Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air

In his meditative memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016), Paul Kalanithi examines his life's striving for meaning, experiences, and an understanding of identity and death.



Although there are certainly a number of other excellent writers who are doctors with whom we might compare Kalanithi's brief volume (such as Abraham Verghese, who provides a foreword to the memoir, or Sanjay Gupta, whom Kalanithi references in his book), I found that Kalanithi's perspective called to mind most readily Vikram Chandra's Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, another memoir in which novelist Chandra explores his experiences and perspective as a software engineer on his sense of narrative and fiction writing. In both Kalanithi and Chandra's memoirs, there is a deep sense of expertise and embeddedness in the vocabulary of a distinctly nonliterary worldview that nevertheless comes along with a deep love of literature, metaphor, and the cadences of poetic lines. Indeed, Kalanithi recounts in the first half of the book how he studied both literature and biology as a double major in college, pursuing a master's in literature as well before turning an undivided attention to medicine for the next decade of his life. For him, literature is what makes meaning of experiences in people's lives; still, he felt an urgent need also to have those experiences, to dive into the stuff of life more than simply reflect upon it and come to deeper understandings.

As he found himself drawn to medicine, Kalanithi settled into neurosurgery as the specialization that best encapsulated his sense of how science and modern technology seeks to make sense of the sublime emergence of identity and meaning from the very material substance of the brain. There is a little something too neat in his retrospective narration of his career trajectory.... but clearly this was the experience of a young man who knew what he wanted to do at each step of his life, even if longer term goals were not always immediately apparent.

There is a lot to say about this memoir, especially Kalanithi's utterly beautiful language. One sample:
Before operating on a patient's brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another's cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
These are lines not meant simply to convey a thought but also to reach for that ineffable power of poetic language, strings of words that mean more than what they say. Additionally, Kalanithi ruminates on the origins and valences of significant words that he uses—patient and disaster, for instance—along with careful framing of his words with literary epigraphs and references to canonical works of English literature (T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land makes a few appearances, for example).

And perhaps most powerfully for me, Kalanithi writes about the importance of compassion in the work of doctors. This is a topic that is big in the medical humanities, of course, but one that seems to be a source of constant stress for those in the medical field due to overwork and the workings of the mind that tend to dampen doctors' ability to connect emotionally with their patients, sometimes as a way of preserving the doctors' own sense of self and worth. Speaking with another resident who could not admit that he messed up, Kalanithi said:
"All you have to do," I said, "is look me in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry. What happened was my fault, and I won't let it happen again.'"
This ability to accept responsibility for mistakes was at the core of Kalanithi's conception of the good doctor. It is not enough to be an excellent technician or even to have the best bedside manner if doctors cannot deal with the fact that they themselves will slip up, and those mistakes will lead to serious consequences and death for some of their patients.

See also stephenhongsohn's review of Kalanithi's memoir.
  • Current Mood: indescribable indescribable

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 18, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 18, 2016

In this review post, all PENGUIN titles, including: Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (Penguin Books, 2014); Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine (Penguin Paperback, 2015); Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016); Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (The Penguin Press, 2014).

As a note, I always make a quick comment before any Penguin title to plug their CFIS program which gives qualified instructors 5 free exam copies per year. Because of this policy, I have been easily able to add new books to my courses routinely. The CFIS staff are wonderfully responsive and Penguin has the best exam copy hands down of any of the major presses. W.W. Norton is probably just behind.

For more on CFIS, go here:

http://www.penguin.com/services-academic/cfis/

A Review of Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (Penguin Books, 2014).




So, I’ve been working ever so slowly through The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (trans. By Jonathan Wright). I generally avoid reading works in translation. Having some facility in other languages, I have noted how often I have disagreed with other translators’ in the ways that they have shifted meaning from on language to another, but I realize that if I let this be the measure of how and what I choose to read, I would have never read Haruki Murakami, so I can’t let this rule be steadfast. On this level, I definitely broke that rule to read this work, which was both rewarding but also frightening. Blasim seems intent on unsettling the apolitical reader, who engages literature, especially fiction, as a mode of entertainment. There is much that is meta about this work, as many of the stories involves writers and artists, who themselves are wondering about the need or the nature of their disciplines and interests in times of war and violence. As for the collection’s relationship to the other aesthetic forms and genres: a number of the stories do have speculative impulses. The story I found the most fascinating in that regard was “A Thousand and One Wives.” Was this story a riff off of Scheherazade or not, I wasn’t quite sure because the narrative itself was so quirky, yet fitting. There was a point in the story at which the characters themselves wonder what the meaning of their special powers might be. I wondered, too, about the ways that the powers of making knives disappear and reappear seemed to be related to gender, until the last line of the story revealing that the narrator’s male child has the power to make knives reappear. The other element to this collection that I found difficult to get through were the various ways in which violence and torture were depicted, but there’s something going on here about the ways that writers are engaging these scenes of brutality as a mode of social critique. When I was reading Ali Eteraz’s recent novel, Native Believer, I was astonished and supremely uncomfortable when there was a waterboarding scene that was basically used as a way for two male characters to gain a sort of intimacy with each other. There was also a definite homoerotic impulse to that scene, but I wasn’t quite sure about what to do with such depictions. A similar issue arises in this particular collection, especially the first story, “The Corpse Exhibition,” but others as well that continually bring up the spectacular ways that a body can be tortured or a dead body put on display. Others involve elements such as cannibalism (“The Hole”) or suicide bombing (“Iraqi Christ”), but all seem to be twisting these narratives in such a way as to open up some sort of philosophical inquiry into death, dying, and destruction. What is the purpose of such scenes of subjection and power, violence and grotesquerie? “The Nightmare of Carlos Fuentes” was another really wonderful story, especially one that got into traumatic manifestations in terms of the latency affect. I also found it interesting on the level of racial representation, as we find someone of a particular Middle Eastern background passing for Spanish. Here, we have another form of racialization that has been going on, but hasn’t been quite theorized at least stateside with respect to the movement beyond the Chicano/ Latino; Af Am; Asian Am; Native Am; and indigenous axes. As a whole, this collection will offer much for classroom discussion in particular, given these rich and often not fully resolved short narratives.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-corpse-exhibition-hassan-blasim/1115811863


A Review of Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine (Penguin Paperback, 2015).




So, I will occasionally read material that’s not quite Asian American per se, but nevertheless has content that’s obviously germane to our faithful readers! Here’s the description over from B&N: “One afternoon, not long after Kelly Thorndike has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, an African American man he doesn't recognize calls out to him. To Kelly’s shock, the man identifies himself as Martin, who was one of Kelly’s closest friends in high school—and, before his disappearance nearly twenty years before, white and Jewish. Martin then tells an astonishing story: after years of immersing himself in black culture, he’s had a plastic surgeon perform ‘racial reassignment surgery’: altering his hair, skin, and physiognomy to allow him to pass as African American. Unknown to his family or childhood friends, Martin has been living a new life ever since. Now, however, Martin feels he can no longer keep his identity a secret; he wants Kelly to help him ignite a controversy that will help sell racial reassignment surgery to the world. Inventive and thought-provoking, Your Face in Mine is a brilliant novel about cultural and racial alienation and the nature of belonging in a world where identity can be a stigma or a lucrative brand.” What this plot summary doesn’t do at all is open up a can of warms the size of Texas (or any other large state) concerning the fact that the novel uses its fictional premise to compare racial reassignment to transgender identity. Row wants us to consider whether or not there is any essential difference between wanting to transition one’s race and wanting to transition one’s gender. Rather than hazarding my own perspective on the topic, Row ultimately does bring up some of the challenges of racial reassignment as a fictional possibility. That is, the scientific community has hardly embraced research that might point in this direction, thus leaving this work somewhere in the nether regions between realism and speculative fiction. Row’s strength is in the utility of multiple narrative discourses: we have first person autodiegetic narration, transcripts of interviews, excerpts from scientific articles, excerpts from dissertations, which all reveal the multitextured world we’re struggling to stay afloat in. The conclusion made me want to hurl the book across the room to be honest, as the novel went in a direction that I’d already expected it to early on, but the fact remains: this book will certainly spur deep discussions concerning identities and how they are socially constructed, what identity transitions we might recognize and others we deem to be problematic. For those wondering about its connection to Asian American literature fans, there are characters who are of Asian backgrounds seeking “racial reassignment,” and then there’s the fact of the main character himself who is married to a Chinese woman. This relationship becomes an important facet of the concluding arc and brings to mind whether or not we still have to have a conversation of what American Orientalism means in the 21st century.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-face-in-mine-jess-row/1117229985

A Review of Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016)




So, I was having a weird Saturday: the kind that comes with eating too much food in the early afternoon and then wanting to pass out on the couch in the living room. What better thing to do while waiting to pass out then start reading a novel? That’s never a good idea for me because I have reading addiction. When I started reading Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016), which is his second publication after Family Planning (which we reviewed here on AALF awhile back), I figured I would read about 50 pages or so and then fall asleep. That didn’t happen. Instead, I got to page 75, then made myself stop reading, moved into a different room entirely, and made myself try to nap. The premise, via B&N, is this: “When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many ‘small’ bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.” What’s interesting about this description is that it neglects to name the parents of the children, who are essentially four of the main characters in the novel. Tushar and Nakul Khurana’s parents are Deepa and Vikas. In the wake of the tragedy, they obviously suffer incredible grief. Each character falls to forms of disintegration at different times, but their mourning takes a different turn when Deepa becomes pregnant with a third child. The novel takes a darker turn once about a decade has passed and Mansoor has returned to India after schooling. His parents, Sharif and Afsheen, are naturally concerned for him because his interest in computer programming cannot be pursued due to a repetitive use injury that first began due to his experience in the bombing. Mansoor’s time in recovery encourages him to find other venues to socialize, and he turns to a social justice advocacy group that attempts to overturn court cases against Muslims. Here the novel is very much exploring how racial formation in India operates through religious identifications. Part of Mansoor’s attraction to this group is that it is looking to watch out for Muslims, who have been targeted especially in the period following terrorist attacks in India and abroad. But, Mahajan’s larger point—and surely, this point is a going to be a thorny one—is portraying a kind of retrogressive circuitousness to these various social justice groups. Even Deepa and Vikas eventually start their own support group for those affected by terrorist bombings, from whence the name of the novel comes. Yet Mahajan is more intent to deconstruct the motives for these groups, especially as the very goals that they aim for never seem to be achieved. In the case of the bomber Shockie, he necessarily must target Muslims as well as Hindus because he cannot delineate how a particular detonation will function. For their part, Deepa and Vikas’s support group becomes a kind of crutch that enables them to wallow in a lurid fascination with terrorist bombings. In other words, it seems to enable rather than to work through their collective melancholias. Mahajan’s novel thus has an incredibly naturalistic impulse, but where the novel seems to gain the most purchase is when it more expansively considers why Muslims choose to radicalize. Shockie’s interiorities thus become part of the crucial center of the novel, revealing the incredibly complicated border dynamics between India and other countries like Pakistan. Unfortunately, these sections do not appear with as much frequency in this novel, so this narrative might actually pair quite well with another I read: Fatima Bhutto’s Shadow of the Crescent. These novels seem to present two sides of a similar issue: those who radicalize, on the one hand, and the incredible collateral damage that results when those who radicalize carry out their goals, on the other.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-association-of-small-bombs-karan-mahajan/1122226332


A Review of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (The Penguin Press, 2014).




This review I wrote ages ago, but never posted it, probably because Plyduck posted one first, but I never got back on the ball to eventually put it up. At the heart of Celeste Ng’s tragic, but assured debut is a dysfunctional mixed-race Asian American family. It is the late 1970s. When the middle child Lydia Lee is found dead, floating in a local lake, the novel unfurls like an onion. Each major character offers a perspective that deepens the problems and tensions existing in the Lee family. The father, James Lee, a professor of American history, struggles all of his life as an “Oriental,” breaking barriers for others after him. His wife, Marilyn, a smart and non-traditional woman, begins to suffer under the desultory routine of being a stay-at-home mom; she yearns to return to her academic studies, which were derailed when she became pregnant with their first child (Nath, a boy). The family is rounded out with the youngest, Hannah, a pensive child who hides herself and is for the most part a quiet, introspective and introverted observer. The third person narrator continually roves through these various characters and each perspective shift offers more detail and more nuances to this family’s struggles. James, for instance, is engaging in an extramarital affair as a way to escape the complications existing in the home space. Marilyn finds herself obsessed with figuring out what happened to her daughter, especially because she invested so much of her time and energy into ensuring that Lydia would not follow the same path she did. But here is the root of the trouble: Lydia bears the burden of a motherly dream that begins to crush her. From there, it becomes evident that Lydia seeks her own form of escape, thus revealing yet another secret enfolding the Lee family. Ng’s work is powerful, definitely one of the strongest debut novels I have read in a long time and certainly a novel that I intend to incorporate in future classes. Alongside with Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Leonard Chang’s Triplines, Ng’s Everything I never told you is part of a set of incredibly multifaceted representations of the Asian American family. I have no doubts that her novel and the others will also become the center of critical attention in future years.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Never-Told-You-Novel/dp/159420571X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404247961&sr=8-1&keywords=celeste+ng

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 13, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 13, 2016

In this post reviews of Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books); Jenn P. Nguyen’s The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016); Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, 2016); Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).

A Review of Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books)




So I’ve been catching up on the Asian American poets being published out of Four Way, slowly but surely, and Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books) was next up on my list. Based upon the title, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into because this collection is obviously far more than about blood and birds. This kind of collection is one that leaves you a little bit out of breath because the lyrics are so utterly ferocious: you have a lyric speaker that is obviously working through a very traumatic past, one which includes domestic violence and parental abandonment. Issues related to the speaker’s ethnoracial background are also very subtly woven in, so that you can tell that there are Korean American and Korean transnational cultural contexts being invoked. If the title does key the reader into certain themes that the collection will engage, they are related to brutality—hence the reference to blood—and religion—as, sparrows are emblematic of the divine in some circles. For the lyric speaker, there is an obvious desire to make sense out of the turbulence of her childhood: what better way to reconstruct some semblance of order out of chaos than through poetry, she seems to suggest, especially since the project she sets out to complete is obviously so tortured. There is so much to patch together we begin to realize, so the lyrics begin to lose some coherence, yet accrue the proper sublimity and tonality for what is at stake here. An example of what I mean emerges perhaps best in “We Called it the Year of Birthing” (66), which begins with an ominous enough phrase: “God handed me a trash bag bloated with feathers” and proceeds to direct the lyric speaker to create a bird from the contents. This opening is later referenced elliptically through a later stanza: “When beaten hard enough, some people scamper into corners/ sordid with similar beaten people. Others of us—/the stubborn, unbreakable humans—weld our wounds/ to form tools. Then we spend our days mending bent humans or wiping the humans/ mired by all the wrong fingerprints” (66). To a certain extent, the bag of feathers given to the lyric speaker by God seems to suggest that He’ll be giving her a life in which she will have to make something out of broken parts, leftover things which are already starting to decay. The power of Leigh’s work is that she gives her lyric speaker the chance to find strength in remaking wounds into something new, perhaps even beautiful in these twisted reconfigurations. Is this approach not the best a confessional poet can do in the face of such great trauma? This collection is a perfect fit amongst the others I’ve read from Four Way Books; the editors and publishers of the press are well aware of the ways that confessional poets lyrically confront such deep wounds to remind us that the elegance is in how we choose to recover.

Buy the Book Here:

http://fourwaybooks.com/site/blood-sparrows-sparrows/


A Review of Jenn P. Nguyen’s The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016).




So, I’ll admit: at first, I really wanted to hate Jenn P. Nguyen’s debut young adult fiction The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016).  This novel emerges out of a new era in publishing that is somewhat crowd-sourced in the sense that you can put manuscripts online and have people vote on them and provide feedback. Those manuscripts that receive the most readings, support, and votes in online contests have a chance to be published. Swoon Reads is one of the imprints devoted to this new model of publishing, and Nguyen’s debut emerged as one of the first titles to appear. So, why did I want to hate this novel? For starters, the protagonist and one of two narrators is a high school student named Taylor, who is absolutely convinced that she’s going to be a lawyer, that she’s going to Columbia, even though she got wait-listed, and that she’s far above the high school classmate she wakes up in bed with one morning after a night out partying. Taylor comes off as entitled and certainly not far from the “ice queen” moniker she’s been given, but when she comes up with the idea that she’s going to pretend that she’s actually in a relationship with the guy she ended up falling into bed with (a popular high school lothario named Evan), I didn’t know if I could take much more of this character. In any case, Taylor’s motive for pretending that she’s in a relationship with Evan is to repair her damaged reputation. The thing is: Taylor didn’t sleep with Evan, even though it seems as if she might have. But, the damage has already been done, so she thinks that if she’s actually seen to be in an actual relationship with Evan, then she might have a chance to change the minds of her judgmental peers. In fictional worlds, this kind of plan obviously will work, and of course, the formula for the young adult romance is set into motion. Sometimes formula can seem repetitive and thus boring, but Nguyen really manages to make it work, making Taylor much more likable over time, and even making Evan seem far more complex that he at first comes off. Of course, Nguyen builds in romance triangles into both sides of the “fake romance” equation. Taylor’s competition for Valedictorian is none other than the smart, but cute Brian, while Evan still maintains a connection to a former fling, the more sexually available Lauren. Each character also has a key bestie: Taylor’s is Carly, who is the one to encourage Taylor to get out of her shell, go to the party that ultimately gets her in trouble, and later suggests Taylor “game” the titular “walk of shame” by propositioning Evan with the fake contract. For his part, Evan’s “bro” is Aaron, a football player, who manages somehow to provide sage wisdom at precisely the right time. While Taylor and Evan seem to be polar opposites—she’s smart, he’s not; he’s popular, she’s not—we know Nguyen is setting us up to see that they’re actually “tailor” made for each other. Both come from non-traditional families, and each sees in the other something inspirational, something different, and something that will help him/ her to grow. I’ll admit: Evan’s evolution as a character was the most difficult to swallow, even as I cheered this kind of developmental trajectory onward, as you can’t help but want Taylor to find someone to balance her “type A” ways. If there are other issues to discuss, it’s that thorny question of race in a seemingly racially unmarked world. I don’t recall ever having a moment where it was clear that there was anyone at all racially marked at any point in any manner, except perhaps by surnames. Even in these cases, it wasn’t clear if these characters were racial minorities. Should racial representation matter at all, or does this kind of racial evacuation evince some sort of rhetoric of blindness that can occur through a specific narrative discourses? These questions always emerge at the forefront for me, as I read and consider whether or not I would teach a text like this one, especially from an author, who is, whether or not she identifies as so or not, Asian American. In any case, for fans of young adult fiction in general, this particular publication is sure to please readers, especially those in interested in teen courtship plots.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-way-to-game-the-walk-of-shame-jenn-p-nguyen/1122142279?ean=9781250084071

A Review of Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, 2016).




So, as I mentioned in another review, I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction and children’s literature to get my mind off the serious work that is revising cultural criticism (especially my own terribly bad writing). I basically compiled a stack of about 20 books or so that I’m working through at night when I need my brain to shut off. The next up on the list was Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks, which had a really intriguing title. I didn’t really understand the premise until about fifty pages in, and then, I thought, uh oh, here we have another superhero mash-up novel. In any case, we’ll let B&N provide us some important contextual details: “England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they're not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true—and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared. Jane Austen meets X-Men in These Vicious Masks, the thrilling Victorian adventure from debut authors Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas!”  I really appreciated the fact that the description completely owned up to the fact that the novel is definitely inspired by something like the X-Men series, which I have mentioned in the past (and in lectures) is a comic that I grew up reading, never quite understanding the impact of it until much later on. The real draw for readers will be the mash-up of the detective story with superhero elements: many of our central characters have a special power, but sometimes are unaware of it, just like our heroine Evelyn Wyndham. Though the first half of the plot is very intriguing—indeed, we’re driven as readers to figure out the importance of the superpowers especially in relation to Rose’s disappearance—the detective aspect begins to wear thin. The novel spends hundreds of pages involved in a singular quest: Evelyn’s desire to find her sister Rose. Though Shanker and Zekas are deft in their abilities to pepper in the appropriate romantic tension between Evelyn and Braddock, the quest plot did begin to feel burdensome for me, as I desired to figure out if she would ever be reunited with Rose and whether or not we would ever really figure out why she’d been kidnapped. We eventually discover that there’s a mad scientist (named Dr. Beck), who’s been conducting experiments with individuals who have begun to express their superpowers. He believes that these genetic developments are something called “saltation,” which is his fancy way of suggesting that humans are evolving into “leaner, meaner, fighting machines.” Evelyn and Rose, being sisters, have the same powers of healing, while Braddock, we discover, is someone who can cause other people in his vicinity to fall to sickness. Other “mutants” inhabiting this fictional world include a goon-like giant with super strength, a villain with the ability to teleport, and perhaps the most important in terms of the novel’s title is someone who is able to master the ability to disguise herself. To be sure, Shanker and Zekas will still have time to establish more of the potential inherent in this world, so even as I found myself disappointed by some of the pacing, I’m definitely eager to see where the writers will move in the next installment. A promising, if uneven, YA debut. The sequel is tentatively titled These Ruthless Deeds!

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/these-vicious-masks-tarun-shanker/1121444415#productInfoTabs


A Review of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).




Well, I’ll admit I don’t know what to make yet of this collection, through I’m determined to teach this collection alongside another this fall in my trauma theory course precisely because it presents so many questions about war and the ways that it can be depicted, especially through lyric. Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (after her debut The Morning News is Exciting). Perhaps Choi’s most obvious lyric trademarks here are her use of wordplay—especially the use of adverbs—her interest in interlingual poetics, as well as a desire to confound simplistic understandings of war. The one thing I keep coming back to is the use of the adverb “hardly” as it reverberates throughout the collection. Why use a word like that to describe war, especially the wars that are engaged: the Korean and the Vietnam wars? Indeed, Choi embeds the photographs taken by her father of those war periods as the scaffolding upon which prose poems are built or at least patched together. But, upon a little bit more reflection, it becomes clear that the collection is titled “hardly” war because there is no way to engage this kind of experience in any streamlined, direct way. Choi is aware that her work as a poet and as an archivist can only scratch the surface of loss, brutality, and violence that occurred during these wars. The lyrics related to these wars are thus “hardly” able to do what Choi might consider a representational justice to what occurred. The illogic of war is made apparent through what seems to be nonsensical stanzas and lines that continually pop up, but undergirding this playful language is Choi’s point: the sinister undercurrent is that war is hardly justifiable, hardly transparent, hardly understood. One of the best (and chilling I might add) poems in the collection is the unrelenting “Suicide Parade,” which I reproduce part of here:

Father—Cyanide=
Let’s take a closer look at the most feared weapon used by the U.S. in the
Korean War, a gelling powder composed of naphthalene and palmitate
(hence napalm)
65% oleic acid + 30% coconut fatty acid + 5% naphthenic acid
necessitates most arguably necessary clinging burning
necessitates gasoline and stirring (hence gasstir)
which is to say South Korean laborers funnel napalm powder into gasoline tanks


Together, the lines eventually accrue a kind of lyric frenzy that might leave the reader exhausted and assaulted, but that is perhaps the “cruelly optimistic” point. The avant-garde and interlingual character of this collection will no doubt be of interest to Asian American poets and scholars, who have reveled in the work of Myung Mi Kim and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.wavepoetry.com/products/hardly-war


AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com
), who is the social media liaison, expert, and active reviewer. Current, active as well previous reviewers have included (but are not necessarily limited to):

Sue J. Kim, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Jennifer Ann Ho, Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill
Betsy Huang, Associate Professor, Clark University
Nadeen Kharputly, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego
Annabeth Leow, Coterminal MA Student, Stanford University

Asian American Literature Fans can also be found on other social networking sites such as:

Goodreads (with a bad heading because it is not Stephen Hong Sohn’s blog):

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1612536.Stephen_Hong_Sohn/blog


Twitter:

https://twitter.com/asianamlitfans?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor


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Shobha Rao's An Unrestored Woman

Shobha Rao's An Unrestored Woman (Flatiron Books, 2016) is a collection of short stories exploring how the Partition of India has impacted individuals and their relationships from 1947 through the following generations. The stories are somewhat linked, with a character in one story popping up in another, usually as a minor character. I like this form for a collection because it suggests interconnections between people and lives, even if they may not know anything about each other's pasts and experiences. (Other short story collections reviewed here have used this form as well.)

shobha rao"s an unrestored woman

There is not a lot of hope in this collection--the stories illustrate a lot of cruelty in humanity and a sense of powerlessness in the face of both world-historical events and the unsavory actions of individuals. However, hidden in each of the stories is a solid sense of how people persevere. They may not thrive or achieve (happiness, greatness, etc.), but they continue on, sometimes even to escape a difficult situation for another, less horrible one.

The title of the collection (and of its lead story) comes from the 1949 Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act in India, as the author points out in a prefatory note. This act sought to find the thousands of women in India and Pakistan who were abducted and violated after Partition. As Rao notes, however, "Though the commonly used term for these women is recovered women, I have chosen to refer to them as restored. The distinction may seem trivial, but it is necessary, for I believe that while the recovery of a person is possible, the restoration of a human being to her original state is not." As this perspective suggests, the loss experienced by these women and indeed the entire subcontinent due to the violence of Partition is something that cannot be fully redressed. Instead, what seems to be available to the individuals, their families, and the generations of South Asians that follow is act of chronicling, of narrating, and of illuminating the violence and the losses.

Some of the stories are set during Partition, featuring characters who are making a journey between India and Pakistan. At least a couple of the stories center on the violence inflicted by mobs on travelers on trains. The title story begins with Neela hearing that her husband has been lost in one of these attacks. And in "Kavitha and Mustafa," a married woman flees a train car being robbed with a young boy she initially assumed was also Hindu but then learned was an orphaned Muslim boy on his way across the border to Pakistan.

Each of these stories set in the mid-twentieth century has a linked story featuring characters decades later, often in a diasporic setting (the United States or England), when the individuals who experienced some form of violence during the Partition have survived and lived to join their children who have settled abroad. However, the stories do not trace a triumphalist trajectory for these families, suggesting that the younger generations have found peace and happiness outside of a violent homeland. Instead, these characters encounter their own violence at the hands of other people, such as enduring sexual assault in childhood ("Unleashed," "Blindfold," and "The Opposite of Sex").

The stories address some interesting aspects of Partition and its effects on people. For instance, the narrator of "The Lost Ribbon" is an old woman speaking of what she did when she had been kidnapped and kept captive as a sex slave in Pakistan. At one point, a soldier from the Indian Army approaches the house where she is kept and tells her that they can save her and send her to India, but as part of the treaties between the two countries, her child must stay behind. In "The Opposite of Sex," the protagonist is a cartographer who helps demarcate the line between Indian and East Pakistan, and driven by his desires for a woman he glimpses in one village, he redraws the boundaries in an attempt to derail her upcoming nuptials to someone else and to win her for himself. However, the slight alterations he made lead to disastrous consequences in the village, inciting violence in a heretofore peaceable population.

One thing that stuck out to me in the collection was how homosexuality plays out in unsavory ways as much as heterosexual desire is also always destructive and unsavory. There is perhaps only one glimpse of redemptive love in the character of Renu, who first apepars in the camp for refugees and unrestored women where she befriends Neela and shows her the intimacy of sharing a bed in contrast to the coldness of how Neela's husband uses her body and ignores her need for love. Renu's story is illustrated more fully in the story that follows, in "The Merchant's Mistress," where her unbridled sexuality allows her some moments of peace and happiness in being the mistress to both the merchant's wife and the merchant himself.

However, when it comes to love between men, there is a strong undercurrent of suffering and underhandedness. In "The Imperial Police," the protagonist Jenkins is a white British imperial police officer who pines after Abheet Singh, an officer under his command. Singh's death at the hands of rioters is perhaps a function not just of the ethnic-religious unrest of Partition but also the wayward desires of Jenkins. In "The Memsahib," the protagonist Arun pines after a white woman Lavinia who is the daughter of the family he and his mother serve in their large estate. She, of course, has no eyes for him and instead becomes engaged to another British colonialist. Arun discovers that her husband-to-be is actually in an amorous relationship with Lavinia's brother, but when he tries to save her by telling her this most shocking secret, she scoffs and reveals that she knows all about their dalliances but is only interested in the man's money and what it means for her future. This darkness sets Arun on a decidedly ugly path of revenge.

The writing in this collection is truly stunning, and that the language turns over and over through some truly awful situations and behaviors (people are not good in this book!) is what makes it so powerful if difficult to read.

See also stephenhongsohn's review of this collection.
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Allen Gee's My Chinese-America: Essays

I found Allen Gee's My Chinese-America: Essays (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2015) at my public library while browsing the shelves. The book is a collection of eleven personal essays in which Gee thinks through Chinese American identity and heterosexual masculinity in the context of a range of experiences, historical events, and literary texts.

my chinese-america book cover

Many of the essays seem to center on mainstream white Americans' perceptions of Asians--those bugbears of perpetual foreignness and emasculation--and Gee counters these stereotypes with assertions of his humanity and strength. For example, Gee narrates his resilience and virility with respect to white authority figures (state trooper in "Profile"), desirable white women ("Osaka"), and white/black/brown boys and men who are various kinds of competitors ("Fraught with Masculinity," "Point Guard," and "By 2042"). And in "Asians in the Library," he offers a reading of the infamous YouTube video in which a white female student at UCLA ranted about Asians in the library, juxtaposing her mobilization of tried-and-true stereotypes and fears of invading Asians with Jimmy Wong's musical parody response to the video.

The most memorable essays for me were the ones in which Gee explored his family's stories ("Is It Safe There?" and "Silences") and his own idiosyncratic place in America ("The Real New South"). In "Is It Safe There?," Gee takes as a starting point an anecdote of how his white friends at a conference location asked him to find them a dim sum place for dinner and then proceeded to ask him if Chicago's Chinatown was a safe place for them to visit. The essay then focuses on his experience of New York City's Chinatown in Manhattan, and he describes it as a racial safe haven for him as a young Chinese American boy whose father had relocated the family to upstate New York. Gee considers the changes that Chinatown has undergone over his lifetime--not for the better--and how disrespectful it is for white Americans to visit Chinatowns as tourists who gawk at the everyday lives of Chinese who often are limited in their ability to find work elsewhere. In "Silences," Gee delves further into his family's past and reveals layers of secrets about his parents and grandparents, ultimately demonstrating the resilience of Chinese Americans over the course of the twentieth century in building and sustaining family life in a hostile, racist society.

Because I lived in North Carolina for six years while in graduate school in English, I have long had an interest in thinking of Asian American experiences in the American South, so Gee's explorations of his decades of life in Houston and then Milledgeville, Georgia, are particularly interesting to me. Many of the essays make at least some passing reference to the southern context of his racialized experience, but it is in "The Real New South" that Gee most directly addresses how his presence as an Asian American in certain regional spaces might constitute a "new south," a term that he explains has been around and resurrected in different contexts since the post-Civil War, Reconstruction Era. Gee describes himself as a racial pioneer--someone who is distanced from his home community and communities of other Chinese Americans in other parts of the country. His work is to normalize the presence of Chinese Americans in the South, to be the first Asian person many Southerns meet.

Two other essays stood out for me for different reasons. In "Point Guard," Gee employs an experimental narrative layout. The essay is really two essays, laid out in two columns that run concurrently down each page. The left column is a personal narrative of Gee's life with basketball. The right column chronicles the rise of Jeremy Lin and Linsanity, focusing on Lin's fame and fandom among Asian Americans. In "Echocardiography," Gee offers perhaps his most vulnerable essay, one in which he focuses less on a heroic narrative of his self but rather on a startling moment of weakness when he discovers that he has atrial fibrillation. Through his experience at the hospital, he realizes his mortality.

The final essay in the collection, "My Chinese-America: A Meditation On Mobility," takes a tour through the fifty states. Structured alphabetically by state name, each section is a brief paragraph detailing either a personal experience of Gee's or some significant Chinese (or Asian) American historical figure in that state. Some of the experiences chronicled in earlier essays reappear briefly in this essay, as in the summary in the section on Kansas of the opening essay's narrative of racial profiling by a state trooper ("Profile"). Other brief paragraphs provide new stories and commentary on the racial landscape of the United States while treading familiar thematic territory such as mentions of fishing (Gee is an ardent leisure sports fisherman), sexual encounters, and emasculating stereotypes of Asian men.
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