[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (University of Wesleyan Press, 2009).

Kazim Ali is a particularly prolific writer, having published five full-length books within the last decade, including two poetry collections (The Far Mosque and The Fortieth Day), two novels (Quinn’s Passage, which was reviewed earlier on this community, and The Disappearance of Seth), as well as the current title I am reviewing, the creative non-fictional “text,” Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. In thinking back to Fred Wah and his “biofiction,” we might put Ali’s book in a similar category, except for this work treads more closely alongside poetry in its attention to line breaks and word density. It is not unlike the “form” Ali has used for both Quinn’s Passage and The Disappearance of Seth, where line breaks after practically every successive sentence or sentiment. If there is a loose autobiographical narrative running through, we can first interrogate it through the subtitle that links life-writing to urban centers, where we come to understand that the “I” of Bright Felon has resided in six cities in the span of five years. Consequently, most chapters are titled with a certain city in mind, whether it is New York City, Cairo, and Paris. In these various urban centers, the readers are treated to an intensively meditative work, often stream-of-consciousness in their sequencing, and effecting something of a dream-like quality to this particular life and to these particular experiences. Of this formal and tonal impulse, one looks to this line: “Eventually novels would evaporate into politics, politics would splinter into poetry” (80) and here we begin to excavate the writerly architecture of Ali’s work, where we are reminded that cities are constantly built atop each other as are the bodies that must inhabit them. In this keen attention to architecture and the urban space, especially across vast geographical terrains, I am reminded of Lawrence Chua’s Gold by the Inch, where the brother of the unnamed narrator-protagonist is an architect. At one point in that novel, a building collapses (also reminiscent of a moment in Hagedorn’s Dogeaters) and there is that understanding that one builds atop other deconstructions and disintegrations. Bright Felon, on the other hand, shifts architecture also into a different register where the fragmented self (rather than the perhaps aptly referenced alienated modernist subject that seems to haunt as a specter throughout the autobiography through references to Marianne Moore, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and others) attempts some form of articulation, a mode of speaking that while not grammatically or syntactically “normative,” nevertheless seeks to interrogate a labyrinthine world of racism, cultural distancing, familial rupture, homophobia, and religious persecutions. This context is further complicated by much of the post-9/11 awareness that pervades the work, where mosques are desecrated and the “narrator” reveals his own sense of disorientation and instability. The familial rupture that clearly energizes the text relates specifically to the encounter between the “narrator” and his family, especially his father, as it is suggested that there cannot be a queer individual and at the same time be Muslim, that is to have a kind of spiritual faith. The conclusion leaves us with the possibility though of claiming one’s multifaceted identity and that such a leap sometimes requires the sacrifice of blood ties. Even in the dark abyss that seemingly confronts the queer Asian American figure forefronted by Ali’s autobiography, we yet still see the “bright felon” that refuses to dim. I love this book and I am teaching it this quarter!

Buy the Book Here:


[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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April 2019

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