. Should racial representation matter at all, or does this kind of racial evacuation evince some sort of rhetoric of blindness that can occur through a specific narrative discourses? These questions always emerge at the forefront for me, as I read and consider whether or not I would teach a text like this one, especially from an author, who is, whether or not she identifies as so or not, Asian American. In any case, for fans of young adult fiction in general, this particular publication is sure to please readers, especially those in interested in teen courtship plots.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, 2016).

So, as I mentioned in another review, I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction and children’s literature to get my mind off the serious work that is revising cultural criticism (especially my own terribly bad writing). I basically compiled a stack of about 20 books or so that I’m working through at night when I need my brain to shut off. The next up on the list was Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks, which had a really intriguing title. I didn’t really understand the premise until about fifty pages in, and then, I thought, uh oh, here we have another superhero mash-up novel. In any case, we’ll let B&N provide us some important contextual details: “England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they're not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true—and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared. Jane Austen meets X-Men in These Vicious Masks, the thrilling Victorian adventure from debut authors Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas!”  I really appreciated the fact that the description completely owned up to the fact that the novel is definitely inspired by something like the X-Men series, which I have mentioned in the past (and in lectures) is a comic that I grew up reading, never quite understanding the impact of it until much later on. The real draw for readers will be the mash-up of the detective story with superhero elements: many of our central characters have a special power, but sometimes are unaware of it, just like our heroine Evelyn Wyndham. Though the first half of the plot is very intriguing—indeed, we’re driven as readers to figure out the importance of the superpowers especially in relation to Rose’s disappearance—the detective aspect begins to wear thin. The novel spends hundreds of pages involved in a singular quest: Evelyn’s desire to find her sister Rose. Though Shanker and Zekas are deft in their abilities to pepper in the appropriate romantic tension between Evelyn and Braddock, the quest plot did begin to feel burdensome for me, as I desired to figure out if she would ever be reunited with Rose and whether or not we would ever really figure out why she’d been kidnapped. We eventually discover that there’s a mad scientist (named Dr. Beck), who’s been conducting experiments with individuals who have begun to express their superpowers. He believes that these genetic developments are something called “saltation,” which is his fancy way of suggesting that humans are evolving into “leaner, meaner, fighting machines.” Evelyn and Rose, being sisters, have the same powers of healing, while Braddock, we discover, is someone who can cause other people in his vicinity to fall to sickness. Other “mutants” inhabiting this fictional world include a goon-like giant with super strength, a villain with the ability to teleport, and perhaps the most important in terms of the novel’s title is someone who is able to master the ability to disguise herself. To be sure, Shanker and Zekas will still have time to establish more of the potential inherent in this world, so even as I found myself disappointed by some of the pacing, I’m definitely eager to see where the writers will move in the next installment. A promising, if uneven, YA debut. The sequel is tentatively titled These Ruthless Deeds!

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).

Well, I’ll admit I don’t know what to make yet of this collection, through I’m determined to teach this collection alongside another this fall in my trauma theory course precisely because it presents so many questions about war and the ways that it can be depicted, especially through lyric. Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (after her debut The Morning News is Exciting). Perhaps Choi’s most obvious lyric trademarks here are her use of wordplay—especially the use of adverbs—her interest in interlingual poetics, as well as a desire to confound simplistic understandings of war. The one thing I keep coming back to is the use of the adverb “hardly” as it reverberates throughout the collection. Why use a word like that to describe war, especially the wars that are engaged: the Korean and the Vietnam wars? Indeed, Choi embeds the photographs taken by her father of those war periods as the scaffolding upon which prose poems are built or at least patched together. But, upon a little bit more reflection, it becomes clear that the collection is titled “hardly” war because there is no way to engage this kind of experience in any streamlined, direct way. Choi is aware that her work as a poet and as an archivist can only scratch the surface of loss, brutality, and violence that occurred during these wars. The lyrics related to these wars are thus “hardly” able to do what Choi might consider a representational justice to what occurred. The illogic of war is made apparent through what seems to be nonsensical stanzas and lines that continually pop up, but undergirding this playful language is Choi’s point: the sinister undercurrent is that war is hardly justifiable, hardly transparent, hardly understood. One of the best (and chilling I might add) poems in the collection is the unrelenting “Suicide Parade,” which I reproduce part of here:

Let’s take a closer look at the most feared weapon used by the U.S. in the
Korean War, a gelling powder composed of naphthalene and palmitate
(hence napalm)
65% oleic acid + 30% coconut fatty acid + 5% naphthenic acid
necessitates most arguably necessary clinging burning
necessitates gasoline and stirring (hence gasstir)
which is to say South Korean laborers funnel napalm powder into gasoline tanks

Together, the lines eventually accrue a kind of lyric frenzy that might leave the reader exhausted and assaulted, but that is perhaps the “cruelly optimistic” point. The avant-garde and interlingual character of this collection will no doubt be of interest to Asian American poets and scholars, who have reveled in the work of Myung Mi Kim and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Buy the Book Here:


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 ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com
), who is the social media liaison, expert, and active reviewer. Current, active as well previous reviewers have included (but are not necessarily limited to):

Sue J. Kim, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Jennifer Ann Ho, Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill
Betsy Huang, Associate Professor, Clark University
Nadeen Kharputly, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego
Annabeth Leow, Coterminal MA Student, Stanford University

Asian American Literature Fans can also be found on other social networking sites such as:

Goodreads (with a bad heading because it is not Stephen Hong Sohn’s blog):







[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Shobha Rao's An Unrestored Woman (Flatiron Books, 2016) is a collection of short stories exploring how the Partition of India has impacted individuals and their relationships from 1947 through the following generations. The stories are somewhat linked, with a character in one story popping up in another, usually as a minor character. I like this form for a collection because it suggests interconnections between people and lives, even if they may not know anything about each other's pasts and experiences. (Other short story collections reviewed here have used this form as well.)

shobha rao's an unrestored woman

There is not a lot of hope in this collection--the stories illustrate a lot of cruelty in humanity and a sense of powerlessness in the face of both world-historical events and the unsavory actions of individuals. However, hidden in each of the stories is a solid sense of how people persevere. They may not thrive or achieve (happiness, greatness, etc.), but they continue on, sometimes even to escape a difficult situation for another, less horrible one.

The title of the collection (and of its lead story) comes from the 1949 Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act in India, as the author points out in a prefatory note. This act sought to find the thousands of women in India and Pakistan who were abducted and violated after Partition. As Rao notes, however, "Though the commonly used term for these women is recovered women, I have chosen to refer to them as restored. The distinction may seem trivial, but it is necessary, for I believe that while the recovery of a person is possible, the restoration of a human being to her original state is not." As this perspective suggests, the loss experienced by these women and indeed the entire subcontinent due to the violence of Partition is something that cannot be fully redressed. Instead, what seems to be available to the individuals, their families, and the generations of South Asians that follow is act of chronicling, of narrating, and of illuminating the violence and the losses.

Some of the stories are set during Partition, featuring characters who are making a journey between India and Pakistan. At least a couple of the stories center on the violence inflicted by mobs on travelers on trains. The title story begins with Neela hearing that her husband has been lost in one of these attacks. And in "Kavitha and Mustafa," a married woman flees a train car being robbed with a young boy she initially assumed was also Hindu but then learned was an orphaned Muslim boy on his way across the border to Pakistan.

Each of these stories set in the mid-twentieth century has a linked story featuring characters decades later, often in a diasporic setting (the United States or England), when the individuals who experienced some form of violence during the Partition have survived and lived to join their children who have settled abroad. However, the stories do not trace a triumphalist trajectory for these families, suggesting that the younger generations have found peace and happiness outside of a violent homeland. Instead, these characters encounter their own violence at the hands of other people, such as enduring sexual assault in childhood ("Unleashed," "Blindfold," and "The Opposite of Sex").

The stories address some interesting aspects of Partition and its effects on people. For instance, the narrator of "The Lost Ribbon" is an old woman speaking of what she did when she had been kidnapped and kept captive as a sex slave in Pakistan. At one point, a soldier from the Indian Army approaches the house where she is kept and tells her that they can save her and send her to India, but as part of the treaties between the two countries, her child must stay behind. In "The Opposite of Sex," the protagonist is a cartographer who helps demarcate the line between Indian and East Pakistan, and driven by his desires for a woman he glimpses in one village, he redraws the boundaries in an attempt to derail her upcoming nuptials to someone else and to win her for himself. However, the slight alterations he made lead to disastrous consequences in the village, inciting violence in a heretofore peaceable population.

One thing that stuck out to me in the collection was how homosexuality plays out in unsavory ways as much as heterosexual desire is also always destructive and unsavory. There is perhaps only one glimpse of redemptive love in the character of Renu, who first apepars in the camp for refugees and unrestored women where she befriends Neela and shows her the intimacy of sharing a bed in contrast to the coldness of how Neela's husband uses her body and ignores her need for love. Renu's story is illustrated more fully in the story that follows, in "The Merchant's Mistress," where her unbridled sexuality allows her some moments of peace and happiness in being the mistress to both the merchant's wife and the merchant himself.

However, when it comes to love between men, there is a strong undercurrent of suffering and underhandedness. In "The Imperial Police," the protagonist Jenkins is a white British imperial police officer who pines after Abheet Singh, an officer under his command. Singh's death at the hands of rioters is perhaps a function not just of the ethnic-religious unrest of Partition but also the wayward desires of Jenkins. In "The Memsahib," the protagonist Arun pines after a white woman Lavinia who is the daughter of the family he and his mother serve in their large estate. She, of course, has no eyes for him and instead becomes engaged to another British colonialist. Arun discovers that her husband-to-be is actually in an amorous relationship with Lavinia's brother, but when he tries to save her by telling her this most shocking secret, she scoffs and reveals that she knows all about their dalliances but is only interested in the man's money and what it means for her future. This darkness sets Arun on a decidedly ugly path of revenge.

The writing in this collection is truly stunning, and that the language turns over and over through some truly awful situations and behaviors (people are not good in this book!) is what makes it so powerful if difficult to read.

See also [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn's review of this collection.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
I found Allen Gee's My Chinese-America: Essays (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2015) at my public library while browsing the shelves. The book is a collection of eleven personal essays in which Gee thinks through Chinese American identity and heterosexual masculinity in the context of a range of experiences, historical events, and literary texts.

my chinese-america book cover

Many of the essays seem to center on mainstream white Americans' perceptions of Asians--those bugbears of perpetual foreignness and emasculation--and Gee counters these stereotypes with assertions of his humanity and strength. For example, Gee narrates his resilience and virility with respect to white authority figures (state trooper in "Profile"), desirable white women ("Osaka"), and white/black/brown boys and men who are various kinds of competitors ("Fraught with Masculinity," "Point Guard," and "By 2042"). And in "Asians in the Library," he offers a reading of the infamous YouTube video in which a white female student at UCLA ranted about Asians in the library, juxtaposing her mobilization of tried-and-true stereotypes and fears of invading Asians with Jimmy Wong's musical parody response to the video.

The most memorable essays for me were the ones in which Gee explored his family's stories ("Is It Safe There?" and "Silences") and his own idiosyncratic place in America ("The Real New South"). In "Is It Safe There?," Gee takes as a starting point an anecdote of how his white friends at a conference location asked him to find them a dim sum place for dinner and then proceeded to ask him if Chicago's Chinatown was a safe place for them to visit. The essay then focuses on his experience of New York City's Chinatown in Manhattan, and he describes it as a racial safe haven for him as a young Chinese American boy whose father had relocated the family to upstate New York. Gee considers the changes that Chinatown has undergone over his lifetime--not for the better--and how disrespectful it is for white Americans to visit Chinatowns as tourists who gawk at the everyday lives of Chinese who often are limited in their ability to find work elsewhere. In "Silences," Gee delves further into his family's past and reveals layers of secrets about his parents and grandparents, ultimately demonstrating the resilience of Chinese Americans over the course of the twentieth century in building and sustaining family life in a hostile, racist society.

Because I lived in North Carolina for six years while in graduate school in English, I have long had an interest in thinking of Asian American experiences in the American South, so Gee's explorations of his decades of life in Houston and then Milledgeville, Georgia, are particularly interesting to me. Many of the essays make at least some passing reference to the southern context of his racialized experience, but it is in "The Real New South" that Gee most directly addresses how his presence as an Asian American in certain regional spaces might constitute a "new south," a term that he explains has been around and resurrected in different contexts since the post-Civil War, Reconstruction Era. Gee describes himself as a racial pioneer--someone who is distanced from his home community and communities of other Chinese Americans in other parts of the country. His work is to normalize the presence of Chinese Americans in the South, to be the first Asian person many Southerns meet.

Two other essays stood out for me for different reasons. In "Point Guard," Gee employs an experimental narrative layout. The essay is really two essays, laid out in two columns that run concurrently down each page. The left column is a personal narrative of Gee's life with basketball. The right column chronicles the rise of Jeremy Lin and Linsanity, focusing on Lin's fame and fandom among Asian Americans. In "Echocardiography," Gee offers perhaps his most vulnerable essay, one in which he focuses less on a heroic narrative of his self but rather on a startling moment of weakness when he discovers that he has atrial fibrillation. Through his experience at the hospital, he realizes his mortality.

The final essay in the collection, "My Chinese-America: A Meditation On Mobility," takes a tour through the fifty states. Structured alphabetically by state name, each section is a brief paragraph detailing either a personal experience of Gee's or some significant Chinese (or Asian) American historical figure in that state. Some of the experiences chronicled in earlier essays reappear briefly in this essay, as in the summary in the section on Kansas of the opening essay's narrative of racial profiling by a state trooper ("Profile"). Other brief paragraphs provide new stories and commentary on the racial landscape of the United States while treading familiar thematic territory such as mentions of fishing (Gee is an ardent leisure sports fisherman), sexual encounters, and emasculating stereotypes of Asian men.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Adriane Tomine's Killing and Dying (Drawn and Quarterly, 2015) is a collection of six illustrated stories about different individuals' relationships with various intimates and family members.

killing and dying cover image

As in his previous work, Tomine provides glimpses into interpersonal dynamics that are often unsavory. His characters are seldom heroic but rather petty or otherwise mired in their own sense of martyrdom. The simple, clean drawing style in either monochromatic shading or muted coloring complements the focus on the mundane situations of the stories while contrasting with the sometimes difficult emotional reactions that the characters have.

In "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as 'Hortisculpture,'" a man working as a gardener has aspirations to creating a new art form combining ceramic sculpture and living plant life. His attempts to find buyers and to place his art in a nursery fail, and his frustrations come out with his wife and child. Interestingly, this story ends on a somewhat positive note as he comes to a resolution about his aspirations.

In "Amber Sweet," a young woman is repeatedly addressed in lewd ways when she is out and about, and she discovers that she looks like a famous porn star named Amber Sweet. This resemblance shadows her into her early adulthood and relationships, with some surprising chance encounters, and we eventually discover that she is narrating the story to someone (a significant other?) sometime in the future. Here, the visual narrative offers a lot of interesting information not provided in the voice over narrative or dialogue, such as with the woman's hair length that helps to signal different moments of her life (and how she perceives her resemblance to Amber Sweet).

In "Go Owls," a man and woman meet at a recovery support group and seem to embark on a relationship that seems quite open, honest, and accepting even as it is still troubled and full of cringe-worthy interactions. The man is a small-time drug dealer, but the story eventually reveals that this criminality is just one small part of his shadiness.

Of all of the stories, "Translated, from the Japanese," deals the most directly with Asian/American experiences. There are brief nods to Asian American characters in some of the other stories, but this takes as a narrator a (Japanese?) woman on a return flight to California with her child. The narration is addressed to this child, and the woman describes that flight and how the stewardess mistook the professor sitting next to them as her husband. Upon arrival in California, her husband is there to greet them and to take them to their new apartment where it appears they will live without him. The visuals seem to be largely from the woman's-eye-perspective, so we never really see the characters themselves. This story requires the most reading between the lines, for sure, which is in part what might be suggested by the title's allusion to translation.

The title story, "Killing and Dying," concerns a teenage girl's interest in standup comedy, encouraged by her mother but less so by her father. What is most compelling in the narrative is what happens to the mother--she apparently undergoes chemotherapy and then passes away--all without any explicit commentary in the dialogue. This story shows the mastery of Tomine's storytelling in the graphic narrative medium, where the emotional core of the story is something that appears obliquely in the panels, underlying the (sometimes strange) actions of the characters.

In the final story, "Intruders," a man starts visiting an old apartment of his, slipping in with his old key while the current occupant is out. The story is elliptical, as many of Tomine's stories are, and it's not wholly clear what drives this man to this need to spend a few hours in his old apartment as if he were still living there. We get hints here and there of difficulties in his life that have led to this point when he feels a need to go back.

All in all, these stories are excellent additions to Tomine's body of work. He continues to turn an unflinching eye on everyday characters who struggle with lives that are not quite what they want them to be. He offers careful attention to telling these stories full of unspoken feelings and thoughts.

Reviews of Tomine's other books appeared in earlier posts:
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
The trailer for Arrival, the movie adaptation of Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life," has dropped:

[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
I picked up Amit Majmudar's poetry collection Dothead (Knopf, 2016) from the library's new books display. The cover image is quite provocative, turning the pejorative term "dothead" for wearers of bindis into something new with the laser-like ray either emanating from the bindi on a statue of Shiva or landing the third eye on the statue, like the targeting laser on a gun.


I found this collection of poems to be wide-ranging in tone, word play, and content. The epigraph from Dr. Seuss, "It is fun to have fun / But you have to know how," suggests how Majmudar is playful with words, but the epigraph's pairing on its verso with a page from a dictionary also suggests a weightier side to word play, marked by histories of colonial contact. The photocopied dictionary page includes the definition and examples of the word KEDGEREE or KITCHERY, referring to a mix of rice and dal. What is fascinating about the photocopied dictionary page is how it highlights the interplay of Hindi and English, traces of colonialism manifest in the words and everyday stuff of Indian life. The definition points out, "The word appears to have been applied metaphorically to mixtures of sundry kinds (see Fryer, below), and also to mixt jargon or lingua franca." The definition then continues to refer to uses of the term in England that are "inaccurate" (in its reference to re-cooked fish for breakfast). The table of contents follows this dictionary page, and it is called "KEDGEREE INGREDIENTS" rather than a table of contents, listing each poem with page number as an ingredient.

The collection front-loads poems that address race explicitly, as in the leading titular poem, "Dothead." That poem takes as a setting a not unfamiliar scene of school children at lunch talking to each other and exposing prejudices and misunderstandings about cultural differences. Another early poem, "T.S.A.," describes the experience of racial profiling at airport security lines, and "To the Hyphenated Poets" playfully enjoins such poets to celebrate hybridity:
Being two beings requires
a rage for rigor,
rewritable memory,
hybrid vigor.

These lines are chock-full of repetition, alliteration, and rhymes in a rhythm that reminds me of Dr. Seuss as well as of some of Wallace Stevens's poems.

The poem, "Immigration and Naturalization," begins with the charged line, "We were that raghead family," and worries over the generational split between father and son, exacerbated through language:
We didn't. Nobody spoke
To us, either, though our tongues
Could parrot, palate the sounds.

And the poem unfolds towards a series of questions about identity ("Can I be my father's son / Without being my father?") and an ending stanza that puts front and center the melancholy of race:
But is it still a family
When the son cannot speak
The mother tongue of the father?

Of all the poems on the collection, the one that caught my attention the most was a long abecedarian about oral sex. Each letter of the alphabet lends itself to a word that heads up a short prose poem. The narrative structure shuttles back and forth between exploring the biblical story of Adam and Even from the perspective of why God did not create Adam to be capable of autofellatio and the speaker's confession of his desire for receiving oral sex and how he had forced his first girlfriend to give him a blow job. There is a bit of uneasiness in the speaker's reflections, suggestions of rape in the way he describes the girlfriend's reluctance in the stanza titled "No." The idea of a biblical loss of innocence and the appearance of snake-formed Lucifer suffuses the speaker's personal narrative, and the idea of the speaker's lack of reciprocity comes full circle in a suggestion that Eve's temptation by the snake was in the promise of oral sex for her in the snake's waving tongue.

Majmudar is also Ohio's Poet Laureate for 2016, and I'm fascinated by poets who are poet laureates because of the educational and celebratory aspect of that role. In general, poet laureates put on programs to engage their communities with poetry (writing, reading, performing....). And it is especially interesting for me to think about Asian American poets who have taken on this role as Ishle Park did in Queens, New York, and Janice Mirikitani in San Francisco, California. The role carries with it a number of interesting qualities--publicness, representation, and pedagogical, for example--that give a particular valence to the poetry celebrated in each poet's selection. I'm also curious how poet laureates get selected--whether appointed by an individual or committee or if there is some kind of open competition with applications--and what kinds of criteria the selectors use.

[livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn has reviewed Majmudar's previous novels and poetry collections:
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016) Viet Thanh Nguyen considers the cultural work of war memories and develops an argument about the ethics of remembering and forgetting that focuses on recognizing the inhumanity in Self and Other. Nguyen explores a few cultural forms such as novels, films, visual art, video games, memoirs, and memorials as well as the infrastructures that support the production, consumption, and circulation of such forms (MFA programs, museums, etc.). Ultimately, the book is a form of cultural criticism that also weaves in and out of philosophical discussions of ethics, and Nguyen cites and discusses a range of political philosophers on concepts of memory and war.

cover of nothing ever dies

Nguyen is the author of a recent novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015), which has won great critical acclaim as well as literary awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. I first encountered Nguyen's work, however, in his earlier scholarly book, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002), which has always stood out to me as an interesting piece of criticism that combines textual and cultural analysis thoughtfully with considerations of the systems that support literary studies, in particular the attention to how Asian American studies as a critical ethnic studies field has tended to privilege or discount particular texts for their politics of resistance to white supremacy or lack thereof.

Nothing Ever Dies continues in the vein of Race and Resistance by paying attention not just to cultural forms and the ways they circulate in the world but also to the critical conversations that enable the production, consumption, and circulation of such forms in the first place. Similarly, Nothing Ever Dies also refuses the conversation about good or bad texts (ones that either support a critical/revolutionary perspective or not). One of the most powerful claims in Race and Resistance was that Asian Americanist scholars need to be attentive to their critical lens, developed through the habits and canons of the field, that end up blinding them to the complexity of literary texts they study as well as to the plentiful examples of Asian Americans outside the academy who think very differently about politics (such as with anti-communist Vietnamese American communities and politicians). In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen frames this perspective as the need to recognize the inhumanity of both the Self and the Other. Against most discussions of ethics in war that try to reclaim the humanity of the decried Other (the enemey), Nguyen argues that simply recognizing the victims as humans is an incomplete form of ethical engagement because there is no confrontation with one's own inhumanity (as the aggressor/winner/etc.) or the actual inhumanity of the Other. Putting undue emphasis on victimization is an issue that has come under much discussion, particularly in the idea of identity politics, and Nguyen's argument is not to fully embrace either those who argue for the importance of identitarian-based political struggles or those who say that identity politics are merely a distraction from the true class struggle (based in socioeconomic factors) but rather to suggest that such a framing is problematic in itself and that there needs to be a dissolution of the organizing logic of victim and abuser.

The first part of the book focuses on developing the ethical argument about remembering--whom do we remember and how. Nguyen touches on theories of trauma to discuss the importance of remembering the victims of war but then proceeds to push on how claiming victimhood because the free-floating approach available to everyone to center their perspectives at the expense of others. Furthermore, anti-war activists who advocate for seeing the enemy as victims might succeed in reclaiming the humanity of particular enemies, but the mechanism of claiming humanity does not in itself solve the problem of war since another inhuman enemy has easily and continually arisen as America's new antagonist in the past century. The central claim of Nguyen's ethics of memory is in what he thinks of as the inhumanities--the need to study and think and understand the inhumanity that underlies all wars, even on the part of ourselves and of the good guys.

The second part of the book focuses on industries that support memory work. Here, Nguyen's emphasis is on the fact that the way we remember the war is a constantly produced project--propaganda and soft power--and that there are differences in what kinds of cultural forms of memory circulate widely versus those that do not. He also emphasizes the asymmetrical power and circulation of memory between the United States and Vietnam, between the visual powerhouses of Hollywood and the less sophisticated cinema of Vietnam.

The final part of the book considers aesthetics more centrally, and the chapter "On Victims and Voices" stood out to me as the one that might end up garnering the most attention from other scholars in the field. In this chapter, Nguyen takes on the familiar issue of ethnic writers' assuming of a voice for their communities. Although he does not seem to settle on a very solid claim about what counts as a representative voice or not (perhaps that is his point), he does raise a number of issues about ethnic writing in the United States such as how the mainstream writing establishment (through MFA programs, editorial selection at major publishers, the book review industry, etc.) chooses what kinds of stories ethnic writers are allowed to publish and be lauded for. As a result, he states that those Vietnamese American writers who have become widely known in the past couple of decades are complicit in the telling of war stories about Vietnam that support a particularly American understanding of the war and the people.

Overall, I found Nothing Ever Dies to be a thoughtful consideration of the ethics of memory and the issues of ethnic writing in the United States. I'm curious to see how scholars in Asian American literature take up this book of criticism but also how the general public and the industry of book reviews takes it up. It extends the arguments of his earlier work in Race and Resistance and also takes as touchstones many critical issues in the academic field of Asian American literary studies, so I wonder how much traction it might have with people who are unfamiliar with the lay of the land.
[identity profile] skim666.livejournal.com
Review of Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan (Angry Robot 2016)

Peter Tieryas’ new science fiction novel, The United States of Japan (USJ), opens in a Japanese American prison camp in 1948, written from the perspective of internees who are by turns angry, scared, and conflicted. Then, the American soldiers disappear and the Imperial Japanese Army arrives to announce that the U.S. has surrendered in the face of attacks by mecha-like giant robots unleashed by Japan. Reactions of the newly-freed internees are mixed. I was hooked.

I’m a fan of Philip K. Dick, and as the back of the book notes, USJ takes its initial cue from the premise of The Man in the High Castle. But just as Dick’s 1963 classic reflected its own time period’s values and concerns (particularly in its fetishization of the I Ching), USJ is a text of the twenty-first century. Social forces, ideas, ideals, and texts are suffused throughout social networks, personal electronic devices (called “porticals” in the novel), and decentralized webs, and thus impossible to pin down. Yet, stubbornly, characters continue to search for meaning, connection, and justice..

The bulk of the narrative takes place in 1988 Los Angeles, in which Beniko “Ben” Ishimura, is a Captain in the Japanese Imperial Army, Office of the Censor, and Akiko Tsukino, an agent of the Tokko, or the Japanese imperial secret police. Although a talented programmer, Ben is something of a disappointment; he is the only person in his class from the Berkeley Military Academic for Games Studies who has not reached the level of colonel. As a child, Ben had turned in his parents to the authorities for speaking against the empire. But despite this early show of loyalty, he meanders through life in a state of ambivalence and borderline paranoia. Agent Akiko Tsukino, in contrast, is a true believer; in wielding the torture and bioweapons that are the tools of her trade, she finds grim righteousness as well as scorn for her weak victims.

When Ben is contacted by his former boss, General Kazuhiro Mutsuraga, about the death of the general’s daughter Claire, Akiko is sent to question him. There is an unauthorized video game circulating called the United States of America, which not only imagines that the U.S. won in 1948 but also trains people to fight to overthrow the Empire in the present. This game is tied to the George Washingtons, or GW’s, an underground resistance movement, and the now missing General Mutsuraga is suspected of having created this game. Ben, due to his proximity to the General and his facility with games, is by association also suspect. But in pursuing Mutsuraga, the GWs, and the video game, neither Ben nor Akiko – nor the reader – find what is expected.

Amid complex layers of political and personal dynamics, these initial narratives unravel to explore what it means to be mixed race, to be a cyborg, to be loyal, to be a patriot, to be a resistance fighter, to be a gamer, to a be a human being. The novel is great fun – intellectually, ethically, and aesthetically – and I’ll be pondering its implications for a while.

As other reviews have noted, the novel pays homage to Japanese pop culture as well as classic science fiction. But what resonates most with me are the political-ethical-philosophical questions raised by an early, unresolved conversation debate early in the novel:

            “Think about the way the Americans treated us. Even when we weren’t in camps, they’d always call us nips or chinks, vandalize our stores, and harass us. They think we all look the same – Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean.”
            “But America stood for something, a dream that goes beyond race or background,” Ezekiel said.
            “Something even they didn’t believe when it came time for action.”
            “It’s what they were striving for.” (USJ, 28)

As much and more than ever, this captures the central conundrum we face in the U.S. Peter Tieryas, author of the award-winning Bald New World and Watering Heaven, has given us an Asian American sci-fi classic that draws on the best traditions of speculative fiction to meditate seriously on what any of us can/should think and do in a world of repression, surveillance, disillusionment, and uncertainty.

Buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/United-States-Japan-Peter-Tieryas/dp/0857665332 ;
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 20, 2016

In this post, reviews of: Melissa de la Cruz’s Return to the Isle of the Lost (Disney-Hyperion 2016); Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish (illustrated by Isabel Roxas)(Disney-Hyperion, 2016); Vasudev Murthy’s Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015); Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love (Knopf Doubleday, 2016); Jun Yun’s Shelter (Picador 2016); Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (Touchstone Canada, 2016); Eisha Marjara’s Faerie (Arsenal Pulp, 2016); Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee (Quercus, 2015).

A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s Return to the Isle of the Lost (Disney-Hyperion 2016).

So, I’ve definitely been on a young adult and children’s literature kick lately. I think the focus is attributable to the fact that I’m spending so much of my actual day on revising academic writing that I really need a good mental break. There’s nothing better than plot-driven narratives that typically involve streamlined perspectives. In any case, Melissa de al Cruz’s Return to the Isle of the Lost (Disney Hyperion 2016) is her follow-up to the wonderfully fun Isle of the Lost, which involved her reconsideration of the Disney world through the lens of the children of its villains. We’ll let B&N take up the summary for the sequel: “Mal's an expert at intimidating her enemies, but she's broken the habit since leaving her villainous roots behind. So when she and her friends Evie, Carlos, and Jay all receive threatening messages demanding they return home, Mal can't believe it. Sure, she's King Ben's girlfriend now, and she's usually nice to her classmates, but she still didn't think anyone would be silly enough to try to push her around. The thing is, it kind of worked. Especially since she and her friends have a sneaking suspicion that their villainous parents are behind the messages. And when Evie looks into her Magic Mirror, what she sees only confirms their fears. Maleficent's just a tiny lizard after her run-in with Mal at Ben's Coronation, but she's the worst villain in the land for a reason. Could she have found a way to escape? Whatever's going on, Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay know they have to sneak back to the Isle and get to the bottom of it. Without its infamous leader, the island's even worse than when they left it, but the comforts of home-even a home as gloomy as the Isle of the Lost-can be hard to resist for recently reformed villains. Will the kids be able to beat the evil bubbling at the Isle's wicked core, or will the plot to destroy Auradon succeed?” So, what this summary doesn’t detail is that Mal’s best friends are the children of other famous Disney villains, with Evie being the daughter of the Evil Queen; Carlos, the son of Cruella de Vil; and Jay, the son of Jafar. Once they travel back to the Isle of the Lost, they start to discover that someone may be using their identities to create an “anti-heroes” club. Their investigation leads them to find out the forces behind the club and why it is being created, which pushes the plot toward its resolution. de la Cruz is well aware of the formula she laid out in the first novel, which turns our expectations for villainy on its head. She uses this ethos as the guide for this particular work, which allows it to succeed on its own level. Indeed, just because someone is beautiful and fair-haired does not necessarily deem them to be a hero, nor does a dark, brooding individual with an introverted personality suggest that figure is supposed to be malevolent (or maleficent). Pitched at younger audiences, it is sure to be engaged with much relish. As with other works by de la Cruz, we don’t necessarily get a strong sense of external referentiality to this kind of work: the political can typically be found only in the ways that you have to reconsider fictional elements as metaphors for social difference. To be sure, one element that this family friendly novel does remind us is that we must move beyond any exterior countenance to find out what morals and values might be actually beneath. The target readers will have little to complain about, especially as this merry cast of young Disney characters still find a way to be good in a world filled with so many devilish temptations.

A nice article on the work:


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A Review of Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish (illustrated by Isabel Roxas)(Disney-Hyperion, 2016).

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a children’s picture book. One of my nieces is definitely getting to the age where she’s getting interested in pictures and even the words on the page, so I’ve been thinking more and more about the genre here. I just had a chance to read and to see Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish (illustrated by Isabel Roxas)(Disney-Hyperion, 2016). The folks over at B&N provide a nice pithy summary as per usual: “When our young hero settles in to read, the last thing he wants is for some noisy animals to ruin the ending of the story. But ruin it they do. And as it turns out, the boy is quickly approaching a surprise ending of his own! Maybe he should have listened to the animals after all. . . . This silly, timeless picturebook with a clever meta twist introduces debut author Minh L 's witty text and Isabel Roxas's eye-catching illustrations.” I didn’t really get the “meta twist” that is referred to here, but I really appreciated how Lê’s story keys into childhood impatience over the process of reading. Thus, this narrative plays out reminding us that there is some measure of satisfaction in waiting upon the big reveal. Roxas’s pictures are also a great pairing with Lê’s story. Again, I have seen different approaches to children’s book in terms of style, and here, Roxas employs a more sketch-like cartoon style that I think is most appropriate for this kind of speculative work. Definitely, one I will want to read to my young nieces and nephews!

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A Review of Vasudev Murthy’s Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015).

Vasudev Murthy’s Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan is a novel that I found out about doing one of my insomnia fueled late night Internet troving trips. The rabbit hole is very deep my friends; there’s always some new novel or writer that I am completely in the dark about. In this case, it was Vasudev Murthy and his Sherlock Holmes series. As per our standards, we’ll let B&N take things away for our recap: “It’s 1893. King Kamehameha III of Hawaii declares Sovereignty Restoration Day ... Tension grows between China and Japan over Korea ... The Bengal Famine worsens ... A brilliant scientist in Calcutta challenges the system … The senior priest at Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji temple is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Dr John H. Watson receives a strange letter from Yokohama. Then the quiet, distinguished Mr. Hashimoto is murdered inside a closed room on a voyage from Liverpool to Bombay. In the opium dens of Shanghai and in the back alleys of Tokyo, sinister men hatch evil plots. Professor Moriarty stalks the world, drawing up a map for worldwide dominion. Only one man can outwit the diabolical Professor Moriarty. Only one man can save the world. Has Sherlock Holmes survived the Reichenbach Falls? In a seriocomic novel that radically ups the ante, Sherlock Holmes and Watson find their match in more than one man (or indeed, woman) as a clock inexorably ticks. History, mystery, romance, conspiracies, knife-edge tension; a train in Russia, roadside crime in Alexandria, an upset stomach in Bombay, careening through Cambodia, nasty people in China, monks in Japan–here’s a thrilling global chase that will leave you breathless (occasionally with laughter) as the Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years series begins.” The novel opens with a key fact: apparently Sherlock Holmes is dead, so why is Dr. Watson on board the North Star on his way to Japan? Apparently, Sherlock Holmes is not really dead, and Dr. Watson receives a mysterious note that could have only been written by the famous detective himself. Thus, the plot begins in this intriguing and primarily first-person narrative in which Dr. Watson leads us down the path of a complicated and intricate mystery involving the Yakuza, opium, and the fate of the European nations. The opening of the book is perhaps the strongest because we’re wondering about what happened to Sherlock, how he will appear in the book, and what the hell is going on aboard the North Star. The tension ramps up when someone on board is murdered; Holmes and two others, Shamser Singh and a man named Fletcher, team up to consider who the likely murderer might be. From here, I will leave a lot of the spoilers out because part of the fun is Murthy’s ingenious reveals. Though Watson is our primary narrator, Murthy employs a mix of documentation forms (such as letters and correspondences) to give us viewpoints from other key characters. If there is one critique to be made of this occasional shift in perspective, it’s that Murthy chose occasionally to break with the conventions of shifting first to include a strange third person perspective that includes Moriarty. Given the realist conventions of the novel for the most part and the desire to give credence to the fact that this is a “factual” account even to the extent that Dr. Watson is annoyed by editorial suggestions provided by a Poisoned Press Editor (and these asides were absolutely hilarious). The success of this book comes from Murthy’s hilarious use of the first person: Dr. Watson’s voice comes off as the appropriate storyteller for this convoluted and outrageous, but no less entertaining detective plot in which the fate of Europe and other countries seems to hang in the balance. I definitely recommend this one to fans of the genre.

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A Review of Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love (Knopf Doubleday, 2016).

Admittedly, I was put off by the cover of this book, one that includes a parasol. The orientalist imagery is nevertheless somewhat appropriate given the fact that the novel is set for the most part in Japan. We’ll let the folks over at B&N provide us with our requisite plot summary, which in this case is much longer than usual: “After spending the war years in a Canadian internment camp, thirteen-year-old Aya Shimamura and her father are faced with a gut-wrenching choice: Move east of the Rocky Mountains or go ‘back’ to Japan. Barred from returning home to the west coast and bitterly grieving the loss of Aya’s mother during internment, Aya’s father signs a form that enables the government to deport them. But war-devastated Tokyo is not much better. Aya’s father struggles to find work, compromising his morals and toiling long hours. Meanwhile Aya, born and raised in Vancouver, is something of a pariah at her school, bullied for being foreign and paralyzed when asked to communicate in Japanese. Aya’s alienation is eventually mitigated by one of her principal tormenters, a willful girl named Fumi Tanaka, whose older sister has mysteriously disappeared. When a rumor surfaces that General MacArthur, who is overseeing the Occupation, might help citizens in need, Fumi enlists Aya to compose a letter asking him to find her beloved sister. The letter is delivered into the reluctant hands of Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese American serving with the Occupation forces, whose endless job is translating the thousands of letters MacArthur receives each week. Matt feels an affinity toward Fumi but is largely powerless, and the girls decide to take matters into their own hands, venturing into the dark and dangerous underside of Tokyo’s Ginza district.” The summary does a decent job of pulling together the major strands of a very complicated book. Narrative perspective continually shifts among five or so major characters. The summary does not mention Fumi’s sister Sumiko and her life as a bargirl in the Ginza district. Sumiko left in order to provide more money for her family, especially for her mother who was ailing at the time. Fumi desperately misses her sister and part of the title certainly evokes the letter that she writes to MacArthur, one borne out of her sisterly melancholia. It is this relationship that catalyzes all the major plot points and allows the various characters to wind their eventual ways to each other. One of Fumi’s and Aya’s schoolteachers named Kondo also appears as an important character, who also happens to possess translating skills. The latter arc of the book presents a considerable challenge for debut writer Kutsukake, who must find a way to make these disparate elements cohere. Unfortunately, the connection between Matt and Fumi, though certainly rendered in a realistic way, comes off as somewhat diffuse. The fragile relationship between these characters and their respective worlds leaves the novel strongly bifurcated and rendering their stories ultimately too distinct for my taste. Otherwise, Kutsukake does provide us with an intriguing reconsideration of the internment narrative from both Japanese Canadian and Japanese American perspectives. Here, the novel explores the complications of repatriation for many Japanese transnationals, who found themselves stranded once the war ended, and they could not find their way back to the countries that they considered home. Certainly, Kutsukake’s novel must be hailed for its lyrical prose, which makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

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A Review of Jun Yun’s Shelter (Picador 2016).

Okay, so I have a really bifurcated reaction to Jun Yung’s beautiful written, relentlessly depressing first novel, Shelter. On the one hand, I absolutely was compelled to read it start to finish at a breathless pace. On the other, this elegance of the prose stood in severe contrast to the suffocating space of the fictional world. There was often no break from the dysfunctionality and unhappiness experienced by these characters, especially from the self-loathing protagonist Kyung Cho. Let us let B&N do some plot summary work for us: “Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future. A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child? As Shelter veers swiftly toward its startling conclusion, Jung Yun leads us through dark and violent territory, where, unexpectedly, the Chos discover hope. Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one's family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound.” Yun is especially meticulous in her ability to provide insight into Kyung’s incredibly flawed character. He’s a mess, but we get why: his upbringing was a true carnival of “child of Korean immigrant” horrors: he’s beaten by his mother, while his father beats his wife. The story’s main event is a harrowing sequence involving home invasion, and I suppose it’s important to provide a trigger warning here for anyone who might have trouble getting through a scene of considerable violence of many kinds. Once Kyung and his parents are faced with the prospect of a daunting recovery due to the home invasion and associated traumas, all sorts of conflicts and issues arise. One of the main issues is that Kyung and Gillian are broke, so they have to negotiate how they might ask for financial help. Kyung, being a Korean son of immigrants, realizes that he’s going to lose face if he shows too much vulnerability, and does everything in how power to remain independent of his parents, while still showing a modicum of support for them in the wake of all that has happened. Kyung and Gillian’s relationship is placed on rocky ground, especially because it becomes apparent that there is a large cultural divide between them. Despite Yun’s careful attention to Kyung’s problematic childhood, it may be hard to find an emotional center and empathy point for the reader, especially as Kyung finds one way after another to self-implode. His disintegration is especially painful to watch, given the fact that it seems that he so desperately wants things to be better but cannot find a way to claim the kind of agency he so obviously desires. The so-called “hope” referred to in the B&N description really appears in a scant page or so of text, and readers will be divided on whether or not that kind of conclusion will be enough for this tortuous journey of family dysfunction, however effulgent in its narrative development. Despite what I expect will be a polarizing narrative, Yun is obviously an immense talent, and we’ll hope we’re graced with a long, illustrious career of print publications that come sooner rather than later.

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A Review of Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (Touchstone Canada, 2016).

I recall having marked this novel’s appearance on my amazon page a year before its publication. Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety was originally titled Paper Swan, which makes sense given the references to origami contained therein, but the actual title is perhaps more apt precisely because it refers to the convenience store that the protagonist’s family owns. The story and protagonist is named Mary; she’s Korean Canadian and lives in Toronto. Choi’s debut certainly shows flashes of brilliance, as we get an episodic look at Mary’s complicated and uneven life. She must help out at the family store, even as she attempts to navigate fledgling romances, her own education, and familial events (such as the death of a grandmother and the arrival of a cousin from Korea, who is in Canada to study at a university). The novel is tightly structured through chapter vignettes, as each details a particular issue or conflict in Mary’s life. Perhaps, the most central threads involve Mary’s conflicted Korean/ Canadian identity: she finds her family’s cultural value systems to clash quite heavily with her day-to-day experience as a child of immigrants. With few social contacts that are Korean/ Canadian, she naturally must make friends from a mixed assortment of female peers, but all who are not surprisingly outsiders in one way or another. The romantic relationships that Mary develops are another cause for anxiety, as she develops serious feelings for her cousin Joon-Ho, while also simultaneously pursuing her former high school English teacher, who has aspirations to become a creative writer. It is the romantic subplots that eventually become the most catastrophic and here I give you the requisite plot spoilers because the last half of the book includes some pretty serious events. Joon-Ho eventually gets accused of plagiarism and is expelled from his university. At the same time, Mary repels any romantic advances from him. Joon-Ho, feeling spurned, sabotages an electrical system at the store, which results in an explosion. This event ultimately kills Mary’s mother, while injuring her father. Though at first the police do not know who was at fault for the wiring issue, Mary immediately suspects Joon-Ho, but by the time he is tracked down, he has committed suicide. Not surprisingly, the final chapters deal with issues of mourning and bereavement. Additionally, Mary’s romance with the former high school English teacher (named Will) goes south. The conclusion sees Mary exploring her own artistic impulses further. Choi’s debut is a form of the kuntslerroman, a narrative involving the development of the artist’s life. Most compelling in this work is Mary’s exploration of the complicated lives of immigrants and their children. At times, the plotting and characterizations did seem rushed, but overall, a solid outing by this debut writer.

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A Review of Eisha Marjara’s Faerie (Arsenal Pulp, 2016).

After I finished reading Eisha Marjara’s debut novel Faerie, I was surprised to discover it being marketed as a young adult fiction. Our first person protagonist is Lila, a teenager who is struggling with anorexia nervosa. The seriousness of the topic matter and its depiction thus surprised me in terms of the marketing of the work. We’ll let B&N take it from here to provide us with some basics: “Just days before her eighteenth birthday, Lila has resolved to end her life. The horror of becoming an adult, and leaving her childhood behind, has broken her heart. Faerie, a novel for young people, is the fierce yet gently unfolding story of a hyper- imaginative girl who is on a collision course to womanhood. She likens herself to a half-human fairy creature who does not belong in the earthly world; but in the cold light of day she is a psychiatric patient at a hospital, where she is being treated for anorexia - her sickness driven by the irrational need to undo nature and thwart the passage of time. Lila tells the story of how she ended up on the Four East wing: we flash back to her childhood in the eighties, growing up in a small town as the overweight brown kid of Punjabi immigrant parents: her father, a literary scholar whom she idolizes, and her mother, a housewife – ‘the most female of all females who found comfort in cooking.’ Faerie weaves these passages with Lila's downward spiral into life-threatening illness, her budding sexuality, and her complicated recovery in hospital that comes with a price. Written with candor and heartbreaking lyricism, Faerie is a plaintive yet ultimately life-affirming love letter to the bold, flawed splendor that is childhood.” This summary is an interesting one and encourages me to reconsider the novel in light of its psychoanalytic storyline. Is there a kind of melancholia at work in our title character, who seems to suffer under the weight of her racialized and ethnic difference? Is her eating disorder a manifestation of the loss she has turned inward: her inability to become the normative (racialized and ethnic) body that has surrounded her? These questions certainly come up, as we follow Lila’s story. But the titular faerie is an interesting reconsideration of anorexia through the lens of a fairytale figuration. As followers of this figure know, the faerie is not necessarily a magical creature with the best intentions in mind. It often is a trickster, who sets people on wayward paths using equivocation and riddles. In some sense, Lila operates in a similar fashion, as she pushes the people she loves away from her, deliberately hides unconsumed food from the orderlies and medical staff who are trained to help heal her, while delicately avoiding any intimate relationships with peers and other patients. But the novel eventually stages a kind of breakthrough once Lila is able to make a tentative friendship with another girl and fellow patient named Alyssa: what we begin to see is the incredible wall that Lila has fortified against everyone else. No one can really know her internal struggles, her desire for conformity and control, even if they seem to be well aware of that possibility. Once Lila begins to see that there are others who truly understand and empathize with the kind of struggles she faces, the narrative begins to turn, offering the possibility that she might stage another kind of metamorphosis. If there is one minor quibble to be made of this admirable young adult fiction, it appears in the very consolidated concluding arc. The recovery period involving Lila’s leavetaking from the medical facility is incredibly succinct, so much so that her survival seems almost miraculous given the tremendous care that Marjara takes in detailing the lengthy struggle with anorexia up to that point.

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A Review of Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee (Quercus, 2015)

(not the us cover, but can't find that image at the best res).

So, this novel was one I had been waiting to read at the right time. I have already had a chance to read some of Parajuly’s work, as I earlier reviewed his short story collection here on AALF. I was interested to see how Parajuly would deal with the form of the longer novel. His debut in this form, Land Where I Flee (Quercus, 2015), is an impressive, polyvocal, and complex depiction of a dysfunctional, transnational, diasporically dispersed family that hails from Nepal. We’ll let B&N take over some basic summary duties here: “Three Westernized siblings return to their Himalayan hometown to pay respects to their grandmother on her 84th birthday and confront buried family tensions. Now in his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, Parajuly has created a moving family drama about returning home. To celebrate Chitralekha Nepauney's Chaurasi on her eighty-fourth birthday, three of Chitralekha's grandchildren are travelling to Gangtok, Sikkim, to pay their respect, all with the same goal: to emerge from the celebrations with their formidable grandmother's blessing and their nerves intact: a goal that will become increasingly impossible thanks to a mischievous maid and a fourth uninvited guest.” These three “Westernized siblings” have not been seen together in something like two decades due to the fact that Bhagwati (one of the siblings) had run off with an untouchable and thus married beneath caste (though the reason behind her elopement is of course far more complicated than it at first seems). Bhagwati’s rift with her grandmother is one of the larger issues that the novel grapples with, but every child comes with their unique set of baggage. Bhagwati’s sister Manasa, for instance, marries a suitable, elite Brahmin (a man named Himal) but does not realize how much of her life would be devoted to the caretaking of her elderly father-in-law, a duty that has worn her down. Manasa also has a rather tendentious and combative relationship with Chikralekha, especially due to her scorn for Chikralekha’s servant, a hijra by the name of Prasanti. Finally, Agastaya, the elder grandson, is in the closet and travels to Nepal, realizing that his relationship with his boyfriend, Nicky, is coming to a head. The fourth “uninvited guest” is actually the fourth sibling, Ruthwa, who is also marked by a level of infamy due to the fact that he had written a novel that revealed intimate details of his grandmother’s life. His second work was marred by scandal, as it was revealed that some passages were lifted from a V.S. Naipaul publication. His arrival at his grandmother’s birthday is not simply a measure of filiality: Ruthwa is looking to jumpstart his career by focusing on a new publication in a new form. He wishes to write a sort of ethnographic depiction of hijras, focusing much of this new work on Prasanti. Parajuly makes the bold choice to switch among a different narrative discourses. At first, the novel moves forward in shifting third person, alternating from one sibling’s life to the next. But, when Ruthwa enters the picture, he is given a jarring and quite sophomoric first person voice, one that threatens the equanimity of the novel simply based upon the fact that he’s so easy to dislike. What makes this novel particularly compelling, though, is how understated the narrative trajectory becomes: there are no incredibly climactic family showdowns and no easy resolutions. Each sibling undergoes a realistic developmental arc, while readers are denied a tidy conclusion. Perhaps, more fundamental than Parajuly’s domestic plot is the importance of this family in relation to Nepali social contexts. We understand that this particular familial dysfunction is more largely in dialogue with a country under considerable evolution and change, especially as it attempts to modernize. The grandchildren’s diasporic trajectories seem to reflect this move toward a more cosmopolitan future, one that threatens the kind of life that the grandmother so painstakingly attempts to protect. A multitextured and insightful work.

Buy the Book Here:


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 ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com
), who is the social media liaison and expert. Current, active as well previous reviewers have included (but are not necessarily limited to):

Sue J. Kim, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Jennifer Ann Ho, Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill
Betsy Huang, Associate Professor, Clark University
Nadeen Kharputly, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego
Annabeth Leow, Coterminal MA Student, Stanford University

Asian American Literature Fans can also be found on other social networking sites such as:

Goodreads (with a bad heading because it is not Stephen Hong Sohn’s blog):








[identity profile] nkharput.livejournal.com
Kahf's 2006 novel is remarkable in many ways -- notably, it elegantly resists some of the pressures placed upon Arab and Muslim American writers, a resistance that sometimes feel rare. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this novel, though published in 2006, has nothing to do with 9/11; it begins in the 1970s. This is not a narrative that deploys stereotypical tropes, such as misogynist male protagonists or characters that are driven insane by their split identities. The protagonist is a young woman whose faith both contrasts with and complements her independence.

The main character, Khadra, is a pious Syrian American from Indiana, but she doesn't follow the expected domestic trajectory that many Muslim American and Arab American texts lay out. She marries while still in college, gets pregnant, but realizes she doesn't want to have a family with her Kuwaiti husband, who is overly controlling (one of their many problems is rooted in his discomfort with her riding a bike. He goes from saying that "it's unIslamic. It displays your body" to "it's idiotic, riding a bicycle in hijab. You look totally stupid and clumsy and clownlike." He becomes increasingly more controlling: at one point, he objects to other men who try to speak to her at a public event. Khadra resists his attempts to control her and decides to have an abortion; afterwards, she initiates a divorce. She then travels to Syria where she stays with her grandmother and eventually returns with the newfound decision to wear the hijab on a more intermittent basis. But this decision does not necessarily make her less devout:

“The covered and the uncovered, each mode of being had its moment. She embraced them both. Going out without hijab meant she would have to manifest the quality of modesty in her behavior, she realized one day, with a jolt. It’s in how I act, how I move, what I choose, every minute. She had to do it on her own, now, without the jump-start that a jilbab offered. This was a rigorous challenge. Some days she just wanted her old friend hijab standing sentry by her side."

While Khadra's narrative is at the center of the novel, the characters surrounding her run the gamut of what it means to be Muslim: they are secular, devout, intelligent, and thoughtful. No character, flawed as they all are in their ways, is a caricature, including her domineering ex-husband: Kahf has presented a tableau of endearing individuals whose lives intersect at this particular moment in Indiana. This is not simply a story of a Muslim American woman writ large: it is a thoughtful exploration of a community of individuals in Indiana: it is a much a Midwestern tale as it is a Muslim and an American one.
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
July 4th, 2016

Happy July 4th all!

A Review of Berit Ellingsen’s Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio, 2015)

So, I picked up this book on a whim, thinking I would read it before bed, and put it down after about an hour. Unfortunately, I always underestimate the power of my reading addiction. About an hour into the reading, I was well past the halfway point of the book, and I absolutely needed to see it to the end. Berit Ellingsen is an interesting diasporically situated writer. She’s Korean Norwegian, but writes in English. I’ve been familiar with her work on a nominal level (she’s published a number of other works), but haven’t been able to read any (never enough time is my excuse right?). From the official site: “Brandon leaves his boyfriend in the city for a quiet life in the mountains after an affair with a professor ends with Brandon being forced to kill a research animal. It is a violent, unfortunate episode that conjures memories from his military background. In the mountains, his new neighbors are using the increased temperatures to stage an ambitious agricultural project in an effort to combat globally heightened food prices and shortages. Brandon gets swept along with their optimism, while simultaneously applying to a new astronaut training program. However, he learns that these changes—internal, external—are irreversible. A sublime love story coupled with the universal struggle for personal understanding, Not Dark Yet is an informed novel of consequences with an ever-tightening emotional grip on the reader.” Our protagonist is named Brandon Minamoto and though his ethnic background is never fully revealed, Ellingsen is working with some allegorical elements in this work in a manner not dissimilar to Katie Kitamura in Gone to the Forest. This particular review by John Maher over at Electric Literature I found right on the money: “At the center of Berit Ellingsens debut novel, Brandon Minamoto, a former sniper for an unnamed outfit weighed down by the guilt of many kills. After his service, he moves back to an unnamed city on an unnamed continent, where he puts his keen eye to use as a photographer, and picks up work in a research lab at an unnamed local university. There, he meets Kaye, a charismatic assistant science professor who soon becomes his lover. But after an incident with a rogue owl in the lab that leads to their falling out, Brandon hightails it to a cabin in an unnamed town in the mountains, away from his boyfriend Michael, his brother Katsuhiro, and his guilt.” The key and obviously repeated word is “unnamed.” So many things are left unnamed that I was surprised we even got the name of the protagonist in the first place. The beginning of the novel opens in a sort of frame narrative, as we see that Brandon is in a cabin in some sort of former tundra area that has faced the effects of global warming. We are soon treated to a segment that provides us his background in some sort of military operation in which he felt forced to kill people under often dubious and murky circumstances. After rebuilding his life in relative suburban harmony, he complicates things by engaging in an affair with a professor named Kaye. When that affair ends in a strange moment involving an owl attack, we find ourselves back at the beginning time frame, with Brandon, in the cabin, using that northern location as a place to sort of think about what is most important to him and what he wants to do with his life. While there, his neighbors request to use the land around the cabin for agriculture, insisting that wheat and other such plants can be grown with success (due in part obviously to the climate change issues). The plot begins to gain more urgency, as it becomes apparent that Brandon is still interested in Kaye and manages to find ways to bump into him. Brandon also begins to pursue a life long dream: to become an astronaut and applies to a new training program. I didn’t see the concluding arc coming at all, but the logic of one of the major plotting pivots (related to Kaye) somehow fits because everything is so stark and naturalistic, and people’s true motivations never seem to be revealed unless an occasion calls for such transparency. Ellingsen seems intent on giving Brandon a chance for redemption, but the options provided are limited and problematic at best. Ellingsen also weaves in a number of obvious external referents in this particular novel, one of which was the infamous and unexplained Elisa Lam death; Lam was depicted in a strange, viral video looking out of an elevator, as if trying to evade some sort of force. Her body was later found in a hotel’s water tank; the circumstances around her death became the subject of a number of conspiracy theories. Ellingsen’s brief mention here of that particular incident seems particularly useful to situate the novel’s exploration of larger themes concerning chance and destiny, agency and knowledge. An intriguing, philosophically driven work.

The Review over at Electric Literature:


For more on Two Dollar Radio, a cool indie press:


Buy the Book Here:


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 ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com), who is the social media liaison and expert. Current, active as well previous reviewers have included (but are not necessarily limited to):

Sue J. Kim, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Jennifer Ann Ho, Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill
Betsy Huang, Associate Professor, Clark University
Nadeen Kharputly, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego
Annabeth Leow, Coterminal MA Student, Stanford University

Asian American Literature Fans can also be found on other social networking sites such as:

Goodreads (with a bad heading because it is not Stephen Hong Sohn’s blog):







[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
There's an embodied solidity to Sjohnna McCray's poems in the debut collection Rapture (Graywolf Press, 2016).

For example, the poem "How to Move" begins:

I cannot look at anything
     so black as my father's leg
          or used-to-be-leg below the knee,

now a stump. If a child's doll lost
     its flexible hand, the surface
          underneath would be as round

as father's stump. I've touched it once.

We're thrown into a consideration of the speaker's father's leg and his amputation, where the presence of this injury is foregrounded in the context of childhood. His father's blackness, the darkness of his skin, makes him stand out in contrast not just to the people around him (either darker or lighter in skin tone) but also with respect to his first prosthetic leg, made in "the color of oatmeal" that is perhaps meant to approximate normative whiteness.

Rapture is the winner of the Walt Whitman Award for a debut poetry collection, chosen by poet Tracy K. Smith. The sequencing of the poems in this book reminded me of Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds in that both collections start with poems about the speaker's father and mother and end with poems about same-sex attraction and relationships. Like Vuong, McCray's life is framed in many ways by the Vietnam War although in his case, his black American father was stationed in South Korea during the war where he met a Korean woman.

The earlier poems imagine how the father and mother meet in the context of a military presence that condones or even celebrates prostitution of local women. Many of the poems then move into considering the experiences of this mixed-race couple in middle America as well as the speaker's experiences as nonwhite.

Some of the poems capture a sense of the danger and the excitement of sexual awakening and experience. In "Death Is a One-Night Stand," the young speaker follows a "poor boy" out of the city in the dark hillside to view the stars, and he describes the moment of finding himself alone in the night with this stranger as one interrupted by visions of a police search party looking for his body. This fear is balanced only partially with the anticipation of intimacy, which itself is framed around the thought of death: "He places a hand on the dip of my back / to guide me, like Hades, into his world."

The later poems interestingly consider a more settled experience of sexuality and intimacy. Rather than exploring those first encounters and the first blush of excitement, these poems are about a couple's developed and developing intimacy, the way little things help make up both the everyday quality of being in a relationship and also add up to something much larger. This idea is addressed most diretly in "The Green Bowls," where the speaker's lover brings over the titular green bowls as well as spoons and plates to his place, signalling the process of moving in together and beginning to combine belongings into shared trappings of a life together. The bowls, spoons, and plates are symbols of domesticity but also of what underlies it:
I knew I was in love but would have to
cook. We stood over the kitchen counter
as if taken by surprise. Centered in sheets
of newsprint lay not ordinary plates,
but a new shape entering our lives.

I definitely look forward to more poems from McCray and am especially interested in seeing how he shapes language around same-sex intimacies beyond the more tried-and-true language of first encounters, discovery, and the heat of desire.
[identity profile] stlangel38.livejournal.com

I’m going to put it on the table right now: this book—a novel (fiction!)—taught me more about my family and cultural heritage than any history class or textbook ever did.

The plot leans heavily on a historical event and period of time that is never mentioned in American history classes. It is hard to learn history when it has been wiped from the history books. In fact, I don’t remember any mention of Taiwan in my history books before college. I never knew the details of the 228 Massacre until reading this book, despite whisperings of it at family dinners in my youth. I would like to blame the lack of Wikipedia at the time on not following up on what everyone meant by “2-2-8”, but I have to admit I was not the most intellectually curious child.

Me, deep in thought.

When I finally finished this book, I was compelled to talk to my dad about it. I was told first-hand stories about what my own family did in Taiwan to stay safe and what it looks like to live in a country without free speech. A big reason this event is hardly mentioned, even in the Taiwanese community, is because talking about it was forbidden for decades. But even characters in the book that dared to speak about it in America (an entire ocean away from Taiwan) got a good beating for the violation. I guess I don’t blame the Taiwanese community here then. This book taught me that the cultural divide between me and my parents is comprised of more than just a difference of generational age, food, and language. The fact that I could not fathom such suppression of speech about a historic event (what’s done is done, right? WRONG) was very telling; I was privileged to grow up in a culture of American free speech while my own family never had such basic rights. It’s not about speaking English fluently or simply not having enough filial piety in the American culture. It’s about what I have, their sacrifices in the immigration process that lets me have it, and what they didn’t have.

I also learned that my family and all our family friends represent many sides of the conflict embodied by the 228 Massacre. My grandfather’s family emigrated from China to Taiwan to get the hell away from Mao’s red army (of military and citizens alike). Many of these folks that ran from China to Taiwan (my mom’s family) were of the party that kind of abused the folks that were already there (my dad’s family), the people that identify themselves are true Taiwanese people (though they themselves immigrated from China a couple hundred years prior and committed similar atrocities to the natives there…probably the real true Taiwanese folks). It’s interesting to recall the political discussions (read: fights) my family got into in over dinners. It’s also interesting to hear which family friends came from which group.

The ultimate question I asked my dad: “How are you friends with people that identify with a socio-political group that has done so many horrible things to people you personally know?” His answer was simply that people are people, all doing the best they can. “It’s war. There is no right or wrong. You are simply at a place and time and you are swept up with one side or another. You usually don’t even get to choose the side.” It sounded true, but surprisingly forgiving for the atrocities described in the book. Perhaps this was a moment to learn that as an American, I have been privileged to not live through a war on the home front, which tends to complicate things. All the more, I now know that I come from a culture that is a lot more adaptive than I originally thought, given the historical, uh, diversity of my family and family friends.

I learned a bit from this book—historical references, cultural details described, even details on what it is like to immigrate to America in the 80's. The real gold is in the conversations that have revealed things about my family I would have never known otherwise. I’m sure not everyone will have the same experience from this book, but there must be other books out there like this that help people understand their own families in a deeper way. These books are gold.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
It's been awhile since I've read a book on politics geared towards a general audience (rather than an academic one), and Deepa Iyer's We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (New Press, 2015) was a great way to return to the genre.

Deepa Iyer writes from the perspective of a lawyer and activist for racial and immigrant justice, and this book offers arguments for coalitional social movements that connect efforts to combat anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and anti-Muslim laws, policies, and actions. Iyer makes a few central claims about what social justice looks like and how it can progress. Among these is an emphasis on understanding post-9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria as a wide-reaching phenomenon that impacts different people based on perceived racial identities of Muslims. Iyer also reaches back to the historical contexts of anti-Asian sentiments, highlighting exclusion, internment, civil rights movement, and immigration law shifts in 1965 as significant shaping factors in the contemporary landscape of legal and extralegal discrimination. In addition to her attention on laws and policies that have disparate impacts on different populations, she also argues strongly for addressing media and political discourses about these issues. For her, the framing of discussions is often crucial to our ability to understand what is truly at stake.

The eight chapters develop from a close consideration of the Oak Creek Massacre against a gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012 through chapters that consider racial profiling in immigration law and policing; coordinated efforts by right-wing extremists to attack mosques and push through bans on Sharia law in the south; challenges to the model minority myth and cultural exceptionalism that frame Asians as honorary Whites; youth activists who are undocumented migrants advocating for changes to immigration law and deportations; and interracial coalitions fighting police violence.

Iyer weaves her considerable knowledge of the legal and policy world with the voices of people impacted by some of the most troubling moments in post-9/11 America, including young Sikhs whose families were torn apart in the Oak Creek Massacre and undocumented, queer South Asian American youth whose activism has helped open up possibilities for undocumented youth to stay in the country, pursue higher education, and keep their jobs.

Underlying Iyer's overall argument is the idea that America is a land that often rejects non-White others but that nevertheless has the capacity (perhaps even the duty) to change its laws, practices, and personal biases to embrace other Americans. This is where the title, We Too Sing America, riffs on Langston Hughes's famous poem in which the speaker sings America despite being treated poorly.

One thing that is interesting about the book is how Iyer imagines it as part of ongoing and future conversations on race. In the final pages, she calls for all readers to commit to "race talks" in their lives, with neighbors, coworkers (possibly affinity groups in their organization), and others in their communities and across communities. The goal of these talks is to connect people at an individual level so that they learn how much they share with others but also learn to love and respect those who come from vastly different experiences. Her website offers some more guidance on hosting and participating in these race talks. 
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Ocean Vuong's first full-length poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), circles around two major themes—refugee melancholia via intergenerational relationships and the twinning of violence and desire in same-sex attraction.

The book is divided into three unnamed sections. The first roughly focuses on the poet-narrator's father and mother and their experiences fleeing Vietnam to America as well as the continuing repercussions of violence and loss that follow such pain. The second part picks up on queer sexuality, particularly in male–male sexual encounters. The final part sees a melding of the major themes of the first two parts.

The most significant relationship explored in these poems is the father–son relationship, where the father is an intensely important figure in the son's life but someone whose violence haunts the intimate world of the family. Especially in the first part of the book, the poetic voice reminded me of other writing by Asian American refugees who, in their memoirs and poetry, imagine the experiences of their parents and other relatives who experienced the trauma of fleeing a war-torn homeland. There is an interesting move to inhabit these experiences as one's own as well as to detail how such experiences unfurl into the lives of the next generation.

The opening lines to "Always & Forever" is a prime example of the fraught yoking together of kindness and violence, propriety and impropriety:

Open this when you need me most,
he said, as he slide the shoe box, wrapped

in duct tape, beneath my bed. His thumb,
still damp from the shudder between mother's

things, kept circling the mole above my brow.
The devil's eye blazed between his teeth

And later in the same poem: "Or maybe just a man kneeling / at the boy's bed, his grey overalls reeking of gasoline // & cigarettes."

The poem that caught my attention the most is in the third part of the book. Entitled "Notebook Fragments," it appears to be a selection of observations, somewhat random, but the juxtaposition of observations and sequencing of them is, of course, what makes the poem especially interesting. One passage:

An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.


9:45 a.m. Jerked off four times already. My arm kills.

Eggplant = cà pháo = "grenade tomato." Thus nourishment defined
by extinction.

I met a man tonight. A high school English teacher
from the next town. A small town. Maybe

I shouldn't have, but he had the hands
of someone I used to know. Someone I was used to.

As with the book as a whole, this passage shifts back and forth between the speaker's first-person experiences and the experiences of his grandparents and parents. And weaving those experiences together are the world-historical forces of American intervention in Vietnam.

See also [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn's review of Vuong's chapbook Burnings.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Quan Barry's Loose Strife (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) is a collection of poems inspired by a collaborative exhibit with visual artist Michael Velliquette.

The cover image is by Velliquette, a piece entitled Chromasoul from 2012.

This collection of poems is one I'll have to read again and again to get a stronger sense of its nuances and interconnections. As a whole, there are recurring themes of history, war, and violence. The poems unfold across the pages in various layouts. At times, the lines are simply left-justified. At other times, the lines are fully justified, even compressed into two or three columns on a page. Some pages provide fully justified lines that are stretched out to leave plenty of white space between words, and at least one page alternated between left-justified and right-justified lines. This play with the placement of words on the page forces a reading experience that is more attentive to spacing and the visual impact of black words on off-white page.

Another aspect of the poems is Barry's consideration of how others perceive violence and representation. The epigraph comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth, for instance, which sets the tone for a poetic world filled with the chaos of war and ambition. Barry also brings up ancient Greeks like Homer and Euripedes about their representations of violence. And in various poems, she considers images of contemporary war and violence that have seared into our collective memories such as from the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields, of a woman who survived having bleach thrown in her face, of a black man impaled by a white man wielding an American flag as a spear....

I would've loved to have seen more images of the visual pieces by Velliquette that formed the collaborative exhibit to get a sense of the dynamic between visual art and the images of poetry.

See also [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn's reviews of Barry's novel She Weeps Each Time You're Born and other poetry collections Asylum, Controvertibles, and Water Puppets.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
I've long been meaning to read Lynda Barry's books, which are a mix of graphic narrative, autobiography, fiction, and essay. [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn has reviewed three of her books—One! Hundred! Demons!, The Good Times Are Killing Me, and Picture This—previously here on AALF. I finally picked up her recent Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) this week, and I loved its take on journaling and drawing as well as its documentary format of Barry's teaching experiences. The courses she discusses in the book are about writing and drawing by hand as a practice of observation and developing a sense of one's own "line."

What is particularly fascinating to me about Syllabus is how it offers a snapshot of Barry's philosophy of daily writing/drawing as a practice. It reminded me a bit of Betty Edwards's bestselling book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and the follow-up book Drawing on the Artist Within (see her website Draw Right). I obsessed over both books when I was an aspiring visual artist in high school, not because they were manuals for how to draw but particularly because they offered a kind of cognitive overlay to the practice of seeing shapes and rendering them accurately by hand. Her approach is to teach people how to short-circuit all the shortcuts that our brains have developed to see things that then translate to drawings that are not photo-realistic. In one exercise, she asks readers to copy a line-drawing portrait of a person, holding the image upside down. Focusing just on the lines and the shapes created by the lines rather than whether you are drawing an ear or an eye or a hand, most people are able to render the portrait in a much more faithful way than if they had tried to copy the same drawing right side up.

In a similar fashion, Barry has a take on the mind and writing/drawing by hand. She focuses not on rendering photo-realistic art, however, but instead on accessing a sense of creativity in embracing one's unique handwriting and drawing style. Instead of short-circuiting the shortcuts that our brains make when seeing things, she is more interested in a cartooning philosophy (borrowed from Ivan Brunetti) that encourages people to observe the world closely on a daily level and to make drawing and writing a steady practice. Indeed, she is not interested in whether you like or do not like something you've drawn or whether a page you've filled is beautiful and frameable; instead, it is all part of an accretion of work that defines your sense of your own voice on the page. It sounds like her classes enact a kind of discussion of students' work that is antithetical to the traditional "critique" in art classes where students all display their works and have everyone else comment on them, analyzing them for the strengths and weaknesses. Instead, Barry has her students display their works anonymously, and they do not spend time talking about what works or doesn't work in a particular drawing. Most of the engagement they have with each other's work seems to be about building on that work through copying, inking others' pencil drawings, coloring others' inked drawings, adding to a series of panels in a comic strip started by others, etc. Barry states clearly in her syllabuses, in fact, that the class is for people who can draw and for those who can't draw, and she is in fact interested in the kind of drawing that we often dismiss as "childlike." She asks what it means for adults who have not drawn since they were kids to start drawing on a daily basis. In this way, Barry's approach is a little more about accessing creativity as a general principle, more along the lines of Edwards's second book geared towards professionals in various corporate settings who might benefit from thinking outside the box.

As you might guess from the cover image for Syllabus above, Barry is a proponent of using those iconic black-and-white marble covered composition notebooks for daily writing and drawing. The book itself includes pages from the syllabuses for her classes, all drawn in her comic book style. There are also many examples of exercises from her classes and her students' work—both their drawings reproduced directly and her recreations (via copying) of them. Her writing and drawing exercises are geared towards getting students to observe things in their lives in a different way, at a different pace (via writing and drawing by hand) as well as with a different relationship to listening. She has students work on drawing exercises while listening to audiobooks, recorded lectures, and interviews about various topics as well as to music and while eavesdropping in public places. This listening aspect is something I definitely find interesting about the practice of drawing. Drawing activates your brain in a unique way, and it allows you to engage with the world outside (or shut it out) in a powerfully different way than trying simply to pay attention (or to meditate quietly). There have been numerous research studies, for instance, about how doodling during class helps students focus and also remember what they hear better. (Some of these more recent studies focus on the importance of doodling by hand, noting that the widespread use of laptops in classes these days, even for note taking, does not create nearly the same kind of benefits as doodling and taking notes by hand.) There is something important about the physical act of making those lines on the page that helps the brain focus and encode experiences, and Barry's exercises draw heavily on this understanding.

I, for one, will make a renewed effort to pick up the practice of recording some daily observations by hand in the many notebooks I have lying around.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
I recently read a couple of short stories by Asian American writers and thought I'd link them here. Every few years, I wonder about all the short stories, poems, and essays that get published in various literary magazines by Asian American writers. Does the corpus of this literature look different from what appears in book form? Would our conception of the major themes in Asian American literature change signficantly if we drew different frames around what we think of as published literature? What about if we incorporate other types of storytelling or narrative, via new or old technologies like podcasts, stand up comedy routines, and more?

The two stories I read were Charles Yu's "Fable" in the New Yorker and Alyssa Wong's "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" in Nightmare. Both stories are in the realm of speculative/fantasy fiction, and both function on an allegorical register for how we conceive of people's every day life. Yu's story centers on a man trying to make sense of his life's trajectory (choosing a career, finding a wife, having a child to build a family, etc.), and Wong's story considers how a daughter learned to live and relate to others via what her mothers taught and showed her through her actions.

Illustration by Tom Gauld.

There are also a couple of great extras for Yu's story at the New Yorker: a brief interview on therapy and storytelling and an audio recording of Yu's reading of the story. "Fable" is like some of Yu's other fiction in its metacommentary on its own genre and on the way the narrative perspective often breaks the fourth wall of telling a story. There's also an interesting juxtaposition of narrative registers--the fairy tale narrative and a more contemporary narrative of the working man's ennui.

Illustration by Plunderpuss.

I found out about Wong's story because it won this year's Nebula Award for short story. And I found out about the award through another article about how women swept the awards this year--something especially significant in light of some of the crazy stuff happening in the sci-fi/fantasy world with the other major prize, the Hugo Award. I'm really excited to have found out about Alyssa Wong and will eagerly look up her other writing. "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" does something really interesting with Asian American experiences like feeling different from other Americans because of what you eat and creates a fantastical story with monstrous characters that nevertheless plumb the complexities of familial and social relationships that are significant to Asian Americans.
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com

May 23, 2016          

Asian American Literature Fans: Small Press Spotlight X 3 (Four Way, Unnamed Press, and Akashic)

In this post, reviews of Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) and C. Dale Young’s The Halo (2016); Avtar Singh’s Necropolis (Akashic 2016) and Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer (Akashic 2016); Janice Pariat’s Seahorse (Unnamed Press, 2016) and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016).

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As part of my acknowledgement of this month, I am attempting to amass 31 reviews, so my rate would come out on average to a review a day in the month of May. Counting this post, I will be up to 13 reviews (if I have completed my addition properly). We’ll see if I’m able to complete this challenge, but as part of this initiative, I’m hoping that my efforts might be matched in some way by you: so if you’re a reader and lurker of AALF, I am encouraging you to make your own post or respond to one of the reviews. Would it be too much to ask for 31 comments and/or posts by readers and others? Probably, but the gauntlet has been thrown. LJ is open access, so you can create your own profile or you can post anonymously. I kindly encourage you to comment just to acknowledge your participation in AALF’s readership.

At last count, there were approximately 10 comments from unique users, and 2 reviews by Nadeen Kharputly, putting the community at 12!  At the time of this posting, I have completed my 31 review challenge. You still have about 19 comments to go and one week remaining! Go team!

For more on APA Heritage Month, go here:



In this post, I am focusing on three smaller, independent publishers, whose books I have absolutely adored and who deserve way more recognition by readers in general and most certainly from critics, instructors, and scholars.


Spotlight on Four Way Books, with reviews of Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) and C. Dale Young’s The Halo (2016).

I’ll start out with Four Way Books, which boasts one of the most extensive catalogues that include minority poets. Four Way has been near and dear to my heart, as so many of the collections are grounded in the confessional lyric that first drew me to poetry. Some previous books we’ve already reviewed at Asian American literature fans such as Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s collections: Shadow Mountain (2008) and her follow up Bear, Diamonds, and Crane (2011). Four Way has also published works by other Asian American authors; we’ll be certain to roll out reviews of other works in the future.

For more on Four Way Books and their catalog, go here:


A Review of C. Dale Young’s The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016).

Well, it’s been an amazing experience just taking some time to dive back into ready poetry. I don’t really understand why I stay away. One of the highlights of this time has definitely been C. Dale Young’s The Halo, which is his fourth collection (after Day Underneath the Day, The Second Person, and Torn). Young’s The Halo is probably his most structurally cohesive collection, both on the level of theme and of form. In this work, he makes great use of a particular poetic structure involving the quintain. I’m not quite sure if this use of the quintain has a specific formal name, as I’m not all that well versed in such things, but the quintain organizes every single poem that appears whether or not there is six stanzas (which is generally the case in most of the poems, giving off a sestina-like geometric structure) or less. The thematic element obviously comes from the title. In this case, Young uses a motif related to a young man’s experience and shame over his status as a human who has somehow sprouted wings. The question that Young never answers, much to our delight, is how to understand this particular issue: is it simply a metaphor for social difference? Is it actually related to the fact that this lyric figure has extra appendages that should allow him to levitate? There’s probably an element of both somewhere in there. On the one hand, you have a poem like “Annunciation,” which seems to suggest a more literal reading of the wings:  “I learned to hide my wings almost immediately/ learned to tuck and bandage them down” (8). On the other, you have a poem like “After Crossing the Via Appia,” which gives us this gem: “Because my wings had already erupted from between my shoulder blades. Because I had coveted another man in that secret space in my own head, the lean shape of him, his water-drenched skin as he rose/ from the sea off Fort Lauderdale Beach” (30). Here, Young gives us the chance to connect the sprouting of angel wings and the monstrosity associated with it to queer desire, but this reading is later undercut when the lyric speaker does seem to have a chance to explore his feelings with another man, but discovers that this man does not have wings like he does, so to what then does this angelic form refer? Without answering this question, let us turn to the other issue at hand: the central lyric figure’s story becomes complicated when he is in a car accident and confined to a hospital bed, unsure of whether he is alive or dead. The narrative, or so it seems, is that he was run over by a drunk driver, and lucky to be alive at all. There is a surreal moment when he begins to think that the doctor he sees above him is actually himself sometime in the future, as is noted in the poem “Mind over Matter” when the speaker reveals: “The man standing over me was me” (18). The fissure between reality and fantasy, perception and objectivity is where this book really takes flight, if to pun only briefly: we want this lyric figure to spread his wings and to find a way embrace his winged self. A long-ish poem toward the end, “The Wolf,” involves the central lyric figure in a wrestling match with an actual angel, and so we’re taken back into strongly Biblical territory here. As this lyric Jacob discovers yet again that he is just a mere mortal, stuck with some corporeal abnormality that he wants to desperately to hide, we still want him to find his way in the world and out from the under the weight of his self-denigrations and his burdensome wingspan. What Young’s poetry reminds us is that though things might “get better,” the material effects of social oppression are inescapable and tragically destructive. Love, deep connections, passionate desires can all be all too temporary, so what do we hang onto but by (poetically) remaking our wounds and traumas into something we can live with, to keep us warm and cozy during those long stretches us darkness, to find a way to see what can’t be seen (but so often felt) in the intimate space between our shoulder blades.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way, 2016).

Well, gosh, I know I’ve been terribly behind on reading poetry and reviewing it as well. I always forget how much I’ve needed to read poetry, but it becomes apparent upon the first couple of pages of Rajiv Mohabir’s riveting, eclectic debut The Taxidermist’s Cut. Before I get started on reviewing, I wanted to first alert you to a great interview here:


At one point in this interview, Mohabir relates: “My dissertation will be a collection of poems that charts the historical journey of queer indentured laborers who traveled from India to Guyana as well as the personal: my own journey through cultural identities and surviving homophobias. I hope to put into conversation queer migration under Indian indenture (1838-1917), the whaling industry, and contemporary homophobic and racist violences.” This statement is an excellent way to consider the various forces at play in Mohabir’s collection, which draws on a complicated parental immigrant lineage on the one hand and the lyric speaker’s coming-to-terms with his queer/ racialized background on the other. There is a very interesting interlingual issue at work in this collection, and it made me wonder immediately about Mohabir’s background precisely because it reminded me so much of my own. Poetry comes into being for the child of immigrants often in association with a particular field of reference that is then placed alongside interlingual registers. As I was reading the Taxidermist’s Cut, I kept thinking about how his use of scientific language (especially in relation to plants and animals) and tropes connected to taxidermy in general fall in line with desire to categorize and classify every aspect of our lives down to our identities. What Mohabir so effectively deploys is a hybrid mixture of scientific language and discourses of identity that create a lyric amalgam that wonderfully renders the confusion arising in a queer racialized coming of age: the subject seeks power over his life through the process of naming, yet finds himself often stripped of any sense of security through the illicit nature of sexuality and the strangeness of his racial identity. Here are two of my favorite examples of this kind of “hybrid lyric”:

From “Carolina Wren”

On my mother’s porch, a mother
            wren nested amongst Rhododendron roots.
Her eggs hatched into naked skins. I read,
            Wrens reject their young if a boy should touch,

or be touched by, another boy but only after
            I wrapped it in my fingers. Beginning
To fledge, mother smelled only a child’s
            Foreign oils. She abandoned the baby chick (69).

These stanzas show us a really splendid example of lyric equivocation. Here, the lyric speaker is learning a lesson concerning the titular “Carolina wren,” but we’re unsure about how to deal with the italics that signal the “lesson.” On the one hand, the lyric speaker is learning about the problem of touching birds, as the “foreign oils” mark them for expulsion from the nest. On the other, this kind of lesson begins to accrue texture in relation to the development of his social difference: he is foreign in multiple senses of the word. These so-called “oils” of difference mark him perhaps as a figure who cannot be embraced by his family. But because of the ways that the italics are dropped into the poem, we wonder about what the “it” refers to: the indefinite antecedent might at first seem to suggest the boy’s handling of a bird, but given the racialized sexuality of the lyric speaker, the “it” takes on more metaphorical conceits concerning desire and yearning that track throughout the collection. Another wonderful example of the ways that these italics serve to complicate any reading practices appears in “Reference and Anatomy”:

There are many men’s fingertips up and down my own thighs. You ask me their names, so you can stuff them inside me. I smile, They’re all there,
frozen in thick sheets of lake ice, corpses
gossiping about exactly where and for how long
I’ve tongued each man—
You pluck nimbus feathers, to search for
the underlying structure as you position me—
You say anything I say to you is a fairytale” (83).

There’s an intriguing potpourri of mixed metaphors, as the lyric speaker seems to be engaging in an erotic encounter with another man, but the nature of this intercourse is complicated through the problem of naming (a thematic we saw in the previous poem). The “names” being referred to here seem connected to other men and their fingertips, which are somehow dead but animated enough to “gossip.” As with other poems in the collection, the lyric speaker is continually invoked in relation to his bird-like qualities—these “nimbus feathers”—but his social difference marks him as an oddity, something to be examined as spectacle perhaps rather than engaged as an object of beauty rather than a subject of desire. He is being plucked, then stuffed, then filled so as to be displayed, having been hunted perhaps and then transformed as a icon of successful predation: thus, the “fairytale” takes on a darker meaning here, as our lyric speaker finds himself remade into something perhaps both majestic and grotesque at the same time. The Taxidermist’s Cut is a collection that revels in making meaning out of poetic dissonances.

Buy the Book Here:



Spotlight on Akashic Books with reviews of Avtar Singh’s Necropolis (Akashic 2016) and Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer (Akashic 2016)

Another wonderful indie/ smaller press is Akashic Books. They are perhaps most well known for their noir series, but they have also published a number of Asian American and Asian Anglophone author, including Nina Revoyr, Yongsoo Park, and Eric Gamalinda. For more on Akashic, go here:


A Review of Avtar Singh’s Necropolis (Akashic 2016).

Avtar Singh’s stateside debut is Necropolis, which is coming out of Akashic Books. This novel was definitely one of my anticipated reads for this year, partly because of the gruesome, but nonetheless intriguing plot description. We’ll let the official blurb over at Akashic briefly take it away from here: “Necropolis follows Sajan Dayal, a detective in pursuit of a serial (though nonlethal) collector of fingers. He encounters would-be vampires and werewolves, and a woman named Razia who may or may not be centuries old. Guided by Singh’s gorgeous and masterful writing, the novel peels back layers of a city in thrall to its past, hostage to its present, and bitterly divided as to its future. Delhi went from being an imperial capital to provincial backwater in a few centuries: the journey back to exploding commercial metropolis has been compressed into a few decades. Combining elements of crime, fantasy, and noir,Necropolis tackles the questions of origin, ownership, and class that such a revolution inevitably raises. The world of Delhi, the sweep of its history—its grandeur, grimness, and criminality—all of it comes alive in Necropolis.” The opening of the novel is superbly gothic, as it explores that aforementioned collector of fingers. Sajan Dayal is on the case, as well as some of his coworkers, including a younger investigator Smita and a faithful stalwart in a man named Kapoor. Dayal, also known as the DCP, discovers that the collector is somehow obsessed with a mysterious woman (the aforementioned Razia). Dayal and his coworkers employ Razia in order to locate the individual who is engaged in the finger severing. As we discover—and here is your spoiler warning—the serial finger collector is none other than some sort of otherworldly creature who is giving these body parts to Razia as a kind of tribute because Razia is apparently a vampire. The fact of Razia’s vampire-hood is something that the novel toys with constantly. Because Singh more or less creates a realist fictional world, the references to werewolves and vampires reconstruct New Delhi as a location that must be reconsidered from the vantage point of the supernatural. Thus, in this particular work, Singh pushes us to link the supernatural with global capitalism, creatures of the night with drug lords, life everlasting with the desire for the urban elite to retain control and power over the proletarian masses. The most compelling point for Singh is the character of New Delhi, a place that has become a strange amalgam of the ancient and the supermodern, a place that therefore is the perfect one to generate a speculative fiction and a noir-ish narrative. The pacing of the novel is unfortunately uneven because Singh uses Razia and the finger collector as more of a framing device. The middle chapters turn to individual cases that the DCP and his followers must investigate. The structure ends up mimicking the investigatory serial procedural—reminiscent indeed of shows you might watch such as Bones or Castle—in which there are individual mysteries, which are sometimes linked by a larger one. The opening is such a seductive one that when we’re forced to move away from Razia and her possible vampire background, these other plots can seem like diversions, even as they accrue an important texture for understanding the larger forces that Singh is grappling with concerning urban decay and decadence, poverty and exploitation, corruption and wealth accumulation. Despite these momentum bumps, the novel is a compelling one and certain to be a great addition to courses on detective fiction and noir, especially given its focus on a city that has not necessarily or traditionally been attached to mystery and mayhem. Singh is giving places like Los Angeles and San Francisco a run for their money in this re-envisioning of the urban noir.

For more on the book as well as a purchase link, go here:


A Review of Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer (Akashic, 2016).

Before I get started on this review, I wanted to send a huge thanks to NKharput for her reviews of Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer and Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What!

Please go here for those reviews:


Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer is his fiery debut novel, which reminds me a bit of the work of Ayad Akhtar and Mohsin Hamid in its provocative consideration of what it means to be Muslim in the United States. Eteraz is author of at least two other major publications, including the memoir Children of Dust (reviewed here in AALF awhile back) and then the short story collection Falsipedies and Fibsiennes (Guernica Editions, 2014). As I was reading up on Eteraz’s updated bio, the amazon site reveals this kernel: “Recently, Eteraz received the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize judged by Mohsin Hamid, and served as a consultant to the artist Jenny Holzer on a permanent art installation in Qatar.” I can’t say I’m surprised by the fact that Hamid and Eteraz have made their connection given the many obvious thematic and tonal parallels between their fictional works. Native Believer opens up with a party thrown by the narrator (known as M), who is a non-practicing South Asian Muslim and his wife (Marie-Anne), who is Caucasian. This party is important for the narrator based upon his work in a public relations firm; he needs to show the right amount of social graces to help cement his place in a company that would allow him room to advance. But it is also during this party that a senior colleague notices something stowed up high on a bookshelf: it’s the Koran, something that his mother placed there before she passed away. While the narrator believes this moment to be a relatively meaningless interaction, there is a question as to the import of this moment when he finds out he is fired from his job soon after. Did his senior colleague find his copy of the Koran to be evidence of some unpatriotic impulse? While he mulls over this question, he wallows in the wake of his unemployment. Meanwhile, his wife is struggling with her own career advancement in a sales company. She ends up trying to throw side projects the narrator’s way, as a means to keep him busy and perhaps to offer him entry into a new line of work. As the narrator continues to look into other job positions and freelance work, he meets up with a variety of salty and complicated characters, including a Muslim firebrand named Ali Ansari and a former co-worker named Candace, with whom the narrator embarks on an affair. Eteraz is going for quite a bit of shock value in this work, and part of the point is to undermine what it means to be both Muslim and American and to challenge any reductive positioning of Islamic fundamentalism and secularism. Readers should be forewarned that there are a lot of scenes involving sex both in graphic and comic ways. The title is thus ironically invoked: our narrator is a “native believer” insofar as he’s American and understands that his distant religious background will ultimately cause others to consider him as part of a “residual supremacist” group that will bring the nation to ruin. The concluding arc makes us wonder about the primacy of the romance plot to this kind of narrative, which seems to making larger claims about what constitutes the “brown body” in the post-9/11 moment. Those readers who have been following this larger body of work will necessarily position this novel as part of a masculinist ethos that can be seen in the writings of the aforementioned Hamid, and others such as H.M. Naqvi and Ayad Akhtar. I’ve been wondering about the gendered phenomena that tend to polarize the cultural productions, and it would be interesting to consider works such as Naqvi’s Home Boy, Akhtar’s American Dervish, and Eteraz’s Native Believer in contrast to fictions such as Nafisa Haji’s The Writing on my Forehead and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Queen of Dreams. Certainly, an incendiary novel; one wonders how it will be received in Muslim majority countries.

For another useful review, please go to Kirkus Reviews:


Buy the book Here:



Spotlight on Unnamed Press with reviews of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse (Unnamed Press, 2016) and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016).

Finally, one of the newest presses that I have been introduced to is Unnamed Press, which has put out two of the most surprising and wonderful reads for me this year, but they are also the publisher of many other Asian American and Asian Anglophone authors, including Ranbir Sidhu and Kristine Ong Muslim (I hope to review these in the future.  For more on the offerings over at Unnamed Press, go here:


A Review of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse (Unnamed Press, 2016).

Wow, this novel was a real surprise for me. Janice Pariat’s debut novel Seahorse (she is also the author of a short story collection, which has not been published stateside and thus the subject of frustration for me as always) was the second book I read out of Unnamed Press. At this point, I’ll make the typical spoiler warning for those that do not want to hear more about the plot. To that end, we’ll let the official web page over at Unnamed Press do some plot work for us: “The seahorse is the only creature where the male is responsible for reproduction. Male seahorses bear their burdens, as does our protagonist Nem, a hero driven by his decades-long love for Nicholas, whom he met at a University in 1990s Delhi. Nem was not like his classmates, crowding around a TV set to watch music videos and talk about ‘doing it’; instead he opted for lonely walks around ruins. On one of these occasions he spied Nicholas, an enigmatic young professor from London, in the park with another male student. With surprising ease, Nem seduces the much sought-after professor. It is in the wake of this brief but steamy affair, when Nicholas returns to London and Nem tries to continue with his life, that the story truly begins. Nem graduates from university and becomes a successful art critic, but his memories of Nicholas dominate his existence. After an invitation to speak at a conference in London, Nem's obsession with Nicholas returns. Still single, Nem wonders if this will be the opportunity to reconnect with his old and influential lover. Instead, Nem is immediately swept up in London's cosmopolitan world, hobnobbing with the city's diverse artists and writers and enjoying the London club scene. Meanwhile, Nicholas artfully avoids any direct contact with Nem, instead orchestrating a series of clues that lead to Myra, a woman Nem had believed to be Nicholas's sister. Brought together by their love for Nicholas, Nem and Myra begin a friendship with surprising consequences.” So this summary provides a great deal of context for the story, but does leave out Pariat’s wonderfully poetic prose. She further employs first person narration to great effect, as she delves into Nem’s lovelorn melancholic subjectivity. The novel moves back and forth between two time periods. The diegetic present involves Nem’s time in London, trying to track down Nicholas. Instead of bumping into Nicholas, Nem bumps into Myra, who Nicholas discovers is not actually Nicholas’s sister, as she is first introduced to him in that capacity. In the diegetic past, Nem tell us about his quixotic involvement with Nicholas, which occurs mostly over a holiday period in India. Nem and Nicholas’s days revolve around lovemaking, wine and cheese consumption, and explorations on the topic of art, philosophy and the humanities. These sequences are some of the most poetic and elegant of the work and thus are pivotal in constituting why Nem would be driven to go to London in search of someone like Nicholas. In Myra, Nem ultimately finds a kindred spirit, someone torn asunder by love and affected by its incredible loss. The concluding sequence I found surprising, but Pariat is working within the confines of a complicated dynamic of desire that confounds any easy conceptions of gender and sexuality. The last two pages I especially found infuriating because of the way they are ambivalently staged and which possess a kind of non-sequitor-like quality that made me immediately want to grab someone who had already read the book to discuss what these pages meant. On the other hand, despite my gut reaction to the conclusion, it didn’t overturn my overall sentiment about this work, as it reminded me of many other novels that deal with obsession and love, even in the most complicated and thorniest of circumstances. Another recommended read.

For more information on the book, go here:


For a purchase link, go here:


A Review of Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016).

So, I’ve been trying to do a better job of keeping track of small/ indie press offerings, and as part of that effort, I’m reviewing Esmé Weijun Wang’s intriguing and complex debut, The Border of Paradise. The official site over at Unnamed Press gives us this pithy description of the novel, but I am providing you with a spoiler warning here, so do not read further unless you want some major details revealed: “In booming postwar Brooklyn, the Nowak Piano Company is an American success story. There is just one problem: the Nowak’s only son, David. A handsome kid and shy like his mother, David struggles with neuroses. If not for his only friend, Marianne, David’s life would be intolerable. When David inherits the piano company at just 18 and Marianne breaks things off, David sells the company and travels around the world. In Taiwan, his life changes when he meets the daughter of a local madame — the sharp-tongued, intelligent Daisy. Returning to the United States, the couple (and newborn son) buy an isolated country house in Northern California’s Polk Valley. As David's health deteriorates, he has a brief affair with Marianne, producing a daughter. It’s Daisy's solution for the future of her two children, inspired by the old Chinese tradition of raising girls as sisterly wives for adoptive brothers, that exposes Daisy’s traumatic life, and the terrible inheritance her children must receive. Framed by two suicide attempts, The Border of Paradise is told from multiple perspectives, culminating in heartrending fashion as the young heirs to the Nowak fortune confront their past and their isolation.” The element that I found perhaps most fascinating about this novel was the use of alternating first person perspectives across a wide historical swathe. The novel first begins David and Daisy’s perspectives, but later shifts to their children: William and Gillian. Wang continues to complicate the narratorial equation by later adding the perspectives of Marianne and Marianne’s brother. After I finished the novel, I didn’t think of the work as being framed by suicide attempts exactly, especially because the conclusion is far more murkier than the description conveys, but the novel is an impressive and complicated depiction of mental illness as it tracks across generations. There is a point where I got a vaguely Faulknerian impression of this novel, as William and Gillian must live in a home that becomes gothically rendered. What’s perhaps most terrifying about the novel, and a true testament of Wang’s talent, is that you don’t necessarily see right away how deep the problems these characters possess actually run because they are so good at rationalizing all of the dysfunctionality going on around them. Wang makes an interesting choice in the last chapter to narrate it from the third person perspective, and I wondered what encouraged her to go in that direction since she so effectively used the first person throughout the rest of the novel. I especially found Marianne and Marianne’s brother’s characters to be vital to the impact of the novel because they clarify what a dire situation that William and Gillian eventually find themselves in. I wasn’t too keen on the title, though the novel is definitely one meriting multiple reads and certain to be an excellent choice for classroom discussions.

For more on the book go here:


For a purchase link, go here:



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 ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com), who is the social media liaison and expert. Current, active as well previous reviewers have included (but are not necessarily limited to):

Sue J. Kim, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Jennifer Ann Ho, Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill
Betsy Huang, Associate Professor, Clark University
Nadeen Kharputly, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego
Annabeth Leow, Coterminal MA Student, Stanford University

Asian American Literature Fans can also be found on other social networking sites such as:

Goodreads (with a bad heading because it is not Stephen Hong Sohn’s blog):








[identity profile] nkharput.livejournal.com
I've been thinking about the peculiar burden of representation faced by Muslim American writers and artists in our post-9/11 moment. Two texts that attempt to defy the expectations that these writers face are Ali Eteraz's Native Believer (2016) and Ayad Akhtar's The Who and the What (2014).

I am perpetually confounded by the state of the Muslim American literary canon: it seems near impossible to find a Muslim American character who is simply unextraordinary. The canon is replete with violent, misogynist, and crude caricatures. I had so much hope for Native Believer: it begins with a protagonist who seems wholly unassuming. His relationship with his wife is endearing: when she’s stuck in the bathroom at their own party in need of a tampon, the narrator states, "but her issues are my issues too” in response to a guest who asks him if she’s dealing with a “women’s issue.” He wants more than anything to have children but they are unable (for reasons that complicate and shock over the course of the narrative). The prose is humorous and delightful.

But larger issues dramatically shift the storyline: the narrator's relationship with Islam, which was almost nonexistent before this particular moment, takes over when his boss fires him for not only owning a copy of the Koran but also placing the book higher than Nietzsche on the bookshelf, which the boss takes as a symbolic displacement of Western culture by Islamic extremism. In search of what it means to be a Muslim American (even while rejecting that identity), the narrator, known only as M. (but implied to be Muhammad) falls in with a young crowd called the Gay Commie Muzzies who are recklessly debauched, which shifts the notion of what it means to be a radical Muslim. He conducts an affair with an African American woman who, unlike many in the mid-twentieth century, converts to Islam in order to reject the burden of her parents' racial pride. He encounters a number of Muslim American State Department employees — of the sort who travel abroad to prove that Muslims are assimilated in the US. His search for Muslim Americans who can give him a sense of identity yields nothing but a diverse range of characters who feel crudely drawn. The narrator himself devolves into a vengeful monster by the end of the story. Disappointed as I am with the parade of vasty unlikeable caricatures, the author does illustrate the various ways in which it is possible to be a secular Muslim. I just wish the characterizations weren’t so extreme.

The Who and the What is an older work but raises some of the same questions as Eteraz with regard to the burden of portraying Muslims (secular or not). It is Ayad Akhtar's second play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced. Like Disgraced, The Who and the What revolves around a debate about religion: a book about the Prophet Muhammad that is thought to be incendiary. Akhtar's works offer a fascinating lens into what it means to be a Muslim in America in the post-9/11 age: that includes a discussion of what it means to be a secular Muslim, which has yet to be a widely accepted notion by Muslims and non Muslims alike.

Now, Akhtar is the foremost voice in Muslim American drama today: in addition to garnering the Pulitzer, Disgraced was the most produced play in the 2015-2016 season, according to American Theatre. What kind of responsibility -- and, conversely, freedom -- comes with this distinction? This question is very unfairly posed to Muslim American artists of this age. It is also at the heart of The Who and the What: Zarina's book on the prophet -- a book that illuminates how his "contradictions only make him more human" -- is published at the expense of familial harmony. Some critics have wondered whether Akhtar published Disgraced at the expense of the Muslim American community, since his representations of the community are far from flattering. Which goes to say: how is literary or artistic production regulated in the hands of the Muslim American artist, especially in the post-9/11 era?

The Who and the What features an all-Muslim cast: the headstrong yet obedient Zarina, her sister Mahwish, who desperately wants to wed her longterm boyfriend (yet cannot do so until Zarina, her elder, is married), their father, Afzal, whose overcontrolling tendencies stem from the loss of the family matriarch, and Eli, a white Muslim convert that Afzal sets up with Zarina. The diversity of the cast illuminates all the different ways one can be Muslim. Unfortunately, it also presents caricatures that recall unfortunate stereotypes about controlling, misogynist, violent men. The play -- and his other works -- makes you wonder what on earth Akhtar, now vastly prominent as a playwright, is trying to do with his representations of Muslim American characters. But that question is one that unfairly burdens artists of color who are taken to be representatives of their communities. So how do we look past these base questions when examining the works of Muslim American writers? Akhtar has given us the opportunity to begin, at the very least.


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A Veritable Literary Feast

July 2017

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