Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 21st, 2014
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In this post, reviews of Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self (Houghton Mifflin, 2014); Kalyan Ray’s No Country (Simon & Schuster, 2014); Kim Moritsugu’s The Oakdale Dinner Club (Dundurn, 2014); Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) with illustrations by Jess Chen; and Hieu M. Nguyen’s This Way to the Sugar (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014).
A Review of Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self (Houghton Mifflin, 2014).
For those unaware of issues related to Asian American men and masculinityd, Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man will certainly be a revelation. In line with the searing memoirs of David Mura (Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory), Alex Tizon explores the challenges of growing up as an Asian American man, one who must contend with prevailing stereotypes concerning submissiveness, lack of desirability, nerdiness, and other such related issues. Tizon’s journalistic background emerges at the forefront of this book, especially as numerous facts and issues appear in relation to Asian American history and gender issues. At the same time, what really grounds this work is the personal story behind Tizon’s own upbringing, especially in the ways that his mother and father adjusted or did not adjust to living in America. Tizon’s foregrounds how his mother, as an Asian American woman, was able to deal with the acculturation process better due to the fact that her gender allotted her certain advantages. On the other hand, Tizon’s father finds himself lacking and begins to register this lack in his slow and undignified disintegration. Ultimately his parents end up getting divorced. Tizon brings up a controversial point concerning the bifurcation of racial formation for Asian American men and women. According to Tizon, Asian American women, who are ultimately hypersexualized, but yet still desirable, are able to negotiate the challenges of social marginality in ways that Asian American men, who register as nonsexual entities, cannot. The danger in Tizon’s position is that it does not fully engage the ways in which hypersexualization and supposed desirability of Asian American women still stands as oppressive, dangerous, and problematic in its construction (see Celine Shimizu’s The Hypersexuality of Race for more on this issue, for instance). Nevertheless, Tizon’s points concerning Asian American manhood are right on the mark; his knowledge of popular culture reveals that white supremacy remains embedded in the construction of the filmic and televisual imaginary. Given the four decades that have passed since Frank Chin and his fellow editors screamed Aiiieeeee, it’s amazing how little things seem to have changed for Asian American men and whether or not there will ever be a bona fide A-list Asian American actor to emerge on the Hollywood scene (certainly, there have been some successes such as Sessue Hayakawa, James Shigeta, Jason Scott Lee, and John Cho, but few would argue that these figures achieved true mainstream recognition).
Buy the Book Here:http://www.amazon.com/Big-Little-Man-Search-Asian/dp/0547450486/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402086648&sr=1-1&keywords=alex+tizon
A Review of Kalyan Ray’s No Country (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
(best image I could find)
Kalyan Ray’s No Country (his second novel after Eastwords, which is only available through Penguin India… my long-standing gripe against publication rights and the limits it affords the transnationally-driven bookworm) is truly an epic novel, the kind of which you do not see quite often in this age of twitter, short facebook updates, and lightning fast news clips. Clocking in at over 500 pages, Ray is able to maintain momentum through key perspective shifts that together create a transnational tapestry of a dispersed set of families. The novel open with a mystery: a South Asian American woman’s parents have been found murdered. The novel then moves back into the 19th century to Ireland where we learn of the star-crossed love affair between Brigid and Padraig Aherne. The narration alternates in this section primarily among three characters: Padraig; Brendan McCarthaigh (Padraig’s best friend); then Padraig’s daughter with Brigid, Maeve). Early on in the novel, Padraig and Brigid are separated. Padraig’s investment in politics results in an accidental death and he is forced to assume the identity of someone else, someone bound for India. Back in Ireland, Brigid dies in childbirth; her daughter Maeve survives. While Padraig attempts to find a way to get eventually back to Ireland, Brendan narrates about the Irish potato famine and how he, along with a schoolteacher and Maeve, are ultimately forced to flee to find a better life and settle somewhere in the New World. The boat upon which Brendan travels strikes an iceberg and is lost at sea, though Brendan and Maeve do survive (the schoolteacher does not). Later, when Padraig investigates what happened to his lover Brigid, he discovers upon return to Ireland that Brigid is dead, that his mother died in the midst of financial distress, and that many that he knew perished during the famine or vacated the area. Padraig also discovers that the ship Brendan and Maeve were on was lost at sea and he assumes they perished. Thus begins the major bifurcated narratives: a family in India, where Padraig marries an Indian woman and a family in the United States, where Brendan becomes a surrogate father to Maeve who ends up marrying a Polish Jew and bears a daughter named Bibi. From here, the novel continually moves forward in time, jumping between continents and narrators. By the time the novel concludes, readers are feverish for some sort of reunification between the two families, but the twining together of these disparate family trees finally occurs in such a way that it might surprise readers. Others may find the resolution unfulfilling for the simple reason that there is so much holding these families apart, there is a desire for some sort of measured and sustained conclusion/ unification that never quite arrives. The novel is obviously rigorously researched, as evidenced by the detailed notes that conclude this work, but the emotional heart seems apparent to appear in the earliest sections; it is Padraig, Brendan, and Maeve who seem to get the most storytelling time and you’re thinking back to them always as you move forward. Ray’s work is most contextually compelling on the level of its reconsideration of race and kinship: it elucidates the transnational nature of the 19th century, especially through the movement of goods and labor in the era of colonialism. In this sense, the novel has much in line with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and even Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which sees the boat and the experience of the passage in its varied forms as a rupture point in which new relationalities must emerge, however traumatic or unexpected in their constructions.
Buy the Book Here:http://www.amazon.com/No-Country-Novel-Kalyan-Ray/dp/1451635990/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403019656&sr=8-1&keywords=kalyan+ray
A Review of Kim Moritsugu’s The Oakdale Dinner Club (Dundurn, 2014).
There’s something deliciously wicked about Kim Moritsugu’s The Oakdale Dinner Club, a kind of answer we might say to the pleasant, sentimentalized versions of other clubs and social formations started by women (such as the Jane Austen Dinner Club or the one depicted in Darien Gee’s Friendship Bread). Indeed, Moritsugu, an (Asian) Canadian writer, has mastered a kind of snarky internal narrative voice that generates dark comic moments throughout her newest publication (we’ve reviewed some of her titles here, such as The Restoration of Emily and The Glenwood Treasure). Set in an exclusive Canadian suburb called Oakdale, the novel follows the lives of a group of colorful characters. Most of the narrative attention is focused on Mary Ann, a woman who is undergoing something of a midlife crisis, as her husband Bob has a wandering eye, and she yearns to get even by having an affair of her own. She whittles down the candidates to three individuals: Drew, her IT coworker; Tom, her staid, but pleasantly handsome work associate; and Sam Orenstein, the husband of a popular and beautiful Oakdale socialite named Hallie. Mary Ann’s partner-in-crime is Alice Maeda, a mixed race Japanese Canadian who is a free spirit of sorts. An anthropologist by profession, Alice has moved back to Oakdale to raise her four-year-old daughter, Lavinia, the product of one of her numerous and ephemeral love affairs. Mary Ann hatches the idea of the Oakdale dinner club, inviting a set of participants that are more or less well-known for their abilities to cook or for their interest in things culinary. Of course, the Oakdale dinner club will also include the three men with whom Mary Ann is considering for her extramarital affair. Alice’s own storyline takes a romantic turn when she bumps into an old high school friend, Jake Stewart. Though Jake has aged—he has become bald—Alice realizes that she still harbors an interest in him and decides to pursue getting to know him better. Other important, but more minor characters in this novel include Sarah, Mary Ann’s mother, who at some point got divorced but never remarried and Danielle Pringle, a more working-class mother who feels out of place in the very upscale neighborhood of Oakdale. Moritsugu does a wonderful job of weaving the stories together. With its biting humor and sarcastic wit, Moritsugu’s work makes for a fast-paced, decadent, and entertaining read. Though I figured I would start reading the novel and finish it the next day, I stayed up to read it all in one sitting, wondering about how Mary Ann’s pursuit of extramarital interests would end up and how the Oakdale Dinner Club would turn out. The conclusion also sees a handful of recipes that make the novel more interactive than I would have guessed.
Buy the Book here:http://www.amazon.com/The-Oakdale-Dinner-Club-Moritsugu/dp/1459709551/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403971800&sr=8-1&keywords=kim+moritsugu
A Review of Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) with illustrations by Jess Chen; A Review of Hieu M. Nguyen’s This Way to the Sugar (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014).
I’ve been reading a couple of titles out of the independent press out of Austin, Texas, with a witty name called Write Bloody Publishing (indeed, it almost seems a requirement these days for the indie press to have a funky, interesting name). More information about the press can be found here and I hope to get to review some others in time from that same press:http://writebloody.com/
Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone is a collection that is part of an emergence of Asian American poetic writings which are directly influenced by previous Asian American cultural producers. By making this statement, I mean to say that Choi’s collection begins with an epigraph from one of my favorite novels ever: Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. The quotation Choi picks is one directly related to loss, and it is one that will structure and influence the many poems that will appear afterword. Though Choi’s lyrics are particularly affecting, she’s got a clear knack for word play and doesn’t stray away from avant-garde impulses, especially with the layout of words on the page and different visual constructs. The illustrations provided by Jess Chen are a nice touch and create a gothic ambience to the darkly playful lyrics. I’ve focused on a couple below that I think are most illustrative of Choi’s ability to engage in lyric wordplay and politicism:
In “Kimchi,” Choi employs some ethnic food imagery as an extended metaphor to engage the problematic tension in one Korean American family:
My parents’ love for each other
was pickled in the brine of 1980,
spent two decades fermenting
in an air-tight promise.
Their occasional salt caught
a slow fever, began to taste like
a buried secret. They choked
in each other’s vinegar, dug for pockets
of fresh-cut love, once green and whole,
now a shrunken head, floating.
Every night, she pulls it, messy and
barehanded, out of the jar, slices it
into slivers, and we all swallow,
smiling through the acrid burden
kicking in our throats (26).
I love the melancholic sentiment here: the experience of loss and degradation found in a food, one that used to signify something else entirely. The idea of this marital union as undergoing a kind of pickling process is, I think, just a fun and sardonic way of approaching this issue. In “To the Man who Shouted ‘I like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” readers can see Choi’s gift for a kind of sonic coherence, the dynamics of flow from one line to another.
so call me
pork: curly-tailed obscenity
been playing in the mud. dirty meat.
worms in your stomach. give you
a fever. dead meat. butchered girl
chopped up & cradled in Styrofoam
for you – candid cannibal.
want me bite-sized
no eyes to clog your throat (38)
The repetition of the “c” generates an alliterativeeaffect, particularly a kind of piquant sound that generates more aggression in the tonality of this passage. I find the phrase “candid cannibal,” both poignant and caustic, this idea that the lyric speaker can be consumed as an ethnic Other, but that she is ultimately undigestible to this racist figure. In “Gentrifier,” Choi’s lyric speaker observes the changes going on in a neighborhood, not all of which can be commended:
the new grocery sells real cheese, edging out
the plastic bodega substitute, the new neighbors
know how to feed their children, treat themselves
to oysters sometimes, other times, to brunch, finally,
some good pastrami around these parts, new café
on broadway, new trees in the sidewalk, everyone
can breathe a little easier, neighborhood association
throws a block party, builds a dog park right
at the middle of the baseball field, crime watch listserv
snaps photos of suspicious natives, how’d all these ghosts
get into my yard? cop on speed dial, arrange flowers
as the radio croons orders, rubber on tar,
skin on steel, an army of macbook pros guarding
its French presses, revival pioneers, meanwhile,
white college grads curse their racist neighbors,
get drunk at olneyville warehouse punk shows,
ride their bikes on the right side of the road, say west end
like a badge, while folks on the other side of cranston street
shake their heads and laugh. interrogation lamps
burning down their stoops, banks gutting their houses (50).
The strength here is in the common images of gentrification that are refigured in unexpected ways: the personification of the Macbook pros, the class pretensions that appear in improved cuisine choices, how elegance and etiquette can be found in words and phrases. The interior monologue signaled by the italics is a nice touch, giving this poem an extra edge of acerbic humor. Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone is anything but absent; it is a collection with a commanding presence, certainly full of buoyancy and luminosity.
Buy the Book Here:http://www.amazon.com/Floating-Brilliant-Gone-Franny-Choi/dp/1938912438/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404423340&sr=8-1&keywords=Franny+Choi
Hieu M. Nguyen’s poetry collection This Way to the Sugar seems to suggest a sort of culinary theme to the book, but it’s more of a false tell. There are certainly references to food and to sugar, but Nguyen’s lyrics are largely concerned with the bodily and the corporeal. The autobiographical tinge of these lyrics give it a kind of intimacy not unlike Franny Choi’s work in the previously reviewed Floating, Brilliant, Gone. Here, there are some issues with acculturation and assimilation that do come up, especially as the generational divide between Vietnamese immigrants and their children brings about certain tensions (in poems like “Tater Tot Hotdish” and “Buffet Etiquette”). In other poems, Nguyen’s lyric speakers will bravely and gamely take on feelings related to budding queer sexualities in a variety of ways: pretending to take on internet identities in one case (“A/S/L”), and meeting for anonymous sexual encounters at a hotel room in another (“Christmas Eve, 17”). In one of the most poignant poems, “Stubborn Inheritance,” the lyric speaker describes the aftermath of his coming out process to his mother:
It look my mother eight years
to accept me for being gay. For eight years I sat
and watched my house burn. I watched her save the baby
photos but leave the baby—I know I should be grateful
that she came around at all. That she forgave me.
I’ve been told that it’s not her fault. It is how she was
raised. I’ve been told that it’s our family’s old way
of thinking. I’ve been told to forgive this
stubborn inheritance, this thing that has lived
inside her, and her mother, and her mother’s father—
I’ve been told that once you’ve been stabbed, it is better to leave
the blade inside the body—removing the dagger will only open
the wound further. Forgiveness will bleed you think” (65-66).
The confessional quality of these lines is characteristic of Nguyen’s approach toward lyric construction. Never shying away from the messy, the mury, the surfeit that always comes with charged encounters, familial ruptures, sexual dalliances, This Way to the Sugar is irresistibly direct. Even in a case like “Stubborn Inheritance,” where it seems as if the rift between son and mother must be preserved, the collection ends with a wistful, melancholic sentiment in the poem, “Nostophobia”:
Grief like sugar
boiling on a tongue. I am terrified
of no longer being a son,
to have to attend a funeral
without her .
By this point, we understand that the way to the sugar is riven with loss and trauma and the always difficult process of maturation. In the more than capable lyrics hands of Hieu Nguyen, we will delight in the collection’s bittersweet flavors.
Buy the Book Here:http://www.amazon.com/This-Sugar-Hieu-Minh-Nguyen/dp/1938912446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1405997451&sr=8-1&keywords=this+way+to+the+sugar