[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A review of Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House, 2010).



After having reviewed The Vagrants, I suppose I was bracing myself for a collection far more dark in its execution. In a way, I’m glad that Li has returned to the short story form, as the scope of the stories are more domestically situated and not quite as gothic and graphic as what was depicted in her debut novel. These are really stories that give one time to breathe and to contemplate, precisely as they radiate a kind of quiet and dignified sadness. If there is a link to all characters within every story, there is a sense of loss that permeates the layers of each individual psyche. These are characters, many that understood they once had a chance to act upon a dream, but now feel as if a certain moment or possible future has been irreparably lost. While I won’t spend time to discuss each story, I will take on a longer reading of the first story from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, which is one of the first major forays that Li takes in using the first person narrative perspective. The majority of the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl unfold through a third person perspective, a narrative mode through which Li has already shown numerous times how effective she is at using. In “Kindness,” which opens Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (a novelette of sorts as it is approximately 80 pages in length and certainly the longest “story” in the most recent publication), the novel is told from the first-person perspective of Moyan, a middle class Beijing urbanite destined for a brighter future based upon a higher class background in a modernizing Chinese world. This story is clearly evocative of the kinds of changes that China has undergone as Maoist policies have been further hybridized with Western capitalistic influences. But, this is really just the backdrop to “Kindness” as it focuses on the ways in which individuals can irreparably alter the course of one life. Moyan, as she comes to understand herself, had opportunities to become a different kind of person, but a close connection to an educated woman, Professor Shan, results in a very different trajectory. The story is thus about reflecting upon one’s life and thinking about the various detours that one might have taken if one had the chance to do things over again. In retrospect, Moyan thinks about Lieutenant Wei, a woman she had met at a Communist army camp, who although very strict as a military superior during that period, nevertheless hinted at the possibilities of a stronger bond and friendship. Moyan, by this time, had been schooled by Professor Shan, to believe that love is essentially a kind of trap, one that leads to more suffering. However, “Kindness” seems to suggest that risk might be rewarded in certain circumstances; it is more the question about when one takes such risks, such leaps of faith. The following stories follow with this general thematic and many are linked in relation to aging widowers, childless couples, spinsters, orphans and the like, all those who might experience problems related to kinship. The title story, which ends the collection, is in many ways another variation on this theme of lost chances and the routes that people might take to at least be able to partially recover what they most desire. A Chinese spinster agrees to be paired up with the son of her beloved female professor, if only to be able to keep this professor in her life. The complication is of course that the son is a gay man, but he returns to China in part to honor his filial duties. In these steps at compromise, we see that characters attempt to exert agency in a rapidly changing and modernizing Chinese world. Another understated and lyrically grounded work from Li.

Also, Kudos to Li who just received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. The good news for Asian American literature fans is that we probably can expect more publications in a small period of time. Yes, for MoAR reading!

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Gold-Boy-Emerald-Girl-Stories/dp/1400068134

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A Review of Chandra Prasad’s Death of A Circus (Red Hen Press, 2006).



Red Hen Press is one of my favorite small presses; the books that I end up reading from that press tend to be innovative and dynamic. Such is also the case with Chandra Prasad’s Death of A Circus, a novel that I recently encountered with much interest. Prasad is also the editor and contributed to Mixed, an anthology about the mixed-race experience, as well as a novel from Atria Press entitled On Borrowed Wings. She also recently published a fictional novel based on the life of Amelia Earheart. It is clear based upon Prasad’s publication history that she has a particular interest in what might be called historical fiction as every single one of her major publications takes place within the first half of the 20th century.

In Death of A Circus, Prasad explores the intriguing lives of a band of misfits who end up working for the Binglebright Circus, an independent entity prior to the domination of the scene by the Ringling Brothers. There are approximately four main narrative viewpoints in Prasad’s novel, the most prominent of which is focalized through Lor Cole, a young African American man who seeks fame and fortune. Realizing the potential limits of his life given his background, Lor moves to the big city, searching for the chance to become successful on his own. When his options begin to run out, Lor joins the circus, first as a roustabout, then later recruited as one of the high-wire act members. Another narrative viewpoint involves that of Cirella, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Cirella must fend for herself early on as her father abandons her mother and the family at-large. With so many mouths to feed, Cirella is forced early on to help pay for her siblings food and basic living expenses. Cirella soon learns that her beauty is an advantage and begins to prostitute herself in various ways. She, too, finds herself in the circus, dreaming of becoming a main-stage act, later realizing this dream as a ferocious fire-eater. The third narrative viewpoint belongs to that of Ranju, the wild animal trainer, who has the most curious background of all the major characters of the novel. Prasad’s characterization seems to suggest that Ranju possesses some sort of mixed ancestry, perhaps part animal himself. It is suggested based upon his first name that he may also be of South Asian descent, although this fact is never fully corroborated. Ranju’s mother is consistently described as a “trickster” figure, with the ability to transform into animals. Ranju will later come to raise the daughter of a woman, who was essentially raised by wild animals and stayed “feral” so to speak. The final major character is that of the child produced from the illicit affair between Cirella, who by that time had married Mr. Barnacle, the owner of the Binglebright Circus, and Lor Cole. The child, named Stalwart but nicknamed Bump, is born of the tragic circumstances of his mother’s death, but he also is born with congenital deformities which produce wart-like growths all over his body.

With this unique cast of characters, Prasad explores the tricky contours of fame-seeking and the heady rush of spectacle. What become of ethics in an instance where profit generates so much of ones livelihood as is the case with a moving circus? Such a question drives the plot forward as each character must make cataclysmic decisions which impact the lives of the other circus performers. It is clear that Prasad took great pains to research this era and the social context of the circus, which makes for a compelling narrative, but the resolution still left something to be desired, as the conclusion wrapped up a variety of seeming disconnected plot points so quickly. Further, given the interesting racial “minority” backgrounds of so many characters, including Lor, Stalwart, and Ranju, in particular, it seemed interesting that the discourse on “race” itself rather lacked any prominent influence on the social relationships individuals maintained with each other. I wondered if this was a result of the fact that a circus in the 1920s would have operated without such import on racial difference, but given the continuing Civil Rights issues of the time, I couldn’t help but contemplate on how this might have more adversely affected some of the characters.

In any case, an intriguing novel with very original characters!



Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Death-Circus-Chandra-Prasad/dp/1597090247
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered (Riverhead Books, 2010).



The Surrendered is the kind of novel that might cause you to have trouble sleeping. One might think that insomnia is a reason to avoid reading this novel, but instead, it’s a testament to the very dark places Chang-rae Lee is willing to go in his fourth work (after Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft). I had to read this novel in chunks, especially because certain chapters could leave me a little bit drained after having finished them. The story opens with a harrowing sequence just after the initiation of the Korean War. We are introduced to the main character, June, as she is on the run of what remains of her family, traveling south, along with her two younger siblings. What we realize over the course of the chapter is that June had many more family members alive prior to the novel’s opening, including a mother, father, older sister, and older brother, all of whom in some capacity die or are feared dead. By the conclusion of that first chapter, June is the only one alive, and we’ll already understand that survivorship can be its own curse. This chapter sets the tone for the entire novel. In reading the New York Times review of The Surrendered, I couldn’t agree more with this observation: the body count is high. In this regard, the novel deviates entirely from the previous three Lee has written simply based upon the way in which we can’t ever be sure who will survive and who will not. In essence, the war novel, we see, might really be a form or subgenre of the horror novel. From this point on, more characters are introduced and more time periods, and the scope of the novel correspondingly widens. Besides June, who grows up and immigrates to the United States, bears a son named Nicholas, and then spends the rest of the novel trying to locate him, there is Hector, a Korean War veteran, languishing after the traumas of his experiences; there is Sylvie Tanner, the wife of a reverend and daughter of tireless missionaries, who resides in post-war Korea helping to run an orphanage. This triad appears as the core of the emotional and physical turmoil that the narrative follows. The reason this book is so difficult to read through too is an issue that I earlier raised with Nadeem Aslam’s novel, The Wasted Vigil. Even in the most depraved circumstances, Lee’s prose is simply crystalline and stunning that we are pushed to read further, in dissonance, I would argue, with what the content of the narrative itself.
In terms of recent fiction I’ve read, this book reminds me of Janice YK Lee’s The Piano Teacher in that it is interested in a multiethnic cast of characters who are brought together in the terrain of conflict and violence.

Like Lee’s The Piano Teacher, we are also within the purview of the atrocities committed under Japanese colonialism, but of course, move into a later period, with the Korean War as an ever-present specter. The Surrendered also falls in line with the continuing trend within Asian American literature where spaces of other countries take a very prominent role in the construction of the narrative. Lee is in a stellar company even specifically within Korean American fiction writers and texts published within the last ten years. I am thinking here of Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Sonya Chung’s Long for this World, Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Hyejim Kim’s Jia, Don Lee’s Country of Origin, Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s Somebody’s Daughters, among others, all which have major narrative segments that take place in Korea.

There is not much more I can say about the novel, except to read it. Lee always brings so much to his writing that there is a buffet for readers of every type and mindset. It is a difficult, emotionally draining work, but in the depths of despair, Lee always provides his characters with a complexity and nuance that makes even treading to these abyssal places a thought-provoking and revelatory journey.



Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Surrendered-Chang-rae-Lee/dp/1594489769/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269905369&sr=8-1
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A Review of Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins 2010).



Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter is a powerful debut novel that tracks the problematic forces related to transnational adoptions. The titular secret daughter is that of Usha, born to Jasu and Kavita Merchant, parents living in rural India. By cultural decree and because of the need for a son to help generate labor, the Merchants first two children, both girls, find perilous and unstable fates. The first daughter is immediately killed, while the second, Kavita forces her husband to allow her to at least travel to an orphanage in Bombay in order to give that daughter a chance at any life, rather than simply be killed off. Before Kavita gives up her baby for adoption, she names the daughter Usha. After this child is given up, Kavita does provide Jasu with a son, much to his rejoicing. Nevertheless, Kavita never forgets about her daughter Usha. The other storyline involves Krishnan and Somer Thakkar. Krishnan is an elite Indian transnational who comes to the United States for schooling, excelling in medical school. While attending Stanford, he falls in love with Somer, an American woman, who is his intellectual match. While their marriage seems to develop fortuitously enough, issues arise when Somer continually faces miscarriages and later discovers that she is suffering from early menopausal symptoms. Realizing that their only chance to have a child may be to adopt, they travel to India with the support of Krishnan’s mother (Sarla), who encourages them to come to adopt a child at the local orphanage. The beneficiaries therefore of Kavita’s decision to “save” her daughter by putting her up for adoption are the Thakkars. Due to paperwork mishaps, though, the daughter’s name is written as Asha, a mistake that in some ways evokes the dilemmas facing the adoptee, specifically of the duality that exists in relation to the adopted family and the biological family.

The strength of Gowda’s novel lies both in the characterization and the compelling plot line. I found it very difficult to put the book down precisely because of the way that Gowda constructs the narrative through fragmented “voices.” Early on, the perspective shifts from one maternal figure to another, with Kavita’s experience being placed in comparison to Somer’s. As the novel continues to move forward though, the fictional terrain is continually textured by the addition of more voices and viewpoints, as we come to see what Jasu might think or see, how Asha struggles with her adoptive background, how Kavita cannot ever forget about that daughter despite the fact that she and Jasu now have a boy named Vijay, how Kris and Somer experience a disintegration in their marriage, in part precipitated by how little they really understand each other’s lives. When Asha wins a prestigious fellowship to pursue her journalism studies in India, both Somer and Kris realize that the moment they’ve been both dreading and expecting has occurred: that Asha seeks also to find out her adoptive origins. In this regard, the readers are also wondering whether or not the lives of Jasu and Kavita will ever collide with that of Somer, Sarla, Asha, and Kris. Indeed, this tension is easily what makes the plot so irresistible to follow, but beyond the fictional representation, the social contexts make clear the challenging issues that still must be considered in relation to transnational adoptions, especially the cultural economy that privileges boys over girls in many Asian societies as well as the privilege that enables one to adopt as if one is “saving” another life. Another powerful and compelling issue surfaces in relation to the experience of poverty in India as Kavita and Jasu must reside in a unhygienic shantytown when Jasu decides they must move to Bombay in order to make any semblance of a new life. Even when their financial situation improves, the way in which the family improves their station more permanently belies the very questionable nature of lasting class mobility, as depicted in the novel. These bleak circumstances are ones that are not finally answered through the novel’s conclusion and it is perhaps one element that provokes more thought about the limits of fictional worlds.



With the rise of fictional works related to adoption and the continuing activism of adoption groups over laws related to kinship, immigration, and adoption policy, Secret Daughter is a timely work.

Buy the book here:

http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Daughter-Shilpi-Somaya-Gowda/dp/0061922315/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259465998&sr=8-1
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Sonya Chung’s Long for this World

It is perhaps appropriate to begin this review of Sonya Chung’s debut novel, Long for this World, by discussing the importance of the title. One major thematic thread that runs throughout the narrative is survivorship, so the question becomes: who is long for this world and who is not? Because so many of the characters face such challenging circumstances, mortality is not something that any of them can simply take for granted. The novel’s opening makes this very clear as we are situated in the post-war Korean terrain where the future is cloudy and the economic situation grim. We understand then the motivation of one of the main characters Han Hyun-kyu who “escapes” from a provincial island community and ends up immigrating to the United States, finding his own footing and attempting to pin down the oft-desired “American Dream.” While in the United States Hyun-Kyu ends up marrying Lee Woo-in, a brilliant, if not troubled psychiatrist, who is the relative of a woman that Hyun-Kyu was very fond of. The strain that develops between Hyun-Kyu and his wife is evidenced by the way in which Woo-in is eventually referenced by her honorary title, Dr. Lee. They have two children, an older daughter, Jane, who ends up developing a much stronger bond with her father, and the younger son, Henry, who is favored by Dr. Lee. The novel begins its upward arc as soon as Hyun-kyu basically abandons Dr. Lee and travels to Korea, seeking to reconnect with the brother he left behind. This brother, Han Jae-kyu, has built quite a life in Korea, along with his wife, Han Jung-joo, and their seemingly picture perfect family, which includes two sons, happily married, as well as one daughter. However, this familial stability has been ruptured in part the daughter’s pregnancy and apparent depression, which has cast a certain pall over the family’s immediate circumstances. When Hyun-kyu arrives in Korea in the midst of these tensions, we begin to see the way in which individual characters must negotiate new trajectories, find new footing, and confront internal struggles and long-buried rifts. Jane, being the one closest to her father, immediately travels to Korea, seeking him out. Jane’s brother, Henry, remains in the United States, still dealing with time spent in rehab due to alcoholism, an addiction, in part, developed in tandem with his relationship with his eccentric mother.

In some senses, the most riveting characters within the novel are the artist-figures. Here, Jane, Hyun-kyu’s daughter, has developed a career was a war photographer and photojournalist. This dangerous work has led her to various areas around the globe, including Darfur, Sudan, as we all Iraq, where she is almost mortally wounded. The question that Jane’s work does bring up is the ethics behind depictions of war and what part photographs have in the documentation of such politically fraught situations, where human rights violations continually occur. One question that Chung seems interested in asking is how one negotiates the challenge of aestheticizing war terrains as an art form. This conundrum certainly dovetails with the form of fiction itself: at what point does one understand the representation of war and trauma as simply an “art”? Jane’s own positionality is refracted through that of Min-Suk, the beloved brother of her uncle’s wife, Han Jung-joo Hyun-kyu’s sister-in-kaw). Whereas Min-suk has already achieved a level of success as a painter in Korea, he finds himself losing any sort of inspiration in his art form. Min-Suk’s ennui seems to be exist in the relative detachment of his artwork from reference and politics. While his art is popular and commercial, he cannot seem to find a “belief” in his work. Consequently, when Min-suk and Jane meet, we know this connection is going be both important and transformative.



What I appreciated most from Chung’s Long for this World is the narrative ellipticality. We have many different perspectives and subplots, none of which are presented simply nor wrapped up in neat and tidy ways. For instance, the very intriguing and marginal character Choi Jin-Sook, a sort of maid figure, who works in Han Jae-kyu’s household, is given important narrative space despite the fact that she figures relatively unimportantly in the major plot. Chung’s choice to include Jin-Sook’s observations and nuanced subject position as a laboring class Korean woman is vital in establishing the incredible texture to the novel’s terrain. And of course, Jane’s point-of-view as the central protagonist solidly grounds the novel. One can’t think of the irony related to Han Hyun-kyu’s own experiences as a survivor of the Korean War when he discovers that his daughter’s career interests will lead her constantly into war zones. Finally, the novel is truly a global one, rather than transnationally configured. It is not simply a story of Korea and the United States. Jane’s photojournalistic work reminds the readers of a continuing need to contextualize mobility, trauma, and intergenerational divides through the conflicts and violence that uproot families in so many different locations.

Long for this World is a wise and multifaceted work, one that contextualizes the domestic dramas of one Korean/American family within a larger global terrain!



Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Long-This-World-Sonya-Chung/dp/1416599622/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267229041&sr=8-1
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash (Graywolf Press, 2009).



Marie Matsuki Mockett’s debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, follows in the long tradition of mother-daughter novels that has, in part, defined Asian American cultural production. Fittingly, the novel’s hardcover jacket is blurbed by Amy Tan, alluding to this particularized Asian American literary lineage. In terms of the narrative content, though, Picking Bones from Ash mines transnational Japanese terrains, first exploring the complicated relationship between Akiko, a single and unwed mother who owns an after-hours bar joint, and her daughter, Satomi, who is groomed to have a different future, as she is encouraged to develop her piano playing abilities at a very young age. The time is the post-World War 2 period of Japan and we understand that the economy has begun its incredible recovery. In this regard, Picking Bones from Ash reminds one of texts such as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Legend of Fire Horse Woman, Julie Shigekuni’s A Bridge Between Us, and Mary Yukari Waters’s The Favorites as the fiction continually contours the problematic spaces that women and their daughters must navigate, especially ones that do deviate from what might seem to be more normative life trajectories. While Satomi’s piano playing skills continue to blossom, Akiko makes a decisive choice to shift their futures by marrying a man, Mr. Horie, someone who the readers aren’t completely sure that Akiko ever really loves. Nevertheless, Mr. Horie is financially stable and can offer both Akiko and Satomi a life that perhaps Akiko not provide them on her own. Of course, with this husband, the ensuing economic transformations enable Satomi to get better piano teachers, but these improved instructive capacities come with a price: she must leave home and her mother. Her relationship with her mother, once close, is also problematized by the fact that Mr. Horie’s daughters (Satomi’s half-sisters) begin to develop their own unique and strong bonds with Akiko, fueling Satomi’s jealousy. Nevertheless, Akiko continues to surpass the instructional capabilities of those at her school and she eventually must make yet another schooling jump, but this time, she must move abroad Paris to study. This distance only increases the disintegration of the relationship between Satomi and her mother. During her time in Paris, Satomi finds it difficult to adjust because her piano teachers consider her much too emotionally frigid in her playing style (this appears in contrast to her Japanese teachers who found her much too passionate as a concert pianist). The chance reappearance of a dashing cosmopolitan, Timothy Snowden, moves the novel toward its romantic arc, where Satomi finds herself increasingly distracted by this mysterious man who is constantly on the move. The readers discover that Snowden is involved in the acquisition of expensive antiques and curios, a practice that he soon engages along with Akiko as a kind of apprentice. The novel provides a climatic midpoint sequencing when Timothy returns to Paris after a long absence, convinces Satomi to return to Japan, where Satomi discovers her mother has died two weeks previous and that Timothy has been jailed, presumably for the illegal acquisition of Japanese artifacts. The novel then shifts forward to a more contemporary moment focusing on the life of Rumi, Satomi’s daughter, who is living in San Francisco and being raised by Francois, an antiques dealer (we later discover that Francois had a complicated past and involvement with Timothy Snowden who now lives in San Francisco, pursuing the monastic life as a Buddhist). Rumi, like Satomi (who apparently at this point has died), has a talent. In this case, Rumi is able to discern whether or not certain antiques are forgeries or not (we are reminded here of Sabina Murray and her most recent novel Forgery). Snowden’s reappearance in Francois’s life enables past secrets to surface, de-stabilizing Rumi’s life and forcing her to consider her link to her mother, one that pushes her to act impulsively and travel to Japan. She seeks to find whatever information she can about the nature of Satomi’s death, where she might be buried, and if she has any surviving family members. The novel then returns us to the previous timeline, back to Satomi’s life after Timothy Snowden’s incarceration and imprisonment in Japan, revealing why it is she ever married Francois and ended up in San Francisco, California. This criss-crossing narrative technique is masterfully mobilized, especially as each narrative is balanced with certain mysteries that unfold and resonate against the other.

The novel offers much to contour the Japanese American literary transnational terrains and I am again reminded that so many recent Asian American publications have been set primarily in Asian countries. Of course, there have not been too many fictional representations that I can think of that have been set in Japan by Asian American writers, so this novel does tread original representational ground. Mockett also does present us with a very compelling narrative structured around secrets that the reader is invested enough to unearth and the notion of the “forgery” and the antiques culture is quite provocative and intriguing to read about.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Picking-Bones-Marie-Mutsuki-Mockett/dp/1555975410

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com

A Review of H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy (Shaye Areheart Books, 2009).



H.M. Naqvi’s debut novel, Home Boy, is a study in the “monologic novel,” told from the perspective of Chuck, a 20-something transplant from Pakistan, making his way in New York City in the bear market years of the late 90s. Along with his two buddies, Jimbo and AC, Chuck can be found hanging out at all the hippest nightclubs and attempting to woo pretty young women. As someone working in the financial industry, it seems like there is only one trajectory available for Chuck, who is supporting his mother through his newfound solvency. One emotional center for the novel appears in Chuck’s mother precisely because she is one of the few people that Chuck feels he must toil long hours for and maintain his status as a successful and upwardly professional migrant. The language of Naqvi’s novel is its strength; we believe in the character as he is part of an “urban chic” fabric and Chuck is some who embraces the cosmopolitanism that New York City is often associated with. In this regard, we are not surprised by his use of American slang. To be sure, the uniqueness of this voice is what makes the Home Boy so pleasurable to read. One can’t help but see how Naqvi gives himself over to a character with a very strong personality and in this sense, we see shades of Yunior’s narration from Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Of course, the temporally specific setting of the late 90s reminds us that New York City will be forever changed by the events of 9/11. Once this event occurs, the lives of Chuck and his friends are thrown into turmoil as heightened surveillance and racist fervor. Chuck and his buddies are wrongfully incarcerated and suspected for being “terrorists,” in part due to their more precarious residential status as transnationals on work visas. A particularly illuminating narrative excerpt is devoted specifically to problematic interrogation techniques. We see how the rambunctious and more care-free attitudes exuded by these characters change as a result of their imprisonments, where questions of home and safety emerge alongside the development and articulation of Asian American racial subjectivities. Of course, as I have remarked in the past, the post 9/11 milieu has been an extremely fecund time for South Asian American writers, as they have imagined the ways in which the “brown body” is faced with new regimes of power that constrain and subjugate. One clear literary analog is Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as both novels do deal with a Pakistani transnational male protagonist who must deal with the change in New York City after 9/11, but we are also reminded of other books already reviewed in this community such as Nafisa Haji’s The Writing on My Forehead, Saher Alam’s The Groom to Have Been, among others. In contouring the contemporary South Asian and Pakistani transnational landscape, H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy is a cautionary tale that continues to expose the every-faltering prospect of Asian American citizenship.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Home-Boy-H-M-Naqvi/dp/0307409104



[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf, 2009).

 

I should have probably included this novel in my review of Asian/American sisterhoods as Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns is a poignant tale of two sisters.  In this case, there is the more academically gifted sister, Anju Vallara, and her sister, Linno, the more artistically gifted sister (she eventually comes to be renowned in the community for her painting and design skills), also the one who has had a hand amputated at a young age due to a freak accident with firecrackers.  The novel is first set in provincial town in Kerala, India.  The family comes from a working class background as Anju and Linno’s father, Melvin, works as a driver for a family friend, Abraham Saar; their mother, Gracie, died in a drowning incident in their childhood.  The extended family is completed by Ammachi, a spirited grandmother figure who continually reappears in the narrative at various points.  We begin immediately to see the strain that appears between Anju and Linno as Anju excels in school and Linno becomes increasingly anti-social as a result of her physical difference.  When Anju is selected to be one of the ten finalists for a very prestigious scholarship, the plot begins its upward movement.  Indeed, as a finalist, Anju must be interviewed first and during that moment she freezes up to the extent that it is only when she lies about her artistic talents that she fully recovers.  Yes, the readers discover that Anju has passed off a book of Linno’s artwork as her own.  Despite the fact that Melvin knows about Anju’s deception, he chalks it up to the opportunity the scholarship would not only offer Anju, but the entire family.  In this way, the novel explores the challenges of class transformation as Anju is allotted a year of abroad schooling in New York City, where she is set up with a wealthy host family, the Solankis and attends a prestigious school.  Once there, Anju embarks upon a high school romance with a fellow student, but finds it challenging to adjust to the new cultural, national, and urban milieu.  Back in Kerala, Linno does not accede to her father’s hope that she marry Kuku, a man who although legally blind, might be the best offer of marriage for Linno given her physical condition and the fact that Kuku is quite wealthy.  Instead, Linno ends up working for Kuku’s sister, Alice, using her artistic talents to help transform and uplift the design company that Alice has begun.  In this way, while Anju’s life begins to disintegrate in the United States, we begin to see Linno come into her own as a designer and as a person.  The relationship between Anju and Linno is perhaps the biggest plot element of James’s spritely first novel, but an important side plot involving Melvin and Gracie does begin to evolve as Anju comes to know Bird, a former actress who knew Gracie when Gracie was just a young woman and just prior to Gracie’s marriage to Melvin.  The readers do not understand Bird’s importance to the story and with a deft had, James weaves in this other plot, where we begin to see that Melvin and Gracie’s marriage had its own challenges to overcome. 

 

James’s novel is quite adept at exploring both the problematics of cultural assimilation for the immigrant in the United States and the difficulties of class transformation in India.  In some ways, the novel is the perfect embodiment of transnational Asian American literature as the narrative literally becomes bifurcated in its middle section, where we are continually moving from one country to another.  James never loses her footing and although the plot does not necessarily move quickly, the characterizations are spot on and we can’t help but wonder how it is that Anju’s more pressing predicament will be solved.  I especially found the representation of the Americanized family of South Asian descent that hosts Anju extremely funny and very nuanced in the differences that can appear between a family that has more readily assimilated to US culture and the individual that has not.  The desi son, Rohit, of the Solankis is perhaps one of the most telling characters of the novel and explores the increasingly problematic nature of political progressivism as Asian Americans find themselves in privileged settings. 

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Atlas-Unknowns-Tania-James/dp/030726890X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251936085&sr=8-1 

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Simon and Schuster, 2009).



A colleague and I were discussing just how interesting it was that Asian American literature (however that might be defined) that we’d been reading lately had been, for the most part, set outside of the United States.  The ongoing discourses of transnationalism and globalization that have energized critical interests can certainly be mirrored by the representation content of fictional works that I’ve seen.  Along these lines, Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter contours the Korean transnational terrain, where the vast majority of the text is set in Korea during the Japanese colonial occupation.  This period has mobilized or influenced so many pivotal Korean American literary texts, including but not limited to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman, among others. 

 

There are probably two major thematic strains to draw out from the novel that predominant its political propensities.  The first and most obvious one stems from its anti-colonial message, where characters struggle to retain their Korean identities even as Japanese colonial authorities continually circumscribe Korean culture.  The novel’s temporal arc over about three decades of course includes the infamous 1919 incident in which an anti-colonial demonstration turned violent and deadly.  The protagonist, Najin, is not a proper name at first because her father uses it as a symbolic register of the inability to protest the colonial authority.  Of course, the challenges of living under the Japanese regime continue to haunt the family, as they must negotiate having to learn Japanese and willfully forget Korean history.  While Kim is quite effective at dramatizing the atrocities that Koreans faced under colonialism, her novel perhaps takes its most poignant theme in its feminist politic.  Indeed, while Korea has been stereotypically been represented as a country steeped in inflexible patriarchy, Kim ingeniously infuses her narrative with strong female characters that tactically negotiate gendered expectations.  For instance, the protagonist’s mother continually asserts the imperative that her daughter become educated, not only in Korean culture and history, but in other ways as well, to the extent that the mother outright defies her husband in a climactic sequence that sees Najin shipped off to her aunt in Seoul, where she is schooled in a variety of arts under the auspices of attending to the royal court.  Najin is in some ways exceptional, but we see that this feminist revisionist narrative stands as a way to counteract the expectation that there could only be one paragon of the traditional Korean woman.  Kim therefore attempts to assuage these configurations.  The disastrous end of the royal court sees Najin return to her family and finally face the prospect of marriage. 

 

In its scope and its unique character trajectory, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a refreshing read.  More relevant to the concerns of some of the more domestically-inclined investments of Asian American Studies, there is an aesthetically creative sequence towards the conclusion of the novel where Najin’s husband, Calvin Cho, pens his experiences from the United States.  We first remember that in this age of e-mail and instant gratification that different eras required other modes of communication.  Again under the watchful eye of colonial authorities, Cho’s letters are actually redacted, with blank permanent strips that disable the reader’s ability to fully understand what Cho is communicating to his wife.  The reader is able to surmise what might be being communicated based on the historical period.  Indeed, as the Japanese authority comes upon the resistance of the Chinese and the ensuing Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the letters become increasingly redacted and censored.  In these letters, too, we see some of the problematic ways in which race appears in the United States, as Cho comes to aligned not with other minorities, but is often read as “white” in contrast to the treatment he observes when African Americans are present.  In this regard, the novel is truly transnational and the wide scope of colonialism, racial ideology, and violence can be seen in comparative scope. 

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Calligraphers-Daughter-Novel-Eugenia-Kim/dp/0805089128

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Sabina Murray’s The Caprices, A Carnivore’s Inquiry, and Forgery (all published through Grove Press).

 

What this review unfortunately neglects is Sabina Murray’s first novel, Slow Burn, which I am in the process of reading currently.  Her short story collection, The Caprices, details the gruesome circumstances related to the Pacific Theater during World War 2, where the violence of Japanese colonialism is rendered in graphic form.  Various stories detail the Bataan death march, the domestic brutality of the everyday as the Japanese come to inhabit the Philippines, the gradual disintegration of a Dutch mixed race family in Indonesia, among other contexts appear.  The Caprices is unyielding and unflinching; the bodies pile up and characters often are killed in horrifying circumstances.  By the conclusion of this collection, I had trouble sleeping and it is a testament to Murray’s visionary power as a writer that the stories can evoke such a strong affectual response.  The last story is particularly chilling because the readers come to realize that the so-called Japanese aggressors are not the villains to the story, even though they seem to embody the most evil threats that appear throughout.  When the Americans appear at the conclusion in a story that tells us that Hiroshima is just about to be bombed, we begin to understand that the roots are in something else, the complicated historical continuum that continually enables war to resurface again and again as response, as reaction, as revenge.  This work also won the PEN award.

 

A Carnivore’s Inquiry follows the picaresque adventures of Katherine Shea.  The story begins with Katherine Shea returning to the United States after living in Europe for a number of years.  She ends up in a fateful encounter with Boris Naryshkin, a Russin immigrant writer, that results in a unique relationship, in which it is unclear at first who had seduced whom.  As Boris is considerably older than Katherine’s young 22 years old, there is the sense then that Boris should have had much more cautious before embarking on this long-term relationship, but as the novel continues, it becomes clear that Katherine is much more calculating than the readers realize.  Katherine begins a number of dalliances with other men, including a street musician, Arthur, who she meets after having eventually convinced Boris to get a rental property in Maine, where she can live much more independently from Boris.  Katherine will later travel to New Mexico as she discovers that her mother has left her a property that Katherine wishes to sell.  Interspersed in her various adventures, Katherine demonstrates a keen mind, exploring in particular those historical events in which cannibalism occurred, whether in the context of the Donner Party or in indigenous sacrificial rituals.  The novel is quite stunning as a work of “ideas” rather than of some sort of realist depiction and we begin to see all the symbolic levels in which cannibalism might be read, how the story itself is really an allegory.  In this regard, the elaborate “dressing” that Katherine seems to drape herself in and her imagination of the world around her seems to suggest a larger pall in which the postmodern subject deludes himself or herself.  I especially enjoyed the gothic ambience of the text, which unsettles the reader and we are not surprised when mysterious deaths start to arise.  This book is quite a departure from The Caprices and easily demonstrates Murray's writerly range and spritely imagination.  

 

Forgery, like A Carnivore’s Inquiry, seems to function on an allegorical level.  The year is 1963 and the protagonist is Rupert Brigg, a 30 year old antiquities dealer, who travels to Greece in search of rare artifacts that he can bring home in order to sell.  He also unfortunately is suffering in the wake of a broken marriage and the loss of his young son.  Consequently, it is with much depression that he travels to Greece.  He soon links up with a number of family friends and a colorful cast of acquaintances that energizes his various adventures.  Murray is adept at making it clear how much of a foreigner that Rupert is and how much he stands apart from what is going on around him.  Early on, Murray pairs him up with Nikos Nikolaides, a man who has seen his fair share of debauchery while on the Island, gamely taking on youthful female tourists, who have come to find, like Rupert, the “real” Greece.  Rupert begins to tire of these antics, but a stay in a secluded Greek Island, Aspros, begins him on a journey of self-reflection, but a murder begins to change the tone and the nature of the plot.  Unlike Katherine Shea, Rupert is a much more reliable narrator, even though the question of authenticity and of originality make us wonder what sorts of illusions Rupert fancies of himself as he attempts to sort his life together.  Like A Carnivore’s Inquiry, Forgery does not provide us much in the way of Asian American experiences.  Nevertheless, there is much going on with the neocolonial relationship that existed between Greece and the United States during the sixties, as the Greek government had come under much observation for turning more “communist” in character.  In this regard, we can see the Cold War context as fueling much of the paranoia and suspicion that pervades the novel.  What is of course interesting to think about in relation to the author is whether we can extend the question of “forgery” directly to the nature of art forms in general?  What is more valuable, the original or the copy?  What is the copy in the world of postmodern simulacra?   Murray’s work is always provocative and does not necessarily leave us with clear answers; these ambiguities enrich rather than take away from her work.

 

Buy the Books Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Caprices-Sabina-Murray/dp/080214313X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249436151&sr=8-1

http://www.amazon.com/Forgery-Sabina-Murray/dp/0802143687/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249436151&sr=8-2

 

http://www.amazon.com/Carnivores-Inquiry-Novel-Sabina-Murray/dp/0802142001/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249436151&sr=8-3

 

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 Another Review of Todd Shimoda’s OH! A Mystery of Mono no Aware (Chin Music Press, 2009).

The first review in this community of Todd Shimoda’s fascinating novel can be found here:

 

http://community.livejournal.com/asianamlitfans/62453.html

 

My immediate impression of the book is an appreciation for its highly interdisciplinary aesthetic.  The production values for Shimoda’s novel are first rate and it is very clear that much attention was paid to the visual experience of the narrative inasmuch as the written plot.  I agree very much with <lj user=pylduck>’s estimation of the book as being akin to some of the collaborative poetry collections of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.  I think more generally the issue of collaboration has been glossed over in critical estimations of Asian American literature. 

 

I won’t refer again to Shimoda’s career or the plotting of the novel as the previous reviewed has already completed an excellent summation of the main points.  I do very much appreciate though the narrative pull that leads the readers onward.  Zack Hara develops a really unique relationship with a professor while living in Japan, who provides Zack with a number of mini-adventures related to the exploration of “mono no aware,” the keen sense of loss that Zack does not seem to be able to relate to or understand.  In this regard, the novel seems to be very much invested in the ways that Zack seeks to move out of an emotional stuntedness that is emblematized most carefully by his brief and desultory relationships with women.  Shimoda sets the novel’s spatial trajectory vividly and we get a sense of the various cities and villages that Zack eventually travels to and explores.  Each location becomes a terrain upon which the protagonist can investigate various philosophical musings.  As the novel moves more firmly into its various mysteries, the pace picks up and we are left with a cliffhanger conclusion that is supposed to be unraveled through a careful consideration of the visuals that have been included.  The images that do appear in tandem with the text often are incorporated in the space between the short chapters; in this regard, the reader is forced to look back and try to make sense of them in a different way.   The “mystery” then unfolds in the artistic vision that Linda Shimoda provides.  The very careful and organic union of art and fiction adds much to the texture and the success of this work.  I am also reminded of the continuing transnational valences of Asian American fiction, having just reviewed Mary Yukari Waters’s The Favorites and having taught some fiction by the short story writer Shimon Tanaka.  In this regard, Shimoda’s novel continues to flesh out the contemporary Japanese terrain from a Japanese American perspective.   Zack is certainly interesting because as a Japanese American he possesses a complicated perspective of one who can sometimes “blend” in with others, but also finds himself strangely unmoored regardless of his relative linguistic proficiency.  At various times, we see him either get mistaken for a “native” Japanese and at other times, as a Japanese American.  This liminal space is key to enfiguring the complicated psychic terrain that Zack inhabits, one that is increasingly problematic to him as the novel moves forward.

 

I would highly recommend this book simply for its production value; Chin Music Press has made it a point to reconstruct the “novel” into a multifaceted experience.  Of course, I think it would add much to any Asian American literature course or for any American literature course more generally; I think for myself I could see it easily as a match to the experimental impulses that we have seen, especially with the inclusion of art into literature.  A course for instance could start with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, move to a strong poetic sequence with Mong-lan and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and conclude perhaps with Todd Shimoda’s Oh!  The course could also incorporate graphic novels, such as Mine Okubo’s work, David Kirk Kim, Gene Luen Yang, Lynda Barry, and Shaun Tan.  I think it would be really fun =)

 

Here some other reviews and interviews related to the Book:

 

http://www.redroom.com/blog/wendy-nelson-tokunaga/interview-todd-shimoda-author-oh-a-mystery-mono-no-aware

 

http://www.villagebooks.com/event/todd-shimoda-oh-mystery-mono-no-aware

 

http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment_books_blog/2009/06/review-and-signing-todd-shimodas-oh.html

 

Buy the book Here:

 

http://chinmusicpress.com/

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Thrity Umrigar’s The Weight of Heaven (HarperCollins, 2009).

 

Thrity Umrigar’s The Weight of Heaven is perhaps one of my favorite novels I have read in the past couple of years.  It’s a hefty book as the title suggests, especially as is routed through the ethics of globalization.  What makes this book a success is the absolute conviction with which we believe the bereavement of the main characters, Frank and Ellie Benton, who lose their son, Benny, to a tragic bout with meningitis.  When Frank has the opportunity to work at a different location in the multinational corporation known as HerbalSolutions, Ellie encourages him to take it so that they can make a fresh start somewhere else, without the ghost of Benny following them around.  Ellie, who was charged with taking care of Benny in the “housewife” role, suffers guilt over the loss, but living in India for a year and half changes her and she begins to see a way out of the depths of despair.  Frank, on the other hand, has taken to “replacement” therapy with the local married couple, Prakash and Edna, who are hired to help around the house, and whose son, Ramesh, becomes the object of Frank’s attention.  The plot is partially catalyzed by Frank’s growing obsession with mentoring and fathering Ramesh despite Prakash’s growing resentment of Frank’s presence.  Frank, in particular, wields a particular influence over Ramesh as he encourages the young boy to study hard so that one day Ramesh might be able to study in America.  Ellie, on the other hand, spends her time at the local clinic, offering what services she can with her expertise in psychology, having earned a doctorate in that area.  Ellie has also made friends with Nandita, a journalist, and finds that particular relationship fruitful for finding a renewed interest in her life.  However, all is not well at HerbalSolutions as Frank discovers a major player in a unionizing effort has been killed, leading factory workers to voice dismay and rumble for the potential to strike. 

 

The “weight” of the novel is held together by Umrigar’s very steady narrative style, which at one point jumps backward about ten years, providing the background to Frank and Ellie’s relationship.  We begin to see how important each of them are to the other and how their relationship changes in the midst of the birth of their son.  The clarity with which this connection is presented makes the novel move forward effortlessly even despite the fact that the plot does not cohere around major cataclysmic events.  Further, the subplot related to HerbalSolutions continually demonstrates the ways in which individual characters are not always aware of the extensive networks that make globalization so threatening and problematic.  Indeed, as local villagers find their supply of trees sold to HerbalSolutions, they are left without an important economic and health resource that was once available to them, irreparably changing lives in the process. 

 

As I was reading this book, I suppose I’m also reminded that I tend to like “naturalistic” narratives, moving inexorably toward some tragic conclusion and Umrigar’s novel does not disappoint in that regard.  With the set-up being provided so early on related to Frank’s incredible myopia regarding Ramesh and his own sense of loss, we know that no good can come of his constant desire to father the young boy.  And yet, even then, and even given the many, many flaws that Umrigar represents and codes into Frank, we can’t help also to paradoxically sympathize with him when everything seems to be lost.  In this difficult but nevertheless poignant space of ambivalence, the novel hits a perfect stride.  Despite it’s relatively longer length, it is something I will definitely teach in the future; this is the perfect book for courses on Asian American literature, and transnationalism. 

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Weight-Heaven-Novel-Thrity-Umrigar/dp/0061472549/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248499369&sr=8-2

 

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Mary Yukari Waters’s The Favorites (Scribner, 2009).

 

Mary Yukari Waters is one of the writers whose second publication I have been eagerly awaiting (these writers still include Brian Ascalon Roley, Julie Otsuka, le thi diem thuy, and Suki Kim and I often find myself looking at an online bookstore to see if their next book might be forthcoming and I recall once browsing a website to see that Fae Myenne Ng’s second novel, Steer Toward Rock, had finally been listed, but this had been in 2005.  It did not actually appear in print until sometime in 2008).  Her second novel, The Favorites, does not disappoint at all.  Let me be clear in this review: those expecting an action novel, something with a catastrophic plot, or dynamic narrative arcs should look elsewhere.  The Favorites is a novel, at its core, of subtlety.  It is also a work that I categorize as the “slow burn” fiction (much like Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) in that it operates much more on the levels of refined manners and the attempt to negotiate those boundaries than a sudden plot twist or passionate romance.  At the same time, The Favorites is exactly that, a kind of romance, one in which the title references those figures that have been designated as the annointed by the parents or relatives that lovingly dote on them.  Not everyone has the chance to be a “favorite,” and Waters demonstrates what happens when characters realize their own position within this sort of hierarchy. 

 

The plot revolves mostly around the development of Sarah Rexford, a biracial Japanese American, who occasionally returns to Japan.  In the first of many extended visits showcased in the novel, she travels with her mother, Mrs. Rexford, where they stay with Mrs. Rexford’s mother, Mrs. Kobayashi.  The bond between Mrs. Kobayashi and Mrs. Rexford is the vortex from which all other characters can be traced against, precisely because Mrs. Rexford is not an only child.  She has one stepbrother and a half-sister and these various sibling rivalries make themselves clear over the novel’s trajectory.  Mrs. Kobayashi lives adjacent to Mrs. Asaki, who is the family matriarch as her brother, Kenji, was eventually married (at least I gather, the familial relationships become a little bit complicated, but I know these webs are precisely the point) to Mrs. Kobayashi.  Mrs. Asaki is quite well off, so she is able to partially support her daughter, Mrs. Nishimura and her daughter’s husband, Mr. Nishimura, but the eventual revelation of the connection between the Asaki family and the Kobayashi family will ultimately move the novel into a new terrain where Sarah Rexford, in particular, must negotiate with the greatest care and the greatest delicacy.  The entire novel showcases Waters deft and amazingly keen eye for detail, where the shift of a glance, the movement of a hand, demonstrates so much emotion.  Adding to the finely tuned descriptions, the geography of post-war and industrializing Japan is heralded with much finesse.  Neighborhoods slowly change, attitudes alter, but some elements still remain tied and fixed.  The collisions between an advancing time, a modernizing nation and those that hold on to the past remain a central conflict through which characters engage each other.  Like most of the short stories from The Laws of Evening (showcased earlier by pylduck), Waters’s novel is set in Japan and in this respect, follows the transnational flows that have dominated the field of Asian American literature in recent years.  At the same time, there have been few works by Asian American writers to be set, for the most part, in Japan (one exception is the play, Asa Ga Kimashita by Velina Hasu Houston), so it is always with the most excitement that a transnational literary terrain is fleshed out.  Waters peppers the dialogue in her novel with choice phrases and utterances meant to evoke a certain authenticity to speech patterns that might be found there and the gift of this work is in its seamless ability to transport and transfix. 

 

With a title like The Favorites, one might have worried about the lofty expectations that might come with this moniker, but, if to pun only briefly, the novel is certainly one of my favorite reads for this year.  I found myself finishing the novel with a wistful eye, wishing it might still continue. 

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

www.amazon.com/Favorites-Novel-Mary-Yukari-Waters/dp/1416561072/ref=sr_1_1

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Karan Mahajan’s Family Planning (Harper Perennial).


It is a great pleasure to write on Karan Mahajan’s Family Planning if only to say that the novel is extremely funny read, with memorable characters and outrageous pop culture references, the kind of book that is very accessible but still addresses weighty issues related to politics and transnationalism and national consciousness.  At the center of the novel is the relationship between a father, Rakesh Ahuja, and his son, Arjun, the product of one marriage that ended prematurely in the death of Ahuja’s first wife, Rashmi.  What catalyzes the plot forward is the accidental moment in which Arjun walks in on his father having sex with the woman PRESUMED to be his mother.  I say this because it is soon explained that Arjun does not know that his biological mother died and that who he thinks of as his mother, Sangita, is in reality his stepmother.  Rakesh has never told him this information, but the moment of “coitus interruptus” does begin to push Rakesh to considering telling Arjun who his “true” mother is.  As another element to the plot, Rakesh works as a kind of “urban planner” for the government, operating in one instance to construct more flyovers, those portions of highway or freeway that are placed on platforms essentially and move over large swathes of neighborhood.  Neferti X. Tadiar wrote a wonderful piece on the politics of the “flyover” in Manila (“Manila’s Metropolitan Form”) and I’m reminded here of those issues related to class, poverty, and other such elements in the construction of major highways and freeways in large cities.  Mahajan rounds out the context of the novel by placing Arjun as the oldest son in a family of thirteen children.  While Sangita could have been drawn out as a simplistic character, her own narrative arc is fascinating and hilarious and develops of course the fascination of Indian culture with the filmic and screen imaginary, referencing in some oblique ways the global emergence of Bollywood cultures. 

 

A wonderful interview with the author can be found here:

 

http://therumpus.net/2009/01/the-rumpus-interview-with-karan-mahajan/

 

What is interesting about the interview is that Mahajan claims status as an Indian writer and not as an Indian American writer, thus effectively cleaving off a connection to Asian American literature per se, despite the fact that the content of the novel might suggest otherwise.  While majority of the novel is centralized in New Delhi, there are major plot elements that are catalyzed by Rakesh’s schooling in the United States.  Further, the global scope of the novel is often put into motion by the hilarious pop culture moments.  But, what is clear is that the “ethnic” writers of the day, whether or not he chooses to identify in one particular way is far more away of the contoured terrain of Anglophone literatures and it is a testament of the change in canonical considerations that writers of various backgrounds look more and more to dialogue with and against other writers that might be categorized in a similar fashion.  Consequently, in some ways, it is heartening to think about Mahajan’s own construction of the Indian writers course and how that became a way into thinking about his own work.  While he diverges from many of the strains of these works, Family Planning does remind me of the very contemporary quality of Mohsin Hamid’s writings, especially in Moth Smoke, where he renders Lahore with a mix of pop culture, urban density, and class stratification. 

 

Arjun, perhaps as the typical angsty “global” teenager is looking to impress Aarti, and the way in which he hopes to “get the girl” is by creating a rock band, one that is very influenced by the work of Bryan Adams.  I couldn’t help but find myself laughing absolutely out loud at these moments, precisely because of these transpositions of music and “global” teen angst.  The accessibility of these “north American” pop culture references gives Family Planning a kind of breezy quality, but the novel is not to be mistaken solely as “light fare” because of its humorous attitude.  Perhaps as it most sardonic moments, Mahajan does interject the problematics related to nepotism and corruption in contemporary India, where connections and class standing seems to provide routes to escape punishment and incarceration.  While the main characters often seem to be beneficiaries of such advantages, there is a slight disarticulation in terms of the narration that suggests that we are not to read such moments as merely passing responses to inequity.  Indeed, there are often times when one cannot but think how privileged Arjun is and that his quest to seek Aarti’s affections stands as a testament to the relative bourgeois life of the family.  Such class politics are always-already ingrained into the narrative through the projects that Arjun’s father, Rakesh, involves himself within related to urban design and highway planning. 

 

By being able to place the sociopolitics of contemporary Indian life alongside a humorous tone, Mahajan’s Family Planning does achieve this intricate balance in this felicitous debut. 

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Family-Planning-Novel-Karan-Mahajan/dp/006153725X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244650170&sr=8-1

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Everything Asian by Sung J. Woo (Thomas Dunne, 2009).



I spent most of yesterday reading Sung J. Woo’s Everything Asian.  Reading has always been for me, in the end, a source of entertainment and pleasure and such was the case with Woo’s felicitous first novel.  With a cultural context I am well aware of on a certain level, Everything Asian is the story of the Kim family: a mother, a father, and two children.  The father, Harry, finally is able to move his wife (Emma) and two children (Susan, the older, and David, the younger) over from Korea and the novel elucidates the challenges accorded to the assimilation experience.  Harry owns a basic variety goods store catered to Orientalia, a shop called East Meets West, from whence the title originates.  Indeed, David, the son, believes that a better name for the store might have been “everything Asian,” from the pan-Asian items that are sold, including items like kimonos and fans.  East Meets West (one can’t help but connect this title to Younghill Kang’s novel, East Goes West) is part of a mini-mall type area called Peddlers Town in which the Kims are one small part of a larger entrepreneurial community where other stores cater toward customers that have inclinations for various items, including specialty shops for mirrors, sound speakers, luggage, among other such novelties.  While this novel could have followed some of the more rote trajectories with such a plot, the way Woo spins much of his tale through the eyes of a young adolescent boy grants the narrative a humorous and effortless quality.  While the tone may at many moments be funny or light-hearted, the tone is cloaking very serious themes ranging from economic crises to terminal illnesses.  Consequently, the novel cannot be one to dismiss as fluff nor can it be easily digested without recourse to contemplating the myriad ways in which the Asian immigrant must toil endlessly in hopes of finding even just one shred of the famed and mythologized American Dream.  The novel’s strength also is mobilized by Woo’s eye to creating very attractive peripheral characters that refract the Kim family experience, so that we see them anew.  There is the McManus family who is supposed to teach the Kims to better speak English.  There is Alex, the super-model store employee that begins to threaten David’s sense of equanimity. 

In terms of Asian American literature as a larger field, it is difficult to situate the novel because of its rather eclectic blending of humor, the immigrant narrative, and its unique narrative styling.  Indeed, while the novel is certainly constellating around the Kim family, there are various chapters narrated from other points-of-view, most often of the other entrepeneur families that work in Peddlers Town.  If there are points I would push the novel on, it would be through its framing device and the development of certain minor characters.   The novel opens up with David reminiscing about the past, especially as he looks upon the now-empty apartment that his family first lived after having moved to the United States.  The narrative thus ensues after that point, but the novel concludes without a full-fledged return to the “present” moment and I did wonder about how the “older” David might be living, what kind of life he had.  At other points, Woo is certain to create such memorable side characters that one almost wants to follow those side plots as well, which is clearly a testament to his vivid characterizations.  Everything Asian has a cinematic quality in this respect and reminds me most then of Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, although the two works are obviously extremely different in terms of context and even fictional genre.  Eminently teachable and never over-indulgent, Everything Asian is a unique and indispensable addition to the “field,” one that belies a still-emergent comedic impulse that is only beginning to be queried.

Within its own ethnically specific grouping, Everything Asian continues to contour the Korean American literary terrain.  Other Korean American fictional reviews in this community have included Katherine Min’s Secondhand World (just recently), Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher (which noticeably did not revolve around characters of Korean descent), Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere, Min Jin Lee’s Free Food For Millionaires, Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Angela Mi Young Hur’s The Queens of K-Town, Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin, and Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest.  It is impossible to locate a single unifying narrative among this very diverse set of texts.  For those like Janice Y.K. Lee and Susan Choi, the Korean American experience as one to situate a kind of racial oppression is not a model they specifically draw from, but the small business setting evoked by Everything Asian has been the productive location for works including Leonard Chang’s The Fruit ‘N Food and Suki Kim’s The Interpreter.  Of the authors listed here, most are first time fiction writers, so hopefully can expect much more from these authors.  It is already rumored that Min Jin Lee is working on her next novel and Leonard Chang’s newest work, Crossings, seems to be a return to the social realistic (and almost naturalistic aesthetic found in The Fruit N’ Food, deviating then from his Allen Choice detective series.  One wonders about the long delayed newest novel by Chang-rae Lee, which was highlighted at some point here, entitled The Surrendered.  And lest we forget, Korean American poetry fans can rejoice with the soon-to-be published fifth poetry collection from Myung Mi Kim, entitled Penury (Omnidawn, June 2009).  We might then call upon Lisa Lowe’s “heterogeneity” model here offer up the increasingly nuanced representational landscape where the “ethnic” author no longer has to worry about being the sole spokesperson for an entire ethnic community.  Nevertheless, it is novels like Everything Asian that remind us the importance of race and ethnicity as routed in fictional form remains ever dynamic and ever shifting. 

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Asian-Sung-J-Woo/dp/0312538855/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1242802942&sr=8-1



[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com

A Review of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

 

If one were to take the sea-faring tales of Herman Melville, constellate them along an oceanic axes linking India and Mauritius and China, the result might be Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which takes place for the most part on a boat (called the Ibis) commissioned in the export of opium and populated ultimately with coolies, prisoners, stowaways, and shipmates. Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.  Ghosh is also author of The Hungry Tide, The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Circle of Reason, among other novels.  He is of course an interesting figure to consider within an Asian Americanist frame, especially because this novel, in particular, does place the United States in a larger economic trajectory in the early 19th century with South Asia, East Asia, and Africa, not simply a transatlantic route, but a truly global one.  How does one situate this text then?  It is not quite a postcolonial text, nor does it traffic within one national frame and the fact that so much takes place literally on the ocean with characters of different national and ethnic origin all make the question of the “melting pot” or in this case, the “melting boat,” a very salient one. 

 

While the novel takes its leisurely time for the principle characters to meet, once the connections are made clearer, the dynamism of the novel is quite apparent.  Ghosh is a masterful storyteller and Sea of Poppies is the perfect work that demonstrates the globalizing forces of literary representation.  Indeed, the cast of the novel includes an ethnically French, but Indian raised stowaway, named Paulette, a metif shipmen named Zachary Reid, the dastardly British entrepeneur, Benjamin Burnham, a Indian village woman, Deeti, among many others who will eventually come to populate the story.  Ghosh texturizes the narrative through dialect, rendering English in a variety of different ways.  The individual trials that each character faces will yet bring them together to the Ibis. 

 

Ghosh has taken great pains to reconfigure an entirely different historical period,that of the early 19th century.  He therefore employs the temporally-specific vocabulary to rend the experience through a very particular lens.  While the effect is not simply realist in its evocation, it nevertheless casts the entire novel through a certain filtered lens that reminds one of Benito Cereno.  Indeed, there are many schemes and plots afoot within the novel, many disguises that characters must undertake, and many twists that the narrative undergoes.  At the same time, the multifocal nature of the text never allows the reader much time to be situated from one viewpoint or perspective and this kaleidoscopic perspective enriches the cultural configuration of the high-seas ship.  Of course, Ghosh does realize he has an audience to entertain and in this respect, there is a certain roguishness to the tale as well, where rough-hewn characters and ribald figures texturize the plot. 

 

For the most part, the main characters are easy to sympathize with as they make great pains to retain some fabric of a mission or quest despite the most difficult of circumstances.  For instance, Deeti’s saga is one of much hardship and pain as she is at first betrothed to an opium addict, then raped against her will and impregnated by her brother-in-law.  After her husband succumbs to his opium addiction, Deeti will take great pains to free herself from the shackles of this extended family and in the process must rely on an inner strength that is typical of many of the characters.  Another notable sequence involves a bankrupt landed gentleman, Raja Neel Rattan Halder, who is shamelessly hoodwinked and unfairly imprisoned, later sent as a convict on the Ibis, along with a fellow prisoner, of Chinese descent.  The very unlikely friendship that arises between the two is forged in part by the very unappealing, but nevertheless touching act that Neel undertakes.   He both bathes and washes this fellow prisoner who has fallen into significant withdrawal from opium addiction.  This interethnic affiliation is one of many unlikely alliances that form throughout the novel and makes it certainly one of a number of pleasant surprises in the way that Ghosh configures his character system. 

 

The conclusion leaves much to be desired, but with good reason.  Sea of Poppies is apparently part of an ambitious Ibis trilogy that will continue the adventures of these various characters.  One therefore waits with high anticipation for the next installment. 

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Sea-Poppies-Novel-Amitav-Ghosh/dp/0374174229/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1242664397&sr=8-1


[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher (Penguin, 2009).



There is a breathtakingly cinematic quality to Janice Y.K. Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, a quality that makes you believe that this is the kind of novel that will soon be turned into a movie.   With a bevy of Asian American novels and fiction having been turned into movies at this point, including Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Shawn Wong’s American Knees, one believes it is only a matter of time before Lee’s The Piano Teacher becomes an adapted screenplay.  Add to the pot characters that you at first find completely self-absorbed, but later discover have much more nuance and depth and you have yourself quite the compelling premise.  Lee cleverly pulls the readers in through the creation of a character, Claire Pendleton, ostensibly the protagonist, although I would not call the main focus (that goes to the Eurasian beauty, Trudy Liang, the vortex from which all other individuals revolve around and get sucked into in some form), who travels to Hong Kong in 1953 and settles into her life as a newlywed to a man (Martin, who is working for a utility company) she seems to simply tolerate.  Claire’s provincial English world is turned upside when she starts to look for a side job as a piano teacher and her disorientation is one mirrored by the reader because everything is not as they seem.  You see, Claire is baffled to discover that the job she is applying for will be for an ethnic Chinese family (made up of a business magnate father, Victor Chen, his wife, Melody, and their daughter Locket, the one taking piano lessons), where her status as an Englishwoman would, at least according to her initial prejudices, connote a higher class location.  Instead, Hong Kong is a different world, where her background as a middle-class Englishwoman pales in contrast to the various elite socialites that populate the colony, of Chinese ethnic heritage or not.  Claire is eventually drawn into a world in which exterior performance do not match interior intent and the novel eventually moves back in time to 1941, just before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong.  At the center of this novel is Trudy Liang, a beautiful heiress of part Chinese, part Portuguese background who is the envy of every woman in the colony and has caught the eye of every eligible bachelor, including William Truesdale.  The name “Truesdale” is certainly a bit heavy-handed, but bespeaks a certain quality that will draw Trudy, despite her incredible popularity, to him and to him only.  As the Japanese advance on Hong Kong, their relationship blossoms.  And among the various adventures they have, the readers will be introduced to a bevy of socialites, many who know more than are willing to divulge, such as Dominick Chen (Trudy’s cousin), Edwina Storch (a long-time resident and sort of matriarch for the British colonials) and her best friend, Mary Winkle, Reggie and  Arbogast (another power elite couple), among others.  The novel will then jump cut back to 1953, where Claire meets William Truesdale, now a chaffeur for the very same family where she works as the piano teacher.  The narrative is catalyzed by the mystery that surrounds William’s change in status as well as the strange way in which a triangle eventually forms between Trudy and William in 1942 and Claire and William in 1953.  What happened to Trudy?  And what does the Crown Collection of Hong Kong have to do with all of this?  These questions structure a mystery that enfolds the reader and the strength of the book lies partly in this enthralling plot. 

 

While there are portions of the novel, I found a bit sentimentalized, Lee’s gift is in the exploration of characters that are placed into extraordinarily difficult circumstances and then offers such characters an intricate and complex arc.  Some of the sequences are difficult to read, simply for their graphic war imagery and content.  The most challenging connection though ultimately lies with Claire Pendleton, whose racist viewpoints concerning the colony make it difficult to empathize on a political level and certainly Lee expected this and provides Claire with her own developmental narrative.  The choice then to focalize the narrative often through her eyes is a risky one and one that I’m not sure wholly pays off.  Indeed, the sense that a British Empire might be destroyed and reconfigured for her in a more politically progressive way is a kind of consciousness that is lacking in say, Adela Quested, in A Passage to India, but even then, the colonial subject’s mobility is one that many readers have been used to or already conditioned to understand, so when Lee makes definite care to include the presence of amahs, the Chinese caretakers who populate Hong Kong, one wonders about their lives and their stories.  I kept finding myself falling into these marginalities even as the inexorable pull of Claire’s narrative moved forward.  Overall though this critique is a minor one, as I fully understand that it would have made for an entirely different book, but the rubric of identity politics, postcolonial theory, and third world subjectivities, makes us more acutely aware of what is often overlooked, written out, expunged, and excised, in the fictive imagination.  We are reminded then of the power of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea or Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt to reverse the gaze. 

 

Ultimately though, the bottom line is clear: The Piano Teacher is an exceptional debut.

 

Buy the Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Piano-Teacher-Janice-Y-Lee/dp/0670020486

 


[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Bhira Backhaus’s Under the Lemon Trees (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009). 

 

(plot spoilers below)

 

While I have previously mentioned a kind of ennui at identity politics, there also has been in some part a move away from social context critique that has long dominated the field of Asian American literary studies.  While such a move has spawned especially the birth of more aesthetic critiques of Asian American literatures, a book like Bhira Backhaus’s Under the Lemon Trees reminds us of the incredibly contoured nature of the “social context” within Asian American populations.  Under the Lemon Trees takes as its central focus a Punjabi Sikh community in Oak Grove, California.  Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, following most specifically the perspective of a 15 year old Indian American girl, Jeeto, who is attempting to navigate the tricky world of traditional Punjabi value systems, especially as it relates to romance, love, and marriage, especially as it collides on American soil.  The central concern related in the story is about the uniqueness of “the first love” and how those moments cannot necessarily be replicated and finally how the events that spawned “the first love” are subject often to drastic and violent change.  For Jeeto, understanding notions of romance and love come through her close connection to her older sister, Neelam, who is spurned ultimately by her first love, Hari, and later enters into an arranged marriage despite sullying her reputation through this initial indiscretion.  However, this romantic relationship is part of a longer lineage of spurned love affairs.  In particular, the “heart” of the novel extends to Uncle Avtar, Hari’s father, who as a young man working as an agricultural laborer, farm hand, among other such duties, falls in love with a young biracial Chicana woman.  Uncle Avtar, who is at the time quite impoverished, is ultimately unable to win her over after a series of unfortunate events paints both him and her in a bad light.  He is driven to move to the Oak Grove community after meeting the legendary, Mohta Singh, a man who, like Uncle Avtar, has found connections with Mexican American women.  Mohta is a widower and father to Anna, a biracial Indian-Mexican American.  Mohta later encourages Avtar to marry Anna in a bid to find someone to pass on the family property; she produces a son for Avtar, but dies in the process.  This son will go on to be Hari.  As such, his mixed race heritage becomes an unspoken sore point for Neelam’s family who seek a better “fit” for Neelam and marries her off finally to an Indian transnational.  As Jeeto grows up, she begins to find herself also drawn to an individual who may not be the best fit for her, following a path that eerily echoes her older sister.   Vying for this young man’s attention is Jeeto’s friend, Surinder, who flouts tradition openly and seeks an alternative route for herself that breaks her quite radically from the Sikh community. 

About, Under the Lemon Trees, Publishers Weekly posted this review:

 

Under the Lemon Trees Bhira Backhaus. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-37953-7

 

Backhaus’s debut novel explores love, loss and the tangled web of family in the matriarchal Oak Grove, Calif., Sikh community of 1976. Teenage narrator Jeeto is already caught between two worlds, the college-bound crowd of her American classmates and the traditional marriage, arranged by her mother, to an unknown young man from India. Through Jeeto’s conflict, Backhaus explores the tension between the traditional and the new in her sister, relatives and neighbors. Uncle Avtar, who fled India for a life of opportunity, loses his heart to an American waitress, but finds his loyalty to the Sikh community pulling him back into the fold. Jeeto’s sister, Neelam, in love with a young man of undesirable parentage, passively accepts her arranged marriage to a stranger, while Jeeto’s friend Surinder openly rebels against community mores. Intertwined, their stories of loss, connection and the search for identity create a rich, sensuous portrait of a culture in transition; unfortunately, her myriad cast is populated largely by stock characters, keeping Backhaus’s world from coming fully alive. (Mar.)

 

http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6612219.html

 

While the reviewer here tends to focus on the character aesthetic, one of the limits in this critique is that it completely fails to address one of the most interesting elements of the narrative that revolves around mixed race and the “choices” that Punjabi-Sikhs had to make in their migrations to the United States, where sex ratios (much like the Chinese American bachelor phenomenon) made it exceedingly difficult to find someone of a similar ethnic/religious/regional/caste background.  Such a context was the basis of the study Making Ethnic Choices by Karen Isaksen Leonard, who completed a foundational study on Punjabi men and their Mexican spouses.  While the early California contexts are often routed through Filipino American or Japanese American migrant labor, Backhaus’s novel remains a wonderful fictional depiction of another community that took part in the construction and early diversification of the California agricultural community.  The novel is also exceedingly well-written, especially in the areas where Backhaus pauses to take stock of the landscapes.  Indeed, one wishes that there were more such descriptions as it places the work within a strongly regional frame, often overlooked in Asian American cultural production.  In terms of its historical specificity and geographical centralization, one is also reminded of Shawna Yang Ryan’s impressionistic and lyrical, Locke 1928, which was earlier reviewed on <lj user=asianamliftans> by <lj user=pylduck>.  The richness of a particular time and place and cultural community is brought to life by Backhaus and I therefore would challenge the review offered by Publishers Weekly.  Indeed, in the dynamism of its social context depiction alone, there is a history coming to life. 

           

 

For the author’s website, please go here:

 

http://underthelemontrees.com/

 

To buy the book:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Under-Lemon-Trees-Bhira-Backhaus/dp/0312379536

 

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Ha Jin’s A Free Life (Paperback Edition, Vintage International, 2009)

 

The first of Ha Jin’s writing to be primarily set in the United States, A Free Life is a meandering, yet nevertheless beautifully written novel, expounding upon and nuancing the prototypical Asian American immigrant narrative.  In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Wu family (comprised of Nan Wu, the father, Pinging Wu, the mother, and Taotao, the son) must forge a new life in the United States.  After Nan drops out of graduate school in political science at Brandeis University, the family must work harder than ever to ensure a successful future.  The novel takes us from suburbs of Boston, to New York City, to Atlanta, and in the later stages of the text, back to China.  In the meantime, Ha Jin aims to clarify some of the nuances in the Chinese diasporic community by linking some of the difficulties that the Wu family faces directly because of their Mandarin-speaking background.  My biggest critique of the novel is that it is just too long, and clocking in at a morbidly obese 660 pages, A Free Life could have certainly used a harsh editor.  The uneven plot does little to carry the reader along and really, I believe, it is the strength of Ha Jin’s writing style that lovingly develops and carries what meager momentum there often is for the Wu family.  For those that have read some Asian American literature, the narrative itself will feel ultimately overly familiar, for the “American Dream” looms large as a unifying trope in numerous cultural productions and texts.  Why it is that we should deign to spend it with this seemingly mundane family does beg the particular question about whether or not Jin aimed to consider this from the perspective of U.S “minority” literatures?  Indeed, Nan Wu, an aspiring poet and writer, does at one point, come upon the names Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston, but later rather emulates other more “canonical” poets.  Given the immigrant suffering and angst so prevalent in Jen and Kingston’s work, perhaps Nan Wu would have found a different perspective from which to understand, challenge, and critique his own life’s path.  Toward the concluding pages of the text, Nan is finally sending out poems for publication: “He mailed out another batch of poems to a small journal called Yellow Leaves, which he had noticed published some Asian American authors” (591).  The reader never discovers if his poetic aspirations are successful, only left with an epilogue of Nan’s poems. 

What is certainly breathtaking about Jin’s larger publication arc though is in the tremendous plasticity with which he moves from one sociohistorical particularity to another.  Prior to A Free Life, Ha Jin’s War Trash (shortlisted for the Pultizer Prize in fiction) explored the much-overlooked context of Chinese communist armies dispatched during the Korean War.  Here, the form of War Trash is much like A Free Life in its focus on one particular character and there is less attention to a flash sequence of events than to the development of fictional figuration.  In this respect, Jin’s strength consistently seems to lie in the contouring of these various fictional minds, whether it is the Wu family or the protagonist from War Trash.  Given the length of A Free Life, it might be a hard sell to teach in the already limited time frame of the semester or quarter system, but it regardless, Jin’s novel, despite its ominous length, is a wonderful addition to Asian American literature (and American literature more broadly). 

 

Buy The Book Here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Free-Life-Vintage-International/dp/0307278603/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1238704383&sr=8-1

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Julie Shigekuni’s Unending Nora (Red Hen Press, 2008)



I have been familiar with Julie Shigekuni’s work for some time, being an admirer especially of her second novel, Invisible Gardens, totally overlooked by critics thus far for no apparent good reason.  Her first novel, A Bridge Between Us, explored the intergenerational strife that appears between Japanese American women.  Her third novel draws inspiration from a certain impulse in Invisible Gardens in the way that it explores the problematic nature of memory for the sansei Japanese Americans in relation to the internment and the culture of silence it ultimately generated around that specific ethnic community.  Silence, in particular, has been a trope widely utilized by American writers of Asian descent, so much so that two full critical monographs, King-Kok Cheung’s Articulate Silences and Patti Duncan’s Tell This Silence, have been devoted to the exploring how communication, language, and voice all become a problematic site of subjective articulation.  In Unending Nora, there are numerous silences that appear to haunt the various characters.  First and foremost, the disappearance of one of the main characters, Nora Yano, leads the Japanese American community living in San Fernando Valley to confront their own secrets and rifts.  Second, the very subtle specter of Japanese American internment looms behind all of the characters.  While this event does not play a central role in the catalyzation of the story, it nevertheless functions to elucidate the social context of generational instability and discord.  

 

Unending Nora is a radical departure from Shigekuni’s first two novels in that it is a much more impressionistic work and there is a distinct lingering on details that give much insight into characters’ minds and the landscapes in which they inhabit.   Her prose styling is also differentiated in this latest novel and gestures in a more experimental direction, where sentiment and thought-patterns provide the narrative’s foundation.  A great strength of Unending Nora is that she brings alive the San Fernando Valley area, a location unique in its incredibly hot weather patterns and smoggy conditions during the summer; as it is narrated early on, “The San Gabriels rose in the eastern sky with an unsettleing sharpness.  They were a familiar sight, reliable witnesses to Nora’s growing up in the Valley, yet, on her seventh afternoon walking, she found the crags and deep pockets of shadow that clung to the mountain range daunting.  At the same time, the fact that the mountains had always been so close and yet she had no memory of ever setting foot in them seemed regrettable.  She thought she might have traveled to the mountains as a child, for a family outing, and she marveled at the way events and feelings could disappear without a trace.  Why did her mind settle on such peculiar objects for its musings in the first place, and how could the complicated facts of her past lay for so long hidden fro her?” (16).  This passage typifies Shigekuni’s narrative lens, where character constantly find themselves in the midst of conundrums related to memory and experience.  Here, we see how the Valley exists as its own separate character, replete with a varied topography rife for narrative exposition.  The foreboding phrase, “disappear without a trace,” clarifies the richness of the prose, where the novel achieves another texture on its second reading.  The question of “memory” here is central again to the ways in which the Japanese American internment will exist at the edges of consciousness, a knowledge that something had happened and yet such “events and feelings could disappear without a trace.” 

 

Structured around the mystery of Nora’s disappearance, the novel achieves some of its greatest insights in the complex psychic lives of its characters, including most specifically Nora’s two best friends, Caroline Ikeda (soon to be married) and Melissa Hori.  Nora is the vortex around the which the novel constellates not only because of the search to find her and the questions that lay unanswered around her disappearance (in this sense, the novel does seem to evoke some mystery/crime fiction tropes), but also because she concretizes the problematic nature around silence, expectation, and avoidance that quietly tears apart the Japanese American community.  Nora is specifically afflicted with a neurological condition that has limited her capacity to use her hands effectively, her dream of becoming a successful cosmetologist and manicurist devastatingly terminated.  Further, her alienation from her parents seems to originate far beyond her disability, creating a considerable challenge to her living conditions and to the development of her social life.  As Nora struggles to find her own path and despite the obstacles she faces, she must also contend with Caroline’s marriage ceremony and the possibility of finding a romantic relationship in the unlikeliest of places.  Another narrative arc involves a young Japanese American woman, Elinore, with a young daughter, Naoko, who is still working to understand her nisei parents, Hideko and Jun.  Elinore travels to San Fernando Valley in the wake of a failed relationship to Saburo, a Japanese transnational who suffers from devastating bodily scarring from a fire.  It is in a conversation that Elinore has with Saburo prior to her leavetaking that reveals the subtle psychic quagmire that so many characters are mired within:

 

“Maybe you’re right,” [Elinore] conceded, feeling misunderstood but acknowledging to herself that perhaps she wasn’t as clear as she’d thought she was on the subject of men.

“The Japanese in California, weren’t they sent away to camps during the Second World War, interned—?”

“Yes,’ she told [Saburo], “My father and mother both were.  But they were just small children at the time.”

“Even so, I’d think an experience like that would have its effects even generations later.” (76).

 

In a conversation between Elinore and her father, the notion that Japanese American internment might possess this ghostly quality is yet again considered. 

 

“So what is your opinion?”  Across the table, Jun folded the morning paper and stared across her in light so bright it stung her eyes.

“My opinion of what?” [Elinore] asked.

“All this affects you, too, you know.  Studies are beginning to show the impact internment has had on subsequent generations.  Did you know that the children of internees present problems that are many times analogous to, if not worse than, those experienced by the survivors?”

“I didn’t know that,” Elinore said, flummoxed” (152).

 

In some sense, behind Nora’s disappearance, is yet another layer, an element encrypted within the past, where the Japanese American internment creates and generates chasms and disruptions.  It will be Elinore, Caroline, and Melissa, who all seek ways to go beyond the incredible distance that seems to exist between individuals who are supposed to friends, family members, and loved ones.  Elinore must therefore confront her problematic relationship with Saburo; so too will Melissa find herself adjusting to a possible future with Mark, her non-Japanese boyfriend, while Caroline undergoes a challenging pregnancy that will serve as a test-case for what possible futures may exist for her family, but perhaps allegorically for Japanese Americans.  

 

Unending Nora is part of the rich tradition of Japanese American sansei (third generation) writers that have been exploring the after-effects of internment and routing such problematics within fiction that include Cynthia Kadohata, Karen Tei Yamashita, Julie Otsuka, David Mura, among numerous others.  Even in Shigekuni’s second novel, the plot point that seems to generate so much tension between the two main characters exists as a function of a shared ethnic history, revolving around the Japanese American internment.  I have spoken before of the danger of identity politics ennui and it is specifically here, in the realm of literature, that we see how representational “voices” are just beginning to emerge that relate problematics of race.  Yet, we seem so quick to unburden ourselves of race so as to move into the post-race era.  Shigekuni’s novel is a testament to the precariousness of simply moving beyond the some of the seemingly more well trodden narratives of Asian American literature (eg the Chinese/American labor and gold mountain tropes for instance).  The incredibly contoured and variegated nature of damage, trauma, and loss is only beginning to be explored. 

 

Buy the book here:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Unending-Nora-Julie-Shigekuni/dp/1597091227

 

http://www.redhen.org/bookDetail.asp?bookID=258

 

 

 

 

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