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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 28, 2017


School is back in session, which means we’re all going to be reading, at least for our classes, right? In this post, reviews of:

(1)  Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s, 2017).

(2)  David Mas Masumoto (with Nikiko Masumoto)’s Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm (Heyday Books, 2016).

(3)  Omar El Akkad’s American War (Knopf, 2017).

(4)  Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I write to You in Your Life (Random House, 2017).

(5)  Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir (Little, Brown and Company, 2017)

(6)  Joy Kogawa’s Gently Toward Nagasaki: A Spiritual Pilgrimage, An Exploration Both Communal and Intensely Personal (Caitlin Press, Inc., 2017).

(7)  Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Ruthless Deeds (Swoon Reads, 2017).

(8)  Riley Redgate’s Noteworthy (Harry N. Abrams, 2017).

(9)  Jomny Sun’s Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book (Harper Perennial, 2017).

(10)                 Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Among the Ruins (St. Martin’s, 2017).



A Review of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s, 2017).

What a quirky, melancholic debut novel we have from Patty Yumi Cottrell, which is titled Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s, 2017). We’ll let B&N do some work for us as per usual: “Helen Moran is thirty-two years old, single, childless, college-educated, and partially employed as a guardian of troubled young people in New York. She’s accepting a delivery from IKEA in her shared studio apartment when her uncle calls to break the news: Helen’s adoptive brother is dead. According to the internet, there are six possible reasons why her brother might have killed himself. But Helen knows better: she knows that six reasons is only shorthand for the abyss. Helen also knows that she alone is qualified to launch a serious investigation into his death, so she purchases a one-way ticket to Milwaukee. There, as she searches her childhood home and attempts to uncover why someone would choose to die, she will face her estranged family, her brother’s few friends, and the overzealous grief counselor, Chad Lambo; she may also discover what it truly means to be alive.” I think the element that will strike me as the most complicated issue that the novel brings up is actually related to narrative tone: I couldn’t always make sense of the narrator and protagonist, who at times comes off as abrasive and unrelenting and at others completely earnest and forthright. I couldn’t sometimes tell if we were dealing with an unreliable narrator or if the narrative itself was pitched in a semi-realistic world in which all the characters were somewhat caricatured or hyperbolic in their presentation. In any case, once Helen gets home and is settling in with her adoptive parents, it’s really clear that there’s incredible strain between her and these guardian figures. The narrator spends her time interviewing various people in order to find out if they knew anything about her brother, but she often causes them to be uncomfortable with her strange personality and in-your-face questions and musings. She seemed at times a little bit “tone deaf,” but there is a fairly incredible shift in both her character and the novel itself once the last fifty or so pages hit. I wasn’t sure what to make of the resolution, which certainly the reader needed, though for consistency’s sake did not necessarily match the tone that Cottrell began the novel with. Nevertheless, I appreciated Cottrell’s deft handling of suicide as a general topic, which shows both restraint and verve in the characterization (and development) of Helen’s brother. The other issue that the novel grapples with is issues of family and kinship, especially as they exist as a kind of conundrum for the Korean American adoptee. In this case, Helen and her brother both take very different approaches to their adoptive and biological families. Whereas Helen seems to have more an escapist approach, having little interest in seeking out her birth parents and wanting little to do with her adoptive parents once she has established her own life, Helen’s brother stays at home and also attempts to locate his biological family. This divergence presents us with an opportunity to consider this adoptee figure from multiple angles, allowing readers a chance to engage in the complicated dynamics of family constructions. Overall, an unconventional and auspicious debut!


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A Review of David Mas Masumoto (with Nikiko Masumoto)’s Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm (Heyday Books, 2016).


I’ve been acquainted with David Mas Masumoto’s work for some time, as he is the writer of a popular column that appears in the Fresno Bee and from which a number of his books are drawn. I hadn’t had a chance to read his latest, which is partially written with his daughter Nikiko Masumoto: Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm (Heyday Books, 2016). This creative nonfiction also became the partial basis for a documentary; you can see the trailer here:




Here, I am also employing an editorial description from kobo.com for the book itself: “How do you become a farmer? The real questions are: what kind of person do you want to be? Are you willing to change? How do you learn? What is your vision for the future? In this poignant collection of essays, Epitaph for a Peach author David Mas Masumoto gets ready to hand his eighty-acre organic farm to his daughter, Nikiko, after four decades of working the land. Declaring that ‘all of the gifts I have received from this life are not only worthy of sharing, but must be shared,’ Mas reflects on topics as far-ranging as the art of pruning, climate change, and the prejudice his family faced during and after World War II: essays that, whether humorous or heartbreaking, explore what it means to pass something on. Nikiko's voice is present, too, as she relates the myriad lessons she has learned from her father in preparation for running the farm as a queer mixed-race woman. Both farmers feel less than totally set for the future that lays ahead; indeed, Changing Season addresses the uncertain future of small-scale agriculture in California. What is unquestionable, though, is the family's love for their vocation--and for each other.” I think this description does a fine job of rendering the larger themes that are central and thread through the many essays. It’s generally difficult to hazard a real timeline because the essays or prose blocks are relatively short in their form, usually about 3 to 4 pages. What stands out is obviously Masumoto’s absolute adoration of his work, his commitment to organic farming, and the love he has for the genealogy that links him with multiple generations of agriculture. You also get a sense that Masumoto is being especially philosophical because he is seeing the cycles of change, the titular changing season as it were, as a metaphor for the fact that his life is limited. Never is this fact more apparent than in the concluding sequence, and we begin to see why Nikiko’s perspective is so important. Not only does she provide us with the continuing genealogy of the Masumoto farming, but she is also helping us detail how her father is becoming a little bit more frail, a little bit more prone to health problems. This process is one that Masumoto himself notes about his own father, detailing his father’s stroke and the change that it required in family caretaking. Nikiko’s education and schooling provide her with a perspective, too, that shows us where the future of the Masumoto farm may go, especially because there is a sense that agricultural production cannot ever be divorced from a larger political context. If there is any minor critique I have of this wonderfully compact creative nonfiction, it’s that I desperately desired more of Nikiko’s voice. Certainly, Masumoto himself is well-regarded not only as a farmer, but as a prose stylist. His writing is as lush and as flavorful as the peaches, raisins, and nectarines he harvests. There was a point where I was getting up every half an hour to get a snack, even though I wasn’t even hungry. This impulse was no doubt influenced by the constant references to variations of peach dishes: peach cobblers, pies, peach encrusted with panko bread crumbs, sweet peach dishes and savory peach dishes…. Man, I want some peaches right now. At the same time, the balance that Nikiko’s writing provides is intriguing; let’s hope that more future collaborations are in store.


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A Review of Omar El Akkad’s American War (Knopf, 2017).


So, this novel has definitely been on my to-read list this year. Let’s let B&N give us a pithy overview: “Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.” I have to admit: I sort of found this description to be lackluster. After all, Omar El Akkad’s debut novel American War has a fairly complicated backstory to it, involving a future in which the United States has broken up into various regions and remains at war. El Akkad was obviously channeling the possibility of what Civil War would look like if it broke out again; apparently, that war would be similarly fought along regionalist lines. But, it wasn’t always clear to me exactly what precipitated the problems between the various sectors and regions of the United States. Further still, there are many other empires and international conglomerates that seem to have formed in the time being that drive the plot in ways I could not fully understand. It may be that I was reading a little bit too quickly, but another issue that arises is that El Akkad juggles two very different scales in this book. The most prominent narrative involves the one in the description: Sarat Chestnut, our ostensible anti-heroine, becomes a kind of assassin trained by a mysterious, but well-connected man named Albert Gaines. Eventually, though, Sarat is captured and tortured under horrific circumstances; though she survives her ordeal, she is obviously very scarred, so much so that when an opportunity presents itself to throw America into chaos again, she is willing to brave that possibility precisely because she wants a very personal form of revenge. What is most compelling about the work is the careful attention that El Akkad gives to the many contours of Sarat’s damaged psyche: we still find we are willing to understand her actions, even when she takes the rather extreme measure to exact her own retribution. The final arc of the novel is perhaps the strongest because El Akkad shifts the narrative to the perspective of Sarat’s nephew. This first person viewpoint allows us to sympathize with Sarat, even as the novel hurtles toward its infectious climax. But, the larger historical and international forces shaping the antagonisms involving nation-states and other such entities sometimes recede into the background, even as Sarat’s stratagem obviously possess large-scale impacts. Thus, the local and personal reverberate against the transnational and global, but often in an unbalanced equilibrium. A compelling, if uneven debut.



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A Review of Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I write to You in Your Life (Random House, 2017).


I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs and creative nonfiction lately; I’ve been gravitating to them for some reason I can’t quite explain. One of the publications I have been most excited about is Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I write to You in Your Life (Random House, 2017). I have read all of Li’s four previous publications, two short story collections and two novels. I have taught selections from them in the past, but I was totally unprepared for the incredible difference in style and tone that would appear in this work. It’s probably something I should have been more cognizant of, especially since Li herself will remark that there is so often an incredible gap between a writer’s creative compositions and the personal letters and diary entries she might also produce. Much of this collection of essays deals with Li moving through the letters, diary entries, and ephemera composed by famous writers (especially Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, and others). Interwoven throughout these musings, Li also touches upon mental illness, her own suicide attempts, and her complicated trajectory as a transnational writer who decides to write in a non-native language. From a personal perspective, what struck me as most poignant was the ways in which Li is coming to terms with her desire to use writing as a method to deal with issues of attachment. With characters, as Li reminds us, there is no worry about how those characters will ultimately relate to you, because the actual writer has no actual place in that fictional world. In this sense, though she can tirelessly devote herself to the creation and to the contours of these characters, she does not have to worry about a mutual dynamic of care. This sort of relationship is one that fills her with incredible ambivalence and torture in the so-called actual world: how does one live without feeling attached, without having desire, Li wants to know? There is too much feeling one might have and so how does one mediate these feelings that so often have no place, cannot be returned? For Li, one answer is to write, but this answer often becomes crippling because she still must attend to the physical world around her. Li leaves much opaque about her personal life, especially her relationship to her husband and to her children, but we have to read between the lines here. Li, for instance, takes much inspiration from Marianne Moore, one of the few writers it seems that is as opaque in her poetry as she is in her personal writings. Li understands that there is a limit to how much she can share, how much she can start to break out of the reclusiveness apparent in writing, so this collection of essays seems to be a courageous, but still tentative foray into a world in which she must acknowledge her attachments and those who are attached to her. What I especially appreciate is Li’s frank depiction and nuanced consideration of suicidal thoughts, which she does not denigrate as somehow solely irrational. Li knows we live in a complicated, tortuous, but often also blissful, beautiful world. These incongruent facets no doubt become sometimes unbearable, intolerable even. If there is anything to understand about a writer’s psyche, it may be that her greatest art is also connected to her greatest sense of insecurity: this pristine, intricately wrought, insular fictional world that I can construct is the one that I do not have the power to formulate in my own. For Li, this dynamic is terrifying, but something that we hope, that is I, the “dear reader,” hopes she will come to navigate.


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A Review of Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir (Little, Brown and Company, 2017)


Wow! Well, I wish writers would always compose a memoir at some point, especially ones who are well known for their fiction (and their poetry in this case). B&N provides us with a pithy overview here: “When his mother passed away at the age of 78, Sherman Alexie responded the only way he knew how: he wrote. The result is this stunning memoir. Featuring 78 poems, 78 essays and intimate family photographs, Alexie shares raw, angry, funny, profane, tender memories of a childhood few can imagine--growing up dirt-poor on an Indian reservation, one of four children raised by alcoholic parents. Throughout, a portrait emerges of his mother as a beautiful, mercurial, abusive, intelligent, complicated woman. YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME is a powerful account of a complicated relationship, an unflinching and unforgettable remembrance.” So you might be wondering: what does Alexie’s memoir have to do with Asian American literature? Well, more than you might think. First off, I like to stray from the general guidelines once in awhile to explore allied works in the larger field of American literature. Second, one of Alexie’s most pivotal mentors is none other than Alex Kuo, who gets multiple mentions in the memoir. We’ve reviewed some of Alex’s work over here at AALF, so this kind of connection presents itself as an intriguing instance of a kind of cross-racial/ cross-ethnic connection, one that reminds me of the affiliations between the Aiiieeeee! boys and Ishmael Reed. In any case, the memoir is quite stunning: it reveals exactly why Alexie is a such a survivor. His father is an alcoholic, while his mother is someone that maintains her distance from Alexie. What becomes evident over the course of the memoir is that Alexie did not necessarily understand the ways in which his mother loved or might have loved him, and he goes about this memoir attempting to sort this issue out. It’s not a strict prose memoir, as mentioned by the editorial description. Indeed, as Alexie mentions in the work itself: the structure is something akin to the quilting his mother was fond of engaging in, and there is a recursiveness that is essential to a form of working through. As Alexie desires to move past his melancholic subjectivity, he places into larger contexts the outright poverty and destitution his family had faced. There are some incredibly poignant and devastating passages, rendered beautifully through Alexie’s always assured storytelling voice. For instance, there’s a vignette concerning a pair of moccasins that he loses during a period in which his mother leaves him and his siblings in the care of his aunt. His aunt had given him these moccasins to keep him from crying, but once she discovers that he has lost them—as a result of bullying no less—he is savagely beaten by her. The import of this moment is multiple. On the one hand, Alexie clarifies the ways in which life on the reservation was difficult, that physical abuse was actually the norm. At the same time, Alexie himself had already seemed to understand, even at that tender and youthful age, that there might be a world constituted in a different way, somewhere else. Wherever that was could not be made evident until Alexie had somehow managed to endure and to forge his career as a writer. So casting back into this traumatic instance, he—and by the extension, the readers—come to understand exactly why this experience left such deep psychic scars. Even then, he had refused to allow this type of treatment to be something he would normalize, and in doing so, he would forge an ethos that would carry him forward and beyond the communities that were most abusive to him. But this psychic fortitude has its limits; his storytelling almost seems to function in a way as a shield, and it is clear that something monumental breaks inside of him once his mother passes on. A brilliant, but devastating work.



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A Review of Joy Kogawa’s Gently Toward Nagasaki: A Spiritual Pilgrimage, An Exploration Both Communal and Intensely Personal (Caitlin Press, Inc., 2017).


Well, when I had heard that Joy Kogawa had finally published another volume of work, I was excited to see what topic she’d be covering in her newest book. Of course, Asian North Americanists best know Kogawa for her brilliant novel Obasan (as well as its sequel Itsuka). Kogawa is also author of a number of other publications, including a number of poetry collections, the children’s novel Naomi’s Road as well as the controversial novel The Rain Ascends.  It is the latter that is very much a part of the core of Kogawa’s latest, which explores Kogawa’s understanding of spirituality especially in light of her father’s own demons, which as we discover are related to his incestuous acts, many of which were perpetrated during his tenure as a of the church. Here is the description from the publisher’s site: “Gently to Nagasaki is a spiritual pilgrimage, an exploration both communal and intensely personal. Set in Vancouver and Toronto, the outposts of Slocan and Coaldale, the streets of Nagasaki and the high mountains of Shikoku, Japan, it is also an account of a remarkable life. As a child during WWII, Joy Kogawa was interned with her family and thousands of other Japanese Canadians by the Canadian government. Her acclaimed novel Obasan, based on that experience, brought her literary recognition and played a critical role in the movement for redress. Kogawa knows what it means to be classified as the enemy, and she seeks urgently to get beyond false and dangerous distinctions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Interweaving the events of her own life with catastrophes like the bombing of Nagasaki and the massacre by the Japanese imperial army at Nanking, she wrestles with essential questions like good and evil, love and hate, rage and forgiveness, determined above all to arrive at her own truths. Poetic and unflinching, this is a long-awaited memoir from one of Canada’s most distinguished literary elders.” What is intriguing about this description is that it completely avoids the emotional conflict at the center of this creative nonfiction’s work: how does Kogawa come to understand her father as a perpetrator? She wrestles deeply with this question, one that becomes ever more political especially because her childhood home becomes the subject of restoration efforts that divide local communities. Some, for instance, are intensely vocal that Kogawa’s home should not be considered a heritage site, especially given her father’s actions. Kogawa can’t seem to equate her father’s actions against her personal experiences: he seemed to be a tender, even quiet father, but over the course of the work, she comes to see that her father may have been hiding another facet of himself entirely from his family. What is courageous about Kogawa’s latest publication is her willingness to reveal her ambivalences. Early on, it becomes apparent that she is open to multiple sides of an argument. For instance, discourses surrounding nuclear proliferation and the use of nuclear energy continue to interest her, even ones that suggest that such energy use can still be harnessed in productive ways. This viewpoint causes strain in some of her friendships, but the point is: Kogawa is letting us know that she works a little bit more slowly. She needs to see the contours of an issue, a person, a discourse emerge over time because she commits wholeheartedly to a new way of thinking, a new mode of justice. It is perhaps this element of meticulous working through that is the most powerful. I have recently been able to read memoirs by writers such as Sherman Alexie and Yiyun Li, and continue to find that these works are sometimes ever more important to read because they help educators to teach their fictions with that much more nuance. And it is always a welcome moment when a literary giant such as Joy Kogawa graces us with her effortless, beautiful prose.


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A Review of Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Ruthless Deeds (Swoon Reads, 2017).


Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Ruthless Deeds (Swoon Reads, 2017) is the second installment in a projected trilogy that began with These Vicious Masks. I’m not sure what the title of the last one will be, but it will have to start with the word “These.” Call me psychic. Bad joke aside: for fans of a cross between X-Men and Jane Austen, you’ve come to the right place. Our cast of merry characters has reassembled to take on the forces of possible evil. Our plucky heroine, Evelyn Wyndham, is back, and she’s unaware that her sister Rosamund is still alive (though a sort of clunky opening that could have been better prefaced). Evelyn eventually joins up with a group called the Society of Aberrations, which is lead by Captain Redburn (with the power to enhance or negate another mutant’s powers) and his brother (who can project teleportation discs). Evelyn, by the way, has the power to heal others. The Society includes Miss Grey, who has the power to locate other mutants trough dreaming; Oliver, a young man with the ability to move through solid matter (like a ghost); Sebastian Braddock, with the power to disease or to kill people; Mr. Kent, with the power to ask anyone a direct question that s/he must answer truthfully; and Miss Chen, with the power to make an object crumble into pieces. There are also satellite figures and powers, such as some young individuals in training: a telekinetic, an individual who can turn others into pigs, another with the ability to fly, and then, an individual who can control plants. For those that are familiar with the X-men, the Society of Aberrations seems like a perfect analogue to that group. In fact, the parallels are so strong, there’s even a version of Cerebro, the machine that allowed Professor X and others to locate other mutants. In this case, that power if given over to Miss Grey. But, the novel starts taking off once it becomes apparent that the Society of Aberrations has some questionable policies. For instance, at some point they go to India to apprehend a woman (Radhika Rao), with the power to control the weather (this fictional world’s version of Ororo Munroe, aka Storm). She’s considered a menace to society, so they’re just supposed to get her, so they can lock her up in a prison. Evelyn is totally like: WTF? And her point is well taken because Radhika has never killed anyone, so her imprisonment doesn’t seem have to a purpose, except if the secret head of the Society of Aberrations maybe isn’t so gallant as the Captain claims this figure to be. The stakes get even higher when Evelyn teams up with Mr. Kent and Oliver to free Radhika from prison. Though they are successful, their stratagem results in their friends and loved ones being targeted by the head of the Society, so Evelyn and her band of upstarts realize that if they work against the Society’s secret motives, then the lives of their families and loved ones will be in danger. Despite this form of blackmail, Evelyn realizes that she must get to the bottom of the Society’s motivations, which means she must unmask the leader, purportedly someone who doesn’t even have a superpower. This decision eventually leads to the final arc of the novel. Readers are, of course, burdened with a kind of cliffhanger, so we’re left as putty in the fingers of Shanker and Zekas, desperately hoping that the listing for the next book will soon appear. Comparisons to X-men will never die down for this particular book, given all of these links, but Shanker and Zekas really work to make the narrative and world-building unique; the courtship melodramas in particular really provide this work with a dramedic flair that enriches the reading experience. Yes, we want so much for Evelyn to find a way to be with Sebastian Braddock, even if he might be betrothed to Mae Lodge. At the same time, what about the dashing, ever faithful and supportive Mr. Kent, always with the wry and witty comment to keep things moving? I couldn’t help rooting for Mr. Kent all along the way and wonder where this particular triangle may move to in the 3rd book. Finally, Shanker and Zekas did have an extraordinary chance to really push this novel to the next level with the introduction of a character like Radhika Rao. I’m not quite sure if they were waiting to use her storyline more fully in the third book, but it’s entirely underdeveloped here. The discourse that she uses to critique the Society as a colonial aggressor is quite politically engaged obviously and begins to lift this book into a different register precisely because it so strongly resists the ahistoricity and abstraction that can be common to the paranormal/ young adult genres. We’ll hope that Shanker and Zekas can deliver at all levels in the final installment!

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A Review of Riley Redgate’s Noteworthy (Harry N. Abrams, 2017).


Riley Redgate is one of those mixed race Asian American authors who might slip through the cracks by virtue of the surname issue. These days you can’t count on surnames to provide you with a clear indication of descent; a last name might sound ethnic but it may be the case that the name has a cognate OR that the individual in question may have taken a married last name OR the individual may be of mixed race ancestry (amongst other possibilities). I just happened to be googling some interviews when I came across Redgate’s work. In any case, here is B&N with a pithy description for us: “It’s the start of Jordan Sun’s junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she’s an Alto 2, which—in the musical theatre world—is sort of like being a vulture in the wild: She has a spot in the ecosystem, but nobody’s falling over themselves to express their appreciation. So it’s no surprise when she gets shut out of the fall musical for the third year straight. But then the school gets a mass email: A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshiped . . . revered . . . all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.”  Yea, so this passage provides us with the key plot conceit: Jordan Sun is cross-dressing in order to find her place at Kensington. What becomes evident is that Jordan’s desire to be claimed by a musical group is more largely a desire to find a type of family unit beyond her parents. Over the course of the narrative, readers will discover that Jordan comes from a poor background, an economic status that puts her place at Kensington continually in peril. Partway through the novel, her mother loses her job, the family qualifies for food assistance welfare programs, and even the fact that Kensington is covering tuition, room, and board does not necessarily guarantee her place there. Indeed, the fees related to textbooks and other such costs are not covered. But the real issue is of course: when will the Sharpshooters find out that the 8th member in their midst is a biological female teenager? Redgate is astute enough to consider the political ramifications of this kind of performance, especially in light of recent discourses related to trans identity and gender constructs. Jordan does consider her own privilege in this process, while also negotiating the thorny place of her bisexuality in this quest to find a refuge at Kensington. Of course, the stakes start to get complicated once Jordan does get unequivocally included in this band of teenage brothers: how long will it be before she is found out and what will the ramifications be when her ruse is discovered? While this dilemma certainly fuels narrative momentum, perhaps more salient to this novel is the problem of Jordan’s own positionality as an Asian American interested in the theater and performing arts. Her parents are leery of her career aspirations, which dovetail with the problems related to model minority dynamics. The novel complicates this issue by its exploration of class standing and the legacy of elite secondary institutions. Jordan’s admittance and presence at Kensington defies the longer tradition of the WASP-centered student body that this particular high school has long nurtured. If there is an endangerment that the novel considers, it is in relation to this kind of eccentric Asian American subject, the one who dares to embrace the fine arts despite a problematic class background. Redgate’s novel thus joins this rich tradition of Asian American narratives who undermine the model minority’s insidious overlay concerning racial progress and postracial discourses. At the same time, fans of the high school novel/ young adult fiction will find much of interest as Jordan attempts to master her position in an all male acapella group. We’ll see if Redgate has another installment in store of us!



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A Review of Jomny Sun’s Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book (Harper Perennial, 2017).


So, I was really intrigued by this title when I saw it listed because of the funktastic title and the spelling. As an professor who has taught some writing intensive classes, I just found the spelling aspect to be pretty hilarious. In any case, B&N gives us this useful description of the text:  “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too is the illustrated story of a lonely alien sent to observe Earth, only to meet all sorts of creatures with all sorts of perspectives on life, love, and happiness, all while learning to feel a little better about being an alien—based on the enormously popular Twitter account, @jonnysun. Here is the unforgettable story of Jomny, a lonely alien who, for the first time ever, finds a home on our planet after learning that earthlings can feel lonely too. Jomny finds friendship in a bear tired of other creatures running away in fear, an egg struggling to decide what to hatch into, an owl working its way to being wise, a tree feeling stuck in one place, a tadpole coming to terms with turning into a frog, a dying ghost, a puppy unable to express itself, and many more. Through this story of a lost, lonely and confused alien finding friendship, acceptance, and love among the creatures of Earth, we will all learn how to be a little more human. And for all of us earth-bound creatures here on this planet, we can all be reminded that sometimes, it takes an outsider to help us see ourselves for who we truly are.” I didn’t realize that this graphic narrative is based upon a twitter account, so that was definitely news to me. The reading experience I had was unexpected. On the one hand, I did enjoy the strange tale, especially the creative use of spellings throughout, but I seem to have a similar reaction to any work that anthropomorphizes animals and other creatures. I sometimes have this nagging thought about why some animals get chosen to speak over others. In any case, one other important plot point is that the humans that the alien is actually looking for are completely misidentified, since he spends all of his time talking to things like trees, stumps, and animals. Over the course of his experiences, though, he realizes that there’s much more to his life than the stolid ways offered by his alien peers. I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes if there was an allegorical impulse behind this work, especially since I am always thinking of the “alien” as a stand-in for the Asian subject rendered as foreign, cold, unfeeling, and different. In any case, I suppose I can’t justify the model minority critique of the work, even if I can’t help but read the work in this elastic way. The drawings and sketching style lend themselves quite well to the lighthearted comedy that is threaded throughout; some may find the philosophical musings of the central character to be somewhat trite, but the graphic narrative is ultimately a fun, otherworldly journey.


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A Review of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Among the Ruins (St. Martin’s, 2017).


Ausma Zehanat Khan is already back with another welcome installment in the buddy detective series following Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak. This very exposition heavy novel requires some definite context, so we’ll let B&N take it away from here: “On leave from Canada’s Community Policing department, Esa Khattak is traveling in Iran, reconnecting with his cultural heritage and seeking peace in the country’s beautiful mosques and gardens. But Khattak’s supposed break from work is cut short when he’s approached by a Canadian government agent in Iran, asking him to look into the death of renowned Canadian-Iranian filmmaker Zahra Sobhani. Zahra was murdered at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where she’d been seeking the release of a well-known political prisoner. Khattak quickly finds himself embroiled in Iran’s tumultuous politics and under surveillance by the regime, but when the trail leads back to Zahra’s family in Canada, Khattak calls on his partner, Detective Rachel Getty, for help. Rachel uncovers a conspiracy linked to the Shah of Iran and the decades-old murders of a group of Iran’s most famous dissidents. Historic letters, a connection to the Royal Ontario Museum, and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea are just some of the threads Rachel and Khattak begin unraveling, while the list of suspects stretches from Tehran to Toronto. But as Khattak gets caught up in the fate of Iran’s political prisoners, Rachel sees through to the heart of the matter: Zahra’s murder may not have been a political crime at all.” I was impressed by this rather pithy description, and I’m not sure I could have managed to complete one like it, as Khan sets herself up for a huge project once she embarks on setting the novel in two different national locations. The previous efforts, while having strong transnational currents, did not see our main investigators separated by half a globe. The momentum waxes and wanes due to the shifts in location and context, and Khan is often mired by the historical and cultural exposition required to materialize the force and gravity of the Iranian political climate, which is quite precarious for Khattak. Khattak must contend with a rotating cast of characters related to something called the Green Movement, which is a revolutionary group looking to overturn the Iranian regime. They are of course allied with Zahra, especially as she was working on documentary type work that criticizes autocratic and totalitarian developments. Concurrently, Rachel is in Canada working on the bits and pieces of the case that emerge there, which necessarily involve individuals related to museums and archives. Khan adds a nice flourish to this plot because Rachel is also working on rebuilding her relationship to her younger brother Zach. Readers will recall that Zach had disappeared for quite a long time amid dysfunctional family dynamics, so much of Rachel’s personal life appears wrapped around creating a new home for them both. The disparate strands and complicated cultural dynamics threaten the plot from spiraling a little bit out of control. Nevertheless, once some of the suspects start being fleshed out, Khan streamlines the plot and focuses finally on finding a way to reunify Getty and Khattak. If there is a big critique of this novel, it’s that it risks so much in leaving Getty and Khattak separated from each other for the majority of the events. They’re always better as a team, so the payoff, though being high, still can feel as though much had been withheld. As with Khan’s other works, the scope of the novel leaves us always feeling jarred by the limitations of the detective genre. Though there is an attempt to determine justice at least on an individual level, larger questions of political freedoms that mire those involved in the Green Movement linger, leaving us with that ominous never fully resolved noir-ish conclusion.


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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 18, 2017


In this post, reviews of Jeanette Arakawa’s The Little Exile (Stone Bridge Press, 2017); Rhadika R. Dhariwal’s The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel (Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2016); Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch (Sourceworks Fire, 2017); Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (Knopf, 2017); Sil Lai Abrams’s Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity (Gallery Books, 2016); Fonda Lee’s Exo (Scholastic, 2017).


AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.



A Review of Jeanette Arakawa’s The Little Exile (Stone Bridge Press, 2017).


Jeanette Arakawa’s The Little Exile is a literary-cultural-historical gift, especially because it provides us with one of the rare accounts of the Japanese American internment from someone of the Nisei background. Typically, it has been the third generation writers (like Julie Otsuka and David Mura), who have been the ones to offer fictionalized/ creative nonfictional representations of that tragic moment in U.S. history, but lately, there’ve been more publications by Nisei writers, who have explored what they experienced during the internment. Arakawa’s The Little Exile joins recently published works such as Lily Havey’s Gasa Gasa Girl, Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop, and Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s Starting from the Loomis and Other Stories that come from the minds and lives of Nisei writers. Arakawa makes the interesting choice to fictionalize her work, at least in part through change in the protagonist’s name. The fictionalized autobiography is told from Marie Mitsui’s childlike perspective, and we see the internment unfold through her youthful eyes. Arakawa provides us with a generous exposition, as we learn about how the family’s life in San Francisco. As World War II looms and anti-Japanese sentiment grows, Marie’s family must move Stockton and later to the San Joaquin Campground before they are shipped off to Rohwer, Arkansas. I can’t recall too many other internment narratives set in Rohwer. Though some elements are similar to most internment narratives (such as the shoddy housing, the lack of privacy in the bathrooms, the problematic weather patterns, the questionable food), Rohwer’s swampy geographies offer a different environmental perspective from works set in more desert-like (e.g. Manzanar or Topaz) locations. There is much to praise about Arakawa’s work as an element of historical recovery. At the same time, the audience of this depiction is certainly directed at readers who have perhaps less knowledge or no knowledge about internment. Readers are able to be introduced to a less politicized perspective precisely because Arakawa chooses a child-protagonist, but the epilogue is especially crucial because it shows us how that figure progresses into someone who understands the injustices of the internment. The title is an interesting choice perhaps because it is an ironic invocation of the child’s experience during this period. Marie is certainly “little,” but the exile is gargantuan. One of the intriguing elements of the internment experience across multiple chapters is how subtle the traumas can seem: there’s a moment at the conclusion where it seems evident that the Mitsui family has finally achieved a level of stability after settling in Denver, Colorado. They are able to afford a home, something that they had never been able to achieve while they lived in San Francisco, but Marie and her brother implore her parents to move back to California, as everyone they know (from the internment period) also has seemed to move back. Marie’s father, in particular, tells the children that they would have to start over, but their response is a sort of shrug: we’ve been through the process before, they imply, and are comfortable risking it all because they know they’re survivors. How poignant, but also how brutal. And, so they decide to move again. This state of “little” exile, this mobility is not necessarily a skill borne out of talent or sacrifice, but one necessitated by the traumas sustained by internment. By way of a conclusion, this book comes out of Stone Bridge Press, a cool indie publisher that has already put out some other works by JA writers, including Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s Dead Love, which we reviewed WAY back in the day (by pylduck) (for those who are a little bit hungry for “brain”):





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A Review of Rhadika R. Dhariwal’s The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel (Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2016).


I definitely was intrigued when I first started this title because it reminded me of the covers of a number of children’s books that I used to read as a child that were based upon the lives of animals, novels like Bunnicula (and its sequels) and Ralph S. Mouse or Redwall. My favorite of all time was Watership Down. Rhadika R. Dhariwal’s debut The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel treads some similar ground in the way that she anthropomorphizes animals: these animals go to weddings, send out wedding invitations, and have spats about who didn’t get invited. The story’s perspective is centered on the titular “no-name” Squirrel who works as the “Petpost slave.” From here, let’s let B&N do some plotting work for us: “Solve riddles with Squirrel as he travels to the walled city of bees, the fireless tea plantation of mice, and treacherous desert full of tricksters in this beautifully written and creative debut adventure. Squirrel never expected to be anything other than a slave: the last animal slave in Bimmau. That is, until he is invited to a high profile wedding and takes a sip of the forbidden ceremonial wine, unlocking a mysterious riddle. The riddle reveals that there is a key which has the power to grant Squirrel his freedom (and a name!), but also could enslave anyone in Bimmau. Disastrous if it falls into the wrong hands! Squirrel and his friends find themselves in a race to find Brittle’s Key before the army of crows gets to him…and before the mysterious Colonel finds the key first.” The narrative conceit for Dhariwal is something akin to the mystery and detective novel: there’s a puzzle inside of Squirrel’s brain but he must unlock it. With the help of a canine ally named Des and a possible ally in a wily crow, there is a chance he may be able to unravel something called a “seclusion,” which is a memory ladder, which must be unlocked in the proper order and with the proper “ingredients.” Once one memory is unlocked, the next memory may then be unlocked, but each memory is itself a riddle (told in a kind of verse) that Squirrel and his allies must figure out. These riddles and their possible answers take Squirrel everywhere: to find a special honey, to trade flint stones for other precious goods, all the while he must hide from crow assassins and dastardly kitties. Despite such an inventive narrative, I must admit I had, for some odd reason, difficulty finishing the novel. At times, I was definitely pushed out by the author’s use of the word “slave” to describe the squirrel, as it definitively politicized the work in a way that I found distracting. Additionally, I couldn’t help but wonder about the narrative logic of anthropomorphization. Certain animals get to talk, while others get to be consumed by the other animals. For instance, Squirrel and his buddies are sometimes seen eating things like lobster, while at other points, they communicate directly with fish, so I wondered how and why Dhariwal determined the line between what animals get to speak and which animals get to be consumed. Does that mean that lobsters don’t get to talk, or is it that lobsters get to talk, but they are also allowed to be eaten? Is an animal eating another animal in this world a bad thing, or is it simply part of the proverbial “circle of life”? Perhaps, these sorts of questions remind us why children’s literature is precisely written for children, but since I have occasionally adopted children’s literature for my classes (including picture books), these questions I think remain important for thinking about how and why literature functions with audiences in mind and how those audience receptions alter how we discuss and understand the political and aesthetic aims of narrative. To be sure, I can imagine my youthful nieces and nephews finding much delight in Squirrel’s many adventures, even if I may not have the imaginative capacity to understand the consumption habits of these magically speaking creatures.


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A Review of Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch (Sourceworks Fire, 2017).


This YA paranormal title has been one I’ve been saving to read at the right time, since I was a big fan of Rin Chupeco’s first series that started with The Suffering. In any case, let’s let B&N do some work for us: “When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she's a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. But Tea finds solace and guidance with an older, wiser bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training. In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha—one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles...and make a powerful choice. Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Name of the Wind in this brilliant new fantasy series by Rin Chupeco!” Admittedly, I had to include the last tagline because I was confused by it. What about this particular YA was relatable to Memoirs of a Geisha besides the fact that Chupeco happens to be of Asian descent? I suppose it’s possible that the publicity copy author thought that the training sequences involving the main character and narrator, Tea, moving through the ranks of a social structure based upon magic in which women are able to wield runes and cast spells made it analogous to Golden’s novel. So, I suppose, then,, you can make some sort of very broadly applied comparison in which the geisha are comparable to the asha, these magician-women, especially since some of them become very capable dancers and artists. Nevertheless, the Orientalist publicity definitely turned me off to what was otherwise an incredibly pleasurable reading experience based largely upon some inventive world-building, on the one hand, and a compelling plot, on the other. To be sure, Chupeco understands the key genre conceits: Tea is originally a rather normal character from a normal city with a normal family, until, that is, she discovers that she can raise the dead, the dead being her brother. Second, her heartglass—a kind of magical object that holds the keys to one’s magical aptitudes—burns a color that marks her as someone aligned with the Dark, so she’s what everyone fears: the bone witch. The key genre conceits remind us that this ordinary-now-extraordinary young girl is going to face some big bad, which are dark beings that must be vanquished every couple of years in order to keep their evil energies and activities at bay. There are fewer and fewer Dark Witches, and Tea’s eventual mentor (we later find out) is dying, so her ascension through the ranks of the asha is ever more important. She finds a home in a new city in the House Valerian, where she is subject to endless trainings and lessons. Along the way, she is supported by her now-undead brother, Fox, who is her familiar and who accompanies her on various exploits. She further develops a romantic crush on, who else, the Prince! Throughout these training sequences and plot elements, Tea reveals her ever-increasing powers, so much so that she indeed advances through the asha structure more quickly than everyone else, leading her to a final quest sequence in which she must battle against a dragon creature that is terrorizing the city. Interspersed with the main plot are short inter-chapters, written in italics, that reveal that the entire novel is really a retrospective. By the final pages of this particular volume, we still haven’t caught up to what seems to be the diegetic present. There is a rather surprising final stage reveal that I was happily unprepared for, leaving quite a lot open about how we’re supposed to get from the point at which the novel ends to the time sequence noted in the inter-chapters. So, the things that impressed me the most were: (1) again, the world building and usage of creature monikers that I was mostly unfamiliar with and (2) the way that Chupeco is able to work with the motif of the necromancer and make it her own. Since I just finished Michelle Sagara’s necromancer series, I was very enthused at how different this particular series was. One of the publicity taglines compares this series to Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series, and I generally agree. It’s that mix of the familiar—the genre conceits of the YA paranormal romance, on the one hand—and the original—the unique elements of world building, on the other— that make this particular work one to add to your to-read list. You’ll likely finish in one sitting.


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A Review of Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (Knopf, 2017).


So Hari Kunzru’s fifth novel White Tears (after The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions, and Gods Without Men) is a total trip. I’m not sure even what happened at the end. If I think what happened actually happened, then this novel goes down as a very controversial addition to what some might call post-black cultural productions. It’s also a novel that I would have analyzed as part of my first book—a semi-shameless plug, but it is relevant—Racial Asymmetries because the novel is told from the first person perspective of a character whose ancestries presumably do not match Kunzru’s own. We’ll let B&N give us some context: “Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America's great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it's a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter's troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation's darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.” Much of the opening of the novel establishes Carter and Seth’s embrace of “old time” music, as they attempt to find ways to reproduce the sound of a bygone era. Almost without fail, their obsessions take them to black artists and cultural producers, so there is immediately this question of racial appropriation at stake here, but Kunzru complicates the equation immediately by situating Seth and Carter at two ends of the class spectrum. In other words, whiteness is not unified. Carter is one of three heirs to a huge fortune, while Seth comes from a working class background. Anytime Seth tags along with Carter to any function involving Carter’s family, Seth is basically treated like an open wound that is festering. No one wants to give him any attention; no one comes near him. The only individual who seems to have a slightly more open attitude is Carter’s sister Leonie. The novel grows darker once Carter goes missing; authorities eventually discover him in a seedy part of New York, where he has sustained a severe head injury. He’d gone after a record collector with the hopes of finding a rare record, but he never returned. Carter’s injury is so severe that he’s in a coma, and there’s no indication that he’s going to waken any time soon.  Without Carter’s financial resources, Seth is immediately excommunicated from their shared housing space and expelled from the studio they were using. Seth realizes that if he’s to salvage any of his music projects, he must seek out the help of Leonie and perhaps find out who was behind Carter’s beating. Seth also realizes that he must divulge a crucial bit of information involving his past in which he used to go record hunting with a former coworker named Chester Bly. Their exploits once took them to Mississippi with the hopes of finding a mythical recording made by Charlie Shaw; they apparently find an older woman who harbors the record, but she is unwilling to sell it. From this point forward, the novel completely explodes, and I honestly have no idea what was actually going on, whwat was real and what was imagined. Indeed, Kunzru begins to take considerable freedom with narrative perspective to the point where I actually had to stop to re-read sections to figure out what was going on. Although one might argue that this kind of fragmentation might have been an editing problem, Kunzru is obviously keying us into an unreliable narrator, so the question becomes: what is reliable and what is unreliable about the discourse? From my perspective, the answer is a supernatural one and dovetails with the mystical narrative that Kunzru explored in his last work. This novel further makes me ponder the possibility of reparations in any form, particular in narrative form. What are concrete ways to address past injustices? The question seems especially problematic for this novel, as it must resort to fantastical plot elements just to allow the past to be addressed. Obviously, an immensely fascinating novel and one well worth teaching; I will consider assigning this one in future classes.


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A Review of Sil Lai Abrams’s Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity (Gallery Books, 2016).


So I’ve been more interested in reading memoirs lately and the latest was one I found while browsing amazon in one of my late night insomnia moments. Let’s let B&N provide us with some context: “A unique and exquisitely wrought story of one multiracial woman’s journey to discover and embrace herself in a family that sought to deny her black heritage, Sil Lai Abrams shares her story in Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity—an account that will undoubtedly ignite conversation on race, racial identity, and the human experience. Author and activist Sil Lai Abrams was born to a Chinese immigrant mother and a white American father. Out of her family, Sil Lai was the only one with a tousle of wild curls and brown skin. When she asked about her darker complexion, she was given vague answers. At fourteen, the man she knew her entire life as her birth-father divulged that Abrams was not his biological child, but instead the daughter of a man of African descent who didn’t know she existed. This shocking news sparked a quest for healing that would take her down the painful road to reclaim her identity despite the overt racism in her community and her own internalized racism and self-hatred. Abrams struggled with depression, abuse, and an addiction that nearly destroyed her. But eventually she would leave behind the shame over her birthright and move toward a celebration of her blackness. In Black Lotus, Abrams takes you on her odyssey filled with extreme highs and lows and the complexities of not only the black experience, but also the human one. This vivid story reexamines everything you think you know about racial identity while affirming the ability of the human spirit to triumph over tragedy. Ultimately, Black Lotus shines a light on the transformative power of truth and self-acceptance, and the importance of defining your personal identity on your own terms.” This memoir was extraordinary for the simple fact of Abrams’s will to survive and to carve out her own life, despite the many hurdles that were placed in her path. The biggest issue that comes out of this work is the damage wrought by parents, who simply are not ready for the process of raising a family. Abrams must contend with a familial life that is, as has been described, shrouded in secrets and equivocation. She does not know the identity of her biological father until well into her teens. By that point, her biological mother, for various reasons, is not in her life anymore, and she is being raised by the man she assumed is her biological father. Complicating matters is that Abrams does not always get along well with her stepmother, a situation that increases in tension as Abrams gets older and more rebellious. She begins experimenting with drugs and alcohol, eventually running away from home at numerous points. As Abrams reaches adulthood, she puts more of the dots together, understanding that much of her life replicates the path of her own mother and that her addictions carry with them a strong genetic component. Armed with this knowledge, Abrams is able to begin to separate herself from the more destructive influences of her family, eventually raising a child and getting sober. One of the more illuminating discourses that the memoir brings up appears in relation to passing. At some point in her teens, Abrams realizes that she’s passing as white, a choice she makes not only because of racist attitudes harbored by her own parents, but also by the cultural milieu in which she finds herself. When Abrams is finally able to get away from her home by embarking on a career as a model in New York City, she is able to embrace her black identity in a way that she never had before. At the same time, Abrams’s mixed race background complicates her identifications. Further into the memoir, she seeks a rapprochement with her estranged mother, understanding that her Chinese ethnic background was also critical to her life. In this sense, Abrams attempts to embrace the many aspects of her multiracial identity. The concluding arc of the memoir offers no easy resolutions for the many tragedies and trials that end up occurring, but Abrams’s tenacity to survive always remains ever present, grounding this memoir and moving it powerfully forward.


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A Review of Fonda Lee’s Exo (Scholastic, 2017).


I’ve been behind on quite a bit of young adult fiction, which is admittedly out of character. As reward for a long day researching or writing, I typically indulge in this genre. My latest decadent adventure has been Fonda Lee’s Exo (Scholastic, 2017). Lee is also author of another young adult Zeroboxer, which I have not yet had a chance to read. We’ll let B&N provide us with some requisite context: “It's been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose their rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn't one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan's high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan's abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience. When Sapience realizes who Donovan's father is, they think they've found the ultimate bargaining chip. But the Prime Liaison doesn't negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan's survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn't win the last one...” I was a little bit disappointed by this editorial description, as it doesn’t even name the alien species that has ostensibly taken over earth. These aliens are called the zhree, and they are the ones who have introduced the exocel technology. The zhree, as we discover, are one of at least two alien races that are operating around Earth. Eventually the zhree are able to come to a sort of rapprochement with humans, but not all humans want to collaborate with the zhree. Sapience, in particular, wants Earth to be free of any alien influence, including the use of exocel technology, and they will use any means to accomplish their goals. Thus, they are labeled as terrorists. Donovan is kidnapped by Sapience, an event begins the major plotting of the novel. Eventually Donovan is freed, but in the process of his captivity, he discovers that his long lost mother is none other than one of the leaders of the revolutionary group. Lee puts us effectively in Donovan’s shoes at this point. On the one hand, Donovan is a clear loyalist; he appreciates the zhree and the technology that has enhanced his body. He considers Sapience a dangerous insurgent group. On the other, he needs to find a way to reason with Sapience, if only because his mother’s fate is intertwined with many of their dangerous activities. What I appreciate about this work is that it does diverge from some of the more tired young adult speculative tropes. For instance, our main character is a teenage male, who is never marked as ordinary. Instead, it’s very clear from the outset that he’s a pretty gifted individual, with a privileged background. The novel does get hampered by the requisite romance plot, but that’s part of the generic territory, so we’ll have to forgive Lee for these indulgences here. Additionally, Lee accomplishes admirable world building, especially with the intriguing differences that appear between zhree and the humans. The effect of the zhree on human culture is apparent in the ways that humans are reorganized into tribal affiliations, something that is called “in erze.” Unfortunately, it’s unclear as to whether or not there will be more opportunity to delve into the world she’s generated here because she has a very long novel (that seems to be part of a series) that’s coming out of a major imprint. This novel is called Jade City, which is due out in November. We’ll look forward to this next publication, while also hoping that Exo might have yet more installments. I’m especially interested to see where a sequel might go with respect to the ongoing tensions between the zhree and other alien races, and how humans remain caught in-between.


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[personal profile] stephenhongsohn
 Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 21, 2017

It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up. 

Challenge tally: me = 31 reviews; “you” = 7 comments (thanks Kai Cheang for his post and to eeoopark/ pylduck for a comment)… Come on folks! You can do it!  

I’ve completed the challenge this year!!

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

A Review of Jason Shiga’s Demon: Volume 1 (First Second, 2016).


I was totally stoked to see that Jason Shiga had a new graphic novel coming out, especially one with an intriguing title: Demon: Volume 1. We’ll let the official MacMillan page provide us with some important context: “No matter how hard he tries, Jimmy Yee cannot die. A noose around his neck, a razor across his wrist, and even a bullet to his head all yield the same results: he awakes from each suicide attempt, miraculously unharmed, in his shabby room at the Sunbeam Motel. Has he gone mad? Or has he truly died and found himself in hell? Jimmy is willing to tear the world down around him to get at the truth. Highly analytical and utterly unscrupulous, he is uniquely suited to unraveling this bizarre mystery.” So, first off, I’m going to have to provide spoilers, because it’s impossible to discuss the narrative unless I can provide the central reveal. Apparently, Jimmy Yee believes he is a demon, and his demonic capability allows him to take the form of the closest person to him when he dies in a particular body. This thesis would explain Jimmy’s experience waking up in a motel room, even after he has killed “himself.” This revelation is reliant upon an intriguing graphic narrative conceit: that we are seeing the panels created from Jimmy’s own presumptive perspective. That is, he believes he is at first waking up in the same body every single time, but he, in fact, has woken up in the body of the person in the next motel room. He doesn’t have access to a mirror before he kills himself, and apparently, he doesn’t take time to notice that his body might not be the same body as the time before. So, we have to give Shiga a little bit of room to suspend our disbelief (or consider the possibility that Jimmy’s thesis is entirely wrong) in order to allow for the possibility that Jimmy is body jumping. Eventually, it becomes clear that there is a larger issue at hand related to body jumping, and that Jimmy may not even be the only person who is able to do so. But the graphic novel ends before we can get too much further into this larger “conspiracy” related to body jumping, and why there is someone after Jimmy for his abilities. I’m not necessarily sold on the decision to split graphic narratives into multiple volumes. There doesn’t seem to be much logic around this move, except that it generates more income for publishers. Otherwise, I’m intrigued enough to see where Shiga’s next installment goes, even if I think it could probably have been condensed into fewer volumes HAHA. As per usual, Shiga relies upon a sketchy cartoon style to make this particular graphic novel come to life. He’s more on par with someone like MariNaomi than Adrian Tomine, who strikes a more realist tone to his images. The dark humor is probably best signature of Shiga’s work, as it has been something that appears in all of his prior works in some form or another.


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A Review of Jason Shiga’s Demon Volume 2 (First Second, 2017) and Demon Volume 3 (First Second, 2017).


I read Shiga’s sequels to the first Demon in one sitting. I should probably have waited for the fourth and presumably final installment to come out before reviewing these titles, but they basically retain the outrageous hijinks found in the first installment.


The second focuses more specifically on the titular demon, Jimmy Yee, and his quest to be reunited with his daughter Sweetpea and the individuals responsible for the car crash that almost claimed his life. As readers have already discovered (if they read the first installment), Jimmy is a demon. Whenever he dies, he takes the body of the person closest to him. Shiga continually uses this power to both morbid and comic effects. Early on in this work, Jimmy’s still figuring out the extent of his powers and basically experimenting on himself. In one sequence, for instance, he kills himself next to a monkey enclosure and discovers that his body jumping powers are human specific. But the majority of this particular entry in the Demon series is really about Jimmy reuniting with his daughter, so he has to get past a bunch of officials who already are aware of his power and the fact that his daughter, too, has inherited the demon trait from him. There is apparently a governmental organization intent on cloning the powers of the demon not surprisingly related to the fact that it would allow this institution vast powers to control offices not only in the United States but also across the world. So, capturing Jimmy and his daughter is of paramount concern, as they attempt to perfect the “demonizer.” Certainly, this plot is ridiculous, but compared against the many movies we see today, I suppose we can’t fault Shiga too much for it. If there is any critique I had of this kind of work, it’s that I sometimes didn’t even understand what was going on in the panels because I wasn’t sometimes sure who Jimmy was anymore or who Sweetpea was anymore since they presumably died and had taken on the body of someone else, sometimes someone outside of the panel plane. Shiga solves this problem only to a certain extent: so long as the person who just died and the next body are nearby, the “demon” always retains his own head at least to himself. In other words, while his psyche jumps to the next body, the demon sees himself in mirrors as himself, while others see him as the person the demon has jumped into. So, at least continuity across panels is ultimately created because the reader can see the demon as he sees himself. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Sweetpea die so many times and often with such rapidity, I still found myself a little bit disoriented.


The third installment is perhaps the most speculative of the bunch, as we’ve moved about a century into the future. Jimmy and Sweetpea have been in hiding, for fear that someone will find out about their existence and work to exploit their admittedly unique powers. This future is not so exciting: lattes now cost something like $80 and a night of sushi would be enough to bankrupt most millionaires (I’m being a little bit hyperbolic here, but not completely). Jimmy and Sweetpea exist in a sort of existential bind: what do they do with their time since they’re basically immortal? Cocaine seems to be a nice way to waste endless years, which is something they snort, but this kind of plotting is all just a red herring: major antagonists from previous installments still exist, but the re-tread of previous plotting can seem tired. Shiga is prepared for the reader to be experience a little bit of ennui, which is why the ludicrousness achieves record levels in this work. Shiga definitely put tremendous thought into the problems of keeping a demon contained within a prison. As one of the major antagonists reappears from the earlier works, he must attempt to keep Sweetpea circumscribed in a finite area through the tactical use of obstacles and specific types of human bodies. Obviously flouting politically correctness, Shiga, for instance, employs conjoined twins as one of the useful detriments to the demon’s powers. As such, the courtyard of the prison housing Sweetpea contains numerous conjoined twins, which would necessarily create a significant challenge for a demon, who would have to find ways to deal with psychic transference within the same body, thereby slowing body jumping down. The levels of ingenuity here are obviously grotesque, but with a work like this one, Shiga went all in. My one minor quibble with this particular entry is that I wish Shiga had done more work with the panels, especially in the futuristic era. Shiga’s cartoon-ish style, I think, works best for the topic given its craziness, but at times, I wouldn’t have minded a sweeping panel even in Shiga’s signature sketch styling that gave a more panoramic view of the future, something along the scale of a vista you might even seen in Shaun Tan’s work.


There is one particular scene (I can’t recall if it was in Volume 2 or Volume 3) that will perhaps remain one of the most jarring I have ever witnessed and read in a graphic novel (and that includes the scenes of cannibalism in Liu’s Monstress) that both made me laugh out loud and cringe so deeply inside I think the neighbor across the street probably heard me. I would be willing to bet that anyone whose read the series knows the sequence I am talking about. I would still rank it behind the scene from the 9th episode of Fortitude Season 2, but the outrageousness is still pretty on par. This series is not for the faint of heart, and Shiga knows it. This series is undoubtedly offensive, but it’s also immensely readable: it’s like that catastrophically bad roller coaster sequence in Final Destination 3: it’s going to be gruesome, but somehow you can’t look away.


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A Review of Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (Harry N. Abrams, 2017).


It’s hard not to want to compare Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (Harry N. Abrams, 2017) to G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica, so I’ll try to avoid doing so. As a note, both are FABULOUS, so don’t let that comparison draw you away from either. Bui’s graphic memoir focuses on a kind of familial recovery narrative. The graphic memoir opens with the birth of Bui’s son, a cause for much celebration, but also of reflection. The difficult labor is one in which her own mother cannot stand to be in the same room, despite the fact that Bui’s mother gave birth to six children of her own. At first, it’s obviously unclear why Bui’s mother might have been so affected by Bui’s long delivery period, but the narrative unfolds to clarify the problems of conception that have been tied to the family given its traumatic history, one inevitably altered and disrupted by the course of the war. Bui, in particular, becomes the chronicler of family history, compelled to look back and figure out why the rupture between her mother and father became so deep, one that lead to an eventual divorce. As the readers discover, Bui’s father had to endure a rocky upbringing involving unstable guardianship. By the time Bui’s father meets the woman who will be his wife, the stage is already set for more turmoil given his background. Bui’s mother, by contrast, grows up in more idyllic circumstances, but the obvious rise of conflict in Vietnam will soon alter her life’s course as well. The initial years of marriage are placed under incredible strain due to the rising conflict in Vietnam. Obviously, things only get worse as 1975 approaches. Once South Vietnam falls and the Americans have evacuated, Bui’s family remains in Vietnam, waiting for the right opportunity to leave. They eventually secure passages on a boat, but there is no guarantee that they’ll be found at sea. Here, the narrative treads the ground of some other works that have shown how perilous that particular sea bound passage can be, but fortunately for Bui’s family, they are able to make it to a refugee camp with relatively little complications. Bui’s family eventually chooses to settle in the United States. Though their lives take many more years to come to any sense of security, the family’s hardscrabble background positions them well enough to navigate the tricky terrain of American acculturation. What Bui’s graphic narrative does so well is that it does not remain rooted in sentimentality. The recovery narrative that spurs Bui in the first place is never quite completed in some sense, and she’s well aware that her decision to delve into her family’s past cannot help many of the ruptures nor will it necessarily bring her family closer together. But, what is obviously crucial for Bui is that it gives her a stronger sense of context and a much larger appreciation for her parents as survivors. My one minor critique of this exceptional memoir is its framing conceit around the reproductive future. While I can certainly understand the critical importance of intergenerationality in the transnational family saga, it did make me wonder about what kind of tomorrow is available for the migrant child who chooses not to enter into the heteronuclear social structure for one reason or another. Finally, I was incredibly happy to see that the entire memoir is PAGINATED, which means I will be sure to adopt this work for future courses!


For more on the book, go here:






A Review of Ed Lin’s Incensed (Soho Press, 2016).


Ed Lin’s Incensed (Soho Press, 2016) is part of the Taipei Night Market series that began with Ghost Month (2014). Our first person storyteller and armchair detective, Jing-nan, is back for more Taiwan-based hijinks. Let’s let B&N provide us with some contexts here: “In Taiwan, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for prioritizing family. When 25-year-old Jing-nan’s gangster uncle, Big Eye, asks a favor, Jing-nan can’t exactly say no, especially because two goons are going to follow him around to make sure he gets it done right. The favor is this: Big Eye’s 16-year-old daughter, Mei-ling, has a biker boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks—in Big Eye’s gangster opinion—and Big Eye wants Jing-nan to bring her to Taipei, away from the bad influences, and straighten her out. It doesn’t take Jing-nan long to discover Mei-ling is even more trouble than the average bratty, rebellious teenager. She’s been spoiled rotten and doesn’t know how to take no for an answer. She has her father’s thugs wrapped around her finger and quickly becomes the miniature dictator of Jing-nan’s life. But Mei-ling is also hiding a secret—one that puts her in harm’s way. If Jing-nan wants to save his cousin from her own demons, he has to figure out the truth, even if it tears his family apart—again.” The other thing I’d add to this editorial description is that Lin surrounds his main characters with a supporting cast that beefs up the comedic tonalities of the novel. Additionally, while Jing-nan has to balance his caretaking act alongside keeping his girlfriend Nancy satisfied. As Jing-nan continues to find success through his Night Market food stall (called Unknown Pleasures in a nod to the album name by Joy Division), Nancy sometimes rails against what she perceives to be a kind of apolitical attitude Jing-nan espouses. Crucial to this novel is the global movement around queer equality. Nancy’s activist connections, for instance, are trying to champion for more social and cultural recognition of Taiwanese queers and LGBT communities, a stance that certainly puts her at odds with many of her peers. Jing-nan must face up to some of his homophobic tendencies in order to support Nancy’s causes, while also coming to the realization that he must embrace a more cosmopolitan attitude in the way he understands his own family. If there was a letdown for me concerning this novel, it occurs with respect to the mystery and thriller elements. The book seemed marketed in this vein, but this type of plotting device does not even occur probably until well over half the novel is already over, so I think it wasn’t quite right to publicize this novel through those generic conceits. The other thing to note is that you should NOT read this novel if you’re hungry. Lin goes all in with “food pornography,” especially because the narrator is a purveyor of trendy and tasty dishes. Often times, the characters would be at some sort of new, hip establishment trying out a savory, delectable dish. Reading this novel right before bedtime became difficult simply due to the fact that I had to retain control over my desire to start snacking. Finally, one of the biggest strengths of this novel is the delicate way that Lin portrays Jing-nan’s complicated affiliations and loyalties. Despite understanding that his uncle is quite crooked, there is a sort of filiality that he feels he must maintain. This pressure no doubt emerges precisely because Jing-nan cannot claim very many people as part of biological family structures. For better or for worse, Big Eye and Mei-ling are the closest he has to that kind of family, so he suffers under this obligation. It remains to be seen whether or not there will be another installment in the Night Market series, but it seems evident that Jing-nan may have to make a choice between staying true to his sense of personal ethics and maintaining ties to his gangster Uncle. As always, Lin’s comic tonality makes this reading experience one that brings forth both intrigue and laughter.


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 Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 17, 2017

It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up. 

Challenge tally: me = 26 reviews; “you” = 6 comments (thanks Kai Cheang for his post and to eeoopark for a comment)… Come on folks! You can do it!

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

So this post focuses on books that are coming out of Penguin and Associated Imprints. I occasionally group these books together because they are all eligible to request under their CFIS program. Information for the CFIS program can be found here:






Instructors are eligible for five free exam copies per year; this service is perhaps the best exam copy service of all major publishers!


In this post, review of all Penguin titles (and Associated Imprints): Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex (Daw Books, 2016); Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night (Razorbill, 2016); Krys Lee’s How I Became A North Korean (Viking, 2016); Marina Budhos’s Watched (Wendy Lamb Books, 2016); Michelle Sagara’s Grave (2017); Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Riverhead, 2017); Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (Viking, 2017); Marie Lu’s The Midnight Star (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers).



A Review of Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex (Daw Books, 2016).


Well, I’ve been spending very long days revising critical writing, which is a kind of task that requires so much focus that the only thing I can manage to do after that, is to cozy up to a novel, potentially something more on the lighter side. After one such split infinitive filled day, I chose Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex (Daw Books, 2016), which was precisely the right choice. At first, given the title and the cover, I thought the book was a young adult fiction, but about half way through, an explicit sex scene made it quite clear I was not in that territory. This novel is something more like a paranormal romance, but with a comic tone. Indeed, what sets this book apart from many others is Kuhn’s focus on the wit of its protagonist, Evie Tanaka, a mixed race Japanese American, who must learn to become something other than a sidekick to her best friend and superhero buddy known best by a superhero stage name: Aveda Jupiter. Evie is a firecracker: she drops joke-bombs constantly, referencing (questionable) popular culture like the television series 90210 (the original mind you) and songs like “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles. Evie even has the guts to call a song by The Backstreet Boys a power ballad. Yes, my friends. She’s got guts. Aveda, like Evie, is Asian American. Aveda’s “real name” is Annie Chang, which cracked me up, because I went to school with a girl named Annie Chang, who also happened to be Chinese American. Evie’s originally part of Aveda Jupiter’s superhero posse and entourage, folks who help with things like publicity (a lesbian named Lucy) and technological outreach (a handsome, nerdy, and super analytical guy named Nate and healing spells (Aveda Jupiter’s high school crush, a guy named Scott). Evie also has to find time to take care of her younger teenage sister Bea, especially because their absentee Dad is traipsing all across the world with his yogini Lara. The novel is set in San Francisco, and world building is required because a select number of individuals have developed minor superpowers. Scott, Aveda, and Evie all possess some magical might that has developed from portals that come from the Otherworld, a place that also includes demons. Once this portal opens, others begin to open up, and individuals like Aveda make it a point to become superheroes in order to stop the tide of demons who come through. With comic flair, Kuhn makes it so that these demons can only enter our world through imprinting on the first Earth object that they see. In the opening gambit of the novel, this first object is a cupcake (because we’re in a bakery), and these demons make it so that cupcakes have fangs and are trying to drain the life out of their human victims. When Aveda develops a serious leg injury and a serious zit outbreak, she encourages Evie to take on her persona in order to cover for her until she feels better, but once Evie becomes the substitute, other mayhem occurs. First, Evie’s powers become revealed to the world at large: she’s able to somehow invoke fire starting capabilities, though she does not know how to control her flame creating skills. Second, this new fire power makes Aveda gain lots of new followers on social media, so Aveda realizes that she has to keep Evie in her place until she can devise a plan to that would allow her to also develop fire powers once she gets back on her literal feet. But more trouble begins to brew when Evie notices a strange pattern in the way that the latest demons coming through the portal act: they seem to be more sentient, they seem to be more complex, as if they are evolving into something else. But I’ll leave the plotting here to discuss other things, like the fact that at first, I thought I was going to hate the romance plot element. Nate, the handsome, technological expert with the bod of a beefcake and who becomes Evie’s “orgasms-only” buddy begins to come off as something too good to be true. In other hands, this trope is hardwired into the paranormal romance. Indeed, the fact of the paranormal romance, especially in young adult fictions, is that this nerdy dude with the heart of gold and the body of gold is actually somehow destined for our not-so-ordinary extraordinary heroine, but Kuhn gives us lots of surprises in the concluding arc not only with Nate, but other characters as well. Even Aveda, who I found incredibly annoying, manages to find a measure of redemption because Kuhn knows how to generate some measure of charaterological development, thus moving this novel above and beyond many others in a similar genre and aimed for a similar audience. Only time will tell whether or not there will be a sequel, but signs suggest that there could be one, given the conclusion. Finally, I will say that as a once-upon-a-time reader of the X-Men comics, it is so refreshing to see a novel about superheroes written by an Asian American. It is truly a new era. When I was first reading those comics, you had the strangest storylines occasionally come up: for instance, there was a British mutant with purple hair named Betsy Braddock, who will later randomly get kidnapped, only to return to the X-Men team looking like an Asian ninja. You later find out that her psyche got swapped into another body or something like that and that she wasn’t really Asian in the first place, but the whole storyline was so bizarre: didn’t the other characters realize that just because the person who came back to the team had purple hair didn’t mean she was the same person? Didn’t they realize that she was Asian? LOL. I probably have some plot elements wrong, because it’s been literally two decades since I read that one, but I remember at that time I was so confused. Looking back on it, I wonder about whether or not that storyline might have been different if an Asian American writer was behind the helm. An Asian American artist may have been on staff around that time (Jim Lee), but I can’t remember. Fortunately, we’re in a new era, and comic books are being developed by writers and artists in tandem, many of whom are Asian American. Further still, we’re getting novels like the ones that Kuhn has written here in which we can see that Asian Americans are worthy of their own complicated, complex superhero plots, ready to save the world while defeating demons in the form of cupcakes. Yum.


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A Review of Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night (Razorbill, 2016).


Sabaa Tahir’s debut, An Ember in the Ashes, was my favorite young adult fiction I read last year purely based upon the entertainment factor. I was convinced that she’d have a difficult time replicating the success she had with that narrative. I’m glad I was definitively wrong. The sequel is just as exciting and plot-driven as the first, and with all the requisite genre necessities that come with the paranormal romance, so fans of this kind of reading will not be disappointed. Our favorites return from the original, especially our primary character: Elias, the melancholic Mask, and Laia, the Scholar who seeks to break her brother out of the maximum security prison known otherwise as Kauf. Elias and Laia are on the run from the Empire, trying to find a way to get to Kauf. They eventually meet up with Keenan, a Scholar working for the Rebellion, and Izzi, who had been working with Laia when Laia was functioning as an undercover “slave” for the Commandant (in the first book). The other major plotline involves Helene, who has become the Blood Shrike and is forced to do the dirty work of the newly crowned emperor and winner of the Trials (from the first book), Marcus. Helene’s quest is to bring back Elias and have him publicly executed. At every turn, her job seems to be made more difficult. Elias’s mother, the evil Commandant, is undermining her authority, while assigning a spy (named Harper) to work as part of her guard detail. Of course, Tahir knows her genre tropes: each character must have their own love triangle. While Elias and Keenan battle for Laia’s affections in one subtle way or another, Helene tries to figure out how she can avoid having to kill Elias, even if it means he gets to be with Laia. Oh, the torment! In any case, this novel is in many ways as bleak as the first one. Hordes of scholars are being butchered, and even the tribespeople, who sort of function as middlemen, cannot assume they are safe. Tahir also adds much more texture to the fictional world, as we discover crucial information about one of the primary evil, magical figures known as the Nightbringer and how he is connected to a spiritual plane that is presided over by the mysterious SoulCatcher. So, I definitely had to try to ration myself with this book, forcing myself to put it down every night, but on the third night, I gave up, and just read it to the finish. I especially appreciated how this book seems to function as a stand-alone. That is, there’s enough of a set-up, exposition, climax and resolution for me to feel as though this book wasn’t just a stepping-stone to a climactic final volume. Strangely enough, I always assumed this book would be a trilogy, though there were indications online that this series was supposed to be a Duology. Now, there are rumblings that this series is meant to have at least four books, and I’m not complaining at all, except for the 2018 anticipated release date of the next book. Two years? Ijustcant.


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A Review of Krys Lee’s How I Became A North Korean (Viking, 2016).


So, Krys Lee moves out of the first publications club with her debut novel How I Became A North Korean (Viking, 2016). Lee is also author of the superbly melancholic collection Drifting House. The “I” of the title is perhaps the most intriguing element of this work, as it details another “form” of the passing narrative. Though we’ve typically reserved “passing” for racial registers, this novel offers a form based upon ethno-linguistic identifications. There are three narrators in this novel, involving alternating first person voices. As B&N tells it: “Yongju is an accomplished student from one of North Korea's most prominent families. Jangmi, on the other hand, has had to fend for herself since childhood, most recently by smuggling goods across the border. Then there is Danny, a Chinese-American teenager whose quirks and precocious intelligence have long made him an outcast in his California high school. These three disparate lives converge when they flee their homes, finding themselves in a small Chinese town just across the river from North Korea. As they fight to survive in a place where danger seems to close in on all sides, in the form of government informants, husbands, thieves, abductors, and even missionaries, they come to form a kind of adoptive family. But will Yongju, Jangmi and Danny find their way to the better lives they risked everything for?” Yongju and Jangmi are both North Koreans who are “forced” into harrowing crossings into China. Danny is actually an ethnic Korean, but part of a family who had lived in the border region of China (they are called “joseon-jok”). He and his father have moved the United States, but Danny’s mother still lives in the Chinese border region. The novel’s narrative threads move together once Danny travels back to China in the wake of what his father thinks is a failed suicide attempt. Once there he discovers that his mother is engaging in an extramarital affair. Confused and traumatized by this knowledge, Danny goes into a kind of hiding, where he meets up with North Korean teens, who are on the run from border patrol and any other entities. They eke out a meager living in the mountains, but for Danny, his becoming “North Korean” allows him a fraternity he never had. Jangmi eventually settles with them for a short time, before she leaves them behind (and stealing most of their important supplies). Jangmi’s storyline is perhaps the most tragic given that she is forced into various kinds of human trafficking. Yongju connects most with Jangmi in this way because his own little sister and mother are likely sent into human trafficking sectors. The concluding arc seems all three reunited under the auspices of a missionary group, but this time together is very strained. They see their time with the missionaries as just another form of imprisonment, and they eventually crack under their sequestration. The crux of this novel is clearly Danny’s presence, as he is the one who eventually is able to secure their release from missionary detention, but his narrative is quite exceptional. Indeed, Danny’s willingness and voluntary “passing” as a North Korean more largely suggests that freedom cannot be won without incredible luck and good fortune. The larger contexts with which the novel dovetails reminds us that there are not going to be entities that will function to secure one’s release under political asylum, which makes the eventual last page of the novel resound with a kind of Hollywood uplift. Fortunately, given all that these characters have gone through, we will want this brief moment of happiness for these characters. This novel would be very interesting to teach alongside something like Suki Kim’s Without You There is No Us, as these cultural productions present two very different sides of North Korean culture and contexts.



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A Review of Marina Budhos’s Watched (Wendy Lamb Books, 2016).


I have enjoyed reading Marina Budhos’s YA fictions in the past, so it was a treat to see that she had published a new work. In Watched, Marina Budhos fictionally depicts the plight of Muslim Americans/ South Asian Americans in the period following 9/11, especially under increased scrutiny by homeland intelligence agencies. Budhos, for those not entirely familiar, is the author of numerous works, including but not limited to The Professor of Light, Ask me No Questions, and Tell Us We’re Home. The official site provides us with this description of the work: “Naeem is far from the ‘model teen.’ Moving fast in his immigrant neighborhood in Queens is the only way he can outrun the eyes of his hardworking Bangladeshi parents and their gossipy neighbors. Even worse, they’re not the only ones watching. Cameras on poles. Mosques infiltrated. Everyone knows: Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Anyone might be a watcher. Naeem thinks he can charm his way through anything, until his mistakes catch up with him and the cops offer a dark deal. Naeem sees a way to be a hero—a protector—like the guys in his brother’s comic books. Yet what is a hero? What is a traitor? And where does Naeem belong? ” The basic premise is that Naeem is a troubled high school kid, who seems to be on the border of developing into a delinquent. His murky friendship with a peer named Ibrahim leads him to getting arrested for shoplifting, but once he is at the police station he is given an option: he can be charged for theft or he can work for the police as a kind of informant, spying upon any Muslim-related activities. Of course, Naeem doesn’t necessarily take that option immediately: he realizes what is being asked of him. He rightly feels as though he is betraying his own religious community by spying on them, placing them under surveillance and encroaching on their religious freedoms. At the same time, he doesn’t want to disappoint his hardworking parents, who run a small shop and are already on the edge of bankruptcy. When he sees a potential financial opportunity in this spy work, he reluctantly takes it on. For Naeem, home life is complicated by the fact that he is only ten years younger than his stepmother, the person who his father remarried after Naeem’s mother died (when Naeem was five). He’s struggling with school and discovers that he won’t be graduating with his high school class; he is forced to take summer school classes in order to catch up. So, when the police officers him offer a deal instead of being charged, being a “watcher” seems to be the best possible option. Budhos’s work is definitely one that could be taught and is part of a wonderful set of cultural productions that explore the complicated subject position of the Muslim American/ South Asian American in the period following 9/11. I would definitely pair this work alongside others, such as Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. Of course, intriguingly, Budhos also joins a rather large set of spy/ surveillance fictions that include Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Susan Choi’s Person of Interest, and Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal. I also very much appreciated that Budhos brings a kind of sophistication to the young adult genre that relies more upon character development than more of the formulaic plot elements such as the requisite teen romance.

Official Site (with purchasing information):




A Review of Michelle Sagara’s Grave (2017).


Michelle Sagara’s Grave finally concludes the Queen of the Dead series that began with Touch. I use the word “finally” because Sagara herself has stated that the final installment in this series was one of the most difficult books she ever wrote. She apparently went through many drafts and had thrown away multiple versions of the book. At some point a couple of years ago, I remember seeing listings of Grave on Amazon but there would never be a list date. I didn’t understand why until Sagara herself addressed the issue in her acknowledgments. The first in the series was published in 2012. With YA trilogies, it’s often typical for a series to complete in 3-4 years; there have even been cases where I have seen two from the same series published at opposite ends of the same year. In any case, the rapidity in the publishing cycle is in some sense necessary: readers are forgetful. I belabor my introduction because I was such a reader. When I cracked open Grave, I had practically forgotten all of the events in the series: all I could remember was that there was a main necromancer-figure who was constantly in danger of being killed. Emma, as I was reminded, had such powerful abilities that she rivaled the Queen of the Dead, who had been in a kind of underworld drawing on the energies of those who had passed and not allowing them to cross over into the afterlife. I didn’t remember that book two saw some tragic events. Emma’s best friend Allie is almost killed by a reanimated dead person (Merrick Longland); Allie’s brother is shot and left for dead; and her cadre is on the run, which includes her other friend Amy Snitman and others such as Eric (another reanimated dead person), Chase (a necromancer-hunter), Chase’s mentor Ernest, Emma’s brother Michael, among others. By this time, Emma has bound some dead to her, which include a former necromancer named Margaret. Obviously, this final installment leads us to the cataclysmic encounter between Emma and the Queen of the Dead, who we come to understand was once a kind of necromancer herself. As a child, Reyna, AKA Queen of the Dead, was trained to become a necromancer by her austere mother (later known as the magar); Reyna also has a little sister named Helmi. Reyna’s also in love with a boy named Eric (the same Eric who is helping Emma at the beginning of this novel). Reyna’s family is tortured and killed for being witches, but Reyna does not die and uses her power as a necromancer to exercise revenge and to reanimate all of her dead loved ones. In this process, she closes the door that allows the dead to cross over into the afterlife. She draws upon their power to create an underworld, a dead city, devoted to preserving her love for Eric, while continuing to draw upon the powers of the newly dead. She creates a Citadel built literally on the souls and energies of the dead who are trapped in its walls, its floors, and its supporting structures. So, Emma’s task is set before: destroy this Evil Queen. If there’s a problem with this particular novel, it’s just that there’s not much going on until that final battle. Basically, the scoobie gang all head down to the Citadel and have to wait around until the Evil Queen makes her appearance. In the meantime, Emma has to learn a couple of skills, like how to use necromantic circles that can protect who is situated inside, while also getting the blessing of the Evil Queen’s mother through the bestowal of a lantern that’s meant to draw the attention of the dead. Of course, Sagara’s point is not to keep the Evil Queen so evil; as the novel draws toward this inexorable battle, it becomes apparent that Reyna went into full Evil Queen mode because she wanted a place where she could be eternally connected with Eric and her family, who had been slaughtered. She was willing to enslave anybody who had died in order to preserve her very twisted version of love. The series might not be for everyone (after all, it’s pretty dark when you think about a city made out of the souls of the dead who aren’t able to cross over into the light) but if you’ve been faithful to the first two installments, the third is a must.


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A Review of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Riverhead, 2017).


So, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West (Riverhead, 2017), has been one I’ve been saving for at the right time. I’m always impressed by Hamid’s verve as a fiction writer; none of his novels ever read the same. He always seems to be pushing himself in some way aesthetically and Exit West is no different. We’ll let Publishers Weekly provide us with some viewpoints first: “Hamid’s (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) trim yet poignant fourth novel addresses similar themes as his previous work and presents a unique perspective on the global refugee crisis. In an unidentified country, young Saeed and burqa-wearing Nadia flee their home after Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet and their city turns increasingly dangerous due to worsening violent clashes between the government and guerillas. The couple joins other migrants traveling to safer havens via carefully guarded doors. Through one door, they wind up in a crowded camp on the Greek Island of Mykonos. Through another, they secure a private room in an abandoned London mansion populated mostly by displaced Nigerians. A third door takes them to California’s Marin County. In each location, their relationship is by turns strengthened and tested by their struggle to find food, adequate shelter, and a sense of belonging among emigrant communities. Hamid’s storytelling is stripped down, and the book’s sweeping allegory is timely and resonant. Of particular importance is the contrast between the migrants’ tenuous daily reality and that of the privileged second- or third-generation native population who’d prefer their new alien neighbors to simply disappear.” This review does a great job of giving us the basics of the novel. What’s most interesting is Hamid’s strongest deviation from realist fiction through the metaphorical use of the “doorway.” The “safely guarded doors” clearly relate to the figurative experience of migration. As with Hamid’s last novel, the author seems less interested in specifics than in a fable-istic approach to storytelling. In this case, we’re never sure what country Saeed and Nadia are actually from, possibly some location in South Asia, West Asia or the Middle East. The benefit of this type of storytelling is that it’s obviously far more accessible to a wider audience, but at the same time, we also lose the specificity of context and history, especially concerning Saeed and Nadia’s home country. As an interesting analogue, Hamid does choose to name other locations that exist beyond the doorways, including the aforementioned Mykonos, London, and Marin County. It becomes evident, too, that the historical trajectory of the novel is further into the past than one might think, especially because it seems as though Nadia and Saeed arrive in Marin County before its become gentrified. As with Hamid’s many other novels, romance in this text, especially of the heterosexual variety, is incredibly complicated and pointed. Of the two, Nadia is definitely the more level-headed of the bunch; she is also definitely more jaded and closed off. Saeed is more idealistic, a dreamer that at first effectively balances the relationship through his quick smiles and hope for the future.  Amid the exilic migrations, Nadia and Saeed attempt to maintain the purity of the feelings they developed in their home country when they were first courting each other, but over time, their connection seems to erode. Hamid’s characterization perhaps suggests that they were never meant to be together over the long haul, but one can’t help but wonder what chance their relationship ever had with all of these constant movements.


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A Review of Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (Viking, 2017).


I was SUPER DUPER excited about this novel because I am a huge fan of Katie Kitamura’s second novel, Gone to the Forest, which still (at least to my knowledge) has not received any critical attention. I had a really polarized reaction to this work, somewhat like my experience reading both Jung Yun’s Shelter and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You. In this specific case, I immediately found the story compelling in its complex characterization of the issues at hand, but also found the characters themselves to be so dreadful that I found them difficult to want to read about. The titular separation is narrated from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, who travels to Greece to find her husband (named Christopher). Presumably, she’s gone there to ask for an official divorce, so that she can take her own relationship to the next level, with a man named Yvan (who once was a friend of her husband’s). Christopher is in Greece because he’s researching a book that will be based upon mourning rituals. The narrator travels to the hotel where Christopher is staying; the flight is set up by Christopher’s own mother Isabella, who has been asking the narrator about what Christopher is up to. Above all, the narrator wishes for discretion, so she tells Isabella nothing about the separation, but travels to Greece at her behest, and finally arrives in Gerolimenas, a coastal village that has seen better days. The hotel is full of intriguing characters, including the receptionist, who seems to have had a romantic dalliance with Christopher, who in turn we discover is sort of a lothario. Christopher is at first nowhere to be found, so the narrator creates a kind of unofficial disguise (and cover) for herself and decides to stay a couple of days until he shows up. She expects he’s just gone to another part of the island while researching for the book. And here, I suppose I should provide a spoiler warning, because the novel hinges around another revelation that requires the narrator to reconsider her relationship not only to her husband but to her live-in lover Yvan. In some ways, once the novel moves into the second half, I began wondering about the allegorical nature of this work. The narrator, we discover, is a translator. She spends much of her perspective often musing about other characters, their motivations, even making up whole narratives concerning their lives that cannot always be substantiated. Her mode of speculation is in some sense a mirroring of the challenges she finds in translation, the leap between what is known and what can be reformulated through language. We begin to understand how little power she has over her husband, the circumstances of his disappearance, and ultimately, the unraveling of their marriage, even as she commands the central narrative space. She’s not what I would consider to be an unreliable narrator, but there’s still something aloof about her, a distance that makes it difficult to empathize with her, even as her observations about her life, about the Greek village and its inhabitants, about her in-laws get ever more pointed and achingly on-target. The novel leaves the readers suspended in the inadequacies of our terminologies related to rupture, especially as they become connected to our social norms and our desire to maintain a specific image of ourselves in relation to others. As the narrator must confront the fact that her separation will never be, in many ways, ever truly finalized, this state of limbo does not always make for the most compelling narrative resolution. We already know that what we know is ever-always partial, and Kitamura’s brilliantly accurate narrative stylings can sometimes echo with too much reverb in this landscape, a fictional world filled with subtly violent mirrors, one nuanced distortion piling atop another.


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A Review of Marie Lu’s The Midnight Star (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers).


Marie Lu’s The Midnight Star is the conclusion to The Young Elites trilogy, which has been a sort of X-Men meets Italian-ish social contexts. We’ll let the folks over at B&N provide a little bit of context for us: “Adelina Amouteru is done suffering. She’s turned her back on those who have betrayed her and achieved the ultimate revenge: victory. Her reign as the White Wolf has been a triumphant one, but with each conquest her cruelty only grows. The darkness within her has begun to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy all she's gained. When a new danger appears, Adelina’s forced to revisit old wounds, putting not only herself at risk, but every Elite. In order to preserve her empire, Adelina and her Roses must join the Daggers on a perilous quest—though this uneasy alliance may prove to be the real danger.” So, the alliances of the prior book remain: Adelina is primarily working with Magiano, as she takes over new territories and lands. She’s taking a Machiavellian approach to her rule, which is tempered by Magiano’s suggestions that she provide the occasional gesture of kindness. Meanwhile, the elites are dying, and one of the first to show serious signs of sickness is none other than Adelina’s sister Violetta, who by this time, has holed up with Raffaele and the other Daggers. Raffaele surmises that all of the young elites and those who have been marked by the blood fever are evidence that there is a divine impurity ruining the world. In order to prevent the destruction of all that they know, they must journey to the land of the Gods in order to give back their powers, but this quest requires Adelina and the other Daggers to put aside their rivalries and mistrust. They even must align themselves with mortal enemies such as Teren Santoro, while traveling far to gain the support of Maeve Corrigan, the Queen of the Beldain. As Raffaele suggests, they must find enough young elites with a variety of magical orientations in order to gain entry into the Underworld. Without the help of those like Santoro, they will have no chance. Lu’s conclusion is certainly emotionally powerful. I couldn’t help tearing up when the final pages occurred, though I was a bit underwhelmed by a common narrative conceit that I’ve been seeing in many young adult paranormal fictions. I won’t spoil what that is, but suffice it to say that such storylines ultimately tug on the heartstrings in such a way as to feel a little bit manipulative. The other element that seemed a little bit of a letdown was the resurrection of Enzo, which ends up being more of a plot device than anything substantial. Given the kind of romantic triangle Lu so painstakingly plotted in the first two books, this development was certainly anticlimactic. In any case, fans of Lu will be delighted to discover that she already has a new title in development called War Cross, which is tentatively set to be published in 2017 and is apparently about teenage bounty hunters. Color me intrigued.



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  Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for May 13 2017


It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up. 

Challenge tally: me = 18 reviews; “you” = 6 comments (thanks Kai Cheang for his post and to eeoopark for a comment)

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Curtis C. Chen’s Waypoint Kangaroo (St. Martin’s Press, 2016); Wesley Chu’s Time Siege (Tor, 2016); Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io (Angry Robot, 2016); Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (Solaris, 2016); Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016); Monstress: Volume 1 by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) (Image Comics, 2016)


A Review of Curtis C. Chen’s Waypoint Kangaroo (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).


So, admittedly, I started this novel about two or three times. I generally do not have difficulty reading first person fiction, so I was a little bit surprised. I think the false starts have to do more with genre rather than the narrative discourse in this case. I have noticed that I’m having trouble reading science fiction lately due to the world building aspects that seem confusing. Because I tend not to read book descriptions before starting them, I only have a baseline understanding of what I might be getting into based upon a title and a cover. In this case, the opening melded real world referents and places (such as the Kazakhstani border) with fantastic elements (such as space travel and pocket universes). For my small, single planet bound brain, these hybridities were difficult to process. But I digress. Here’s a description for us from B&N: “Kangaroo isn’t your typical spy. Sure, he has extensive agency training, access to bleeding-edge technology, and a ready supply of clever (to him) quips and retorts. But what sets him apart is ‘the pocket.’ It’s a portal that opens into an empty, seemingly infinite, parallel universe, and Kangaroo is the only person in the world who can use it. But he's pretty sure the agency only keeps him around to exploit his superpower. After he bungles yet another mission, Kangaroo gets sent away on a mandatory ‘vacation:’ an interplanetary cruise to Mars. While he tries to make the most of his exile, two passengers are found dead, and Kangaroo has to risk blowing his cover. It turns out he isn’t the only spy on the ship–and he’s just starting to unravel a massive conspiracy which threatens the entire Solar System. Now, Kangaroo has to stop a disaster which would shatter the delicate peace that’s existed between Earth and Mars ever since the brutal Martian Independence War. A new interplanetary conflict would be devastating for both sides. Millions of lives are at stake.” I’m sort of glad I didn’t read this summary because it has a lot of spoilers. You don’t even get to the cruise ship storyline until about page 40 or so, and even then, a dead body doesn’t appear until about page 75, but once that dead body appears, you know the narrative momentum is going to shift because you’re in it to find out what the hell is going on. I appreciate first person detective fiction because you’re restricted to the lens of the storyteller, who is often is as confused as you are. Everybody could be a possible suspect, and on a cruise ship of thousands, there’s a lot of potential suspects. Complicating matters is the fact that so many aboard seem to be ex-military personnel including the ship’s captain and his main advisor, a tough character known as Jemison. Also, Kangaroo likes to make his life complicated by trying to maintain a romance (with another cruise staff member named Ellie) in the middle of murder on the high interplanetary cruise ship seas. The original murder plot itself is confusing: an old man and his wife are found dead. The prime suspect is their son, a man named David, who might have been on anti-psychotic medication at the time. The problem is that David’s medication was swapped out with another, leading everyone to believe that he may have been framed. Additionally, David’s father, one of the deceased, was found to have a unique technology implanted in his body, one constructed from radioactive material that ended up exposing the entire cruise ship to carcinogens. So, the task for Chen as the writer is set: to resolve this mystery and somehow also make sure that all of the cruise ship individuals most exposed to the radiation receive treatment, despite their relative isolation in space. The novel’s definitely a page turner, and a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of Asian American speculative fiction. Somewhere early on, it’s clear that Kangaroo is of some sort of ethnic background, but I’m not sure which. He does describe himself as “brown” at some point, but we do know that he has a kind of surrogate father figure, so it’s unclear to me whether or not this background will be developed at a later time, perhaps in a future installment. I could have also missed this information entirely, because, as I admitted earlier in the reading process, I had trouble in the initial sections, and I could have glossed over this information during that bumpier road. A take it or leave it element to this novel is Chen’s characterization: Kangaroo is definitely a comic figure, who likes to drop jokes at every opportunity. He’s also unapologetically heterosexual in a way that can get annoying, if you’re not prepared for that kind of constant objectification. But, that being said, I’m absolutely all aboard any other interplanetary fiasco with Kangaroo at the helm. After all, we have to find out what other things he’ll be able to contain in his nifty little pocket universe, a contraption I wouldn’t mind having myself to stow my ever unfortunately growing library. Must. Go. Digital. But. Ijustcant.


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A Review of Wesley Chu’s Time Siege (Tor, 2016)


I’m here to review Wesley Chu’s Time Siege. So, I was super duper excited for this sequel to Wesley Chu’s Time Salvager, but because it’s a sequel, I need to say right off the bat that there will be a zillion spoilers. I saved it for a night after a lot of revisions, and I was duly rewarded. For whatever reason, I always have a little bit of trouble getting into Chu’s third person narrative perspectives. He tends to use a shifting third, often without much warning that we’re moving to a different focalizer. One chapter might begin with a character’s viewpoint that hasn’t yet been introduced in the novel, so you’re a little bit confused, but once you remember that Chu writes in this way, you begin to settle in. The other problem with sequels is that you have to sort of remember what happened in the first book: Elise Kim and James, our protagonist rogue ChronMan, are now on the run, hiding out with the Elfreth, a tribe, who have subsisted on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Two corporation-like entities (Valta and ChronoCom) are working in tandem to get rid of them because Elise Kim is now what is considered a “temporal anomaly,” and must be stamped out because the longer she is in existence, the longer she permanently alters existing timelines. Elise Kim was saved in the previous novel by James on one of his time jump missions for ChronoCom. Once he engages in this activity, he is considered expendable. In any case, the problems for Elise, James, and the Elfreth are numerous. They are running out of supplies and resources. Most critical is that James’s sister Sasha seems to be dying of something that looks like consumption. Recall that James’s sister was supposed to be dead, but James saves her as well, since if he’s going to be violating Time Laws, why not violate a couple more in order to do other things like alter the course of his personal history. But after a certain point: because James has jumped so many times on salvaging missions, he cannot jump any more in time due to the possibility that he will die. So James, along with the Mother of Time, Grace Priestly, hatch a plan to recruit another ChronMan and use that ChronMan to kidnap a doctor. This plan is elaborate and filled with many obstacles. While Grace and James flounder on this particular mission, Elise is back on Earth herding the Elfreth to the Mist Isle, once known as Manhattan. The problem is that the Co-op team (uniting the forces of Valta and ChronoCom) are still hunting them, so they are constantly moving, constantly tired, and constantly losing more of their battles. Elise begins to realize that they need to stand their ground somewhere, and no other location seems better than with a tribe called the Flatirons, who inhabit a large, disintegrating skyscraper. Elise fortunately is making alliances, as she leads the Elfreth to a possible and more sustainable future, but the leading entity behind the Co-op team is merciless. This character, Secretariate Kuo, is merciless and probably Chu’s best creation in this novel precisely because Kuo has just enough of a background to make you understand why she is so rigid in her philosophy. She truly believes in neoliberal capitalism as a kind of religious ideology and finds any socialist type community formation to be ill-destined. It’s easy to hate Kuo, and therefore, it’s far easier to root for Elise, making this novel’s good vs. bad paradigm a comfortable prospect. Sure, there are times when you think Elise is just too good to be true. Even James, who begins to succumb to drinking habits we’d thought he’d kicked, seems to think Elise is something above him. There’s a sequence involving Elise saving some young children that cements her hagiographic status, so you might blanch a little bit at this kind of saintly characterological figure, but this world is so particularly dark, you occasionally want to believe Elise could exist. And, more to the point, Chu’s plotting is effective: Elise shouldn’t exist in that time and place anyway because she is a temporal anomaly. In some ways, then, it makes sense that her values are so different: she hasn’t had to live in a time and place in which one is just scraping by to survive. You can’t help but wonder if the solution to some of our problems could only occur if we transported someone hundreds of years from a different era to look at the issues anew and to consider other approaches. But I digress. James, in this novel, is more of a broken man. It’s hard to see the anti-hero from the previous novel have such a retrogressive arc, but Chu is obviously playing the long game. As with any second book in what is likely a trilogy: we end on a maddening cliffhanger. Currently, there is no listing for the third book, so let’s hope that it comes sooner rather than later!


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A Review of Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io (Angry Robot, 2016).


This book is one of the ones I read over the course of several weeks. Usually, I read a novel in one or two sittings, but because the last month has been one of the busiest of my work life ever, I haven’t been able to read at all. The sad thing is that I try to read about three new works a week, just because I usually just enjoy that as a kind of hobby, but there has been absolutely no time, with grading, some family complications, and traveling all thrown in there. Fortunately, this novel has a lot interesting plot elements, the primary of which is related to the world building aspects of this more hard core sci-work. I didn’t actually realize that The Rise of Io is a spin-off of Chu’s earlier Tao series, which I haven’t read due to the fact that it’s only come out in mass market paperback stock paper. Later, I saw that the series was reissued by Turtleback in hardcover, but this reissue actually retained the mass market paper stock, of the high acidic variety (despite the fact that the cover was indeed in hardback but without the traditional dust cover). In any case, that series outlines the basis of the world-building for The Rise of Io, in which there is an alien war being waged between a species of beings that have crash landed on Earth. These beings, called the Quasing, have split into two factions: the Prophus and the Genjix. The Quasing are a race of beings that are sort of like the Trill (of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine variety), as they require a host and unify their consciousness with a separate being. The Rise of Io takes on this basic premise and follows the titular Io, a Quasing, who has to shift her consciousness into a new host body, when her current host, Emily, is killed during combat. This new host, Ella Patel, who lives in a sort of glorified slum (called Crate Town) in the remains of what is the country of India—we are sort of in a post-apocalyptic environment—is not exactly down with being unified with a Quasing. She reluctantly starts training, so she can better serve the Prophus, as they fight their battles against the Genjix. Much of the entertainment value comes from the constant bickering between Ella and Io, but Chu has a more complex plotting that also involves a Genjix figure named Shura. Shura’s been sent to India to help plot out the destruction of the Prophus, partly through the development of specific political connections. Shura’s a fantastic antagonist precisely because she’s so brutal, and we know eventually that Shura and Ella/ Io are going to meet at the diegetic level. As Chu moves us toward this inevitable clash, other characters start to emerge as central figures, including the Quasing known as Tao, who was the center of Chu’s original series. Apparently, The Rise of Io is the first in a new trilogy, and I’ll be delighted to see where it goes. Chu does leave a major surprise revelation in the latter arc of the story, one that I should have seen coming, but didn’t, and was ultimately floored by, especially because it created a type of narrative problem that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. If that tantalizing line doesn’t get you to pick up the work, then not much else will.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t cut into the schedule for Chu’s Time Salvager series, as I am totally dying for the next installment there, as well. To change course a little bit, I’ve been so impressed by the recent sci-fi-ish works that I’ve been reading by Asian American writers and works such as this one are encouraging me to expand my course offerings beyond titles like Stories of Your Life and Others/ How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which have become some of my more common mainstays.


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A Review of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (Solaris, 2016)


So, first off: I tend to want to write up a short review of everything I read, which always involves a bit of a plot summary (as those who have been following Asianamlitfans have obviously seen). I always let some website give us the basics and then move from there. The B&N summary gives us this description: “To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general. Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris's career isn't the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next. Cheris's best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress. The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.” What this plot summary doesn’t do for us is to give us some of the world building rules. Yoon Ha Lee has already done some writing on this fictional world; stories such as “Ghostweight” and “The Battle of Candle Arc” from his earlier collection show us how integral mathematics, geometries, and gaming are to this particular fictional terrain. Also, Kel Cheris’s use of Shuos Jedao as the “secret weapon” involves a kind of ghost anchoring in which his “undead character” is attached to Cheris as a kind of shadow. Thus, much of the narrative would seem as though Cheris is talking to herself. I had some trouble actually getting through the first 25 to 50 pages due to the massive amount of unique world building terms that Lee employs, but once you get dialed into the language and the vocabulary, things start to move along quite well. It becomes clear the further the narrative moves along that Cheris and Jedao don’t know the rules of this particular “game” if we might call warfare and siege a game. Part of the problem is that the hexarchate has given Cheris and Jedao very little information in terms of what is going on with the rebellion within the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Second, Jedao himself may have ulterior motives for his own approach to take back the Fortress. Another key detail relates to the fact that the rebellion is trying to shift the hexarchate’s geometries to a seven-faction system instead of six. They are trying to revive the Liosz faction, which was part of an early heretical rebellion that was suppressed. What readers eventually discover is that the Liosz faction is actually trying to implement a new ruling system based upon democracy rather than the current form, which is based on a rough oligarchy. In any case, I should probably stop here because I’ll be giving away too many spoilers. There is one especially interesting narrative device that occurs in the final hundred pages that makes this a very compelling read for me, especially as someone interested in form and aesthetics. Other than that, I don’t get the opportunity to read many space operas by Asian America writers, so I had a lot of fun reading this work. To be sure, I think it does take time to get into the vocabulary of this particular fictional world, but once you’re in, you have no problem following this rabbit hole all the way down. Fortunately, for fans of Yoon Ha Lee, a sequel is in the works (in a series called The Machineries of Empire) and is slated to appear later this year.


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A Review of Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016).


So, as always, I am excited to review any graphic narrative. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye definitely surprised me because it didn’t conform to any standard storyline or plot. We’ll let B&N provide us with our requisite plot summary and overview: “Meet Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Now in his early 70s, Chan has been making comics in his native Singapore since 1954, when he was a boy of 16. As he looks back on his career over five decades, we see his stories unfold before us in a dazzling array of art styles and forms, their development mirroring the evolution in the political and social landscape of his homeland and of the comic book medium itself. With The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye Sonny Liew has drawn together a myriad of genres to create a thoroughly ingenious and engaging work, where the line between truth and construct may sometimes be blurred, but where the story told is always enthralling, bringing us on a uniquely moving, funny, and thought-provoking journey through the life of an artist and the history of a nation.” What Liew has done is create a sort of fictionalized auto/biography of the titular Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Through Chye’s career, Liew is able to weave in key events in Singaporean and Malaysian histories, especially showing us how these events compounded and complicated Chye’s development as an artist and as a writer. There is thus a high meta-graphic impulse, as the production of cartoons and comics are understood alongside the construction and creation of an independent, postcolonial nation-state. Most important for Liew, then, is the ways that comics, cartoons, and graphic narratives can present political critiques of particular nation-state policies and discourses. I kept thinking about why Liew would have wanted to create this kind of graphic narrative, instead of another that would, say, simply detail the construction of the Singaporean nation-state without recourse to a meta-artistic point-of-view, but what Liew’s work effectively reminds us is that superheroes, speculative registers and artifacts are often merely different tools that an artist and writer might use for political purposes, especially in cultural contexts in which free speech can be policed or even suppressed. The complexity of Liew’s work make this particular graphic narrative perhaps a little bit more challenging to read, but certainly also marks it as one that I will adopt in future courses. The art, as always (and as shown in Liew’s other work such as Malinky Robot) is first rate, and the story of the friendship between the titular Charlie Chan Hock Chye and Bertrand Wong firmly grounds this cultural production.



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A Review of Monstress: Volume 1 by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) (Image Comics, 2016)


So I ended up teaching this comic-based work, which has been compiled into a first volume, for my fall course on Trauma Theory. I’ve been interested in the relative lack of consideration between trauma theory and speculative-type fictions. Part of the obvious issue is that trauma theory is referential. That is, it deals with things that actually do occur to actual human beings. Speculative fiction, as we know, can be strongly disarticulated from our “reality.” In this sense, Monstress by Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) (Image Comics, 2016) presents a great test case concerning whether or not trauma theory or psychoanalytic theory can be put together in any productive way. Why use our brains to consider whether or not a fictional world that is based upon a completely different typology of humanoid species would be something we should consider as a site of inquiry for a study of trauma or the unconscious? Monstress is a fictional world based upon five different groupings: humans, arcanics, the ancients, the gods, and the cat-peoples. Over time, the ancients and humans somehow crossbred creating arcanics. Arcanics and humans eventually did not get along, which leads us to the current incendiary situation that opens up the graphic novel. Humans have a suborder, a community of witches, that seems to be part of the ruling class. The ancients also have their own ruling community known as the Dark Court. When the graphic novel opens, our protagonist, an Arcanic named Maika Halfwolf has been collared; she’s basically become some sort of human slave. She’s been brought into the human-populated capital and into a residence housing some witches. What we don’t know is why she allowed herself to be captured, but eventually we discover that these witches have information she desires: she wants to know more about what happened to her mother, who had been on a mission of her own when Maika was just a young child. The opening arc generates more questions than answers: it seems as though Maika has some sort of “god” living inside of her, one that comes out of the portion of her amputated arm. This “god” basically sucks the life force out of other individuals, turning them into husks. The basis of the plot is essentially Maika’s search to figure out what exactly she is, how her mother and others were involved in the development of mystical arts, and how Maika will manage to survive given the fact that she’s killed a number of humans. Maika does develop some key allies, including a very young Arcanic, who seems to be a hybrid mixture of human and fox (named Kippa), and then, a cat-being, who reminds us of the equivocating ways of the feline figure from Alice in Wonderland. Why I find this work compelling enough to teach is the question of racializing metaphors here: the enslavement and oppression of the Arcanics allows us an opportunity to consider what happens when social difference emerges in the context of a speculative fiction. How do we understand trauma, violence, and brutality in these imaginary registers? The figure of Maika is an intriguing one: she seems to function as an anti-hero. As the figure the readers are supposedly most connected with, she nevertheless does some questionable things: for instance, “accidentally” eating another young Arcanic due to the fact that she does not yet understand what being she is harboring inside of her. She also ends up killing a number of guards and other figures in order to carry out her mission: do the ends justify the means in her case, especially given the fact that she seems to advocating more largely for the Arcanics, who have been oppressed as a people? Should we consider this book as an analogy for racial oppression in our world? These are the questions I engaged in my class. I also wanted students to consider the import of the “visual” in this work: how does it function to help or to complicate our understandings of trauma and of the unconscious that might be at work? What is especially interesting this regard is that the “god” who seems to exist inside of Maika sometimes acts as a kind of conscience, however conflicted in its appearance. Does the visual realm allow us into a typology of the “psyche,” so to speak? An intriguing work and one I hope will continue to provoke a deep discussion.

(here is Kippa, the adorbs)

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[personal profile] stephenhongsohn

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 3, 2017


It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up. 

Challenge tally: me = 12 reviews; “you” = 5 comments (thanks Kai Cheang for his post)

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.



In this post, reviews of Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (Little A, 2016); Tiffany Tsao’s The Oddfits (AmazonCrossing, 2016); Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game (HarperCollins, 2016); Amy Zhang’s This is Where the World Ends (Greenwillow Books, 2016); Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (HarperTeen, 2016); Linda Sue Park’s Cavern of Secrets (HarperCollins, 2017).


A Review of Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (Little A, 2016).


Viet Dinh’s debut After Disasters is yet another work coming out of Amazon’s publishing sector. Again, I’ve been consistently impressed by the production level qualities and the writing in general. Despite my ambivalent feelings about the company’s tactics overall in terms of publishing monopolies and pricing issues, their publishing imprints might be proving to be beneficial in one way: allowing new releases in book publishing. These days I often like to joke that my discipline is going the way of the dinosaur, so any entity that does put out more books rather than less seems to exist in the plus-side column. But I digress: the review here is for Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (Little A, 2016), which focuses on a set of individuals connected to and dealing with a catastrophic earthquake in India. Here is B&N with a pithy description for us: “Beautifully and hauntingly written, After Disasters is told through the eyes of four people in the wake of a life-shattering earthquake in India. An intricate story of love and loss weaves together the emotional and intimate narratives of Ted, a pharmaceutical salesman turned member of the Disaster Assistance Response Team; his colleague Piotr, who still carries with him the scars of the Bosnia conflict; Andy, a young firefighter eager to prove his worth; and Dev, a doctor on the ground racing against time and dwindling resources. Through time and place, hope and tragedy, love and lust, these four men put their lives at risk in a country where danger lurks everywhere. O. Henry Prize–winning author Viet Dinh takes us on a moving and evocative journey through an India set with smoky funeral pyres, winding rivers that hold prayers and the deceased, and the rubble of Gujarat, a crumbling place wavering between life and death. As the four men fight to impose order on an increasingly chaotic city, where looting and threats of violence become more severe, they realize the first lives they save might be their own.” What’s interesting about this description is that it fails to mention the sexualities of three of main characters: Ted, Dev, and Andy are all queer, at least in some sense of the word and engage in same-sex relationships in one form or another. I add this additional element because the disaster relief narrative, while obviously the central aspect of the novel, is also scaffolded by the fact that Ted and Dev once knew each other in a previous circumstance. Ted was once employed as part of a marketing team for an AIDS/ HIV pharmaceutical company; he meets Dev while at a conference, where they strike up a transitory relationship. Dev is married you see, and, to complicate matters further, when Dev discovers that Ted’s company has made it impossible to sell an AIDS/ HIV drug at a cheap price in India, Dev takes his ire out on Ted, leaving that relationship not surprisingly in shambles. Fast forward about a decade and the earthquake occurs. Ted’s in a new job as part of DART, a disaster assistance relief team, which brings him together with others, including the aforementioned Andy. Once in India, Ted’s world collides again with Dev’s, but the circumstances are of course much different, and they must set aside their past in order to deal with the gruesome, yet crucial work of disease relief and medical assistance. Dinh skillfully juxtaposes broken relationships with a catastrophic event, showing us how one issue is not divorced from the other. Such a comparative approach might have led to a profane mode of narration, but Dinh avoids allowing the romantic tensions to obscure all else precisely because the peril in their work is to confront death in all of its unexpected and graphic forms. One of the most difficult sequences becomes the moment that Andy and part of his firefighting team are forced to leave behind a dog that has been trapped in the rubble because this life is deemed expendable. They cannot put the time and effort in for this particular entity, when they can choose to put their time and energy somewhere else. Such difficult choices are the groundwork of this novel, so when a small mercy appears, however ephemeral we can expect it to be, at the conclusion: you’re relieved that there can be a lifeboat amongst so much rupture. Another novel that I thought I would start reading at 11 a.m. and just stop an hour later. Entirely wrong. Sleep time = 2:40 a.m. You are forewarned.


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(does anyone see the slight irony in the posting link here?)


A Review of Tiffany Tsao’s The Oddfits (AmazonCrossing, 2016).


Tiffany Tsao’s young adult debut novel The Oddfits comes out of its ever-growing original publications sector. The premise is as strange as the title suggests: a young European boy, with blonde hair and blue eyes, is raised in Singapore. He’s not surprisingly marked as an outsider, but for reasons that extend beyond his racial difference. The opening of the novel is made more mysterious, as it focuses on a man who disappears for decades, only to return to Singapore as abruptly as he originally left. This man ends up opening an ice cream shop, which does very well. It is there that he strikes up a friendship with the young boy, who we discover is named Murgatroyd Floyd. With a name like that, you can expect that he is going to suffer further humiliation (and as we discover, his parents indeed intended this nominal ostracization to be the case). On one particular day, the man ends up taking Murgatroyd into the ice cream shop’s freezer, which apparently is magical because it extends far and wide and holds far more ice cream flavors than the man actually sells. But this sense of wonder is shortlived, because the old man will end up dying not too long after this event. Further still, readers are left wondering about why the old man found his young boy to be so important and why the young boy needed to be recruited for something called “the quest.” What is this quest, we wonder? The novel then fast-forwards into the future: Murgatroyd has survived in Singapore, though his life is far from ideal. He is christened with a Chinese-sounding name, Schwet Foo, and works as a waiter at a local restaurant under a tyrannical employer. He has managed to make one best friend. Amid this milieu, another strange visitor emerges named Ann, who, as we discover, comes from the same realm that the ice cream shop owner did. Then, there is this question of “the quest” again, but what is the quest and why is Murgatroyd so perfect for this particular venture? I won’t spoil much more of this plot, because it’s original enough for me to encourage you to read it. Tsao does wonderful work with dynamic world-building here, though sometimes she is a little bit TOO successful at marking Murgatroyd’s social difference. Indeed, it becomes well apparent that there are many people who actively dislike him, so much so that the various ways in which Murgatroyd is made to feel an Other becomes frustrating. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Murgatroyd still feels an incredible sense of responsibility to these various individuals, who seem to make his life more difficult than he is willing to realize. Nevertheless, Tsao eventually gets us to where we need to go, all the while leaving us with a conclusion that sets up a very open-ended sequel to take place. Indeed, by the last pages, we’re still wondering about how Murgatroyd’s quest will actually unfold, though not necessarily disappointed that we don’t have much more information about all the new places he may be exploring. On a different level entirely, Tsao does some intriguing work in terms of Singaporean depictions: there are key moments which are very much invested in the contemporary social contexts of this city/ nation-state, so I continue to see how writers are twining together the political with generic (by which I mean genre). Of the recent spate of Singaporean texts I’ve been engaging in my distance reading group, this one was certainly the most surprising! Definitely looking forward to the sequel, which already has a listing on goodreads.


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(I disagree with the lone 3 star rating I saw as I linked it).


A Review of Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game (HarperCollins, 2016).


So, I read Evenly Skye’s debut young adult fiction (in the paranormal romance subgenre) right after Tiffany Tsao’s The Oddfits; I completed reading both of these in the same night, so I guess I was in a young adult binge reading mode. We’ll let B&N provide some background for us, as per usual: “Vika Andreyev can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side. And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, a duel of magical skill. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death. Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has? For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip-smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her. And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself. As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear—the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.” Fortunately, I did NOT read any of these plotting details before I started because it would have put me in a foul mood. As soon as I discovered that there was a game involved, I kept thinking about Katniss Everdeen and things like the quarter quell. Certainly, Skye’s premise is not exactly the same, but a duel to the death involving a paranormal fictional world was a little bit too close for my comfort. Nevertheless, Skye’s fictional world was immersive on the level of her commitment to this premise, and she creates a number of perfect romance triangles, including the central three figures in the editorial description. There were times when I had to roll my eyes because of the inevitable moments in which characters were seen to be fawning in desire over each other, even as they were apparently trying to kill each other, but you sort of have to go with it anytime you’re going to go with the the paranormal romance. The game does have some rules: each enchanter has about five turns to impress the tsar, but complications immediately arise because there’s a side plot involving Nikolai’s mother: she somehow has returned from the dead, and seems to be intent on killing the tsar in order to enact some sort of revenge (the likes of which we’re not sure). What was most compelling to me in terms of this particular fictional world was the research that had to go into it: Skye was evidently a fan of 19th century Russia and used as historical figures as the guides for the main royal family, but deviated with some details (such as the names and genders of particular characters). Additionally, it is clear that Skye is at least attempting to some sort of alternative history, so that the contemporary historical trajectory of Russia has little or not bearing on how we understand the plot. Issues of race (both figuratively and metaphorically speaking) are not entirely evacuated in this fictional world, as both Nikolai and Vika have complicated ancestries. Nikolai is at least part Kazakh, while Vika may be the daughter of a nymph, though we’re unsure. Thus, these markers of social difference are of course important to their class trajectory as well. Both Nikolai and Vika are considered to be commoners, far outside the lineage of the royalty that are the most powerful. Certainly, the success of Skye’s work is reliant upon the chemistry of the two lead characters: we want them to find a way to survive the crown’s game together and perhaps even have their happily ever after. In this way, the novel generates its momentum, and the conclusion sets us up for a wide-open plot, especially because Skye wraps up the most primary plot points in this work, something that I highly appreciated.



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A Review of Amy Zhang’s This is Where the World Ends (Greenwillow Books, 2016).


Amy Zhang’s follow-up to her young adult debut (Falling into Place) is This is Where the World Ends (Greenwillow Books, 2016). The premise is simple enough: there are two protagonists, who are essentially given alternating first person narratives. There’s Micah, who presents us with the “after” period of the story, in which a bonfire has occurred, but with devastating results. There’s Janie, who presents us with the “before” period of the story, in which she establishes Micah and Janie’s unique friendship, and why these two are so closely bonded. The “after” period is perhaps the most critical, because it sets up a central mystery: what happened with the bonfire and where in the world is Janie? Is she actually in Nepal or is Micah being presented another version of the events because he has endured a significant head trauma with selective retrograde amnesia? Early on, Zhang’s writing style grated on me, partly because I’ve been in revision mode for a number of my own scholarly publications. I immediately noticed commas missing and repetitively passive sentence structures. These issues stood out for me because Zhang tries sometimes a little bit too hard to be poetic in her style. Nevertheless, Zhang’s work eventually won me over because of its austere second half in which we begin to see the darker workings of the story. Rather than spoil what does occur, I will say that this work reminds me of a number of other young adult texts in which it is hard to get a sense of the temporal or historical specificity of a given location. We know that the time is relatively contemporary because of the references to texting. We know that the location is somewhere in which there would be a large rock quarry and associated natural surroundings and waterways. There is a significant reference to Nepal, but beyond that, it’s very difficult to understand if there’s anything else actually going on in this fictional world. The insularity is mostly suffocating in the first half because it’s easy to wonder why we should care about either of these characters: so, they’re close and they do crazy things together, but really: what’s so unique about their experiences? Why should we devote our fictional sympathies to them? Janie, for instance, is convinced that she’s setting herself up high school glory by dating the high school jock that she knows is actually a “douchebag,” and yet, she also knows that he’s going to look great in a skin tight uniform while he wrestles. *Frowns* At one point, even Janie admits she’s not a good person, and I had to agree, but the second half does present us with an interesting case of how trauma unfolds and how it cannot necessarily be harnessed in a productive way, especially when teenagers become the source of each other’s biggest support. The depictions that go on this section did make me wonder if this novel was one I could adopt in my course on trauma and psychoanalytic theory. In any case, this novel is an interesting one to compare against something like Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game, which I just read. Though Skye must take obvious liberties with cultural and historical references to Russia in her work, there is somehow still a level of texture that the fictional world must accrue due to a stronger weaving together of the political and the personal, the magical and the referential. On another level, Zhang’s work functions in another “pattern” in many of these young adult fictions which involves one protagonist being “cool,” while the other being an “outsider” or “geek,” and yet these two figures will somehow be “destined” for each other. I’ve seen this formula at work for quite awhile.


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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (HarperTeen, 2016).


I’ll admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Kendare Blake’s Goddess War series and was wondering how her next YA paranormal effort would turn out. Fortunately, Three Dark Crowns is a return to the kind of form we saw already on some display in her original Girl of Nightmares series. Here, Kendare Blake has engaged some intriguing and what I would consider to be dynamic narrative conceits, especially in the creation of a society in which three sisters are born every generation, who must duel each other to become an outright queen. The winner rules all, the losers will die. To be sure, there’s a Hunger Games-ish element in the construction of a kind of contest, but this world operates by its own set of rules. First of all, the three queens are all born with gifts. Typically, these gifts are unique to a specific society. The oldest sister, Mirabella, holds the Elementalist gift and is supported by the Priestesses and a ruling family known as the Westwoods. The middle sister, Arsinoe, is a Naturalist, an individual with a connection to the land, and should be able to summon a familiar. She lives out on an island with her allies, including Jules, a powerful Naturalist with a cougar as a familiar, and Jules’s mother, Madrigal, who encourages Arsinoe to dabble in something called Low Magic, especially because Arsinoe’s gift has not yet fully manifested. The youngest, Katharine, is a Poisoner, someone who should be able to construct toxins out of various powders, but is also able to withstand any such deleterious substances in her own body. As with Arsinoe, it’s not apparent that Katharine is a very talented Poisoner, so her alliances with a maternal figure, Natalia, as well as a young noble, Pietyr, are important to her potential success. Two other gifts are possible: the war gift, which is not really described in this novel very much, and probably the subject of a future book; and the sight gift, which is a Cassandra-type oracle power that causes a young girl to go mad. If one is gifted with the sight, the girl will not even be able to “compete” in the quest to become queen because she’s sacrificed before that time. As the novel moves toward its conclusion, the stakes become higher obviously, as the central event showcasing each Queen’s power takes center stage. A disastrous occurrence at that final event factionalizes each group even further. The Poisoners are in disarray when Katharine is determined to be missing, but the biggest and most monumental reveal involves Arsinoe. This revelation alone makes me incredibly excited for the sequel, especially to see where the author will be going with this particular fictional world and its various conceits. An immensely engrossing YA work and another must read for fans of the young adult/ paranormal fantasy genre.


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A Review of Linda Sue Park’s Cavern of Secrets (HarperCollins, 2017).


So, the second installment in Linda Sue Park’s Wing and Claw series has come out. I really enjoyed the first one, Forest of Wonders, as it had talking animals and young apothecaries working together. Anything that reminds me of Pokemon is going to be a bit hit with me. In any case, this Kirkus Reviews description is right on point: “In this sequel to Forest of Wonders (2016), hero Raffa [Santana] applies his apothecary skills to thwart the Chancellor of Obsidia's malevolent plot to treat wild animals with botanicals and use them against her own people. Raffa, his cousin, Garith, and his friend Kuma, along with a talking bat named Echo, a gigantic bear, and a raccoon, have spent the winter in the Sudden Mountains, hiding from the Chancellor who wants to silence them because of their knowledge of her secret plan. With spring's approach, Raffa decides to return to his parents. On the perilous journey home, Raffa discovers a hidden cavern where he harvests a mysterious, translucent plant whose healing properties cure the ailing Echo. After witnessing the Chancellor's manipulated foxes, stoats, and crows devastate Kuma's village and finding his own home in ashes, Raffa covertly develops an antidote from the cavern plant, hoping to cure and free the captured animals. When his plan fails, a desperate, desolate Raffa faces a precarious future, pondering his role as a healer vis-à-vis his family, friends, and Obsidia. As in the trilogy opener, Park demands that her child protagonist make adult-sized choices that come with real consequences. Raffa's world is a diverse one; he has dark hair and light-brown skin, Kuma's skin is dark, and Garith is newly deaf. The nail-biting adventure, relevant moral dilemmas, and complex characters will leave readers eager for the final installment.” What is interesting about this review is the ways in which it already is considering the nature of race, as it is allegorically represented through “diverse” characters and associated phenotypes. Park’s work complicates this allegorical representation through racial connections to animal life. For instance, Raffa wonders about his close friendship to the felicitously talking bat named Echo. As Raffa discovers a plant that may cure how animals are being brainwashed, it also has the potential effect of causing animals the ability to lose a measure of intelligent life that they had once possessed through the selective use of plant extracts (recall, this novel is one about apothecaries). Raffa specifically worries that Echo will lose the ability to speak, if he is given a specific plant extract that might actually be beneficial over the long term. Raffa larger plot that pits himself against the ruling factions of Obsidia is certainly the pinnacle of this particular work, setting readers up for what will likely be a riveting conclusion to this series. The Chancellor makes for an effective and chilling antagonist, and young readers will especially be energized to root for Raffa in the concluding courtroom sequence. I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching an actual course on children’s and young adult literature as imagined by Asian American writers, and I’ll certainly consider this particular series as an option.


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[personal profile] kaihangcheang

There must be something hopeful for Asian American critics in looking back to the long Sixties in the age of Trump. Just as scholars have produced a wide range of new work on the period, so too, the Asian American art world has been equally drawn to the Sixties, the decade of resistance, due to its role in the political formation of our ethnically heterogeneous community. One example of this reengagement with that period is Roots: Asian American Movement in Los Angeles, 1968-80s at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. The curator, Steve Wong, has organized materials from a diverse visual archive of the period into two sections by medium. On the right side of the exhibit introduction is a video viewing room featuring six of the earliest Asian American films made by Visual Communications, each representing a different demographic and historical moment in regional Asian American history. The films’ style and content vary—ranging from a black a white film re-telling the Manzanar internment camp experience, to a personal profile of a homeless Chinese American man who couldn't find a room to rent and resorted to living in his car, parking from one in free spot to another. Directly across from the viewing room is the main installation of the exhibit that showcases paper ephemerals that chronicle the emergence of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement. The story of the Movement’s origins takes us all the way back to community-run newspapers written in different languages, explaining the reason why each Asian ethnic group would decide to join forces with the larger Civil Rights Movement in the LA area. I was particularly struck by a letter written by a college student to his mother, explaining how activism has become his passion; his experience protesting on the street helped him to see that his disengagement from his classes stemmed from his school’s curriculum's disregard for Asian American experience.

The next installment is specifically dedicated to women’s and the queer community’s involvement in the later days of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement. The pamphlets and newsletters are particularly significant, including the Asian/Pacific Lesbian & Gays Newsletter from the 1980s, and Asian Women (a magazine of women poetry and columns came out from Berkeley in the 70s).

The last section illustrates the transnational turn of the Movement, represented by colorful posters produced during the protest to save I-Hotel in SF (the affordable home of many early immigrants in the expensive city), accompanied by cover pages of the magazine Gidra. All artifacts in this section are related by their imagination of the Movement as a political campaign waged for and with the Third World.

Communism influence on the Movement is a central theme that runs through the exhibit’s aesthetics. The head shot of Mao, "the little red book," and the Maoist slogan “serve the people” linger as particularly significant parts of the display.

The many different genres of art in the exhibit, as demonstrated by the t-shirts hanging on a string, and a smorgasbord of badges featuring the peace sign, the fist sign, the tiger sign and the face of a manong, coupled with X, all point to the fact that the exhibit’s approach to answering the complex question of the roots of the Asian American Movement is that it is a story that is far from singular.

Reflecting on the exhibit from the lens of Asian American cultural studies, its red inflection and material heterogeneity represent what the Asian American scholar Colleen Lye has called “Mao Zedong thought” in the Asian American Sixties. "A hundred flower blossoming" is an ideological trademark in Maoism, a strategic mediation of contradictions. As such, to understand the Maoist/Marxist/ Materialist aesthetic in Roots, I suggest that we have to look at the exhibit both holistically and attentively. The space spent on each ethnic group's own history and politics can be thought of what Mao would call the particularity of motion, while the overall theme of anti-war/anti-imperialism is the thread that unites the groups, functioning like the universal force that binds individual particularities in the Movement.

[personal profile] stephenhongsohn

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 2, 2017


It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up.

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.



In any case, in this post, reviews of Sabina Murray’s Valiant Gentlemen (Grove Press, 2016); Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s The Autobiography of Someone Else (White Pine Press, 2016); Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016); Tara Sim’s Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, 2016); Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow (Prospect Park Books, 2013).


A Review of Sabina Murray’s Valiant Gentlemen (Grove Press, 2016).


So, this novel was definitely one of my highest anticipated reads for 2016, simply because Sabina Murray is one of my favorite writers. It’s been about a couple of months since I finished Valiant Gentlemen, and I’ve wanted to let the novel simmer with me a little bit, since there’s so much really to discuss. As with most of Murray’s previous works, this one is also a historical fiction, focusing on an imaginative reconstruction of Roger Casement’s life. For the uninitiated, which includes me, Casement was an Irish dissident, who was executed for treason. When you have a historical novel like this one, one of my first questions to ask is: why does the novel have to be fictionalized? In this particular case, there is a very specific answer. Casement’s trial and subsequent execution were complicated by the publication of something called his Black Diaries, which were purportedly to be some sort of journal in which Casement detailed numerous homosexual encounters, many of whom were with young men of color that he met while working in diplomatic capacities in the Belgian Congo and other such locations. Murray had to make a difficult decision, regarding whether or not to consider the Black Diaries as something that Casement actually wrote, which is still the subject of debate today (though some would argue that these diaries have now been officially authenticated). In any case, Murray takes the middle ground in what is an elegant and beautiful rendering of Casement’s life. What makes this novel so striking is that Murray focuses on Casement’s close friendship with a fictionalized character (probably based upon some composites) with a man named Herbert Ward. Their friendship is put to the test, but also made much stronger through their experiences in the Congo, which include the transport of goods as well as surveying type work.  Much of the novel moves back and forth between these two characters, and their diverging life paths. Herbert eventually gets married to a wealthier, older socialite name Sarita, who is the daughter of a very successful businessman. They have a number of children. On Casement’s front, he continues to engage in various diplomatic duties, while also developing a secret life as an Irish revolutionary. Obviously, much of these subversive activities were motivated by the many direct observations he made concerning colonial atrocities that extended not only to Ireland, but any of the United Kingdom’s colonial holdings. But again, what makes this work more than a historical document is Murray’s choice in portraying Casement with such subtlety, especially with respect to his same-sex proclivities. The prurient tonalities that might be read in the Black Diaries are not evident here, and Murray’s reminding us that perhaps what is most important about Casement, rather than his sexual escapades, is the centrality of his political vision and the fact of his alternative kinship with Herbert. In focusing the novel in this way, Murray creates an extraordinary fictional composite of this actual life, which in turn encourages us to read further into Casement’s various exploits.


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A Review of Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s The Autobiography of Someone Else (White Pine Press, 2016).


So, this title was one of the big anticipated reads for me this year, because I have already read (and appreciated) Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s poetry. You can find some of these earlier reviews on Asian American literature fans. The question that this book immediately presented to me upon finishing was: if this narrative is the autobiography of someone else, does it make it even an autobiography? LOL. In any case, the B&N page does very little contextual work here, and I was disappointed by the fact that the back cover does not even hazard any summary of the work. The rough narrative goes something like this: Alec is our protagonist. At the beginning of the novel, he has endured some sort of psychiatric institutionalization as a result of a suicide attempt. He’s an actor who has taken on a kind of stage name (Cayle, but pronounced closer to Kyle). While he is able to negotiate time away from the institution to perform, he still must pass a bunch of psychological evaluations if he is to be permanently released. In any case, much of the novel functions through analepses, as we begin to see what brought Alec to commit suicide. On the basis of the narrative alone, it would seem as though Alec’s complicated romance with a peer named Jenny leads him down this path of self-inflicted violence. At the same time, there are moments that suggest familial discord plays a large part in his feelings of isolation and melancholy. But, there are tremendous gaps in this narrative that make it difficult to hazard exactly what has gone on with our protagonist: was his suicide influenced not only by a failed relationship, but also by the fact that his parents seemed to have abandoned him? I couldn’t quite understand how to situate the disparate strands of this work, though Lee is quite adept at philosophical lines of inquiry. One of the strengths of this work obviously lies in Lee’s poetic writing. In particular, Lee threads the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a kind of parallel to the relationship between Alec and Jenny. In this modern-day case, Alec’s powers can do little to bring Jenny back to him, but I still wondered about Alec’s family and whether or not a deeper cultural trauma casts an expansive shadow over this doomed relationship. A thought-provoking if uneven work by Lee.


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A Review of Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016).


Well, there is a very controversial “love” story at the center of Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones. This novel is Chung’s second, after Long for this World. I delayed writing my review for some time after reading the novel and spent some time speaking with other folks about the plot point that is sure to generate much discussion. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s sort of difficult to review the novel without explaining at least some of the complicated dynamics at play in this work. We’ll let the Relegation Books page do some plot explication for us: “In this masterful novel of inheritance and loss, Sonya Chung (Long for This World) proves herself a worthy heir to Marguerite Duras, Hwang Sun-won, and James Salter. Spanning generations and divergent cultures, The Loved Ones maps the intimate politics of unlikely attractions, illicit love, and costly reconciliations. Charles Lee, the young African American patriarch of a biracial family, seeks to remedy his fatherless childhood in Washington, DC, by making an honorable choice when his chance arrives. Years later in the mid-1980s, uneasy and stymied in his marriage to Alice, he finds a connection with Hannah Lee, the teenage Korean American caregiver whose parents’ transgressive flight from tradition and war has left them shrouded in a cloud of secrets and muted passion. A shocking and senseless death will test every familial bond and force all who are touched by the tragedy to reexamine who their loved ones truly are–the very meaning of the words. Haunting, elliptical, and powerful, The Loved Ones deconstructs the world we think we know and shows us the one we inhabit.” In terms of comparison points, the novel reminds me of the problematic romances at the center of works such as Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh and Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. Chung’s novel strikes uncomfortably because it questions the nature of consent and trauma; characters like Charles Lee are rendered with an internal complexity that make it difficult to vilify him as a categorical monster. Nevertheless, the novel raises questions about what makes someone a perpetrator and a victim, especially as those markers become increasingly blurred over time. Of the characters, Hannah is certainly the most intriguing to me, as she is rendered as someone who has been cursed. She seems resigned to this fate, as a child born under dark signs and who must bear the burden of karma not necessarily of her own making. Her disaffection and quiet acceptance of her life and her station are perhaps the most tragic elements of this novel, as Chung’s depictions continually imply that we cannot escape the fates that are bestowed upon us by the sins of other generations. Out of such inheritances, Hannah attempts to carve out some measure of happiness: through her love of French, her ability to swim, and a protective detachment that belies a reflective interior. A complicated topic, but the novel is beautifully written and many passages ring out with a poetic elegance sure to stay with readers long after the final page is read. 



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A Review of Tara Sim’s Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, 2016).


I’d been nursing a cold, so over the New Year’s period, I settled in bed with a number of novels. It’s been so long since I’ve just sat down and read that I wondered if I had lost the ability to rampage through books, as I have in the past. I shouldn’t have worried too much. I started on Tara Sim’s lovely debut Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, 2016). As per usual, we’ll let B&N do some contextual work for us: “In an alternate Victorian world controlled by clock towers, a damaged clock can fracture time—and a destroyed one can stop it completely. It’s a truth that seventeen-year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart knows all too well; his father has been trapped in a Stopped town east of London for three years. Though Danny is a prodigy who can repair not only clockwork, but the very fabric of time, his fixation with staging a rescue is quickly becoming a concern to his superiors. And so they assign him to Enfield, a town where the tower seems to be forever plagued with problems. Danny’s new apprentice both annoys and intrigues him, and though the boy is eager to work, he maintains a secretive distance. Danny soon discovers why: he is the tower’s clock spirit, a mythical being that oversees Enfield’s time. Though the boys are drawn together by their loneliness, Danny knows falling in love with a clock spirit is forbidden, and means risking everything he’s fought to achieve. But when a series of bombings at nearby towers threaten to Stop more cities, Danny must race to prevent Enfield from becoming the next target or he’ll not only lose his father, but the boy he loves, forever.” So this description gives us some of the most important plot details, but I have to provide some spoilers, so I’m giving you the warning now. Apparently, all clock towers have spirits contained inside of them, though their knowledge of time and their “sentient” lives is limited. These clock spirits are naturally curious about humans, but their relationships with mechanics, in particular, can end up becoming disastrous, so Danny’s budding relationship with the clock spirit in Enfield (who is named Colton) is a precarious one. Sim populates her fictional world with a cast of memorable side characters, including Cassie, who is Danny’s best friend. She’s a car mechanic rather than a clock mechanic. Since Danny’s dad went missing, he’s maintained an icy relationship with his mother, while he still finds a measure of comfort from his mentor, Matthias, a sort of surrogate father figure. Sim complicates some of the more standard tropes of the young adult genre, especially on her focus on a young male teenager. Further still, the alternative Victorian fictional terrain presented itself with unique and dynamic world building conceits. I especially found the premise of a fictional world populated by clock towers that regulated the movement of local and regional time frames to be quite interesting. I did wonder about the mechanics of this regulation, especially since I’m sure more rural locations would not have had any clock towers at all. Sim’s narrative also suggests that there are clock towers all over the world, so time regulation and the need for mechanics to repair these clocks is apparently important everywhere. Colonial history is also introduced in Sim’s subtle integration of Indian cultural contexts and history. A major rival of Danny is a biracial Indian teen named Daphne Richards. Definitely, one of the more striking young adult fictions I’ve read in awhile. If Goodreads is to be believed, Timekeeper will have at least one sequel, potentially two, thereby following the requisite trilogy form of young adult fictions.  Definitely on the must read list for fans of the paranormal/young adult genre.


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A Review of Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow (Prospect Park Books, 2013).

I’ve been meaning to catch up on the Mas Arai detective series; one of the latest is Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow, which is the fifth in the series (after Summer of the Big Bachi, Snakeskin Shamisen, Gasa Gasa Girl, and Blood Hina). I remember when I first saw this book listed on amazon with its cover, I thought the book would be something about a hot air balloon because there was this gigantic red, roughly oval object on the cover. That object was actually a giant strawberry. In any case, B&N gives us this useful plot description: “Curmudgeonly Japanese American gardener and unwitting detective Mas Arai is back in this fifth in the Edgar Award–winning series. Naomi Hirahara has created a memorable protagonist unlike any other: a Hiroshima survivor, Los Angeles gardener, widower, gambler, grandfather, and solver of crimes. In Strawberry Yellow, he returns to the strawberry farms of his youth and encounters family intrigue, danger, and murder. The series' most compelling and evocative mystery yet is set in the strawberry fields of Watsonville, California, where young Mas first arrived as a Hiroshima survivor in the 1940s. He returns for the funeral of a cousin and quickly gets entangled in the murder of a young woman. Was his cousin murdered, too? Mas has to figure out what happened, keep himself safe, and uncover the mystery of the Strawberry Yellow blight and a new strawberry varietal so important that it could be inspiring a murderer.” This description is quite on the money: there are not one, but two possible murders to investigate. This novel, much like the previous ones in the series, engages a complicated and expansive historical tapestry. We discover that Mas was born in Watsonville and actually had a lengthy history as a participant in the agricultural industry, developing friendships with a number of other peers who are main characters and suspects (and corpses) in this story. The cousin is none other than Shug Arai, a strawberry farmer, who we discover had been trying to develop the science around a new strain of product that would be sweet, easy to cultivate, and easy to store. The night after the funeral, Mas and Shug’s son Billy, end up going to an old family farm, which has long since been abandoned. They end up staying the night there, but when Mas wakes up Billy is long gone, and Billy’s mistress, a woman named Laila, is discovered to have been murdered. Did Billy kill Laila? And for what reason?  Shug’s own death is suspicious because it seems as though he had created enemies in his search for the newest cultivation of strawberries; rival strawberry companies (Sugarbears vs. Everbears) pit family members, scientists, and businessmen against each other, leading to an ever-enlargening pool of suspects. Though Mas is guided by his internal moral compass, his investigation creates more peril, and he himself is targeted when he fails to leave Watsonville not long after the funeral. The most compelling aspect of this novel for me as an academic is Hirahara’s understanding of Japanese American history, especially related to California’s agricultural industry (and how that history was complicated by World War II, the internment, and interracial/ interethnic politics). This kind of background makes this work an immensely teachable text for any course on Asian American Studies, and the novel would pair particularly well with books like Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart and Bhira Backhaus’s Under the Lemon Trees (which I think is already out of print). My one minor quibble with the novel is Hirahara’s use of the third person, which can lead to some plot telegraphing. At certain points, other narrative perspectives cropped in, which allowed, I think, too much information to be gleaned in relation to possible motives and suspects for the murder(s), but I generally find the third person to be difficult to navigate in detective fiction, and prefer the investigatory claustrophobia/ limited perception of the first person when it comes to this genre. Another solid outing in the Mas Arai series; looking forward to catching up on the next (Sayonara Slam).


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A Review of Jai Arun Ravine’s The Romance of Siam (Timeless, Infinite Light 2016).

So, pylduck reviewed Jai Arun Ravine’s and then entwine awhile back, and I was jazzed to see Ravine coming out with a new creative work, The Romance of Siam, out of an independent press with the best name ever (Timeless, Infinite Light). While I was browsing over at the official web page, I wasn’t surprised to see that Karen Tei Yamashita had blurbed the book, as it reminded me a lot of what Yamashita actually did with Anime Wong: The Fictions of Performance, especially the last section from that collection. Ravine’s both critiquing and having a lot of fun with appropriations of Thai culture, especially as they arise through the cultural productions of “foreigners,” whether from British, American, or other perspectives. My favorite sequence in Ravine’s tragi-comic creative nonfictional work, which can’t quite be called a poetry collection (though it does do some creative work with sestinas), was related to the litany of film connections that the author compiles together. One of the best sequences is a mash-up of Claire Danes and Leonard DiCaprio movies. For instance, Ravine refers to their starring roles in Romeo and Juliet, which was itself an “appropriated” version of the original Shakespearean play. From there, Ravine sees fit to remind us that both Danes and DiCaprio will later separately star in movies set in Southeast Asia; the former in Brokedown Palace and the latter in The Beach. But these films are part of a longer lineage that Ravine traces in which Thailand and associated cultures in the Southeast become part and parcel of a postmodern fantasy: the country becomes the ever-changing tabula rasa for a touristic discourse concerning consumption, exoticism, and Orientalist desires. Ravine traces this kind of objectification through other popular works such as the fictions of Maugham and Anna and the King. As Ravine’s work moves fiercely onward, the textured and overlapping significations achieve a ludicrousness that makes the actual appropriation of Thai contexts seem both profane and nonsensical, but we’re struggling to see what might lie beneath the critique. Certainly, we’re not necessarily starved for the authentic Thailand, Ravine being sure to relate how constructed so many of our perspectives will be, but nevertheless, with so much “white desire” and associated distortions, one gets a sense of being permanently adrift in an unending sea of simulacra. Finally, Ravine makes very excellent use of the travel guide through the tongue-and-cheek usage of footnotes and “key information” excerpts, but what might have pushed this approach to the next level would have been some actual photographic or visual archives. This intervention seems necessitated by Ravine’s choice to invoke the discourse of museums and curation, so I can’t help but wonder about that extra layer of postmodern slippage through the visual realm, especially since Ravine went absolutely all-in with the textual engagements. Hang on to your seats folks, you’re in for a self-consciously, satirical, exotic ride.


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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 20, 2017


Well, yes, it’s been quite some time since we’ve had a megareview. Our immense apologies, but between ongoing commitments and some technical troubles related to the blogging platform, we’ve shifted our “server” and come to dreamwidth. Fortunately, we managed to import all entries, so the content has still been preserved!


AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.



In any case, in this post, reviews of: Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma (Bloomsbury USA, 2017); Julie Shigekuni’s In Plain View (Unnamed Press, 2016); Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch (HarperCollins 2017); Sonia Patel’s Rani Patel in Full Effect (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016).


A Review of Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma (Bloomsbury USA, 2017).


Ratika Kapur’s stateside debut is the novel The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, which ingeniously employs an unreliable narrator to provide a rather scathing commentary on modern Indian lifestyles and upper middle class pursuits. The titular Mrs. Sharma is our first person narrator, who lives what seems to be a rather nondescript life. She works as a kind of clerical assistant for a doctor, but finds herself transfixed by a fellow train rider. At first, it seems as if this infatuation is merely an innocent crush, but readers soon discover that Mrs. Sharma is actually married with a teenage soon. Her husband is working overseas, and she also lives with her in-laws. Naturally, she must keep her budding love affair a secret from her family. Eventually, her affair with the aforementioned man and fellow commuter, Vineet, becomes more complicated, especially she confesses to him the fact that she’s actually married and has a child. Though she believes that this information will not necessarily alter the status of their relationship, Vineet becomes increasingly convinced that Mrs. Sharma will leave her husband for him. Mrs. Sharma, trying to remain calm and retain control over her life, tries to find ways to break it off with Vineet. Given the incredibly problematic circumstances, we are not surprised to see that Kapur move this novel into a more naturalistic territory by the conclusion. Kapur’s larger point conveys a kind of domestic malaise that envelops the modern Indian family. In this case, it becomes evident over time that both Mrs. Sharma and her son are incredibly bereft of a more stable home life. Mrs. Sharma’s own affair seems less about any social transgression than about the failure of her life: she feels as if she has no control, especially over her husband and his overseas work preoccupations. Her son, too, seems to be acting out due to the lack of a parental father figure. Mrs. Sharma’s ineffectual attempts to push her son toward a more productive occupational direction only exacerbate her sense of hopelessness. What Mrs. Sharma does not expect is that Vineet will also attempt to influence her life. In this way, Mrs. Sharma’s desire to control her image (and the ways that she is perceived) ultimately shrouds her narrative reliability, leading to a rather catastrophic set of final pages. This novel is one of the first I’ve read in awhile that I’d be willing to consider teaching for its formal techniques, especially because the narrative unreliability unfolds in increasingly complicated layers. A promising debut by Ratika Kapur.


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A Review of Julie Shigekuni’s In Plain View (Unnamed Press, 2016).


Julie Shigekuni has always been a favorite writer of mine, especially because I adore her second novel Invisible Gardens (and still indisputably my favorite of her four publications at this point). Shigekuni is also author of the novels A Bridge Between Us and Unending Nora. Her most recent offering is In Plain View, which effectively showcases Shigekuni’s development as a writer. The novel might be termed a neo-noir; it’s appropriately set in Los Angeles. Narrated in the third person, the novel’s perspective most closely follows Daidai, once an art curator, but now taking a break from her academic career in order to conceive. She is married to a fellow academic named Hiroshi, who is the head of a prominent Asian American Studies program. The opening of the novel sees Hiroshi hosting a party for new admits; it is there that Daidai meets Satsuki, a beautiful, young new admit to the program who hails from Japan. Daidai is immediately drawn to Satsuki, despite having conflicting feelings about the way that Satsuki seems to be connected to her husband. The novel’s initial chapters are intriguing because Shigekuni is telegraphing the systemic unease populating Daidai’s life. It’s clear that she loves her husband, but it’s equally apparent that their marriage is not entirely stable. Specifically, the challenge of conceiving a child causes strain between Daidai and her husband. The stage is thus set for the neo-noir to begin, especially once Satsuki’s mother, who Satsuki had thought had disappeared when she was just a young child, is discovered to have committed suicide and that she had been living in a nunnery in Los Angeles, of all places. This event naturally throws Satsuki’s life into chaos, which in turn affects her connection to and nascent friendship with Daidai. The plot gets ever more intricate once Daidai agrees to travel with Satsuki to Japan. As they get to know each other better, this trip also provides Daidai a chance to find out more about Satsuki’s complicated background; Satsuki’s father, in particular, is a prominent art dealer, which of course interests Daidai, due to curation background. It is while in Japan that Daidai begins to realize that Satsuki’s father harbors a dark secret related to his art business. When the tsunami hits (it’s 2011), yet more chaos is thrown at them. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the last half of the text moves in a far darker direction, especially as Daidai begins to investigate Satsuki’s life even further. It becomes apparent that Satsuki’s entire family is shrouded in a larger set of mysteries that endangers Daidai.

As a general fan of this genre, my response to the novel was mixed. I really enjoyed the neo-noir element, but I found the primary connections between Satsuki and Daidai to stretch credulity. Given the suspicions that Daidai harbors early on in the text, I didn’t quite understand why Daidai thought it would be a good idea to go to Japan with Satsuki. I guess her ethos might have been the axiom that “you keep your friend close, but your enemies closer.” Nevertheless, the signature texture of Shigekuni’s writing always anchors the work: we have a very strong sense of place and time, giving the narrative a solid foundation upon which to deploy this mystery. Additionally, the political nuances of this novel are especially evident in Shigekuni’s complicated portrayal of Japanese American lives. Daidai, who we come to discover is half-Japanese, is often made to feel like an outsider because of her mixed race background. Issues of authenticity and identity are thus central to this work and make it a fitting companion to the many provocative mystery novels that take up similar contexts such as Don Lee’s Country of Origin and As a final note, I’d also like to mention the press itself that published this novel. Unnamed Press is one of the nifty independent presses who continue to innovate and to offer up intriguing literary offerings, so please take a look at the link below to check out other publications. I earlier already reviewed Janice Pariat’s Seahorse and Esme Wang’s The Border of Paradise; see those reviews here.




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A Review of Abeer Hoque’s Olive Witch (HarperCollins 2017).


So, I’ve been meaning to read this particular memoir for awhile, one that seems especially pertinent in this contemporary climate of nativism borne out of the “make America first” slogan. In any case, we’ll let the HarperCollins site provide us with some preliminary contexts: “In the 1970s, Nigeria is flush with oil money, building new universities, and hanging on to old colonial habits. Abeer Hoque is a Bangladeshi girl growing up in a small sunlit town, where the red clay earth, corporal punishment and running games are facts of life. At thirteen she moves with her family to suburban Pittsburgh and finds herself surrounded by clouded skies and high schoolers who speak in movie quotes and pop culture slang. Finding her place as a young woman in America proves more difficult than she can imagine. Disassociated from her parents, and laid low by academic pressure and spiralling depression, she is committed to a psychiatric ward in Philadelphia. When she moves to Bangladesh on her own, it proves to be yet another beginning for someone who is only just getting used to being an outsider - wherever she is. Arresting and beautifully written, with poems and weather conditions framing each chapter, Olive Witch is an intimate memoir about taking the long way home.” This description condenses the entire memoir into a paragraph and basically skips the bulk of the middle section, the portion involving Hoque’s “spiraling depression.” During her college years, she begins dating a classmate named Glenn, much to the consternation of her parents, who expect her to marry a “good” Muslim Bangladeshi. From this point forward, Hoque seems to internalize the kind of pressure placed upon her by her parents, who are what some might consider to be the “quintessential” tiger parents who prescribe to the model minority paradigm. Hoque’s father, in particular, is an academic, and basically expects Hoque and her two siblings, a younger sister named Simi, and the baby brother, Maher, all to follow his path by getting PhDs or equivalent higher level degrees. To a certain extent Hoque complies by going into a PhD program, only to realize that her heart isn’t in it, that she’s losing her sense of self by circumscribing her life to what her parents want. Therein lies the predicament of the “model minority” child, who realizes the extent of her parents’ sacrifices, while still needing to negotiate her own survival. After surviving a suicide attempt brought on in part by these pressures, Hoque eventually comes to the decision that she must explore her interests in writing and enrolls in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. Once there, she makes ends meet, taking part-time jobs and pursuing her dreams. Especially crucial to Hoque’s work is the fact that her parents aren’t demonized. There’s an obvious reason for their high expectations. As Hoque eventually travels to Bangladesh, on sort of ethnic reclamation quest (one that she’s well aware is only ever going to be partial), she learns more about her father’s history, the challenges of growing up under a postcolonial milieu in which nation-state development was hardly assured, and the fact that he was once a writer himself. This portion of the narrative is particularly rich and affecting, as Hoque sees herself through the eyes of native Bangladeshis: the fact of her foreign-ness is ever present despite the way that she looks and her ethnic heritage. Hoque’s reflective tonality is most assured here, as she embraces the complexities of her parents, especially her father and comes to a sort of rapprochement with him, especially finding a way to contextualize the austere upbringing that so stifled and suffocated her. Hoque also happens to be the author of a linked short story collection (The Lovers and the Leavers), which is out by a British publishing house. We’ll hope that it eventually gets a stateside debut. There’s obviously more to look forward to from this writer!



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A Review of Sonia Patel’s Rani Patel in Full Effect (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016).


I was really excited to see this Sonia Patel’s debut Rani Patel in Full Effect come out of Cinco Puntos press, which some of our readers may know is also the publisher of the absolutely amazing Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (by Benjamin Alire Saenz). Now’s a good point to drop in a link for the press itself:






The official page at this site gives us this pithy description of Patel’s work: “When Rani’s father leaves her mother for another woman, Rani shaves her head in mourning. The visibility of her act of rebellion propels her onto the stage as a hip-hop performer and into a romantic relationship with a man who is much older. The whirlwind romance, coming on the heels of her father’s abandonment, make her begin to understand how her father’s sexual abuse wounded her in deeper ways than she, or her mother, have ever been able to acknowledge. Meanwhile, she seeks solace in making lyrics and performing as well as in her boyfriend’s arms. Rani’s friends warn her about him but she fails to listen, feeling as though she finally has something and somebody that makes her feel good about herself—not recognizing that her own talent in hip-hop makes her feel secure, smart, and confident in ways her boyfriend does not. Indeed, as the relationship continues, Rani discovers her boyfriend’s drug use and falls victim to his abuse. Losing herself just as she finds herself, Rani discovers her need to speak out against those who would silence her—no matter the personal danger it leads her into.” This description does a decent job of explaining the intersubjective dynamics going on in the work, but we should add some important key details without ruining all of the plot. First, Rani’s in high school, not quite an adult, and her father rents out a sort of goods store that the family has been running on Molokai. Since I recently vacationed in Hawaii, I’ve been interested in the many islands I did not get to go to, including the one depicted in the novel: the aforementioned Molokai. There is certainly a regionalist approach to this debut novel, as Patel wants us to understand the small town life on an island has its definite drawbacks. Everyone in the local community seems well aware of what’s going on with Rani’s family, but Rani begins to find an outlet through her rapping. The other important detail relates to a problematic relationship that Rani explores with a much older man by the name of Mark (who I believe is in his thirties if my spotty memory is correct). Patel is already coding a definite red flag at the beginning of this relationship by introducing this intergenerational romance, and we’re not surprised to see it show fairly immediate signs of disintegration and rupture. Sometimes, the novel can verge on the formulaic, at least with respect to the young adult genre, especially with the female empowerment-through-artistry narrative that can be found in a number of other works, but Patel’s ace in the hole is her intriguing exploration of South Asian American contexts from the framework of Hawaiian local cultures. She offers us an interesting paradigm to consider the immigrant narrative from the perspective of newly minted islanders, who must find a sense of belonging in an ethnically diverse, but nevertheless fractured community.



For book buying options and further information on the novel, go here:





[personal profile] stephenhongsohn
Dear AALF Readers,

We’ve moved to a new site! Fortunately, all entries have been imported, so we’ve basically retained all content, which is still open access. As a kind of rebirth, we’re hoping to draw in some new regular contributors, so if you’re interested remotely or even just read, please consider creating a dreamwidth account to join us!

Feel free to contact us with any questions you might have!
Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com) & Stephen Hong Sohn (ssohnucr@gmail.com).
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Monica Youn's third collection of poetry, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016), is long-listed for the National Book Award.


As Youn explains in a note at the end of the volume, the term blackacre is used in the legal realm to refer to a piece of land. She likens the use of the term to the generic name John Doe, used to refer to a person with an unknown identity. But perhaps most importantly, she describes the term as one that functions like a secret code for people who gone to law school.

The collection is composed of a few sequences of poems, starting with poems centering on the scene of execution and most powerfully, in the sequence of poems around blackacre, whiteacre, greenacre, etc. In these -acre poems, Youn takes up an extended engagement with the English poet John Milton and his grappling with his blindness, exploring her own experience of infertility and all the messy meanings attending bodies.

Here are some interesting links about the book:

(See also an earlier post of Youn's Barter.)
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Sequoia Nagamatsu's Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) is a fascinating debut short story collection featuring Japanese folklore in a modern context.

where we go when all we were is gone cover

Monsters, demons, and otherworldly creatures live alongside humans in modern-day Japan, sometimes as oddities in plain sight and other times hidden from most people's views. Nagamatsu's stories also take on interesting forms, such as the opening story, "The Return to Monsterland," which alternates between letters a mother wrote to her daughter, the mother's field notes of different monsters as a scientist who studied Godzilla and other nuclear-weapons-created monsters, and the narrative perspective of the father who raises the daughter alone after the mother's death at the hands of Godzilla.

The stories sometimes take on the narrative distance of scientific (or anthropological) observation, and at other times they take a more intimate perspective of the creatures themselves. One story, "The Inn of the Dead's Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost," also takes the second-person point of view, with the narrator as a ghost addressing you as a newly-made ghost. The story, like "The Return to Monsterland," also serves as a kind of catalog of creatures in describing different types of ghosts and offering case studies of specific ghosts of each type. There are also pages that provide the answers for Q&A (but not the questions, inviting the reader to speculate on the questions the new ghosts might be asking).

As fantastical as the stories are, they ultimately examine how human individuals and families live with (and without) each other. The creatures function in a few ways in the stories but mostly serve to reveal some of the pathos of human existence. For example, in "Girl Zero," a grieving father seeks out a shape shifting creature to embody the form of his deceased daughter, and then the father and mother seek to integrate this daughter-not-daughter back into their lives, even as they struggle with the question of who this new daughter really is. In "HEADWATER LLC," a woman who had befriended a kappa as a teenager comes to regret how she sold out the kappa to become slaves in a water bottling company run by the girls she had wanted to be friends with.

The stories all are prefaced by a short, one-page document that previews the story in a particular form. The preview for "The Return to Monsterland," for example, takes the form of a transcript of what seems to be a news report of Godzilla's attack on a train in Tokyo. The preview for "Placentophagy" takes the form of a Bloody Mary recipe using placenta strips. The preview for "Rokurokubi," a story about a human/demon who can stretch his neck incredible distances, is an advertisement for a support group for "humans w/demonic afflictions."
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Deceit and Other Possibilities (Willow Books, 2016) is Vanessa Hua's debut collection of short stories, and the ten stories cover a range of characters with different experiences in and through the transnational links of Asian America.

cover of deceit and other possibilities

It's fitting that I finally sat down to write this review yesterday on an airplane bound for San Francisco because this collection felt very Californian to me in its selection of multiethnic characters and particularly the interplay of the individuals in their communities. The ethnoscape, to borrow Arjun Appadurai's term, is distinctively West Coast, especially for immigrant and middle class/professional Asian Americans and the second generation. The stories offer a sense of the perspectives, feelings, and experiences of Californians in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

The opening story, "Line, Please," drops us into a first-person narrative featuring Kingsway Lee, a Hong Kong pop star who is heading back to California where he grew up, on the tail of a sex photo scandal in which cell phone pictures of his many affairs with starlets and the leisure rich threaten his image and destroy his relationship with his girlfriend Viann. Kingsway is an unrepentant rake, fond of himself and his celebrity status in a way that belies his inability to grasp what his actions truly mean. The first line of the story, "Perhaps you've heard of me?" is both a brag and a flirtation, making you the reader complicit in his story that masquerades as a lament of his misfortune.

While staying with his parents, lying low as the sex scandal blows over, he sees himself still as irresistible to women such as Jenny Lin, someone he grew up with and runs into on his visit, and even a woman who works at a foot massage clinic he visits. The story as a whole sketches out the world of Hong Kong celebrity scandal, pulling out a strand that seems to me specific to the age of greater movement across the Pacific, where American-born Chinese sometimes make their way to Hong Kong to find a celebrity life unavailable to them in the United States. (Of note, too, is the suggestion that Kingsway's family is not from Hong Kong but instead Taiwan, highlighting some of the complicated crossings of geography, region, and dialect that undermine any singular understanding of Chinese identity.)

The second story, "Loaves and Fishes," takes a tangential storyline to the first. Pastor Alex Chan is on a flight to Hong Kong from San Francisco where he recognizes Kingsway, ostensibly on his return after the events of the first story. Pastor Alex is an evangelical Christian of the megachurch variety, and though he has faced some difficulties recently in his work, he sees this chance encounter with a fallen Kingsway as his opportunity to redeem himself and bring glory to God and his church if he can bring Kingsway into his fold. To accomplish this goal, he ends of sabotaging the flight in a show of quite twisted logic and a lack of concern for the consequences of his actions.

Likewise, the final story in the collection, "The Deal," features another evangelical, Pastor David Noh, who leads a group on a mission to Africa to spread the gospel and save the heathen people of a remote village. The trip signals a moment of desperation for this Korean American pastor as he struggles to keep his ministry, Bountiful Abundance, afloat: "Bountiful Abundance had taken root among Korean American lawyers, software engineers, college students and activists, the children of immigrants: strivers, all. The church had a different style of worship, not so serious, not so Korean." The story sketches out the moral and religious world of Pastor David, a former high school wrestling coach and teacher, whose salvation and ultimate calling to do the work of God has led him to a mission that seems beset with failings at every turn. Although I am not familiar with the world of Asian American evangelical Christianity, I know that it is a vibrant community that explores the intersections of faith, race, and often immigrant generations quite pointedly. These two stories engage with the worldview of Asian American evangelicism, albeit from a perspective that questions more than affirms in mere platitudes.

Of the stories collected in this book, the one that stands out the most is "What We Have Is What We Need" because it focuses on Mexican immigrants. This story, however, centers on similar tensions of family cohesion and a sense of impotent agency that pervade the other stories and dilemmas experienced by those other characters. The first-perosn narrator Lalo is a boy living with his parents in San Francisco while his other siblings remain in Mexico with their abuelita. On the one hand, there is the situation of the divided family across the border. And on the other hand, even within the ostensibly whole nuclear family unit subset in San Francisco (father, mother, and son), there is developing tension between the more working class masculinity of the father who is a locksmith and the aspirational, professionalizing mother who takes English language classes at a Latino social service agency and then joins the staff as a community liaison. Lalo's story reveals some of the ruptures that appear in the pursuit of the American Dream.

The other stories provide interesting glimpses into the experiences of characters with various backgrounds. In "For What They Shared," a Chinese immigrant and an American born Chinese woman face each other at a distance across a divide manifested in the difference between the immigrant woman's family camping trip with her husband and in-laws and the Chinese American's outing with rowdy white American friends. In "The Responsbility of Deceit," a closeted gay Chinese American man vacations at a small bed and breakfast in Napa Valley with his boyfriend and runs into his parents' good friends. In "Accepted," Elaine Park is denied admission to Stanford but cannot face telling her parents and so embarks on a large-scale deception in which she crashes in the dorm room of a couple of other first-year students, audits classes, and even joins ROTC as if she were enrolled. This story draws out to absurd lengths the effects of the intense pressure faced by many Asian American youth to gain admission to elite colleges. In "The Shot," a mixed-race man named Sam faces relationship difficulties that become entangled in a confrontation he has with other men on a public golf course. In "The Older the Ginger," a Chinese American man in old age makes a long overdue visit to his mother in his home village in China, only to encounter deceit and avarice at the hands of the villagers who all desire his connections to America. And in "Harte Lake," a widowed Japanese American woman goes solo camping as penance and to memorialize her hsuband's death, with unforseen difficulties and resulting ruminations on what her marriage has meant.

Overall, the stories weave a powerful web of insight into the lives of these Californians, and I think the collection would be an interesting one to read or teach alongside other California-based works. The stories do a wonderful job of teasing out the personal dilemmas faced by the characters while referencing and situating these individuals in the social context of Asian America.

Note: I went to the same high school as Vanessa Hua!
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 8, 2016

In this post, reviews of Booki Vivat’s Frazzled (HarperCollins, 2016); MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese (2dCloud, 2016); Taran Matharu’s Inquisition (Feiwel & Friends, 2016); Tosca Lee’s The Progeny (Howard Books, 2016); S.B. Divya’s Runtime (Tor.Com, 2016); Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace (Harper, 2016); Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, 2016); Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp 2016).

A Review of Booki Vivat’s Frazzled (HarperCollins, 2016).

It’s so wonderful to be reviewing Booki Vivat’s debut novel Frazzled, as it provides Asian American literature with another critical offering in the middle elementary and middle grade areas. I’ve noticed that there aren’t too many books pitched for this age group by Asian American writers, so Vivat’s work is certainly most welcome. Intriguingly, Vivat’s debut is more apt to be described as an illustrated novel, something that verges closely to a graphic narrative. Vivat’s talents are on full display in her ability to weave both manga-inspired images with a plot that most kids of the target age group fully understand. At this point, we’ll let Publisher’s Weekly via B&N provide us with some basic contexts: “Abbie Wu, a beleaguered middle child who is daunted to enter middle school, knows that ‘nothing good ever happens in the Middles,’ as evidenced by the Middle Ages and the middle seat of the car. Yet her best friends are jumping right into middle school life and even having fun in their various electives, leaving Abbie feeling like a ‘sad reject pastry’ in desperate need of a ‘thing’ of her own. As the injustices of the middle school cafeteria mount, Abbie discovers a talent for social—or at least lunchroom—leadership. Could community organizing be her ‘thing’? Vivat’s funny, quick-moving debut skips along even faster thanks to the endearing doodles that appear throughout, punctuating Abbie’s travails with chibi-esque emotional outbursts featuring flailing limbs, speed lines, and exaggerated typography. Though this is, at heart, a straightforward story of social adjustment, Abbie and her supporting cast show real depth as they learn that passions can change, ‘not everything has to work out,’ and no matter how confident some people may seem, ‘the truth is, no one really knows for sure.’” The key element to this review is the fact that passions that “can change,” because Abbie initially comes off as something of a negative nancy: she’s a little bit neurotic, constantly casting aspersions on her middle school experience, and finding ways to feel underwhelming. At some point, this kind of perspective can try our patience, but Vivat is waiting for the game-changing moment that allows us to see Abbie and her life from a different viewpoint entirely. The reveal here is an unexpected, comic moment that seems exactly right for that period of our youth, where popularity and notoriety occurs hand-in-hand in the strangest, most circuitous ways. Naturally, we know that such a new affirmation of identity can only be transitory, but the inner change is what really matters, and Abbie’s shift thus comes off as unforced and progressive the same time. A spirited, winning debut.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese (2dCloud, 2016).

So, I’ve been really pleased to see how quickly MariNaomi has been producing graphic narratives. Turning Japanese is her third effort, and probably my favorite for the fact that it can easily be taught in a graphic narrative course that’s more focused on racial and ethnic elements. Unfortunately or fortunately (?), this title is same as David Mura’s problematic, yet rich memoir Turning Japanese. I guess both could be taught in the same course, though. To be sure, MariNaomi has explored her mixed race and ethnic background in previous works, but this particular narrative places such issues firmly at the center. The first half of the book involves MariNaomi in her young twenty-something years, as she engages in a long term relationship with a man named Giuseppe, who is something of a free spirit. They move from San Francisco to San Jose at a time when the city still had larger sections that had been less developed. It is there that MariNaomi gains employment at a Japanese hostess bar, which allows her to explore her interest in her Japanese ancestry. Though she is unable to find much time to practice her fledgling linguistic skills, she does gain a valuable insight into the inner workings of this kind of establishment. The author is thus able to use the graphic narrative form to great use as a kind of ethnographic exploration of the hostess bar culture, much of which involves catering to inebriated customers who seek intimate connections with individuals who can only offer perhaps a fraction of their authentic selves. The second half of the book shifts Mari and her partner to Japan, where she gets to explore her ethnic roots. She also gains employment at a hostess bar, but obviously the situation is quite different there. Her lack of Japanese fluency is certainly a cause for complications, but she makes a quick friend in another mixed race employee named Koiko. Outside of work, she and her partner are able to explore different parts of the city and find much to love: the pet stores, the toy shops, and the food. But by the conclusion of their time there, Mari and Giuseppe begin to discover that they have different priorities, and they begin to grow apart. I absolutely adored this particular graphic narrative because it so squarely looks at the challenging nature of acculturation, especially from the standpoint of a mixed ethnoracial protagonist. MariNaomi has always excelled in the navel gazing necessary in the graphic narrative form: she’s never looking to portray herself or anyone else all that heroically. It is in the mess, the flaw, and the inconsistencies that MariNaomi’s sketchy comic stylings hit their greatest marks. At the same time, I do hope we’ll get a chance to see other stylistic developments. I’d love to see MariNaomi tackle the use of color or at least more grayscale shading in the future. A definite summer must read and absolute required reading for graphic narrative fans.

Buy the Book here (and also check out a very cool press):


A Review of Taran Matharu’s Inquisition (Feiwel & Friends, 2016).

This young adult fiction was one of the publications I was saving for the right time to read. Last year, when I read the first in the Summoner series, I had that common reaction that comes when reading trilogies: “ugh, when is the next one coming out?” Well, the next one finally came out, and it was well worth the wait. Though the first half of the novel is mired in a lot of set-up, there is quite a bit of action-packed adventure and intrigue to make up for this momentum loss in the concluding arc. The set-up from the first half involves the fact that our hero, Fletcher, finds himself in prison due to his alleged assault of a noble named Didric. This event occurred in the first book, so I suppose I should say that there will be spoilers in this post (yikes). Of course, what actually happened was an accident, but Didric nevertheless uses his powers as a noble to get Fletcher jailed and to make him stand trial on bogus charges. Though he is eventually cleared of these charges, higher allegations emerge when another figure accuses him of treason. Eventually, these charges are also dropped, but only because it becomes evident that Fletcher’s ancestry is more complicated that it seems: he, too, is actually a noble. This revelation reminds us of the common conceit in my young adult fictions in which the “ordinary” hero really possesses extraordinary origins. In any case, after this point, Fletcher must work with many characters from the first book to help repair the rift between elves, dwarves, and humans. The plan is to use a difficult quest into enemy orc territory to save a human that has been held hostage there for many years. This undertaking will be posited as a kind of public relations venture spotlighting how elves, dwarves, and humans can work together. But this quest already begins with many complications: it seems as though there might be a traitor in their midst, and there is the question of strange creatures that have evolved. These creatures are none other than goblins, a strange hybrid mixture between orcs and gremlins, which are being spawned by the thousands. So, the second aspect of this quest involves the destruction of these new hordes, which are being used in raids against human populations that live in the borderlands. As with the previous book, perhaps the best part of this novel is the pokemon aspect: each major character on this quest into orc territory is a summoner, who has the power to control one or more demons. The more rare the demon, the higher level that demon might be; the variations are many. Fortunately, our hero gets a new demon in this novel: it’s called a gryphowl (named Athena), so Fletcher has to mediate the consciousness of Athena alongside Ignatius, his original Salamander demon. The snotty nobles from book one (like Tarquin and Isadora) return, while Fletcher’s dwarven friend Othello and elven friend Sylva all provide the requisite alliances, while some new characters surface like Cress, a first year summoner of Dwarven descent. The final forty pages or so leave us with our heroes in a terrible situation, but Matharu has us in our adept storytelling hands: we’ve moving into new spatial area in the last moments that readers have been wondering about, which is none other than the ether, the space from which the demons come. The ether hasn’t been explored very much, so we’ll have to wait another year (or so) to find out what new surprises that Matharu has in store for us. But, before I end my review, I wanted to say that I really appreciate Matharu’s willingness to use words like race in his work to reflect the fact that fantasy creatures are not simply analogies or metaphors for different kinds of social identities. For Matharu, the oppressions faced by dwarves is simply another consideration of how race can develop, even if it is in the terrain of speculative fiction. Such an approach also makes this book more teachable for many of us who happen to be Asian Americanists and want to incorporate young adult fictions into our courses.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Tosca Lee’s The Progeny (Howard Books, 2016).

So, this novel was one I knew would be a sort of guilty pleasure. I’ve had the chance to read and to review some of Tosca Lee’s other works, and she definitely expands her repertoire here with a fictional re-envisionment of the oft-considered Elizabeth Bathory, who is infamously known as the Countess who bathed in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youth. She is allegedly one of the most prolific serial killers in world history. In any case, Lee uses a common conceit of her previous works in that she’s always looking to revise traditional understandings or biases of a given figure. For instance, in Iscariot, she cleverly positioned the oft-maligned traitor to Jesus as a figure who betrayed for a very specific and justifiable reason. In a similar way, she’s telling us that we may not have the right version of events when it comes to Elizabeth Bathory. In this case, this story revolves around premise that Bathory’s descendants, the titular progeny, are being hunted and killed off. A group of individuals called Hunters are tasked with finding the progeny and killing them precisely because they are from a bloodline considered impure, deviant, and evil. Our protagonist and heroine begins the novel in an amnesiac state. She has no idea who she is, only that she erased her own memory for a good reason. She eventually discovers that she is one of the Progeny. Bathory’s descendants apparently all have some supernatural powers of persuasion, skills that are marked only through the female line, though male heirs carry genes that can be passed on to future female descendants. Because our heroine, who eventually discovers that her actual name is Audra Ellison, does not remember has past life, she’s in the dark as much as we are. Every person she encounters could be friend or foe, but eventually we discover that her most obvious ally, Luka, was once a Hunter, a figure who was tasked to kill her. In that classic Romeo & Juliet way, we have our star-crossed lovers, who must find the solution to their problem. You see: Hunters have about five years to kill their mark, at which point they are replaced by another hunter, with the assumption that the replacement will take out the previous hunter who failed. By the time the novel opens, Audra and Luka have known each other for three years, so their time is limited. Hunters are also expected to take the memories of their marks, so what Audra does is fake her death so that Luka might be freed from his burden to kill her, presumably so that they might eventually find a way to be together. But we discover that Audra wipes her memory for a different reason entirely; due to her memory loss, the motive is obviously unknown. Ultimately, she and we DO know that she used to have some important information that might lead to the destruction of the entire social structure of the progreny and the hunters, but what such information actually is remains unclear. The rest of the novel is a world-traipsing quest to figure out what it is that Audra knew, how she might be connected to other progeny, and whether or not Luka and Audra will find a way to establish their romance beyond the reach of the current climate in which she is expected to be killed off either by him or someone else. The strength of Lee’s novel is clearly in the close alignment between the reader and the narrative perspective: because we know as little as Audra does, we’re compelled to become one with her search. We want to find out what she used to know and in the process, move beyond the central mysteries driving the plot. This ingenious set-up makes it so that you are willing to overlook other elements that might present “suspension of disbelief” road blocks. For instance, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little bit when I discovered that all female progeny can pretty much make anyone else do what they want through their powers of allure. And then, the romance plot can seem a little bit too telegraphed and a little bit too perfect: the man, who was once an enemy, but who is really a bold, stoic, strong, and handsome partner. Yet, I was willing to overlook my such critiques because I wanted to find out what Audra knew and why she felt compelled to erase her memory. The novel also ends on an incredible cliffhanger that both made me want to hurl the book across the room (in part, because I expected that plot development to appear at some point but perhaps not so early), but also because I didn’t want to wait until the next publication to figure out what is going to happen next. Tosca Lee = winner; reader = in perilous anxiety. Game, set, and match to The Progeny. The sequel, Firstborn, is due out February 28, 2017.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of S.B. Divya’s Runtime (Tor.Com, 2016).

So, I think S.B. Divya’s Runtime is part of an emerging hybrid publishing model in which writers’ works are being released primarily online, but with the possibility of the purchase of print editions. The B&N description is exciting enough to whet the appetite of any hard sci-fi reader: “The Minerva Sierra Challenge is a grueling spectacle, the cyborg's Tour de France. Rich thrill-seekers with corporate sponsorships, extensive support teams, and top-of-the-line exoskeletal and internal augmentations pit themselves against the elements in a day-long race across the Sierra Nevada. Marmeg Guinto doesn’t have funding, and she doesn’t have support. She cobbled her gear together from parts she found in rich people’s garbage and spent the money her mother wanted her to use for nursing school to enter the race. But the Minerva Challenge is the only chance she has at a better life for herself and her younger brothers, and she’s ready to risk it all.” This novel is intriguing for how much it manages to pack in concerning its science fictional world (and considering its very short length), which include individuals who genderbend (called moots) and others who forsake cyborg technologies (nats, which is shorthand for naturals). There’s an obvious class differentiation between those who hail from Marmeg’s background, who are unlicensed (a term that seems to be an analogue to undocumented immigrants) and those coming from corporate-sponsored sectors, who are the primary challengers in the race. Marmeg might go the traditional educational route to rise above her class station, but winning the Minerva Sierra Challenge would enable her to explore her life as an implant-enriched individual, while allowing her to jump many class levels at once. During the actual race, Marmeg must make a difficult choice whether or not to accept the help of an “off the grid” organization comprised of individuals known as Mountain Mikes that would allow her to win indisputably. Later, her victory is put into question when she must make another complicated decision: should she save another racer, one who sabotaged her equipment? To help this individual, she would have to reveal certain technological practices that would disqualify her from the challenge. Plotting aside, one of the most striking choices Divya makes is the implicit use of ethnicity. It would seem that Marmeg and her family may be of Filipino descent, a fact made evident in certain ethnic markers such as cuisine. At other points, characters attain a possible level of ethnic marking through surnames (something I’ve seen occur in works such as Wesley Chu’s Time series). Because Divya’s narrative is so short, the resolution comes very quickly and wraps up in such a way as to feel a bit rushed. There’s so much going on in this particular world that even as Marmeg’s future becomes just a little bit more secure, we’re wondering about other unlicensed individuals who face turbulent career and life trajectories. But, I suppose the succinct story is cause to encourage Divya to return to this particular fictional world in a sequel.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace (Harper, 2016).

One of the books I chose to bring with me on a recent vacation was Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace, which is her third novel (after The Good Muslim and The Golden Age). For some reason, I thought this novel would last me the length of the flight to the Big Island, but I was entirely wrong. At about three hours in, I finished. But I digress: Anam’s book might be overwrought. After all, it’s told from the perspective of a narrator who is categorically heartbroken. Our protagonist and first person storyteller is Zubaida, who at the novel’s inception, is a PhD pursuing her doctorate in marine paleontology at Harvard. She’s adopted. She’s certainly a smarty pants. We soon find out that she’s going to be traveling to a rather rough and tumble area of the world on an excavation. Chosen out of a competitive graduate cohort, Zubaida knows this opportunity is huge, but before she leaves she attends a music concert by herself. She happens to sit next to a man, who will be having his own intensely personal connection to the performance before them. But, they will have a brief moment of intimacy: his hand holding hers. Then, with some amount of boldness, Zubaida will ask him out to coffee, but things are complicated. Back home, where Zubaida is from in Bangladesh, she already has a boyfriend named Rashid. She makes that clear to this man, Elijah, but they nevertheless engage in a number friendly forays in the days before she leaves. They realize their time together must be platonic and that it is limited, but they throw themselves headlong into this semi-problematic friendship with a kind of abandon that obviously betrays their rather stoic and Victorian treatments of each other. But, the narrator leaves us well aware of all of the passion simmering beneath. This tale is going to be a tale of broken hearts, and we’re all in for a very rough ride. In the second act, Zubaida is on the dig, but things go terribly wrong; their local guide and go-between is basically kidnapped and tortured (though they will not even find out he is alive until much time has passed), and their dig must be abandoned in haste. Zubaida returns to live with her parents in Bangladesh, attempts to recover from some of the stress of the experience and impulsively decides to marry Rashid. Things seem to be going well enough until she gets pregnant and has a miscarriage. During the recovery phase, she decides to live alone on the coast, meeting up with former acquaintances and helping a foreigner (Gabriela) out with a documentary film. Gabriela needs her own local go-between and Zubaida functions in this kind of semi-anthropological capacity, attempting to broker trust among the workers who are part of a ship dismantling crew. It is clear that the workers have a very difficult life, but they must rehearse a kind of party line that makes it difficult for Gabriela to garner any original and authentic material for her film. It is during this time that Zubaida makes some new friends, including a striking connection to a child laborer named Mo. Zubaida also eventually decides to invite Elijah out to the coast, even though he tiptoes around this possibility. Eventually he relents, even though he knows she’s married. He realizes that this moment is important, perhaps a turning point for Zubaida, and he risks the trip. They become intimate, and this period is obviously one of considerable bliss for Zubaida, except of course the guilt that bubbles up when she remembers the fact that she’s—uh oh—married. Complicating matters even further is an interesting narrative interruption: someone who is connected to Zubaida provides gives his account his star-crossed relationship to a woman named Megna. Much of that narrative involves his desire to reconnect with Megna, though he originally spurned her and refused to marry her even when he discovers that she is pregnant. Once he realizes his mistake, he has to track her down, but the leads are often false. One particularly harrowing detour leads to imprisonment and torture. He eventually finds out that Megna took a job in a brothel, where it is likely she later died from some sort of illness. It is not clear what happened to her daughter, but you can probably guess that Megna has some sort of connection to Zubaida. The novel’s conclusion is pretty harrowing. What I appreciated most was that there was no uplift narrative to be had, but there is also a sense of unrelenting melancholy in these pages that makes this novel, though utterly and irresistibly quixotic, still devastatingly depressing. The final pages also leave us with a kind of cliffhanger, brutal but ever so appropriate in its luminescent lack of romantic closure. Elijah, we hope you got the message.

Buy the Book Here (I am seriously insulted that at the time of posting this link, the book only has THREE out of FIVE stars):


A Review of Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, 2016).

So, Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, 2016) had probably one of the worst titles I’ve seen for books I’m reviewing this year. Yes, the novel (Tanabe’s third after The List and The Price of Inheritance, but honestly the first of hers I’ve read) is set in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, a period of time known for its extravagance, but beyond that, what’s probably far more germane is the passing narrative that is at this novel’s core. I’m sort of glad I didn’t read any book reviews or descriptions prior because I was able to make this discovery on my own, which actually came as a pleasant surprise. At first, I thought this work was going to be about upper class women attempting to carve out independent lives in an era in which women could not yet even vote, but Tanabe adds another wrinkle into this kind of theme with the main character, Anita Hemmings, who we quickly discover is not who she says she is to her fellow classmates. We’ll let B&N provide us with a description here: “Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country’s most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise ‘Lottie’ Taylor, the scion of one of New York’s most prominent families. Though Anita has kept herself at a distance from her classmates, Lottie’s sphere of influence is inescapable, her energy irresistible, and the two become fast friends. Pulled into her elite world, Anita learns what it’s like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman—the person everyone believes her to be—and even finds herself in a heady romance with a moneyed Harvard student. It’s only when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s brother, Frederick, whose skin is almost as light as his sister’s, that the situation becomes particularly perilous. And as Anita’s college graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret. Set against the vibrant backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era when old money traditions collided with modern ideas, Tanabe has written an unputdownable and emotionally compelling story of hope, sacrifice, and betrayal—and a gripping account of how one woman dared to risk everything for the chance at a better life.” There’s something of a throwback quality to this novel. After all, we can read Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars or Nella Larsen’s Passing to get at the critical issue of passing in some classic, brilliant narratives connected to the so-called tragic mixed race subject. Tanabe’s version, though, is certainly the kind that makes us scratch our heads about racial divides in the past. For starters, the constructedness of race is obviously on full display when someone passes in the first place, so the whole state of affairs and the struggles that Anita faces seem absolutely absurd looking back on it from the contemporary moment. Nevertheless, part of Tanabe’s point is cast us into another historical moment to reveal the dangers inherent in racial passing. There were times when this narrative certainly ran long, but readerly motivation remains apparent because we want Anita to find a way to endure despite how her live seems to unravel once her secret becomes more public. This novel also makes you wonder about questions of authorial choice and genre. Toward the novel’s conclusion, we get quite a meaty author’s note about the fact that this novel is based upon an actual Vassar graduate. Tanabe obviously used the fictional form to fill in details about the circumstances, but one wonders whether or not this type of story might be better served as a biographical account, albeit with major holes, or even the subject of some sort of historical study. In any case, it’s interesting to read a passing narrative about the 19th century published in the 21st, and I suppose this novel could make a pairing with those earlier works as well. Finally, this novel is the kind that made me exceedingly interested in the topic of my first book (shameless plug right here) because Asian American writers (in this case, Tanabe is part Japanese) are compelled to write narratives beyond Asian American characters (and associated contexts). To be sure, Tanabe has some fun with this issue; there’s a part-Japanese character that has a key role as a minor character and even Lottie is quite enamored of Japanese culture (at a time when Orientalism was perhaps more en vogue and acceptable than later in the early 20th century during the time of exclusion), but Tanabe’s work reminds us that we must define the field as expansively as we can to see how issues of racial difference and marginality, the kinds of issues we teach out and write about, are not necessarily restricted to works in which Asian American characters, themes, or perspectives predominate. While I wouldn’t necessarily teach an entire course filled with these more “oddball” choices, my point is that our teaching and scholarly attentions become limited if we do not look beyond identitarian paradigms to create boundaries around these sorts of issues.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp 2016).

Well, I have to say I absolutely adore Arsenal Pulp as an indie press, and a publication like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home is one reason why. This book, which seems to be a hybrid form of creative nonfiction melding memoir and poetry together, is pretty damn ferocious. The work primarily details the author’s struggles as a mixed race, queer identity, working class woman who migrates to Canada right after college in search of a supportive community. Piepzna-Samarasinha grows up in a family in which her mother and father have a strained relationship. Her father is Sri Lankan, while her mother is Caucasian. There is never enough money, but the author is always able to have enough support to borrow books and to study. For awhile, education provides the author a means of fulfillment and stable identity. But, her mixed race background and her foreign looks, often mark her at the many educational institutions she attends. She must contend with bullies and rich elites, all the while trying to figure out what it is that is driving her. She is able to go to college, but the refuge she seeks isn’t exactly found there. During these turbulent years, she’s also in a complicated relationship with a fellow activist, radical, and soul-searcher named Rafael. Her time in Canada is rough, to put it mildly. She’s struggling to make ends meet, while continuing her quest to find a place that might more fully embrace her. Toronto during this period is gritty, but also filled with diverse communities that clamor for social justice. Much of this memoir is also spent dealing with the traumatic aftermath of incestuous abuse. Much of this information is left fairly elliptical in the narrative, but over the course of the work, it becomes clear that the author’s mother had been the perpetrator. What makes this particular creative nonfictional publication so textured is the way the author works through this moment. Rather than demonize her mother, the author attempts to provide a deep excavation of her personal history, relating her rise out of challenging material circumstances and her deep need to grant her own daughter a better life than the one she had had. While the author’s father does not appear in as significant a role in the work, it is apparent that the author and her father are able to connect our their mutually queer backgrounds. At one point, the author discovers that there was a period in her father’s life in which he was dabbling in same-sex liaisons. What is perhaps most striking about this memoir is the clipped language, the poetic verve, and its confrontational tone. As the author makes clear at numerous points, she is a survivor, but she is also an artist and a fighter. By the creative nonfiction’s conclusion, we know that we cannot read this work as uplift, but we can say that the author has come to a place of dynamic equilibrium with respect to her many identities, her fractured past, and a future that seems, though unmapped and potentially troubling, filled with more possibility and promise than ever before. This creative nonfiction is certainly one I can see teaching, especially given its anachronic structure and poetic style.

Buy the Book Here:


[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
In Love Imagined: A Mixed Race Memoir (Modern History Press, 2014) Sherry Quan Lee writes about her experiences growing up in South Minneapolis with a mother from a black family who passed as white and a Chinese father. Lee elaborates on her subsequent adolescence and adulthood as she grappled with her mixed and covered racial identity. Lee had very little connection to her father after her parents divorced when she was still young, and as with other Chinese immigrants from earlier in the twentieth century, he was disconnected from his own family, so Lee never really grew up around other Chinese people.

love imagined book cover

I remember coming across Lee's name a few years ago when I looked around for Minnesota-based Asian American writers, but I never had a chance to read her earlier publications. Her name came up again for me in the context of a new collection of essays, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin. In Love Imagined, Lee offers numerous anecdotes from her childhood when people said outrightly racist things about black people, not realizing that she was black; at the same time, in later chapters, she also notes that many of her childhood friends, later in adulthood, mentioned that they always knew she was black and Chinese, even if they never acknowledged it publicly. Lee's writing captures perfectly the way race tends to operate in Minnesota--either as outright racism (especially in the mid-twentieth century) or as a concerted attempt to not name it.

One of the features of this memoir that was most interesting to me was Lee's inclusion of photocopies of diary pages and letters from her family. Seeing the handwriting directly offers a bit of the personality of the people she's writing about. For example, she provides excerpts of a diary her father kept and gave to her before he died, and the diary offers some glimpses into his life before she was born. Lee also provides lengthy transcriptions of some of this writing to illustrate how her family wrote (or did not write) about race and their own family history. This first-hand account of individuals and families who passed as white is important, and I imagine historians and literary critics alike will find the book useful for exploring race in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially how passing created disconnected families and silences.

The overarching idea that structures Lee's memoir is that of shame. For her, although she understands her mother's passing as white as her need to protect her children and give them more opportunities than they would otherwise have had, Lee herself has carried with her a sense of shame about being black because of the secrecy of her family. She also writes a lot about her romances, including four marriages that ended in divorce. And she writes about sexual encounters--some that she welcomed and others that were sexual harassment and rape.

Overall, Lee's memoir offers an unflinching account of a woman's life in Minnesota as a mixed race person. She struggled and continues to struggle to make meaning of her family and life, understanding that writing is one way that she can make sense and also share her perspective so that others might find a kindred spirit or learn about a different life.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
I was excited to get the second volume of Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, titled Paths & Portals (First Second, 2016). This graphic novel series follows a young girl, Hopper, as she learns about computer programming with her friends Eni and Josh. They are secret coders because they learn not in a class but from the janitor of their private school, who turns out to have a secret past as a teacher.

paths and portals cover

The story has Yang's characteristic qualities of humor, insightful observations of social dynamics in school and family, and careful attention to both the incidental and critical aspects of race amongst friends and acquaintances. As Hopper and her friends learn about programming by writing LOGO programs for robot turtles that Mr. Bee, the janitor, has made, she also deals with her mother, who is the Mandarin Chinese teacher at her school; Principal Dean, who is up to something; and the bullying male rugby players at the school, who are the principal's henchmen.

I love the adventure of this series, and as Yang has written about, there is also an explicit attention to teaching readers about computer programming in a fun way. As Hopper, Eni, and Josh are confronted with puzzles such as how to program one of the turtle robots to walk along a pattern on the floor, they think through their process and then explain their solution. The narrative also pauses to ask readers to think about how they would solve the programming puzzles before proceeding with a solution.

See [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn's review of the first volume in an earlier post here at asianamlitfans.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Lily Hoang's A Bestiary (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016) is a collection of evocative essays that reminds me a bit of Jane Jeong Trenka's The Language of Blood in its brief passages, revisioning of fairy tales, thoughtful engagement with word definitions/etymologies, exploration of the metaphorical qualities of the natural world (rats, for instance, in Hoang's book), and startlingly frank explorations of intimate and familial relations. It's also a memoir that lays the author bare, and you flinch at the emotional rawness of the pages as much as you are drawn in by the power of the language.

a bestiary cover

I've come to realize that I love writing that alludes to other literature/myth/history and that puts words together in ways that are suggestive rather than concretely expository. Meanings arise from the novel use of words (making a noun into a verb, for instance) or interesting connections created in pairing unlikely words. Hoang's book is full of such writing. Also, while some of the passages take on a more straightforward narrative form (like a fairy tale or some paragraphs of a memoir), Hoang frequently opts for short, aphoristic sentences that stand alone in sections broken up by a row of five small circles. The sentences do not form a linear train of thought but rather interweave a few ideas/narratives at a time. For example in the first essay, "on the RAT RACE," one page reads (with some lengthier passage excised in the quotation):
Games are not necessarily about victory. The process of learning requires failure.


Rats, in their little boxed mazes.
My sister, in her military boxed garage. Hidden away.


A king who does not rule.


My brother is paid to be a pacer, but he'd do it for free. ...
The sentences flit between scenes involving video games the author downloads for her mother; other activities shared with her mother; ruminations on rats, mazes, and the "rat race" as a metaphor for life's struggles; variations on kings, including a rat king, which I did not know is not a kingly rat but rather a knot of rats tied together by their tails and various detritus; and some thoughts on her brother as a marathon runner (riffing on the idea of a rat race).

If there is one thing that seems to undergird or haunt all of the essays, it is the fact of Hoang's older sister's death. Early in the first essay, Hoang writes:
My sister died nearly three years ago.
I stopped asking why [she went to prison] before once upon a time began.
I have re-named her my dead sister.
This sister is at once cautionary tale for Hoang and a lingering reminder of who she could never be, frozen in death as an untouchable family presence despite her messy life (prison time, drug addiction, infidelity, and divorce).

Hoang is a creative writing professor, and her essays sometimes touch on this career path, including some darkly humorous observations of the MLA job market:
The process of being on the job market bifurcates emotions. First, hope. A powerful optimism that this year will be the year, finally, finally, yes yes yes. Next, contempt. For the place you live and the place you work. You must tell yourself you hate your life. You must hate every aspect of your life. You must be miserable. This is the only way you can convince yourself to go through the trauma of the market.
   Hundreds pared down to ten.
   At MLA, you sit on a bed to interview. You hope your suit doesn't shift too much while you speak. You try not to gesticulate too much. You try to keep your words sharp. You fake it all.
Those of us who've done those MLA interviews know that there is a special emotion associated with sitting in your best business suit on a hotel bed, trying to be confident and professional while semi-reclined with two to five faculty members huddled around you.

Of particular interest perhaps to AALF is that Hoang does write at times about what it means for her to have grown up Vietnamese American, including a startling paragraph, "In elementary school, I was proud to be Vietnamese. I had not learned self-shame. And I have not attained that same level of confidence since. My naïveté was a power that experience has drained." In another essay, "on ORIENTAL BEAUTIES," Hoang catalogs the Asian American women in popular culture that she had as possible role models or simply mirrors for her self--Pam from the Real World, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, and Connie Chung--and she wryly notes that she only had this handful of women to see herself in and wonders how white women can even begin to make sense of themselves with so many more options. And throughout the book, Hoang writes about her difficult intimate relationships, touching on the idea that the white men she dates (and marries) might have yellow fever while also noting that she does not find Asian men attractive.

In addition to frequent thoughts on her dead sister and what it means for her to have a dead sister and to live with what her sister left behind (especially a son who deals himself with drug addiction and imprisonment), Hoang writes about her relationship to her parents as well--both of them in many ways typical immigrant/refugee parents with their narrow expectations of their children and their different way of understanding familial relations.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus's Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016), with illustrations by Evan Turk, is an autobiographical story of Arun Gandhi's experiences with his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, in an ashram (or service village). The illustrations are beautiful, richly textured through bright colors and materials.

be the change book cover

Hegedus explains in a note at the end of the book that she heard Arun Gandhi speak in the months after the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and knew that she wanted to work with him to tell his stories of his grandfather to bring hope back into the world. Be the Change is the second book in this series so far, and in it, Arun recounts how his grandfather's sense of nonviolence extended to being vigilant against waste or extravagance. As a youth, he did not understand how an act such as keeping a pencil worn down to its last few centimeters could be an important action in reducing violence in the world. But his father persisted in explaining, and over time, Arun understood how his every act has consequences that may be distant but nevertheless important in spreading peace and abundance for everyone.

Although this book takes the form a picture book, its story seems more appropriate for a slightly older child (the publisher notes K-3 as appropriate grade levels for readers), and the moral of the story is both simple (be the change) and layered (suggesting large scale things like the industries involved in making a pencil).
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
MariNaomi's Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories (2D Cloud + Uncivilized Books, 2014) collects a number of short pieces by MariNaomi into a volume of startling insights into human interactions and society. (Incidentally, the book's publishers are based in Minneapolis, my city!)

dragon's breath cover

While her earlier memoir, Kiss and Tell, focused on relationship and sexual encounters, Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories is more eclectic, ranging from childhood memories about family (revised in adult hindsight) to transitory though impactful encounters in adulthood. Often, these true stories end in the observation that the author does not know what became of a certain person--sometimes intimates and other times just casual acquaintances or even passersby--but these are people and encounters that have stayed with her and formed the canvas of her perceptions of the world.

You can find some excerpts of the book at Study Group Comics. The first piece in the excerpt, "Mr. Vanoni," is about a high school teacher whose lecture style was uninspiring but who occasionally took a lizard out of his terrarium and rubbed his belly until he fell asleep. This observation then unfolds into noting that another, more charismatic teacher died of AIDS that year and had a section of the yearbook dedicated to him while Mr. Vanoni, who also died unexpectedly that year, received a small portion of a page in comparison. The piece is disarming in its brevity and simplicty, but in the final panel, with a finger petting a lizard and the words, "REST IN PEACE, MR. VANONI," MariNaomi rectifies this imbalance in memorialization of the two teachers, suggesting that even the quiet people of this world deserve some attention, loving, and care.

All in all, MariNaomi demonstrates how much she is an important observer of the world around us by showing us little moments full of both pain and possibility.

See also [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn's earlier review of Dragon's Breath.
[identity profile] pylduck.livejournal.com
In his meditative memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016), Paul Kalanithi examines his life's striving for meaning, experiences, and an understanding of identity and death.

Although there are certainly a number of other excellent writers who are doctors with whom we might compare Kalanithi's brief volume (such as Abraham Verghese, who provides a foreword to the memoir, or Sanjay Gupta, whom Kalanithi references in his book), I found that Kalanithi's perspective called to mind most readily Vikram Chandra's Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, another memoir in which novelist Chandra explores his experiences and perspective as a software engineer on his sense of narrative and fiction writing. In both Kalanithi and Chandra's memoirs, there is a deep sense of expertise and embeddedness in the vocabulary of a distinctly nonliterary worldview that nevertheless comes along with a deep love of literature, metaphor, and the cadences of poetic lines. Indeed, Kalanithi recounts in the first half of the book how he studied both literature and biology as a double major in college, pursuing a master's in literature as well before turning an undivided attention to medicine for the next decade of his life. For him, literature is what makes meaning of experiences in people's lives; still, he felt an urgent need also to have those experiences, to dive into the stuff of life more than simply reflect upon it and come to deeper understandings.

As he found himself drawn to medicine, Kalanithi settled into neurosurgery as the specialization that best encapsulated his sense of how science and modern technology seeks to make sense of the sublime emergence of identity and meaning from the very material substance of the brain. There is a little something too neat in his retrospective narration of his career trajectory.... but clearly this was the experience of a young man who knew what he wanted to do at each step of his life, even if longer term goals were not always immediately apparent.

There is a lot to say about this memoir, especially Kalanithi's utterly beautiful language. One sample:
Before operating on a patient's brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another's cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
These are lines not meant simply to convey a thought but also to reach for that ineffable power of poetic language, strings of words that mean more than what they say. Additionally, Kalanithi ruminates on the origins and valences of significant words that he uses—patient and disaster, for instance—along with careful framing of his words with literary epigraphs and references to canonical works of English literature (T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land makes a few appearances, for example).

And perhaps most powerfully for me, Kalanithi writes about the importance of compassion in the work of doctors. This is a topic that is big in the medical humanities, of course, but one that seems to be a source of constant stress for those in the medical field due to overwork and the workings of the mind that tend to dampen doctors' ability to connect emotionally with their patients, sometimes as a way of preserving the doctors' own sense of self and worth. Speaking with another resident who could not admit that he messed up, Kalanithi said:
"All you have to do," I said, "is look me in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry. What happened was my fault, and I won't let it happen again.'"
This ability to accept responsibility for mistakes was at the core of Kalanithi's conception of the good doctor. It is not enough to be an excellent technician or even to have the best bedside manner if doctors cannot deal with the fact that they themselves will slip up, and those mistakes will lead to serious consequences and death for some of their patients.

See also [livejournal.com profile] stephenhongsohn's review of Kalanithi's memoir.


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