[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Kathryn Ma’s All That Work and Still No Boys (University of Iowa Press, 2009).

Kathryn Ma’s All That Work and Still No Boys (winner of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction) heralds the exciting debut of a gifted short story writer. This collection is most reminiscent of the work of Frances Hwang’s Transparency where certain stories are centered in the Chinese American and Chinese immigrant experience and where others are not discernably so. The title clearly refers to the long tradition in East Asian cultures of favoring the birth of male children over females. The title story that opens the collection ruminates on the complications of such a phenomenon when a Chinese immigrant mother requires a kidney transplant and out of her five children, her one son is the only one who is a serviceable match. Unfortunately for all involved, the mother does not want to take the kidney from her son and instead wishes that it would be taken from her eldest daughter, Barbara. Indeed, the one son, Lawrence was only conceived, seemingly miraculously, after the mother had been told she would not likely bear more children. In this regard, Lawrence’s “favor” is one that is placed in contradistinction to the treatment of the other four daughters, who while not ignored, are not necessarily bestowed with such honor. Such domestic squabbles and conflicts are the foundation to collection and the readers are treated to a variety of quirky characters. If there is a tonality to the collection, one might call it “tragicomic.” For instance, in “The Scottish Play,” two “rival” grandmothers duke it out over the bragging rights of the grandchild. While one, a granddaughter, Anna, gains the lead in the school play, another a grandson, successfully completes training as a NAVY Seal. When Anna’s grandmother begins to harbor ill will toward the other grandmother over bragging rights, she sets upon her by implanting a seed of doubt that acts as a harbinger for the story’s subtly tragic ending. Another standout story, “What I know Now,” perfectly captures the awkward personal growth phase experienced by many undergraduate students as they, often for the first time, adjust to life away from home. In this particular case, a young woman navigates the treacherous and nebulous waters of college dating and romance, where even tutoring for a young boy comes with it ominous possibilities. Perhaps my favorite story is Ma’s second, which is aptly titled as “Second Child,” in which a Chinese tour guide, Daisy, operates as a translator for families on “heritage tours” for transracial adoptees. Tension arises when Daisy realizes that she may have overstepped her boundaries by sharing too much of her personal feelings with the biological child of one of the families, a young and astute observer named Sam. When he begins to show up late or even missing from allotted meet-up times for the group tours, Daisy slowly realizes that such disobediences are stemming from the very sensitive information that she shared with him. There is much to praise about Ma’s collection, one only wishes that certain stories could have been developed more. For instance, “The Long Way Home” and “Dougie” both explore family dysfunctionality but do not find as sure footing as stories like “The Scottish Play” or “Second Child.” Indeed, such stories immediately suggest that Ma’s narrative skills will also find a fertile ground in the novel or novella form, where characters and plotlines can be extended out. Nevertheless, the collection is assured in its “voice” and dynamic its depictions—certainly, one that could excerpted or adopted for courses.

Buy the Book Here:

[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore

I have had the luck of receiving an advance copy of Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, a short story collection that will be coming out of Sarabande Books on April 1st, 2009.  I am also sick in bed with a cold so it has been nice to sink my teeth into a fictional work.  In my mind, the Korean American literary terrain can never be too overpopulated.  Indeed, my sentiment is that it still remains to be contoured more fully.  With the general threads of transracial adoptees, the Korean War, Japanese colonial occupation of Korea, the advent of the small business owner (the greengrocer, the liquor store owner), chiclit, comfort women, among other such organizing narrative and lyrical threads running through this ethnically specific body of writings, Once the shore takes us elsewhere into the coastal regions of South Korea. 

The other genre impulse that I’m very much attuned to lately has been that of the short story form, especially since so many Asian American writers have been producing such fascinating work in that vein including Nam Le, Aimee Phan, Shimon Tanaka, Frances Hwang, Mary Yukari Waters, Rishi Reddi among others.  I just finished reading Frances Hwang’s Transparency on a plane ride down to Long Beach and it was the perfect travel companion.  Apparently, traveling doesn’t sit well with me though and when I returned, I was hammered with a terrible cold and picked up a number of poetry collections and books to help me pass the time in bed.  One was Paul Yoon’s collection. 

Once the Shore takes a very unique trans/regional approach by depicting the lives of various characters on what seems to be a fictional South Korean island.  I say fictional because the Solla Island, at least according to my cursory internet research, does not actually exist.  In addition, one of the stories involves a diving woman (who is just one in a long line of diving women from her family), a figure who makes her trade through this skill.  Such women have been connected to the history and culture of Cheju Island and its neighbor Udo Island.  A recent article on these women echo the major sentiment of the story, which is that the culture of these diving women is "dying out."  In terms of the geographical specificities located in the novel, it would seem that Cheju would be the most logical choice as a number of the characters make references to Japan and its close proximity; Cheju, located south of Korea’s mainland certainly would fit that bill.  In any case, the fact that the stories are set on the Island rather than the Mainland is interesting in and of itself because it contours the understanding of Korea’s literary geography and topography, especially since the vast majority of Korean American works that have considered Korea directly (such as Susan Choi's The Foreign Student) have tended to focus for the most part on the mainland, with the major cities, Pusan and Seoul, being obvious urban nodal points. 

The “title story” opens up the collection and embarks upon the unique friendship forged between an American “tourist” and her Korean waiter.  What is so rich about Yoon’s collection is that each story is always off-set by what seem often to be at first minor details about the larger sociohistorical contexts of a particular temporality within the story.  For instance, American presence is immediately invoked in “Once the Shore” as the waiter’s brother is killed in a sea collision with an American submarine that had been surfacing.  The tensions of the continued American presence on the Island and elsewhere are a major specter over the character’s lives.   “Among the Wreckage” follows “Once the shore” and explores the fragile family dynamic among an aging and elderly husband and wife; their son is missing and they embark on a search for him.  This story considers the “secret” testing sites that the United States military employed prior to and following the detonation of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In one of the most poignant stories of the collection, a strong friendship is made between a young Korean woman and a U.S. soldier that has gone AWOL.  What seems to be a developing romance between them is put into constant instability by the US serviceman’s problematic situation.  Interestingly, this story casts a different signification upon the migrant worker as this American is collapsed into the itinerant laboring bodies that Korean farmers have employed to harvest their crops. 

But, rather than provide summaries of all of the stories, I’d like to emphasize the particularly poetic qualities of Yoon’s writing.  In “So That They Do Not Hear us,” Yoon depicts the unique relationship between an aging sea diver, the famed sea divers of Cheju Island (in this case changed to Solla Island), and a Japanese immigrant boy.  The boy is an amputee, having lost his arm in a freak accident involving a tiger shark and now bares many scars both psychic and physical related to that event.  This excerpt showcases Yoon’s brilliant aesthetics:

“He wanted a room filled with water.  And sea creatures.  For in addition to his fixation on turtles, the boy was also convinced that if you tried for long enough, the possibility of drowning grew less, until the danger vanished altogether.  He thought Ahrim [the sea diver] had accomplished this, no matter how much she tried to tell him otherwise.  His theory was supported by her constant scent of ocean water and by the answer she once gave him when he asked why she dove: because I have to die.  And so he believed her to be of another world.  His conclusion was logical.  ‘You are a sea woman,’ the boy said.  ‘Then you are also a woman of the sea’” (93). 

It is the coasts, the oceans, the sea that exists as an important “character” in Once the Shore and its presence structures and challenges the lives of many subjects that appear.  I plan to teach this collection in the future. 

Buy the book here:

[identity profile] sa-am.livejournal.com

A Review of Nam Le’s The Boat

Nam Le’s The Boat is an interesting development for what might be called Asian American literature because Le does not contain most of his settings in the same locale, nor does he seem content to investigate stories that through most specifically articulate the dimensions of the Asian American experience. The collection is framed by the two stories which would traditionally grant us an entry to discuss this text; that is, they introduce elements of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American experience. The first story, I think, is the strongest due to its amazing conclusion that completely subverts an affectual impulse desired by most readers in which we see the main character lovingly detail the strained relationship between his Vietnamese immigrant father and himself. Titled, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” this short story also immediately and self-consciously subverts the desire on the part of the reader to link up the ethnic background of the author to the content on the page. I think this piece is essential in setting up the ones that will follow because they are all completed, more or less, from ethnic, spatial, and national trajectories which will move the collection far afield from what might be called “authorial essentialism.” “Cartagena” seems to be a story written from the perspective of one slum-dwelling inhabitant of a Spanish shantytown, although I wasn’t quite sure even after having done some research. As Le takes on the persona of one of these shantytown denizens, he radically de-links authorial ethnicity from the textual character in a way that Asian American writers tend not to do. Indeed, he invests the narrative with a number of Spanish phrases and explores the incredibly austere environment of a tigurio. “Hiroshima” follows the perspective of a group of characters just prior to the atomic bombing on the titular Japanese city. The tragedy invoked in this story is one related to representing the Japanese ideology that led to the citizenry living in a sort of ideologically constructed fantasy world that spectacularly crumbles as the bomb finally falls. The final story, “The Boat,” details the harrowing experiences of Mai, a young woman, as she escapes Vietnam. Her parents hope that her leavetaking will grant her a better future, one not conditioned under the auspices of communist “re-education” camps. Even here, where there is the possibility that Le is drawing upon an autobiographical experience, the first story makes too perilous this connection. Further, because the narrative is centered not on the Vietnamese American experience, but rather on the tale of forced migrations, exiles as it were, an essentialist approach fails to encapsulate the impossibilities of a simple ethnically informed linkage between author and his story.

Le’s The Boat is an important book for Asian American literature and American literature more broadly. Even though I have heard rumblings that short story collections do not sell well (much in the same vein that I hear of the failures of poetry to sell at all), there is obvious literary merit to this work that I would hope grants this collection a life far beyond the marketplace. The short stories are for the most part elegantly crafted and even in instances where I felt the “leaps” from one narrative context to the next felt a bit jarring, I am reminded the title of the whole collection is meant to remind us of transit and shuttling from one place and one subjectivity to another.

All in all, a satisfying read, an important work, and a welcome debut to the ever-burgeoning field of American letters.


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