[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Ranj Dhaliwal’s Daaku (New Star Books, 2006).

As Ranj Dhaliwal writes in the forward to this unrelentingly depressing novel, “A Daaku is a person who has no regard for life and is an outcast in society.  This person believes that whatever he does is right, even though it is against all the laws of his country.  The Daaku can be found in every culture across the globe and has been around since the birth of mankind.  Wherever there are rules, there are rule breakers and the Daaku is the number one rule break around.”  As such, the Daaku in this story are the young and borderline sociopathic young East Indo-Canadian men that populate the novel, most of whom are connected in some form to gangs, drugs, violence, among other such vices.  The story centers mostly on Ruby Pandher in a narrative not of development, but anti-development, as he moves from one transgression to another, escalating in the violence and the danger attached to those actions.  What is interesting about this text is that it does not offer much in the way of an explanation for Ruby’s psychic life.  Indeed, the novel is devastatingly opaque as to much of Ruby’s life beyond his very present needs and desires, which is ultimately why I employed the term “borderline sociopathic” to describe many of the characters who appear.  Since the novel is narrated from Ruby’s point-of-view, the burden of amoralism lies most squarely on his shoulders, as he continually fails to consider why it is he acts in the way that he does.  There seem to be occasional glimpses of remorse that surface, but they are so few and far between and so brief in their emergence that it is difficult to understand that they might be genuine.  There is never any attempt at any point to try to “follow” the rules and in this respect, Dhaliwal has truly found the embodiment of the Daaku subjectivity.  I still wondered though, why bother with even those minute entreaties of something beyond his life, since they ultimately ring so hollow.  The success of Dhaliwal’s novel lies in its unadornment and the narrative logic.  The main character so willfully embodies his role as a social delinquent that you cannot imagine any possible redemptive ending for him.  In that way, and with subtle spoilers forthcoming, you are not surprised by the ending.


If there is an element that Daaku could have further contextualized the larger rubric for delinquency offered in the contemporary Vancouver milieu.  For instance, Ruby’s mother seems to be an almost completely absent force, but one wondered if this was a trend seen across the other young boys and men that appear throughout the narrative.   The repeated references to the gang problems in Vancouver also strike as a relevant social context, but the various ways in which these gang problems erupt is not narratively considered.  Are we to understand Ruby as a microcosm through which to understand the other boys?  Ruby’s mother, in particular, seems to be relatively understanding and indeed a sympathetic character and one wonders then about the motivation for Ruby to lead the life he does without any recourse to other options.  It does not seem as if he is living in abject poverty at any point, nor does he seem to suffer from school issues as it is shown that he does excel in that arena when he focuses on it.  I am also thinking about the social realist novels such as Richard Wright’s Native Son that compellingly offer the age old question of nature versus nurture.  In Dhaliwal’s novel, I get very little sense of the larger force that might construct East Indo-Canadian young men as the “gangsters” they might turn out to be.  However, even at this expense, as I have stated, the internal logic of the novel functions with the clear intent to blur the lines between heroes and villains.  Police officers and prison guards do not necessarily hold privileged places as the purveyors of morality and protection, nor do all of the young, beautiful women that Ruby finds himself attracted to and dating.  In this respect, Daaku is exceedingly bleak and the brief moments where the protagonist himself seems to find brief respites from pain or violence, even then, we know something else “bad” is just around the corner. 


As an addition to this reviewing community in particular, Daaku offers much to the consideration of the “bad subject” of Asian diasporic populations, reminiscent in this respect to Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son, both in development and in tone.  In this vein, Ruby is quite cognizant of race and ethnicity and at various points in the text marks out questions of inclusion and exclusion based on how communities might be perceived and enacted.  So, too, do we see such negotiations in Roley’s work.  As a coming-of-age narrative then, Daaku could be paired (perhaps profanely) up against Asian American novels of positivistic subject formation, such as Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, to see then the routes by which Asian North American men negotiate race, ethnicity, and the perils of youth. 


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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo (House of Anansi Press, 2008).


Shani Mootoo’s work has typically explored the valences of Caribbean regional geographies and queer sexuality.  Valmiki’s Daughter follows in this interesting and eclectic intersectional vein.  The title of the novel stems from the ways in which choices that individuals make across one generation to the next seem to perpetuate around questions of domesticity, marriage, and the containment then of queer sexual urges.  The family at the center of the story includes Valmiki, a doctor, his wife, Devika, and their two daughters, Viveka (of which the title refers) and her younger sister Vashti.  The death of one child, a boy, has haunted the family for many years, refusing to relinquish its hold, especially on Viveka, who at one point, literally tries to take the place of him, by wearing his old clothes.  Viveka is near the graduation point of high school and on the verge of womanhood.  Desiring to play more sports although already considered to be “mannish,” Viveka constantly harangues her parents for more freedom both in her dressing habits and in her extracurricular choices.  Viveka clearly takes after her father, Valmiki, who by this point, has initiated a queer extramarital relationship with a man named Saul, a relationship that Devika is well aware-of and given the fact that Devika and Valmiki’s sex life is so absent, she is particularly angered by this infidelity.  However, this sexual indiscretion is one of many Valmiki takes part in both queer and not, and so the stakes are then laid out for the novel in which the father’s own exploits will be the pattern that the daughter may or may not emulate.  The question about which way the daughter will end up traveling is the pressure which catalyzes the novel forward.  A number of casual sexual dalliances with other similarly aged boys begins Viveka’s exploration of her sexuality, but it will be the arrival of a French woman named Anick (who marries Nayan, the son of a Trinidadian island magnate) that truly begins to test Viveka’s sexual identity.


As with Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms with Night, the novel soars in areas where the Caribbean geography is highlighted—the dense tropical landscape, the heat, and yet, the stifling nature of social relations combines together in a boiling cauldron that is always just about to overflow.  Mootoo’s writing is always vivid, concrete, and possesses an earthiness that is a joy for any reader to behold.  The novel is also much a story about Trinidad’s elite social circles and as we discover, Valmiki and his family are at the pinnacle.  It will be Devika who spends much of her hours planning future dinner parties where the upper class show up, are wine and dined, and gossip.  This element of class is vital to the story precisely because so much sexual indiscretion is occurring.  People must cover up their infidelities, constantly tell lies, or put on masks in order to hide the truth of their actions.  The often casual way in which people enter into relationships and friendships does, at times, seem astonishing, but the actions of such characters seem fitting given their often incredibly straining situations. 


Also, much like the aforementioned Cereus, Mootoo is bent on destroying any unitary understanding of sexuality as either gay or straight, heterosexual or homosexual.  Her characters seem to suggest that sexuality is truly a fluid register which are only contained when societal expectations emerge, especially in this novel’s case, for those in the upper echelons who must maintain appearances.  There is thus always the emphasis on manners, saving-face, and on propriety to the extent that we begin to understand how so many characters feel imprisoned, unhappy, and wishing to throw away even their monetary security.  Nevertheless, as can be expected, the wishful fantasies of those hallowed few are hardly ever followed, and one cannot be surprised by the ending; it some ways then, the novel is ultimately a very realistic, if not sobering one. 


It is unfortunate though at this time that the novel is relatively difficult to purchase, as it maintains quite a high-fetching price as a used copy on amazon.com.  One hopes that it will eventually receive a wider distribution, particularly for those of us in the United States.  Given the concerted effort by many in Asian American Studies to broaden the field, hemispherically, Mootoo has persistently and invaluably reminded us that we must be aware of these directionalities. 


Another review of Valmiki’s Daughter can be found here:




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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 For useful links, please see:


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If Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone was called the anti-Joy Luck Club, then Hiromi Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms (NeWest Press, 1994), winner of the 1995 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, might be considered the Canadian response to Tan’s foundational novel.  Certainly, a kind of mother-daughter novel, Goto’s debut is extremely complicated in terms of its form, employing playscript, newspaper clippings, myth and fables, along with traditional narrative arcs, to trouble any clear sense of perspective. A Chorus of Mushrooms is thus a rich text to consider from postmodern and poststructural vantage points as characters repeatedly admit how stories can change and how truth is a malleable element.  Most fittingly, the back cover contains a blurb written by Fred Wah, a figure who would seem to be a natural writerly inspiration for Goto and indeed, this work was in part catalyzed by a creative writing course that Goto took that happened to be instructed by Wah.  The story revolves around three generations of Japanese Canadian women.  The grandmother figure, Naoe, is discontented with her living in Canada as the arid weather and the fact that her daughter, Kay (from Keiko) has assimilated so readily have caused her to feel quite Othered:  “There is nothing as silly as dusting when you live in a desert.  But [Keiko] ignores me.  Keiko.  My daughter who has forsaken her identity.  Forsaken!  So biblical, but it suits her, my little convert.  Converted from rice and daikon to wieners and beans.  Endless evenings of tedious roast chicken and honey smoked ham and overdone rump roast” (13).    Kay, of course, embraces her life in Canada to the extent that her mother seems to exist as a problematic relic of a static Asian heritage.  Kay’s daughter, Muriel (called Murasaki by her grandmother and an obvious riff off of Lady Murasaki), navigates the extremes seen in both her mother and her grandmother and acts as a kind of bridge figure. 

The title of the novel comes in part from the mushroom farm that the father runs (this detail seems to be inspired from Goto’s own life as she had worked on a mushroom farm and maintained a close relationship to her grandmother); at one point, Muriel is recruited to help with the labor on the farm, which is also enabled by the presence of many Vietnamese immigrant laborers.  Over the course of the novel, time is wielded with much plasticity as Naoe recalls her past in Japan, especially central being the firebombing that almost kills Naoe and Keiko as a young girl.  For Muriel, Obachan (Naoe) presents a kind of touchstone not only to the past, but also to art and storytelling:  “I turned my head slowly in Obachan’s lap, the fabric scratch and stiff.  Inhaled dust and poetry.  She stroked my forehead with her palm, and her words, they flowed fluid.  I snuggled close and curled my legs and stopped pretending to understand.  Only listened.  And listened.  And then my mouth opened on its own accord and words fell from my tongue like treasure” (52).  The conflict at the center of the novel stems from the disintegration of the relationship between Naoe and Kay and how Muriel yet still seeks to draw from her grandmother’s articulatory powers as a woman gifted with language.  Indeed, Muriel continually attempts to fashion stories and to derive agency from them in the face of challenges.  After her grandmother’s disappearance, Muriel/Murasaki gives varying accounts for the reason her grandmother has “left.”  Between Naoe’s disappearance and Kay’s mental breakdown, the readers gradually discover the challenges that the family has faced growing up in an area with very few ethnic Asians.  Indeed, as Muriel tells it there were very few other Asian Canadians, excepting the occasional handful, so the possibility for a larger racially specific community became difficult to sustain, if not simply untenable.  An abortive relationship with a Chinese American boy named Shane is emblematic of Muriel’s isolation from other Asian Canadians. 

Toward the conclusion of
A Chorus of Mushrooms, Muriel opines, “There are people who say that eating is only a superficial means of understanding a different culture.  That eating at exotic restaurants and oohing and aahing over the food is not even worth the bill paid.  You haven’t heard anything at all.  I say that’s a life.  What can be more basic than food itself?  Food to begin to grow.  Without it, you’d starve to death, even academics.  But don’t stop there, my friend, don’t stop there, because food is the point of departure.  A place where growth begins.  You eat, you drink and you laugh out loud.  You wipe the sweat off your forehead and take a sip of water.  You tell a story, maybe two, with words of pain and desire.  Your companion listens and listens, then offers a different telling.  The waiter comes back with the main course and stays to tell his version” (201).  Once again the instability of narration and storytelling is offered here, but in the specific realm of the conclusion, Muriel attempts to forge new ways of seeing the world around her, new ways of connecting to her lost grandmother and what she must have felt and faced as an immigrant to a wildly strange country.  What is of course interesting is that this passage also references the much-cited notion of “food pornography,” the ways in which ethnic foods can be employed as a marker to accentuate a writer’s authenticity.  This sequence does seem to challenge the so-called superficiality of food tourism, suggesting that it is a place of productivity precisely because it is the site of a germination.  And it is the conclusion of A Chorus of Mushrooms that calls for hope without being overtly sentimental about it, in this creation of story. 

A Chorus of Mushrooms, like Miki’s Saving Face, is a work deserving of much more critical attention than it has currently received (a quick survey of the MLA international database yields approximately four critical articles, three of which have appeared just within the last three years).  With the increasing emphasis that Asian Americanists (and more broadly Asian North Americanists if we are to constellate ourselves in such a way) take on aesthetic elements that undergird narrative production, Goto’s novel offers a rich terrain to consider how politics and form might be considered together and mutually constitutive.  In its experimental leanings, A Chorus of Mushrooms has as much in common with Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters as it might with its Asian Canadian literary counterparts, where aesthetic impulses create a unique bridge for dynamic conversations to emerge. 


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[identity profile] sa-am.livejournal.com
A Review of Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming, Kazim Ali’s Quinn’s Passage, and Madeleine Thien’s Certainty

In a haze of weekend depressions, I have sought solace in reading. Is reading this superfluous thing, or does it do something for us? Too bad reading isn’t a job. I think I would be well paid. For some reason, perhaps, it is just strange misfortune, I read three novels that were all extremely high on the sentiments of loss. However, all three novels were extremely well-written and had very different styles. As I type this, I kind of find myself dazed from having read them all and have that feeling of contemplation that one possesses after thinking about something that cannot yet be fully grasped.

Book 1 was Kazim Ali’s Quinn’s Passage.

Modeled somewhat on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Woolf’s work more generally (one sees Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in this work as well), Ali’s text is experimental in that it verges very much on poetry. There are significant line breaks between certain sections and they appear consistently, making one think as if it is a novel composed in lyric blocks. There is just a bare semblance of a plot. The title character has been invited to an artist’s colony somewhere on the Northeastern Coast. He is a “found sculptor,” creating his pieces from garbage. Once there, he falls into a relationship with a coffee shop employee named Tim and makes friends with a neighbor, Lola, a poet. Ali is extremely subtle about revealing the character’s ethnicity as we discover in bits and pieces that he is likely South Asian American based upon his linguistic proficiency in Urdu and other cues, but these elements tend to take a backseat to Quinn’s interior psychic state. He is very much adrift and is drawn to the ocean not simply because of its melancholic beauty, but because he finds an analogy in its structure and fluidity. The spacing between lyric blocks gives the novel a kind of sparseness that echoes against the poetic prose. Nested between meditative tracts, Quinn introduces sections from his personal notebooks, observations about the world around him and his place in it. The ocean is very much its own character. The conclusion still leaves me baffled and alarmed in a way and I won’t reveal it here, but suffice it to say that I am a big fan of Ali’s work having already read his poetry, The Far Mosque (Alice James Books 2005) and The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions).

Book 2 was Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming.

I have been following Revoyr’s work since her first novel, Necessary Roughness, centered on the homoerotic tension between two female basketball players, one Japanese American and the other African American. My esteem of her writing only grew with Southland, an intricate whodunit that cemented Revoyr’s devotion to considering interracial politics and culture. The Age of Dreaming takes as its central task refiguring Sessue Hayakawa’s life into a fictional story about a retired Japanese American who in 1964 receives a phone call from an individual who would like interview him about his silent screen film career. The novel is structured so that the entire text is told from this character’s (Jun Nakayama in a stand-in for Sessue Hayakawa) perspective. In this way, I was reminded very much of Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life in which the main character, Doc Hata, simply constructs himself as this everyman living a simple life in a rural town. This approach allows a character to construct himself in any way that he would like. Revoyr subverts this self-narration over time, demonstrating Jun’s vanities and pride, all elements which take central stage in the development of the plot. This novel pretty much has everything: engaging characters, an unbeatable setting (Hollywood in the Silent Screen period), racism, a murder mystery, unplanned pregnancies, and unrequited love. Revoyr’s prose is at its luminous best here, a testament the strength of the characterization. Revoyr is also able to deftly handle significant alterations in time as Jun’s narration moves from present-day 1964 to the twenties and then back again, repeatedly. As the plot unfolds, the readers begin to see that the movies he participated in became a way for him to re-envision his own life, re-packaged in a hermetically sealed globe that threatens to break open when Jun begins to consider staging a comeback at his elderly age.

Book 3 and certainly not the least of the bunch was Madeleine Thien’s Certainty, a novel that was painfully difficult to push through if only because the subject matter was so incredibly harrowing.

Madeleine Thien is an Asian Canadian writer and I must admit my reading in that area has been lagging. On my to-read list includes writers like Hiromi Goto, Fred Wah, and Gerry Shikatani, but there never seems to be enough time. Certainty is a global novel structured around loss. One of the main characters, Gail Lim, is already dead in the opening chapters. Later, as the novel moves back in time, the readers are given the tragic back-story of Gail’s father Matthew Lim, and his childhood friend, Ani, survivors of the brutal Japanese occupation of North Borneo (now East Malaysia). Although “seeking to uncover secrets about the parental generation” seems to be a well-worn trope in Asian “North American” writing, Thien’s Certainty is incredibly moving. In contrast to Revoyr’s prose which maintains Jun Nakayama’s character, Thien moves among the viewpoints of a number of characters including Gail’s partner, but not husband, Ansel, Gail’s father (Mattew), Gail’s mother (Clara), Matthew’s childhood friend (Ani), Ani’s husband (Sipke); each character must face their personal losses, which all seem to fan out and touch other’s lives. The novel itself follows the incredible migrations of its characters, whether it be from North Borneo to Indonesia (where Ani lives for a time) to the Netherlands (where the novel concludes) to Canada (where the novel opens). The title of Thien’s novel is somewhat stated ironically because certainty seems to appear only through intuition that hard facts and quantities will never get to the root of a mystery and that “knowing someone” is ultimately impossible. In this respect, I fully appreciated the aporias the novel and I find myself here, composing my reviews now before bed.


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A Veritable Literary Feast

April 2019

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