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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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