[identity profile] nkharput.livejournal.com
I've been thinking about the peculiar burden of representation faced by Muslim American writers and artists in our post-9/11 moment. Two texts that attempt to defy the expectations that these writers face are Ali Eteraz's Native Believer (2016) and Ayad Akhtar's The Who and the What (2014).

I am perpetually confounded by the state of the Muslim American literary canon: it seems near impossible to find a Muslim American character who is simply unextraordinary. The canon is replete with violent, misogynist, and crude caricatures. I had so much hope for Native Believer: it begins with a protagonist who seems wholly unassuming. His relationship with his wife is endearing: when she’s stuck in the bathroom at their own party in need of a tampon, the narrator states, "but her issues are my issues too” in response to a guest who asks him if she’s dealing with a “women’s issue.” He wants more than anything to have children but they are unable (for reasons that complicate and shock over the course of the narrative). The prose is humorous and delightful.

But larger issues dramatically shift the storyline: the narrator's relationship with Islam, which was almost nonexistent before this particular moment, takes over when his boss fires him for not only owning a copy of the Koran but also placing the book higher than Nietzsche on the bookshelf, which the boss takes as a symbolic displacement of Western culture by Islamic extremism. In search of what it means to be a Muslim American (even while rejecting that identity), the narrator, known only as M. (but implied to be Muhammad) falls in with a young crowd called the Gay Commie Muzzies who are recklessly debauched, which shifts the notion of what it means to be a radical Muslim. He conducts an affair with an African American woman who, unlike many in the mid-twentieth century, converts to Islam in order to reject the burden of her parents' racial pride. He encounters a number of Muslim American State Department employees — of the sort who travel abroad to prove that Muslims are assimilated in the US. His search for Muslim Americans who can give him a sense of identity yields nothing but a diverse range of characters who feel crudely drawn. The narrator himself devolves into a vengeful monster by the end of the story. Disappointed as I am with the parade of vasty unlikeable caricatures, the author does illustrate the various ways in which it is possible to be a secular Muslim. I just wish the characterizations weren’t so extreme.

The Who and the What is an older work but raises some of the same questions as Eteraz with regard to the burden of portraying Muslims (secular or not). It is Ayad Akhtar's second play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced. Like Disgraced, The Who and the What revolves around a debate about religion: a book about the Prophet Muhammad that is thought to be incendiary. Akhtar's works offer a fascinating lens into what it means to be a Muslim in America in the post-9/11 age: that includes a discussion of what it means to be a secular Muslim, which has yet to be a widely accepted notion by Muslims and non Muslims alike.

Now, Akhtar is the foremost voice in Muslim American drama today: in addition to garnering the Pulitzer, Disgraced was the most produced play in the 2015-2016 season, according to American Theatre. What kind of responsibility -- and, conversely, freedom -- comes with this distinction? This question is very unfairly posed to Muslim American artists of this age. It is also at the heart of The Who and the What: Zarina's book on the prophet -- a book that illuminates how his "contradictions only make him more human" -- is published at the expense of familial harmony. Some critics have wondered whether Akhtar published Disgraced at the expense of the Muslim American community, since his representations of the community are far from flattering. Which goes to say: how is literary or artistic production regulated in the hands of the Muslim American artist, especially in the post-9/11 era?

The Who and the What features an all-Muslim cast: the headstrong yet obedient Zarina, her sister Mahwish, who desperately wants to wed her longterm boyfriend (yet cannot do so until Zarina, her elder, is married), their father, Afzal, whose overcontrolling tendencies stem from the loss of the family matriarch, and Eli, a white Muslim convert that Afzal sets up with Zarina. The diversity of the cast illuminates all the different ways one can be Muslim. Unfortunately, it also presents caricatures that recall unfortunate stereotypes about controlling, misogynist, violent men. The play -- and his other works -- makes you wonder what on earth Akhtar, now vastly prominent as a playwright, is trying to do with his representations of Muslim American characters. But that question is one that unfairly burdens artists of color who are taken to be representatives of their communities. So how do we look past these base questions when examining the works of Muslim American writers? Akhtar has given us the opportunity to begin, at the very least.
[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A review of Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House, 2010).

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

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

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Brief Review of Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning

As part of my relief from school and just to get my system re-charged, I’ve been catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read. First up on my list for this summer has been Amy Tan’s latest novel, Saving Fish From Drowning. I’ve always appreciated Tan simply based on the kind of exposure she has given other American writers of Asian descent, especially through the commercial success of her creative publications. Saving Fish From Drowning is especially interesting in terms of Tan’s publication history because it is the one novel to seriously deviate from the strong feminist and Chinese transnational topographies that has been a hallmark of her work. This statement isn’t to say that Saving Fish From Drowning completely deviates, as the protagonist and narrator, Bibi Chen, is one who herself has had to face a very problematic relationship to her Chinese stepmother. Nevertheless, Bibi deigns not to situate her own experiences per se, as the ones faced by a group of tourists who travel to Burma. I do not want to give away too much about the story, except to say that Bibi is a very winning and funny protagonist, so much so that I tended to care more about her narration and her character more than any of the characters she tells us about. Part of the perilousness of this novel is that it is so multifocal; it is a picaresque-type work, it is a satire, it is a comic novel, it is partly social realist, and it certainly is political. The novel clocks in at over 400 pages and because it is difficult to sustain narrative dynamism as Bibi tells us the various adventures of this group of tourists, we begin to lose our ways at times. Only toward the end, where it is clear there is an extensive treatise and discourse concerning media representations, does the novel bring its more disparate strands back together.

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero (Knopf, 2007).

I read this novel on the plane flight back from Southern California. I have been meaning to read all of Ondaatje’s work for some time and remember really enjoying Running in the Family that I read years and years ago for master’s orals. In any case, Divisadero is what I might want to describe as a novel that is both ambitious and thought-provoking but still manages NOT to pull together its disparate threads. The problem I suppose is that there is really no developmental trajectory within the text, because as the title clues us into, there will be an incredible division that makes this work, probably really at least two novels, maybe even three. The emotional core of the novel, in my opinion, remains the opening section where Anna, her “stepsister” Claire, and her “stepbrother” Coop, become enmeshed in veiled romantic triangle, one that takes place in the rustic landscape of California’s gold country. Claire’s mother and Anna’s mother both died while giving birth to them and somehow Anna’s father ends up bringing Claire home from the hospital as part of a new and larger family. Coop is an orphaned boy who survived the murder of his family and was then taken into Anna’s family. Anna and Coop eventually embark on an affair when Anna is just 16 and Coop, just a couple of years older; this relationship is the one that severs the intimate sisterly bond between Anna and Claire. Later, when Anna’s father witnesses Coop and Anna’s lovemaking, Coop is horrifically beaten. Anna attempts to wound her father to stop him from beating on Coop, but she herself is violently resisted by her father, manhandled by him and finally taken away from the homestead and away from Coop. Meanwhile Coop is so badly injured that when he regains consciousness the readers are unsure if he will survive. Claire, having been left home alone after Anna and her father leave Coop behind, finds the injured Coop and enables his escape. From this point forward the family is splintered: Anna runs away from her father; Coop leaves the family homestead for a life of gambling; Claire and her “stepfather” remain tethered to their Northern California regional location, but with little emotional connection to each other. The second part of the book really involves Coop’s descent into gambling and how he coincidentally bumps into Claire. Because Claire and Anna physically resemble one another, there is always the question of identity and mirroring within the novel. This mirroring gets played off of when the story shifts to Anna’s perspective as we discover she is in France, researching the life of a writer named Lucien Segura. Lucien’s own story is one fraught with difficult romance, one that blooms a little bit too late and so we see that Anna’s escape into the lives of others is a way for her to suspend more formal reflections of her own trials and tribulations. As the novel moves on, we find out more and more about Lucien Segura’s life and the various figures that are central to it. One such figure is a young boy named Raphael who will later grow up to be Anna’s lover. Lucien’s story will end up completely overtaking the novel in what is probably the “central” division. All stories are essentially left open-ended.
One of Ondaatje’s many gifts as a writer is his prose styling. There is some ineffable quality there that renders it lyrical and emotionally resonant. I recall one book reviewer saying that even when Ondaatje takes such risks, we know we are in capable hands. Even though I was left bewildered by the conclusion, there was a kind of impact that is hard to quantify. The novel certainly makes me invested in characters who actually seem quite abstracted. While I can’t say for certain what it is about this book that pushes you through, perhaps it is in the disjointed poetics: a terrifying horseback ride during a full eclipse, the haze of man in convalescence, a woman finding renewal researching the lives of others, a novel named after a street in San Francisco, splitting and then splitting again.

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010).

Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado is the novel made for re-reading. There are continual twists and turns and questions about the nature of fiction writing that immediately attune one to the constructed nature of the textual landscape. Indeed, Ilustrado is a metafiction, as it involves a character by the name of Miguel, a writer living in New York, who is researching the life of a Filipino expatriate writer named Crispin Salvador. At the beginning of the novel, the readers discover that Crispin has died under mysterious circumstances. Miguel, having been acquainted with and impressed by Salvador’s work and life, goes about trying to find out what might have happened to Salvador, especially as he embarks on writing Salvador’s life story. The novel is written with this main storyline, but scattered throughout are excerpts from Salvador’s many creative writings, both fictional and nonfictional in scope. They are also various interviews and blog excerpts that continually provide more context and more complexity to Crispin Salvador. The other major narrative involves Miguel’s own life, one marked by the tragic and premature death of both his mother and father. Miguel and his many siblings are raised by his grandparents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the novel takes us to the Philippines where Miguel is both haunted by the tensions that have disintegrated his family and looks to discovering more about his esteemed Crispin Salvador.
The title of Miguel’s novel, Ilustrado, comes from the Filipino elite that traveled to Europe in the late 19th century in order to receive an education. In this regard, the “enlightened ones” speaks to the complicated ways in which the colonial subject could continue to be indoctrinated by the cultural capital devised out of the imperial enterprise. Nevertheless, the education that the ilustrados received also helped foment the revolutionary ideals espoused by those such as Jose Rizal. In this way, the novel is distinctly postcolonial in character inasmuch as it might be called Asian American. Following Crispin’s life through the eyes of Miguel’s work and by other creative excerpts, the novel does track an impressive array of historical changes that have typified the Philippines in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Crispin, having been raised in affluence, must come to terms with his class background and finds himself using writing as a venue to share his political sentiments. The hope for the venue of writing as a direct instigator of political activism is a vexed issue throughout the novel and we can see that Syjuco is tarrying with the complex ways in which representation, referent, and social protest collide. Miguel, too, comes from a clearly privileged background and all throughout the novel we see the ways in which class stratification details the Manila landscape that becomes a sort of “third” character.
Like the recently reviewed, A Thread of Sky, Syjuco excels at painting a picture of modern metropolitan Manila in all of its intricacies and these urbanscapes become the terrain upon which power and difference can be situated. As the plot moves directly into the homes and lives of individual characters, we see, for instance, the way in which the domestic workers are subordinated and often times flagrantly abused. In the clubscapes, individuals worry about the latest fashions and where to score a round of drugs. The profligacy of the Manila elite is meant to de-stabilize any deterministic trajectory of the country’s progressivism. In addition, the political ruling class is also portrayed as corrupt and ineffectual. In this general space of guarded pessimism, the novel begins to turn inward with a major shift in the conclusion that queries the entire nature of the narrative trajectory itself. It begs the question about the construction of the modern Filipino/ American subject and he or she has come to exist at hazy boundary between fantasy and reality.
Ilustrado is a consummately entertaining book, one that will have you immediately re-reading, spending more time on the many different threads that hold the book together.

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Eleanor Ty’s Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

This monograph has also been a treat to read in a similar vein as Caroline Rody’s The Interethnic Imagination and Rocio’s Davis’s Begin Here for the simple fact that Ty forefronts a wide range of readings that demonstrate the continued evidence of the “heterogeneity” that embodies the field of Asian North American literature. Ty’s book is called “unfastened,” precisely because it is a descriptive which designates the continuing complexity that has been emerging with the textual terrains around concepts of mobility, displacement, diaspora that make fastening Asian North American literature to any ONE place practically impossible. In the primary texts that Ty so elegantly analyzes, multiple nations, multiple local spaces, and multiple subjectivities are always imagined, such her readings flow contextually, specific to particular aesthetic forms and contexts, but always linked by the notion of “globality.” Ty is careful about her terminology. She purposefully does not use the term Asian American precisely because she carves out a specific place for Asian Canadian cultural production in her work, which has had a long history of being too reductively classified within Asian American more largely. Second, she distinguishes globality from the globalization, rendering globality the more salient feature of her critical reading practice precisely because it is more connected to issues of economic differentials and power inequities that arise as bodies, cultures, ideas, technologies, etc migrate to new locations and establish new spatial configurations. As Ty clarifies, “Issues of globality include concern for earth and our environment, health and the spread of disease across national borders, the globalization of markets, and the production of goods” (xiii).

The wide range of primary text readings are truly astonishing and we see what a fan of Asian North American narrative Ty is as she meticulously crafts her analyses to continually point to the ways that Asian North American writers are thinking about globality and routing that issue directly within their textual terrains. Taken together, Ty concentrates on Brian Roley’s American Son, Han Ong’s Fixer Chao, Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child, Ruth Ozeki’s All over Creation, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, Sunil Kuruvilla’s Rice Boy, Lydia Kwa’s This Place Called Absence, among others. Many of these authors are ones that have received very little critical attention even though their works present such rich terrains upon which to consider the complexities of globalization. While all the chapters provide spritely interpretative readings in which texts cannot be “fastened” within one context or sociocultural moment, some standouts include chapter 2’s “Recuperating Wretched Lives: Asian Sex Workers and the Underside of Nation Building” and chapter 5’s “Shape-shifters and Disciplined Bodies: Feminist Tactics, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.” Given the astonishing range of writings being produced, Ty’s conclusion offers a corrective to the concept of Asian American literature, offering that the rubric of “global novelist and global writing are more accurate for terms and for works” (131), especially with respect to the increasingly non-domestic contexts of many narratives. Ty leaves us then with the concept of the “Asian global” (133), conceptualized in part because such narratives “arise out of and are contingent upon globalization—the movement of people, capital, and production across the north and south—and because they are no longer located just in North America or Britain” (133). In ending this brief review, it would seem the possibility that Ty is pushing for a potentially new field rubric in which Asian global texts written in English appear front and center. In this way, the move to diasporic and transnational critiques which typically and traditionally have not shifted beyond a two-country paradigm can be supplanted with this Asian global literary studies model that pushes scholars to contextualize texts from multifocal spatial axes.

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Chandra Prasad’s Death of A Circus (Red Hen Press, 2006).

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

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

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

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

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Deanna Fei’s A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, 2010)

Six Chinese American female characters form the main narrative perspectives of Deanna Fei’s ambitious first novel, A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, 2010). There is the family matriarch, Lin Yulan, once a revolutionary for the nationalist party in China and her daughters Irene and Susan. Irene’s perspective opens the novel. She is a bereaved widow, looking to herself reconnect with her three daughters: Nora, a finance and marketing success and the eldest; Kay, the one most connected to her Chinese ethnic roots; and Sophie, the youngest, struggling with an eating disorder and just having been accepted to Stanford University. Irene’s grand plan to unite the family is to plan a trip to China, a venture in which only women will be invited. This detail would of course leave out the presence of the many boyfriends that populate the novel as well as Susan’s doting husband, Winston. Indeed, the male characters, if anything, end up as rather marginal figures, if only because their predicaments don’t drive the story; they become set pieces upon which Fei imparts what we might call six variants on Chinese American feminism. Indeed, Lin Yulan’s revolutionary past is one that sets the tone for the generations that follow as she raises both Irene and Susan to be independent women and to strive for careers and educations of their own. When Irene’s career as a scientist begins to flourish again, finding a renaissance after the birth of her first two children, she discovers she is pregnant with her third child. Irene’s mother, Lin, of course, wants her to abort the child, but Irene does not, and yet, despite Irene’s own commitment to raising a family, the values instilled in her by her mother regarding the importance of independence and self-sustainment are ones that are also handed down to her daughters. All three daughters are successful, but yet, they all remain somewhat aloof, not only from each other, but also from their mother. The tour to China presents the possibility that perhaps such a lengthy journey might bind them more strongly together. In this regard, the premise is set.

There are of course many other complications and all revolve in some form around romance and relationships (perhaps with the exception of Sophie, the youngest). Nora’s crumbling relationship with her Caucasian WASP-y husband, Jesse, leaves her in an escapist mindset when she assents to go on the tour, even after having been initially resistant. Kay possesses her own agendas about the impending trip, especially after having arranged a meeting with her grandfather while she was in China on a scholarship. Lin Yulan and her husband (Kay’s grandfather and also by extension also Nora’s and Sophie’s) parted on bad terms when she left for the United States, making Kay’s overtures both risky and we understand somewhat sentimental. Lin had been sick of living as a wife to a persistently philandering husband. Sophie would rather stay at home, getting prepared for her freshman year and developing a relationship with her African American boyfriend, Brandon. She also finds herself dealing with an eating disorder that arises not long after her father dies. Susan, a poet, although seemingly happily married to Winston, still finds herself thinking about an ill-conceived affair with a former creative writing student named Ernesto.

At one point early on in the novel, The Joy Luck Club is referenced. It is an apt moment that recalls the self-consciousness of many Asian American writers publishing today. In that novel, Jing-mei returns to China, sets foot on what is believed to be a kind of homeland, and finds some sort of resolution there within the last handful of pages. This kind of return journey is not the one that Fei has planned at all. Indeed, the tour of China is just the beginning of a narrative about the complications of intergenerational and intragenerational relationships between these Chinese American women. Fei lets her characters find footing by exposing their flaws as well as judiciously characterizing their various goals and motivations. The novel thus finds its surest stride within character construction.

But, there is of course, one other major “character” of sorts, which is the way in which Fei configures the tour of China. The complication being promoted here is one in which Chinese American women, especially the characters born in the United States, struggle to find clear and transparent attachments to nation and place. China is not a landscape that will yield so easily to them, but Fei is clear to mark them off differently than other tourists and mobile elites. Indeed, there is a large discourse related to China’s modernization that is being interrogated any time the six women find themselves in bazaars or markets, where global capitalism is ambivalently represented. There is a delicate balancing act in which characters like Kay desire to root out the problematic inequities arising out of China’s modernization, while at the same time, discovering that such problematics are difficult and thorny to address. The most compelling parts of the novel, I believe, are rooted here, especially when Kay attempts to constitute a mode of transnational feminism that is thwarted at almost every turn by the way in which upward mobility becomes one of the ways by which China’s future is brokered. The question of audience, too, might be raised here, as it is clear that Fei’s novel does not broker to presenting China as an exotic, unchanging landscape, one that can be claimed by the credit card. Rather, it is a complex and shifting space, one that is constantly being razed and rebuilt, preserved in some locations, but disintegrating in others.

A Thread of Sky does not conclude with any easy answers and instead leaves many open questions. It is also not a text of historically-infused cataclysmic events, but that’s not Fei’s fictional project. Indeed, the family “reunion” if anything cannot be categorized as wholly successful, and yet, in this suspended state of expectance, the novel resolutely moves outside of sentimentalism and resides in a domestic drama that unfolds unceasingly and with admirable restraint. In this regard, A Thread of Sky manages to offer a visually stunning tableau of China’s evolution in the 21st century without shifting into the superficiality of a travelogue, letting the reader’s sense of an already complex geography change as her characters do too.

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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered (Riverhead Books, 2010).

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

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

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

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A Review of Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins 2010).

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

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

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

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A Review of Sonya Chung’s Long for this World

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

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

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

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

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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.

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A Review of Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash (Graywolf Press, 2009).

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

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

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

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

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

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A Review of Ha Jin’s A Good Fall (November, Pantheon 2009)

After two partly overly long novels (at least in my estimation), Ha Jin returns with a spritely and witty short story collection, his first collection of short stories since The Bridegroom in 2000. Like A Free Life, the majority of the short stories take place in the United States, perhaps a clear shift then in Ha Jin’s approach to textual representation. In this case, all the stories are set in Flushing, New York. The majority of the stories seem to revolve around the problematics related to assimilation. In this regard, the collection is not far in its thematics to his previous novel, but the improvement here is in the scope and the narrative arc. Whereas A Free Life required Jin to sustain a compelling narrative premise over more than 600 pages, each intricate and more contained short story finds its own intimate footing. Most of the stories are concerned with various domestic squabbles. I’ll focus on the couple that I found most compelling. “Children as Enemies” is narrated from the perspective of a grandfather who finds the Americanization of his children appalling. The tension first appears when his two grandchildren desire “American” sounding names. The plot thickens once one of the children demands the family name to be changed as well. What is very clear in this story is that the children are seen as vessels devoid of any ethnonational pride; that is, they do not see themselves in Chinese in any way. If such is the matter, their repudiation of their names becomes symbolic of the repudiation, at least the grandfather rationalizes, of him and his wife. While the children are I would think pretty fairly demonized, I can’t help but also find it interesting that the grandparents would think that the children would remain so prideful of their Chinese background. I wondered if the dichotomy here was too stark in its representation. Either way, the tension that is set up and one wonders far long after the pages have ended to this short story, whether or not the children would remain so resistant to their ethnic backgrounds. “Choice” depicts a very complicated love triangle that develops between a tutor, his student and his student’s mother. While both the student and the student’s lover find themselves attracted to the tutor, the tutor’s “choice” of one of the two will lead to complicated entanglements. The conclusion to this story seemed especially fitting, although still in its own way surprising. “In the Crossfire” explores the challenging relationship between a husband, his wife, and the “mother-in-law.” The tension of course appears between the “wife” character and her mother-in-law, where nothing the wife seems to do is enough to please the mother-in-law and the mother-in-law’s treatment of the wife results in the wife’s plea for support from her husband. In this regard, the husband character is placed firmly in the middle, attempting to navigate such perilous waters. One of the most strangest, but heartwarming stories is “A Composer and His Parakeets,” in which an actress leaves behind her pet parakeet to her boyfriend, who is a composer. At first the boyfriend-composer is really put off by having to take care of the pet parakeet, but the parakeet soon develops a very strong bond to the boyfriend-composer that culminates in a daring sequence in which the boyfriend-composer performs a kind of CPR on the bird. In any case, the short stories in “A Good Fall” are just right in terms of their length and tone. It is clear that Jin excels in this particular form because the quiet domesticities of the everyday can find firmer footing in a narrative space with more restricted “economy.” Perhaps, the one short story that was a disappointment was “An English Professor,” only because I had held out hope that the story might be something quite germane to the politics of Asian American literary critique, especially as one paragraph reveals that a character teaches Asian American literature:

“He went to Whitney Hall, where he was teaching his immigrant literature course this semester. Today the class was discussing America is In the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan. Rusheng spoke at length about the problems in choosing the form of fiction or that of nonfiction. Bulosan originally wrote his story as a novel, but the press persuaded him to publish it as a memoir. The same thing happened to other books by Asian American authors—for instance, The Woman Warrior. That was why the writer Frank Chin claimed: ‘The yellow autobiography is a white racist form’” (142).

It is clear though that Jin’s awareness of and references to an Asian American literary history is his avowal of a taxonomy that he himself will and is coming to be classified within and that such classification will indeed be of a political sort.

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Ha Jin
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 A Review of Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf, 2009).


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


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


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 A Review of Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Simon and Schuster, 2009).

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


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


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


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[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
 A Review of Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian 100% Hapa (Chronicle Books, 2006).


Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian 100% Hapa is really a visual treatise on the complication of being a mixed-race Asian American in the contemporary moment.  In the sprightly introduction, Fulbeck writes, “Our country is lazy.  And I’m not talking about obesity levels.  I’m talking ‘whatever.’  We’re uncomfortable with people who don’t fit neatly into boxes because when they don’t do so, it requires effort on our part.  It’s easier to keep things uncomplicated, trouble free.  We ask people how they’re doing when most of the time we don’t really want to know” (12).  This statement addresses the state of people’s tragically short-sided conceptions of race, where individuals who do not conform to a particular phenotype therefore become “problems” and difficult to approach.  In this regard, the mixed-race Asian American must face these daily challenges, often where fitting into a prescribed “culture” does not come so easily or automatically.  As Fulbeck continues on his autobiographical polemic, “What are you?  And we know we can’t answer it any more than we can choose one body part over another.  We love the question.  We hate the question.  And we know many times people aren’t satisfied with our answers” (13).  Fulbeck seems to suggest that such a schizophrenic existence is at the core of many hapas’ experiences.  In this regard, Fulbeck’s project to photograph individuals of varing racial and ethnic “mixtures” serves really as a way to embrace those that defy boundaries and expected “norms.” 


What is perhaps most fascinating about the book is how it plays out in some voyeurstic fashion.  As the introduction gives way to Sean Lennon’s forward and then to a gallery of many face shots, the experience is much connected to the preconceived notions of the viewers.  Fulbeck makes sure to include alongside each picture another page where the individual who was photographed has a chance to describe himself or herself in his/her own words.  Above these “self-identifying” statements, Fulbeck breaks down each individual’s racial/ethnic backgrounds.  By giving us these various informational blocks alongside the face portraits, one necessarily has to query the notion that there is any norm from which to situate the mixed-race Asian American “appearance.”  In this multiplicity, Fulbeck is undermining any inherent essence to the hapa phenotype and indeed exposing the readers’ desire to decode “race” or “ethnicity” in any particular way.  The photographs themselves are quite stunning in their unadornment.  Besides the strong lighting and direct countenances of all the subjects, they were also instructed to look as if they were not wearing any shirts or blouses (or tops), exposing as much skin surface as possible in the face portraits.  I am including some of the portraits that came with the publicity kit so you can get a sense of those photos, but recall again, that there is some typescript information that comes with the photos.  The sequencing is not made clear to the viewer, but one continues if only to continually observe the vast array of countenances offered here and we know then in this diverse assemblage that Fulbeck has demonstrated how there is “no right answer” to the question of “who are you,” only many, many complicated ones.  If there is one connecting element in all the photos, it is that very few are visibly smiling and most do not show any teeth at any point, so we know that this isn’t some sort of glamour photo shoot.  The production values of the book are first rate and it comes to mind that this book and Todd Shimoda’s Oh! do show us a very marked attention to aesthetic qualities that I haven’t quite wrapped my head around enough when thinking about the marketing and final presentation of “cultural productions.” 


As I have been thinking more and more about the importance of visual culture in the arena of Asian American literary production, I can’t help but think that this would of course be yet another indispensable addition to a course designed to explore how visuality and “text” intertwine. 

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


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


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


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


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

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




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


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


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


Here some other reviews and interviews related to the Book:








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