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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 6, 2015.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

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.

In this post, reviews of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above (Balzer + Bray, 2015); Mike Wu’s Ellie (Disney-Hyperion, 2015); Karl Taro Greenfield’s Subprimes (Harper, 2015); Anita Kushwaha’s The Escape Artist (Quattro Books, 2015); Griffin Ondaatje’s The Mosquito Brothers (House of Anansi, 2015); Mia Alvar’s In the Country (Knopf, 2015); Taran Matharu’s Novice (Feiwel & Friends, 2015); Nina Revoyr’s Lost Canyon (Akashic, 2015).

A Review of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above (Balzer + Bray, 2015).

I knew that the basic premise of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above concerned an intersex protagonist, so I was pretty jazzed to read this debut novel, which is firmly couched in the young adult fictional realms. Our first person storyteller and featured heroine is Kristin Lattimer. Upon losing her virginity to her boyfriend Sam, Kristin experiences serious pain during/ after intercourse, so much so that she sets up a doctor’s appointment with her OBGYN. Once there, it becomes apparent that there may be some anatomical issues, as her vagina is deemed to be unnaturally short. Upon further tests, Kristin discovers that she’s biologically intersex, as she still possesses some rudimentary gonads, which she may elect to remove (though there are risks associated with the surgery). Indeed, as she is informed, a gonadectomy will necessarily force her to take hormone pills for the rest of her life, and there is the possibility of other side effects as well. She is also diagnosed with AIS, which is androgen insensitivity syndrome. Though biologically intersex, Kristin identifies as female in terms of her gender and heterosexual in terms of her sexuality, but these identifications don’t mean much to many of her classmates who soon find out about her medical diagnosis when one of her close friends becomes a little loose-lipped about what Kristin’s diagnoses. Sam soon dumps her, while Kristin is the subject of cyberbullying, especially as she is repeatedly called a hermaphrodite. Thus, Kristin faces intense shame in the face of the fact that so many of her schoolmates know about her intersexuality and are being outwardly prejudiced toward her. Fortunately, a friend from an earlier period, the class nerd Darren Kowalski, is there to help her out. Additionally, Kristin volunteers her time at a clinic and learns to look beyond her own issues to see that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. For a young adult novel, Gregorio has tackled a very difficult topic; she does so with a strong understanding of the medical background of AIS, which increases the texture and impact of this novel. Though Gregorio does not identify as intersex herself, the author’s note details the impact that one former patient of hers had on her. Once the controversy concerning the middle distance runner Caster Semenya hit the news, Gregorio knew she had to write on this topic. Gregorio’s choice to address this issue in the young adult arena has its advantages and its drawbacks. Certainly, the novel will appeal to a younger audience and even influence a more liberal attitude to develop amongst the target audience, many of whom will be under normalizing scrutiny as high school students. At the same time, the novel’s more limited focus on romance and the travails of high school can at times overshadow fact that Kristin’s experience is of course more largely part of a huge discourse on queerness that needs to be understood as having a longer historical and contextual trajectory. Fortunately, Kristin does have a network of AIS supporters to draw from, including an understanding father and great doctor, but her experience is not necessarily the most common one, and in this sense, we must attend to the fact of the novel’s fictionality and perhaps its optimistic exceptionality.

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A Review of Mike Wu’s Ellie (Disney-Hyperion, 2015).

It’s been AGES since I’ve reviewed any picture and board books, but I’ve had more motivation to read them ever since one of my nieces who is autistic just learned to read, and we’ve been celebrating that event with the purchase of a number of different cultural productions so that she can explore the wonderful wide world of literature. Mike Wu’s Ellie is a spirited story of the titular elephant who attempts to save a financially beleaguered zoo through her unique talent: she uses her trunk to paint. Ellie’s talents obviously draw wide interest, and soon the numbers of visitors coming to the park soars, thereby ensuring the survival of the zoo. I agree with the sentiment provided by Publishers Weekly stated here: “Wu is a literal writer, but his visual storytelling, rendered in sweet, throwback-style watercolors, shows creativity and poise.” There is little that breaks this work out of the mold of many other outstanding coloring books, but Wu’s visuals are sure to capture the attentions of its youthful target audience. Of course, those who oppose the zoo as an institution and site for the displaying of animals will want to steer clear of this book. Despite possible political misgivings, the picture book is an important metaphorical exploration of the power of art to inspire and to save a larger community.

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A Review of Karl Taro Greenfield’s Subprimes (Harper, 2015)

In the not too distant future, there exists a world that might look like the one depicted in Subprimes, which is Karl Taro Greenfield’s second novel after Triburbia. Greenfield is also the author of numerous other nonfiction books, including the memoir Boy Alone and the more anthropological, creative nonfictional works Speed Tribes and Standard Deviations. Subprimes might be seen as a natural follow-up to Triburbia, if we were to imagine an increasingly gentrifying world in which class disparity results in extreme forms of urban dislocation and segregation. In the fictional world of Subprimes, there are those who are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, which is the majority of people living in the United States, and then there is the 1%. The title invokes the 99% who must live in subprime areas, houses given up due to mass foreclosures and areas that ended up becoming ghost towns due to rampant speculation. These individuals basically squat on properties that have become abandoned, hoping that they will never be pushed out due to redevelopment or revitalization. Greenfield’s version of the United States might not seem that far out of reality, except he dials up the class disparity factor by giving it an Octavia Butler-style postapocalyptic feel. As the 99% seek to find homes, they must continually move from one place to another as their itinerant status is regulated, policed, and marked as unwelcome. Greenfield fragments narrative perspective amongst a group of core characters, including Sargam, a mixed race and charismatic leader of the 99% who begins to foment a revolution against those who continually seek the displace the homeless wanderers; Arthur Mack, a man who seeks to make a new life in the wake of having been prosecuted for securities fraud; Arthur’s estranged wife, Gemma, who attempts to find her independence from her husband while raising her daughters; and a first person narrator, a journalist, who makes a connection with Gemma and later must go on the run with his children. Ultimately, it is the class warfare emblematized by Sargam’s makeshift community in Valence that leads all of the characters together. Greenfield’s novel is best understood as a biting satire of the current neoliberal economic model and deregulation of financial institutions, which is seeing most of the wealth in the world retained by a select few. In this sense, Subprimes may be an unfortunate harbinger of an actual future. The novel is most successful when it turns up the satirical impulses. For instance, Greenfield makes the most of the Inland Empire by transforming its value. Whereas places like Riverside have often been seen as one of the most undesirable Southern California locations, for Greenfield’s fictional world, Riverside is practically a mecca. Such is the nature of social inequality as it has become hyperformulated in Subprimes. Certainly, this novel is of interest to any scholar and fan of speculative fiction and satirical treatises.

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A Review of Anita Kushwaha’s The Escape Artist (Quattro Books, 2015).

After reading a book the length of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you need something like Anita Kushwaha’s novella The Escape Artist. This slim fictional work gives you a chance to breathe a little bit and enjoy something much more compact in its form. The plot summary is given here: “The Escape Artist is the story of Nisha, a nine-year-old Indian-Canadian girl whose vivid imagination keeps her entertained in the loneliness she experiences as an only child and one of the few children in her neighbourhood. After her grandmother dies, her aunt Neela comes to live with Nisha and her parents. Neela suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after having witnessed the death of her father when she was a girl. Neela and Nisha bond over their active imaginations, dreaming up adventures together in the room Neela all but refuses to leave - until an unexpected emergency.” Nisha is the narrator of this story, which is told retrospectively, though we’re unsure of how many years have passed since the events of the novel. The opening of the novel sets up Nisha’s general boredom, as she seeks to find a better playmate than the children who live closest to her. Neela’s presence thus offers Nisha a potential salve precisely because she has a more mature attitude, while still maintaining a kind of childlike wonder that allows her to connect more readily to Nisha. They spend many hours together, but at one point, Nisha discovers that she can say the wrong thing, leading Neela to shut down and to isolate herself. Indeed, as Nisha finds out, it is extremely difficult to get Neela out of the house. Thus, Nisha ends up pushing her mother to tell her the details surrounding her grandfather’s death, providing Nisha a better sense of why Neela might have been so traumatized and why, for instance, she does not want to leave the house. The concluding sequence details a kind of bildungsromanesque plot that forces Nisha to grow up, perhaps a little bit faster than she wants, but the brevity of this novella does have its drawbacks: we do wonder about the period following the concluding events and all the gritty details that come in the wake of her coming-of-age. The story also reminds me somewhat of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Rishi Reddi in the novella’s nuanced depictions of South Asian North American family lives and local communities and would pair well with any number of stories from Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, and Karma and Other Stories. We’ll look forward to future works from Kushawa.

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A Review of Griffin Ondaatje’s The Mosquito Brothers (House of Anansi, 2015).

So, there I was on a Friday night with writers’ block. I gave up on some of the revisions I was working on and picked a couple of different books out. The first was Griffin Ondaatje’s The Mosquito Brothers. I don’t read many books targeted for children in the mid to later elementary school years, so this book was a great one to remind myself of the different techniques that writers can take to engage their intended audience. As the official page notes, the story revolves around a young mosquito by the name of Dinnn (three “n’s” for those that are counting) Needles. The plot is described like so: “After he nearly drowns in a parking-lot puddle, Dinnn Needles is fearful of many things, including flying. When his four hundred siblings swarm off without him, he finds time to dream —about family stories, a lost brother, adventure in The Wild and, above all, how to be cool.” Dinnn is one of 401 children who are born in a mosquito “clutch,” so to speak, so he has to compete for the attention of his parents and his many classmates. As the runt of the litter, Dinnn attempts to carve out a sense of individuality by wearing a tiny leather jacket, which is later inscribed with the word “mosquito brothers,” which provides us with the origination of the title. In the latter half of the book, Dinnn goes on a country adventure with his family, manages to survive a harrowing encounter with predatory dragonflies and is even reunited with a long lost half-brother. Ondaatje’s choice to anthropomorphize an insect more commonly associated with pestilence and parasitic qualities is an intriguing one. Here, children will have to consider and perhaps even discard their presumptions about what animals deserve value and even human sympathy, but the novel does generate other questions, especially because the mosquitos in this narrative rarely if ever feed on the blood of animals directly. Ondaatje’s choice to elide this particular manner of consumption is one that is a gamble in some sense, especially as it undercuts some of the impact of his decision to recreate mosquitos with so many relatable and endearing qualities. The illustrations by Erica Salcedo are quite vital in establishing the amiable qualities of these mosquitos and Salcedo’s technique serves the general conceit and ambience that Ondaatje generates through the written word. Certainly, an inventive work, one that will impress young readers in the hybridity that Ondaatje creates between insects and alternative social formations. 

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A Review of Mia Alvar’s In the Country (Knopf, 2015).

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a short story collection, or at least it seems to me. These days, I hear rumblings that it’s getting more and more difficult to publish a collection and that the big publishing houses are less likely to consider these kinds of manuscripts. Fortunately, Knopf didn’t pass on Mia Alvar’s In the Country, a wonderful meditation on the Filipino diaspora. Alvar takes inspiration from the fact that the Philippines has one of the biggest diasporic populations, in part spurred by governmental incentives to encourage laborers and corporate entities to work abroad. Thus, these stories take place (or mention) a number of countries beyond the Philippines, including most prominently United States and Bahrain. Most stories are told in the first person mode, though Alvar never operates from what might be called an “autobiographical” impulse, as the narrator may not be Filipina or may not even be a woman. The opening story, “Contrabida,” for instance, involves a pharmacist who travels home because his father is dying. He has also brought back some contraband, hence the title, which comes in the form of a very powerful painkiller, one apparently more effective than morphine. This story is representative of the many others that come afterword: characters generally come from modest or upper middle class backgrounds, but struggle to find connections to the people they hold most dear. Many of the stories thus come off as quietly pessimistic and exude a realist aesthetic that is important for the collection’s cohesion. In “Miracle Worker,” the narrator, a housewife in Bahrain, puts her skills to use in special education to help direct a child, who has a developmental disability, to show more awareness to external stimuli. Her conflict comes in the form having to tell the child’s parent, who believes that her young infant will somehow overcome the disability, that her improvements will always be limited. “Shadow Families” is perhaps my favorite story in Alvar’s collection. Alvar decides to use a first person plural narration, articulating the extensive reach of the Filipina diaspora as it connects housewives together, even as their families start to change and even to disintegrate due to transnational movements and cultural adjustments. “Esmerelda” was another sentimental favorite, as it follows as a domestic laborer and office cleaner who falls into an unconventional romance with the businessman she often sees while working her shift. The title story, “In the Country,” by far the longest of the collection, gives us a sense of Alvar’s potential as a novelist. The story employs anachronic sequencing to explore the lives of a given family under the Marcos regime, especially as they attempt to find a sense of justice amid corruption and Martial law. In many ways, this story reminded me of the work of a number of other Filipin@ writers such as Jessica Hagedorn, Gina Apostol, and Ninotchka Rosca in its obvious critique of a governmental regime that harmed so many. Alvar’s collection is a wide-ranging and epic in scale, surely a work that gestures to a bright literary future. In the Country would also be an excellent work to teach alongside others, especially Lysley Tenorio’s equally outstanding Monstress.

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A Review of Taran Matharu’s Novice (Feiwel & Friends, 2015).

Taran Matharu’s debut Novice (Feiwel & Friends, 2015), which is probably part of an intended trilogy called Summoner, is another addition to the paranormal young adult archive. In this work, our protagonist is an orphan named Fletcher Wulf, who is raised by a blacksmith in the provincial town of Pelt. Fletcher’s life is guided by the forge: he is being apprenticed and must learn the tools of his trade. Given his status as an orphan, his chances for upward mobility are limited, but by developing a skill, Fletcher will be able to secure future employment. At the same time, there are dangerous changes afoot: criminals are now being allowed to serve in the military due to the fact that humans are waging war with the orcs and the military is running low on options. Fletcher’s life goes into disarray when he comes upon a summoning book and uses it to summon a demon.  After this summoning occurs, he engages in a fight with the local bully Didric and ends up seriously injuring and possibly even killing him. Fletcher realizes that he must leave Pelt behind and the secure the independent life that his adoptive father had helped make possible; he decides to head toward a major city and look for work there as a tradesman. Once landing in a more urban location, Fletcher not surprisingly gets into more trouble, but his demon and his summoning skills are noted by a battlemage known as Arcturus, and he is given a provisional acceptance into a local school where he will learn the magical arts. The schooling portion ends up being the strongest, as Matharu is able to weave in the complicated social dynamics that occur amongst teenagers while still keeping the readers interested through his worldbuilding. In this particular fictional world, demons come from different classes and different skill levels; the higher the skill level, the more rare the demon and the more difficult the demon will be able to control, but the more likely it will be powerful when it is more fully grown. Demons are captured in a space known as the ether, an alternate landscape that is as dangerous as it sounds and has rules all of its own. In the summoning world, there are class divisions. First, there are the nobles, who are usually gifted with their first demons from their parents. Then, some commoners are also able to summon, though they must be given demons from other mages who have been able to capture one for them. Complicating the social dynamics in this fictional world are the dwarves, who have long been subjected to “racist” policies handed down to them by humans. Additionally, the isolated elves have made a bid to re-align with humans, sending a chieftain’s daughter (named Silva) to train at the school. Not surprisingly, Fletcher, who is obviously a clear outcast, makes fast friends with his commoner classmates (Rory, Genevieve, Atlas, Seraph) and his dwarven classmate Othello. Silva’s position as the chieftain’s daughter is complicated, as she must attempt to establish more diplomatic alliances with the first year nobles, who include snobbish twins Tarquin and Isadora, while also realizing that her closest allies are actually the commoners. Matharu knows how to add some excitement into the plot by developing these class rivalries and building these competitive tensions into a final tournament that will be instrumental in deciding where the summoners will be posted for their military positions. The nobles obviously want nothing to do with the commoners, the dwarves, and even the elves, so they attempt to ensure that they will top the tournament standings, but Fletcher and his merry band have other ideas. I read Matharu’s debut in one sitting and look forward to the following installments. It’s clear that Matharu understands the fantasy-based lore that he draws from and the assuredness comes off in the evenly paced plotting and dynamic narrative momentum. Matharu does draw from one common genre conceit in which the protagonist is an ordinary but also extraordinary young individual from humble origins, but he does complicate other more established tropes. There is no clear romance plot in this first installment, and the narrative certainly does not suffer from this lack. An enterprising paranormal young adult fiction debut. As I told a friend of mine, this novel is like Pokemon, but with demons. Gotta read this novel and the following all.

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A Review of Nina Revoyr’s Lost Canyon (Akashic, 2015).

Well, what a happy day! I get to review Nina Revoyr’s fifth novel, Lost Canyon, published after four outstanding works, including The Necessary Roughness, Southland, The Age of Dreaming, and Wingshooters. Lost Canyon returns Revoyr to the use of rotating third person narrative perspectives, an aesthetic she employed to great effect in Southland. That particular novel moved back and forth through different historical moments. Lost Canyon toggles between the perspectives of three characters but all in the contemporary moment: Gwen, an African American who engages in social advocacy for at-risk youth in Watts; Oscar, a Chicano real estate developer, whose fortunes have fallen on hard times after the global economic downturn and the subsequent impact on home buying; and Todd, a Caucasian financial executive from a humble background who finds his ascendancy into the white collar elite to be somewhat mystifying. These three characters are united by the fact that they all work out at SportZone with a woman named Tracy, a fitness instructor with the kind of zeal that pushes them to their physical limits. Tracy also is the nexus point for the plot because she’s leading the three characters on a challenging multi-day hike through the Sierras. Once the four characters finally make their intended destination, they discover that the trail that they wanted to hike has been closed due to a raging wildfire. On the advice of a ranger, they consider an alternative, less taken path. This less taken path is of course not the greatest choice to make, but they nevertheless embark on what will end up being a perilous journey. All at first seems to be going well, but then they come upon a patch of marijuana, which is being policed by an individual who might be a henchman for a Mexican cartel. Miraculously, they are saved when a random sharpshooter kills the henchman, but the four are freed only to realize that they have a new captor: a white supremacist by the name of A.J., who is not so keen on the fact that this ragtag band of adventurers only has one blonde individual in its party. Complicating matters is the fact that A.J. may have an accomplice who will soon be joining him. The four have to hatch a quick plan to escape and realize that they must cross over a distant mountain ridge, if they are to make it to safety. Thus begins a longer cat and mouse narrative as the four characters struggle with the elements and with armed adversaries who are seemingly out to hunt them. Revoyr’s fifth novel is driven by a mix of plot and naturalistic descriptions. Indeed, the novel works best when considered from the frame of writers such as Jack London and even John Steinbeck. The environment is both cruel and beautiful and becomes a character in its own right. Certain to polarize readers, the open-ended conclusion will leave all wondering about the fate of one character in particular and this lack of resolution places this novel on a somewhat surrealistic ground. The novel additionally opens up a larger discourse concerning race wars that are being conducted in non-urban areas. Fans of Revoyr will appreciate her keen and meticulous eye toward the depiction of the mountainous landscapes and topographical features; this skill has been especially evident throughout her oeuvre, especially in her ability to render space in its myriad forms and scales (the city, farmland, etc) with such wonderful and rich detail. Perhaps, the greatest achievement in this novel is the realistic transformations that each character undergoes due to the traumatic and pivotal events that occur. 

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 18, 2015


In that article, Celeste Ng (author of the super brilliant, one of the best reads of 2014, Everything I Never Told You) goes out and says: “Who says Asian American women aren't writing fiction? ‘We are everywhere if you only look!’” I agree, and want to add: get out from under that rock, and oh, haven’t you been reading this review zine blog thing called AALF? and to honor some of the fab Asian (North) American women writers of fiction, I’ve generated a post JUST for them =).

In this post, reviews of: Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Soft Skull Press, 2015); Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions, 2015); Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015); Patricia Park’s Re Jane (Pamela Dorman Books, 2015); Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes (Razorbill, 2015); Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes (Tu Books, 2015); Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction (Disney-Hyperion, 2015); Julie Kagawa’s Talon (Harlequin, 2014).

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.

A Review of Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Soft Skull Press, 2015).

Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has been fortuitously published stateside with Soft Skull Press. Originally published in Canada, the novel is an intriguing addition to fictions that deal with traumatic incidences and their aftermaths. The titular protagonist Ashwin Rao, an occasional narrator as well, is a non-practicing clinical psychiatrist working on a book concerning comparative approaches to mass disaster. He is considering, for instance, the different reactions by national authorities with respect to traumas induced by airline terrorism. In the first case, he is considering how Canadian authorities had basically avoided any sort of identification with and support of the victims of the Air India Flight 182, which was the target of a terrorist attack. A bomb exploded on board the plane on June 23, 1985, killing everyone. The plane exploded in Irish airspace; most of the victims were Canadians of South Asian ancestry. Canadian authorities took a lengthy time to respond and to adjudicate this terrorist attack, a fact that Rao takes issue with. Rao decides to interview victims of that disaster in 2004, when court proceedings are occurring concerning some of those purportedly involved in the attacks. Rao’s motivations are in part personal; Rao’s sister and her children were killed in the crash. Rao’s work focuses on one specific family: a professor by the name of Venkat whose wife (Sita) and son (Sundar) were killed. In the wake of the disaster, Venkat is cared for by a colleague named Seth, and Seth’s family, which includes his wife Lakshmi, and their children Brinda and Ranjani. Rao gets pulled in by this alternative social formation and their complicated dynamics. Rao’s theory concerning victims of disaster is put to the test: he wonders, for instance, why Venkat manages to survive, especially given the fact that he seems to have no attachment and no way to commemorate those who he so dearly loved. As the novel moves toward its conclusion, Rao discovers some surprising secrets about Venkat. So, too, does Seth come to find out that survivorship is far more complicated than he or his family could have ever imagined. A very late stage reveal is truly unexpected and will surely polarize readers. Viswanathan’s choice to narrate this novel through such a complicated storytelling discourse has both its benefits and drawbacks. On one level, it’s unclear sometimes how Rao comes to discover the information he has come to possess. On the other, the novel marks how a mode of re-narrativization can at least lead traumatized individuals to see their lives in a new light and in the process, perhaps gain some insight on their losses. The novel is best then understood as its own theoretical apparatus, charging trauma theorists and readers with the possibility that storytelling is always its own form of working through. A compelling, thought-provoking work.

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A Review of Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions, 2015).

Jennifer Tseng’s debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is certainly one of the most intriguing reads of this year. It centers on our titular narrator, Mayumi, who is a librarian and lives on an island connected located not far off the Massachusetts mainland. She’s married to a man named Var and has one daughter named Maria. She’s of mixed race background (with a Japanese father). Her life is relatively staid, until the arrival of a teenager, 17 years old, who shows up at the library and begins checking out books and movies there regularly. He is the subject of gossip among the librarians, especially because he is attractive. Mayumi begins to obsess about this teenager, and soon develops a serious infatuation with him, but there’s something about this connection that goes beyond mere fantasy. Indeed, Mayumi begins to realize that there may be an actual erotic connection between the two of them. Eventually, Mayumi becomes emboldened by their increasingly charged encounters, and the two begin an affair. Though some may blanch at the Lolita-style plot—indeed the novel references many novels involving inappropriate, intergenerational relationships, including Marguerite Duras’s The Lover—Tseng’s work is all her own and certainly one that is painstakingly careful in its depiction of a love affair that some would consider to be socially unacceptable. Mayumi is a self-conscious narrator. At one point, she does wonder about whether or not she’s having an affair with a child and not surprisingly looks up the Massachusetts age of consent laws—she’s okay, you see, the age of consent is 16. But unlike Nabokov and Duras, Tseng is delving into a different intergenerational paradigm that is enirely unlike the “cougar” paradigm that has become part of our lingua franca. For Tseng, the novel becomes a way to consider a deeper philosophical issue of aging and the mid-life crisis that a woman in her forties might endure. Mayumi is seeking some sort of deeper fulfillment that she cannot find from her marriage, her motherhood, or even her status as a lover of a male teenager. The concluding arc is an intriguing one that may surprise, and a desire to connect more deeply to other island cultures comes off as an important developmental trajectory that firmly fleshes out a deeper subconscious at the heart of this novel concerning homeland and ethnic histories. Definitely, a recommended read. Oh, and just as a note: Tseng is also author of two other poetry collections (Red Flower, White Flower and The Man with My Face), so you might check those out as well.

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A Review of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015).

Hanya Yanagihara’s sophomore effort, A Little Life, is one of the best novels I’ve read in my entire life. I mentioned to someone that it takes a lot of courage to publish a novel of over 700 pages of length, with small type no less, in the age of twitter and instagram. As soon as I finished it, I went online to trove for other reviews. I stumbled upon the New York Times one, which provided quite a negative response to the work, which I was surprised by. Two readers apparently can have the opposite experience with the same novel. My experience is of course the right one. HAHA. I wondered though whether or not the reviewer had even finished the novel; it seemed devastatingly vague for a review, perhaps rendered like so because the lives being depicted didn’t quite capture her, and she stopped reading it. Whatever the case may be, the novel did capture me. I read it in a fever pitch, savoring every single sentence. Yanagihara’s two narrative perspectives are beautifully, exquisitely, and most of all, tragically rendered. The primary one is a third person perspective that mostly follows the lives of two characters: Jude, the amibiguously raced and incredibly tortured but gifted young man, and Wilhelm, his dear, dear friend. The other narrative perspective is a first person perspective that only crops up three times, which is given to Harold, an older gentleman who later adopts Jude when Jude is already an adult; Jude’s biological family origins are murky at best. It’s not overstating it to stay that I fell in love with these characters, so when bad things happened to them, I shed many tears. It’s a strange thing sometimes to think about how novels and their fictional personages create such deep meaning for readers. Jude, in particular, whose torturous experiences generate an adulthood filled with predatory memories, is someone who you desperately want a happy ending for. He continues to inflict forms of self-punishment (such as cutting and self-flagellation) in order to ameliorate a history of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of individuals who were entrusted to care for him. As an adult, he carries these scars (mental and physical) so deeply and with so much shame that none of his closest friends really know his personal history. The third person narrator patiently provides his backstory, letting it unfold over the course of Jude’s life, knowing that the reader almost always has more information than the other characters. The burden of this information and its effect upon the reader is of course profound: we want Jude to tell, we want him to find a way to heal, we want so many amazing things for him, and for awhile the third person narrator provides us with some wondrous possibilities. But, Yanagihara’s work is realist at least in the most literal sense: characters don’t often deserve the fates that they ultimately are given, so there will be a point where you will want the ending to be different, for both narrators to have lied to you, so that these fictional beings that you have come to cherish will have different fates. This novel stays with you. I woke up thinking: “oh, but they are still… and there’s nothing I can do about it.” A devastatingly stunning novel. I will probably hoard extra copies of this novel in my home and in my office LOL.

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A Review of Patricia Park’s Re Jane (Pamela Dorman Books, 2015).

Patricia Park had me at “dear reader,” a phrase that she invokes occasionally in her riveting debut novel Re Jane. The novel is told from the first perspective of the titular mixed race Korean American protagonist Jane Re (the last name is apparently a spelling variation of the common Korean surname of Lee, which is sometimes seen also as Rhee). Billed as re-writing of Jane Eyre—a description I thought was fairly inaccurate—the novel is ultimately a bildungsroman, exploring Jane’s eventual development of her independent identity, a self that perhaps balances the nagging ways of her Korean family and the passionate, emotive natures of her closest American friends. Orphaned at a young age, Jane ends up living with her uncle Sang, a no-nonsense owner of a green grocery in Flushing. Jane’s life is in limbo. Just after the dot com crash, her job offer at a tech start-up is rescinded, and she is forced to subsist as a worker in her uncle’s bussiness. She doesn’t really know what to do with her life now that she has graduated with a degree in finance and accounting and with no jobs on the horizon. Fortunately for Jane, an au pair position opens up with a well-to-do Brooklyn couple (Ed Farley and Beth Mazer) who are raising a Chinese adoptee child named Devon. Jane is initially considered for the job because the couple thinks she is Chinese, but Jane wasn’t able to get the full job clipping and was under the impression that the au pair’s ethnic background didn’t matter. The Mazer-Farleys end up hiring her anyway, and Jane is able to get a brief reprieve from her desultory life by residing with the couple and their child. Jane gets to know the complicated interpersonal dynamics of the family. Beth Mazer is up for tenure and is working feverishly on a new book in feminist studies, while Ed struggles with the motivation to finish his dissertation. Beth’s over the top child-rearing techniques become a strong source of tension for the couple, and Jane naturally observes their relationship fraying at the seams. Perhaps we aren’t too surprised when Jane ends up falling in love with Ed, but Jane ends up making a critical decision to abdicate her position as the au pair on the very eve of 9/11. Indeed, she travels by plane to Seoul to attend the death of her grandfather rather than explore a relationship with Ed. Once in Seoul, Jane begins to realize that this homeland might offer something more than an escape from the Mazer-Farley family. Indeed, her Emo (the Korean word for aunt) ends up encouraging her to stay, and Jane gets a job as an English language instructor. Through that job, she makes a number of friends and even embarks on a romance with a co-worker named Chandler. She also gets a chance to visit her mother’s hometown and discovers more about her ethnic heritage and its importance to her identity. It is in Korea that she begins to blossom not only on an ethnic level, but also in relation to her overall life: she begins to wear more makeup and take more care in her appearance, she becomes more gregarious, and she realizes that her family, though sometimes a source of tension, is a social formation that she can embrace. But, when an old friend from her days as an au pair, a young woman named Nina, comes to visit, Jane must confront the fact that her relationship with Chandler may not actually be something all that significant. Further still, the possibility of an impending marriage to him signals that Jane must make a crucial decision about her future. Nina’s certainly on point: Jane finds herself thinking more about Ed, especially as she finds out that Ed has moved out of the Mazer-Farley home. What path will Jane take? Will she marry Chandler and stay in Korea? Will she return to the United States, seeking perhaps a chance to start anew with Ed, without their relationship having to be kept a secret? These questions push the reader frantically and happily to the finish, and Park’s Jane Re heralds the debut of a massively talented novelist. Alongside some of the other newcomers in the past year (namely Celeste Ng, Nayomi Munaweera, and Deepti Kapoor), we can say it’s an exciting time to be an Asian American literature (BROADLY DEFINED) fan.

As I’ve noted before, Penguin titles are available for exam copy review as a member of CFIS, so something to think about if you are a qualified instructor. More information here:


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A Review of Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes (Razorbill, 2015).

Apparently, this title garnered a ton of advanced interest, as evidenced by the fact that the film rights have already been acquired (see the link below);


As soon as I finished the novel, I couldn’t help but thinking that the novel could be adapted into a film, especially due to Hollywood’s embrace of the young adult genre (with an emphasis on the paranormal romance). In this novel’s case, Tahir creates a fictional world that is in part inspired by Ancient Rome, though the cultural signifiers are of course vague enough. Tahir creates a kind of Oriental/ Occidental potpourri. Alongside individuals who are not unlike gladiators (soldiers called masks), there are also mystical creatures called the fey, who are comprised of efrits, jinns, and ghuls. There are two narrators. One storytelling perspective is given to Laia, who is part of a group called the Scholars, who are now pretty much enslaved in the aptly named Empire. The beginning of the novel sees her grandparents killed off, her brother brutally taken captive, and her having to flee in order to find the Resistance. Laia desperately seeks to meet up with the Resistance leader (named Mazen) in order to find out if they will help break her brother out of jail. The other storytelling perspective is given to Elias, who is the son of a powerful woman, the Commandant of the Empire’s troops. Elias, who is one of the most gifted Empire “masks,” is planning to defect from the Empire, but when he is chosen as one of four possible aspirants by the Augurs, a mystical group of beings with the gift of foresight, he stays on with the intent that a prophecy will bear fruit: that he will one day be free (both in relation to his body and soul) from the Empire. Because Laia and Elias occupy very different narrative spaces at first, Tahir is able to create quite a bit of narrative momentum: when will these characters meet and under what circumstances, we wonder obsessively? When Laia agrees to become a spy for the Resistance through working for the Commandant, we know that Elias and Laia will eventually rendezvous, and when they do, Tahir knows to create the requisite sparks. In this sense, Tahir has masterfully constructed her novel through the tried-and-true formula involving the not-quite-so ordinary heroine who will eventually help defeat a big bad all the while snagging an appropriate romantic lead. The fictional world is a brutal one: people are enslaved, countless individuals die, and for much of the plot, the fates of both Laia and Elias seem star-crossed. But, an engaging conclusion leaves this reader impatient for the next installment, which I hope, will avoid the sophomore slump. Indeed, if this book is the first part of a trilogy, it is typically the second portion that seems to be weakest, a part of the inevitable fact that the middle section must somehow stand in its own, while still moving the work toward a climactic final act. Definitely, my favorite YA fiction in a long time and most deserving of the hype.

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As a general note, this website is particularly impressive for the amount of detail and new content it provides concerning the novel.

As a reminder: Penguin titles are available for exam copy review as a member of CFIS, so something to think about if you are a qualified instructor. More information here:


A Review of Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes (Tu Books, 2015).

Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes adds to the ever-growing archive of Asian American young adult fictions. The summary of the book can be found here:

“Claire Takata has never known much about her father, who passed away ten years ago. But on the anniversary of his death, she finds a letter from her deceased father to her stepfather. Before now, Claire never had a reason to believe they even knew each other. Struggling to understand why her parents kept this surprising history hidden, Claire combs through anything that might give her information about her father . . . until she discovers that he was a member of the yakuza, a Japanese organized crime syndicate. The discovery opens a door that should have been left closed. The race to outrun her father’s legacy reveals secrets of his past that cast ominous shadows, threatening Claire, her friends and family, her newfound love, and ultimately her life. Winner of Tu Books’ New Visions Award, Ink and Ashes is a fascinating debut novel packed with romance, intrigue, and heart-stopping action.”

The reveal of Claire’s biological father, who was a member of the Yakuza, takes a good hundred pages or so to be unveiled. Unfortunately, I had read this description before starting on the novel and found myself impatiently waiting for what occurs past this point. Once Claire discovers this information about her biological father, she realizes her parents might be keeping far more from her than she could have ever imagined. And the process of her unofficial investigation begins to unearth and create other complications. For instance, it becomes evident that her father might had made many enemies during his time with the Yakuza; some such individuals continue to hold vendettas against Claire’s family, which now includes a stepfather (who was once the friend of Claire’s biological father), mother, and siblings. The problems related to her father’s history are of course matched by the social dynamics that make high school such a morass of alienation and cliquishness. Though some might question a self-orientalist impulse in Maetani’s choice to explore a plotline involving the Yakuza, the author clearly took the time to research some of the cultural elements that would make her work dovetail with existing conceptions of the organized crime organization. In any case, Maetani’s book finds an innovative way to echo many other Asian American texts in its exploration of transnational secrets that must be investigated in order for the protagonist to address a past injustice or problem. With an intriguing premise, Maetani’s debut is energized primarily by a lively plot and non-stop action. Fans of YA should be pleased with this debut.      
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A Review of Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction (Disney-Hyperion, 2015).

Kelly Loy Gilbert’s debut novel is an inventive amalgamation of various themes including: religious devotion, dysfunctional family dynamics, and courtroom drama. Our protagonist and narrator is Braden Raynor, the son of a baseball radio announcer. His father is imprisoned and awaiting trial for a hit and run that leaves a local police officer dead. Braden, being only sixteen, is left without a parental guardian, so he must rely on his estranged older half brother, Trey, who is living in New York City and has started a career as a restaurateur, to return to his hometown in Central Valley, California to take care of him. Trey does reluctantly return, and over the course of the narrative, we discover far more about the dysfunctional family dynamics that have long dominated this family. Braden’s father comes from a fractured family; his father had killed himself when he was just a child. The shadow of this death looms large over the way he treats his children. He commands unwavering filiality to the extent that this extreme measure of devotion drives Trey away, and it leaves Braden in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship in which he is constantly seeking his father’s approval. Gilbert’s novel is perhaps the class young adult bildungsroman: how will the teenager become an adult? The answer that this novel leaves is a hard one: sometimes, one must leave behind the very person who had made your existence possible because that person is himself a dangerous individual, who cannot control his emotions. There is also a lengthy subculture in Braden’s hometown related to Christian values. Much of Braden’s own philosophical inquiries and anxieties are connected to his sense of Christian ethics, what it means to do right and wrong in the eyes of God. A side plot involving Braden’s budding romance with an Asian American adoptee, Maddie Stern, keeps this novel juggling multiple character arcs. The seriousness of the topic matter that Gilbert covers makes this young adult debut rise above the often too neatly closed resolutions of so many other works in the genre. Another definite must read for YA fans.

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A Review of Julie Kagawa’s Talon (Harlequin, 2014).

The ever-prolific young adult/ paranormal romance fiction writer brings us a new series which debuts with Talon. Talon, as the title might imply, is about a group of dragons, who can shift into human form. Talon is also the name of the dragon-led corporate entity, which trains young “hatchlings” to become adept at fighting and surviving in a world in which fear and terror continue to plague this species. Indeed, dragons were once on the brink of extinction, but the formation of Talon enabled the dragons to come together and to proliferate once again. Dragons were being hunted by a knights Templar-ish group called the Order of St. George, who still exist and who are still hunting what dragons they can manage to find. The story is told from shifting first person perspectives, but our obvious protagonist is none other than Ember Hill (I swear that this name is also the name of a protagonist in another young adult series, perhaps Kristen Simmons?), a young dragon hatchling who, along with her twin brother Dante, is being trained for a path into one of the professional trajectories for Talon members. They are unsure of what they may be entered into, as they have no choice, but their options seem limited to becoming: (1) a viper, a trained assassin meant to hunt down “rogue” dragons or other enemies, such as those involved with the order of St. George; (2) a basilisk, a spy figure meant to infiltrate enemy societies and carry out the most dangerous missions; (3) a chameleon, a dragon meant to live at large in human society, fully assimilating while gathering whatever intelligence data that becomes readily available in their new lives. But, while Dante and Ember are training, they are also living in a beach town summer resort community and forced to assimilate with the locals as well as the out-of-towners. Thus, Dante and Ember must learn to work within their human forms, as part of their development as Talon members and operatives. The other first person perspectives are given to Garret, a member of the order of St. George; and Riley, a “rogue” Talon operative. Garret comes into the novel as the main antagonist; the first person perspectives alternate between Ember and Garret in the first half of the book. Garret has come to town with a fellow order of St. George member (Tristan) in order to find what they call a sleeper agent, a dragon who has taken form among the humans. Their mission is to find this sleeper dragon to execute it (her? ze? Trying to be better at inclusive pronoun usage). Of course, Kagawa knows what she is doing in this genre: the ordinary, but extraordinary teen girl named Ember is going to fall in love with the guy that she shouldn’t named Garret. A love triangle will correspondingly emerge when it becomes apparent that Ember also finds a romantic attraction to the bad boy dragon known as Riley. Both teenage boys are of course bad news for Ember, so we’re totally expecting them to find their way to each other and wreak havoc as the central love triangle. Certainly, an entertaining story, Kagawa finally finds time to stretch her wings as a writer. It’s the first novel in which Kagawa uses so many different narrative perspectives; by the conclusion, Dante is given his own viewpoint as well. The polyvocal nature of this work allows Kagawa the opportunity to inhabit different psychic interiors. Though the novel occasionally suffers from a too-narrow focus on Garret’s teen angst over his conflicted feelings over Ember (resulting in some perhaps unintentionally funny narrative sequences involving his vacillating emotions), fans of Kagawa are going to be enthused about the contextual shifts of her fictions, moving from fairies to vampires and now to dragons. Certainly, we’ll be prepared for yet another movement to a genre “monster” figure for the next series: mermaids perhaps? Other fans may be dismayed that Kagawa has chosen to start another series when the Iron Fey installments have slowed down. Kagawa’s most recent work in that series ended on an extreme cliffhanger that left many fans dying to know what would happen in the next book. So let’s hope she’ll give us not only more dragons, but fairies, too.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for June 28, 2015

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.

In this post, reviews of Deepak Chopra’s The 13th Disciple: A Spiritual Adventure (HarperOne, 2015); Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner (Arcadia Publishing, 2015); Quanyu Huang’s The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids (Prometheus Books, 2014); Marisa de Los Santos’s The Precious One (HarperCollins, 2015); Mala Kumar’s The Paths of Marriage (Bedazzled Ink, 2014); Nick Sumida’s Snackies (Youth In Decline, 2014); Jenny Han’s P.S. I Still Love You (Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2015); Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Knopf, 2015).

A Review of Deepak Chopra’s The 13th Disciple: A Spiritual Adventure (HarperOne, 2015).

Deepak Chopra is well known for his work as a kind of spiritual guru, having penned many dozens of publications on various topics related to wellness, religion, and associated ways of life. Chopra is perhaps less recognized for his work in fiction; he is the author of some works in this area (including The Return of Merlin and the Enlightenment series, which takes on fictionalizations of major spiritual figures including Buddha and Muhammad). Chopra might be described as a secular spiritualist: that is, he seeks to bring religion in its broadest forms to the masses, whether through nonfictional “how to” guides or through fanciful and imaginative fictional worlds. In The 13th Disciple, Chopra deviates from using well-known religious figures to ground his fictional world and instead focuses on the apocryphal possibility of the titular thirteenth disciple, an unknown woman who comes to exist in some form within a religious relic. Chopra opens the novel with a central mystery: a nun named Meg has gone missing, and her niece, a young woman named Mare, realizes that there may be more to the story concerning her disappearance. From there, Chopra shifts the narrative perspective among an array of characters, including Meg, who we discover suffered from stigmata at a young age. Meg’s time in the convent is a sort of therapy to manage the stigmata, though she becomes aware that she has been touched in some way by the light. The light, as Chopra generically deems it, is a kind of spiritual awakening involving the capacity for individuals of all stripes to do good, despite being in positions of disempowerment and general malaise. For Chopra, the path to the light is the grounding force behind this spiritual adventure, which is a kind of fictionalization of the ways that everyday individuals might be able to access their own abilities to change and become a positive force in the lives of others. The fictional story seems to be less compelling in many senses than Chopra’s epilogue, which lays out his religio-secular philosophy. Indeed, the story’s conceit is so reliant upon the central mystery and a cast of characters enigmatically brought together by the thirteenth discipline that many may be a little let down by the novel’s conclusion, which leaves behind numerous red herrings and subplots unclosed. Chopra’s choice to create a didactic spiritual tale in a fictional form is certainly an intriguing one and compels the cultural critics in all of us to consider the possibilities of religious formalisms in this contemporary moment.

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A Review of Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner (Arcadia Publishing, 2015).

One of the interesting marketing details of Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner is the book jacket biography, which details that the author “served with the Karachi police for twelve years, most recently as head of counterterrorism. During his service, he has been actively targeted by various terrorist groups and organizations. He was wounded in the line of duty, and his office was bombed by the Taliban in 2010. He has a master’s in criminal justice policy from the London School of Economics and a master’s in law from University College London.” Hamid’s experience in the Karachi police makes one wonder how much of the novel is fictionalized and how much is actually based in reality. The protagonist, Constantine, works as a superintendent of a prison located in Pakistan. The novel opens when he is visited by Major Rommel, who is looking to interview an important prisoner named Akbar. Akbar may have important information regarding an American of Jewish descent who has been kidnapped by some organization. It is unclear whether or not the American’s kidnapping is the work of jihadi extremists or not, but it is apparent that Akbar knows more about the situation than he is letting on. The novel is told anachronically and readers discover why Akbar, who was once working for the police, is now in prison. Indeed, Constantine and Akbar were once allies, and the complicated relationships between politics, organize crime rings, intelligence agencies, and terrorist organizations causes those who work in the police force to be caught up in dangerous power plays. It is clear that corruption is, in some sense, required by all entities simply to keep one’s head above water. For his part, Constantine begins to realize that the American’s kidnapping is part of a larger plot in which his own position is imperiled. With little agency to direct his actions, Constantine can only negotiate between the various figures who are attempting to wrest control of the situation. At one harrowing point, Constantine must call on an old lover to protect his wife and children. Though Hamid’s novel is uneven in its plotting—indeed, the anachronic storytelling technique sometimes undercuts the narrative pacing—his work does much to clarify the murky nature of governance in the post-9/11 period, especially in a place like Pakistan. The line between enemies and allies is never clear and in this sense, Hamid’s novel is more like a noir than anything else. The Prisoner also can be paired up against a number of other novels set in Pakistan (or thereabouts) that focus on corruption in government and associated organizations, such as Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

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A Review of Quanyu Huang’s The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids (Prometheus Books, 2014).

Quanyu Huang’s The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids (uh oh, the hyphen reappears here) presents a more judicious approach to the issues related to the model minority stereotype than others, especially in contrast to Chua’s infamous The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in its exploration of academic achievement. Underlying Huang’s thesis is the fact that the secret of the success behind educational attainment for Asian Americans is a blend of cultural approaches to learning emphasized by both China and the United States. Central to Huang’s thesis is the “hybrid” evoked in the title: to replicate the success of many Asian American parents, one must consider the benefits of each mode of education and seamlessly blend them. The balance between the two is essential to extract the most productivity out of the budding Asian American student and scholar. Huang’s book isn’t aimed at scholars of Asian American Studies or perhaps anyone with some baseline familiarity with the field, so there are limits to his arguments. Indeed, Huang never sets out to define who gets to be labeled as an American, and there is a strange elision between whiteness and American-ness that problematizes the place of the Asian in his argument. In some sense Huang’s work reifies the ever foreign nature of the Asian American simply by creating a binary between China and America and their educational policies. One element that could have used more nuancing is that Huang’s work is VERY specific to generational migrants. That is, he’s looking at Chinese American migrants and their children, especially those migrants who retain a strong connection to their homeland. His argument starts to already fray if you consider Asian Americans who have lived in the U.S. for more than one generation, and considering the fact that immigration opened up in 1965, this possibility is beginning to be more of an issue than ever before. Further still, Huang often has to conflate Chinese Americans with Asian Americans. He attempts to make broader claims for his work by introducing short anecdotes about other Asian groups who follow similar cultural models for education as the Chinese, but these are short and do not hold the same kind of weight as his very specific study of the Chinese. His title might have been better suited to the concerns of the success of “Chinese-American” kids rather than for Asian Americans more broadly. Fortunately, Huang’s main aim is to undermine much of the damage generated by Chua’s book. He looks as the cultural factors behind achievement rather than at any racial essence and dismisses any biological elements that would somehow mark Asian Americans as superior students. This goal alone gives us pause to reconsider the roar of the tiger mother and her model minority ways.

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A Review of Marisa de Los Santos’s The Precious One (HarperCollins, 2015).

Fans of the romantic comedy genre, the courtship and marriage plot, Jane Austen, and the Victorian novel will be utterly pleased by Marisa de Los Santos’s The Precious One, the latest effort from this prolific author (who has penned three novels for adults, a co-authored young adult fiction, and some poetry collections and who also boasts a PhD in literature no less). The novel is told in alternating first person perspectives. The first is given to Eustacia Cleary, otherwise known as Taisy, a 35 year old woman who was basically disowned by her father when she was just a teenager. She and her twin brother Marcus as well as their mother are all summarily cast out of his life once he decides that he loves someone else, a much younger woman named Caro. Together he and Caro have a newly born daughter named Willow, and there is apparently only room in his life for one family and one precious child, from whence the title comes. Flash forward about 15 years and Taisy’s father Wilson has a heart episode. That particular health issue pushes him to ask Taisy to come back into his life (he also asks Marcus to visit), though they haven’t been in contact for that entire time. Taisy agrees to the request, while Marcus, given his character and his own feelings about Wilson, declines. Taisy soon discovers that there is an important reason by her invitation: Wilson wants Taisy to help research and to write a biography of his life. Wilson, who is an incredibly intelligent academic and scholar, grants Taisy unprecedented access to his educational files as well as to the people he knows, but Taisy has other goals in mind. For instance, Taisy wants to know what Wilson was like prior to his ascent in academia, and her detective work uncovers some interesting facts, including the fact that he changed his name during high school and that his parents, who he had claimed were killed in a car accident, never died in that manner. Taisy has also returned to her childhood home in part because she herself has unfinished business with a man named Ben Ransom, a former love. The other narrative perspective is given to “the precious one,” Wilson’s daughter, Willow, who is smart just like her father, but lacking in social skills and knowledge of the world around her. The heart episode spurs Wilson to allow Willow to start going to regular high school, which as we all know, will never turn out well for someone who has been homeschooled forever. Willow finds herself adrift in a sea of hostile, cliquish teens, and finds solace in a too-friendly English teacher named Mr. Insley. Eventually, she also develops a tentative friendship with an attractive, star athlete named Luka. Life at home is similarly complicated: the arrival of Taisy and her stay in the guesthouse causes feelings of sibling rivalry to emerge. From what little Willow knows, Taisy is a loose woman, who Wilson had disparaged at every turn because she presumably had had a teen pregnancy (or something along those lines). But Willow’s knowledge of Taisy is obviously colored by Wilson’s aggressively hostile stance, so we know that de Los Santos has other plans for this sisterhood. Inasmuch as de los Santos is juggling two separate romance plots, she knows that the kinship plot is equally important and perhaps more important to the novel’s final arc. In this sense, de Los Santos’s eventual bringing together of the sisters is a satisfying triumph that becomes all the more poignant in light of the father who had worked so hard to keep them apart. Though the novel suffers from a generally ahistorical viewpoint (with probably the big exception of the references to smartphones and applications), it is an incredibly entertaining read that you will keep you up far past your bedtime.

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A Review of Mala Kumar’s The Paths of Marriage (Bedazzled Ink, 2014)

Well, perhaps we’re entering a new age. With Mala Kumar’s The Paths of Marriage, we have certainly one of the most socially conscious works delving into a fictional world involving in part a major arc with a queer Asian American female character. On this level alone, Kumar’s work enters a very select and limited set of archives. With the exception of the publications offered by Nina Revoyr, queer Asian American female characters have been largely absent from the fictional terrain. Queer identified Asian American writers have tended to publish poetry, a fact that is probably related to the issues of access to routes of publication. In Kumar’s debut, The Paths of Marriage, we have essentially four different narrators. Three appear in the first person and track the intergenerational contexts of South Asian and South Asian American women. Lakshmi grows up poor, part of the Shudra caste of the Hindu faith. Though she aggressively pursues her educational options, eventually she butts up against the higher castes and higher classes, who seek to limit her trajectory. Lakshmi sees an arranged marriage as perhaps the only viable option once her educational opportunities come to an end, especially after her family is targeted because of her educational achievements. Lakshmi ends up marrying an individual who moves her to the United States. Lakshmi bears two daughters. The older is named Pooja. In the second part of the novel, Pooja gets a turn as our storyteller. Her section opens with her parents pressuring her into an arranged marriage. Growing up in West Virginia, Pooja experiences racial prejudice and finds the expectations of her parents to be oppressive. Pooja at first attempts to rebel, but eventually assents to the arranged marriage, as she couples up with a determined ambitious man named Anand. Anand and Pooja eventually settle in Florida; Pooja is determined to get an education, but this drive creates tension with Anand, who is pursuing a career of his own. Eventually, their marriage crumbles under these divergent expectations, but just before they are divorced, Pooja realizes that she is pregnant with a daughter. The third section opens with Deepa’s perspective, who is struggling with the process of coming out to her mother. Deepa identifies as a lesbian, and when she begins a long-term relationship with a French national named Audrey, who is residing in the U.S. for her professional education, she realizes that she must come out to her mother in order to honor a promise she made to Audrey. Deepa eventually comes out to her mother, but only after breaking a vow she made to Audrey. In the ensuing period, Pooja breaks ties with Deepa, while Audrey feels betrayed by Deepa’s delay in telling her mother. Thus, Deepa ends up losing both her mother and Audrey for a time. The narration eventually shifts again to a third person perspective. This choice was an interesting one made by Kumar, perhaps as a way to get at the process of recovery that is required of multiple characters, as they must each reconcile certain expectations that they have had of people they love. The final section sees Kumar provide an actual marriage plot type conclusion, so rare given the fact that same-sex marriage is only recognized in particular states (I originally wrote the draft of this review prior to the Supreme Court ruling, so forgive its out-of-datedness). Fortunately for Deepa and Audrey, as they reside in New York, they are able to get married. Kumar should be applauded for courageously taking on a subject matter of great interest not only to queer Asian Americans, but anyone invested in familial and social recognition of non-normative sexualities. Though the plot sometimes suffers from uneven pacing, the social impact of Kumar’s novel cannot be understated. A truly trailblazing work that links women’s oppressions in transnational and U.S. domestic contexts.

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A Review of Nick Sumida’s Snackies (Youth In Decline, 2014).

Nick Sumida’s Snackies comes out of a cool indie press based out of San Francisco, California. The comics that comprise Snackies seem to be at least semi-autobiographical and follow the misadventures of the protagonist, especially as he seeks to find love, go on dates, and survive in the city. The comics are episodic, so the laughs come at uneven fits and bursts; readers of all stripes are certain to find something to chuckle at. For me, one of the best sections involved a parody of the craigslist missed connections. Here, Sumida pokes fun at the narcissism inherent in same sex desire, as the protagonist is unable to realize that the people he thinks he is connecting with (but only ever anonymously) are actually reflections in various surfaces, such as in shop windows and water surfaces. Another hilarious bit involves the protagonist traveling by bus and noticing an attractive man, only to realize that when the attractive man turns around, there is something that makes him repulsive (such as the fact that he might sport strange braids) or is in actuality an alien. Another excerpt involves the protagonist giving advice about how to lose weight and get him shape, but these self-help bits are obviously tinged with his cynical wit. Snackies shows a lot of promise, so we’ll hope that Sumida ventures into full-fledged graphic novel territory. Certainly, this collection is groundbreaking for the simple fact that it focuses on queer contexts, though the question of race is an intriguing one, as it does seem as if the protagonist could be Asian American (though is never identified as such).

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A Review of Jenny Han’s P.S. I Still Love You (Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2015).

In P.S. I Still Love You, Jenny Han’s sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before reunites us with Lara Jean Song, the spirited, mixed race Korean American protagonist (and our first person narrator). For those that forgot (and I’m included in this list), the first book saw Lara Jean Song choose between her high school classmate and childhood crush Peter and her next door neighbor Josh, who also happened to be the ex-boyfriend of her older sister Margot. Lara Jean ends up choosing Peter, the Lacrosse jock and generally popular high school everybro, which brings us to the opening of the sequel, in which Lara Jean must somehow confess her feelings to Peter. Eventually, these feelings are revealed and thus ensues their fledgling romance. Of course, given the cesspool that is high school, you can be sure that someone will attempt to sabotage their bliss and in the process jumpstart our young adult fictional plot. In this case, a video of Lara Jean and Peter engaging in a make out session in an a hot tub serves to destabilize the security of their relationship. Especially problematic is Peter’s ex Genevieve, who is also Lara Jean’s former best friend from the seventh grade. Genevieve continually calls on Peter in times of trouble and because they are navigating the waters of post-breakup platonic friendship, Lara Jean can only watch while she feels sidelined by their continuing connection. While one romantic triangle blooms (or festers), Han of course wants to keep up with the conceit from the first novel—that is, the five letters that ended up going out to Lara Jean’s various crushes—and thus creates another triangle through the eventual receipt of a letter from one of these previous five crushes, John Ambrose McLaren. While John and Lara Jean grow closer, it becomes apparent that Lara Jean has feelings for John, thus complicating the various romantic plots further. As always, Han is at her best in depicting plot-driven romantic entanglements, and you’ll certainly be left wondering who Lara Jean should choose. I certainly had my opinions about the eventual result, and I’m sure some of the readers will agree with me that Lara Jean made the wrong choice. In any case, Han continues to develop the contours of the Song family in a more grounded exploration of race and ethnicity, as it functions in Lara Jean’s life. The extra texture of this kind of background serves as an intriguing apparatus to consider the mixed race, Asian American protagonist in the young adult fictional world. Here, despite the more universal themes of high school angst and frustrated desires, Han gamely engages how Lara Jean finds some solace in her ethnic minority background, especially as it provides her with a stronger cultural attachment to her father and his family. But let’s be clear: Han’s work remains on the lighter side of the young adult spectrum. You won’t find the cataclysmic, post-apocalyptic worlds so popular in the paranormal subgenre, but for those looking for high school hijinks and associated malcontents, you’ll definitely find it in Han’s latest. The conclusion seems to suggest that there might be a third installment in this series. Will it be titled P.P.S. I Still Love You Too? Only time will tell.

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A Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Knopf, 2015).

(an appropriate looking Arthurian-like goblet thingee no?)

It’s been about a decade since Kazuo Ishiguro published Never Let Me Go, a novel I found to be somewhat uneven, but nevertheless compelling on the level of ethics. Ishiguro dares to venture again into genre fictions to explore a rather philosophical inquiry concerning the adage that ignorance is bliss. While Never Let Me Go drew on the genre of science fiction, Ishiguro ventures into fantasy and Arthurian romance with The Buried Giant. Ishiguro moves out of the first person narration that has long been a hallmark of his work to employ (primarily) a third person perspective that follows a band of adventurers and questers. The primary protagonists are the older couple Beatrice and Axl, who live in some unnamed village in the age of King Arthur. They are Britons, who, for some reason or another, are haunted by a kind of fog of amnesia. They decide that they must visit their son in a neighboring village, but their journey is a long and arduous one. In one of their first encounters with other villagers, Beatrice and Axl come upon a scene in which a young boy has been kidnapped by a band of ogres. This boy, Edwin, is eventually saved by a brave warrior named Wistan, of Saxon background. Because Edwin suffers a wound (the origin of which becomes a source of debate), he becomes the subject of much consternation, and Wistan realizes that Edwin must be smuggled out of the village and raised somewhere else if he is to have any chance at a normal life. Wistan thus charges Beatrice and Axl with the task of helping him locate a new home for Edwin, even as they journey in search of their son’s village. Other matters complicate these varying quests: Beatrice, for instance, seems to be harboring a kind of injury, and the chance of finding out more about her ailment leads the group to a monastery with a figure (Father Jonus) who may be able to diagnose the problem. As the novel moves forward, it becomes evident that Ishiguro is playing upon a larger issue concerning racial and ethnic relations: the Britons and Saxons were once at war with each other, but somehow the fog of amnesia has made it so that they do not understand what such tensions were about. As Beatrice, Axl, Wistan, and Edwin all come to grips with the potential possibility that they can end this fog and restore the memory of all villagers, a larger dilemma arises concerning whether or not such actions would be of benefit to all. Indeed, wouldn’t the restoration of memory simply reconstruct the tensions that left so many dead due to endless campaigns for vengeance and retribution? Ishiguro’s answer to the question is so ambivalent that the novel may not satisfy readers, who have journeyed with such unintentionally forgetful characters. A late stage introduction of Sir Gawain proves to be a fascinating gambit, one that pays off through a vital plot element. The mystical aspect of the novel seems at times simply a dressing for other more compelling issues. The dragon-villain, Querig, for instance, is a huge disappointment. Interestingly enough, where Ishiguro eventually leads us is to the kind of mystical conclusion undergirded by the conclusion and resolution of the romance plot. In this sense, even as the novel engages the larger scale issues of racial and ethnic tensions, the readers remain burdened most by the question of the afterlife, another layer of philosophical inquiry that remains finally and frustratingly unanswered. My favorite of Ishiguro’s work still remains A Pale View of Hills. The uninitiated to Ishiguro must also read The Remains of the Day.

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24 May 2015 @ 10:40 am
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 24, 2015

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.

In this post, reviews of Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home (Penguin, 2014); Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (Penguin Books, 2014); Rinsai Rossetti’s The Girl With Borrowed Wings (Dial Press, 2012); Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Pastors’ Wives (Plume, 2013); Radhika Sanghani’s Virgin (Berkley Trade, 2014); Karen Bao’s Dove Arising (Penguin Young Readers, 2015); Lydia Kang’s Catalyst (Kathy Dawson Books, 2015).

Though Penguin Random house recently engaged in a merger, the new company has retained an academic division for Penguin titles and the CFIS program. Whew!

Since many readers of AALF are also qualified instructors who regularly teach Asian American literary titles, I sometimes create a Penguin-only book review to cast attention on their titles and to remind people about CFIS.


One of the big perks of CFIS is that you can get five free examination copies each year. At the same time, the program allows qualified instructors a chance to diversify their curricula. Through this program, I have gotten new titles by Chang-rae Lee, Jessica Hagedorn, and other writers who have been directly incorporated into my classes.

Without further ado:

A Review of Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home (Penguin, 2014); Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (Penguin Books, 2014);

I first got wind of this memoir once it became headline news because it was being adapted into a movie. So, I naturally wanted to read the book that was apparently attracting Nicole Kidman to play one of the lead roles. Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is part of the growing archive of transracial/ transnational adoption memoirs; his story is pretty unique in some ways because of the way he ends up getting placed into an adoption agency. Accompanying his 14 year old brother by train to a neighboring town, Saroo gets trapped inside one of the box cars, not realizing that he is basically being transported across the entire nation of India, moving from the Western side all the way to Calcutta (Kolkata). Once in the mega-city, he stays relatively close to the railway station, living off scraps of food, while trying to find the right train to take him back home. Eventually, he begins to see the vast majority of the trains he gets on return back to the railway station in a loop, and he’s forced to consider the possibility that he is stuck there. Eventually, some run-ins with some unsavory types push Saroo to leave the area, and he bumps into some strangers who route him into a local police lock-up, which then leads him into an orphanage system. He is fortunately paired up with a woman, Ms. Sood, who takes good care of him and who is able to fast track him into adoption with an Australian couple. Once in Australia, Saroo can’t believe his new found “glamorous” life. Sure, there are some bumps in the road—such as the period in which Saroo gets a brother, Mantosh, who is also Indian and also adopted and whose acclimation to Australian is far less seamless—but overall, Saroo notes that his new home beats the abject poverty and constant fear that he had experienced as a child in India. Saroo’s Australian parents are sensitive enough to give him a wide berth when it comes to his homeland and provide him with the support he needs when he decides to try to figure out where his home actually is based upon memories and the frequent refrain he gave as a child that he is from a place called “Ginestlay.” It is not surprising in some sense that Brierley’s story has been chosen for Hollywood-ization, as it provides the kind of uplift narrative and concluding arc that will be sure to produce some tears in the audience. Brierley’s prose is straightforward and spare; you’ll read the memoir quite quickly, but perhaps the more intriguing question for me as a reader are the marginal social contexts that are alluded to, but not fully engaged. Indeed, Brierley does decide to give back to the orphanage that was instrumental in his having been adopted at all, but the process of international adoption and child trafficking in India remains a topic that has, on some level, not been as visible in cultural studies as of late (in contrast to adoption studies in China and Korea). There’s something about Brierley’s adoptive parents, their unassuming style of childrearing that doesn’t presuppose the “savoir” status, that makes this particular story different from some of the other adoption narratives I’ve read and perhaps keys us into the importance of the unmapped futures that the adoptive parent must maintain in order for any possible alternative kinship to form.

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A Review of Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (Penguin Books, 2014).

Originally published in 2012 under the David Davidar-led Aleph Publishing Company in India, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom finds itself stateside, as it has been brought out by Penguin Books. The novel is an anachronically plotted novel concerning an unnamed narrator and his exploration of his parents’ lives: their courtship, their marriage, and their later struggles over the mental illness of the wife. The novel is set in India, though the setting is so subtly interwoven into many of the chapters that we can sometimes forget where we are. Indeed, Pinto’s work finds a kind of cosmopolitan applicability that speaks perhaps to the growing modernization and global character of India’s biggest cities (like Goa and New Delhi for example). The title refers to the nicknames of the narrator’s parents: Augustine, or the Big Hoom, and Em, or Imelda, who find their fledgling romance growing amid an office work environment in India. They bond over their mutual love of bookstores (and books) and movies, but underlying their feelings for each other is the sleeping monster that becomes Em’s mental illness. Later diagnosed as a manic-depressive, Em comes to be figured as an unstable and disruptive force in the lives of her children, especially when suicide becomes an ever-present concern. The unnamed narrator plows through the letters written by Em that detail her life and in so doing comes to understand the challenges she has had and provides a deeper context to her mental illness. The larger point is of course the need to develop the proper form of empathy for Em, who initially comes off to the children as a chaotic and irrational individual. From the lens of her letters, the children can begin to see her from a different light. The naturalistic arc of the novel ends with a disruptive and therefore surprising closing chapter which works to showcase Pinto’s nuance: these characters reveal how mental illness functions to affect an entire family and the arc of their lives beyond that shadow of psychological instability is unscripted. Nevertheless, at the core of this family remains the support they have given to each other even when it has seemed to be a burden. Pinto’s use of dialogue and anachrony can serve to undercut his dynamic depictions, marking this novel as highly uneven, yet nevertheless compelling. An understated and poignant work, reminiscent of some of other recent publications, especially Danielle Lim’s The Sound of Sch (Ethos Books) and Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (W.W. Norton).

For more on the book go here:


A Review of Rinsai Rossetti’s The Girl With Borrowed Wings (Dial Press, 2012)

This book has set on my shelf for awhile, and I think I was simply “saving” it for a night when I was craving another young adult fiction. I’ve tended to lay waste to my young adult fiction reading by devouring anything I get immediately, but occasionally I like to browse my bookshelves to see what’s left unread. These days, my choices are getting limited; many seem to be Asian Anglophone fictions that don’t tend to be as pressing to get to simply because they are further outside my scholarly wheelhouse (still need to read some Meira Chand, for instance). But I digress: Rinsai Rossetti’s The Girl with Borrowed Wings was purchased in manuscript form when the author was just 19 and only came out when she had completed about two years of university schooling. This background seems quite common in the YA world, where publishing houses seem to be open and to even embrace the youthful backgrounds of the writers themselves (see Nancy Yi Fan and Kat Zhang for some other examples). There are obvious advantages to the youthful age of the author, especially in the realm of marketing and the fit of the audience. Readers can quickly identify not only with the heroine of the novel, but the writer as well: the writer, reader, and protagonist all might be seen as rough mirrors for each other. In the case of this novel, our narrator and heroine is Frenenqer, who apparently resides in some Middle Eastern nation that remains unnamed and is simply called an oasis. The use of an unnamed location that still likely has a real world analogue is a writerly choice I’ve seen too many times at this point and am beginning to wonder about writing a paper on the topic. Rossetti (who is of Thai and Italian descent) engages this fictive location as a kind of metaphor for the expat who is at once everywhere and nowhere. Frenenqer is the “nowhere” side of the equation, as her father imposes a strict regime over her life that does not allow her to do much except follow his austere rules of etiquette. This mode of living leads Frenenqer into a kind of emotional isolation, which begins to be undone one day when a magical being (who Frenenqer nicknames Sangris) begins to take her out at night. He is apparently a “Free” person, a being who can go anywhere and everywhere, but belongs to no one and has no family. At the end of the day, the “Free” person is not so different than Frenenqer, as both individuals finally feel alone, withdrawn, away from everything. The two, in other words, make the perfect couple. So begins the possible courtship plot, but of course, Rossetti is not going to let that happen so easily. Frenenqer’s isolation under her father also causes her to close off any feelings she might be developing for Sangris, even as he falls desperately and madly in love with her. There was a point where I found Sangris to be a questionable love choice, but I suppose those details are for the readers to determine on her own. After all, he’s violent, seems unaware of boundaries, and in some cases, some of his advances might tend toward an unwelcome sexual aggression, but Rossetti sees these two as two sides of the same coin, and so, readers will have to wade through about a hundred pages to see how it will all turn out. A late stage character development regarding Frenenqer’s best school friend Anju is a very welcome addition; her rise in the importance of plot practically saves the conclusion from being too straightforward. Indeed, Anju’s friendship with Frenenqer grounds the novel in one of its most interesting elements: that of expat teenage children who subsist in American language schools, while they attempt to grapple with the international lives they are forced to lead. The fictional conceit of the imagined place—the oasis—gives his novel an air of the Oriental tale. The limit of this approach, though, is that we sometimes want more specificity to the cultural registers of the life there, something that the novel almost demands once Frenenqer makes her break from her father and comes to realize that she’s not nowhere, she’s somewhere and that she actually has feelings.

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A Review of Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Pastors’ Wives (Plume, 2013)

I think every novel should come with an author’s note like the one presented in Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Pastors’ Wives (Plume 2013), which explains the sometimes long road to a book’s publication. Cullen comes from a journalistic background and previously produced a book on the culture around funerals and dying (Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death). This novel comes out as a result of a complicated process concerning the desire to write a television series. That series, Ordained, was never given a full pick-up, though it did film a pilot episode that included some big time actors, including Sam Neill (of The Jurassic Park fame). Cullen’s Pastors’ Wives reminds me a little bit of the short-lived television show GCB. Though more dramatic than GCB, which was more of a religious dramedy, Pastors’ Wives focuses on three characters who are of course all married to pastors. There is Ruthie Matters—given the only first person perspective—who is married to Jerry, who has recently changed his life and decided that he must heed his calling to become a pastor. He gets hired as an associate pastor at Greenleaf, a megachurch located in the South. They must make a huge move that promises to create marital instability, especially as Ruthie is what we might call a reluctant Christian. She essentially leaves behind her own career in journalism and public relations to follow him. Then, there’s Candace Green, who is married to the Aaron Green, who is pretty much the head of Greenleaf. Candace is given the second narrative perspective and she’s perhaps the most powerful character in the entire novel: she seems to know everything that’s going on behind the scenes and attempts to defray any complications regarding the church before they become major issues. Finally, there’s Ginger Green, who is the daughter-in-law to Candace and married to Timothy Green, the son of both Aaron and Candace. Timothy has gone off to create his own branch of Greenleaf and also becomes heavily involved with an overseas ministry, which creates its own form of marital instability as Ginger begins to find his absences to be troubling, especially when she finds out she is pregnant with a third child. Each pastor’s wife has their own character arc, and the plots are generally intertwined because Candace Green must ultimately know what is going on with all in the flock. Cullen’s work is fascinating and is not surprisingly the result of much anthropological and sociological-type fieldwork, so the novel comes off as a richly textured exploration of religion, marriage, and the culture of the mega-church. If there’s a hiccup in the structure or the execution of the novel, it’s the mixture of third and first person perspectives. My own penchant for the first person narrative voice had me gravitating toward any sections involving Ruthie, and early on, I occasionally found myself flagging in my attention to Candace or Ginger, but as the various plots become fleshed out, their interconnectedness makes the shifting narrative perspectives less of an issue. Just as a sidenote: I found it interesting how Cullen occasionally included what seemed to be a minor Asian American character in novel; these figures most often signified through a last name (though not always, especially in the case of Kristin Chaudry). Though Cullen seems to have wanted to break into the television industry, we’ll continue to hope she does not leave behind the traditional novel, especially with such an assured and unique debut.

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A Review of Radhika Sanghani’s Virgin (Berkley Trade, 2014)

Well! I’m not quite sure how to review this book. I’m definitely not the target audience for the narrative, which is told from the perspective of the young twenty-something Greek British character named Ellie Kostakis and who we learn at the beginning of the novel is the titular virgin. The novel opens with Ellie at the doctor’s office, horrified that the doctor she’s seeing has inputted the fact that she is a virgin into her computerized medical chart. After Ellie’s admission of her sexual status, a conversation concerning the need for tests regarding sexual transmitted infections ensues, which only exacerbates her sense of shame. Sanghani’s Virgin is a college sex comedy that seems to draw from a chicklit lineage that has gone a little bit raunchy. Flashbacks and memories reveal that Ellie has only made it as far as hot make-out sessions, while her numerous hijinks include an accidental cutting of her clitoris occurring when she attempts to trim her pubic hair (yes, you read that right). At some point, the misadventures regarding Ellie’s vagina encourages her and her friend Emma to start a vlog, which is a blog devoted to issues arising out of sex and their genitals. Sanghani goes all in for this book, which is courageous given the risk she takes on certain sequences. One of the most successful is the laugh out loud moment when Ellie and her new gay bestie Paul, a fellow Greek British character and the brother of her Greek British rival, watch a video purporting to educate the audience on how to give the perfect blow job (yes, you read that right). The step-by-step instructions are of course created in a hyperbolic way, and in this sense, Sanghani absolutely gets the tonality situated with respect to the ways that these video manuals can come off as ridiculous and outright inaccurate. Ellie is drawn as a relatively superficial character and part of the problem is that Sanghani doesn’t give enough time to narrate her other pursuits, including her academic interests in literature (she’s apparently writing her dissertation and even manages to get magna cum laude). Ellie’s so driven by losing her v-card that it seems unbelievable she has any time to read, to write, or to think deeply about cultural criticism when she spends most of her time wondering about when she’s going to be receiving a text from Jack Brown, the twentysomething with whom she believes she will lose her virginity. The concluding sequences almost redeem the novel for me (at least on the level of the time spend reading it), as Sanghani provides us with an arc that is both funny and evades the typical courtship plot, but at the end of the day: Virgin is suited best for those looking for a relatively apolitical romp in the land of sexual absurdity. For those already salivating at the prospect of starting this novel, take heart: Sanghani has a sequel set to come out later this year!

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A Review of Karen Bao’s Dove Arising (Penguin Young Readers, 2015).

Karen Bao’s debut novel is Dove Arising, which is intended as part of a trilogy called the Dove Chronicles. Our young adult paranormal romance heroine is none other than Phaet Theta, a young girl of 15 who is growing up on a lunar colony. Things immediately go from bad to worse once her mother is arrested and put into prison. Without the funds to bail her out, Phaet, and her two younger siblings, Anka and Cygnus, realize that they might have to move to a ghetto-ized area. Phaet believes her only option is to join the militia, the moon’s elite military division, even though it means that she might get maimed, injured, or even killed. By joining the militia, Phaet might earn the money to keep them where they are living. At 15, if Phaet was able to survive her training, she’d be one of the youngest ever to get through the program. What ensues is a rather long and, in my opinion, plodding training sequence in which Phaet is put through various tests and evaluated in many ways. She soon makes a tentative ally in a talented recruit named Wes, but their pairing invites its own unwanted attention and the rival militia-in-training characters soon target Phaet, as she somehow manages to make it through one test after another. Phaet eventually succeeds in this program and, if you can believe, manages to score in the first place, which provides her with the rare opportunity of becoming one of the youngest captains ever. Ranking aside, Phaet has bigger worries once it becomes evident that her mother, though now freed due to the money (a currency ingeniously called Sputniks) that Phaet managed to raise as part of her new salary, is being tried in a court of law due to claims that she has engaged in subversive journalism. As we discover, the real meat of the novel appears here and—much too late I might add—as readers realize that there is a rebel organization afoot that is looking to bring light to the oligarchy’s problematic ruling policies. Though Bao has an intriguing premise in this novel, it takes much too long to take off and the impact of later stage reveals are continually undercut by the lengthy exposition. By the time the novel generates enough tension for the readers to understand what is actually at stake, it’s over and you can’t help but feel a little bit cheated. One of the most intriguing elements that Bao does provide is elliptical references to race and ethnicity. Phaet is targeted occasionally due to her Chinese ethnic background, which must basically be forgotten in order to assimilate fully into lunar culture. Phaet’s mother eschews this hard line in her journalism reporting, and we begin to see that the lunar colony’s attempt at homogenizing their citizens is really a rendition of a postracial future that no one would ever want. New social inequalities merely replace the old ones, and what we have is not really quite different than what came before, at least with respect to the fact that the powerful will exploit the weak and corruption is the true currency of the day. With the set-up out of the way, let’s hope that Bao’s next installments rise to the level of the dynamic premise and promising world building offered in Dove Arising.

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A Review of Lydia Kang’s Catalyst (Kathy Dawson Books, 2015).

So, Catalyst is Lydia Kang’s sequel to Control. In Catalyst, which seems end the series and thus marking this novel and its predecessor as a duology, is narrated again from the first person perspective of Zelia Benton, a teenager who discovers that she carries the genetic trait of extended life (longevity). Spoiler Warning appears here as always.

The novel’s opening sees her at the Carus House, where she is still reeling from the events that unfolded in Control: the ending saw her teenage beloved, Cy, sacrificing himself by becoming a prisoner of the mutant factory called Aureus. This novel kicks into high gear when one of the henchmen from Aureus arrives on the doorstep of Carus, having been injured and proclaiming that she is there with the blessing of Cy. Though Zelia and her allies (other “traited” mutants and associated individuals such as Marka, the den mother of the group; Hex; Vera; Ana; and Dyl, who is Zelia’s sister) are at first suspicious, it is clear that this mutant, Caligula, needs their help. Further still, they realize that they are all in danger and must leave Carus house altogether. When a raid arrives on their doorstep before they are prepared to leave, the group must splinter off and agree to meet in a location in Chicago in twelve days. Caligula and Zelia are paired together, but get sidetracked when Zelia is able to locate Cy, who has been in hiding with another mutant from Aureus named Blink. The four attempt to make it to Chicago, but a last minute complication forces them to take shelter in another state, a place called Inky, in which they effectively become prisoners at a resort designed for mutants called Avida. Avida is run by a maniacal leader named Julian, a man who wants to exploit their traits for political and capital gain. Zelia, Cy, Blink, and Caligula are reunited with another mutant (Micah) from the first novel who had betrayed them. They realize they must all work together if they are to find a way out of Avida. Thus, the novel’s major middle arc is devoted to the escape plan. When they are finally able to make their hasty exit, they arrive in Chicago only to discover that their trials are not yet over. Though Zelia discovers her mother may actually be alive, there may be a traitor still among them who is acting as an informant and who ultimately wants all mutants destroyed. Kang’s second novel is certainly action-packed, and I’m sure I mentioned in my review of Control that fans of the X-Men series are sure to find much to love about this duology, which follows a similar mythology and is based in a similar storyworld. The conclusion manages to tie up most loose ends, which makes it likely that Catalyst is the final installment in the series. Of course, the political texture of Kang’s novel is what makes it rise above many others in a similar genre: the harvesting of DNA for profit is no doubt an issue that will be increasingly relevant as biotechnology continues to make large advances. The fate of Zelia and her mutant friends make us realize how humans continue to be not only a site of exploitation due to labor demands, but that their very bodies also become targeted for other commodities as well, calling attention to black market organ harvesting and the debates over stem cell usage. The trick with novels like this one is to keep our critical reading lenses attuned to the allegorical and refractive quality of such works, while still finding a measure of entertainment in the action-packed, ethically complex storyline that Kang has constructed for us.

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15 May 2015 @ 02:12 pm
Michael Golamco's Cowboy Versus Samurai (Samuel French, 2011) is a modern retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac in the vein of early plays by Frank Chin and David Henry Hwang that circle around questions of racial desire and gender stereotypes of Asian Americans.

(Images from the author's website.)

The play is set in a small Wyoming town and features a small cast including Travis Park as a Korean American high school English teacher; his white friend Del, the part-time gym teacher; Chester, the other Asian American in town; and Veronica Lee, a Korean American woman who moves to town as a science teacher at the school. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and there is some funny dialogue throughout the play. Travis is a straight-laced man while Chester is a militant Asian activist who claims a panethnic Asian American identity (and specific, differing ethnicities whenever convenient). Del is a bumbling white guy who had exhibited a bit of anti-Asian racism when Travis first moved to town but now considers him his best friend. Veronica is perhaps the flattest character, serving as the catalyst for some changing dynamics among the three men in the play.

At the center of the play is of course a love triangle. Travis likes Veronica, but so does Del. Veronica befriends Travis but mentions that she has only dated white guys. As a result, Travis helps Del woo Veronica through letters that he writes for Del to sign and deliver to Veronica as his own.

I find myself wondering how white audiences might receive this play and its musings on racial desire. It definitely connects with discussions that Asian American artists often consider, and Asian American audiences might be familiar with these types of issues. The play definitely contests the idea or possibility of simply being color blind in love since there is the weight of historical injustice and of contemporaneous stereotypes that always color individuals' desires.
Current Mood: calmcalm
03 May 2015 @ 01:32 pm
Elisha Lim's 100 Crushes (Koyama Press, 2014) is a collection of illustrated pieces previously published in periodicals and anthologies of queer writing.

I enjoyed reading this collection, but it also was kind of a slap in the face, reminding me how far adrift I am from the queer subcultures that I used to be much more connected to, either in community events or through my reading habits. Lim is a comic artist with an ethnographic bent, someone who chronicles the perspectives and lives of queer people with loving care. Lim is Chinese Canadian with some childhood time spent in Singapore as well, and their discussions often hinge on the changing expectations of sexual attractiveness across national and cultural borders.* As a butch lesbian, Lim nevertheless does not necessarily conform to expectations of white masculinity embodied by white North American butches; instead, they embrace greater gender fluidity and also Chinese, Korean, and other Asian masculinities, for example as represented by contemporary celebrities in Chinese movies and kpop. 100 Crushes includes selections from a illustrated pieces in series, beginning with 100 Butches, which consists of single-page illustrations and reminiscences of butches Lim has admired. These butches range from anonymous people they encountered out in the world to activists, artists, and other people in the queer subcultural world of Canada.

Another series is similarly set up--single-page illustrations with brief commentary of celebrity figures from the 1980s on whom Lim felt feeling of attraction. These portraits emphasized the deviancy of Lim's childhood desires, directed often at characters and individuals not meant to be seen as sexual object or at people for whom Lim's attraction exceeded the idea of lesbian desire.

Lim does an excellent job of capturing a sense of queer desires--ones that exceed both heteronormative and homonormative strictures. This tracing of crushes is an interesting approach for narrating identity, and it is something I'll keep thinking about for awhile. This book would be interesting to read alongside other queer texts of course and along with graphic novels/narratives.

* Lim uses the gender-neutral, plural pronoun they/their for self-reference. The editor in me balks at the mismatched noun and pronoun, but as Lim thoughtfully discusses in some of their illustrations, this embrace of a gender-neutral pronoun is an important part of many transpeople's identities.
Current Mood: chipperchipper
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 19, 2015 (with a focus on romance, young adult, and children’s literatures).

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.

We are also looking for more reviewers and posters to join the collective to update regularly. Livejournal is an open access community, but a community only thrives so much as content is generally and consistently updated. As one of the primary sources of reviews here, though not “retiring” in any sense of the word, I’ve very much like to encourage others to get involved to post. Posts need not be related to reviews, but can be related to any issues (teaching, scholarship, community organization, creative writing, updates on events going on) connected to Asian American literature. I will continue to update the review copies list as well! Creating a livejournal account is free to any user. We continue to believe that a blogging apparatus such as LJ remains an egalitarian mode to allow users from a variety of backgrounds to contribute to AALF.

In this post, reviews of Neel Shah and Skye Chatham’s Bottom Up (Dey St., 2015); Kristen Simmons’s The Glass Arrow (TorTeen, 2015); Kristen Simmons’s Article 5 (TorTeen, 2012); Kristen Simmons’s Breaking Point (TorTeen, 2013); Kristen Simmons’s Three (TorTeen, 2013); Lori M. Lee’s The Infinite (Skyscape, 2015); Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Guardians (HarperTeen 2015); Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly (Greenwillow Books, 2015).

A Review of Neel Shah and Skye Chatham’s Bottom Up (Dey St., 2015).

So, there is an important authors’ note that begins the debut novel, Bottom Up, penned by romantic comedy team Neel Shah and Skye Chatham: “We wrote this novel because we were sick of the scenarios: Boy likes girl; girl goes on comically disastrous date with boy. Girl likes boy; boy thinks she hates him, but it turns out this is her way of expressing affection and now they’re married. Or girl likes boy; boy doesn’t like girl; boy sees a shooting star or a taco and comes to the realization that he has been in love with girl this whole time. We were fine with the novels and the movies and the songs about these stories when we were younger, when we didn’t realize how distant they were from our own romantic realities. But these dating trajectories all have one thing in common: They’re neat. Clean. Tidy. And therefore they bear little or no resemblance to our contemporary lives.” The ethos behind this effort is obvious in the plot: Elliot Rowe, a chef, meets Madeline Whittaker, who works for a publisher of cookbooks. Elliot has a bestie named David, Madeline has a bestie named Emily. Madeline and Elliot proceed to go on a couple of dates, some of which are better than others. They eventually find some chemistry, but Elliot gets cold feet: he’s not sure what Madeline means to him. Complicating matters is an impending wedding that Elliot is supposed to attend. His ex-girlfriend, who he still obviously harbors some feelings far, is also going, but without a date. Should Elliot bring Madeline, or should Elliot go on his own with the potential chance of course to rekindle something with his former flame? This question is the beginning of the end of this relationship and things go pretty much downhill from there. What Shah and Chatham’s novel has going for it is its fairly unique aesthetic conceit: the entire novel is written through e-mails, e-mails that have been forwarded, and text messages. These written materials are generally ephemera, so they are more impressionistic than realistic at any given point. Though Elliot and Madeline are questionable as a couple, they live in a world in which witty texts and e-mails are common parlance and knowledge of popular culture is a necessary evil to make any story or bad date that much more palatable or entertaining to retell. The novel has a little bit of The Break Up (starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn) and The Affair (starring Ruth Wilson and Dominic West) peppered into its influences. On the one hand, you’re essentially watching a promising relationship go down the drain. Two likeable leads who decide to part ways, but you also have many instances in which the same event is rendered in two completely different narratives. One person will say he is twenty minutes late, while another person will say that he is hours late. At the end of the day, the reader is often forced to choose who is the more accurate of the pair and perhaps the most sympathetic one of the duo. For this reader, I definitely sided with Madeline in those divergences. Even if Madeline was still likeable for me, the shortcomings of this kind of millennial text/ e-mail form is that it renders the dating experience above everything else. There is barely any semblance of any historical or social tapestry occurring beyond the world of bars, restaurants, and the late-night shag. These characters are clearly more complex than what the narrative conceit allows, and if there is one shortcoming then, it’s that Shah and Chatham might have experimented with other forms that might have added more textures to this romantic comedy world, one that would perhaps raise the stakes in other ways. Otherwise, this work can be read in one sitting, the perfect addition to a short vacation, a read by the pool, a brief escape from the often pedestrian tragedies of the everyday (like the car that won’t start and the leaky faucet that keeps you up at night). Finally, the novel will give ANYONE pause about considering whether or not their emails or texts are confidential. Not only to the readers receive the information perhaps meant only for one set of eyes in this novel, but other characters are also privy to such information as well. If you’re going on dates with someone new and telling someone about it over e-mail, you can be sure that the person you send it to may not be the only person reading it. Yikes. Bottom line for Bottom Up: I didn't absolutely adore it, but I can’t lie: I read this novel in one sitting, and I would say that the work is "unputdownable" as a reading experience about romantic relationships gone wrong.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Kristen Simmons’s The Glass Arrow (TorTeen, 2015); Article 5 (TorTeen, 2012); Breaking Point (TorTeen, 2013); Three (TorTeen, 2013).

Apologies in advance because I always end up spoiling parts of any YA fiction trilogy.

Kristen Simmons (hapa writer of part Japanese descent) was unknown to me until TorTeen publicists sent over a review copy of The Glass Arrow, which arrived on a rainy day with the book being damaged by rainwater. Though its arrival was inauspicious in this sense, it did provide the perfect antidote for some general malaise at a later point, when I was in bed, feeling a little bit bored and looking for something dynamic to read. Simmons is the author of a previous YA trilogy called Article 5 (which I will have to eventually peruse), so she’s well aware of the standard tropes and formulas. She doesn’t stray too far from the young adult paranormal romance: we have a spirited heroine Aya who lives in a particularly problematic world that seems to be based upon (or allegorizing) human trafficking and slavery. Women have been deemed a problem population and have been stamped out unless they are kept at a minimum basically to be baby-making machines. A fortunate few of these women live beyond the reach of cities and thus escape the chattel system, but Aya is captured by Trackers and sent to the city to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Aya does whatever she can to avoid being sold, even though it results in her solitary confinement at a place called the Garden, the detainment center for women before they are to be auctioned. In the Garden, she is overseen by grim, emotionless guards called Watchers and works with handlers called Pips. Aya strikes up a friendship with a strange individual associated with the Garden who hails from a people called Drivers. Drivers are mute, or at least they never speak, and Aya nicknames this Driver fellow Kiran. Kiran eventually becomes the route through which Aya can escape the city, even after she is auctioned off to the son of the mayor. The novel takes quite some time to move from Aya’s predicament as a human slave, eventually shifting to the woods where they must elude capture and find a way to Aya’s family. Aya and Kiran additionally end up bringing along Daphne, another woman who Aya had met in the Garden, but never liked. The early portions of the novel are not for the fainthearted; the first half is truly and relentlessly depressing. Aya, even given the extreme indoctrination of female subordination in the urban culture, never fails to uphold and to maintain her inner sense of justice. In this sense, readers will easily find a heroine in her, even if the fictional world that has been created seems to have so few ethically inclined people. The final narrative arc is certainly thrilling and action-packed, and you’ll be reading the last one hundred pages at a lightning speed. The conclusion doesn’t leave many threads open, so it’s unclear if The Glass Arrow is the start of an entirely new series or remain a standalone. Now it’s time for me to go back and read that Article 5 series! =)

So, about that Article 5 series: Kristen Smith’s debut is told from the perspective of Ember Miller, a teenager, who at the start of the novel is subsisting in an alternate version of the United States which is in dystopian ruins. The country is ruled by what is informally called the Moral Militia, otherwise known as the Federal Bureau of Reformation (FBR). This group is tracking down individuals assumed to be breaking the rules, or articles, which are essentially moral clauses. Trouble comes knocking on Ember’s door (literally) when her mother is arrested for violating Article 5—from whence the title springs and which refers to the fact that citizens cannot have children out of wedlock. Apparently, Ember’s mother had been in a series of bad relationships, which mark her in this negative fashion. Complicating matters is that the arrest was in part carried out by Ember’s former flame, Chase Jennings, who has become a soldier for the FBR. Ember protests so vehemently over her mother’s arrest that she too is detained, and she spends the rest of the novel either as a prisoner (in the first hundred or so pages) or on the run (away from the FBR and attempting to track down her mother). Ember escapes from the detainment facility, but only with the help of Chase, who miraculously appears at just the right moment.  From this point forward, they must dodge the FBR who are on their tails and other malevolent entities residing in this messed up version of the United States, one filled with empty cities, red zones, and citizens willing to give each other up for the right amount of money. Along the way, Ember negotiates a careful truce with Chase. Of course, Simmons knows the rules of the genre here: she’s created a plucky heroine who with a sense of right and wrong (despite how challenging the circumstances), but whose movement through the plot is somehow intertwined with a central romance. A late stage surprise makes any headway between the two characters on the romantic level become questionable, but their love for each other is never really in doubt, and we know that Simmons has constructed a duo that can only succeed if their love remains bound to each other. Whereas Simmons’s The Glass Arrow is obviously referencing forms of human bondage and slavery, Article 5 seems to be much more interested in exploring forms of fascistic subject formation and the possibility of another holocaust. The gravity of the topic might strike some as being incommensurate for the genre of the young adult fiction paranormal romance, so you are definitely forewarned. The conclusion certainly sets up the following installments, as Ember and Chase must find their way amongst the resistance. Their position is not unlike many other YA counterparts in later installments of a series, as they might become the agents of revolution.

In the follow-up, Ember Miller and Chase Jennings have joined the resistance, which is apparently a ragtag group of rebels who are located at a place called the Waylaid Inn. Ember and Chase are begrudgingly accepted by the rebels, who include the grizzled veteran and leader, Wallace; a flirty and openly resentful young woman named Cara; Sean, the former FBR soldier that Ember had met while she was in detainment (Sean also happens to be the boyfriend of a girl named Becca that Ember had originally met in detainment); and Billy, a young 14 year old, with a chip on his shoulder to prove he’s useful despite his age. With the resistance, Ember and Chase go on a number of missions. At one point, Ember is used as a kind of pawn due to the fact that she’s been confused with a sniper who has been the target of the FBR and who has caused mass chaos in city areas. Ember’s presence in public, though certainly a risk since she has been named one of the most wanted fugitives on the run from the FBR, is also a stratagem used by the resistance to foment revolution. If they see her walking about the streets, there is a sense that the FBR doesn’t hold all the cards. Of course, at some point, the resistance begins to suffer some key setbacks, the highest of which occurs when they are forced to flee the Waylaid Inn, after it is torched and their hideout destroyed. Wallace presumably dies during that time, and by that point, the resistance has also accepted another former FBR soldier into their midst: Tucker Morris, one of the main villains from the debut. Chase and Ember almost leave the resistance, but when they realize that they have to go back to the Inn to help out those seeking to escape its destruction, they accept Tucker’s presence, while helping the resistance find a new home. Ember and Chase’s long term goals are to help Sean find Becca in a holding facility in Chicago. They are eventually able to make their way there, but not without losing Cara and being forced to work directly with Tucker just to survive. There’s a saying that the second installment in any trilogy is usually the darkest point and that’s certainly true for Simmons’s Breaking Point. Simmons only ever lets the reader get a short reprieve before pushing the weary band of survivors onward. Even toward the end, when there might be a chance for something more lasting for the maimed, injured, and just plain tired group of individuals who have managed to make it that far into the novel, Simmons throws another huge obstacle in their way. Of course, the conclusion to the second novel naturally flows into the set-up for the third. As it becomes evident that the resistance may not be as unified as everyone once thought, Chase and Ember must make difficult decisions about their place and responsibility to the movement, and how, of course, they will manage to make a life together in the shadow of the FBR. Certainly, a solid sequel, and one that stands out from many other YA titles already reviewed on this site based on the narrative’s bleak dystopian world, one in which the body count is high and “heroes” are never assured of a place in the next installment.

In the third, also confusingly or not so confusingly called Three, Chase and Ember move further into the resistance. While the safe house they were attempting to locate at the ending of book two ends up being a bust (and you’ll have to read the books to get at the pun there), Chase and Ember, as well as their ragtag group of survivors move onward and stumble onto the mythical, titular Three, the organization that is purportedly the leading the diffuse resistance against the FBR. Chase, Ember, along with Becca (rescued, though maimed, at the ending of book 2) and Sean, and Chase’s uncle Jesse, and the young Billy all have a short reprieve at the Sanctuary, which is Three’s super secret encampment. Individuals at this hideout are growing their own food; there are weapons available; and there is hope that the resistance can do something about the rampant social inequality. The ending of book two saw Tucker having to go off to find another safe house. Ember is naturally worried that those who had set off for that safe house have been captured or killed, but the leader of Three, a man by the name of Aiden DeWitt, convinces her that they need to put their attentions elsewhere. Indeed, Ember, along with Chase, decides that they have a larger plan that will ensure revolution, even as the numbers of the resistance might seem too few to enact any real change. All along the way, Simmons has been careful about creating this atmosphere of distrust. Ember and Chase cannot necessarily let their guard down, and they are naturally suspicious that those at the Sanctuary are not operating with full disclosure. Nevertheless, Simmons knows that Ember and Chase are our central heroes, so we never doubt where their hearts are, and perhaps that’s all that ultimately counts. Indeed, the question that comes toward the conclusion of this particular novel is whether or not the plot for overturning a brutal governmental regime is as important as making sure Ember and Chase manage to survive, so that they can explore their fledgling love. What Simmons’s work seems to diagnose is that the romance plot holds so much power not only because it is a fantasy (as much as the dystopian aspects of this particular work) but also because the romance is a localized phenomenon that ultimately assumes that the two involved are necessarily on the same team. This kind of alliance is especially pivotal in the kind of world Simmons has created because allies are few and subterfuge and espionage are the common vernacular. Ember and Chase’s relationship is perhaps the only stable footing that either of them have in a world in which allies can just as easily turn to enemies and vice versa. As with the Glass Arrow, this trilogy is pretty dark overall, and fans of YA should be ready for a series in which “being on the run” is the natural order of things. Simmons has a particularly funny acknowledgments page involving her admission that she completed the trilogy around the time she gave birth to a child, thus gesturing to the apocalyptic feelings of labor that befell her both literally and imaginatively.

For more on the books or to buy the book, go here:





A Review of Lori M. Lee’s The Infinite (Skyscape, 2015).

The sequel to Lori M. Lee’s Gates of Thread and Stone is The Infinite, which follows Kai’s adventures, as she grows accustomed to her otherworldly status. For those of who you don’t mind being spoiled—and here is your spoiler warning—the last novel ended with readers discovering that Kai is part Infinite. In other words, her bloodline includes being part-God. Kai also discovers that her powers over time are in part due to her supernatural ancestry. Kai had grown up without knowledge of her genealogy. Indeed, her father, Kronos, a member of the Infinite, had given up her as a way to protect her from this other life, but Kai eventually must face the evil machinations of Ninu, another member of the Infinite who had been cruelly overseeing her home city of Ninurta. In The Infinite, Lee adds to the complex world building she began in the first novel by fleshing out the region’s geography. Although it would seem that Ninurta is separated from the rest of civilization by a barren wasteland known as The Void, the second novel sees a traveler come from another region only known from myth. This traveler from Lanathrill comes with bad news: fiendish creatures are overtaking their lands, and they seek help from neighboring Ninurta. Kai is sent as an emissary and to report back on her findings. Kai finds the traveler’s accounts to be more or less true, so she suggests that Ninurta send some reinforcements to battle the creatures. Of course, Lee has far more in store for the readers and Kai, and Kai will soon discover that she has been betrayed. This quest plot is rendered alongside the requisite romance plot. The ending of book one saw Kai’s primary love interest Avan become a member of the Infinite, while also losing his memories. Avan in part loses his hold on his humanity and much of this novel deals with whether or not Avan can retain a sense of empathy for humans. Lee adds another wrinkle into the romantic equation with Mason, a hollow (a kind of guardian-soldier) who is sent with Kai to Lanathrill to investigate the mysterious goings-on. Kai and Mason have long had a flirty connection to each other, which is more fully engaged once they are on their mission together. A sequence involving a fancy ball is course the perfect opportunity for Lee to engage her own version of the makeover montage, with Mason acting as the stand-in for the romantic lead. There is quite a bit of action to parse through in this novel and because Lee’s world is built from fantasy-inspired, but no less original systems of power and culture, I had to review the earlier novels to remind myself of terms like: sentinels, hollows, and grays. For fans of the paranormal romance and the young adult fiction, you won’t want to miss Lee’s latest.

Buy the Book here:

A Review of Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Guardians (HarperTeen 2015)

The Wasteland trilogy comes to an end with Guardians, which follows the bleak installments of the first two novels, as our protagonist, Esther, continues to forge a new life in a dystopian world. Esther’s world, for those that do not remember, is one in which the typical life span does not go above 19 years of age. Individuals couple early, while many die at a premature age due to a sickness thought to be caused by contaminated water sources. The first two novels see Esther and a band of her friends attempt to leave behind Prin to find a better life in a new town. Over the course of those novels, the body count rises, but Esther and a select few reach a place called Mundreel and settle in the District, a section of the city that is ruled by a controversial leader named Gideon. When the novel opens, Esther and the remaining survivors in her group—who include her partner, Aras; their child, Kai; Esther’s best friend, Skar, who also happens to be a mutant human called a variant who are apparently born but often discarded; Skar’s human partner Michal; the bookish Joseph—have taken to creating a garden and thus ensuring their utility in Gideon’s system of governance. Gideon is power hungry, though, and continues to look for ways to assert his dominance over Mundreel. Unbeknownst to Esther and influenced by her ideas, Gideon begins an economic system using a system of exchange: discarded pieces of glass can be traded in for items, such as food, clothing, and water. Gideon’s approach soon catches much interest in the remaining townsfolk including those not lucky enough to live in the district, but readers shouldn’t be surprised when the system soon creates more inequality. Indeed, Kim and Klavan are clearly analogizing the problems related to capitalism, when there is no system of regulation but the corrupted person at the top. Things can only go worse from here and they do. Eagle eyed readers will immediately notice that Joseph is reading Lord of the Flies at one point in this novel, and the power struggle between Gideon and Esther is no less a re-writing of this castaway narrative in which two youngsters battle each other for control in what is a essentially a “closed” system and exiled community. Kim and Klavan seem intent to explore different variations on leadership and governance. Esther attempts to find ways to provide food for all community members, and even sets up something akin to a hospital ward in her section of the District. Gideon, on the other hand, cares only about his power and how to generate more surplus for himself and those he deems most useful to this process. Given the genre of the paranormal young adult romance, you might expect good to triumph over evil, but Kim and Klavan’s taste for the “bleak” makes it so that any success is always a measured one. People die in this work, as they did in the past, and the depths of human depravity in this novel can truly be depressing to read, but the greater point seems to be Kim and Klavan’s referential intent: this fiction is relational to our own world, and what the characters decide to do and how they act is perhaps simply a refraction of the ways that actual humans can treat others. Thus, Esther’s ability to retain her moral compass in this chaotic and oppressive world is truly a feat of great inspiration (for actual readers), one necessary for the rapacious darkness that infects so many in Mundreel and perhaps also infects our own.

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A Review of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly (Greenwillow Books, 2015).

It is an ever-exciting time to be a children’s literature devotee, as there are more and more American writers of Asian descent working in this area. When I was growing up—and do I ever feel old making a statement like that—I still recall my favorite books: The Mixed of Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Bunnicula, etc, but none of these books had much to do with Asian American characters or contexts. These days you can look to writers like Lisa Yee, Grace Lin, Cynthia Kadohata, Linda Sue Park, and others for some estimable entries in this area and that deal with what it means to be growing up as an Asian American. Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly adds to this corpus in its exploration of the youthful Filipina American protagonist Apple Yengko. Apple was born in the Philippines but she immigrates to the United States at an early age due to her mother’s decision to make a new life for her and her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death. A nursing shortage at that time allows her an opportunity to receive a treasured work visa via a family connection named Lita and the rest as they say is history. Apple’s real name is Analyn, but as with many Filipinos, she goes by a nickname. She’s made some tentative friends in her eighth grade class, but no one seems to understand her own predicament as a racial minority living in the South (Louisiana). Apple soon finds out through word of mouth that she’s been placed on the “Dog Log,” which is a list of the ten most unattractive female students in the class. Further still, racist comments made by some classmates regarding the fact that Asians purportedly eat dogs contributes further to her misery as a student associated with canines. Naturally, Apple’s response is to wish away her racial difference, which includes wishing away her mother’s Filipina-ness, but this mode of escape and self-effacement is only ever provisional. Enter Evan Temple. As a transplant from California, Evan is the right kind of stranger to Louisiana, one who is more keen to racial diversity due to his upbringing and who provides both a potential romantic foil for Apple as well as an individual more understanding of social difference. For those of you wondering about Kelly’s title: yes, it is a reference to the Beatles. In this regard, the other major element is Apple’s deep love for singing, songwriting, and the Beatles. She struggles to make the money needed to buy her own guitar, and this lack of funds leads to other rash decisions. Yet, the mystery behind her mother’s rather dour attitude toward Apple’s interest in the Beatles is perhaps something that moves this middle grade novel into a deeper register, as we come to see how the phantoms of the past can never be escaped. Kelly’s work is especially important given its regional texturization of Asian American literature; like Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, the novel’s setting in the American South serves to remind us that we must always think beyond metropolitan centers in the East (New York City) and the West (Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco). A definite must read for children’s lit lovers!

Buy the Book Here:

It looks like Amulya Malladi's Serving Crazy With Curry is FREE as a Kindle edition. Might just be for today, so get it while you can!


Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 2, 2015

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.

In this post, reviews of Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song (Topside Signature, 2014); David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (Theatre Communications Group, 2009); Tania James’s The Tusk that Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015); Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character (Knopf, 2015); Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections (Graywolf, 2013); Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop (Kaya, 2014); Liana Liu’s The Memory Key (HarperTeen, 2015); Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know (Bloomsbury USA, 2015); Jo Whittemore’s Colonial Madness (Simon and Schuster Young Readers, 2015).

A Review of Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song (Topside Signature, 2014).

Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song (Topside Signature, 2014) is her follow-up to Seasonal Velocities. In He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song, Aoki fractures perspective amongst an expansive set of characters that reminds one of an Altman film if it was set in Hawai‘i and involved a plot concerning performance and the “true meaning” of an island identity. At its core, Aoki’s spirited, slightly surrealistic, and ultimately upbeat novel challenges settler colonialist rhetoric in its evocation of a pluralist ethos for Hawaiian identity. Indeed, the opening gambit is none other than the burden that one of the characters, Noelani Choi, feels concerning Hawaiian dance and whether or not she still feels rooted to this kind of performance. Though gifted with the ability to dance, Noelani is particularly ambivalent about her talents and much of the novel delves into her own spiritual and identity quest as it relates to hula and her halau (performance troupe). But there are a number of other quirky characters, including Kamakawiwo‘ole Shulman—Kam for short—a Jewish musician who relocates to the islands and fashions himself with an appropriate name for his new home. There is the friendship that develops over the course of the novel between Harry, a local man who is still recovering from the loss of his wife, and Steve Yates, a successful businessman, who relocates to the islands after it is discovered that his wife (Lisa) may be dying. Harry and Steve bond over their mutual love of fishing. There is Nona Watanabe, who holds a torch for Harry, but can’t seem to break past his melancholic subjectivity. Nona and Lisa become the natural opposing pair to Harry and Steve. One of the most hilarious and nefarious characters in the novel is Eva Matsuoka, owner of a successful plate lunch business, who is looking to steal the recipe for the super delicious chicken that Nona is somehow able to make. Though the narratives seem disparate at first, Aoki is patient and begins to gradually twine them, especially through the motif of the Hawaiian dance performance and what it means to be Hawaiian. Toward the conclusion, Noelani Choi contemplates: “But what is Hawaiian? Where you stay born? The color of your skin, hair? Your blood? Would be easy, yeah? Maybe if you eat opihi or kulolo?” (269). Noelani later decides: “It wasn’t always about blood or culture. It could be. Sometimes, the spirit gets passed on to someone born from the aina. But sometimes, it passes to someone without one speck of Hawaiian. And then what? You cannot just say no” (270). In this sense, Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song articulates an expansive and inspiring approach to the local and Hawaiian identities. Aoki’s novel would be productive to read alongside other writers already highlighted in AALF including Gary Park and Kristiana Kahahauwila; for reviews of their work, see:



For more on Topside Signature, go here:


For Ryka Aoki’s novel, go here:


A Review of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (Theatre Communications Group, 2009).

I’m obviously underread in the area of Asian American drama, a fact that is made (alarmingly) apparent as I am catching up on David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, perhaps one of the most innovative additions to the field in the last decade, given its emphasis on “meta-drama” (is that a word?) and Hwang’s self-conscious exploration of race and performance in this apparently post-Asian moment. For Hwang, the play gives him the opportunity to satirize the controversy over the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon. Though many years have past since that debacle, the reverberations of this event remain for Asian American Studies scholars, artists, actors, and activists, especially as elucidated by Hwang’s incendiary drama. Poking fun at himself, the producers of Miss Saigon, identity politics, all the while clarifying the necessity of sensitivity in racial casting, Hwang pulls off a rare feat that entertains, mocks, but still somehow manages to call attention to the white supremacist inclinations of performance fields. Hwang creates a lead role based upon himself and this “fictive” Hwang piece is working on the production called Face Value, which is in its casting phases. Eventually, Marcus Dahlman, who is apparently of Jewish descent (via Siberia), is cast in a lead role meant to be played by someone of Asian descent. Hwang, eventually realizing his error, tries to cover his tracks by proclaiming that Dalhman is indeed Asian, though by way of continentality—he comes from Russia after all, which is a country in Asia—rather than through racial difference and hypodescent. Marcus parlays mistaken identity into a full-fledged career as a so-called Asian American actor, changing his appellation to Gee, which is of course more appropriately Chinese than Siberian. Hwang is astute to play off the elision between continental and geographical definitions of Asia in contrast to racial formations of Asian groups, but he juxtaposes this main storyline alongside that of a conspiracy type plot related to his father who is caught up in an investigation of a Chinese corporation perhaps involved in fraud. This comparison point is meant to bring the satire back into the orbit of other rising anti-Asian sentiments in this contemporary moment, especially in relation to China as a major global power. In many respects, Hwang’s latest has much in line with the newest performances that Karen Tei Yamashita penned in Anime Wong—see especially the title work in that collection—concerning the rise of a new form of yellow peril in the 21st century. It is in this juxtaposition that Hwang reminds us that our work in race and ethnic studies is likely never to be finished so long as social difference, inequality and global capitalism remains embedded in our daily lives.

For more on the book and the production (as well as an interview) go here:



A Review of Tania James’s The Tusk that Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015).

Tania James’s third publication (after Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogramme: Stories) is The Tusk that Did the Damage. In this slim and naturalistic work, James takes on the subjects of animal studies, poaching, elephant subjectivity, and documentary filmmaking. There are roughly three narrative perspectives. One is given to an Indian man named Manu whose cousin is killed off by a violent elephant known only as the Gravedigger. Manu’s brother Jayan is already connected with the activity of poaching, but he is given pause when he is arrested in conjunction with his illicit hunting. The Gravedigger seems to have a larger vendetta against Manu and his family, and once the elephant comes a little bit too close to home, Manu and Jayan must make some difficult decisions about how they will protect themselves. A key figure in this subplot is Jayan’s wife who exerts a significant and almost romantic pull on Manu. The second perspective is given to a filmmaker named Emma, who has traveled to India to create a documentary film; she is working with a close friend and former lover named Teddy. The main “human contact” of their documentary is none other than a man named Ravi, a veterinarian who is well known for his championing of elephants and the protections he seeks for animals who are deemed to be targets for poachers. The third narrative perspective is completed in the third person and is more mythic: it follows the story of Gravedigger and his journey from being orphaned to his quest to exact a kind of revenge on those who have perpetrated brutalities against him and those that he loves. This third perspective is an interesting one because James chooses to provide readers only with a limited access to the animal’s subjectivity, an interesting move given the use of the first person for Emma and Manu. The toggling between these perspectives can sometimes result in uneven pacing, but James’s ultimate goal and message is obviously and strongly political: there are no winners in the industry of poaching. Elephants are targeted often for parts that become consumed only on an ornamental level, while lower caste and class individuals enter illegal trades simply to survive, while still others seek to shed light on difficult topics without falling subject to relativities and banal messages of hope and positive futures. Without a heroic center, some readers may find James’s novel too bleak, but the seriousness of the topic matter is appropriately matched by the author’s willingness to plumb the contradictory subjectivities of all the characters, human and otherwise. For another book on a similar topic and issue, please see Nikita Lalwani’s The Village, review on Asian American Literature Fans here:


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A Review of Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character (Knopf, 2015).

Well, this novel was a definite surprise. Deepti Kapoor’s debut novel A Bad Character is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who resides in Delhi. The novel is fairly anachronic, but the primary diegetic level appears set during a period when the protagonist is college age. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle because her mother has passed away, and her father has essentially abandoned her for a new life in Singapore. As a kind of dispossessed college aged orphan, it is really up to Aunty (as she is called) to marry the narrator off. The narrator, though, is quite resistant to all of the potential matches, especially because they are cloaked under the guise of propriety and decorum. The narrator realizes that her possible marriage matches are already limited by her tenuous socioeconomic status and the lack of support from her surviving parent. It becomes apparent, too, that the narrator is beautiful, an aspect that emerges most forcefully in the ongoing affair that she carries on with a young man, the titular “bad character,” who we discover at the start of the novel has been run over by a car and killed. We know that she and this young man have some sort of complicated romantic history, and it unfolds in fits and starts over a poetically written set of excerpts that move back and forth through time. Kapoor’s writing is raw and unflinching; the novel seems to be inspired in part by works such as Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. In terms of topic and approach, it also very much reminds me of Lawrence Chua’s Gold by the Inch, especially in the ways that the narrator and her lover spend the nights in wild abandon: driving through the streets of Delhi, snorting cocaine, or having sex. At some point, after the untimely death of her lover, the narrator discovers much of their relationship was a lie: his parents were never actually dead as he had stated, and he actually had a fiancé. These revelations spur the narrator further into a dark hole of romantic melancholy: she starts having casual sex and eventually becomes the kept woman for a successful transnational businessman. All throughout this indelicate disintegration, she waxes on and on about this love she cannot quit, this “bad character” who has infused her psyche so completely that he appears as ghostly presence no matter what she is doing, no matter who she is having sex with. This novel won’t be for everyone, but Kapoor’s talent cannot be denied. Her novel is daring, visceral, corporeal, and never shies away from the grittiness of modern Indian life, the desire for liberation amid still oppressive circumstances, urban ennui, and the romantic relationships that so often together become an unruly alchemical mixture so potent as to become the course for ruin.

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A Review of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections (Graywolf, 2013).

I’ve been consistently behind on my poetry reading; one of the big gaping examples is that I just recently got to Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections, which was notably the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He may have the distinction of being the only American writer of Asian descent to win the Pulitzer in poetry, but you can correct me if I’m wrong. I had to read 3 sections a couple of times to get a sense of its diverse topics and expansive scope. Seshadri is also quite interested in discourses of science and anthropology, as evidenced in poems like “The Descent of Man” in which the lyric speaker meditates on his physical decline through the extended metaphor of devolution. Certainly, Seshadri has mastered a certain kind of meditative, philosophical lyric (see the wonderful “Surveillance Report” for an example), but perhaps the most influential “section” from the collection appears late and takes the form of something more like a creative nonfiction short story. In “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” Seshadri explores the lives of fishermen on the Pacific Coast; this section is both harrowing and exquisitely wrought. Seshadri’s presumed autobiographical “I” is partly on a research mission, partly on a journey of exploration, as he sets sail with a group of seasoned fishermen. Seshadri is hardly prepared for the physical ailments brought on by rough waters and the constant storms, spending a number of early days on the cabin floor vomiting everything out. Once he gets his sea legs, he begins to get a glimpse of the parallax way of life for the fisherman, especially based upon the dichotomy of weather patterns that can befall a ship. One moment the seas may be calm and stunningly placid, while the next a storm may brew, bringing with it the portent of danger and death. Seshadri is also quite anthropological in his investigations, noting the high distrust that fisherman have for Russians, on the one hand, while much more latitude is given to the Japanese, on the other. There is a mutlifaceted culture out there at sea, and Seshadri’s foray into this prose section is evidence that we need to see a prose-based creative nonfiction from him in the future, to be sure. From that point forward, two poems remain. The notable “Personal Essay” is Seshadri at his most Whitmanesque: long free verse lines that give a sense again of the highly introspective lyric speaker. It is a fitting poem to follow “Pacific Fishes of Canada” and showcases the autobiographical speaker’s desire to find an intersubjective connection. The collection ends with “Light Verse,” a sense that Seshadri’s poetry project is now complete. We’re back at “standard time,” but everything’s a still a little bit off-kilter and we’re all a little bit better for it.

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A Review of Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop (Kaya, 2014).

So, I’ve been meaning to review titles from Kaya for a very long time, but I don’t think I’ve managed to do much of that here on Asian American Literature Fans. Most devotees of Asian American literature know that Kaya is one of the very few presses devoted to publishing within the general area. Kaya is well known for its innovative catalogue focusing not only on Asian American literature, but also Asian literatures in translation and the Asia-Pacific more broadly. Here’s a useful link:


Obvious notable books in their catalogue include Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, Kimiko Hahn’s Unbearable Heart, and R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s (which I am teaching this very quarter!). In this review, I focus on Gene Oishi’s novel Fox Drum Bebop. Oishi is actually the author of an earlier piece—something marketed as a docu-fiction—called In Search for Hiroshi, which was published in 1987. That docu-fiction is narrated in the first person and though both pieces have characters named Hiroshi, it’s clear that Fox Drum Bebop is a separate cultural production. Fox Drum Bebop might be called a novel in stories: each chapter seems to be a self-contained narrative that when linked together provide a multigenerational tapestry of one Japanese American family. At this point the internment has become something of an ur-narrative, but Oishi’s contribution is to look beyond the scope of this event to see how a family also evolves past that point. Though editorial and marketing blurbs seem to focus on Hiroshi Kono as the protagonist, he is part of a large family that includes a number of brothers (the all-American, but not so American Mickey, the tragic polio ridden Sammy, and Yukio), and one sister (Sachi). Hiroshi’s father, considered a Japanese patriot, is arrested alongside others in his community and is carted off to Montana, while Hiroshi, his mother Otsui, and his siblings must endure the desultory life of the internment camp (I believe they are held in Gila River). Sammy crumbles under the weight of interment and dies before their incarceration is over, but the other family members move on to construct their lives in the shadow of this event. Hiroshi learns to play various musical instruments, finds a great love of jazz, engages in an affair with an older piano teacher, travels to Europe, and eventually marries a Frenchwoman of Jewish background. The novel obviously comes off as largely episodic because of the way that it is structured in these self-contained chapters, but the mosaic is particularly affecting. Oishi is quite keen on elaborating upon not only the internment and its after effects, but the larger multicultural tensions that embroiled California throughout that period. Indeed, even as Hiroshi’s family eventually moves up the economic ladder, Oishi’s friendships and connections to other minorities reveal the schisms that push him to understand his asymmetrical foundations of racial difference and elucidate his privilege in certain circumstances. The payoff for the novel comes in many passages of quiet beauty and deep contemplation. As the novel comes to a close Hiroshi reflects, “The Nisei couldn’t talk about the camps, not only because it disturbed their self-image as Americans, but because it reminded them of a fear that ran too deep to probe. Somewhere at the core of their being, they were still terrified—afraid for themselves and afraid for their children. For all he or his family knew, they’d been brought to the desert to die, to starve in a barren wasteland crawling with snakes, lizards, scorpions, and other unknown dangers. Hiroshi recalled the propaganda: the Japanese were an evil race; they were subhuman, snarling apes, rats, vermin. Mother and many of the Issei had been convinced that they would [end of 271] all be killed out here in the wilderness. And though the site had been turned out not to be the extermination camp they had feared, the terror and the sense of their helplessness had remained. At its most primitive level, that terror had been the unspoken shame of being Japanese. But the real threat—the worst degradation, not existentially, but spiritually—was the shame itself” (272). Here, Hiroshi reveals the extent of his understanding of the traumas rooted in internment and how they come to bear upon his life even decades ever the event has concluded. This latency is of course mirrored in the act of so many Japanese American writers completing the kind of recovery work made almost impossible by the fact of this shame. It is in this sense that such publications are more than just fictions and constitute an archive of witnessing and of potential healing.

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A Review of Liana Liu’s The Memory Key (HarperTeen, 2015).

Liana Liu’s debut novel The Memory Key is part of the blob-like archive that has become young adult paranormal romance. The official HarperCollins site provides a useful plot summary here:

“Lora Mint is determined not to forget.
Though her mother's been dead for five years, Lora struggles to remember every detail about her—most important, the specific events that occurred the night she sped off in her car, never to return.

But in a world ravaged by Vergets disease, a viral form of Alzheimer's, that isn't easy. Usually Lora is aided by her memory key, a standard-issue chip embedded in her brain that preserves memories just the way a human brain would. Then a minor accident damages Lora's key, and her memories go haywire. Suddenly Lora remembers a moment from the night of her mother's disappearance that indicates her death was no accident. Can she trust these formerly forgotten memories? Or is her ability to remember every painful part of her past driving her slowly mad—burying the truth forever?

Lora's story of longing for her lost mother—and for the truth behind her broken memories—takes readers on a twisty ride. The authentic, emotional narrative sparks fascinating questions about memory and privacy in a world that increasingly relies on electronic recall.”

At its core, The Memory Key is also a mystery novel. Lora Mint’s malfunctioning memory key gives her the ability to recall past events with full clarity; she can remember minor details that give her reasonable cause to reconsider what happened to her mother. Lora Mint becomes our noir heroine in that respect, as she looks into her mother’s past, determined to find out if the circumstances behind her death were perpetrated by a malicious party intent on silencing research that might prove to undermine the virtual monopoly held by the makers of the memory key. Lora Mint’s mother, Jeanette (nee Lee) had worked for Keep Corp, as a kind of public relations scientist, but when her research indicates that there may be something wrong with the newest generation of memory keys, she is killed in a car accident. Lora’s investigation includes numerous trips to the library (where she also happens to work); she enlists the help of her best friend, Wendy, as well as Wendy’s brother Tim, while she conducts interviews with individuals related to Keep Corp and with Grand Gardens, the retirement home that seems to have a connection to all of the events that are unfolding. There are certain details of the plot that remain intriguing to consider from the level of social difference. Lora’s family background on her mother’s side is notably an immigrant one, but it’s never quite clear what that immigrant background is. Liu chooses to deracinate her fictional world in this way, though still referencing possible social difference in that immigrant background. It’s an interesting choice to make, one that didn’t make full sense to me, especially since the novel is so politically invested in its critique of governance and corporate interests. Liu’s novel is briskly paced, and most readers will find Lora to be a likable heroine, but the conclusion is surprisingly anti-climactic and undercuts the impact of an otherwise dynamic plot and narrative trajectory. The novel’s underwhelming conclusion nevertheless sets up the possibility of sequels, but one is uncertain at this time whether or not this work is a stand-alone novel or will see future installments. Certainly, fans of young adult fiction and paranormal romance will be pleased by this debut. It has all the requisite formula elements: the ordinary but not so ordinary young teen girl on a quest to defeat the big bad while snagging a potential paramour along the way.

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A Review of Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know (Bloomsbury USA, 2015).

Tautly written and perfectly understated in its impact, Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let him Know is a wonderful debut novel. Billed as a novel in stories, Don’t let him Know begins with an opening chapter involving a South Asian mother named Romola discovering that her adult son Amit has come upon a letter purportedly written by a former lover of Romola’s named Sumit. Romola immediately blanches at the letter, but Roy has us in his masterful hands. Indeed, though it seems as if Romola assents to the fact that she has been found out by her son, that she once had a love affair with this man before she had married the man who would come to be Amit’s father (Avinash), the second chapter reveals another secret entirely. The letter that was written was actually penned by a former lover of Avinash; Romola had come upon the letter by accident and realized what the letter had meant but never actually confronted her husband about it. Roy pens these stories in an anachronic order, so there is something of a palimpsestic experience to reading this novel. We discover things about characters that will then be contextualized in a new way by information brought up in the past. Roy’s opening gambit is somewhat of a risk because it holds our attention so acutely that when the novel starts moving to other characters and relational contexts, our attention is potentially challenged, and we wonder, for instance, whether or not the illicit romance between Sumit and Avinash will ever be fully explored. Roy frustrates readers in the best possible way. That is, the point seems to be about the elliptics of the immigration experience and that secrets remain buried instead of climactically revealed. The illict queer romance that opens the collection is of course directed at the many illicit variations on connections that appear in the novel, such as interracial/ interminority romance (between Amit and an African American woman) and the buddy love affair between Romola and a man who would later become a Bollywood Star. What is evident is that Roy is putting forth the asymmetrical, but interlinked ways in which characters act out on desires that can be labeled as deviant, and this central thematic provides the novel a solid enough foundation that we don’t mind how the plot will ultimately meander as a result of the formal conceit that Roy uses. Indeed, the final chapter’s minor triumph is a beautiful and fitting conclusion to a cultural production that revels in nuance rather than bombast and theatrics.

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For a useful interview, go here!


A Review of Jo Whittemore’s Colonial Madness (Simon and Schuster Young Readers, 2015).

I’ve been meaning to read something by Jo Whittemore for a long time. She’s the author of two different series for young readers, one that is fantasy based and another that occurs in an educational setting (with titles like Front Page Face/Off). Whittemore’s latest, Colonial Madness, gave me an opportunity to engage a piece of her publication oeuvre. As the official site states, the book’s synopsis is roughly like so: “Tori Porter is best friends with her mom, and most of the time it’s awesome. Not many girls have a mom who’d take them to a graveyard for hide-and-seek or fill the bathtub with ice cream for the world’s biggest sundae. But as much as Tori loves having fun, she sometimes wishes her mom would act a little more her age. Like now. Thanks to her mom’s poor financial planning, they are in danger of losing their business and their home. But an unusual opportunity arises in the form of a bizarre type of contest put on by an eccentric relative: Whoever can survive two weeks in the Archibald Family’s colonial manor will inherit the property. The catch? Contestants have to live as in colonial times: no modern conveniences, no outside help, and daily tests of their abilities to survive challenges of the time period.” Pitched at reading audiences aged nine to thirteen, I seem to fall completely outside of that group, but this novel proved to be the right reading option after a long night of teaching, and I needed something perhaps a little bit more escapist in character. What the synopsis doesn’t mention is the fact that the eccentric relative (named Muriel Archibald) is purportedly dead (or so we’re made to think based upon an early missive that Tori and her mom receive), and she has a huge inheritance that she intended to give away, but it comes with strings: relatives must compete in a contest based upon colonial-era challenges in order to have a chance to win the property. Thus, the interested relatives, who include the family of Tori’s cousin Angel, who also happens to be her close friend, all gather on the property to begin the contest. Hijinks obviously ensue, especially when it becomes apparent that the frontrunners may do anything to win the contest. An early challenge involving the making of breakfast sees Tori and her Mom come in dead last, with her mother having fallen asleep while attending to a task required for the ingredients needed for the breakfast. Tori soon loses faith in her mother’s ability to help them win the competition and this crisis is the root of the novel’s tension: the mother-daughter bond will obviously be the way that the two will have any chance to survive the colonial times. Whittemore is of course not content to leave the plot solely to the mercurial balance of mother-daughter connections; she adds another wrinkle into the novelistic equation with a rather innocuous romance plot that begins to emerge after Tori shows some interest in one of the employees working as part of the colonial-era townsfolk who populate the property. Though eventually outlawed from meeting up with this boy, Caleb, due to the perceived unfair advantage she might be receiving from this budding romance, Tori nevertheless continues to meet with Caleb in secret, even defying her mother’s wishes. Whittemore’s novel is certainly on the frothy side. For those wondering about what happened to indigenous populations and genocidal depictions, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Colonial Madness stays stringently on the side of popcorn entertainment fare. For those looking for a different form of colonial or postcolonial madness (from Asian American writers) in which race and indigenous cultures are featured prominently as elements of the plot, see Sabina Murray’s A Carnivore’s Inquiry.

For more about the book, go here:

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for February 28, 2015

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.

In this post, reviews of Claire Tham’s The Inlet (Ethos Books, 2013); The Sound of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey (Ethos Books, 2014); Dave Chua’s The Girl Under the Bed (illustrated by Xiao Yan) (Epigram Books, 2013); Cheah Sinann’s The Bicycle (Epigram Books, 2014); Marie Matsuki Mockett’s Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (W.W. Norton, 2015); S. Li’s Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions, 2015); Ravi Mangla’s Understudies (Outpost 19, November 2013); Tess Gerritsen’s Die Again (Ballantine, 2014).

A Review of Claire Tham’s The Inlet (Ethos Books, 2013).

Highly recommended from a former student of mine and occasional reviewer to Asian American Literature Fans, I was extremely excited to begin reading Claire Tham’s The Inlet, which comes out of another wonderful Singaporean publisher, Ethos Books:


Tham’s The Inlet is something of a noir. Told in shifting third person perspective, the novel begins with the story of a young Chinese woman named Ling, who is stationed in an outlying Chinese city, which is beginning a rapid modernization process. This woman works in a science laboratory; she’s part of a dispossessed and growing middle class that realizes that there is little chance for any further upward mobility. She breaks off a relationship with her boyfriend, even though he seems to be a decent prospect, but it becomes apparent that Ling has much more on her mind: the desire to change her life radically, to find adventure, to do something different with her life than live on the meager paycheck of a mediocre job with little chance of advancement. A chance encounter with another woman allows her the opportunity to travel to Singapore to work as a kind of hostess for wealthy men. Having seen the tremendous affluence displayed by the urban elite, Ling, who is clearly both beautiful and intelligent, sees the offer as the potential route toward another life and she accepts. From there, the novel takes a much darker turn: a body is found, floating lifelessly in the pool on a property owned by a very prominent Singaporean business magnate (Willy Gan). The body is unfortunately IDed as Ling’s. The novel’s title refers to the very exclusive residential community known as The Inlet, a place reserved for the affluent and the privileged. The ASP (the assistant superintendent) Cheung Fai is assigned to the case and soon the list of possible suspects begins to be fleshed out, which include the young Indian immigrant teenager who finds the body (Sanjana), the woman who brought Ling over to Singapore (Ms. Fung), Willy Gan, and his favorite nephew, Jasper Gan, who was purportedly having a sexual liaison with Ling on the night before her body is found. Tham’s use of the shifting third person narrative perspective allows her the opportunity to present a kaleidoscopic view of Singapore, with individuals ranging from the uber-rich (such as Willy Gan) to others such as a poor Chinese cook who is found murdered, but whose death draws little publicity (in contrast to the salacious undertones to the Inlet drowning). Tham also provides important back stories to the main suspects through tracking the relationships of such characters through their wives or girlfriends. The main suspect seems to be a mystery man named Merrill Lynch, a man that Ling was dating prior to her death, but who no one else who had worked with her had ever actually met. The third person perspective allows us the opportunity to get to know Merrill Lynch, who is none other than Min Liang, a successful businessman, who courts and later falls in love with Ling. Min Liang is an interesting figure because he, along with Jasper Gan, represent individuals whose fortunes are essentially lost in the global economic downturn that occurred in 2007-2008. Tham uses these narratives as microcosms for a kind of nation-state critique levied on neoliberal economic policies that has turned Singapore into a wealthy country, but one necessarily plagued by the amorality of business cultures and the relentless pursuit of the bottom line. Ling, in some respects, with her laissez faire attitude comes off as a strange rebel figure, finding comfort in floating on the unexpected and unplanned currents of her life. Tham’s greatest strength in this narrative is the unsentimental depictions: characters’ flaws strike the reader with their rawness. The conclusion is sure to rankle those expecting a traditional mystery to solved, but readers should be forewarned that Tham is operating within the confines of the noir genre and in noir, there are no heroes and deaths can never be simply explained.

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A Review of Danielle Lim’s The Sound of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey (Ethos Books, 2014)

The second book I picked up from Ethos Books was Danielle Lim’s The Sound of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey, labeled as a creative nonfiction and which takes a rather direct look at the issue of mental illness as it affects one family. The official page provides a useful synopsis: “The Sound of Sch (pronounced S-C-H) is the true story of a journey with mental illness, beautifully told by Danielle Lim from a time when she grew up witnessing her uncle's untold struggle with a crippling mental and social disease, and her mother's difficult role as caregiver. The story takes place between 1961 and 1994, backdropped by a fast-globalising Singapore where stigmatisation of persons afflicted with mental illness nevertheless remains deep-seated. Unflinchingly raw and honest in its portrayal of living with schizophrenia, The Sound of Sch is a moving account of human resiliency and sacrifice in the face of brokenness.” Lim makes an interesting aesthetic move by choosing to use present tense narration, providing the story a sense of intimacy and access. Though set in the past, this narrative achieves a kind of poignancy and immediacy as we move through the years with the protagonist. The most deeply troubled character seems to be Lim’s mother, who is tasked with the burden of taking care of Lim’s uncle: to make sure he continues going to his job (sweeping and cleaning the local police station), to locate him anytime he goes missing, and to continue to help him on a path that allows him to live a semi-autonomous life. This constant vigilance takes its toll. As Lim notes, “Mum starts tearing as she goes on, Why must I suffer like this? My parents shouldn’t have had me, they were so old already when I was born and I’ve to look after my brother, 20 years already! 20 years! Why did my mother refuse treatment for him back then? Why? The doctors told her he could get well if treated but she won’t believe” (76). Lim’s mother medicates herself with painkillers, which seem to be her crutch and the method by which she deals with the constant stress. The situation becomes complicated toward the conclusion of the memoir when Lim’s grandmother becomes critically ill and attempts suicide. Through so much familial upheaval, Lim finds a way to see the humanity of her uncle: “I look at him sitting at the table, between the certificates on his left and ashes on his right, between the past on his let and the present on his right, between success on his left and brokenness on his right, between the hope of a bright future, on his left, and the courage to keep going, on his right. My uncle. An ordinary man. Some would say an unsuccessful man. Many would say, a mad man. But for me, I will remember him with his smile and the small, beautiful sounds he has echoed into my life” (153). For Lim, the importance of this work is in de-pathologization, that though some would consider her uncle a life wasted, she knows his value emerges far beyond the ominous shadow of expectations. In this reorientation, Lim teaches us much about familial bonds and the need to recognize the complex situations faced by all those touched by mental illness.

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A Review of Dave Chua’s The Girl Under the Bed (illustrated by Xiao Yan) (Epigram Books, 2013).

I continue on with my review series with Epigram Books, as I tackle more of their graphic novels! In this installment, I review Dave Chua’s The Girl Under the Bed (illustrated by Xiao Yan) (Epigram Books, 2013). For those familiar with the terrain of Chinese culture, you’re well aware of something called the Ghost Month (for some excellent novels set during this period, you MUST read Ed Lin’s Ghost Month and Alvin Lu’s The Hell Screens), which falls on the seventh month of the lunar calendar. During this month, the divisions between the realms of the living and the dead begin to disintegrate, allowing ghosts more mobility. To placate these ghosts, altars, sacrifices, and food and liquor offerings are left out, while others burn something called hell money for spirits to spend in the afterlife. It seems to be a big party for the ghosts, who can still wreak havoc on the lives of the living. In Chua and Yan’s graphic novel, this month is the perfect grounds to set a childhood tale of haunting. Our protagonists are the young Jingli and her friend Weizhong, who apparently is a spirit medium. Jingli discovers during ghost month that there is a girl under her bed (thus the title). Her name is Xiaomei (this name has been used so often in Asian American books that I know the name means little sister LOL) and she knows very little about her former life. Jingli, with the help of Weizhong, are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of the girl and her former life; they even visit a kind of spiritual mystic located in a strange wooded area in Singapore. After the visit, which also involves surviving a potential goring by a wild boar, they return and discover the more sinister background of the ghost and that her history may involve a man who has revealed that the ghost may in fact be his daughter. From this point, the graphic novel moves very quickly to the finish. Though Chua doesn’t deviate much from the classic revenge tales accorded to ghosts, the story is still entertaining and filled with flourishes of originality. The friendship between Jingli and Weizhong is an excellent grounding apparatus for the story, and the graphic novel pulls off the appropriate pacing. Chua and Yan should be applauded for their storyboarding; they often use panels without any texts at all, leaving the reader much more room to interpret the events occurring. Yan’s illustrations have a manga-like quality that is sure to pull in readers who enjoy such cultural productions. Certainly, The Girl Under the Bed is a story that can be consumed by readers of all ages and is a thrilling addition to the world of Asian Anglophone graphic novels.

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A Review of Cheah Sinann’s The Bicycle (Epigram Books, 2014).

So, Cheah Sinann’s The Bicycle is another wonderful graphic novel that has come out of Epigram Books, one of two Singaporean publishers that I’ve been interested in and thus working through as much of their catalogue as I can. The website provides a useful synopsis here (much better than I could probably render in any case): “In one of the last remaining jungles in Singapore, an old bicycle is unearthed in an archaeological dig. Its discovery brings the elderly Lim Ah Cheng back to a time when he rode with his life on the line… Meticulously researched by the creator of Singapore’s first daily comic strip The House of Lim, cartoonist Cheah Sinann, The Bicycle tells the tale of Toshiro Iwakura, an aristocratic, battle-hardened private haunted by his desire to cycle in the Olympics, and five-year-old street urchin Ah Cheng, who dreams of nothing more than learning how to ride a bike. Their paths cross during the Japanese Occupation, when a unique bond formed over two wheels is quickly put to a life-or-death test.” The protagonist is none other than Lim Ah Cheng and the old bicycle is the impetus for the graphic novel’s use of analepsis. Indeed, much of the graphic narrative is told in flashback, as the owner of the bicycle makes a case for why it is such an important historical object. On a purely functionalist level, the bicycle was vital in the Japanese colonial campaign, as soldiers used them to get from one place to another, especially in the absence of cars or trains. During the Japanese occupation period, Ah Cheng is orphaned and when he sees a caravan of Japanese soldiers riding through the town, he is naturally interested in their masculinity and their paternal characteristics. He bonds quickly with Toshiro Iwakura, who promises him to teach him how to ride a bicycle. In another flashback, we discover that Iwakura himself lost the love of his life before joining the military. His belief in this kind of love pushes him to treat women differently than say some of his military counterparts, who follow along with the rape and pillage philosophy. Iwakura is the quintessential anti-hero in this sense. Given the common narrative of Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia as a particularly brutal story meted out on the lives and bodies of millions of civilians, Iwakura’s portrayal is in some ways a daring and nuanced one. Iwakura eventually comes to see Ah Cheng beyond his status as a street urchin, a fact that can only be rationalized through Sinann’s appropriate use of analepsis. We know Iwakura finds himself unmoored in Singapore; the attentions of a brothel madam is in part what helps him survive (later, this madam will also be instrumental in Ah Cheng’s survival). The conclusion is particularly harrowing, but reveals a more textured portrayal of a Japanese serviceman in the course of violent empire, something reminiscent of the depictions offered by Sabina Murray in her equally harrowing (but no less brilliant) short story collection The Caprices. The visuals are quite effective, but the one quibble I have is actually the use of what looks to be computer generated dialogue text. While my guess is that the use of computer programs to create the fonts and the choices for text style in dialogue and caption bubbles has been common for some time, there is an artificiality to the font style that detracts from the overall presentation. But don’t like this minor critique stop you from enjoying this wonderful graphic novel, which looks to Singapore’s not too distant past and the still reverberating effects of the colonial occupation period.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Marie Matsuki Mockett’s Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (W.W. Norton, 2015).

I was excited to see that Marie Matsuki Mockett had published the follow-up to her promising first novel, Picking Bones from Ash. In Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (W.W. Norton, 2015) Mockett ventures into the creative nonfiction genre. This work is part biography, part memoir, part ethnography, and part history in its exploration of Mockett’s ancestral lineage and its connection to an area near Fukushima prefecture, the location that would be most affected by the 2008 tsunami that hit Japan and critically damaged nuclear reactors, while also killing thousands of residents in the coastal areas. Mockett’s extended family is connected to the area because they own a Buddhist temple there. Just two years prior, Mockett’s father had died, leaving her to ponder her familial background. Additionally, she is raising a young child and thus finds herself wondering about what he will come to know of this longer family history related to Buddhism. Thus, Mockett embarks on a longer project, one that involves traveling to Japan, writing a book and participating in a documentary focused on the religious and spiritual rituals, especially connected with Buddhism and the rites of the dead. The creative nonfiction is largely nonlinear. Though Mockett’s visits to Japan and her time participating in the documentary, as well as her explorations of Buddhist temples, sects, and cultures commands the great bulk of the narrative, she also spends time grounding the reader in the historical roots of Buddhism in Japan. She further functions as a kind of an unofficial documentarian related to the aftereffects of the tsunami. Mockett often accompanies Buddhist monks, as they acts as healers to devastated communities, listening the to traumatic stories of those individuals who were killed in the tsunami. Mockett comes to realize that pivotal place of Buddhism, even in a society long known for its modernization and its focus on technology and the future. Even amid the great death and destruction, Mockett comes to observe the vivid and vibrant lives in the areas hardest hit by the tsunami and the nuclear reactor damage. There are some extraordinarily beautiful passages grounded by Mockett’s intensely introspective authorial voice: we know that her experiences in Japan are highly spiritual, existential inquiries into the afterlife, so every moment seems to have a poetic gravitas that can be breathtaking. An intricately wrought, patiently crafted creative nonfiction from Mockett.

Buy the Book here:


A Review of S. Li’s Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions, 2015).

S. Li’s debut novel Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions, 2015) is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed narrator (for the most part), who is part of three different nuclear families who are immigrating to the United States. Each family has been sponsored by a rich relation, and their journey to the United States is naturally fraught with the challenges that come with a drastic move to a radical and alien new culture. Early on in the novel, the three families must share a small apartment, thus revealing the impoverishment of these immigrants. Soon, the families attend to getting jobs, enrolling their children in schools, and not surprisingly, the fractures begin to emerge. The unnamed narrator’s parents, for instance, bicker incessantly. The father spends much time at work struggling to make a living wage, while the mother finds herself increasingly disillusioned by their desultory life in the United States. Having believed that their move would somehow offer more opportunities, the mother-character comes to see how idealistic this dream has been; she spends much of her time in an escapist realm of music. The narrator finds himself adrift in the Chinatown school system, attempting to find his place among an often unruly set of students. Of course, not surprisingly, as the new kid, he eventually gains the unwanted attention of a bully, while suffering other complications when he is involved in a car accident in which a classmate is run over by a car (but fortunately survives). Such events are all part of the growing pains that Li depicts at all levels: the father, the mother, and the son all face particular obstacles which make their American acculturation far from easy. The added addition of a new family member, a girl, offers some hope in the guise of the reproductive future. But when the narrator’s father is in a car accident and breaks his arm, thus making insecure the one stable source of income, things look particularly bleak. Additionally, the mother’s father (called Old Man in the novel) appears to be dying, and her desire to go back to China to visit him before he passes becomes yet another source of marital acrimony. Though things seem to be quite dim for the family’s future, tensions and conflicts still somehow manage to get resolved. Here, Li gestures to the importance of extended kinship systems—riddled as they are with issues related to jealousy and favoritism—to help support immigrants in times of trouble. Li’s writing is often poetic, but the novel’s pacing and structure is quite uneven. There are times when it’s unclear who is narrating, whether or not certain moments are internal monologue or being spoken out loud, thus marring an otherwise compelling debut.

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A Review of Ravi Mangla’s Understudies (Outpost 19, November 2013).

Ravi Mangla’s Understudies comes out from yet another cool indie press. More information about the press can be found here (note the tagline: “innovative and provocative reading to get a sense of their catalog):


After I initially completed the novel, I first considered Mangla’s Understudies in relation to other cultural productions: think Pamela Lu’s Pamela, Geraldine Kim’s Povel, and Tao Lin’s general oeuvre and you have a strong sense of Mangla’s disjointed narrative styling, too diffuse to call standard postmodern writing, but certainly inspired by some of its dominant features (including the sense of existential ennui that pervades the narrator). Told in the first person perspective, the website chooses to describe the novel like so: A high school teacher begins to question the course of his life after a famous young actress moves into town. In the starlet's shadow, his girlfriend, his mother, his neighbor, and his students take on strange new dimensions. Told in a series of snapshots, UNDERSTUDIES presents a sharp, funny, and heartbreaking study of beauty, celebrity, and everyday needs.” The reference to the starlet is an interesting one because it is part of what Mangla’s work an actual novel rather than some asynchronous, experimental text (or completely random prose “snapshops”). The narrator often employs the starlet’s various adventures both in real life and on screen as a riffing apparatus to consider the mundane and not-so-mundane things going on his life. He’s constantly wondering about the relationship between reality and representation, a kind of philosophical thought process that bleeds over into his own romance to Missy. This relationship seems to be stagnating. The draw of the starlet is her dynamic mode of existence: she appears as a social activist, in different acting roles; she is the object of fantasies (not only from the narrator, but also from a semi-creepy stalkerish neighbor). The narrator’s life with Missy seems to be the exact opposite: generic, lacking political complexity or texture, and utterly pedestrian. The narrator is a kind of counterculture throwback high school teacher, who joins a band made up of students. Not surprisingly he achieves high evaluation scores even with what some would call unexpected pedagogical practices and approaches. The narrator’s mother runs a web-based advice column that becomes an important element to the novel’s conclusion. The apotheosis of the states of disconnection appears when the narrator creates a faux e-mail account to get advice from his own mother about what to do with his life, which has become a sort of hollow construct. The answer, which I found to be surprisingly conservative and perhaps even verging on the trite, places Mangla’s work back into the orbit of the comedy-romance, thus articulating the centrality not so much of the starlet but actually of his relationship to Missy. How does one make something old become new again, Mangla seems to be asking. Both form and context seem grounded by the question; though Understudies does not seek to answer that question, it certainly meditates upon it in an unexpected, stream-of-consciousness narrative sure to entertain by the sheer quirkiness of its execution.

For more on the book, go here:


A Review of Tess Gerritsen’s Die Again (Ballantine, 2014).

For all the critique that can be levied at popular genres like the detective/ mystery, one would be hard-pressed to find a way to undercut authors who clearly excel at the finding the appropriate alchemy of pacing, plotting, and tension to produce a compelling and “unputdownable” story. Tess Gerritsen manages to complete this task with every installment of the Rizzoli & Isles series, and it’s not a surprise that this series has found a successful life on television as well. Our two protagonists: Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles have disparate personalities and come from very different backgrounds, but these opposites attract in the best way possible when it comes to solving crimes, particularly involving gruesome killers. Gerritsen makes consistent use of an intercut narrative aesthetic in her mysteries. She brings that back here as the novel opens in Africa. Our narrator, Millie Jacobson, is on a backcountry safari and hunting group with her mystery novel writing husband Richard Renwick. Their marriage is going down the tubes, and this vacation is perhaps the last gasp in a dying union. Millie finds herself drawn to the leader of the hunting expedition, a serious man by the name of Joseph Posthumus, while her husband flirts with two young blondes on the trip: Vivian and Sylvia. There is also Mr. and Mrs. Matsunaga; another young man by the name of Elliott (who had met with Vivian and Sylvia at a bar previous to booking the trip); Clarence, a back woods hunting guide and assistant to Joseph.  All of those who came to the trip had booked it through a website called Lost in Botswana, but the trip takes a turn for the grisly when one morning Clarence is found dead, with only a few body parts left from what the hyenas had scavenged. When Joseph suggests that the group return early to the site that picked them up, the group is actually more adamant about continuing on the trip, but they end up being stranded anyway when the car does not start. So begins a gruesome sequence of events in which Millie Jacobson seems to be the sole survivor. The other narrative involves Jane and Maura investigating a series of ritualized murders that may or may not be connected. A taxidermist, Leon Gott, is found trussed up to the ceiling, hung as if on display. Medical examiner Maura is quick to note three markings on Gott’s bones that suggest a ritualized form of murder that might link his death with a Jane Doe, a young woman found skeletonized in a grave. The young woman’s death does not have many of the other characteristics of Gott’s killing, but the three markings might suggest a link. A third murder that occurs around the same time of Gott’s death also seems to be a possible link, but the connections are so diffuse at first that Detective Jane is skeptical, leaving Detective Jane and M.E. Maura at odds with each other. Adding to the brutality of the storyline (if there can be more death, since counting Millie’s expedition there are at least ten different named characters who are probably the victim of homicide), a zookeeper is killed by a leopard. The manner of her death and the way in which the wild cat attempts to quarantine and to protect the vanquished seems to suggest that the murderer is in some ways acting just like a leopard. Of course, the brilliance of the mystery is that Gerritsen knows the reader is trying to construct links not only between the murders and deaths in the present-day but also between these murders and deaths with Millie’s experiences in South Africa. Eventually Gerritsen patiently threads both storylines together. As with most mysteries, some suspension of disbelief is required. After all, a serial killer with a penchant for killing like a leopard who takes the time to truss up victims, eviscerate them, while making sure to mark their bones in a specific way, may sound too farfetched (thankfully) for some, but Gerritsen is always all-in for these murder mysteries, so sit back and enjoy the homicidal ride. I can say without worry about spoilers that one expects Jane Rizzoli and ME Maura Isles to be back for another installment sometime next year. Gerritsen does remind us that Rizzoli and Isles do have personal and professional lives beyond their crime-solving. Maura is considering leaving for California and also continues to deal with a manipulative, homicidal mother who is apparently dying of pancreatic cancer and is still incarcerated. At the same time, Jane is still attempting to navigate the dark waters of her parents’ possible divorce. One thinks that Gerritsen is already laying the groundwork for future mysteries in one form or another, and we’ll be excited to see (and to read) these newest installments.

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Asian American Literature – Megareview for February 1, 2015

I haven’t had as much time to read and to review as usual, so you will get a couple of lightning-form reviews here (not my preference, but better to get the brief word of out on books rather than not discuss them at all)!

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.

In this post, reviews of Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (University of Washington Press, 2014), John Okada’s No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2014), Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (University of Washington Press, 2014); Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (University of Washington Press, 2014); Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever (W.W. Norton, 2014);  Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 (Wave Books, 2014); Yang Huang’s Living Treasures (Harvard Square Editions, 2014); Maija Rhee Devine’s The Voices of Heaven (Seoul Selection, 2013).

A Review of Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (University of Washington Press, 2014), John Okada’s No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2014), Miné
Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (University of Washington Press, 2014); Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (University of Washington Press, 2014).

Rather than focus on the content of classics like Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, John Okada’s No-No Boy, Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660, and Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter, I’m actually going to be discussing the series of reprints (in their material and newly minted forms) that the University of Washington Press has been putting out based upon many of its canonical Asian American literary works, otherwise known as the “Classics of Asian American literature Series.”

These reprints are being rolled out over the next couple of years, and these first four have been given the reprint treatment (two more are on the way and I will be reviewing them at a later point). The impetus for these reprints seems to be primarily aimed at giving these books a larger cohesion as a collected set. Each title in the series comes with a cover and color blocking that comes to match the others in some form; all the reprints so far also include a cover image that are art/ photography pieces in one form of another. The cover to No-No Boy, for instance, includes an image of a large face that was drawn by Jillian Tamaki; Citizen 13660 includes an image from the graphic narrative itself; and America is in the Heart includes an image from a mural painted by a group of artists. Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter includes a cover photo by Thomas W. Parker, who was part of the WRA’s head of the photographic section and thus an important figure in the documentation related to the Japanese American internment. Each book is obviously a touchstone for Asian American literature, so the reprints also all come with new sections. For instance, Ruth Ozeki pens a letter to John Okada at the opening to the No-No Boy reprint, revealing a Japanese American intergenerational link that is both poignant and vital to understanding the impact of the novel through ethnic identifications. Christine Hong provides a luminous introduction to Okubo’s Citizen 13660 that contextualizes its complicated publication history and reception. In a similar manner, Marilyn C. Alquizola and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi explore the continued impact that America is in the Heart has had on Asian American studies (and race and ethnic studies) and further offer a useful exegesis of the critical terrain concerning this key cultural production. Marie Rose Wong provides a pithy new introduction to Sone’s Nisei Daughter and much like Alquizola and Hirabayashi provide a sense of the historical reception of the work.

I found the introduction offered by Ozeki to be the most compelling only insofar as it provided a direct indication of Asian American literature as a kind of genealogy in which one generation of writers influences the next. There has been a tendency (at least from my experience) to consider Asian American literature as a “unfounded” tradition, one that does not have a discrete historical legacy that appears to accrue genealogical meaning over time, but this assumption is especially wrongheaded in this contemporary moment in which the very terminology of Asian American literature has been in use almost for half a century at this point. The one snag for academics who regularly teach these books (like myself) is that these editions do not necessarily have the same pagination as the previous editions.

(first image in second row is the reprint cover here)

I checked the No-No Boy copy against my older version and the pagination is definitely different; I didn’t have the earlier editions of the other titles, but my educated guess is that they will not have maintained the same pagination, rendering earlier copies a potential problem for classroom use. But, these reprints give you an excuse to re-read these works and discover your love for them anew, granting you a refreshing opportunity to re-annotate these handsome new editions, using your trusty pen and pencil or post-it notes.

For the books in the classics series:


A Lightning Review of Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever (W.W. Norton, 2014).

I was pleased to see the note that concluded Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever, which explains in part what I had been experiencing throughout the reading of the collection. Though certainly unmoored and disoriented as I moved from one poem to the next, there still was a sense of unity that appeared as a kind of thread. For Hahn, the motif of the brain and all of its connotations offers one entry point into a collection that is essentially a long lyric “game” of word associations. The collection is far from gibberish to be sure, but the structure is based so much upon the ways that words associate with each other that you can’t help but drift unexpectedly along with these sometimes diffuse linkages. So, you’ll get scientific discourses, mixed in with lyrics concerning family and loved ones, strange dreams, and other feverish contexts. Here’s an excellent representative poem:

“Porch Light”

Barley. Poppy. Then pomegranate.
Now front porch light.

There’s no longer sensation without the one

once cradled in tissue, swaddled in blood—
feeling her hiccup inside the inside.

Turn the pages of a calendar
to retrieve one’s daughter

from his underground vow.

I must unlock the door, leave it ajar,
since by degrees

the son-in-law rations my weather (13).

I picked this poem in part because of its alliterative properties and the fact that it will connect quite well with the other lightning form review poem that is posted below. Why shouldn’t we have poppies, pomegranates and porch lights all come together? But, beyond these rather strange sequencings of lyrics: a calendar from whence springs a daughter and a son-in-law who apparently apportions the “weather,” we can’t help but get a sense of something mythic going on here as soon as the pomegranate imagery appears. Hahn begins her potpourri of associations, as the sense of familial rupture is placed alongside the Greek myth of Persephone who could of course only spend half the year with her beloved mother Demeter. The reference to the “hiccup inside the inside” denoting the once embryonic state of her child, who once moved inside her mother’s body. References to barley make more sense in this instance, as Demeter, the harvest goddess, would be associated with such a grain. Perhaps, this poem then functions to consider the “empty nest” syndrome that might come with a daughter leaving home to be with her husband, only to return during certain months of the year. But, this one poem is of course part of the largely, sometimes disconnected, but also innovative collection, in which the lyric speaker finds herself juxtaposing various discourses together: the personal, the scientific, the unexpected all in furious bloom. Expect to be filled with lyric euphoria, a heady feeling that comes with Hahn’s scorching Brain Fever.

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A Lightning Review of Hoa Nguyen’s Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 (Wave Books, 2014).

I’ve always been a huge fan of Hoa Nguyen’s poetry. I earlier reviewed her collection Hecate Lochia for Gently Read Literature. In Nguyen’s latest (after As Long as Trees Last) is a collection of all of Nguyen’s earlier publications (including the hard to find chapbook Red Juice as well as the full collections of Your Ancient See Through and the aforementioned Hecate Lochia). The real gem is of course in reprinting these works because they so soon go out of print. I finished this compendium not long after Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever. Both collections are great to read together because there is so much wordplay going on. Nguyen especially revels in the lyric poetry with a staccato-cadence. One of my favorites is “Poppies”:

Poppies for sleep                     Poppies for your highway
at Ben Lomon or Los Gatos                Poppies for your
Charles Baudelaire eyedrops                 Poppies
to please my red field of vision            Poppies
for a lemon cake                      Poppies smack you on
the head                                   Poppies that are closed and
poppies that are open  Plastic poppies discontinued
at Hobby Lobby                                  Poppies in a glass jar
on your bed-stand                    Remember-the-dead poppies (23).

I unfortunately cannot reproduce the exact formatting that Nguyen employs for this delightfully and sonically innovative poem. We can see the “pop” in poppies sparking of the page, as the reader jumps from one phrase to the next. The interesting use of enjambment and formatting all contributes to this readerly “popping” from one line to the next. But this kind of poem is more largely illustrative of Nguyen’s willingness to use sound packets (phonetics), enjambment and formatting all to enhance a given context. In this case, the blooming of the poppies in all of their strange and wonderful morphologies continues to crop up in unexpected places. The collected poems in Red Juice are of course full of these lyrical surprises, entertaining twists of sonic, structural, and signifying turns and we’ll eagerly await what Nguyen will have in store for us in the future.

Buy the Book Here:


A Review of Yang Huang’s Living Treasures (Harvard Square Editions, 2014).

Yang Huang’s debut novel Living Treasures appears out of yet another small press I only recently got wind of: Harvard Square Editions. More about the press can be found here:


It’s general formation brings about the intriguing way that publishers can be created simply out of the richness of social networking produced through education. Further still, the entity seems to be independent of university press publishing, which allows this kind of press to focus more specifically on literature (rather than say academic studies). In any case, Yang Huang can be grouped with the Asian American writers who have emerged in the post-Tiananmen period (along with the likes of Yiyun Li, Ha Jin, Qiu Xiaolong, Diane Wei Liang, and others). Her novel, Living Treasures, is a kind of bildungsroman for its heroine, Gu Bao, who is in college during the height of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. She’s not really interested in the protests and is far more concerned with her ongoing romance with a handsome soldier named Tong, who is slightly older than her (she’s eighteen). She has shielded her educated parents from her romance because she knows they would disapprove of her choice to date a man in the military. She herself is a law student with ambitious plans for a career in the profession, a trajectory that is imperiled when she finds herself pregnant with Tong’s child. Her parents immediately encourage her to get an abortion, one provided by a country doctor who lives in the vicinity of her beloved grandparents. Tong is driven out of Gu Bao’s life after realizing that Gu Bao does not want to give up her dreams of a professional future and would rather abort the baby to pursue rather than marry Tong. In the wake of their break up, Gu Bao travels with her mother to the countryside for the abortion, receives it, and then recuperates there with the help of her grandparents. Gu Bao is of course conflicted about the abortion, and much of her initial time in the recovery period is spent grieving over her unborn child (who she had named Soybean). A chance encounter with a pregnant woman on a rocky hillside allows her to make an unexpected friend, but one who has a secret. Indeed, this woman, Orchid, is pregnant with her second child, thus she is in hiding due to China’s one-child policy. She lives alongside her husband and daughter in a makeshift home created from a cave located in the hillside and will eventually go into seclusion with a midwife once she must deliver. Gu Bao’s friendship with Orchid is important, as it provides her the opportunity to be near to a mother figure, and she begins to dream of the possibility that she can have a second chance at romance. The concluding arc shifts the plot into high gear, as Gu Bao sends a letter to Tong, hoping for a rapprochement. When Tong is willing to visit her, Gu Bao requests that he stay with Orchid and her family, knowing full well that Tong would have to keep their location and situation a secret from authorities. As you can imagine, things start to go wrong, and Gu Bao (along with the help of Tong) must find a way to make things right. Readers will be pleasantly surprised, I think, by the adventurous conclusion, which seems more along the lines of an action plot. Of course, Huang’s novel benefits from the tremendous inclusion of social, political, and historical textures. Though Gu Bao is never a student revolutionary, she is well aware of the gravity of the events, as one of her closest classmates suffers from the tragic and violent loss of a loved one associated with the Tiananmen protests. Further still, the novel’s exploration of the one-child policy signals the problematic issues related to the Chinese woman’s body, especially in the modernizing country. Gu Bao’s own predicament over her abortion gestures to the apparent impossibility of being a single mother and a career woman, while Orchid’s seclusion and continued paranoia over her situation register the stark reality of the political harnessing of biopower. The novel offers an incisive fictional account of the perils of Chinese motherhood in all of its contemporary manifestations.

More on the Book Here:


A Review of Maija Rhee Devine’s The Voices of Heaven (Seoul Selection, 2013).

Maija Rhee Devine’s The Voices of Heaven (Seoul Selection, 2013) comes out of yet another press that I hadn’t heard of yet and shows how wide and deep the rabbit hole of Asian American literature continues to be. For more on Seoul Selection, go here:


For more on the author:


The Voices of Heaven immediately intrigued me because it deals primarily with a fictional account of the Korean War. I occasionally have discussed this issue because both of my parents endured that period of time, with my mother and her family in particular being displaced: they were forced to flee southward when their home in Seoul was bombed. Devine’s novel begins just prior to the start of the war, with narrative perspective vacillating among four different characters: Gui-yong, a middle-aged Korean American man without a male heir; Eum-chun, Gui-yong’s wife; Soo-Yang, the soon-to-be mistress of Gui-yong who is given a spot in the home in the hopes that she will bear Gui-yong an heir; and Mi-Na, Gui-yong and Eum-chun’s adoptive daughter. What was immediately interesting to me about the story was the exploration of a concubinage system that I didn’t understand still took place in that period. The entire family structure, of course, deviates from American heteronuclear family ideals. Even Mi-Na’s adoption is a little bit out of place and culturally complicated for Korea at that time, especially as evidenced by Mi-Na’s treatment from the few who know of her origins. Indeed, both Gui-yong and Eum-chun worry that Mi-Na’s ancestry will be unmasked and no one will be want to marry her because she does not have definable progenitors. When the war finally does occur, the family disintegrates, with Gui-yong being separated both from his wife and mistress. Eum-chun ends up on her own for a long time caring for the daughter (Li-Ho) of her sister and Mi-Na, while Soo-yang eventually does bear a son (and many more children). Amongst the constant bombing and threat of death, the narrative of the family’s reunification drives the plot forward. Will all the characters survive and find their ways back to each other?  Eventually they do, and Devine’s biggest contribution is continuing to contour how we understand the Korean war through the terrain of cultural production, a project that has been taken up in some part by writers such as Richard E. Kim (The Martyred), Susan Choi (The Foreign Student), Chang-rae Lee (The Surrendered), Suji Kwock Kim (Notes from a Divided Country), Myung Mi Kim (Under Flag), and Sunny Che (Forever Alien). Devine’s novel unfortunately suffers from a hasty wrap-up, as the pacing suddenly fast forwards, and we see many, many years of Mi-Na’s life pass by. In this section, we begin to see more of the feminist impulse appear with respect to the changing attitudes related to women and education. Mi-Na well understands that her educational opportunities are unlike those offered to her mothers, and we begin to see how her emergence as an academic star is of course a way for her to escape the paternalistic system of marriage and concubinage that had structured her own family. This change in character development becomes jarring, and by the time the reader reaches the poignant ending, there is some frustration because it’s clear that Devine probably had at least one other novel’s length of a book to write, especially involving Mi-Na’s eventual arrival in the United States. The conclusion sees Mi-Na returning to Korea, where she is given a key piece of information that the readers had known all along. This moment also seems to suggest yet more possible places for a novel to go, but by then, Devine’s novel is over. Though I wasn’t a fan of the novel’s concluding pace, the political and sociohistorical import of Devine’s novel cannot be denied, as it presents us with an invaluable fictional account of the Korean War in all of its violent and brutal morphologies.

Buy the Book Here:



Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for January 7, 2015

I haven’t had as much time to read and to review as usual, so you will get a couple of lightning-form reviews here (not my preference, but better to get the brief word of out on books rather than not discuss them at all)!

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.

In this post, reviews of: Jay Antani’s The Leaving of Things (Lake Union Publishing, 2014); Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair (illustrated by Juliana Neufeld) (Arsenal Pulp Reprint Edition, 2014) and She of the Mountains (illustrated by Raymond Biesinger (Arsenal Pulp, 2014); Mei Mei Evans’s Oil and Water (University of Alaska Press, 2013); Andrew Koh’s The Glass Cathedral (Epigram Books, 2011); The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza (Epigram Books, 2013); Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead (Minotaur Books, 2015)

A Review of Jay Antani’s The Leaving of Things (Lake Union Publishing, 2014).

Jay Antani’s debut print novel The Leaving of Things (after the graphic novel he scripted entitled the Mysterians Vol. 1) is told from the perspective of Vikram, who at the start of the novel is leaving Wisconsin because his father has gotten a permanent job in India. Vikram is about college age and his plans to stay in Wisconsin and explore life with his girlfriend Shannon (as well as his best friends Karl and Nate) are obviously dashed. His parents are spurred to leave the United States, especially as Vikram is almost arrested for having been caught with a controlled substance (pot). He leaves the police department without having been officially charged and this moment is a wake up call for his parents, pushing them to go back to their homeland. Vikram, as well as his younger brother, Anand, are not particularly excited about these transnational prospects. Vikram spends the first half of the novel basically sulking, hoping to get letters from Shannon, while reluctantly transitioning to a college once attended by his father. Shannon eventually breaks up with him through a letter, while Vikram gradually begins to acclimate to India and even finds many things to like about his new home. A trip to the Taj Majal, for instance, grants him a unique appreciation for his ethnic background. He initiates a flirtation with a fellow student named Priya, who he later discovers is to be betrothed to a man arranged by her parents. Through all of Vikram’s various growing pains—and let’s be clear, the novel is a bildungsroman more than anything else—he maintains a steadfast connection with the United States; he eventually grows convinced he should apply to the University of Wisconsin. He does receive admittance, but by that point in the novel, he has made more friends at the college, has found renewed interest in his love for photography, and even has repaired his relationship with his parents. Should be actually go back to the United States? Whereas the Vikram at the start of the novel would have been absolutely incensed by any hesitation on the part of this India-adjusted Vikram, Antani’s point seems to be that Vikram must be able to see exactly where his parents have come from and in so doing get a better sense of their sacrifices and their cultural attachments, which in turn help him to understand how he can better relate to them. Further still, in the process of this “leaving of things,” he comes to understand the plasticity in his own concept of identity and homeland. Some late stage complications do arise concerning Vikram’s visa and whether or not he will be able to finance an education in the United States, but Antani seems determined to give the novel a firm resolution. Readers may at first balk over Vikram’s teen angst, especially as it casts an ominous cloud over the first half of the novel, but patient readers will appreciate Antani’s character development by the conclusion.

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A Review of Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair (illustrated by Juliana Neufeld) (Arsenal Pulp Reprint Edition, 2014) and She of the Mountains (illustrated by Raymond Biesinger (Arsenal Pulp, 2014).

Something’s up in those Northern Waters! Canada has long been at the forefront of queer Asian North American cultural productions (see the work of Shani Mootoo, Shyam Selvadurai, Larissa Lai, and Lydia Kwa for some obvious and wonderful examples). Vivek Shraya adds to this growing archive of writings produced by writers north of the border with two wonderful cultural productions: God Loves Hair (in a reprint edition as it was originally published in 2011 and a Lambda Literary Award finalist, which also comes with a cool blurb by Sara Quin for you big Tegan & Sara fans like myself) and She of the Mountains. Shraya has quite the interesting biography and readers of AALF should be aware that he boasts an impressive musical catalogue. For more on Shraya, go here:


For one of his songs (with Sara Quin featured no less):


God Loves Hair is billed as a young adult fiction, which is an interesting genre label considering that the work makes such generous use of page space, large lettering, and illustrations. Upon first impression, I thought I was reading something geared toward elementary school students and the opening stories did focus on a protagonist who was aged very young, but as the stories move forward, it’s clear that there’s something of a bildungsroman going on. The protagonist moves from childhood to his teenage years and learns to confront his budding sexualities and genders. God Loves Hair begins with the title story in which a Sri Lankan mother vows that if her first two children are sons, she will sacrifice their hair to God. The vow seems to have worked because her first two children are born sons, and she ends up keeping her promise by traveling back to her homeland to cut off the hair of her sons. Other stories involve the difficult adjustment periods that the protagonist faces during schooling: he’s not normatively masculine enough or white enough to fit in with the general crowd, so he’s singled out quite early on for being “gay.” While the protagonist does admit to some same-sex desires, it’s never quite cut and dry where this protagonist stands concerning his sexuality. Further still, his genderqueerness emerges occasionally with respect his periodic interest in feminine cultures. When God Loves Hair ends, the protagonist sees the image of two Hindu mythical figures joined together such that one half of the body seems male and the other female. This moment is the one that allows him to see that there is a place for him somewhere, that the two halves of his desiring selves might find a place in one body. Juliana Neufeld’s lush color illustrations provide a useful visual analogue that gives his tale far more accessibility to different age groups than suggested by the “young adult fiction” label. Though the general themes are represented in complex ways, the general story—a Sri Lankan coming of age in Canada—should appeal to many audiences.

She of the Mountains is Shraya’s adult debut, though he takes a similar path by again using an illustrator, but there is a bit of a difference with the visuals. Raymond Biesinger’s visuals are far more abstract, perhaps even geometrical in style, as he makes use of a two-tone/ three-tone color system in which hues of green and black most often take center stage (and mirror the colors found on the cover). The visuals are exceedingly appropriate given the more poetic and impressionistic quality of the novel, which is splint to two rough storylines. One is mostly rendered from the first person perspective of Parvati, who is married to Shiv (or Shiva). This story is Shraya’s reconfiguration of the relationship between these Hindu deities. In this version, they have a son together named Ganesha, but Shiv accidentally lops off Ganesha’s head. In order to rectify things, Shiv is able to procure another head for the infant, but it comes in the form of an elephant. Parvati still manages to find a way to love her strange, “queer” son, even while that son begins to realize he is a little bit different, not exactly like his younger sibling, who seems to be the apple of his father’s eye. The second storyline (told in the third person) seems far more autobiographical and seems to riff of the early sections of God Love Hair in its evocation of the cruelness of school cultures. As the protagonist is pegged as gay, he begins to wonder whether or not he actually is gay. This soul-searching/ desire-searching is the general theme grounding the novel, as the protagonist’s confusion is especially made palpable after a same-sex encounter leaves him rather nonplussed. It becomes clear that the protagonist finds much emotional fulfillment with women, and he begins a lengthy romantic relationship with a close female friend, even though he very much cannot identify as heterosexual or gender normative. He seems to lack a conceptual vocabulary to understand his various sexual and gender fluidities. The word “queer” finally offers him enough wiggle room to encapsulate his complicated desires, but Shraya’s work goes far beyond the exigencies that arise over sexuality and gender. Indeed, Shraya’s novel paints a delicate picture of an individual who is also struggling with the fact of racial and ethnic difference, something repeatedly invocated by the split between the protagonist’s mind and body. There are points where he cannot seem to understand the connection between the way he feels and the estrangement from the brown-ness of his physical exterior. His romantic relationship provides him a measure of comfort and security, but he cannot find a way to unify his body and mind in a constitutive manner. The struggle for self-acceptance is at the core of Shraya’s work and marks the protagonist as a deeply introspective, tortured figure with whom so many readers can identify. Shraya’s poetic and elegant writing can sometimes verge on being too abrupt (indeed, there were points where I had to re-read a section because a major plot point had occurred in the “break” between two blocks) and the one drawback of this stylistic is that we want to dwell a little bit longer in the effervescent fictional world Shraya has so lyrically and elegantly crafted.

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A Review of Mei Mei Evans’s Oil and Water (University of Alaska Press, 2013).

Mei Mei Evans’s Oil and Water (University of Alaska Press, 2013) is perhaps the first book I have read by an American writer of Asian descent that is set in Alaska. It tells a sort of fictionalized account of the Exxon Valdez disaster, changing the basic circumstances but remaining true to the incredible devastation wrought by the oil spill. Evans toggles the third person perspective among a number of different characters including a harried fisherman named Gregg (a vet), his deckhand Lee (who is a Korean adoptee and a lesbian), Lee’s friends Daniel (also a vet and a widower) and Tessa, who is married to Daniel. The novel essentially begins with the spill overtaking Gregg’s boat; Gregg and Lee are mired in the muck but are eventually able to make landfall. As information slowly starts to trickle out, they realize the gravity and extent of the spill, which is of course an environmental catastrophe. As the company that owns the supertanker goes into damage control, the residents of one local Alaska town called Selby rally together in order to address the oil spill. It is quite evident that the economic and financial support offered by the big oil companies has been welcomed in relation to pipelines and drilling, but in the wake of the disaster, there is obvious rage over the lack of preparedness concerning the possibility of a major oil spill. Debates begin to rage about the ethics around the oil company’s business practices and the manner by which the company uses the spill as a way to manage the local residents (and to pay them off, something that Lee considers to be blood money). Once the oil spill becomes a national issue, the spotlight brings in out-of-towners, many of whom are simply looking to make a quick buck off of the money rich oil companies. Evans obviously knows her historical and contextual details, and the novel is layered with considerable depth, ranging from the effects of the oil spill on otters and sea bird populations. More ominous are the issues related to the health of those who inhaled the hydrocarbons from the spill. The novel certainly possesses a political sophistication that should make this work of special interest to ecocritics and regionalist scholars. There is a naturalistic tone to this work, which is not surprising given the rugged but austere nature of the land. Evans’s poetic writing emerges in some sublime passages that invoke both the apocalyptic effects of the oil spill as well as the inherent beauty of the Alaskan coastal communities. Despite the fierce cold, the inclement and often dangerous weather patterns, one can understand why characters like Lee are so drawn to the hardscrabble, frontier life. Evans is also careful to consider the racial elements of the story, especially as many characters are of indigenous or minority backgrounds and their livelihoods exist in obvious distinction from the white elites who populate the oil company’s crisis management teams. The momentum of the story itself flags at times, but this uneven development is certainly due to the fact that the major antagonist is an oil spill, and so Evans must wrangle with an environmentally anthropomorphized villain to generate plotting tension.

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A Review of Andrew Koh’s The Glass Cathedral (Epigram Books, 2011)

Andrew Koh’s The Glass Cathedral was originally published in the mid-90s, but Epigram Books has put out a series of “Singapore Classics,” which includes this particular title, which I’ve known about for awhile, but could never get my hands on. That is, until now! In Koh’s work, love blooms in an English class. It could have been just like any other love story, except we’re in Singapore, where homosexuality is outlawed and our protagonist, Colin, is a devout Catholic, while his potential partner, James, is certainly not the church-going kind. Though there are some cringe-inducing moments, some of which is certainly attributable to Colin’s naïveté, the novel bravely delves into an issue that has long been a thorny one for the modernizing city-state. As Colin comes to terms with his feelings, he begins to question his religious beliefs, bringing his concerns to other members of the church. Eventually, he confides in Father Norbert, who has been a close advisor to him, only to discover that Father Norbert has been harboring some queer feelings himself. Of course, no romance would be complete without a love triangle, and Father Norbert additionally makes clear that he has feelings for Colin. Father Norbert, being the devout man of faith that he is, takes his issues to a church elder who suggests he travel on a spiritual retreat to Thailand. Meanwhile, Colin’s relationship with James is heating up, which presents a problem because both men are reaching marriageable age and family members (and others) are on their cases concerning the appropriate female partners. Thus, Colin and James must conduct their relationship in secret, something that requires James to make up a girlfriend named Rose. Eventually, though, the secrecy takes its toll: Colin and James must make a pivotal decision concerning whether or not they can take their relationship to the next level. Given the time and context of Koh’s work, the novel is certainly groundbreaking for its themes and willingness to take on such a controversial topic. Though almost two decades have passed since the novel was published, not much has essentially changed concerning the legal rights for queer men in Singapore (from what I understand). Thus, the impact and importance of this work perhaps remains as vital as when it first emerged and Epigram’s choice to include it as part of the classics series certainly calls attention to their commitment to political progressivism and social equality.

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A Review of Cyril Wong’s The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza (Epigram Books, 2013).

I’m continuing to work through some of the catalogue over at Epigram Books, a Singapore based publisher. I also continue to be amazed at the depth of the archive concerning Asian Anglophone fictions. I’ve slowly been tracking publishing houses in Canada, India, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and other locations and have come to realize how limited the U.S. based archive is especially in terms of general access. In any case, Cyril Wong is one writer whose U.S. presence remains problematically low, especially given his numerous publications. The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza is his first novel (after a number of poetry collections and a short story collection). The story is told in the first person from the perspective of the titular Mrs. de Souza; she is just about set to retire and is having her last day in the classroom. Her husband Christopher has recently passed away; both she and her husband are of Eurasian backgrounds (the name de Souza a nod to a Portuguese heritage). Much of the story is told in flashback mode and Mrs. de Souza uses her “last lesson” to reflect upon a painful experience she had while advising a young student named Amir. Amir had come to the narrator in order to express the fact that he believed he was gay, and he wanted to share that knowledge with someone else, perhaps get some advice about what to do with the information. Mrs. de Souza does not know how to deal with this admission and struggles to counsel the boy properly. Wong seems to be intent on exploring the limits of the instructor’s position, someone who often times has to consider the appropriateness revolving around how to counsel a student beyond the bounds of the classroom. Though Amir seems perfectly satisfied having shared the conflicts concerning his sexuality, Mrs. de Souza is not content with leaving it at a conversation and takes it upon herself to contact Amir’s father. That conversation, which occurs over the phone, is brief and Amir’s father ends up hanging up on her. Mrs. de Souza’s intervention seems to have gone badly, and in the following days Amir is nowhere to be seen and is not in class. She later learns the devastating news that he is dead, apparently having committed suicide. The novel uses this episode as the structure and the grounds for Mrs. de Souza’s desire to remember the past and to find a way to make meaning out of her career. The conclusion is sobering and unsentimental, certainly to strike polarized reactions in the reader. I couldn’t help but feel an Ishiguro-vibe throughout, especially as Mrs. de Souza is made out to be an untrustworthy narrator; her memories are often hazy, time periods sometimes meld together (confusing the reader to be sure), and Mrs. de Souza apparently occasionally has visions of her dead husband. Wong’s work seems more philosophical in nature, related to the impact we make in our occupations, regardless of type or stripe. Do we leave some sort of positive legacy in the world; can we be defined by one event as a way to understand what we have done, what we have accomplished? These questions are hardly answered by the conclusion, but the existential issues are of course the whole point. A solid novelistic debut from Wong.

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A Review of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead (Minotaur Books, 2015)

If Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead is any indication of the kind of year it will be for fans of Asian American literature in 2015 (and literatures in general penned in English by writers of Asian descent), then we should rejoice. I was able to pry the novel away from my hands one night, but finished it in the next, while looking at the clock continuously in hopes that I would not be sleeping too much past my bedtime and ruin my schedule the next day. The Unquiet Dead is a deeply disturbing and depressing but no less brilliant debut novel that uses the best in form and social contexts to get at the thorny issue of war crimes and justice. The novel is told from a third person perspective, with focalization primarily shifting between two main characters, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Esa Khattak, a Pakistani Muslim, a detective with a particular Canadian crime division related to sensitive issues often involving ethnic minorities, is asked by a close friend (Tom) to research the suspicious death of a man by the name of Christopher Drayton. Esa, realizing the gravity of the case immediately, asks that his partner, Rachel Getty, be assigned to the investigation as well. Rachel, as Esa knows, is level-headed and will not let her feelings get in the way of the case, while Esa understands that given his personal history, he may find the investigation difficult to navigate on his own. Khan leaves readers in the dark early on. Like Rachel, the readers know far less than Esa does, but eventually it becomes clear that Christopher Drayton may be the assumed identity of a man who may have perpetrated the massacre at Srebenica. Here, Khan uses an actual historical event to ground the detective plot, though Drayton is of course her fictive construct. The cast of supporting characters is large and therefore offers Esa and Rachel a number of possible suspects, including those (such as Mink Norman and David Newhall) connected to a museum that Christopher Drayton had planned to donate money to and his soon-to-be wedded wife Melanie Blessant, who is a divorcee with two teenaged daughters (named Hadley and Cassidy). Others such as Nate Clare, once a very close friend of Khattak but obviously estranged from him, and the Imam at a local mosque complicate the plot even further. Rachel receives her own mystery subplot related to the disappearance of her younger brother, Zach, who has not been seen for seven years. His leavetaking is associated with a highly dysfunctional family life involving a sour mother and an alcoholic father. Khan does not leave this subplot fully explored (though there is a reunion of sorts), obviously leaving things open for future investigative installments involving Khattak and Getty.

Khan’s choice to use the Srebenica massacre is a dicey one for many reasons: it requires considerable research and immediately introduces this novel to a host of possible critiques concerning the nature of entertainment as it relates to war crimes. But, readers are in the right hands here: Khan is able to deftly weave in historical elements with the kind of depth required of such a task (it is clear that considerable research and care went into the details included), while at the same time never letting the reader get settled into an entertaining, by the numbers mystery plot. The conclusion is certainly more noir-ish than anything else: Khan’s narrative seems to direct us to wonder about the possibility of justice at all and that one death and the circumstances around it, however mysterious and however homicidal in question, may simply pale in comparison to other crimes it might be connected with it. And perhaps, even more darkly, Khan’s narrative makes you wonder whether or not you want a crime to be solved precisely because your empathy for the victim in question is continually eroded as the plot moves forward. Finally, this novel encouraged me to do some research on Srebenica itself, to consider the novel beyond its fictional world, and consider what was being depicted in the text. Perhaps, Khan’s novel is the only kind that could have been written about such an event precisely because we cannot have a fitting resolution based upon a period of time that involved so much slaughter. The novel seems to direct us to the final message that there can never be enough justice for the unquiet dead. Highly, highly recommended with a word of caution to those who are disturbed by graphic imagery and textually represented violence.

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A Review of Kimberly Pauley’s Ask Me (SohoTeen, 2014).

I’ve been late to the game reviewing titles by Kimberly Pauley (thankfully, pylduck has been on top of it), but her latest publication, Ask Me, gives me a chance (in part) to rectify my oversight! I read Ask Me not long after Kendare Blake’s Antigoddess, so I was already in the prophecy mindset when I started reading this book. In Ask Me, our protagonist is Aria Morse, a teen who has the gift of prophecy, handed down to her over generations (since she is the descendant of an original group of Sybils). Prophecy might be a great way to get rich quick, but as we discover, prophecy doesn’t work that way. Any question that Aria is asked, she is forced to answer with the gift of prophecy, but the problem is that her answers do not always make sense until after an event or action has taken place. And because Aria is asked questions daily and in different contexts (such as in school), she soon becomes marginalized. There is something strange in her utterances as she answers any question within earshot, trying to mutter what she says under her breath so she will evade as much notice as possible. With the help of an ipod, she is able to drown out most conversations, but still occasionally runs into problems. The novel opens with an ominous prologue in which an unnamed figure has run over a man. Later, a high school student named Jade goes missing, and she is discovered to have been murdered. There is obviously some connection between these two events, but it’s unclear what is going on. Aria, for her part, is badgered by her grandmother to take action, especially since her gift might be of help to investigators, but Aria just wants to be normal and left alone, so she is reluctant to make her gifts known to anyone else. Eventually, we discover that Aria’s own mother won’t speak to her (Aria’s gifts manifest at a very inopportune moment in which her mother asks her a rhetorical question concerning her father and Aria is forced to answer that her father is having sex with another mother), which is why she lives with her maternal side grandparents, who take them in because Aria’s grandmother once too had the gift of prophecy. Though her grandparents struggle to make ends meet, it is in this home where Aria is most welcomed. Of course, no paranormal young adult fiction is complete without romance, and we’re not surprised when two hunky teenagers of different stripes begin to take a liking to Aria. One is Alex, a brutish and large football player who is the son of a town drunkard. The other is Will, a mysterious but suave and enormously popular student and ex-boyfriend of Jade. It is clear that these two may have some sort of involvement with Jade’s murder and the hit-and-run killing, but Aria’s romantic feelings for both begin to color how she views these suspects. Pauley’s narrative is a seductive one and the conceit of Aria’s forced-to-answer prophecies makes for a quite entertaining read. Pauley also has the formula down pat: a strangely awkward girl, who has some sort of extraordinary ability, who is put the test to take down an evil figure and who manages, along the way, to get some romantic interest, too. A must-read for young adult paranormal romance fiction fans.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for December 21, 2014

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!  Spend some of your vacation time reading some—what else?—Asian American literature!

In this post, reviews of Cory Doctorow’s In Real Life (illustrated by Jen Wang) (First Second, 2014); E.C. Myers’s The Silence of Six (Adaptive Books, 2014); Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal (Pantheon, 2014); Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others (W.W. Norton, 2014); Natasha Deen’s Guardian (Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2014); Oh Yong Hwee (writer) and Koh Hong Teng’s (illustrator) Ten Sticks and One Rice (Epigram Books, 2010); Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions (with illustrations by Amanda Thomas) (Lanternfish Press, LLC); Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Sorry for my long stay away from AALF, I’ve been busy moving and trying to get my new digs in order, while also somehow making time for the holidays and new teaching responsibilities! I haven’t had as much time to read and to review as usual, so you will get a couple of lightning-form reviews here (not my preference, but better to get the brief word of out on books rather than not discuss them at all)! I’m also apparently still in academia.

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.

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s In Real Life (illustrated by Jen Wang) (First Second, 2014).

Jen Wang illustrates on In Real Life, which is penned by Cory Doctorow, a noted science fiction writer. Though Wang’s duties are limited here to the visuals, the work is no doubt relevant to those interested in transnational Asian/ American studies, as the narrative involves a young high school girl named Anda who goes into the land of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role play game) and strikes a friendship with a Chinese player, one who is working for a company that farms virtual gold and later sells it in “real” life. The plot line is inspired by a rather interesting introduction penned by Cory Doctorow in which he explores the unity of games and economics and reminds us that, in many ways, our lives are revolving around forms of game play. Jobs are in some sense perhaps simply more sophisticated forms of games, where we must work with other “players” in order to achieve some sort of goal. You might have limited resources, but the outcome is ultimately similar: to find out a way to get on top. The graphic narrative explores this concept through the ways that MMORPGs collide with the worlds external to them. In this case, Anda’s Chinese buddy is farming for gold that will then have an economic value in the “real” world. At the same time, Anda sees the MMORPG as a venue for correcting and intervening in issues related to social inequality. Anda, especially inspired by her father’s work, wants to advocate for this Chinese player, one who goes by the name Raymond (he’s particularly interested in increasing his English skills), and wants to help Raymond organize his fellow workers to agitate for more work-place rights. Doctorow is keen on marking the complexities of this kind of interaction, and it’s not surprising that things go from bad to worse when Raymond’s organizing causes job tension and results in being fired. Thus, Anda’s quest is not so easily completed. There’s also another plot concerning female gamers and Anda’s place in a guild, but I found that it came secondary to this issue of transnationalism and labor activism that crops up in an unexpected, but socially conscious way. Wang’s visuals show a signature style, and she doesn’t deviate too much from her panel use and sketch modes offered up in Koko Be Good, which is a very good thing. Another outstanding title out by Frist Second, which has generated an impressive catalog of works by Asian/ American graphic narrative writers and/or artists, including Derek Kirk Kim, Thien Pham, Lat and Gene Luen Yang.

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A Review of E.C. Myers’s The Silence of Six (Adaptive Books, 2014).

So, if like me, you’ve been wondering what E.C. Myers’s latest offering will be (after Fair Coin and Quantum Coin), but now you can finally read it! The Silence of Six is a hacker-inspired thriller involving lots of secret passwords, social networking sites, executable files, and romps through Silicon Valley and Bay area locales. The opening of the novel is mysterious enough. A televised debate is occurring between presidential candidates at a Granville, California area high school. Max, our ostensible hero and protagonist, is watching when he receives an encrypted text from his buddy Evan. Max hadn’t been really thinking much about Evan lately, especially as he had become more popular in the wake of his successful courtship of Courtney, a high school reporter and once uber-desired cheerleader. Not soon after that text, the debate is interrupted by a mysterious masked figure appearing on all of the video screens.  This mysterious figure is none other than Evan himself, but he gets offed by the conclusion of that video after having proclaimed something about “the silence of six.” What does the phrase mean and why are all the government officials involved with the debate suddenly demanding all phones, recording devices, and computers that were present during the event? Why are the governmental officials so adamant that they do not post updates on networking sites such as the ubiquitous Panjea (the obvious analogue to Facebook) concerning what happened? Such questions deeply trouble Max, who has grown up in a household in which distrust of the government is large and the desire to hack into any system looms as a major pastime. Though Max had moved away from his hacker background and had begun to assimilate into the “normal” high school activities, Evan’s death and the mystery behind the silence of six propel him into an unofficial investigation. Soon, he realizes that Evan may have stumbled on to something far more serious than some recreational hacking activity, something involving the most well-known hacking groups on the internet. The FBI, soon realizing that Max may be conducting his own investigation, grow suspicious and are soon on his trail. Max must go on the run, while trying to figure out more about Evan’s background as a hacker and how he is connected to the silence of six. His quest leads him to meet DoubleThink, an infamous online hacker, who turns out to be none other than another high school aged student, a teen by the name of Penny Polonsky (who has been further aided by her younger sister Risse). Though at first not sure of each other’s motives, the three end up becoming a firm alliance working toward unraveling Evan’s centrality in the silence of six. What we discover—and you should probably stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled somewhat—is that the silence of six is a phrase meant to invoke the not-so-accidental deaths of six individuals with connections to hacking, but I’ll stop from revealing the final stages of the novel. Myers’s novel, besides its involving plot, is of course following alongside a long set of cultural productions querying the place of technology and information gathering. What is privacy in a period when anybody’s computer and phone can be hacked into? What value do we place upon the minutest details of our personal lives and how are we being manipulated in ways we might not even know? The recent semi-scandal involving Facebook’s commandeering of feeds in order to study users’ responses to more positive or more pessimistic stories is of course something that The Silence of Six directly critiques. As we hurtle toward ever more effective ways to gather data, novels such as this one remind us to slow down, consider the consequences, and at the same time, remember what it is that drove us to innovate in the first place. A definite recommended read for lovers of the paranormal young adult fiction and another inspired effort from Myers.

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A Review of Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal (Pantheon, 2014).

Well, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ha Jin’s latest effort, A Map of Betrayal, which comes on the tails of Nanjing Requiem. Ha Jin is of course the very prolific writer of numerous novels, short story collections, and poetry collections. A Map of Betrayal takes on a subject of great interest to Asian American literary critics: espionage (two works of critical relevance here are the outstanding monographs Leslie Bow’s Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion and Crystal Parikh’s An Ethics of Betrayal). It follows in the tradition of other works such as Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist in exploring the Asian American’s potentially divided national loyalties. The story is told for the most part in alternating first and third person narrative perspectives. Our first person perspective, which takes place in the present day, is given to Lilian Shang, the biracial daughter of the convicted spy Gary Shang and a stay-at-home, generally-disaffected housewife Nellie (nee McCarrick). Lillian is a history professor and wants to find out more about the life of her mysterious father. She, for instance, looks into the whereabouts of his first wife and in doing so discovers that the first wife may be still living in a section of northeast China. Lillian goes to China only to discover that Gary’s first wife has already died, though one of her children has survived (the other died as a young child during the famines that occurred throughout the Mao’s Great Leap Forward). She visits her half-sister and makes a strong bond with her adult nieces and later her nephew Ben, who is in some sort of strange occupation that requires him to travel all the time. The third person perspective follows Gary’s life trajectory, beginning with being recruited by the American government while also operating as an intelligence agent for China. As he goes further into his espionage duties, he must travel to various locations, including Okinawa, Hong Kong, and then later to the United States, all the while leaving behind a wife and two children. As his party affiliations grow deeper and he must maintain his cover, he assimilates into American life by marrying a second woman (Nelly) and having another child, Lillian. Throughout this period, he continues to gather intelligence for China, receiving promotions over time and garnering bonuses for the things he is able to reveal. The novel seems largely an allegory for the divided loyalties of any migrant subject, who must try to find a way to balance affiliations to multiple countries. Interestingly enough, and here I will be providing a major plot spoiler, we discover that Ben is also in the intelligence gathering business. But instead of taking the path that his father does—proclaiming that he served both countries, even when each end up ultimately renouncing him—Ben escapes with his loved one and attempts to evade the intelligence authorities. For Ben, then, his loyalty is to himself and his wife, rather than to any one country. The novel suggests the importance of individual ethics in a time saturated by nationalistic ideologies, but this retreat into the private sphere is still ever perilous. The conclusion indeed makes us wonder whether or not Ben has succeeded in his escape into a thirdspace: beyond migrant or citizen, spy or patriot. An intriguing and rousing effort from Jin, perhaps his strongest since the collection A Good Fall and a novel that will be certain to be adopted into course curricula and one that will become the subject of numerous critical articles.

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A Review of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others (W.W. Norton, 2014).

I’ll be honest: I really struggled throughout the reading of this novel. My admission isn’t to say that you would hate this book, but it will definitely be a challenge for those who perhaps aren’t as fond of “Dickensian-styled aesthetics.” By this phrase, I mean to say that there are a lot of characters in this novel, and the constant shifts in narrative perspective and time can serve to be a nuisance to a reader who might be more used a linear plot and a first person narrator. Neel Mukherjee’s follow-up to A Life Apart is an intergenerational saga focused on the Ghosh family. Fortunately, publishers saw fit to include a very useful family tree at the beginning of the novel, something I referred to again and again when I got confused about who was related to whom. Even in a Dickens novel, there is usually some sort of central storyline and protagonist, but the novel’s rhetoric is a bit unclear for a couple hundred pages, until we begin to see exactly why two different stories are being juxtaposed. First, there is a storyline concerning Supratik (told in the first person), the oldest son of the oldest son (Adinath, who has a number of siblings including Priyonath, Chhaya, Bholanath, and Somnath) of the family patriarch (Parfullanath, who is married to Charubala). Supratik has gone off with a Communist group (with ties to the Naxalites: reminding me issues brought up in Lahiri’s The Lowland and Chaudhuri’s Calcutta) to help out with farmers and sharecroppers, many of whom are being jilted by landowners due to loans they can never pay off. The other storyline follows the Ghosh family as a whole and by mean whole I mean that Mukherjee pretty much follows most of the major characters on the family tree at some point or another. For instance, we discover that Chhaya possesses an incredibly close relationship with her brother Priyo(nath) at a young age, but she later grows up to be a spinster. Priyo’s marriage to Purnima is under some strain, and he seeks the comforts of mistresses, especially those who can indulge in a particular scatological fetish, while his own daughter Baishakhi is coming-of-age and falling in love with a neighbor. The youngest sibling Somnath grows up to be something of a ruffian and his attitudes toward women end up costing him his life. Before he is killed (after attempting to assault a woman), he is married off to a woman named Purba, whose family is just overjoyed that she has managed to find a match with a man from a supposedly respectable background (they know nothing of his reputation). Purba’s son, Swarender, also happens to be a mathematics genius. Bholanath, one of the middle children, suffers the fate of many in this position, as he is often overlooked because he is rather average in all respects. The entire family is essentially supported by one business, the paper and printing company started by Parfullanath (who himself was divested of a potential inheritance in a jewelry store when his father unexpectedly dies). The family’s internal squabbles certainly give light to why Supratik might have left; indeed, Supratik’s lessons in Marxism convey that the family is often the structural unit that grounds oppressive hierarchies. We can see how the Ghosh family’s dysfunctional dynamics cannot ultimately mask the fact that they hail from the upper middle class, with all of the privileges that might come from that background. Thus, Supratik’s escape from the family is in some sense his desire to break free from what he sees to be a constraining and sometimes wasteful community structure. His believes that he best possible avenue for change is to address resource inequality, a mission that he cannot seem to initiate directly from within his own family. The Victorian-style aesthetic that Mukherjee emulates is perhaps the perfect vehicle to explore issues of class and narrative attention and resources; we see how each character does not get the same trajectory nor can expect to from the vantage point both of the third person narrator or based upon their contextual points of origin (an individual character’s gender, caste background, sexual background). The book seesaws in momentum, and readers must be able to balance their attention among a vast array of characters. Though readers will be tested, the persistent will be rewarded in the final arc, as storylines and threads converge, and we begin to see how the naturalistic drama that Mukherjee has set into motion will come to a devastating close.

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A Review of Natasha Deen’s Guardian (Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2014).

Natasha Deen’s Guardian was one of the surprising YA fiction reads for me this year. Trolling the internets at night when I am having insomnia has become an incredibly productive way for me to come across books by Asian American and Asian Anglophone writers that I haven’t yet had a chance to read. Natasha Deen is also author to a number of other young adult and genre fictions, including the True Grime series. I have much to catch up on apparently. In Guardian (the first in what could be a series, but it’s unclear), our protagonist and first person narrator is Maggie, a mixed race (half East Indian) teen who has a gift: she helps transition those who have just died, helping them move to the other side. Her gift is particular to those ghosts who are having trouble figuring out what to do after they have passed. But, her talent becomes far more than she bargained for when the high school bully, Serge Popov, is found dead. Serge is none other than Maggie’s primary antagonist, so when Serge is dead, there is some sense that that part of her life has come to an end, until she discovers that Serge is tethered to her and cannot transition to the other side. Having to deal with Serge being with her at almost every waking (and sleeping) moment encourages Maggie to embark on her own unofficial investigation concerning the murky details around Serge’s death. It becomes apparent that Serge was killed, but the murderer’s identity is far from easy to figure out. Thus, Deen’s novel incorporates elements of the paranormal alongside the noir plot. Set in a sleepy, rural Canadian town, the killing of course reverberates through the tight-knit community. Nancy, a police officer and the girlfriend to Maggie’s Dad, is on the case trying to figure out who might have been behind the murder. At the same time, as Maggie dives deeper into her own unofficial investigation, it becomes apparent that Serge’s relationship with his parents was far from ideal. Serge’s father, Reverend Popov, was known to be abusive, while his mother seems to acquiesce to whatever the Reverend says or does. Serge not surprisingly suspects that the Reverend was behind his murder, but Maggie realizes that she must unravel the mystery soon before another person is killed. Though the mystery aspect of the novel disappointed me overall, the novel has an interesting concluding arc along the paranormal spectrum that I wasn’t prepared for and was pleasantly surprised by. Further still, the textures that these concluding sequences add offer Deen the perfect opportunity to create further installments with Maggie as our stubborn, plucky heroine. Another critique of the novel was its use of dialogue; there were times when it was difficult to figure out who was actually doing the speaking. Deen tends to be a minimalist when it comes to signal phrases in relation to dialogue, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that Maggie must often navigate conversations with dead characters and non-dead characters, with the non-dead characters often unable to or aware that the dead characters are in the “scene.”  Despite these small critiques, Deen’s Guardian is certainly a recommended read for those interesting in young adult/ paranormal fictions.

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A Review of Oh Yong Hwee (writer) and Koh Hong Teng’s (illustrator) Ten Sticks and One Rice (Epigram Books, 2010).

Ten Sticks and One Rice, penned by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, is published by Epigram Books, a Singaporean publisher. For more on Epigram Books, go here:


Singapore’s Asian Anglophone literary archive is quite large, one that has been virtually ignored here in the American “West,” but I’ve been encouraged to read much more into this area ever since working with a brilliant undergraduate student, who hails from the powerful city-state and who is always letting me know about the cool new books that are being published over there. Little did I know that there were also a ton of graphic novels and graphic narratives to be reviewing from this area of the world, which brings me to this one today. Our protagonist of Ten Sticks and One Rice is none other than Neo Hock Seng, who is described at the back of the book as an “illegal bookie,” “a secret society member,” and “a street hawker,” who must deal with Singapore as it “transforms from a kampong to a cosmopolitan city… even as he finds his old ways and values increasingly challenged.” At the start of the narrative, Neo Hock Seng is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. At the same time, we discover that one of his closest friends from long ago, Boon Shan, has died. He takes this opportunity to put together a proper funeral, which would include a festive meal and celebration of Boon Shan’s life, as well as an elaborate funeral procession. Boon Shan’s death gives Hock Seng a chance to reflect back upon his life, and the graphic novel often shifts backward in time to periods when he was a young boy and then later when is an adult trying to make ends meet and to provide for his family. His interest in being an illegal bookie and a secret society member certainly stem from the challenges of upward mobility, but he eventually settles into work as a “street hawker,” selling sticks of satay and rice (hence the title). Throughout Hock Seng’s maturation, he maintains some old traditions, even when it causes strain with his friends, who sometimes see him as a holding too hard to outdated social norms and mores, but it becomes evident that Hock Seng’s predilections toward these cultural rituals are in fact a way to strengthen family and friendship ties. By the conclusion of the graphic narrative, we see that his own family is starting to shift in their cultural practices, something that Hock Seng cannot control, but the conclusion is one that clarifies that Hock Seng does not seek to impose his will upon his childrens’ live. He only gently reminds them of what good can come from honoring the past. The artwork is able to convey the gravity of Hock Seng’s life and does a great job of fleshing out the changes in his face over the years. The one area that could have been improved is the clarification in time shifts; it might have been useful to have another grayscale employed whenever the narrative moved back in the past, as the cuts sometimes seemed slightly abrupt. Despite this small critique, the graphic narrative is well worth reading, especially as it dovetails with the discourses of hypermodernization that have long seen associated with Singapore as one of the Asian “tiger” economies. What is being lost in this relentless drive to become a global city, the narrative might seem to be elliptically asking? Hock Seng would tell us to make sure to look into the local past before we step so stridently into the global future.

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A Review of Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions (with illustrations by Amanda Thomas) (Lanternfish Press, LLC).

Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions is a curious, but formalistically innovative work that one would probably not call a novel (or set of stories), but rather a fictional encyclopedia filled with imagined diseases. On a personal note, I very much enjoyed reading this compendium of made-up maladies precisely because my mother is a pathologist. I grew up with phrases such as “malignant melanoma” and “Creutzfeldt-Jakob” being bandied about in conversation over breakfast. Thus, I read Paralkar’s work with much gusto and easily finished it one sitting. There is a frame narrative that accompanies the fictional Encyclopedia of diseases, which involves a librarian talking to an individual named Máximo, an apothecary, who is being shown the document. The librarian gives Máximo the occasional tidbit about his or her own life (I can’t quite recall if the work marks any gender for this narrator-figure), while also relaying some choice details about the structure and the thematic unity of the Encyclopedia. The frame narrative is what gives this work a general sense of forward movement; it is quite essential because otherwise what you read are a vast array of strange diseases with equally strange manifestations: for instance, in one case, one of the illness involves the growing of wings upon a person’s back. The reason for “catching” such a disease is constituted by the patient’s desire to move beyond the bounds of his or her subject position. Here, Paralkar uses the disease manifestation as an obvious manifestation of a figure who dreams probably too big and thus cannot seem to accomplish his or her goals. In the case of Exilium volatile, “When ships sail over the broadest expanses of ocean, their passengers become vulnerable” (64) to this particular malady in which “they grope for memories that might lend them some sense of belonging, but unable to find any, they believe for a terrible instant that the sum of their existence lies confined within the ship that carries them” (65). The disease manifests acutely during the voyage, only to subside when “their vessel approaches its harbor” (65). Again, Paralkar uses this illness as a metaphor for the internal struggles of migrant figures, who attempt to situate a stable sense of home, as they must move from one place to another. For all of the generalities of the disease compendium, there is a general sense that the narrative is set in the Old World (Italy), sometime perhaps in the Early modern period. As in practically all cases, the diseases are somehow connected to emotional states of being that involve individuals and larger communities, but the fanciful nature of this encyclopedia does have darker ramifications. Indeed, by the conclusion of this work, you can’t help but wonder about the necessity of disease taxonomies, whether or not actual maladies that exist in medical literature today may somehow be imagined. An intriguing and innovatively structured fictional work.

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A Review Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Over time, it’s become fairly clear that I enjoy the memoir form because of its voyeuristic qualities. The best in this genre, in my humble opinion, really appear no different from lyrical diaries: excruciating details that are perhaps meant only to be read by the person writing them, but somehow (as readers) we chance upon these texts and receive access. We are invited into a realm, then, that seems so intimate. The oddity of the memoir is of course the actual distance that can exist between reader and writer. My response after reading Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers was one that I could not actually act upon: I wanted to call this Maria Chaudhuri up and tell her what a wonderful thing she had shared with me, but who was I: nothing but this distant reader, a veritable outsider. I could have called myself a beloved stranger, but such a moniker would have been obviously hyperbolic. The memoir is this kind of genre then that invites the intimacy of the reader without actually allowing for it. In the best memoirs, you are frustrated by this intimacy because you realize, then, this incredible distance. The distance is of course one way to get at how these connections between reader and writer cannot be made superficially. Indeed, Chauduri’s poetically rendered work is very specific in its contexts. The author grows up in Bangladesh in a home filled with half silences and unexpressed feelings; not surprisingly, given her highly introspective nature, she seeks escape and soon finds it by going to the United States for her college education. The course of the narrative spends most of the time focusing on the narrator’s distant relationship to both of her parents as well as detailing two major but “failed” romantic relationships; much less is spent upon her connection to her siblings (with the exception of her sister Naveen). Chaudhuri doesn’t shy away from the messy and the murk of romance and family; this ability to look as squarely as possible into her own shortcomings and the elliptical language of love and self-delusion is what makes Beloved Strangers so haunting in its many evocations.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 29 2014 (Thanksgiving Holidaze)

Today is the day I am moving into a new place and starting a new (and I hope better) chapter of my life. I am still reading Asian American literature despite all the upheaval and still am finding much to laud about the publications that continue to emerge. After you’ve eaten a lot of leftover turkey, what better way to spend your time but read some books!

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.

In this (ladies centric) post, reviews of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s Underneath (Flux Books, 2013); Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Truth Against the World (Flux, 2014); Suki Kim’s Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Son’s of North Korea’s Elite (Crown, 2014); Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Ashes for Ashes (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016); Xiaolu Guo’s I am China (Nan A. Talese, 2014); Kim Sunée’s A Mouthful of Stars (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2014); Melissa de la Cruz’s Vampires of Manhattan: The New Blue Bloods Coven (Hyperion, 2014); MariNaomi’s Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (Uncivilized Books, 2014).

A Review of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s Underneath (Flux Books, 2013).

Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s second novel is Underneath (after The Latte Rebellion, which we have already reviewed here in Asian American Literature Fans). In Underneath, our protagonist and narrator is Sunny Pryce-Shah. The novel begins in the wake of the suicide of Sunny Pryce-Shah’s college-aged cousin Shiri, a seemingly popular and smart young woman who had what most perceive as very little reason to take her own life. In the tragic aftermath of her death, her family is of course grieving, especially her Aunt Mina (Shiri’s mother) and her husband (Uncle Randall). But Sunny’s sense of deep loss comes with it a special power, something she calls “underhearing,” which is the ability to hear other people’s thoughts. This power is not fully controllable and she is only able to tap into these thought patterns at seemingly random moments. Most acutely, these thoughts make her aware that her popular friends at school, especially a rival named Cassie, are not her friends at all, and she begins to transition to a new set of acquaintances. These acquaintances are none other than a group of misfits, who are nonetheless apparently cool enough to still hang out with, including a goth-hipster named Cody and the spirited and brash Mikaela. Stevenson quickly sets up romance triangles. Sunny has an obvious like of the darkly attired Cody, but can’t forget her old childhood friend who might be more than a friend (named Spike, who is also part of the popular crowd). At the same time, Sunny’s interest in Cody is one possibly contested by Mikaela, who seems to have an interest in Cody. Thus Sunny’s entrance into this new set of friends is already a tense one, and she struggles to fit in with this new crowd, one interested in the occult (wiccan) and new age practices (meditation). At the same time, things are heating up at home, Auntie Mina is undergoing a trial separation from her husband due in part to domestic abuse. Sunny’s abilities in underhearing allow her to understand how much is being kept from her by her parents, but her knowledge of the situation encourages her to be more courageous and ask difficult questions. In this sense, Stevenson’s novel is essentially a coming-of-age story and the conceit of underhearing is simply a tool to get at issues of high-school ostracization, mental illness, and domestic abuse, the three main conflicts and issues at play. The conceit of underhearing is an interesting one, but it seems to be a kind of red herring in this particular fictional world, and one wonders if it is even necessary at all, especially given how sensitive a character Sunny is already made out to be. In my opinion, Stevenson should have run away with the underhearing as a paranormal element if that was to be so central, but it ends up being too peripheral in my opinion to warrant as part of this already-packed novel. Stevenson’s most fundamental representational approach is perhaps her ability to weave in racial and ethnic signifiers in a very inconspicuous way. Sunny is half-Pakistani, for instance, a fact that is not necessarily a source of great discomfort, but yet still informs her identity as a high school student and an upper middle class subject. Mikaela, too, is not only marked in terms of a working class background, but clearly and also subtly through her ethnoracial background as a Chicana. The texture given to Stevenson’s fictional worlds is made that much more rich in clarifying the not-quite-postracial contexts of this high school based narrative, something that makes this work stand out in terms of its adherence to the protocols of realism (rather than escapism) and its associated political undercurrents. An uneven, but nevertheless intriguing venture into the YA fiction/ romance realm, with just a hint of the paranormal.

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and Here (for the anti-Amazonians):


A Review of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Truth Against the World (Flux, 2014)


Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s third effort in the YA genre is The Truth Against the World, which takes an interesting approach to the storytelling by bifurcating the perspectives between a first person narrator a teen named Olwen Nia Evans (living in San Francisco) and third person omniscient narrator who is focalized through a teen named Gareth Lewis (living on the other side of the Atlantic). These two characters are somehow bound to each other, as becomes apparent very early on. Gareth spies a mysterious young girl named Olwen Nia Evans one day, and then later, happens upon a blog written by another person named Olwen Nia Evans. On impulse, he e-mails Olwen, which begins the start of a tentative online friendship. On her end of the Atlantic, Olwen is dealing with the impending death of her great grandmother Gee Gee, who has requested that she be flown back to Wales, the land of her origin, so that she can die peacefully there. Olwen has been having a number of strange dreams about her great grandmother and a young girl and can’t make sense of them. It becomes apparent that Olwen might be having visions that connect her to Gee Gee’s past, but her great grandmother is far from forthcoming about her life as a young woman. By the time that Olwen is in Wales, she realizes that she is being haunted by some sort of force that needs to be acknowledged. By this point, Gareth has decided to visit his great-grandfather in Wales, which gives him the chance to meet Olwen in person, and perhaps to find out why their connection is so strong. Their adventures are momentarily thrown into disarray when Gee Gee dies, but the visions and dreams related to the mysterious young girl that Gareth saw at a cromlech in the opening of the novel and that continue to plague Olwen’s nights encourage them to continue on their search to figure out why the girl’s spirit demands to be placated.
           Readers may get impatient with Stevenson’s narrative storytelling as the romance and the central mystery are both telegraphed to the extent that most astute readers should be able to guess what happened far before the actual revelation. Thus, much of the narrative momentum begins to wane earlier than it should, but the political and social texture of the novel is far more intricate than the localized plots. Those interested in World War II in the European theater will find much of interest in this novel. References to Land Girls, evacuations, bombs, Welsh ethnic identity, as well as the growing tensions between the English and the Welsh all contribute to a historically expansive world that has made Stevenson’s work as a whole a refreshing addition to the YA genre, which often gets mired in the relatively apolitical heft of high school angst plots. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the novel is the perfect study in something called the “transgenerational phantom,” the term used by Abraham and Torok for traumas that are borne out on a successive generations when an injury or violent moment is kept secret. Gee Gee’s inability to divulge what happened to her manifest in some form in the obsessive desire that Olwen has to find her history. The “secret” is of course none other than the one embodied by the young girl’s ghost who haunts until the source of Gee Gee’s trauma can finally be unveiled. Certainly, a “spirited” addition to the YA paranormal romance genre.

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A Review of Suki Kim’s Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Son’s of North Korea’s Elite (Crown, 2014).

Suki Kim is part of what I called the “first novelist’s club,” which is my fond way of categorizing a writer whose debut I absolutely love and whose second book was nowhere to be seen. Kim’s debut novel Interpreter absolutely riveted me and was the subject of a portion of a dissertation chapter. I eagerly anticipated Kim’s next publication, which is this memoir and which follows a period of over a decade since her first novel’s release. The wait was obviously well worth it, as Kim pens a detailed, insightful, and frank memoir concerning North Korea that sheds light upon a notoriously secretive country and government. Kim’s interest in North Korea begins in part because of an identification with the culture and due to exposure to that country through various journalism assignments. As this interest grows into an obsession, Kim applies to teach there, under the guise of a Christian missionary instructor. Eventually she is admitted and so begins her tenure as an instructor of English at a Christian-oriented institution. While she is there, she begins to realize what a unique school it actually is. Her students seem to come from elite backgrounds, something that she begins to discern as she is given glimpses beyond the institution. The occasional field trip to a specific site such as an apple orchard and farm, occasionally allows her to see the extreme impoverishment in the local community. Throughout the memoir, Kim struggles in her position as an instructor. Though she immediately takes a strong liking to her earnest and seemingly innocent students, she realizes that she cannot simply spout out democratically-informed messages or rhetoric, nor can see expect her students to open their eyes to the incredible social inequality occurring just beyond the bounds of school. Kim realizes that she must play a dangerous game, figuring out how to teach without endangering herself or her students, while at the same time, gaining more information that may be valuable to a book project. Her time at the school while rewarding in some ways is also extremely draining, and Kim leaves her first period there wondering if she will return for another term. She eventually decides to return and upon arriving realizes that her students have missed her. Though the warm welcome she receives is of course gratifying, the monotony and the self-censorship the job requires continues to take its toll. The memoir ends around the time that Kim Jong-il has died, a fitting conclusion given the limited impact that Kim can hope to make on students who seem so desperately to want to express their deepest hidden feelings. The memoir includes an intriguing author’s note which details Kim’s understanding that the composition of this memoir is sure to anger those she worked with as well as the North Korean regime, but readers in the “free” West, as we might call it, have been given an invaluable entrance into a life and culture so rarely seen and understood. A highly recommended read.

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A Review of Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Ashes for Ashes (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016). Hardcover. $17.99

I finished the final book—Ashes for Ashes—in Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Burn for Burn Trilogy on the very same night that it arrived on my doorstep. I used it as an award for working through some revisions, and it was that very decadent kind of reward, one that goes best with an equally sinful dessert. In the final installment, Han and Vivian can finally go full-on Carrie (and spoilers are now forthcoming, so do not read on at this point if you want to avoid knowing too much). Mary is dead, and she’s a ghost. One of our three primary narrators has always been a ghost, but now Mary knows she’s a ghost, and she’s aiming to continue her pursuit of revenge at all costs, especially now that Kat and Lillia seem less interested in revenge schemes. As always, Mary’s main target of vengeance is Reeve, the popular high school jock who had spurned her as a young girl and whose bullying ended up seriously contributing to her suicide. But, Lillia and Kat are now also seen as betrayers, so they too must be dealt with. As Mary finds out more about her status as a ghost, she realizes she has far more powers than she at first understood. She can invade people’s dreams and when focusing her anger, can even make things move. She also learns how to appear at will in front of people. Of course, it takes awhile before Lilia and Kat figure out what badness Mary is up to, and they have their hands full with various things. Kat’s still looking to see if she can get into college, while also juggling a budding friendship with Alex Lind, a teenage boy from the popular set, who respects Kat’s musical talents and tastes. For his part, Alex Lind is considering going to USC, though it would be located far from his unrequited paramour, who is none other than Lillia Cho. In the meantime, Lillia is still madly in love with Reeve; they go about dating surreptitiously until their romance is unceremoniously and inadvertently unveiled at school on Valentine’s Day. Mary, being able to observe things unnoticed, continues to see how life is moving on without her, and not surprisingly, her anger grows. Of course, Mary’s has plans to undo Lillia’s romance, Kat’s desire to go to college, and Reeve’s attempt to remake his life in the wake of an accident that left his college football career in doubt. While YA often gets pigeonholed as a lowbrow genre, what gets left behind is how entertaining the genre can be, despite its perceived shortcomings. Indeed, Han and Vivian’s collaborative work rises above so many others because they have an exceptional hold on the voices of their characters, which have only become increasingly refined and made more precise over the course of the trilogy. As these voices ring so authentically, the story, however implausible, still holds our attention, which makes Ashes for Ashes such a fitting conclusion to the series. To be sure, my early critiques of this series remain: Jar Island seems relatively insular; there is a very ahistorical sense of place and time. The one moment where I got a sense of when the story could be taking place was the moment that Lillia tells her father that Reeve had scored above 1200 on his SATs, a reference that would place the narrative before (2006) the redesign of the exam that makes it now scored out of 2400 (but will apparently revert back to 1600 in 2016). In any case, even with such criticisms in place, Han and Vivian’s novel is an engrossing one, especially for fans devoted to the paranormal/ romance plots that populate YA fictions so often these days. The use of three first person perspectives gives this work a texture and polyvocality that sparks off the page. Whereas Lillia’s romantic persona may be cloying to some, Kat’s no nonsense tough girl attitude will have others breaking out in laughter, and of course, most will be able to identify with the wounded heart at the center of Mary’s vengeful ghostliness as well as her desire to make her injuries palpable to the increasingly forgetful world around her.

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A Review of Xiaolu Guo’s I am China (Nan A. Talese, 2014).

I’m beginning to shift over new links for these posts. I am either going to use direct publisher links, or sellers other than amazon for purchase. I’ve had requests from various readers that such a practice might be a better one, especially in light of what had occurred with Hatchette Book group (and the associated pricing war). In any case, now on to this review! Wow! What an uneven but brilliant, polyvocal novel. In Guo’s latest, I am China (after a number of novels), the narrative perspective primarily follows three character: Iona, who is a translator living in London, and then the subjects of her translations: Kublai Jian, a dissident musician who escapes China, only to subsist in the asylum system in Europe; and Mu, Kublai Jian’s lover. Iona is given a stack of Jian and Mu’s letters as well as portions of diaries and journals written by each character; she does not really know their story at the time, so her translation job is difficult. Indeed, much of the novel revolves around the challenges of translation, especially in light of how little one might know of the subjects. Iona struggles with how to interpret and reorder direct translations so as to capture the essence of what is being communicated, but Kublai Jian and Mu’s identities are shrouded in so much secrecy that Iona cannot finally find solid grounding. With some help from a former professor as well as the publisher who had originally sent her the packet of materials, Iona begins to make bigger headway. Kublai Jian’s story emerges in fits and starts, revealing his desire to change China through rock and punk music. Mu’s story intertwines with Jian’s in their love for each other. They eventually bear a son who dies while he is very young. Thus begins the rupture between the two characters. By the time that Jian has created a rock manifesto that requires him to escape China, the two characters have embarked on separate trajectories. For her part, Mu joins a transnational Chinese rock band touring the United States. The experience, while illuminating, is also traumatic. Mu is raped by the tour manager and ultimately is disillusioned by the Chinese diasporic population (especially as embodied by the Harvard students) who seem to support the current governmental regime. As Iona continues to translate the letters, journal entries, fragments, and diaries (the text is multigenre in that there are also photographs embedded, along with scans of identity cards), she discovers that Kublai Jian is very likely the son of a high ranking governmental official; his identity is only revealed after some research by the publisher Jonathan, who lets Iona know that Kublai Jian is the son of the current prime minister of China. But the story, at the end of the day, is really Iona’s. She’s drawn so deeply into the story because of her own life, which begins to feel empty in light of the poignant but star-crossed love between Jian and Mu. Her anonymous sexual encounters begin to weigh heavily on her, and she desires something more, a lasting connection that might move toward something greater than herself. As Iona’s translation project becomes more feverish and frantic, she also yearns for greater support from Jonathan, a complicated connection given that she knows that Jonathan is married. Guo’s work has so much going on that sometimes it’s hard to follow all of the different threads, but this novel is ambitious and operatic, and the multigenre and the multiperspectival form is exactly the right one for the extraordinarily political message that it conveys. The title is of course gesturing to the rise of the individual and free thinking in Chinese society, a very timely thematic especially given al that is going on in Hong Kong. We can imagine Kublai Jian, were he a living character, finding much in line with pro-democracy supports in that area of the world just about now. Definitely a recommended read. 

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A Review of Kim Sunée’s A Mouthful of Stars (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2014).

Kim Sunée follow-up to her memoir Trail of Crumbs is A Mouthful of Stars, which is primarily a cookbook, but also includes narrative excerptions that provide contexts and inspirations for various recipes. In Trail of Crumbs Kim occasionally included a recipe, and given all of the references to dinner parties that occurred, you knew that Kim had a real talent for cooking. Thus, A Mouthful of Stars is a natural place for Kim to go as her next publication. A unique and welcome element of this cookbook is Kim’s long introductory sequence, which gives the reader time to get settled into Kim’s personal history and how that has more largely informed who she is beyond her identity as a cook and as a writer. In this case, Kim tracks her experiences traveling to Korea and searching for her birth family, a quest that allows her to meet a number of other Korean adoptees (such as the poet Lee Herrick!) and puts her in touch with various people who may or may not be blood relatives. Naturally, this experience is a complicated one and brings up memories of the past, issues related to human trafficking, and of course, the meals that one must eat while traveling. The narrative sequence is long enough for some of the more traditional readers to yearn for another memoir all on its own, but soon the cookbook shifts into high gear with the first section devoted to Korean food recipes with Kim’s own personal spin on each dish. From there, the cookbook truly travels all over the world, reflecting in part Kim’s own itinerant and adventurous spirit, with sections devoted to cuisines inspired by her times in France, Scandinavia, Italy, and her years growing up in the American South. One of the dangers of reading this cookbook is of course that it will make you incredibly hungry. The photography is lush and panoramic, and it’s quite apparent that cookbooks are as much about being travelogues and artistic projects as they are about being handbooks for creating the next perfect meal. I read this cookbook before bedtime, and I had to struggle not to get up and make something to eat. Though I’m far from a cook myself, it’s clear that Kim has created a mostly accessible set of recipes that run the gamut from main courses to extravagant desserts. Cooks and enthusiasts of food will certainly find much to inspire them (and to make them hungry) in Kim’s A Mouthful of Stars.

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A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s Vampires of Manhattan: The New Blue Bloods Coven (Hyperion, 2014).

Well, I may have to put a moratorium on reviewing novels by Melissa de la Cruz. At this point, I feel as though I may have to review ten of her novels every year just to be able to keep up. In any case, Melissa de la Cruz’s latest offering is Vampires of Manhattan: The New Blue Bloods Coven, which seems to be a re-vamp (see what I did there) the original Blue Bloods series. The characters are all ten years older, but conveniently don’t look like they have aged a day. Perhaps, the vampire is thus the best literary tool for capitalist marketability and consumption: they never age, so as characters, you get to tell a billion stories with them in it. In this case, the returning cast is made up of Oliver Hazard-Perry, who has now become Regent of the Coven; and Mimi Martin (nee Force), who has returned from the Underworld and is on a trial separation from her Fallen Angel hubbie Kingsley Martin. Oliver Hazard-Perry’s human familiar Finn is planning the 400 Year Ball, but there is also a serial killer loose threatening to ruin the festivities. Yes, a young teenaged girl has been found murdered, with the requisite bite marks that suggest that a vampire is behind the killing. Then, yet another teenager is found dead with the same m.o. On the case are two venators, otherwise known as otherworldly vampire cops, Ara Scott and her reluctant partner in crime, Edon Marrok, who is some sort of hellwolf humanoid. Their search turns up few leads until they realize that Kingsley Martin might be involved somehow in the crimes. Indeed, Kingsley, who had supposedly been staying in hell, eventually decides to leave and reunites with his overjoyed but nevertheless still smarting wife, Mimi. As with previous efforts, de la Cruz toggles a third person perspective among the major characters. At this point, de la Cruz has mastered this kind of writing style, so I keep hoping that she will break out of it and do some experimentation, which hasn’t quite happened yet. The novel contains what lovers of romance and paranormal genres will love, but much of this novel feels a bit hollowed out. Indeed, halfway through, de la Cruz moves the narrative five weeks into the past and the revelations by going in this direction do not really warrant this kind of anachronic sequencing and left much of the novel flagging in its momentum. The late stage reveal of the murderer was definitely unexpected, but I would suggest that only diehard fans of the vampire novel and de la Cruz’s previous works should pick this one up.

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A Review of MariNaomi’s Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (Uncivilized Books, 2014).

MariNaomi’s follow-up to Kiss and Tell is Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, a set of compiled comics that is not unlike her first effort, with an emphasis of dysfunctional relationships, coming-of-age narratives, and questions of identity. The collection is more or less told in a roughly chronological order. The early comics portray the author’s life as a young child and the common issues that might arise during that period. In one of the best sequences, the author conveys how her love for her grandfather was destabilized when she later discovered how her grandfather actively and violently disapproved of the author’s father, who had married a woman of Japanese descent. This story sets the tone for the rest of the comics, as we come to understand that MariNaomi is trying to convey past experiences from a retrospective viewpoint, as time shifts how we relate to our memories and what people have meant to us. Even the most tragic and painful ruptures come to be resignified by MariNaomi’s drawings and narratives. Much of the collection is elegiac in the sense that there are people that MariNaomi knew that vanish out of her life; some die and others simply fall away so that she does not know where they are or if they are even still alive. Since at many points, she subsisted as a kind of vagabond, without a stable home or shelter, the people she meets during this period are very difficult to track down. One such individual she later discovers succumbs to his mental illness and throw himself in front of a BART train. But, as mournful as many of these stories are, MariNaomi also knows how to weave in a sense of the comic, so that moments of deep despair are always balanced with some levity and even mirth. One such sequence involves the author’s love for the band Duran Duran and how she and a bunch of her girlfriends get to attend a party with that very same band. What ensues is perhaps expected: the band fails to live up fully to their expectations and even when their discussion in the car ride home turns a little bit melancholic, MariNaomi reminds them that she was able to steal the underwear of one of the band members and takes it out. Though rendered in comic and sketch-form up until that point, MariNaomi cleverly organizes a section of photographs at the conclusion, which include underwear being held up next to MariNaomi’s mischievously smiling face. The artwork is rendered in MariNaomi’s signature sketch-like style, which function as the perfect vehicle for the themes and contexts of the memoir. MariNaomi’s memoir also includes very minimalist full page panels that are quite refreshing and provide a nice abstracted space from which to imagine full episodes, our minds doing the work of filling out what the rest of the page whites out. A highly recommended read from a new and exciting independent publisher (see link below)!

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Asian American Literature Fans - Megareview for November 5, 2014

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.

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 5, 2014

In this post, reviews of Randall Mann’s Straight Razor (Persea, 2013); Padma Desai’s Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey (MIT Press, 2012); Leonard Chang’s Dispatches from the Cold (Black Heron Press, 2009 paperback reprint); Le Huu Tri’s Prisoner of the Word: A Memoir of the Vietnamese Reeducation Camps (Black Heron Press, 2010); Caroline Tung Richmond’s The Only Thing To Fear (Scholastic, 2014); Kazu Kibuishi’s Escape from Lucien (Scholastic, 2014); Sita Brahmachari’s Jasmine Skies (Albert & Whitman, 2014); Rajan Khanna’s Falling Sky (Pyr, 2014).

A Review of Randall Mann’s Straight Razor (Persea, 2013).

I’ve been meaning to read Randall Mann’s latest, Straight Razor, for quite awhile, but I haven’t been treating my poetry shelf with as much attention as I should. Whenever I dive back into poetry, I am reminded of how much it offers me in terms of linguistic density, sonic innovation, and especially the texture of new vocabulary. Mann’s Straight Razor easily falls in line with his earlier works, especially as he draws from a poetic genealogy inspired by the work of Thom Gunn, Mark Doty, the Language school, and the confessional lyric. I was a little bit disappointed by the pithy description included in the back of the book, describes this collection like so: “Randall Mann’s third collection showcases the debaucheries and traumas of growing up amid San Francisco’s gay scene. These self-possessed new poems combine the regal and raw, with Mann’s renowned ear for poetic form matched by his unflinching eye for longing, alienation, and vice.” While back cover descriptions never ever match up to the complexities offered by a given text (to be sure I love the alliterative phrase, “the regal and raw”), Mann’s collection is as much about the coming-of-age of a young teenager in Florida as it is about an adult traversing the ever murky waters of San Francisco’s gay scene. Indeed, the early arc is devoted to Mann’s teenage and early adulthood years, much of which is spent in Florida, a place that becomes the ground floor for the lyric speaker’s coming to terms with his queerness. I definitely agree with the sentiment that this collection is one that highlights Mann’s ability to use poetic forms, especially the pantoum (for instance, the poignant “September Elegies”), the villanelle (“Hyperbole”), and the sestina (the absolutely haunting “End Words”); he also makes use of rhyming couplets and quatrain structures with alternating rhyming lines. The consistent use of forms is of course one way to master the kind of dynamism inherent to Mann’s poetic content. The constraints of form enable a kind of lyric dissonance that produces a wonderful effect that is playful and often times melancholic and elegiac. For vocabulary lovers, the collection is sure to delight in its usage of esoteric words, including a heady bunch that appear in “Falling Asleep Over ‘Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid’” such as “oneiromancy” (57), “lucubration” (57), “flocculate” (57), “concinnity” (57), and “glabrous.” Finally, Mann’s attentive approach to place is evident all over this collection, especially as evidenced by these lines in “American Apparel”: “This glaring/ unfathomable/ San Francisco summer fog/ like eternity, like plain speech” (66). So we’ll bask in the many wonders in Mann’s latest luminous effort, a collection full of lyric pulchritude and “razor” sharp wit.

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A Review of Padma Desai’s Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey (MIT Press, 2012).

I was startled to see that MIT press had published a memoir, one that had Asian American themes written all over it and well, I had to review it. Little did I realize that I had a distant connection to the memoir writer, whose daughter (Anuradha) and my sister are actually acquaintances from their time serving in the US Marine Corps. Somewhere toward the conclusion of the memoir Padma Desai describes how Anuradha ended up joining an activist organization, one my sister had been involved in, and then I recalled her discussing some of her colleagues in that organization, one of whom was named Anu and then, I finally put two and two together. That surprise of course changed the remainder of my reading in the sense that the memoirist was made a little more familiar than I could have ever guessed. In any case, Padma’s life is certainly extraordinary, one worthy of a memoir. By making this statement, I tend to have a kind of cynical eye when it comes to memoirs, only insofar as I wonder what makes one life worth writing about in this way. In Desai’s case, she broke many boundaries as an Indian woman who travels to the United States, gets her PhD at Harvard at a time when most of her graduate colleagues where white men, receives a tenured professorship at Columbia and in the process uproots her husband, who agrees to follow her there, even though he would be giving up a tenured professorship at MIT. Padma grows up in a family that certainly provides her with a way to think independently, but even her liberal minded father would not have predicted her path that would take her to the highest reaches of economics and involve crossing national boundaries numerous times. The most painful sequence explored is Desai’s first marriage made to a man who clearly had seduced her and did not have her best interests at heart. Because of conservative Indian marriage laws and her own hesitancies, it takes a number of years before Desai is able to end this marriage and follow her heart to Jagdish, a man two years her junior, with a perennially sunny disposition and a penchant for eating food off her plate. Though family members seem hesitant at this union for a number of reasons, it obviously is the right one, and Padma flourishes from this point forward. She manages to figure out why she can’t get pregnant, beats the odds, raises an independent-minded daughter (not unlike herself), all the while maintaining a marriage in which both parties blossom in their careers. Desai certainly seems to have constructed her form of an American dream, but it’s apparent that it is one only achieved through a tireless work ethic and desire to strive and with an intent to engage all the contours of what it means to be an Indian woman in America. As she writes, “I carried with me the constraining burden of a traditional Indian upbringing and the gruesome consequences of a disastrous marriage. I also came [to America] with a fierce academic ambition. I could dissolve the marriage but how could I cease being a brown-skinned Indian woman and be recognized as an American professional rather than an exotic creature from a distant land? Over time I learned to argue openly and decisively. I also learned to think audaciously and to talk colloquially. And I decided to dress differently” (234). Desai’s statement here at the end of the memoir strikes as particularly illuminating, as it undergirds more largely her battle-hardened spirit, one that did not shrink from the struggles she would face. Perhaps, this resistance is the ethos of the immigrant spirit.

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A Review of Leonard Chang’s Dispatches from the Cold (Black Heron Press, 2009 paperback reprint).

Originally published in 1998, Leonard Chang’s Dispatches from the Cold was the only work left by Chang that I had not yet read. It’s an interesting one to come to last and perhaps his most experimental in approach. The novel was Chang’s second (after The Fruit ’N Food and before the Allen Choice detective trilogy: Over the Shoulder, Underkill, and Fade to Clear, and after that, Crossings and Triplines). Dispatches from the Cold is told primarily from the first person perspective from an unnamed narrator who is an out of work high school biology teacher turned diner dishwasher. He lives in a rundown area in a very cheap apartment that was once being rented out by a heroin addict named Mona Gorden. Mona Gorden is receiving a bunch of letters (snail mail) from her brother Farrel Gorden. Farrel doesn’t seem to care that Mona isn’t ever writing back; he seems to be most interested in the fact that he has a potential audience, someone to spout off his various ramblings about this daily trials, his existential ennui as a salesman and employee at a sporting goods store, as well as the ongoing problems with his underage 17 year-old live-in girlfriend named Shari. The unnamed narrator takes a kind of obsessive interest in these letters, so much so that the book that the reader is reading is actually something that is written by the unnamed narrator himself (or something along these lines). Indeed, the unnamed narrator has been driven to write about his experiences with these letters, as he gets increasingly involved in imagining what Farrel Gorden is going through. Even though the unnamed narrator only has the letters to go off of, he often goes further in imagining the events and things going on in Farrel’s life. These take the form of third person perspectives and have a kind of omniscient quality that is strange given the fact that the unnamed narrator can never really know what Farrel might have been thinking or doing beyond what is communicated in the letters. Farrel Gorden (mostly called Gorden in the novel) begins to have an unhealthy infatuation with his new Korean American boss’s wife (named Helen); over time, they are drawn together and begin to have an affair. Of course, we can tell that things are not going to end up well, especially since Helen is married, and Gorden has a girlfriend. When things can and do go wrong, there is an interesting discourse that Chang is developing in relation to the participation of the reader. In this case, should the unnamed narrator act when he knows something might be happening that the reader might actually be able to prevent. The meta-discourse of this novel is fascinating in that way, especially as reader and writer become pitted against each other (in the fictional world). To take it a step back, Chang’s novel makes you wonder about the place of the reader in relation to any text and the relationship that the reader might make with characters. The resonance of this novel (at least for me) appears in the subtle manner by which Chang seems to suggest that representations can have material bearing on a reader’s existence even when said representations are fictional. But, if I’m getting a little bit too intellectual about it, I will state that the unnamed narrator’s own story is mysterious in such a way he comes off as his own aporia, something that the actual reader cannot get past. The conclusion of the novel wraps up a bit quickly and I found the logic of it confusing, but as a whole, Dispatches from the Cold is one of Chang’s most compelling works because of its interesting narrative conceits and the question that the narrative brings up concerning the reader, the writer, and their twisted and often antagonistic relationships to each other. Oh, and the other thing: the novel is really interesting to read in light of the rise of e-mail: one wonders what this novel would have been like had it been written even ten years later in light of the rise of the internet. Would Farrel Gorden been sending Mona e-mails she never would have replied to? Maybe the letters would have been facebook updates instead! =)

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A Review of Le Huu Tri’s Prisoner of the Word: A Memoir of the Vietnamese Reeducation Camps (Black Heron Press, 2010)

(highet res image I could find! sorry)

Le Huu Tri’s Prisoner of the Word: A Memoir of the Vietnamese Reeducation Camps is an unsentimental and even devastating look at life in Vietnam following the end of the war and the hasty evacuation of Americans from the country in April of 1975. For those left behind like Le, the experience of being safe and making do becomes compounded by their association with American capitalists. Because Le had been employed by the South Vietnamese military, he naturally feared for his life. False rumors encourage him to turn himself in when the communists roll into town and from that point forward, he subsists in a variety of different labor camps, often spending whole days having to harvest different plants like cassava or hauling rocks from one place to another. The physical labor obviously takes its toll: Le is often sick, malnourished, and desperate for news from the outside world. What Le makes clear is that the labor camp and the communist cadres who run it are part of a larger system based upon manipulation and rumors. The prisoners are effectively locked in not simply because of fences or barbed wire, but because they are psychically trained to think that the prison is where they are supposed to be and that they will only be able to exit once they have shown their duty and obedience to the communist regime. The belief in this kind of prisoner meritocracy emerges often in the most violent of ways: prisoners are encouraged to rat out on each other to get out of working or even to get released, others are beaten, while still others die because they are out in the fields searching for unexploded mines. For his part, Le begins to uncover and to realize how the labor camp runs; this memoir is an extraordinary testament to the power of the mind to remember and to record the injustices that can be done. Indeed, there is a point at which Le understands the gravity of the illusions that surround him, so much so that—though he knows he cannot write was is occurring to him and his prison-bound friends—he can willfully remember the layouts of the camps he languished in as well as the cadre’s continual manipulation of the prisoners. This memoir is hardly a riveting read: the days seem somewhat repetitive, but therein lies part of the point to be sure. Le isn’t here to write an entertaining story, so much as he is creating a testimony of a dark period of time, one that calls attention to the many atrocities that arise under the guise of the Cold War and international conflict. Because of the monotony and stress of everyday prison life, the few moments of joy become acute: a package from family containing medicine and food, or a bountiful harvest of vegetables from a personal garden take on greater meaning and shine brightly. Certainly, an indispensable addition to the canon of Vietnamese American literatures and one that sheds light upon a little known, but vital narrative in the post-war period. This book should be of interest to fans of Vietnamese American literature, scholars in Asian American studies, historians in the area of the Vietnam War, and general readers of the memoir and creative nonfiction.

For More information about the book, go here


A Review of Caroline Tung Richmond’s The Only Thing To Fear (Scholastic, 2014).

Caroline Tung Richmond’s debut novel The Only Thing to Fear is another inventive addition to the young adult/ paranormal/ romance genre. The novel is told from a third person perspective and primarily is focalized through Zara St. James, a mixed race (Japanese/ Caucasian) individual living in a world in which the Nazis and the Japanese defeated the Americans (and Allies) during World War 2. The United States has been broken up with the Western half being controlled by Japan and the Eastern half being controlled by the Germans/ Nazis. Zara St. James is the product of a forbidden union between a Japanese soldier and an American woman; she is scorned for her mixed background, but she is raised by a doting uncle when her mother is killed during an operation planned by a rebel group called the Alliance. The Alliance is a loose network of those living in Eastern half of United States who are attempting to overthrow the Germans. Zara is sixteen and deemed to be too young to participate in Alliance activities, though her Uncle Redmond is certainly active in the group. Things start to get worse in the town that Zara and Uncle Red live in, which include more active investigations by Nazis and threats of violence and brutality, which culminate in public executions. Zara obviously finds such treatment to be incredibly oppressive and does what she can to resist the Nazis. Richmond adds the romantic element into the equation when a young German military service member approaches Zara with the intent of helping out the alliance. Zara is naturally suspicious and ends up having to use her super secret powers to save them. Yes, not only does Richmond include a counterfactual historical foundation to her novel, but also incorporates Nazi eugenics issues. In this fictional world, German super soldiers are being engineered called Anomalies, some of whom have more than one super power. Occasionally, non-German Anomalies are born, who are usually killed as soon as their powers manifest, so Zara must hide her powers, lest she be discovered and stamped out. Richmond’s premise is certainly interesting and adds so much historical texture that it rises above many others in the genre simply because it must use specific cultural and social contexts in order to come off as reasonably authentic. There is so much going on in this novel that the romance plot comes off as the least needed element, and the late stage resolution to it is not really that surprising. This novel also reminded me a little bit of Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex in its exploration of a counterfactual post-WW2 scenario. It is unclear at this time whether this novel is part of an intended series, so we’ll have to wait and see. Definitely a recommended read for young adult fiction lovers.

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A Review of Kazu Kibuishi’s Escape from Lucien (Scholastic, 2014).

Fans of the Amulet series should be delighted that the sixth installment, Escape from Lucien, is here. The series has gone into new directions now with old foes becoming tentative allies and the main protagonist, Emily and Navin Hayes, exploring their own heroic paths. The plot is roughly noted as follows: “Navin and his classmates journey to Lucien, a city ravaged by war and plagued by mysterious creatures, where they search for a beacon essential to their fight against the Elf King. Meanwhile, Emily heads back into the Void with Max, one of the Elf King's loyal followers, where she learns his darkest secrets. The stakes, for both Emily and Navin, are higher than ever” (Official Scholastic Website; see link below). The “mysterious creatures” that Navin and his classmates battle are nothing other than shadows, beings with the ability to take control of any living thing such that they become something akin to zombies. Their only goal is to make more living beings turn into themselves. Navin teams up with inhabitants of Lucien in order to help more of the residents escape the underground city, which now has become overrun with the shadows. The mayor of the city leads the inhabitants out, while Navin and a select crew stay behind on what seems to be a suicide mission to keep the shadows from pursuit. In Emily’s storyline, she comes to learn the background of the Stonekeeper’s curse, especially as she travels with Vigo Light, Trellis, and Max Griffin to confront the “voice” that emanates from the stone. In their battle with the voice, Emily learns the background to Vigo and Max’s curse and further discovers why Max has not been aging. This installment also pushes Trellis in an entirely new direction that will have great bearing for the future of this series. As always, the production values in Kibuishi’s series is top notch, especially with a team of others to help complete the comics (allowing perhaps the series installments to be published at a quicker rate). The full color spectrum Kibuishi can use gives his work a wonderful high-fantasy realism that will continue to attract new readers. Perhaps, the one minor critique that can be made is that a series of this length, and which seems destined to continue for much longer, can be frustrating for the fan who returns to the story only to have bits and pieces of the previous five books remain forgotten. But, I suppose, this fault of memory gives encourages us to re-read, which is a kind of reading pleasure that we all wish we could make more time for in order to revisit the stories we love the most.

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A Review of Sita Brahmachari’s Jasmine Skies (Albert & Whitman, 2014).

(US Cover)

(I believe this may be the UK cover?)

Sita Brahmachari’s sequel to Mira in the Present Tense is Jasmine Skies, which follows the same first person present tense narration employed in the original. Mira Levenson, at the encouragement of family members with the exception of a reluctant mother, is off to India, to visit relatives in Kolkata. Mira is soon buffeted by a very difficult cultural milieu, which includes the radical disparities in wealth Mira observes between the rich and the poor and stratification based upon caste standing. Mira’s time in India is spent doing a number of things, including doing some sightseeing, either with Priya, her cousin, or her aunt, Anjali. Anjali is actually the cousin of Mira’s mom (Anjali and Uma were actually born on the same day and in some sense are bonded in a kind of unofficial sisterhood), though their connection to each other has long been a subject of great mystery. Indeed, though it was apparent that Anjali and Mira’s mother (named Uma) were once quite close, they undergo some sort of rupture which is undisclosed to Mira by the time she has left for India. Part of her goal in traveling to India is to find out what happened between them. Mira steals a set of letters written between Anjali and Uma that reveals the event that sparked the schism but only in elliptical ways, something alluded to as an event that happened when they were about the same age as Mira at the start of the novel. Part of the mystery might be unraveled, or so Mira believes, by visiting the home of her maternal grandfather, which had passed out of family ownership some time ago and sits in a relatively dilapidated state. Additionally, the romance that bloomed in book 1 between Mira and Jidé is tested by the distance between them. Mira soon finds herself attracted to a young man by the name of Janu; he grew up in a refuge that her aunt has helped run for a number of years. Janu’s friendly nature and his handsome face easily distract Mira and the bonds of her relationship to Jidé are necessarily unstabilized. Eventually, Anjali discovers that Mira has been reading the set of letters that had between written between her and Mira’s mother Uma. This revelation causes considerable tension between the two characters. Anjali must decide whether or not she will tell what Mira has done and obviously whether or not she will go on to detail what had occurred between her and Mira’s mother as young teenagers. The novel’s conclusion is a complicated one and brings up the question of individual desire and cultural tradition in the face of great wealth inequality and caste stratification. The novel can never address the fundamental question is brings up except on a microcosmic scale concerning how the upper-middle class subject can necessarily be a politically progressive individual on the one hand, while claiming the privilege of existing in a particularly elevated social position. Mira’s family and by extension Anjali’s are never endangered in terms of their class and caste statuses, and the construction of the refuge becomes one way that the family attempts to give back, but when the rupture between Anjali and Uma is finally revealed, you can see that Brahmachari is going after a larger social ill, one that remains a great issue all over the globe. Mira’s naivete is obviously rendered in this text, and it is a necessary perspective that shows how little she understands concerning the incredible challenges of the lives that surround her, but Brahmachari gives her a minor and important redemption in terms of the ability of art to at least bring a measure of comfort to the lives of the destitute and the downtrodden. There are no easy answers and if anything, the novel’s central focus on Mira is perhaps less important than the social contexts that the novel gestures to and requires the reader to reconsider in light of Mira’s status as a transnational elite.

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A Review of Rajan Khanna’s Falling Sky (Pyr, 2014).

Rajan Khanna’s debut novel is Falling Sky. For some reason, I originally thought the novel was a young adult fiction about aliens (you can guess that just based upon the title), but I wouldn’t categorize it that way. It instead follows in line with the postapocalyptic zombie fiction and cultural productions that have been all the rage lately (think of The Walking Dead, Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin, World War Z, Zombieland, etc). Interestingly enough, there haven’t been many American writers of Asian descent that have taken on zombies as a specific plot conceit (two I can think of off hand are Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s Dead Love and S.P. Somtow’s Darker Angels, but then I draw a blank). Khanna takes his own world building approach by calling the zombie-like figures who populate his fictional world Ferals. There is a whole set of vocabulary to master in this alternate reality. The protagonist and narrator Ben lives in a time called the Sick, which is in contrast to the time before the Bug, which was call the Clean. The Bug is of course the infectious agent that turns humans into Ferals. A Feral merely has to transfer body fluids to you via an open orifice or wound and you will eventually Fade, which is the term for turning into a Feral. Ferals are creatures not unlike the ones you might have seen out of 28 Days Later, and the only way to survive is pretty much to kill them in a violent way. The killing of Ferals necessarily causes a lot of blood spatter, which is not ideal unless you are lucky enough to be wearing some sort of biohazard suit. Characters seem to primarily spend time salvaging one site or another, looking for food, fuel, or weapons and ammo. The novel opens with Ben leaving behind a science settlement called the Core, but then returning when he realizes that the inhabitants of the Core are under attack by the evil henchman who took over one of the remaining human cities called Gastown. Ben doesn’t arrive in time to get everyone evacuated, manages to lose his ship (called The Cherub) in the process, and ends up stranded on Earth. He is rescued by a good Samaritan, and they eventually team up to go on a foraging mission, but that mission goes bad. The man goes missing, and Ben uses a radio signal to send out some distress signals which might be heard by the boffins, the term used for the scientific crew that Ben had been helping, some of whom were likely also stranded when the Core was overtaken. Fortunately, he is reunited with some of the boffins, including a woman named Miranda, who Ben obviously likes but does not want to admit to liking. Ben joins back up with Miranda, eventually is able to get them situated at another town, all the while allowing Miranda and her scientific comrades the chance to take a live Feral into that town for study. In the meantime, Ben decides he must do whatever he can to get The Cherub back and embarks on a desperate plan to go to Gastown to find out what happened to his airship. Ben must rely upon the help of a man named Diego, who reluctantly agrees to help him, even though Ben’s plan to get Miranda and her science crew into a human settlement ended up causing Diego to fall out of favor with that settlement’s leaders. Indeed, Diego had not known that Miranda and her science crew were harboring a live Feral and thus curried the anger of the settlement’s leaders. Though Ben originally thinks it will only be Diego who will be going with him back to Gastown, Diego’s half-sister Rosie and Miranda both end up going for their own reasons. From this point forward, Khanna amps up the plotting and action elements, as Ben continues with a dangerous plan to stow away in cargo holds and go down to a plant where helium is being produced and where The Cherub actually is being used. Miranda stays in Gastown attempting to research why scientists would be interested in experimenting on Ferals. Whereas Miranda wants a live Feral to find a cure, it becomes apparent that the scientists in Gastown have other, more dastardly agendas. I’ll stop here with the general plot summary, but suffice it to say that there is a lot going on in this novel.

It’s not clear whether or not Falling Sky is a stand-alone novel or will have future installments, but the world that Khanna has built obviously offers much more adventures and issues to sort out. As with many other zombie narratives, the end of the world scenario comes with it highly philosophical issues, especially as related to human ethics and moral order. At various points, there is the question that concerns whether or not the humans are really any better than the simple-minded, but vicious Ferals. It would seem that at many points the most dangerous enemies are other humans rather than the Ferals that populate the planet seeking human flesh. In this sense, Khanna’s novel is not unlike many speculative fictions, which seem to be a way to explore a dystopian alternate reality that is really a refraction of our own dystopian reality in which our we are able to engender such catastrophic modes of social stratification. Khanna’s novel includes non-stop action, so if you’re looking something heavy on explosions, physical combat, zombie-killing, and not-so-fast getaways, then this novel is going to be for you. Interestingly enough, Khanna does insert a measure of ethnic/ religious identities into the text, as we come to discover that Ben is of Jewish descent. Though his background doesn’t really come into play more than a handful of times, this detail is rather interesting given the fact that so often these sorts of protagonists often go entirely unmarked in such ways.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 1, 2014

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post reviews of: Raymond M. Wong’s I’m not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (Apprentice House, 2014); Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2007); Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2009); All These Things I’ve Done (FSG Young Readers, 2011) and Because it is My Blood (FSG Young Readers, 2012); Gabrielle Zevin’s In the Age of Love and Chocolate (FSG for Young Readers, 2013); Kendare Blake’s Antigoddess (TorTeen, 2013); Kendare Blake’s Mortal Gods (TorTeen, 2014).

A Review of Raymond M. Wong’s I’m not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (Apprentice House, 2014).

Raymond M. Wong’s memoir I’m not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (not to be confused with Raymond K. Wong, author of the Pacific Between) explores a kind of coming-of-age for its author, as he comes to engage his tortured family background, racial identity, and transnational personal history. Wong grows up in a mixed household, with a stepfather named Roger who clearly prefers his biological son over him. Wong’s mother had remarried when she arrived in the states, after having lived an itinerant life. Over the course of the memoir, we discover that she had fled China in the wake of communist rule, subsisted in menial service positions, and then found some measure of economic independence in Hong Kong. She eventually marries the man who would be Wong’s father, but it is unclear why that marriage fails. All we know is that Wong’s mother realizes she must move to the United States when another man she knows threatens her life, and she feels as though she has no other options. The premise of the memoir is Wong’s visit to Hong Kong and then later to China; he is meeting some family relatives and in the process, gaining a better understanding of his place in a larger extended family. He also gets to meet his biological father in that process and as expected, these meetings are sometimes tense, filled with the sense of Wong’s place as a cultural outsider. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about this memoir is the fact of constant translation. His mother acts as a translator for him since his Chinese language skills are rudimentary. He must rely on her to translate all things as accurately as possible in order to engage in any of the conversations. Wong’s memoir is not only illuminating for the fact that he begins to reconcile why his family was structured and fractured in the way that it was, but also that he sees why he has come to find his Chinese identity so burdensome. Without this cultural and ethnic context, Wong did not understand some of his mother’s motivations and decisions. This visit to China helps bring him closer to his mother and allows him to give his mother more space in terms of the choices she made, even when they so negatively impacted him. This sort of decentering is of course the very fact of maturity, which is what Wong so effectively shows. As compelling as the memoir can be from that perspective, the memoir is also quite acute in representing China and Hong Kong and the variations of class that appear depending upon what part Wong and her mother are in. Wong has a wonderful eye for description and the travelogue aspect of this memoir is one of its strongest, a narrative conceit that will grab readers of any background. It also dovetails with many of the best memoirs I’ve read that show us the transnational contours of Asian American identity. I’m thinking here of Rahna Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning and David Mura’s Turning Japanese in which the central Asian American subject must come to negotiate aspects of identity alongside a diasporically-informed self. The title is of course somewhat ironic: Wong is showing us that even with his thorny upbringing and his occasionally willful casting off of his ethnic roots that he can claim a better sense of a transnational context for his life (and his mother’s) while at the same time understanding that he does not necessarily see himself as belonging to China. Indeed, there is a critical moment when Wong observes himself through the eyes of another person, seeing how that person perceives him not as a Chinese individual, but as an American. In this in-between space we know so well as Asian Americanists, Wong’s memoir mines the perilous but creatively fecund space of liminality.

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A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2007); Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2009); All These Things I’ve Done (FSG Young Readers, 2011) and Because it is My Blood (FSG Young Readers, 2012); Gabrielle Zevin’s In the Age of Love and Chocolate (FSG for Young Readers, 2013).

In Gabrielle Zevin’s debut novel Elsewhere, she takes on the conceit of writing a novel from the third person perspective of someone who has died. Our protagonist is a young teenager named Liz, who at the beginning of the novel, has just succumbed to severe head trauma as a result of a bike accident. Her parents have taken her off life support, and she wakes up in a room of a mysterious boat. Next to her is a stranger named Thandi; the boat is taking them to a place called Elsewhere. As she comes to grips with the fact that she is dead and realizes that Elsewhere seems to be a version afterlife, Liz struggles with leaving behind her former life. In Elsewhere, time moves differently. Everyone in Elsewhere reverses in age from the year they died, until they are at the point of being newborns. They are then relegated to something called the “release,” which is a form of reincarnation. The cycle begins again and again. She spends much of her time in Elsewhere going to a place called Observation Decks, where, for the price of 5 enterims (the currency in Elsewhere; apparently, we’re still in some sort of capitalist system in after we have died), she can observe people she wants from her former life for a select few minutes at a time. Borrowing money from her grandmother, who has taken her in, she continues to view her friends and family, pining away at the thought that they are going on in their lives without her. Liz eventually realizes she must move on; this entails finding something call an avocation, a sort of job for people in the afterlife which involves the person actually doing something he or she likes (imagine that!). Liz becomes a sort of afterlife dog handler and since she finds out she speaks fluent canine, she can help settle newly dead dogs with Elsewhere inhabitants. We discover that dogs have the capacity to communicate in their own complex language systems that can be translated into rough English equivalents. Eventually, Zevin does introduce the romantic interest; a man by the name of Owen Welles, who has reversed in age to the point of being Liz’s contemporary, but who came to Elsewhere as a twenty something firefighter (who was killed in a workplace accident). When the love of Owen’s life eventually makes it to Elsewhere, Zevin introduces the requisite triangle, leaving us to question whether or not Owen and Liz will find a way to be together in the afterlife. Zevin does some interesting world building with Elsewhere, but it requires the reader to suspend a lot disbelief and to quit asking questions. For instance, how does the fact of Earthly population growth factor into Elsewhere’s understanding of the release? At one point, one of the characters discusses a miscarriage, which brings up thorny questions about what counts as life in Elsewhere. If you think too much about the logic of Elsewhere, you may balk at Zevin’s fictional world. In any case, the core conceit is intriguing enough for target readers, who should be willing to cede Elsewhere’s potential logic flaws for the core philosophical and romantic questions that Zevin’s novel engages.

In Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, Gabrielle Zevin’s protagonist and first person narrator is Naomi Porter, who suffers from the titularly referenced retrograde amnesia. While retrieving a camera (due to her duties as a highschool yearbook staff co-editor), she falls and hits her head. She loses most memories from the last four years of her life, while retaining some other skills. For instance, though she can’t remember what has gone on with her parents (they have been divorced), she still can complete all the math and physics homework that she is given. The problem for Naomi is that the retrograde amnesia causes her to rethink her identity. She begins to disidentify from the Naomi of before. That is, she doesn’t understand exactly why she’s so interested in yearbook, why she’s dating the popular jock and tennis player, Ace Zuckerman, or why she’s romantically drawn to the former addict and marginalized classmate named James Larkin, and she seems to be distant with her apparently closest and best friend, William (Will) Landsman. Of course, the sympathies of the reader may be tested to a certain extent. Zevin has created the kind of protagonist that some like to hate: the high school student who has popularity, athletic skill, and intellectual acumen. Yes, Naomi can claim to be a part of multiple social groups and tiers and in the wake of her amnesia, decides to test the boundaries of her fluidity. At one point, she joins the production of the latest play, even though she knows it will eat into her time as the yearbook editor. Then, she decides to break up with Ace Zuckerman, even though it means that her popularity will be likely to take a plunge. To make matters more complicated, she decides to pursue a romance with James Larkin. Tensions in the parental arena add another texture to the novel. Even as Naomi is coming to the grips with the fact that her parents are divorced, she is asked to be the bridesmaid for her father’s upcoming nuptials with his girlfriend Rosa Rivera, a tango dancer who Naomi had never taken a liking to. Naomi also finds her mother’s affair with another man to be enough reason to try to cut off all ties with her. Zevin’s core concept has a nice hook: you’ll want to figure out how Naomi will come to deal with the changes in her identity. Will she be able to reconcile who she has become once her memory begins to return or will she go back to what is most familiar to her? Signs point to the fact that she’ll betray who she once was, and Zevin’s success rests in the very American fantasy that we can all reinvent ourselves to be the better person we’ve always thought we could be. The concluding arc sees a number of interesting romantic shifts that seem unforced and best of all, Zevin leaves us with a surprisingly understated conclusion, one that does not follow the more traditional courtship plots you see in these fictions.

The first installment of Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done (from the Birthright trilogy, with the most the final book having come out in 2013) follows the teen misadventures of Anya Balanchine, the daughter of a big Mafioso (now dead), who must take care of her mentally challenged older brother Leo and her rambunctious younger sister Natty. Anya’s mother was killed in a mob hit gone bad (a car crash), while her brother received permanent brain injuries in that same event. Anya’s grandmother is confined to her bed and on a respiratorm and Anya has become the de factor guardian of the family. The novel opens with the ending of Anya’s relationship to a fellow high school student named Gable Arsley. Gable pressures Anya into having sex, but she resolutely makes her stand against this act, and this friction ends up terminating their relationship. Anya is a devout Catholic and holds fast to the credo that she will have no sex before marriage. Zevin throws a speculative fiction element into the narrative’s equation by setting the text in a New York City in not too distant, counterfactual future. In Zevin’s version of New York City, chocolate and coffee are banned, crime continues to be a problem, while underground economies have sprung up everywhere to allow people to go on exploring their vices. Anya also happens to come from a family that once was one of the big makers of chocolate. Living in the shadow of this mob family, Anya attempts to encourage her family members to steer clear of any remaining mob ties. But once Anya’s former boyfriend is poisoned by a bar of contraband chocolate, and Anya is pinned for Gable’s health-fragile state, it becomes clear that something is amiss in the chocolate industry. Though Anya does not want any part of the underground economies her extended family still engages, she must consider whether or not to take up her birthright, especially since it was her father who once ran the family’s major businesses, including chocolate production. Zevin knows her genre and the other issue is the one of romance. Anya is falling in love with a fellow student Win Delacroix, whose father is an assistant DA. Win’s father doesn’t want Anya to have anything to do with Win, especially since Anya is the subject of much tabloid speculation and has connections to illegal activities. Fearing that Anya and Win’s relationship will pollute his chance for career advancement, Win’s father attempts to end that relationship. Fans of the paranormal romance/ young adult fiction might be a bit disappointed in Zevin’s counterfactual world. The banning of certain items such as chocolate and coffee, while intriguing on some levels, doesn’t necessarily bring much gravitas to this alternate reality. One wonders whether or not this element was necessarily required to create the story that Zevin seems most interested in: Anya’s attempt to deal with her family’s problematic professional history (rather than anything really all that imaginary or speculative in construct). Nevertheless, YA fans will still find some modes to engage this series, especially through the central romance plot and the expectation that the second installment might offer more of this not fully fleshed out alternate reality.

In Because it is My Blood, Zevin cranks up the body count and increases the danger factor as Anya gets further embroiled in the family business. The opening sees her leaving the Liberty Detention Facility, a youths-only program meant to be a version of “young adult” prison time. She has promised not to date Win Delacroix, but seeing him with another school classmate makes things difficult. The early part of the novel sees Anya trying to find a school willing to take her, given her rap sheet and her mob family connections. At the last minute, her former high school receives a sizable donation with the stipulation that they take her back. Anya eagerly agrees, but her return is short-lived: someone snaps a photo of her holding hands with Win Delacroix (it only happened for a second), but the damage is done, and they are perceived to be a couple. This kind of public relations issue is anathema to Win’s father, who is now running for District Attorney. To avoid bad PR, he finds a way to get Anya back into Liberty, effectively sending her back to youth prison. Anya knows she can’t stay there again, so using her family’s lawyers and associates (an aging Mr. Kipling who handles the family’s financial trust as well as his assistant Simon Green), she is able to make an escape and goes to Mexico, where she stays with a relative of an in-law named Sophie Bitter. The family in Mexico allows Anya the chance to appreciate cacao cultivation, while at the same time giving her a chance to lay low. She makes a quick friendship with a young man named Theo, but when she becomes the target of an assassination, she realizes that she must come back to the United States to deal with the continuing business problems plaguing her family. It becomes evident in this second book that Anya must make a choice about how to participate in her family’s chocolate business. Balanchine Chocolate still retains a large market share, but other companies are banging on the door, trying to find out a wave to carve out a larger part of the profits. Anya as well as her immediate family members are seen as a huge liability to many parties because she, her sister, and older brother Leo all retain symbolic power as children of the former business owner and CEO. I thought Zevin’s follow-up was far superior, especially in its exploration of the agricultural aspect of the business company, which gave this book a sense of realism that seemed absent in the previous one. Again, the conceit of banned chocolate (and other such sundries) comes off as a little bit hard to believe (especially since it seems as though chocolate is really an analogue for pot), but it fits well with the young adult target readership obviously, so it is appropriate in that regard. Obviously, this narrative is also far more embedded in issues of cultural and racial difference, especially when Anya must travel to Mexico. The largely deracinated world of the first book cannot be maintained in the second, as Anya’s travels make apparent the transnational nature of the chocolate trade and the way in which labor is extracted in other countries to round out corporate trajectories. I look forward to the third book!

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A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s In the Age of Love and Chocolate (FSG for Young Readers, 2013).

In the Age of Love and Chocolate is the conclusion to Gabrielle Zevin’s birthright trilogy, which has been following the (mis)adventures of Anya Balanchine, the daughter of chocolate contraband mafiosos, who now has started her own business: a set of clubs catering to cacao lovers. Cacao is not exactly chocolate, which is how Anya is able to get these clubs going in a legitimate fashion. With the help of Charles Delacroix, a lawyer and the father of Anya’s former flame, Anya is able to open these clubs to great success, while also employing many key family members and friends in that process (this long list includes her best friend, Scarlet, who is a new mother; her older brother Leo and Leo’s wife Noriko; her cacao supplier and later her live-in sort of boyfriend Theobrama). Though Anya clearly still carries a torch for Win, he’s moved on to a new girlfriend and is living in Boston. Even when a recent meeting at a club opening allows them to catch up, their conversation is best described as icy and tense. Natty, Anya’s younger sister, has increasingly been getting into trouble. Her most recent summer at “genius camp” has resulted in expulsion. She, although only fourteen, has been carrying on with a nineteen year old boy named Pierce and in order to protect her, Anya sends Natty off (much to her opposition of course) to a distant boarding school. Things seem to go well for a time, even with the tension that flares up when Theo proposes to Anya over Christmas vacay and Anya declines, stating that she doesn’t believe in marriage. Who could blame her, considering both her parents are dead? In any case, when Theo, Anya and Natty return to the States from their time in Mexico, Anya discovers that Fats, the de factor head of Balanchine Chocolates, has been murdered. Gasp What now? Anya’s eventual plan involves none other than Yuji Ono, the head of the Japanese branch of one of the top five chocolate bar producing companies. Yuji is dying, and he proposes marrying Anya as a bid to strengthening both empires and shutting out others who seem to be trying to horn in and to monopolize the chocolate bar market. Yuji’s ex, Sophia Bitter (head of the German branch of one of the top five chocolate producing companies), has poisoned Yuji in retaliation for a perceived betrayal that occurred in book two, so Yuji’s plan is a literal last gasp-attempt to cement some power before he goes the way of the dinosaur. This gambit proves to have lasting and catastrophic effects, the likes of which move the novel into its final sequence (called The Age of Love). This sequence I have to say—from my humble opinion—is probably the trilogy’s weakest. Yes, we know that the romance plot must have some sort of resolution, but the most obvious romantic combination is one that seems never in danger of ever being diverted (ultimately), so we can say that the novel ends with few surprises. Over the course of three novels, I have come to enjoy Anya’s increasingly snarky personality. She’s become a bit of a sarcastic, edgy and witty protagonist, and there were points in this novel that genuinely made me crack up laughing. This spunky aspect of her character was something that I missed in the initial edition of the series, but over the course of her many trials and tribulations, Anya has become hardened and with it a kind of steely comic exterior that makes for a fun reading experience. This change in her character is perhaps why I found the ending a little bit of a letdown, but the trilogy does get stronger as a whole over the arc. It’s far from a paranormal romance and the conceit of the futuristic world is perhaps the weakest structural element considering that the only thing that really makes it seem as if we’re anywhere in a different temporal moment is the banning of things like chocolate and coffee. Nevertheless, as I’ve intimated in previous reviews of earlier installments, fans of this young adult genre will find much to enjoy in the conclusion to the Birthright Trilogy.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Antigoddess (TorTeen, 2013).

The gods are dying and so begins the premise of Kendare Blake’s fourth novel Antigoddess, the start of a new series (after the ghoulishly entertaining ghost hunter duology of Girl of Nightmares and Anna Dressed in Blood and Sleepwalk Society). Not only are the gods dying, but they realize that there may be a chance to halt the process, but this may involve battling each other in order to find the key to retaining their once-hallowed immortality. In Blake’s version of events, the Greek Gods and other associated heroic entities (like Cassandra and Odysseus) have merely found other bodies and other lives to inhabit in what is not unlike our own present day. They regularly use words like any other teenager or young adult, while also proclaiming their once revered status as mighty beings who could command armies and destroy civilizations. Once battles lines are effectively drawn, the novel starts to gain a little bit more traction. Here, we see that Athena and Hermes will be fighting against Hera, Aphrodite, and Poseidon. Early on in the novel, Athena and Hermes get a little bit of help from Demeter, who sends them on to find Cassandra, the ill-fated phrophetess, who may hold the key to their divine salvation. They enlist the spiritual powers of the descendants of Circe, a group of witches, who in the present day have become—what else—but a high society escort company. Once Hera gets wind of the fact that these witches have sided with Athena and Hermes, all hell breaks loose and most of the witches are killed. It is clear then not everyone will survive. The narrative is bifurcated in the first half with a slower plot concerning Cassandra, in her present-day manifestation, and her friendships with a group of high-school students, including a teenager named Aidan. Aidan is actually Apollo and has, for the most part, eschewed his divine background to masquerade in what is more or less a normal teenager’s life, which is defined in this novel as parties, girls, and high school. Cassandra’s brother is Henry, who doesn’t realize he is Hector, while Cassandra’s friend is Andie, who doesn’t realize she’s Andromache (Hector’s wife). While the premise of Blake’s new series is highly intriguing, this novel is largely a set up for what is going to follow. There is one climactic battle sequence at the end, but the momentum shifts to get this point make this initial installment uneven. The mixture of the present-day tweenspeak with Greek god mythology can come off unintentionally funny (at least from my perspective). Though I may be coming off as curmudgeonly, the thing to remember is that Blake obviously knows her young adult paranormal romance genre: we have an ordinary heroine who is really not so ordinary (Cassandra), who engages in a romance plot with a man who probably isn’t really right for her (Aidan), while realizing that she must defeat some big bad, great evil, or force that is going to end up in the ruin of practically all of humanity (Hera and others). In this respect, Blake does not disappoint and we’ll look to the next installment to see how the battle lines continue to be drawn.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Mortal Gods (TorTeen 2014).

Kendare Blake follows up Antigoddess with Mortal Gods. In this uneven, fitful second installment, Cassandra continues to learn more about her powers, while Athena continues to plan for the all out battle that will occur between the gods, demigods, and mythic heroes of ancient Greece now reincarnated in the present day. Athena is looking to find Artemis as well as the other legendary “weapon” that can be used to destroy other gods. This first weapon, as we know from the first installment, is none other than Cassandra herself, with the ability to somehow channel energy that destroys gods. Achilles is the second weapon, and Odysseus finally fesses up that he knows where Achilles is hiding out, somewhere in the Australian outback. So, there are two retrieval quests, one for Artemis and the other for Achilles. Hermes’s and Odysseus’s trip to find Artemis (in the jungles of Malaysia) is all for naught, as Artemis has already been killed. Athena’s quest to find Achilles is more fruitful, as he is located in the Australian wilds. Meanwhile, Ares is being recruited by Aphrodite and Hera to work against Athena and her allies. Hera, who had seemingly been turned to stone at the end of book 1, is partially healed by the mythic three fates, who themselves are also dying. Ares occasionally dispatches four wolves to track down and to trouble the lives of Athena and her acolytes, so much so that Andie is almost mortally wounded. Fortunately for her, Calypso, Odysseus’s former lover comes to the rescue, lulling the wolves to sleep with her vocal powers. Thus, the battle lines are drawn. Athena, Hermes, Cassandra, Henry (Hector), Andie (Andromache), Achilles and Calypso against Hera, Aphrodite, and Ares. Though it seems as if the cards are stacked in favor of Athena, the support of the Three Fates is indeed suggestive of the doom that may befall Athena and her ragged band of heroes. I wanted to really like this novel, but I had trouble getting through it. Part of the problem I think stems from the fact that there is so much plot left to the bickering between characters about what to do and how to go about doing it. Also, much of the novel seems to be a set-up for the third act, and though the final battle of book two is definitely appreciated, the payoff may not be enough for readers who endured through the prior narrative trajectory. Blake also struggles to toggle from one narrative perspective to the next, which makes me yearn for the first person perspective she used so effectively in the Girl of Nightmares series. To be sure, the conceit of this trilogy—one based upon a resurrection and reappearance of the Greek gods in modern times is an innovative one—and fans of the young adult genre will of course still find something of interest in this installment.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 23, 2014

Today’s post is focused on Penguin and associated Imprints. For academics and instructors who are readers of these reviews, do recall that Penguin has a wonderful academic services division, with the best exam copy policy of the major publishers, which have allowed me to make new additions to my syllabi with ease.



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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

A Review of Marie Lu’s Legend (Putnam Juvenile, 2011).

For fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, Marie Lu’s Legend won’t necessarily offer anything radically new, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it: with an intriguing premise, a crackling plot, and dynamic characters, you’ll sail through it hoping that there will be other installments. Indeed, as soon as I finished it, I immediately scrambled over to amazon to see if there was an impending publication (and indeed, there are two in the reviews that follow). Lu’s Legend does set us up quite well for more books and follows in the young adult genre that has become a mainstay of Hollywood adaptations (think Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy which has now gone global with its popular film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson). The premise is roughly this: June is a military prodigy for the Republic, a postnation constructed in the ruins of conflicts and plagues (the Republic’s main postnational rival is the Colonies). When her brother Metias is killed, presumably by a dangerous threat to the Republic’s postnational security, she is hired to track this guy down. This guy (named Day) is June’s exact counterpart, a fiercely intelligent and tactical young man who is simply trying to help his family survive the plague that is threatening their ghetto existence. Most of Day’s family (for reasons that can only be revealed if you read the novel) does not even know he is alive, but when Day’s youngest sibling, Eden, is stricken with the plague and a strange symbol carved onto the door of the family home to denote the family’s outcast status, Day springs into action to try to find a vaccine, or at least medication that will help suppress the worst symptoms from the illness. June, for her part, begins the novel as a strident supporter of the Republic, the side of good as she would like to think, but as the narrative proceeds, it is clear that the Republic has some secrets of its own. At one point, a character named Kaede comes into the picture and for fans of Malinda Lo, you immediately scramble to see if there is any connection to Lo’s Huntress. In the acknowledgments you discover that Lu herself is part of a writerly community that connects her with other YA talent like Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon (Phoenix series).

A Review of Marie Lu’s Prodigy (Putnam Juvenile, 2013) and Champion (Putnam Juvenile, 2013).

There are certain to be spoilers in this review.

In the lead-up to what is certainly to be a disastrous MLA paper, I continue to read deeply within the ever-expansive world of YA fiction, especially those written by so called American writers of Asian descent. I fell behind in Marie Lu’s postapocalyptic paranormal romance/ urban fantasy plague (did I miss anything else) Legend series. Her second and third books are reviewed here: Prodigy and Champion. In Prodigy, Lu takes us into the desperate plans that Day and June attempt in order to take down the Republic. At this point, they have teamed up with an insurgent group known as the Patriots, which include a number of intriguing and roguish characters, such as Kaede, Razor, Baxter, and of course, Tess, Day’s long-suffering companion. Day and June are split up in a scheme that will involve assassinating the new Elector, the young and handsome Anden. June must turn herself in, get the trust of the Elector, then help enable the Patriots to carry out the assassination. Day stays on the outside, viewing the proceedings that will lead up to the actual assassination attempt. Lu complicates her fictional world by suggesting in this second part that the Republic may not be as evil as originally thought. Indeed, Anden may or may not be an improvement over his father, gesturing to the possibility that the Republic can change, perhaps even reformulate the class barriers that have resulted in considerable resource and social inequality. June is increasingly convinced then that Anden may be something other than a cruel and capricious dictator. Since she is in deep cover, it becomes apparent that it will be extremely difficult for her to attempt to signal to abort the original plans to assassinate Anden. The climactic sequence of course involves the botched assassination attempt. In the aftermath, Day and June find themselves in the Colonies, trying to figure out what their next move will be. The conclusion sees Day and June realizing that the Patriots may not be uniformly behind one group and Day and June work with Kaede to return to the Republic in order to foment support behind Anden. Day, though wary, is finally convinced because it is Anden who orders the release of Day’s brother, Eden, the plague-infected bioweapon. Lu’s second book convincingly expands this postapocalyptic America by giving us a view into the Republics direct rival: the Colonies, which seem to be some sort of Orwellian society formulated around corporate citizenship. Lu adds more tension by creating simultaneous love triangles. While June and Day’s chemistry cannot be ignored: Tess emerges as June’s main competition, while Anden serves as Day’s potential romantic rival.

At the conclusion of Prodigy, we see that June has decided to take on a position as Princeps-Elect, which would give her an incredibly powerful position within the Republic, second only to the Elector. Day, we find out, has some sort of degenerative condition, which will soon result in his death. The conclusion sees Day convince June to take the position, certainly in part spurred by his new diagnosis, which he of course does not tell June. It is his way of severing their bond, which is clear at the beginning of the third installment in the series. Lu shifts the political action to the growing tension between the Colonies and the Republic. It is apparent that the plague that had originally been an issue within the Republic has now expanded to the Colonies, and the Colonies have issued an ultimatum: if you cannot provide us with a cure, we are going to destroy you. The Republic’s only chance is to use Eden as a potential research specimen to create a cure, but of course, Day is in the way. Anden uses June to attempt to convince Day to allow Eden to be used for scientific research, but given everything that happened in the first two books, you can entirely understand why he would be so resistant. Further still, he himself continues on his precipitous downward arc of healthfulness, such that he is given a diagnosis of only about two months to live. Then, the offensive begins and the Republic finds itself in the unenviable position of asking for help from the Antarcticans, which will require the Elector to cede some serious territory to them. At the same time, Eden pushes back against Day and decides that he will allow himself to be experimented on, if it will allow the Republic to find a cure to the plague that the Colonies believe was constructed and deployed by them. As the novel hurtles toward its finish, Day hatches a desperate plan that will require the Republic to pretend that it has surrendered; will the Republic survive? Will Day and June finally be able to express their deep feelings for each other? These questions and more will be answered by what seems to be the conclusion to the Legend series. My one big gripe about this book was the epilogue, which seemed to consolidate too much time into a small frame. Lu felt the need to summarize a good 9 years or so before the crucial final scene, but these periods feel far too rushed, especially with respect to the other romance that blooms during this period.

As with many other YA paranormal romances I’ve been wondering about the place of race within these narratives; it seems as though the postapocalyptic world is completely deracinated. Social inequality seems most apparent in class difference. Interestingly enough, Day himself is part Chinese, but the aspect of mixed race seems to be a red herring. Overall, Lu’s trilogy is a jam-packed, explosive action-thriller with the requisite romance plot. Fans of YA, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other such works should be more than fulfilled by this trilogy.

A Review of Marie Lu’s The Young Elites (Putnam Juvenile, 2014).

I adored this new YA fiction by Marie Lu for a lot of reasons: our heroine is not necessarily a heroine. In fact, she might be a villain. Second, the romance plot in this novel is catastrophically terminated. Third, the conclusion doesn’t exactly make clear where the second in the series is going to go exactly, especially when a new character and a new narrative perspective are introduced in an epilogue. Finally, I grew up reading X-Men comics, so any novel in which young teens have super powers is going to resonate with me. In the Young Elites, set in the Medieval period, our protagonist is Adelina Amouteru (with most of the novel being narrated from her perspective in the first person). She has survived the blood fever (Lu’s obvious take on the bubonic plague) though it caused her to lose and eye and changed her physical appearance. Her own sister Violetta also survived the blood fever, but their mother died. In the wake of the blood fever, their father has turned into a raging and violent alcoholic. Adelina is on the verge of womanhood (almost seventeen), when she is sold to a man as basically his concubine, for apparently no man would actually want to marry such a scarred individual (though Adelina is still beautiful otherwise). Adelina attempts to run away, but in that process her father apprehends her. She ends up killing him when strange powers manifest that allow her to create illusions. She basically scares her father to death. Adelina is then charged with her father’s murder, but when she is to be executed she is saved by a man known as the Reaper, who has the power to create and to generate fires. The Reaper, otherwise known as Enzo Valenciano, is the leader of the Dagger Society, who are a branch of the Young Elites, those who have manifested powers in the wake of the blood fever. The Young Elites are also known by another epithet: malfetto, which is the term for a kind of mutant figure that is denigrated by society at large. At that time there are about five young elites along with Enzo, who all have various powers of their own. These are: Raffaele, otherwise known as The Messenger; a young and extremely beautiful man with the power of sensing other young elite; Dante, otherwise known as The Spider, a young elite with super strength and combat abilities; Gemma, otherwise known as The Star Thief, a young elite with power over animals; Windtalker; and then the Architect, who is able to rebuild things in one substance and recreate them in another. Enzo saves Adelina because he realizes her powers might be useful for their missions. Raffaele is more than a little bit worried about Adelina because a particular test meant to show how a young elite aligns in terms of particular emotions and ethics reveals that Adelina has dark side that may prove to be the undoing of the Daggers if they employ her. But even as Adelina begins to acclimate as a potential new recruit for the Daggers, who together seek to usurp the current ruling court, she is approached by Teren Santoro, a brutal Inquisitor, who is blackmailing her into revealing information about the Daggers. Indeed, Adelina must tell Teren all that she knows in order to keep her sister Violetta alive. Thus, Adelina is forced to become a spy, while cultivating her powers of illusion. For his part, Teren is in love with the ruling queen, a woman named Giuletta, who believes that she should hold sole power over the crown and thus plots with Teren to kill the king, otherwise known as her husband. Will Adelina be able to tell the elites that she is being blackmailed? Will she work for Teren in order to save her sister’s life? All of these questions can be answered by reading the novel and I very much look forward to the second installment (which I hope is a trilogy, but such information has not yet been released).

A Review of Eleanor Glewwe’s Sparkers (Viking, 2014).


Eleanor Glewwe’s debut novel Sparkers is part of the ever-growing archive of young adult fiction penned by American writers of Asian descent. Glewwe constructs a particularly ambitious and original world based upon a caste system dividing those who live in the Ashari city-state: there are those with magical abilities (the kasir) and those who do not have those magical abilities (the halani). The halani are considered to be of a lower class, though they do have some paranormal capabilities. Indeed, most are able to sense occasionally a future event in some vague way, something called “intuition” in the novel. The larger world of the novel is made up of city-states; only one other is prominently featured (called Xanite), though it is clear that the kasir and the halani can migrate to other city-states. There is a family in the novel who is of kasir background but hail from Xanite and are thus treated a little bit differently than the other elite kasir. The narrator and protagonist of this story is the teenage Marah Levi, who is of halani background, and who misses a key exam that causes her to have to scramble to find an alternative means of getting secondary schooling in her specialty: the violin. Around the time that Marah is given a second chance by auditioning with a Xanite-founded performance arts school, a plague begins to erupt around the city-state. Individuals are coming down with a deadly respiratory illness that turns the eyes of those afflicted into darkened black circles. The plague is affecting kasir and halani alike and the government, which is ruled in a seven-person based oligarchy, hasn’t seemed to make any headway on finding the cure. Marah also happens to have an interest in languages, which allows her to strike up a friendship across class lines. After befriending a young girl of kasir background, she is eventually invited over to the girl’s house. Once there, Marah bumps into the girl’s brother Azariah, who happens to be a collector of rare books. Marah realizes that Azariah has a book written in a banned language called Hagramet; Marah has a grammar book for the Hagramet language and is thus able to translate some of the passages in Azariah’s book. Over the course of Marah’s visiting Azariah’s little sister, it becomes clear that the Hagramet book might actually have a cure for the plague. Their quest becomes urgent when both Marah’s little brother (Caleb) and Azariah’s little sister (Sarah) come down with the disease. Also, Marah’s best friend from school Leah has also come down with the sickness. Marah and Azariah must work together to translate the book, figure out the process by which the spells must be cast and the reagents collected and cooked in order to create the cure, but there are eyes all over the city-state. And it soon becomes evident that a larger conspiracy is brewing: not everyone wants the cure to be offered to the citizens of the city-state. Thus, the novel becomes a race against time: will Marah and Azariah be able to make the cure before Caleb, Leah, Sarah, and other citizens of the city succumb or will they be thwarted by powers beyond their control?

Glewwe’s debut is truly inventive, one of the first I’ve seen that so effectively creates an entirely different world-system and doesn’t rely on popular short hands of mythical creature-lore (like vampire fictions). Of course, one can’t help but read the novel through its many allegories: the tensions between the halani and the kasir obviously becoming an analogue for any kind of rifts that occur over social difference. Additionally, Glewwe’s novel is as much about class as it might be about race. Access to important medical advances and techniques seemed reserved only for the kasir, so when the plague affects both the halani and kasir equally, there’s a question as to how any cure would be distributed to the masses. Given the continuing international tensions brewing right now over the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and Liberia (and other parts of West Africa), plague narratives have a particularly charged focus that bring to mind questions of medical ethics in times of great stress and tragedy. If governments, pharmaceutical companies, and the medical care industries acted with as much compassion as the two major characters in this novel, we truly would have nothing to worry about.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 5 2014

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Wendy Law-Yone’s The Road To Wanting (Chatto & Windus, 2010); Tosca Lee’s The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen (Howard Books, 2014); Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014); Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors (St. Martin’s Press, 2014); Kat Zhang’s Echoes of Us (Harper, 2014); Sherry Thomas’s The Perilous Sea (Balzer + Bray, 2014).

A Review of Wendy Law-Yone’s The Road To Wanting (Chatto & Windus, 2010)


Though Wendy Law-Yone’s third novel The Road To Wanting (longlisted for the UK’s prestigious Orange Prize) has yet to come out stateside, occasionally there are surreptitious ways of getting one’s hands on a review copy (*grins*). Law-Yone’s The Road to Wanting is long awaited for most fans of Asian American literature, as her first two critically acclaimed works have for the most part held a very distinguished place in the canon for the fact that there are so few fictional representations of Burmese transnational contexts. Fortunately, The Road to Wanting continues Law-Yone’s incisive and unsentimentalized depictions of social issues that have arisen in Burma (and follows the trajectory of her first two novels in this way), especially in light of the country’s military governance, clan tensions (the ethnographic detail is an important element of this novel), and economic instabilities. Law-Yone’s narrator is Na Ga, a placeholder name for a girl from the Wild Lu clan. As a young child, she is sold off to another family, then sold again and again in different contexts and situations. At the core of Law-Yone’s work then is the plight of human trafficking. The novel is anachronically constructed. The opening of the novel sees the narrator in a border town between China and Burma; she’s languishing in a hotel, waiting for the right time to cross into Burma through the help of a guide named Mr. Jiang. But Na Ga doesn’t want to go back and she plans to kill herself (her noose is ready to go), only having to discover that someone else has beat her to the punch. Indeed, she discovers that Mr. Jiang has already killed himself. This moment gives her pause to think about her actions and of course to reflect upon her life to that point, which is told in retrospectives throughout the novel. We come to understand that she’s at the border because her American sponsor, Will, has effectively cast her out from his home (in Thailand), and he’s encouraged her and financed her way back into Burma. She’s more than reluctant to go of course; her time with Will was not unlike an idyllic period she had as a child when she was fortuitously taken in by an American couple who had settled for a time in Rangoon. The “road to Wanting” is a title meant to invoke Na Ga’s terrifying and unpredictable journey to this border town, but Law-Yone is obviously playing off the idea of “wanting” as lack. Na Ga, who has survived so much, does not have any biological kin to come back to in Burma, so the question becomes: what purpose does it serve to go back to Burma? This question is a larger and perhaps more metaphorical one being posed by Law-Yone, who understands that going back to a “home” country does not necessarily come with it feelings of comfort or nostalgia. Indeed, as Na Ga makes her way to the border, she understands exilic trajectories come in many and often disastrous forms. For Na Ga, exit from Burma comes at the price of her sexual freedom. Indeed, we discover through flashbacks that, having been left behind by the American couple and moved to a smaller city in Burma (alongside the servant who originally took her in and brought her to that American couple), she comes to realize that she wants a different life. At 16, fixers come to town looking for young women who would then be brought back to major cities as factory workers, but as we learn, these fixers are really human traffickers and Na Ga is essentially sold as a sex slave and transferred to Thailand. Thus, when Will, an American, sponsors Na Ga through what is probably an NGO type organization (in the wake of her brothel being raided and closed), she believes she may have found the start to a better life. But Law-Yone understands her protagonist well; Na Ga is fearful that Will’s companionship is transitory and constantly looks for signs that he is tiring of her. Eventually he does, which leaves her in the border town with no money and a ticket into Burma, the very land in which her own father originally sold her as a young child to pay for debts. What can Burma hold, the novel asks? But Law-Yone does offer a sliver of possibility. As Na Ga comes to understand, her connections in the border town are deeper than she realizes, and the political textures of the novel become enriched by an unexpected and deeply moving concluding sequence. The ending is far from optimistic but leaves our protagonist with more than one to thing to live for and a sense of purpose that perhaps portends a more agential future life. There was an approximately 15 year gap between this novel and her last, so we’ll hope that we won’t have to wait as long for the next!

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A Review of Tosca Lee’s The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen (Howard Books, 2014).

I’m trying this new thing of reading three or four books at once, being in different stages of each and generally seeing if this approach helps unexpected relationalities to spark. Tosca Lee’s follow-up to Iscariot (reviewed here on Asian American Literature Fans) is The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen. Prior to opening the book, I did not know much about Sheba and did my requisite Wikipedia-esque level internet research. Lee picked a very intriguing historical figure and one particularly malleable to her preferred mode of storytelling, which are fictional reconstructions of actual individuals (most often with a Biblical foundation). In the case of Sheba, there is no definitive narrative concerning her life, and scholars often debate the location of her kingdom (in what is modern day Yemen or Ethiopia, for instance) as well as the power of her hold on the crown. Lee’s depiction begins with Bilqis (one of the versions of Sheba’s name) living under the royal eye of her father, but once her mother dies, her father takes a new wife. This new wife does not seem to care much for Bilqis and attempts to marry her off soon enough, but Bilqis’s new husband is soon killed during a flood. Bilqis requests to leave at that point, hoping to start a new life somewhere else, beyond the watchful gaze of her stepmother. But once her father’s health takes a turn for the worse, and it becomes apparent that her stepmother has used her association to the king to secure as much power for herself and her relatives/ tribal connections, Bilqis is called upon to unite the groups/ clans opposed to the stepmother. Bilqis triumphs and so begins her reign as queen of Saba. Once in the palace as queen, her position as a female monarch is often unstable. Should she marry in order to provide an heir? What kind of relationship will she hold with other men who are her advisors? How will she be able to lead and unite a people who had subsisted under turmoil and civil conflict? And then there’s the issue of King Solomon who has just come to power and who is threatening Saba’s trade routes. Bilqis must operate with diplomacy and gamesmanship in mind as she tries to figure out why King Solomon so obstinately wishes to have her come to visit and offer tribute to him. Bilqis, understanding that the future of her reign is at stake, spends a considerable amount of time figuring out what the best possible decision will be. Eventually, she decides she must make the arduous (many months long) journey to see King Solomon and try to put an end to their stalemate. Once in Solomon’s kingdom, Bilqis is confused by a perceived ambivalence by Solomon and must once again try to divine what it is she must do in order to curry the proper amount of favor without having to relinquish any major power she already holds. As with Iscariot, Lee had to complete some considerable research, not only evident in the narrative itself, that emerges in very interesting author’s note which concludes the book. Much of the knowledge concerning the Queen of Saba (or Sheba) is lacking, so Lee does have some room to create her own spin on her tale in which a potential romance between Solomon and Bilqis is perhaps the boldest move she makes in her configuration of the story. Of course, the whole issue of a female monarch is absolutely foundational to Lee’s version, and Lee’s take on this story does cast a very politically invested light in the issue of gender and power. Bilqis, for instance, must continually deal with any sort of rumor that suggests that she might be consorting with a man who is not an appropriate match for her. Bilqis is well aware of the double standard being levied against her at these times, and thus the novel is in some respects especially germane to the continued conservative norms that often divide women and men in issues related to governance and leadership. Lee chooses an intriguing story to flesh out and readers of Biblical themes and Oriental tales will find much to adore in Lee’s latest religiously grounded offering.

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A Review of Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014)

For those with some knowledge of the healthcare system, Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored—part memoir, part sociological/ journalistic treatise—may not necessarily provide much new formation. Indeed, this work follows within the established concerns of the managed care approach that has left both medical care personnel and their patients struggling. Doctors are getting paid less than ever before, have less control than ever before, while having to squeeze in patients in a time schedule where they have little chance to establish the kind of rapport they would prefer. But what makes this work rise above is of course Jauhar’s personal insights and experiences, especially related to moments during which his own family must engage with the medical care system. The birth of a son, for instance, creates some tension as he and his wife must negotiate whether or not to deal with a tricky Caesarean section. Jauhar further realizes that the kind of life he wants to lead with his family is ultimately incommensurate with the urban lifestyle that he has for so long idealized. Indeed, one day he understands that Manhattan is not for him. A moment where he tries to cross a large street filled with traffic just to find a shortcut to a tennis court proves to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Along the way out to the surburbs, Jauhar realizes that he can neither be a mercenary nor can be he an unrealistic dreamer believing in his ability to change the system one patient at a time. The sobering reality Jauhar comes to understand is that there will be no one answer to changing the system and in the meantime, all that he and other doctors can do is maintain their commitment to the patient’s health and work within the constraints of a flawed healthcare structure. As Jauhar writes near the conclusion: “People often think of doctors as either consumedly avaricious or impossibly altruistic. There is a disconnect between how the lay world views medicine and how doctors experience it from the inside” (258). Indeed, Jauhar effectively shows that it is impossible to stay at either pole and that the doctor, at the end of the day, must find some way to exert some choice in the roles that he or she will play. Jauhar makes his choice: “It’s the tender moments helping people in need. In the end, medicine is about taking care of people in their most vulnerable state and making yourself a bit in the same in the process” (260). We can only hope that the next generation of doctors stick by a similar credo and help transform the system, bit by bit, over the course of the long haul.

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A Review of Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors (St. Martin’s Press, 2014).

Like Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was one of the finalists for the Man Booker Literary Prize, but that was in 2012 and Munaweera’s novel was not published until just this summer in the United States. And thank the literary gods it finally has dropped stateside! Munaweera’s debut explores the intricate and thorny politics of Sri Lankan family building in the era of tensions between the Tamils and the Sinhala. It has much in common with the larger corpus of works and writers who have mined this territory, including Roma Tearne’s The Mosquito, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, V.V. Ganeshenanthan’s Love Marriage, and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. The novel is told from the perspective of Yasodhara, but the novel starts with an interesting conceit in that Yasodhara takes the time to narrate how her parents’ marriage comes to be, thus imitating a sort of third person limited omniscient storyteller. Her father and mother come from separate parts of the island. Her father is raised by a domineering mother who hopes that he will amount to something great, and she plans to marry him off to someone of great standing. Her mother Visaka is also raised by a strong mother figure. Visaka at first falls in love with a Sinhala boarder, living with her family in the wake of her father’s death and the fact of the family’s bankruptcy, but she will later be married off to Yasodhara’s father. But, we know given the ethnoracial divisions plaguing the Tamils and the Sinhala that the novel will soon move into a darker direction. Yasodhara is born on the same day as Shiva; Shiva’s mother is none other than the woman who would marry Visaka’s first love, the Sinhala man who lives upstairs. Because they go into labor on the same day, Visaka and Shiva’s mother end up in a tentative friendship and Shiva ends up becoming a kind of surrogate brother to Yasodhara and Yasodhara’s younger sister Lanka. When riots and other massacres begin to occur, Yasodhara’s family packs up and moves to Los Angeles, first meeting up with Visaka’s older brother, who had married a Burgher woman and then moved to the states. Book I ends with Yasodhara having acclimated to the United States and envisioning a full life beyond Sri Lanka. Book II begins with a radical shift in narrative perspective. It is told from the first person viewpoint of a young Tamil teenager named Sarawasthi; her family is being torn apart by the ethnoracial conflict. Two of Saraswathi’s brothers had already been recruited into the Tamil insurgency and died. Another brother named Kumar is drafted. Later, Saraswathi will be gang-raped, and this event forces her into the Tamil army, where she learns of what it means to be a revolutionary and to die for a political cause. The connection between narrative perspectives seems at first rather diffuse; Sarawasthi takes classes from the women who is possibly Yasodhara’s maternal grandmother (Muriel Spencer). Later, these competing narratives perspectives will see-saw against one another, creating an asymmetrical storytelling discourse that generates much anxiety in the reader. Yasodhara will have returned to Sri Lanka in the wake of a disintegrating marriage and is reunited with her childhood friend Shiva, while also re-establishing her relationship with her younger sister, as they teach at a local school. Saraswathi, for her part, is determined to become a martyr for the tigers. The novel ends a bit too quickly in my opinion. But bibliophiles, one must pick up the book simply for the incredibly luminous prose, reminiscent of poetry, absolutely seductive in its depictions. I was enamored of the voice from the get-go, and the storytelling grounds a phenomenal debut novel. In terms of writing style, it is not unlike le thi diem thuys’ The Gangster We are All Looking for; both novels are structured in general vignettes. There is more narrative coherence to Munaweera’s work, but both writers work off of the density and lyricism of language, while at the same time constructing such politically engaged narratives. I’ll be certain to teach this book in the future.

For other similar titles based upon Sri Lankan tensions between Tamils and Sinhala, see: Roma Tearne’s The Mosquito, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, V.V. Ganeshenanthan’s Love Marriage:

http://asianamlitfans.livejournal.com/115944.html (Roma Tearne, Mosquito)

http://asianamlitfans.livejournal.com/146643.html (Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost)

http://asianamlitfans.livejournal.com/102180.html (V.V. Ganeshenanthan, Love Marriage)

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A Review of Kat Zhang’s Echoes of Us (Harper, 2014)

Kat Zhang’s concluding installment of the Hybrid Chronicles is upon us! In Echoes Of Us, Addie and Eva return and are languishing in the shadow of the explosive events of book two. Along with a group of other hybrids on the run, they are constantly moving from one safe house to another, hoping for a lengthier solution and a way out of their status as fugitives. When Henri and Emalia go missing, it’s apparent that the group must move to another safe house, but they are found out and Peter seemingly gets shot (and killed), while another hybrid is captured. Addie and Eva are still able to escape and meet up with the remaining hybrids, but they know they are in trouble. With few resources and fewer options, they turn to a reporter for help. This reporter (named Marion) wants to work with the hybrids to get their story out. In addition, Marion promises what resources she can to keep the hybrids safe. In exchange, Marion requests that Addie and Eva go undercover at an institute for hybrids. Once there, they would surreptitiously document the goings-on with the use of a trusty little camera hidden within a ring. Addie and Eva would take the identity of an existing hybrid named Darcie Grey. Of course, things do not go as planned, but with the help of a former acquaintance, they are able to escape. From that point, the novel devolves into a sequence of subplots in which Addie and Eva are looking to get reunited with one character or another. Zhang is juggling a lot of balls here, trying to re-connect Addie and Eva their biological family, while making sure that all loose ends concerning minor characters and hybrids are fully fleshed out. Because there are so many different characters plunging off into different arenas, the concluding arc comes off as a bit unfocused and narrative momentum may be a question mark for some readers. The other element that comes up with respect to the narrative involves the question of foreigners. Zhang uses this term as a catch-all phrase for other countries, but it’s generally unclear what foreign means in the context of this novel, especially since the formation of national boundaries seems to have shifted in this fictional world. This murkiness leaves an important aspect of particularity untapped, leaving the fictional world a little bit too hazy and obscure. We should applaud Zhang for her unique concept, especially the political undertones that necessarily align the hybrids as symbols for social difference: the outcasts, the pariahs, the unfairly downtrodden. But the conclusion to the hybrid chronicles may still leave some readers feeling underwhelmed.

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A Review of Sherry Thomas’s The Perilous Sea (Balzer + Bray, 2014)

Sherry Thomas’s follow-up to The Burning Sky is The Perilous Sea, the second book in The Elemental Trilogy. The first installment saw Iolanthe Seabourne discovering that she is an elemental mage of rare power, so powerful in fact that she’s wanted by the very powerful and very evil Bane, who is leading Atlantis in order to find such magical individuals and sacrifice them so he can achieve immortality. Iolanthe’s man is none other than Prince Titus, who won’t let that happen and is determined to achieve his own destiny as the hero who will die attempting to defeat Bane. Titus relies on the visions of his now-dead mother Princess Ariadne, a gifted prophetess, who had foretold that Titus would one day have to team up with an elemental mage of great power if there was to be any chance to be able to defeat the great evil known as Bane. The second book places some big question marks in Princess Ariadne’s gift of prophecy, as Titus begins to wonder if the elemental mage of great power who was “the one” is in fact not Iolanthe but his schoolmate Wintervale. If such is the case, then Titus and Iolanthe’s destinies are in fact not intertwined at all, and Titus would have to place his attentions elsewhere and perhaps in that process also end his romance. This major storyline is intercut with another (which takes place approximately six weeks later). In this storyline two people are in the Sahara with no memory of who they are and whether or not they are allies or enemies to each other. They only know that they are being hunted by Atlantis and must put away any suspicions of each other if they are to escape unharmed. Thomas takes a big risk in having these chapters toggle between each other, especially as the reader’s attention is no doubt divided between these two very different storylines. There’s also quite a lot of revelations in the second installment, especially concerning various alliances, Iolanthe’s mysterious origins and birth family, and readers will have to be paying close attention to keep up with who is allied with whom, and what treasonous intentions certain characters may or may not be actually harboring. Many important characters from the first return including Kashkari, the Indian transnational, Lady Wintervale, Lady Callista, and even Master Haywood (yes, we do find out what’s happened to him). In any case, Thomas throws so much into the second act that some readers may balk at all that is going on. In addition to all of the plot-level revelations, Thomas is working within the conceits of the Oriental tale, the paranormal fantasy, the young adult fiction, as well as the requisite romance plot. Indeed, you not only have magic carpets, camels, and deserts (Oriental tales), but also sand wyverns, mages, magic wands (paranormal fantasy), teenagers (the boys at the boarding school who are engaging in ever important cricket matches), and lovebirds (Titus/ Iolanthe). There’s a lot to juggle and Thomas is certainly game, but even with all of these different elements thrown in, the conclusion to this installment reads more like a lead-up to the third book and doesn’t seem to stand on its own as a contained portion of the trilogy. Nevertheless, there is enough of a cliffhanger that, even if you weren’t fully on board with the second, you’ll want to stick around to find out what happens in the third. Will Titus be able to avoid his fate and thus allow Iolanthe and Titus to live happily ever after, while also defeating the supreme evil known as Bane? We’ll just have to wait and see, and then we’ll read.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 25, 2014

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of: Thrity Umrigar’s The Story Hour (Harper, 2014); Nguyen Tan Hoang’s A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation (Duke University Press, 2014); Lydia Kwa’s Sinuous (Turnstone Press, 2013); Cynthia Kadohata’s Half a World Away (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014); Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood (TorTeen 2011); Kendare Blake’s Girl of Nightmares (TorTeen, 2012); Amy Zhang’s Falling into Place (Greenwillow, 2014); The Accidental Apprentice (Minotaur Books, 2014).

A Review of Thrity Umrigar’s The Story Hour (Harper, 2014).

Thirty Umrigar’s latest novel (after a number of other publications including The Space Between Us, Bombay Time, The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, If Today Be Sweet, and the nonfictional work First Darling of the Morning) is The Story Hour. The novel is told in alternating third and first person perspectives. The first person perspective is given to Lakshmi and rendered in a broken, immigrant English. The opening of the novel sees Lakshmi making the impulsive decision to commit suicide. Upon failing (and therefore enabling the main premise of the novel), she is given over to the care of psychologist named Maggie, who is of African American background and is married to an South Asian mathematic professors named Sudhir. The third person perspective is given to Maggie. Lakshmi’s case is referred to Maggie in part by the superficial expectation that she might understand Lakshmi better due to her marriage to Sudhir (even though, as we discover, Lakshmi and Sudhir come from relatively different caste and class backgrounds). Though Lakshmi’s husband is far from encouraging with respect to the forced therapy sessions that she is supposed to attend, Lakshmi eventually develops a unique and perhaps not so professional relationship with Maggie. Maggie gets Lakshmi to take driving lessons, cater the parties for friends, and even encourages her to take on an independent cleaning business. Lakshmi’s husband (Adit) is at first quite resistant to Lakshmi’s changes, but even he becomes convinced that her new diversions and occupations are doing her (and him) a world of good. Thus, Maggie and Lakshmi must navigate the complicated waters between doctor-patient and friend-friend connections. As these proprietary boundaries break down, other issues begin to come to the surface. For instance, we discover the reason behind why Lakshmi’s marriage is so rocky in the first place. Adit is not merely a hulking goon with the intent of insulating Lakshmi at every turn; behind his menacing demeanor is a man who has been scorned (a rather complicated story involving Lakshmi’s biological family). Additionally, it becomes clear that Maggie is struggling not only a little bit professionally, but also personally. The history of a more subtle from of sexual abuse (when she was a child) begins to create a pall over her life, especially as she engages an extramarital affair with a man named Peter, who has come to the local university on a visiting appointment. Peter is handsome, spontaneous, and white; he seems in so many ways a polar opposite to Sudhir. Lakshmi gains more and more confidence over the course of the narrative, especially as enabled by Maggie’s encouragement, but the gulf between these two characters is large, and Umrigar is well aware that misunderstandings of many forms are meant to keep these characters from having any sort of well-heeled friendship. By the concluding arc, Lakshmi makes a choice that will determine the course of Maggie’s faltering marriage. Umrigar’s novel ends on a sort of cliffhanger, which may polarize readers, but as with her previous works, characterization is the key to the depth and the success of the novel. Additionally, Umrigar complicates the narrative through the intricacies of inter-minority, feminist, and transnational intersectionalities. Certainly, Maggie comes from a Western-centric notion of female independence and further finds a sense of relationality to Lakshmi as a fellow woman of color, but Lakshmi’s own positioning as a new immigrant, one imbued by Indian standards for female propriety, makes any sort of coalition-building a difficult, if not treacherous one. This dissonance is the core of the novel’s ability to flourish and to showcase Umrigar’s ability to get at tricky social questions, while also rendering an entertaining story. We look forward to what the prolific Umrigar will have in store for us next and hope that her work garners the kind of attention already given to other writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan in her astute rendering of transnational dynamics.

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A Review of Nguyen Tan Hoang’s A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation (Duke University Press, 2014).

I have to say: I’ve been waiting for a book like Nguyen Tan Hoang’s to appear that focused so SQUARELY on the queer Asian American experience, but was surprised by its title, especially given the archive it engages. Nevertheless, the argument is clear, focused, important, and as I mentioned LONG LONG awaited. Asian American men have long been associated with effeminacy, but the problem is magnified in some ways for Asian American men who identify as queer because it is almost assumed that they must be bottoms, that they cannot be anything other than passive, submissive, and receptive in their sexual proclivities. While it might be damaging to be situated from such a reductive positionality, Hoang’s point is that there might be pleasure and even complexity in the position of bottom-ness and he goes about exploring the varied contours of Asian American male bottom-ness from various angles. The archive he chooses to engage is an interesting and eclectic one, including pornographic films, experimental films, mainstream and art house films (my favorite chapter which is on a film I knew nothing about: Reflections in a Golden Eye). The most polemic chapter, I think, explores the politics of interracial and intraracial dating for Asian American men. This discourse has long been a thorny one, especially as the choice of the “sexual object” becomes politicized. Asian American men who date Caucasians might get labeled as “potato queens,” while Asian American men who date Asians might get labeled “sticky rice.” In the latter scenario, as Hoang rightly notes, the phenomenon of sticky rice is often seen as the politically progressive mode of dating for queer Asian American men because it resists the paradigm of normativity that renders the queer Caucasian body as most hallowed and most desired. Yet, Hoang states that this viewpoint is too reductive and reduces the complexity of queer Asian American mens’ sexual preferences. Hoang’s readings are all quite inventive and nuanced, and he pulls off his central contentions both comprehensively and eloquently. If there is an area I would have liked a little bit more information or analysis about, it would have been in relation to queer Asian American men in popular culture, ones relegated to the side kick role. Hoang gestures to this course in his analysis of Anacleto, the flaming Filipino queen from Reflections in the Golden Eye, but the contemporary moment does boast some interesting reiterations of this figure in characters played by actors Alec Mapa and Rex Lee, for instance. Finally, Hoang’s book focuses strictly on queer Asian American male representation, a fact that he makes clear, but one wonders about the archive of queer Asian American femininity and sexual representation as well. Perhaps, Hoang already has a sequel waiting in the wings that will take on this exact topic! =)

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A Review of Lydia Kwa’s Sinuous (Turnstone Press, 2013)

Lydia Kwa’s Sinuous is her fifth publication after one poetry collection (The Colors of Heroines) and three novels (This Place Called Absence; The Walking Boy; and Pulse). I haven’t had a chance to read everything in Kwa’s oeuvre, but of the material I have perused, it’s quite clear that Kwa is invested in a multitextured form of writing, always pushing herself both aesthetically and politically. Such is the case with Sinuous, a poetry collection that defies easy description or categorization. Indeed, though broken up into parts, the collection seems to cohere more generally as a long poem, something epic in quality. In this vein, we do have a central heroine, who seems to be struggling in the face of familial phantoms. Kwa obviously draws upon her experience as a psychologist, with references to Pierre Janet, Abraham and Torok, and others throughout the text. Of note especially is the concept of the trasngenerational phantom, which appears here in the little that the autobiographically-based lyric speaker understands of her parents, especially her mother. A section of the collection, for instance, is set in Japan. The lyric speaker has traveled there in part to due some research (reflecting again the autobiographical impulse as this research was something that Kwa did indeed do for her second novel The Walking Boy), but she harbors questions about how her mother would have interfaced with such a space given the long standing enmity between Singapore and Japan. Another prominent strain of lyric inquiry in this collection is the issue of disaporic subjectivity: the lyric speaker reflects upon her time as an immigrant studying in Canada and her place there, with its long history of racial and ethnic tensions. As I mentioned earlier, Kwa is a particularly political poet and she weaves historical events and legislative acts throughout her personal quests to root out sources of melancholy, trauma, and the tombs harbored by others that return upon her unbidden as ghostly presences. To get a sense of Kwa’s performative qualities, too, you can look here:


What’s useful in the link is that Kwa’s excerpt is prefaced by her inspiration from the poem:

“Old man in the opposite booth mirrors my future with his seasoned jowls, his weary eyes disinterested in youth’s foolish indulgences. Affirms that I too am travelling away from birth, settling into my private autumn. I feel the buzz of Filipino families in the warm ambience of New Town bakery—their bright voices chirp at the edge of my attention.

We could almost forget, sitting here, that we are forever foreign in this adopted country.

Dianne the waitress still wears her hair in a voluminous roll-up bun, now dyed jet black—looks like she recently stepped out from the Tang dynasty court, voluptuous and swaggering all at once, a cowboy courtesan in the 21st century.”

What is key in this excerpt is of course the question of belonging, as the lyric speaker references the fact of being “forever foreign.” But what I absolutely adore about Kwa’s work in Sinuous is the level of detail that appears in these prose poems down to the name of the waitress as well as the unique juxtapositions that Kwa uses (such as “cowboy courtesan” and “seasoned jowls”). This excerpt is quite effective as a model for what Kwa achieves throughout Sinuous, which winds its way through many countries, historical periods, and asks many questions about the lyric speaker in relation to her identity, her family, and the search to contextualize her life amongst the larger structural forces of immigration, postcolonial trauma, and racial formation. A very teachable collection and certainly one that would pair well with some of the most canonical Asian North American poets such as Marilyn Chin, Lawson Inada, and others.

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A Review of Cynthia Kadohata’s Half a World Away (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014).

I wasn’t expecting Cynthia Kadohata to publish something so quickly after the stellar book The Thing about Luck (which also NOT surprisingly won a National Book Award), but we can’t complain as Kadohata returns with an intriguing, but ultimately uneven story about a young adoptee named Jaden, of Romanian background. He still struggles to feel accepted by his new-ish family and finds that he cannot come to love them. Kadohata is particularly searing in her portrayal of the adoptee’s complicated subjectivity. In this case, Jaden seems well aware that he has not yet integrated his parents into his life in a secure way, yet we understand why such is the case, given all that he has been through. Kadohata presents Jaden’s parents as Western archetypes of the adoptive parents whose cards are all in, to the extent that they provide Jaden with psychological counseling and other such support systems. They offer him every possible opportunity to address his mental health, especially given the fact that he routinely acts out. The novel’s central tension arises around the adoption of another boy, one that is located in Kazakhstan. As per national policy, the entire family must travel there in order to show that they have bonded with the child, so the novel eventually shifts to the family’s movement to that location. Here, complications arise as the boy that they thought were adopting is already given to another couple, and the family must choose, spur of the moment, among a set of babies, without necessarily being able to consider what the best course of action might actually be. While in Kazakhstan, Jaden ends up bonding to a four year old boy from a separate pool of orphans. His connection is so strong that he ends up trying to convince his parents to adopt that child instead, but Jaden’s parents are dead set on adopting a baby (instead of a toddler or young child). The novel’s strength is in Kadohata’s ability to render the psychic landscape of children with such richness. Jaden isn’t shown as heroic or evil, but certainly flawed and traumatized, yet well aware of his inner strength and desire to survive. He’s a prickly character, one that readers may not necessarily embrace right away, but Kadohata always knows how to bring the reader around, and this ability is exactly why she’s such a successful children’s literature author. At the same time, the discourse of international adoption is such a thorny one that embedding it in a fictional world such as this necessarily elides the many issues that do come up with respect to the process. For instance, the many miscommunications that occur in the process of adoption brings up the discourse of potential child trafficking that may be happening. Kadohata never gestures to this possibility, but one can’t help but think about these possibilities, as the Kazakh “orphans” are basically commodities that can be purchased by Western families with the right kind of money (in the novel’s case, the family needs to bring crisp one hundred dollar bills for the proper adoption to occur). Though the central family at the core of the novel seems to find a kind of stability by the novel’s end, we can’t help but read beyond this domestic unity and wonder about the fates of so many other children. Of note, of course, is Kadohata’s use of a country that has had little representational exploration in fictional worlds (at least from the American perspective). On this level, the novel manages to break open a cultural conversation that would obviously be invaluable for readers of all ages.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood (TorTeen 2011)

I’m writing a paper that I will deliver to students at some point on YA fictions, specifically the “paranormal romance” “urban fantasy” “young adult” fiction mash-up, which has been of late all the rage (with many Hollywood adaptations in this area: Twilight and The Hunger Games probably being the most visible two currently). My piece is more specifically devoted to representations of the undead in YA fiction, so I had to obviously read Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood, the first of a two-part series (no third in sight?). The protagonist and narrator is Cas Lowood, an attractive, teenager who is apparently also a ghost hunter. He travels with his mother to a new town to hunt down the local ghost, Anna Korlov. These ghosts are a tremendous problem because in the afterlife, their tendency is to use their rage and anger at their own unceremonious demise to kill living beings. Using a special knife that he is connected to by blood, Cas is able to send the ghosts to another realm and banish them from ours. Cas’s new ghost-target, though, has peculiar abilities. Indeed, she is far more powerful than any other ghost he has thus far encountered; in fact, an early scene sees her rip Cas’s antagonistic classmate in half (yuck!). In any case, he realizes he must enlist the help of some local teens, including a potential love interest, Carmel Jones; a budding witch and psychic, Thomas Sabin; as well as a reluctant jock-type named Will. Blake throws the paranormal romance wrinkle into the equation because we know, of course, that Cas will eventually come to fall in love with Anna, who is titularly dressed in blood, because she is apparently killed in a dress that she was going to wear to a high school dance. Will love conquer all somehow or will Cas have to banish his beloved, yet violent Anna? To find out, you’ll just have to read the book. My larger concern in terms of my own academic interests is of course in the political heft of the novel. Should we care about how ghosts have been marginalized? Should we instead focus on the strange inclusion of ethnic and racial spiritual markers (Wendigo and Haitian/Louisiana voodoo pops up at various points)? Having read so many within the genre at this point, it is clear that there is a particular universal theme between light and dark, good and evil. Most of the novels want to trouble what is initially evil and show us that we must look at what is bad within a more multi-faceted lens. To be sure, such a rhetorical slant is important, but is that enough? In any case, Blake follows the tried and true paranormal romance formula, but deviates in a huge way by making the central protagonist a male. The recent film adaptation of The Maze Runner does bring up this issue in mind. Even with the male protagonist, the rules of the genre need to be obeyed. In this respect, Cas Lowood does seem to be the ordinary, but not quite so ordinary teen, who must defeat an incredible evil, while also getting a little bit of romance along the way. Blake knows the genre conceits and if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Certainly, a frothy, but nevertheless eminently consumable YA fiction.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Girl of Nightmares (TorTeen, 2012).

The follow-up to Kendare Black’s Anna Dressed in Blood of course raises the stakes for all involved. The cataclysmic conclusion from the last novel (not to be spoiled here) leaves Cas Lowood in a kind of malaise. He’s drifting from one ghost hunting assignment to the next, even though there is a sense of a new community that’s developed around him. Indeed, instead of moving to a new location, Cas is staying in Thunder Bay; he’s become close friends with Thomas Sapin, the budding witch, and Carmel Jones, the popular girl-turned-reluctant ally. There are indications though that something is amiss with his athame (the magical weapon used to vanquish ghosts) and when Anna Korlov, the evil ghost that appeared in the first novel seems to be haunting him, we know that there is far more in store for Cas Lowood. The mystery around what has happened to Anna deepens in this novel; Cas, trying to find out why his nightmares are filled with Anna, travels to London in the hopes of figuring out what he can do to understand the situation he is in. Part of this quest is of course related to his magical weapon. Thus this novel delves into the history of the weapon itself and the mystical community that revolves around ghost hunting. A old family friend named Gideon seems to hold the key to the past concerning the weapon, but once Cas arrives in London (alongside his mother and Thomas) more questions inevitably arise. Blake’s follow-up is a fitting story to what seems to be the conclusion to the “Anna” series (Blake has moved onto a new series, also out with TorTeen). I was particularly struck by the unsentimental ending, one that places this novel above many of its contemporary counterparts. I was also looking around for other reviews of this novel, just because I was curious about other evaluations of it and managed to come across this one, which includes a rather detailed character list, one far more intricate than mine!


This review brings up an interesting point about the “suicide forest” setting that appears in the concluding arc. It was something I thought about, too, and the location of where this forest is set (Scotland) does not dovetail with its real world analogue (Japan). Beyond these elements, too, one wonders about whether or not such a novel would qualify for “Asian American literature” given the fact that the novel’s main connection to the field appears through the author’s background rather than anything else. But, as with the first installment, Blake knows the formula and doesn’t fiddle too much with it. Her ghost-hunting approach to the paranormal fantasy romance is certain to entertain its target readers.

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A Review of Amy Zhang’s Falling into Place (Greenwillow, 2014).

Amy Zhang’s debut Falling into Place comes with a tagline that “there are no accidents.” We can take this phrase literally with respect to the major event that the novel foregrounds: the car accident involving the protagonist Liz Emerson, who we find out is in critical condition. The car accident occurred because Liz wanted to kill herself, a fact that the novel spends its two hundred pages unraveling through a series of anachronic vignettes. The structure of the story is meant as a playful nod to the discipline of physics that threads throughout the narrative in which Newtonian mechanics becomes a backdrop to the ways that things fall or do not fall into place. This novel is ultimately about melancholy and about high school bullying. Liz Emerson is not a nice person, but inside the queen bee mean girl is an introspective, guilt-ridden teenager who wants to be everything but the identity she performs. Her two best friends, Julia and Kennie (short for Kendra), follow her around in a way that would remind any conversant high school movie watcher of the plastics from Mean Girls. They ruin the reputations of fellow students, get drunk at parties, dabble in drugs, and draw the attention of many male classmates at their high school. Hovering in the background as a ghostly event in the past is the death of Liz’s father, who fell off a roof while trying to make sure Liz herself did not draw too close to the edge. Liz’s relationship with her mother is merely functionalist: they cannot find an intimacy with each other that leaves Liz without a real emotional support. Even with her two closest friends, she can’t seem to tell them exactly what is tearing her apart. Julia and Kennie have their own crosses to bear. Julia is struggling with a drug addition, while Kennie must face her tormented feelings over an abortion she had. The novel of course hinges upon whether or not we sympathize at all with Liz, and Zhang has generated a character that is surely to provoke strong reactions in the reader. On the one hand, Zhang clearly contextualizes why Liz acts the way she does and what even pushes her to try to commit suicide. And of course suicide is the large discourse the novel revolves around as a political context, so much so that the conclusion provides some contact information for a support group. On the other hand, the novel is strangely devoid of a larger historical and sociocultural texture. Indeed, there is little sense of when the novel takes place or if the characters are aware of current events beyond the issues going on at their school. Thus, the novel takes on a generic quality on this level that can make the characters seem a little more superficial than some readers will prefer. Otherwise, Zhang’s structural conceit and discursive storytelling techniques are top notch and make this young adult novel certainly a dynamic formal approach to the genre.

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A Review of Vikas Swarup’s The Accidental Apprentice (Minotaur Books, 2014).

(high res non US edition cover)

(low res US edition cover)

Of all the novels I’ve read in 2014, Vikas Swarup’s third The Accidental Apprentice (after Q&A and Six Suspects) was the most surprising to me based upon the plotting, which includes a late stage revelation that I could not remotely predict. For that reason alone, I would strongly encourage readers to go out and get this book, which is fairly long, but makes for fast reading and would be absolutely perfect for a long vacation, where you can sit by the pool, work on a tan, and delve into a very entertaining story. As with Swarup’s previous novels, the story is set in India. Our protagonist and storyteller is none other than Sapna Sinha, a young twenty-ish woman who works as a salesgirl for an electronics store. One day, she randomly meets a CEO of a large company (a man named Acharya), who states that he will make Sapna the CEO of his company so long as she passes seven tests. Appropriately, she thinks: this guy is a nutjob and is totally joking and passes on this opportunity, but when her family is about to be evicted from the apartment they are staying in (rented out to them from their uncle who is demanding more money), Sapna takes on the challenge offered by Acharya (which comes with a large money advance that is nonrefundable even if she fails) and is able to save her family from being homeless. Six of the seven tests accordingly go well enough (and I won’t spoil for you what these test are and how they operate), but it is in the seventh where the novel kicks into high gear, shifting the tone and the genre of the novel into something else entirely. This change is certainly welcome insofar as readers begin to see a sort of routine occurring concerning Sapna, who, though living in a state of tenuous financial stability and no more than a middle class denizen herself, possesses a particularly high bar of moral and ethical standards. She often intervenes in the lives of others with little care that she may be harming herself or endangering her own life in the process. Swarup’s point in making Sapna a heroine is not simply for a good story: he is able to conjure up many of India’s largest social ills, including illegal organ harvesting, child labor, honor killings/ coercions, arranged marriages, corporate corruption, sexual harassment and the reality television industry, among other such issues. The novel’s final gambit seems much less focused on structural forces that result in oppression and inequality, but still, that would be to miss another major point concerning the frequent issue of caste and class that continue to play out whenever it concerns marriage and romance. The heart of the family thus is always ultimately a political matter in the Indian Anglophone novel, which Swarup makes so evidently clear in this incredibly plotted novel of a run-of-the mill heroine thrown into extraordinary circumstances. You can’t help but wonder if they would make a Hollywood adaptation of the film, but you’d obviously be thinking about the lack of options for someone to play Sapna Sinha, much less the rest of her family, and the other major characters. In any case, you have to pick up this thrilling and thriller of a novel and enjoy the random twists and turns that make for one of the best summer/ fall reads this year. Oh, and as a p.s., if you think too logically about the plot, you’re already missing the point. The novel is a ridiculous social satire masked as an action-thriller.

For other similar titles, see:

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger


Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People


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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 21, 2014

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of: Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great (Harper, 2014); Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn, 2011); Lily Yuriko Nagai Havey’s Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp (University of Utah Press, 2014); Ed Lin’s Ghost Month (Soho Crime, 2014); Michael Cho’s Shoplifting (Pantheon, 2014).

A Review of Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great (Harper, 2014).

Bilal Tanweer’s ambitious and formally inventive debut The Scatter Here is Too Great follows a revolving cast of characters who are linked by one tragic event: a bomb blast in Karachi, Pakistan that leaves many injured and dead. The bomb blast is a red herring, though, and that fact is only made clear in the novel’s final sequence. Indeed, readers might be looking too much into the source of the blast, what caused it, and the motivations for its detonation, without realizing that we’re missing the point. Tanweer’s true protagonist in the city of Karachi, how it has been imagined and remade especially in light of terrorist discourse and the projection of Islamic Fundamentalism on countries in that region. Tanweer’s project, then, is to particularize experience and texturize how the city is interfaced and understood from a variety of different perspectives. Called a “novel in stories,” it follows a number of different characters, shifting narrative perspectives constantly (especially between first and second person). Each section of the novel seems to slightly advance the story, moving us closer and closer physically to the blast. One of the most important connections it seems is the place of the writer in this modernizing city. Indeed, one of the returning figures is a subeditor who is tasked with understanding how to interface with the many facets of Karachi and demystifying its representations. This character muses: “All these stories, I realized, were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city as anything but a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city. That’s how we lose the city—that’s how our knowledge of what the world is and how it functions is taken away from us—when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what was and we are left strangers in a place we know, that we ought to have known. Suddenly, it struck me that that’s how my father experienced this city. How, when we walked this city, he was tracing paths from his memory to the present—from what this place had been to what it had become” (165). It would seem that the writer in all of his metafictional conceits is taking himself to task for this very same purpose, trying to create some sort of narrative that links time and place to the urban experience. The form of the novel itself is then part of the key to understanding Tanweer’s rhetoric: not everything will cohere, but the fragmentation is part of the complexity and the beauty of Karachi, a city that we understand is more than a bomb, more than Islamic fundamentalism, more than a site that has been determined to be a terrorist stronghold. I agree with other reviewers that the story can sometimes meander in ways that are distracting to readers, but Tanweer’s prose is so compelling, especially the philosophical renderings that appear in the opening and closing chapters that you’ll be lulled into Karachi’s representationally rich character configurations, including an ambulance driver undone by two figures who seem to represent the end of the world and two young lovers who seek to find a place to be alone in a city with too many eyes.

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A Review of Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn, 2011).

The great thing about the archive of “literatures penned by writers of Asian descent in English” (otherwise known as Asian Anglophone) is that the depth of its reach seems unending. There’s always a new writer that I find that I feel like I should have already heard of but haven’t, which brings me to Farzana Doctor, a queer Asian Canadian writer, who has published two novels. I review Six Metres of Pavement here, which is told in the third person perspective and primarily follows two characters: Ismail Boxwala, a Muslim Indo Canadian who is divorced, something that occurs in the wake of a tragic accident. He had left his infant daughter in his car while at work and Zubeida (nicknamed Zubi) dies from sun exposure. His wife, Rehana, attempts to assuage to the situation by suggesting they have another child, but Ismail suffers erectile dysfunction, no doubt related to his anxiety that he cannot possibly father another child, fearing that he may again be negligent. Celia Sousa has just moved into the neighborhood with his daughter Lydia and her son-in-law. Celia is in mourning; her mother and her husband Jose have both passed away recently, and she struggles to find a way out of her daily melancholy. It’s been about eighteen years since Zubi died when the novel opens, and Ismail struggles with a drinking habit. He falls into meaningless sexual dalliances with women at the local bar; he also strikes up a friendship and sexual relationship with a local there named Daphne, who ends up proclaiming her queerness and then joining an AA group. It is Daphne who encourages Ismail to take a creative writing class, and it is there that Ismail makes a strong friendship with a fellow classmate Fatima, even after he questions whether or not to stay enrolled (Daphne quickly drops out of the class leaving Ismail abandoned). It’s quite clear from the get-go that Doctor is setting up a romance plot between Ismail and Celia, and it takes too long to get there, but fortunately Doctor also provides us with an interesting friendship plot that occurs between Fatima and Ismail. Both Fatima and Ismail hail from similar ethnic backgrounds (though Fatima is a generation younger) and when Fatima is thrown out of the house, with no support for her livelihood, education, and other such things, she has to increasingly rely on Ismail’s help just to survive. Fatima, as we soon discover, is a feminist, an anticolonialist, steeped in academic rhetoric concerning social inequality, and most importantly for our understanding: she’s a lesbian. gasp To a certain extent, Doctor’s structure strangely enough replicates a heteronormative family unit, as at one point, it seems possible that Ismail will marry Celia, and that Fatima has become a kind of surrogate daughter (a kind of imperfect replacement for Zubi). Though the novel takes too long to set up the connection between Celia and Ismail—indeed, Doctor is a talented writer and it’s perfectly clear that both characters are traumatized, so we could have used some editing in the first 100 pages—the sociopolitical import of the novel is obvious, and the novel especially provides the kind of ending not usually fit for so many characters who exist on society’s fringes. Somehow, Doctor manages to provide us with a convincing ending where outcasts and pariahs do not necessarily succumb to violent deaths and premature termination from the plotting.

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A Review of Lily Yuriko Nagai Havey’s Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp (University of Utah Press, 2014).

What an absolutely amazing book! There can be no other estimation for such an important document that is part of the long-standing recovery effort related to the Japanese American internment experience. Lily Yuriko Nagai Havey’s Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp is a mixed-genre, creative nonfiction memoir that employs photographs, narrative, and watercolor paintings to represent and to give life to Havey’s experiences as a ten-year old who first must endure living at an assembly center and then in the harsh conditions of Colorado’s Amache internment camp. The narrative is straightforward enough and one that recalls other internment works (such as Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile, Mitsuye Yamada’s Desert Run, etc) in its depiction of the monotony, the psychic struggles, and the everyday desultory life of languishing in what is basically an inhospitable place. There are moments of pleasure and even happiness, which erupt in Havey’s narrative in unexpected places: the light of the sun when it hits a cold and barren landscape or the return of a father from long periods away (working outside of the internment camp in order to escape its confines and to provide for the family). In other moments, we constantly see how the internees make the most of meager circumstances, continuing to persevere despite their imprisonment. Again, it is the minor moments which surface as a brutal and stark reminder of indomitable spirits, such as the desire of Havey’s mother to continue polishing the pot-bellied stove, or the move to decorate the ramshackle interiors of the interment barracks. But, what makes Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp so dynamic and so indispensable is its visual catalog, one that includes photographs (indeed, as Havey notes, in the last year of the internment camp, a camera was able to be used by residents) and watercolor paintings that Havey created over time to represent her experiences. The watercolor paintings are notable in that they are far from directly representational: most have abstract and symbolic qualities that seem exactly appropriate as a kind of formal conceit that illuminates such a fragmenting and harrowing experience.

Here’s a link to one of the watercolor paintings:


Havey often uses pastels (an effect to a certain extent of the watercolor approach), which ends up also functioning within a light scheme that comes off as ghostly. As these watercolors accompany the direct narrative of the internment, a multifaceted portrayal emerges that reminds us of the continued work that needs to be done in order to reconsider how this experience impacted so many Americans (Japanese in ethnicity and otherwise). Finally, I would like to remark on the production quality of this book: the pages used are the kinds found in art and painting studies, with a glossy finish. Certain to stand the test of time, one must pick up this essential and new addition to the canon of internment literatures.

Internment literatures based upon place:
Topaz: Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile; Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine
Minidoka: Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes and Other Writings
Manzanar: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar
Heart Mountain: Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Beyond Heart Mountain
Poston: Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower

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A Review of Ed Lin’s Ghost Month (Soho Crime, 2014).

So when I picked up Ed Lin’s Ghost Month, I automatically assumed it was another book in Lin’s Robert Chow’s detective series (which includes This is a Bust, One Red Bastard, and Snakes Can’t Run). Instead, we have another book entirely, which revolves around Jing-nan (aka Johnny), a twenty-ish character languishing in a life he never wanted (inheriting the debts of his father and running a stall out of Taipei’s famed Night Market) living in a country he doesn’t want (Taiwan). The opening of the novel begins inauspiciously enough with Jing-nan discovering that the love of his life Julia Huang has been murdered. Jing-nan hadn’t kept in touch with Julia because of a promise he made that he would only marry her if he had established himself in a career and with full preparedness for life as a married couple. When he must leave UCLA without finishing his degree and returns to Taiwan, but not soon after, his mother dies in a tragic accident and his father dies just three weeks later due to health issues. Needless to say, Jing-nan’s life is turned upside down. He takes on the family business, while realizing that must pay back the debt his father had accrued over time. Thus, his romance with Julia is effectively dead, and he never hears about Julia until the news that a betel-nut stand worker has been found killed. This betel-nut stand worker is none other than Julia Huang. For about one hundred pages of the novel, Lin employs Jing-nan as the perfect narrator to welcome a reader with little understanding of Taipei. Jing-nan carefully and meticulously lays out the density of the city, its cultural particularities, and more importantly, its underground and unofficial economies. Toward the ending of this longer than usual preamble to the noir-plotting, he visits Julia’s family as a mode of honoring her memory. They beseech Jing-nan to find out more about the mysterious circumstances of Julia’s death and though reluctant, Jing-nan agrees. On the way out of the house, he is accosted by a stranger who warns him not to investigate. Later on, this stranger reappears and makes the same warning and punctuates his threat with ominous promises of physical harm and death. Thus begins the noir-plot that readers might have been waiting for, but Lin is really balancing more than one narrative here. On one level, the novel is really a character study of Jing-nan, who simultaneously comes to tell us about the complicated historical and social texture of Taiwan, which includes tensions with aboriginal tribes, the continuing standoff with mainland China, as well as the national drive to modernize and to displace older forms of commerce and culture. On the other, Lin introduces the noir plot as a way to get at some of these social issues and to some extent, then, this mystery doesn’t function as seamlessly as other texts that stick more closely to formula structures. My assessment is no means a critique of Lin’s work, which is multifaceted and benefits from the trademark humor that we’ve come to expect in his writings, but rather to elucidate the varied workings of this novel. Though Jing-nan’s fidelity to solving Julia Huang’s murder can stretch the bounds of credulity, the novel succeeds primarily due to Lin’s construction of a flawed but intriguing noir anti-hero, and we can see this novel as the start of another series.

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A Review of Michael Cho’s Shoplifting (Pantheon, 2014).

In Shoplifting, Asian Canadian graphic novelist Michael Cho brings us a poignant, nuanced narrative of a young woman trying to figure out her path in life. Our protagonist is Corinna Park, who may or may not be Asian American (an issue I’ll come back to later). She works for an advertisement agency in New York City, but finds her job less than fulfilling. The narrative starts on a day when she’s in a boardroom meeting coming up with an advertising campaign for a perfume that will be marketed to 9 year old girls. She makes an off-color remark that gestures to the sense of ennui that she feels working in a company that is far from her passion. As an undergraduate, Corinna majored in English and thought that she’d one day write novels. Instead, she feels lonely, socially anxious, and generally finds her job desultory. This graphic novel is a coming-of-age that begins when Corinna is brought in by the head of the company and told to rethink why she is at the advertising agency. The title refers to an illicit habit that Corinna maintains whenever she is at the local grocery store. She manages to shoplift a magazine by inserting it in between the pages of a newspaper. She doesn’t provide a reason for why she does it; indeed, she doesn’t lack the money to buy the newspaper but it gives her a kind of thrill. The shoplifting is of course a larger metaphor for the fact that Corinna needs a jumpstart, some sort of obvious sign to move into a new occupation or life trajectory. Fortunately, the graphic novel provides a conflation of different events that lead Corinna to make a monumental decision. Cho’s art has a nice cartoon-style to it. The production design team also saw fit to use a four-toned color scheme system, where pink is mixed in with grays, blacks, and whites.

The use of pink to structure the color is an interesting one and gives the graphic narrative a kind of lighter feel to it than the content of the story would probably allow for on its own. Cho is particularly effective at rendering the alienation that can come with living in a metropolis: Corinna is often framed in scenes with a ton of other individuals, whether commuting by subway or at some sort of gathering. A particular favorite detail of mine was Cho’s focus on internet dating, a quagmire of hilariously bad profiles that Corinna must sift through when she gets home. But, perhaps, the most intriguing element is Cho’s choice to veil Corinna’s ethnic background. With a Korean surname, it would seem very possible that she’s Asian American, but there’s nothing contextually provided that would determine this with any sort of certitude. It brings to mind the question of how race gets represented in the visual register and how graphic novels present more avenues for cultural critics to attend to the complexities of racial formation. A wonderful work, the first I hope of many more by Cho. Certainly, a book I will adopt for future classroom courses on the graphic novel.

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Asian American Literature Fans - Megareview for September 16 2014 Amazon Imprints

A Review of Kirstin Chen’s Soy Sauce for Beginners (New Harvest, 2014).

I’ve slowly been working through Amazon’s publishing list, which brings me to Kirstin Chen’s Soy Sauce for Beginners, which is definitely on the lighter side of Asian American literature. It will be sure to fulfill the needs and desires of those who are especially interested in romance and courtship plots. In this case, we have a transnational Singaporean culinary twist as our protagonist, Gretchen Lin, travels back to her homeland in order to take a temporary job working in the family company. Her father and her uncle both run a soy sauce business that has been operating for almost three generations, but Gretchen’s arrival is not necessarily a felicitous time for everyone. Gretchen’s marriage is over, while her mother is suffering from health complications that require her to be on daily dialysis. Not helping matters is the fact that her mother continues to drink heavily. The soy sauce business is also in a state of transition. Gretchen’s cousin Cal has just been fired, after he attempted to shift the focus of the company to cheaper, mass-produced, trendier products, a move that ultimately backfired when it was discovered that these items were tainted and caused food poisoning. Thus, Gretchen’s father and uncle want to push the company back in the direction of its artisanal roots. Gretchen also happens to be working for the company at the same time as her best college friend, Frankie; she managed to get Frankie a business consulting position. With her best friend in tow—two single ladies as it were—we know that there are romance troubles certain to appear on the horizon. So the stage is set: will Gretchen (and Frankie) find love in Singapore? Will the business get back on track? Will Gretchen’s mother get sober? These are the issues at play in the novel. For those in Asian American Studies, what will be of further interest is the question of class privilege and modernization, especially in postcolonial context. Here, Gretchen never has to worry about where her next meal is coming from. Indeed, she is the daughter of a successful business magnate. In some sense, when she returns to Singapore, without a husband or a child and with no clear career path (she’s gotten an MA in musical education, but does not know she is going to do with this degree), she still has a tremendous safety net. The issue here is whether or not such a story ultimately provides a useful apparatus to explore the problems and tensions that have traditionally energized the field: elements such as social inequality and racial formation. Despite its more airy plotline, Chen obviously shows a gift for the construction of a lively protagonist, one which you can’t help root for, even if it already seems a given that she’ll find her way somehow. And the conclusion is, I think, one that moves beyond mere romance sentiment and moves this debut outside of some of the more stereotypical endings in which the protagonist’s success is so often levied on her successful pairing with a male partner (with money, good lucks, and a sense of humor to boot)! =)

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A Review of Lori M. Lee’s Gates of Thread and Stone (Skyscape, 2014).

(does the cover have an Asian girl on it? does it matter? who knows?!)

Lori M. Lee’s debut novel Gates of Thread and Stone comes out of an amazon.com publishing imprint called Skyscape, which is focused on young adult cultural productions. Though I was wary about reviewing titles from this imprint, it’s quite clear that amazon is very serious about this venture, especially because the production value and editing in these works are of top-notch, big five publishing variety. With the recent spat between Hatchette Books and Amazon going on, let’s hope that there is a way for big and small presses to continue to thrive, to make some sort of reasonable profit, and for innovative work to continue to be produced. Lee’s debut is part of an intended series that will involve its first person protagonist, Kai, who is a teenager with the ability to bend time. Yes, she can manipulate time in such a way as to slow things down and then defend herself better in fights and escape dangerous situations. Kai lives in a city called Ninurta, a kind of throwback to the Medieval era and certainly inspired by fantasy fiction. Ninurta is segregated according to class. Those of the highest backgrounds eventually get to settle in the White Court, which is highly fortified and guarded by special humans who have their minds wiped and are called sentinels. When the novel opens, Kai subsists as a messenger, trying to make extra credits in order to survive. Her surrogate brother Reev works at a local bar. When Reev disappears, Kai decides that she is going to find him and teams up with Avan, a man who runs a local store. There are rumors of a malevolent figure called the Black Rider, who is kidnapping individuals in the city for unknown reasons, but as Kai and Reev find out, they will have to travel beyond Ninurta’s borders, through the harsh Outlands, across a forest, and into the void, to find out whether or not the Black Rider is involved in Reev’s disappearance. These places beyond Ninurta’s fortified walls all harbor deadly gargoyles. With the help of a traveling device called a gray, Avan and Kai are just able to make it to the Void and come upon a settlement in the desert in which the Black Rider can be found, but the Black Rider ends up being someone else entirely and shifts the novel into a new register in which myth, deities, and super-beings come to be unveiled. Lee takes some time to world build in this novel and fortunately, it’s so complex that readers have a lot to digest. At the same time, Lee sticks to the tried and true formula that fans of the genre will recognize: the not-so-normal heroine, who discovers that she possesses some unique power or ancestry, that will eventually get her into trouble and also move her into the path of a romantic foil. The late stage shift and plot reveals are a dicey gamble and it remains to be seen whether or not Lee can sustain the level of intrigue in the second book, especially given the fact that so much of the first novel was predicated on how little readers and Kai understood the social structure and power dynamics that undergird Ninurta. A solid debut!

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A Review of Andrew Xia Fukuda’s Crossing (Skyscape, 2010).

Billed as a young adult novel, Andrew Xia Fukuda’s debut Crossing was one of the first books to come out of amazon.com as a publishing house. The editing and production values of the book are of the highest quality, as evidenced by this engrossing narrative, one that will certainly cause readers to either “love” or “hate” the climactic conclusion. The novel is told from the first person perspective of a high school student named Xing, who grows up in Ashland, New York, a semi-rural town. He is one of two students of Asian descent in the entire high school, the other being Naomi Lee, his very close friend. Perhaps, we’re not too surprised to discover that Xing experiences bullying from some of his classmates; he’s an outsider and knows it, but the novel also throws in another interesting element into the equation when students start disappearing. Their bodies are typically found later in frozen lakes or in bits and pieces, and it’s apparent there is a serial killer on the loose. While these events wreak havoc on the high school, Xing has other complications to deal with, including a less-than-stellar home life and the possibility that he is going to sing in a school musical production. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are other social outcasts at Slackenville High, including a new student named Jan Blair, who boasts the very same name of the antagonist from The Blair Witch Project. When Jan is introduced, students start name-calling right away (in this sense, the high school-ers seem far more petulant than I ever remembered from personal experience, but hey, I guess I dodged a bullet) and it does not help that Jan is unkempt, pale, with stringy hair and a funky fashion style. Jan has been relegated to the netherworld of high school, a place that Xing knows all too well. You can expect that Jan and Xing are thus on a collision course in the novel, with Jan hoping for a romantic affiliation with Xing, but Xing begins to develop romantic feelings for Naomi. These various entanglements come to a head by the novel’s conclusion, and Fukuda has an obvious sense of where the novel must go. Though the novel can come off as heavy-handed, Fukuda’s success is in revealing how a social monster might be created rather than just birthed. A definitely engrossing debut novel for Fukuda; let’s hope he returns to exploring these ethnic and racial themes in his follow-up To The Hunt trilogy.

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A Review of Susan Ee’s Angelfall (Skyscape, 2012); World After (Skyscape, 2013).

It’s the apocalypse in a way you might have not expected in Susan Ee’s debut, Angelfall, which turns conceptions of angels on their heads. In this novel, our protagonist and storyteller is Penryn Young, the requisite teenager that appears in these paranormal young adult fictions. She has one younger sister, Paige, (about seven years old) who suffered an accident as an infant and is now wheelchair bound. She has been raised under the spotty care of her schizophrenic mother. When angels descend on earth to wreak havoc upon the human populace across the globe, anarchy rains. People have abandoned their homes and are looking to go to less populated places. Penryn and her family hail from Silicon Valley, so their best choice is to head into the local hills. Things go south quite quickly when Penryn and her family end up interrupting a fight among angels. For whatever reason, Penryn assists the one angel who seems to be getting sacrificed; indeed, his wings are cut off, but in the process of drawing attention to herself, another angel takes off with Paige, flying away. Though Penryn has a dislike of all angels, she decides she must help nurse the wounded angel back to health if she is to have any chance to find her sister. The angel is named Raffe, and soon, they are traveling northward, with Penryn having convinced Raffe to take her to a place called the aerie, which may have some answers about Paige’s whereabouts. Raffe’s goal is of course to get his wings surgically reattached, and he is convinced that someone may be able to help him at the aerie. Of course, traveling in a post-apocalyptic world is no bowl of cherries and Penryn and Raffe have to deal with cannibals, roving bands of thieves and gangsters, and militia type men intent on resisting the angels. For the first half of the novel, Penryn and Raffe’s connection is obviously tenuous, with each showing an apparent dislike of each other, but as things go on, they follow the credo of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and this approach allows them a fragile alliance that helps them to survive various obstacles. As the novel approaches its climax, the dynamic duo reaches the aerie, a place where angels and humans are congregating in San Francisco. Once there, it becomes clear the angels are set up in factions and that there is dissension among the ranks. It is also possible that Paige might be in one of these rooms, being held against her will. The conclusion is a thrilling, action-packed sequence that nicely sets up a sequel: is Paige alive? Will Raffe get his wings surgically reattached? And whatever happen to Penryn’s schizophrenic mother who disappears not long after Raffe and Penryn decide to travel northward together? All such questions can be answered when you read this book! As with other books in the paranormal young adult fiction genre, the question of race seems to be completely avoided. Most of this novel is set in Northern California, certainly a very diverse place, but there is—from what I can recall—never a mention of any racial or ethnic difference at any point in this text. Is Penryn white? Does it matter? These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially as Asian American writers have increasingly delved into popular genres in which race apparently doesn’t have to factor at all. Beyond these issues that I always think about, the novel is superbly entertaining with all of the requisite things you’d want in this genre, including the plucky, indefatigable heroine who somehow gets herself involved in some sort of supernatural storyline in which a guy, who may or may not be a possible romantic partner, plays a major part.

Apparently, according to GoodReads, the Penryn and the End of Days series is going to be at least five novels, which is sort of strange given the penchant for trilogies dominating the young adult market right now, but it gives us of course a lot to look forward to. In World After, the second installment, we see Penryn being separated from Raffe after the explosive events of the last novel. Penryn is also finally reunited with Paige, but—and there are spoilers forthcoming, so I would stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled—Paige is a little bit different at this point, having been subjected to some sort of experimentation that has altered her bite and her taste in food. Penryn also managed to get back in touch with her mother, so there is a sort of familial reunion. Not surprisingly and given the continued tensions occurring in the angelic realm, we know that this reunion will not last for long. Added into the mix is a woman named Clara, who Penryn had inadvertently saved in the last novel. Clara has prematurely aged, as her life force was being slowly sucked out of her by creatures who seem to be experiments gone terribly wrong: monstrosities with stinger tales and grasshopper like bodies who function to do the dirty work of fallen angels. These scorpion-like creatures can also fly, and the events from the conclusion of the last novel show us that they can be unleashed upon the world. When Penryn and her group of survivors are attacked by a band of these creatures, she is separated from Paige. Thus, Penryn, her mother, and Clara travel to Alcatraz in the hopes of finding her. By this point, the novel’s storyline concerning Paige grows a little thin, and readers might be wondering about Raffe and when he may or may not be reunited with Penryn. The repartee between Penryn and Raffe was certainly one of the highlights of the first book and the second takes too long for these figures to find their way back to each other. Surely, Ee does tantalize the possibility of their connection. For instance, Penryn is now owner to the sword that was once most faithful to Raffe, and Penryn is subjected to visions that allow her to understand that Raffe’s distant behavior was in fact a kind of cover to his true feelings. Ee does provide some intriguing future prospects for the series, especially given the genetic manipulation of species, something that moves this book more firmly into the area of biotechnology and issues related to assisted reproductive technologies. Here, it seems as though one of the rogue angels has a plan to reintroduce Armageddon on earth, and it definitely involves creating the perfect genetically modified specimens. It would seem that if we’re reading any political allegory into the novel, it appears with respect to this issue of genetics and who gets to play god when it comes to the future of Earth. Though it takes quite awhile before Raffe makes a substantive appearance in book 2, fans should be pleased that he’s still around and that there still seems to be an inkling of potential romance between the two characters, even if the relationship is supposedly forbidden. Indeed, Raffe has told Penryn that angels who fell in love with “daughters of Men” created offspring that were essentially demons. The conclusion to World After sees an interesting new shift in relation to power and destruction and we’ll look forward to seeing how the series continues to unfold.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 12, 2014

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Steph Cha’s Beware Beware (Minotaur Books, 2014); Lan Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm (Viking Adult, 2014); Tania Malik’s Three Bargains (WW Norton, 2014); Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing (Arsenal Pulp, 2014); A Cut-Like Wound (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014).

A Review of Steph Cha’s Beware Beware (Minotaur Books, 2014).

Again, I failed to hold off on reading a book that I was saving for a rainy day. This time it was Steph Cha’s Beware Beware, which is the follow-up to Follow Her Home. In Follow her Home (reviewed earlier here), Cha created a wonderful noir-ish heroine with Juniper Song, who falls into an unofficial investigation, which ends up getting increasingly complicated, so much so that the body count includes one of her closest friends. In Beware Beware, Song has gone more official; she’s an intern now working with an actual investigatory team, which includes her boss Chaz and another supervisor Arturo. Song is finally put on her own case, which involves her scoping out a woman’s boyfriend to see if he is cheating on her, and if he is into dealing drugs. The woman, Daphne Freamon, a semi-famous painter who is African American, simply wants more information about what her boyfriend, Jamie Landon, does with all of his time, especially when he seems to disappear for days. As Song discovers, Jamie doesn’t do much but hang out with an aging, but still well-known Hollywood movie star named Joe Tilley. But when Joe Tilley is discovered by Jamie with his wrists slashed after a night of hard partying and Song is the first person to come upon the crime scene after being alerted to the goings-on by Daphne, the novel shifts into high gear. Did Jamie kill Joe, perhaps in a drug-fueled haze? If not Jamie, who would have the motive? Could it be Joe’s son from an earlier marriage? Could it be an ex-wife? Song is up for the challenge to investigate and indeed is hired by Daphne to look into the possibility that Jamie may have been set up. Cha adds a very important subplot early on involving the daughter of one of the murderer’s from her debut. Indeed, Song has moved in with Lori, the young Korean American woman who Song had “followed” home in the first part of the series. Lori’s life has turned around and she even has a promising new Korean boyfriend named Isaac, but her connection with her uncle Taejin creates more complications. Indeed, after visiting him at his auto shop, she bumps into a Korean thug Winfred, and Taejin cautions her to treat this man very nicely. Of course, Winfred becomes more menacing. As Lori maintains a fragile line between flirtation and friendship, thing soon things escalate. As the central plot involving the murder resolves, both Song and her boss Chaz realize the improbability of the scenario that eventually plays out, but even as the mystery plot seems both complicated and hardly feasible (with so much premeditation that your head may be swimming), Cha’s handle on the core genre element of detection is top-notch. Indeed, you are effectively pulled into this labyrinthine narrative precisely because of the desire to know. The threads all do resolve in one way or another and the noir-ish ending shows us how murky the line between heroes and villains can be. Cha continues to draw upon the rich Los Angeles noir tradition. Last time I mentioned Walter Mosley and I couldn’t help but think about the femme fatale in that plot, Daphne Monet, who seems to have certain parallels to Daphne Freamon in Cha’s novel. I also really enjoyed Cha’s movement more firmly into the Hollywood film industry here, which allows Cha to delve into some different spaces than the last novel, which focused more Korean ethnic subcultures. Another winning installment in the Juniper Song series, and we’ll hope for many more.

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A Review of Lan Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm (Viking Adult, 2014).

Lan Cao leaves the first novelist’s club (the ones remaining that I keep wondering about are Brian Ascalon Roley and le thi diem thuy, both writers that I hope have something still cooking) with The Lotus and the Storm, a war epic in line with the work of Tan Twan Eng and Roma Tearne, especially with respect to its sweep, scope, and pathos. Given the ever-growing body of literature devoted to representations of the Vietnam War, Cao continues to delve into the psychic aftermath for those who still continue to suffer in the wake of a country’s long history with foreign rulers, invasions, and occupations. The story is primarily told between two alternating narrators: there is Mai, who in 1963, is just a young girl, who is growing up in the very long shadow of war and foreign occupation; and then there is Minh, Mai’s father, who is a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. The French have left the country with their tails behind them, while the Americans are rolling in and increasing their presence. The president, Ngo Dinh Diem, has just been overthrown by a military coup, which has not been supported by Minh. Minh is able to escape from the fallout of his dissension with the support of a close friend, Phong, but the realization that his country is moving in a direction that portends its eventual downfall leaves Minh with a bitter sense of what the future will bring. Their lives are completely thrown into disarray when Mai’s sister Khanh is killed by a stray bullet. Mai goes mute, while Minh and his wife Quy eventually grow apart. The situation in the country continues to deteriorate, while Cao puts to effective use the tense period of the Tet Offensive to show how badly things are going for the South Vietnamese and the American military. The story of Mai and Minh during the war appears to alternate to the present moment in which Minh lives in Virginia and is being taking care of by Mrs. An, a woman who has come to be a part of Minh’s extended family. Mrs. An and Minh are part of a hui, a rotating money club, which has come to some disagreement over the ways that funds are being used and handled. Mrs. An in particular is having trouble with her monthly payments, which becomes a source of contention between Minh and Mai, who is a grown adult, but still suffering from what might be called psychotic breaks linked backed to the war. Perhaps, the most effective and original element of Cao’s novel is a kind of surprise narrative move (something that reminded me of Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth) about halfway through the novel that discursively shows us exactly what kind of state Mai is still in as an adult and how there are still so many things that these narrators are not telling us. The withholding by these narrators does create some momentum issues, especially because it takes quite a bit of time before we start to see what is going on underneath these characters and how unstable the psychic landscape has been for them both. Cao’s novel is impressive in its panoramic descriptive force, but the novel will ultimately require patience, especially in the first 100 pages. There are numerous late-stage revelations that make the reading experience quite an emotional rollercoaster and by the time you make it to page 300, you’ll be reading the final hundred or so pages at a lightning speed, trying to figure out how the novel will resolve its many loose ends. To be sure, Cao doesn’t wrap everything up too neatly, but a surprise appearance in the final forty pages is an interesting and perhaps debatable choice, especially with how that particular plot plays out. As the narrative accrues its many textures, the eventual result is a novel with an outstanding representational intervention in the links between the individual and the social, trauma and its aftermath, Vietnam and America. A must-read for fans of American and Asian American literature, war epics, and those interested in representations of psychic instability!

With apologies in my original version for the incorrect President name. GEEZ! Yikes =). In my defense, most of the reviews are written in the wee hours of the morning when I have finished the novel LOL.

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A Review of Tania Malik’s Three Bargains (WW Norton, 2014).

Tania Malik’s debut Three Bargains was a novel that I had highly anticipated; it received a very early listing on amazon. As with many other works set in India, this novel deals with both class and caste and follows a character of humble origins as he must engage his perilous subjective and social positioning. Our ostensible protagonist (told in the third person) is Madan, a young boy, with one sister (Swati). His father, a sort of bodyguard and thug, and his mother, a maidservant are both employed by a man of great means and power, Aavtar Singh. Aavtar, for whatever reason, takes a very early liking to Madan, especially because in an early meeting between Aavtar and Madan’s father, Aavtar realizes that Madan can read some English (ah, the colonial influence at all social levels). Madan is to be enrolled in a local school, The Gorapur Academy, which will be funded by Aavtar himself. This turn of events is certainly fortuitous, as Madan’s mother seems to think, but from here, things begin to go downhill. Madan’s father increasingly becomes unreliable at work to the extent that Aavtar gives him an ultimatum to improve his performance or suffer serious consequences. Both Madan’s mother and Madan realize what a dire predicament they are in; if Madan’s father cannot be relied upon, then they all may be booted out into the street. When Madan’s father ends up selling off Swati in a sort of child marriage in order to cover some debts, Madan makes a desperate plea to Aavtar to do anything to get Swati back, even if it means an irreparable action against Madan’s father. Swati is found in a tragic condition, having been raped and sexually assaulted; and Madan’s father is assumed to have been killed off as part of what we might call one of the “bargains” of the title. From this point forward, it becomes evident that Madan is a kind of surrogate son figure. He comes to learn much about the finances of Aavtar’s estate and increasingly acts as in a footman’s capacity to the elites that populate the area. Madan soon becomes infatuated by a young woman named Neha, who is of the elite background; their affair is no doubt illicit given their class and caste differences, and when they are found out (with Neha being pregnant no less), Madan is forced to leave Gorapur behind him, with many assuming he has been killed off by Singh’s henchman. Instead, he’s subsisting in New Delhi, until he makes a fortuitous connection with an aspiring businessman. Together, they forge a great business empire, so huge that they have the ability to create modern megacities, one of which will be taking over the Gorapur area. Yes, Madan’s ultimate aim is to undermine the power that Aavtar Singh possesses over his own ancestral homeland, a kind of revenge we might say for Madan’s expulsion from Gorapur and the fact that he had to leave behind his family, a possible wife (Neha), and the child she bore, which was taken away by a Singh’s religious advisor. This section is the part that stretches the most credulity, only insofar as the time span is compressed, and we wonder how Madan and his business partner actually did manage to succeed in so many different business ventures (hotels, apparel, construction, etc). Nevertheless, the final sequence brings many threads together and reminds me very much of Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm, precisely because the novel requires some patience: the late stage revelations are poignant and the lessons (for Madan) hard-earned. There’s an interesting meta-discursive moment when Madan actually tells someone else the story of his own life, something that then contrasts against the third person narration that Malik has used up until that point, and we begin to see how a character might have seen his own trajectory, independent of this omniscient entity who follows him. Malik grants a very antagonistic character a much more contoured concluding depiction, but I predict some readers may balk at the rapprochement that is ultimately staged. Of course, the novel does dovetail with the serious issues still plaguing India in its move to modernization. Indeed, even as Madan ascends to an incredibly high social position given his successful business ventures, it is apparent that the incredible wealth disparities between the rich and the poor remain. One wonders about what good Madan could do with all of his affluence for those who might have started off in the same position as he did as a young child. Malik’s debut is poignant and multitextured.

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A Review of Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing (Arsenal Pulp, 2014)

Tom Cho’s debut, Look Who’s Morphing, is a loosely linked story/ vignette collection that is perhaps the most funky, weird, psychedelic read of 2014 (or perhaps of the new millennium, at least for me). The title is a gesture to the ways that characters in these stories are constantly taking on costumes (literal or metaphorical or allegorical) and assuming different identities and subjective positions. While in and of itself, this conceit might not seem so strange or different, Cho will occasionally drop in the random cultural reference or action that will not necessarily make all that much sense, but contributes to a sense of comedy in the narratives. For instance, in “The Exorcist,” the main character and his aunt are thrown together in a confrontation with evil when the aunt happens upon an apron to which fake breasts are attached. There’s something wrong with this apron—not only fashion-wise obviously—but because it causes the aunt to be demonically possessed. Yes, my friends, the aunt ultimately channels some Linda Blair, but fortunately, the main character has some help and is able to discern that the aunt needs to get the apron off in order to be “cured.” This story is just one of many in which a popular cultural reference becomes the grounds of a funky narrative, but of course, Cho is also working more metaphorically: the aunt’s desire to be someone else is, we might say, another way of exploring the obsessions that a given person might have to be someone else. If there is a culmination of weirdness, an acme of the truly queer, it occurs during the last two stories, which are fortunately longer than most of the others. Were you expecting the protagonist to morph into Godzilla, to ravage his hometown, to eat a vegetable garden, and then get a bad gastrointestinal experience? Well, probably not. Oh, and then, there’s the sequence where the protagonist becomes a sort of “rock cock god,” and makes a name for himself in Tokyo. As a giant-sized rock cock star, he has his set of female groupies. In an ingenious riffing off of Gulliver’s Travels, he is at one point tied down, only to be subjected to sexual acts by these diminutive groupies, who are of course insatiable. The one thing that Cho keeps coming back to in all of these stories seems to be one underlying theme: you are what you perform and that what you desire says as much about you as the way you actually look. While this message certainly contains gravitas as it is represented in this collection, the social contexts that ground so many of these stories are rooted in social difference, and we also understand the desire to be something else can be influenced by the desire to be nearer to something normative, to be closer to a center of power, and so we understand that desire is itself the issue: why is it that I desire to be that thing? My one critique of this collection is that many of the stories do not gain narrative force because they are simply too short and because the characters and events that do appear are so compelling, the readers simply want more. Look Who’s Morphing comes off as a prose poetry work because you’re spending time trying to figure out the metaphorical resonances of each plot twist or turn: why did the character morph into this particular figure? why must the story be set in Tokyo? Such questions encourage you to revisit the work again to try to make sense of what seems nonsensical, to have some fun with such a whimsical story collection. Biographies state that the Asian Australian writer Cho is working a novel (YAY!) and we can be sure to expect the unexpected.

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A Review of Anita Nair’s A Cut-Like Wound (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014).

In a world of strange coincidences, I read Anita Nair’s A Cut-like Wound just after finishing a television series about a serial killer (the outstanding and incredibly dark True Detective). Nair’s newest publication is also about a serial killer, but in this case, it would seem to be a transgender woman named Bhuvana who finds unsuspecting men, hits them over the head with a blunt object, then strangles and slices their necks using a ligature. On the case is a washed up investigator named Gowda and his newly hired underling, Santosh. Though the two have a less than stellar connection, they realize that they must find some sort of synergy if they are to find out the identity of this killer. Nair uses a relatively interesting mode of ironic storytelling: the readers know immediately more information concerning the serial killer than Gowda and Santosh do, so we are propelled by our desire for Gowda and Santosh to come to the conclusions that have already been made apparent to us, but Nair also uses an effective doubling technique within the novel which makes it unclear as to the final and actual identity of Bhuvana. Indeed, because there are a number of genderqueer and queer individuals who occupy the novel and because we’re not sure who may be performing as one gender or another, our suspicions are also motivating us to race to the finish. Nair rounds out the story with the human interest and romance plot angles: Gowda, for instance, is a family man, trying somehow to be a good influence on his son, while also trying to navigate the re-emergence of a former flame, Urmila, who presents herself as available even though she, too, is married. The most intriguing discourse (at least from my perspective) that Nair conjures up in this fascinating novel is of course the question of queer representation, especially in Indian context. Bhuvana is made out to be something different than her hijra counterparts, but Nair is clearly attempting to navigate a complicated line: on the one hand, depicting a marginalized community with a full-fledged understanding of their complicated social positioning, but also, employing that same community as the location from which a serial killer originates. Given the long association of queers with social deviance, this relationship is particularly thorny and Nair’s backstory for our serial killer gestures to nature of social inequality as it appears through the paradigm of caste, class, and sexuality. Another interesting element in relation to the narrative is the use of the word “eunuchs” to demarcate the presence of hijras. Here, eunuchs take on a connotative significance in Indian context that is different from here in the West. Whereas there is tendency to think of the eunuch as someone who has been physically castrated, Nair clearly uses the term in reference to individuals who identify as “third sex” in India, men who are not necessarily castrated, but who are more likened to a positionality of genderqueerness. Additionally, the structure of the police system in India was a little bit difficult for me to wrap my head around, but Nair has obviously done her homework here, as we discover that there is a chain of command through which Gowda must operate, even if it means he must occasionally hold back on hunches and leads. Gowda is represented as a figure who is sort of in a mid-life crisis and the case of the serial killer provides him with a sense of purpose and calling that clarifies what is most important to him. Finally, as a genre based work, Nair is firmly in control of the detective plot, so fans of the murder mystery will be highly compelled to pick up this work.

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For more on Bitter Lemon Press:

Small/ Independent Press Spotlights (September 7, 2014): Transit Lounge (Australia) and Digital Fabulists (United States)

I’ve been trying to focus my readings on some new publishers and this small press spotlights considers Transit Lounge (Australia) and Digital Fabulists (United States). Here are links to these two publishers so you can get a sense of their full catalogues:



Transit Lounge is particularly of interest to us because it focuses on publishing work that queries the interconnectedness between the East and West. Digital Fabulists, on the other hand, is part of the growing wave of publishing devoted to the electronic market. I still haven’t managed to warm up entirely to e-books, but I can understand especially their utility. Imagine having your entire library based in a kindle: easiest moving experience ever. Here, I should probably link a picture from my office before I had to move:

Finally, I am reviewing a suite of books from these publishers. What I especially appreciate about these independent publishers is their ability to put out bold and exciting works, ones without traditional plotlines, character constructions, or discursive formations. It is this kind of freedom that makes such publishers innovative, and we would hope that there would continue to be a nice balance between more commercial publishers and ones such as these.

Without further ado, some reviews!

In this post reviews of: Cyril Wong’s Let Me Tell You Something about That Night: Strange Tales (with illustrations by Jason Wing) (Transit Lounge, 2009); Ouyang Yu’s Diary of a Naked Official (Transit Lounge, 2014); Michele Lee’s Banana Girl (Transit Lounge, 2013); Isaac Ho’s Hell is Full of Strippers (Digital Fabulists, 2012); Isaac Ho's The Repatriation of Henry Chin (Digital Fabulists, 2011).

A Review of Cyril Wong’s Let Me Tell You Something about That Night: Strange Tales (with illustrations by Jason Wing) (Transit Lounge, 2009).

(Singapore cover edition)

(low res, u.s. edition)

Let Me Tell You Something About that Night is one of the few publications by Cyril Wong that you can acquire stateside. Though Wong is quite well known in Singapore and has published a number of poetry collections, his work has not achieved much recognition in the United States quite yet. In Let Me Tell You Something about That Night, Wong dials up the weird factor and never lets up. The subtitle “strange tales” gestures to the fact that these are variations of whimsical fairy tales, certainly informed by Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm Brothers rather than say Disney-ified princess narratives. In the first story, “The Lake Children,” a husband and wife lose their daughter in a tragic accident; she drowns after falling through the ice of a frozen lake. In the wake of her death, the couple find themselves growing apart. One day, the bereaved wife decides that she will go to the same lake where her daughter died and try to get to the very spot where she fell through. We’re of course a little bit afraid for her and apparently with good reason, because she, too, falls through the ice, but what happens next you would not expect: a set of strange children sporting fins, swim over to the wife, then proceed to consume her until she is disembodied, at which point she floats through the air. She looks upon her husband before sort of dissipating out of existence. Who were those strange children who ate her? Were they the result of some sort of near-death hallucination occurring as her body succumbed to the cold and to the water? There are no answers and Wong quickly takes us into the next strange story, “The Blind Girl & the Talking Moon,” which as you might expect involves a blind girl and a relationship to a talking moon. The blind girl is raised by two mothers, a fact that is secondary to the connection the blind girl develops with the moon, who is a sort of support system in difficult times. The queer motherhood depicted in “The Blind Girl & the Talking Moon,” as well as the rather strange children with fins who appear in the first story set up the rest of the collection quite well. There are lots of transformations that occur all throughout the collection: an elf into a human woman, a butterfly into a bunny who later becomes a bear who later becomes a human woman, two women in an elevator who seem to transform into goddesses with wings who then kiss each other. There are other supernatural things and beings littered across the collection: ogres and dragon princes, caves that cause one to go back to a single point in time and over and over again, a little boy who can see how a person will look like just before they die, and another strange boy who is apparently born with a flower growing out of his anus. Underlying all stories seems to be the issue of queerness in all of its potential metaphorical iterations and the questions: how do strange people and strange things in strange worlds find love and companionship, a sense of family or achieve a sense of resolution? Such questions are ultimately not so strange as Wong makes apparent. Indeed, all the fairy tales he has constructed are simply veiled considerations of illicit love affairs, unrequited romances, tales of suffering and torment, and other such relationship complications that are compounded when one is already considered to be sexually perverse or deviant. Thus, when the elf falls in love with the human knight, the one who is already wooing a fetching young woman, we’ll understand his anguish, but Wong doesn’t let clichés crop up in his approach. In a later story, we’ll discover that the elf, so utterly smitten with the knight, ends up torching the home of the young woman, killing her and her father. Then, he takes what’s left of her body—her head in this case—and approaches a witch in the hopes that she’ll transform him into a human. Then, he is able to go into the king’s palace as this woman and wake up the knight, who is actually a prince, because he has fallen into a deep slumber. The elf-as-human woman’s kiss wakes the prince and they live happily ever after, the fact of the murder of the woman never cropping up again. The prince gets to be sleeping beauty and well, the murderous elf, he gets to be the hero he always wanted to be. And we, the readers, smile elliptically at such queerly, heteromorphic stories.

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A Review of Ouyang Yu’s Diary of a Naked Official (Transit Lounge, 2014).

Diary of a Naked Official cover V5

Well, I’m not sure where to begin exactly with Ouyang Yu’s Diary of a Naked Official. Perhaps, it’s best to start with the assumption that you’ll likely either love or hate this book, as it is certainly meant to provoke a strong reaction to readers. Diary of a Naked Official is what we might call a novel of ideas, with a narrative that really masks as a trenchant social critique of contemporary Chinese society, its movement toward a form of decadent capitalism, and the development of hypersexuality in an age of increasing alienation and apathy. The back cover provides some key information about the title as a “naked official” is apparently a term for an individual who “buys a permanent resident status for his wife and daughter in the West” while he stays behind in China. The “West” in this novel is figured as Australia and the naked official works as the “deputy director of a publishing company in a nameless city in China.” In this position, he is certainly corrupted in all ways: he embezzles, and he routinely rejects manuscripts he thinks are worthy on the literary level while favoring commercial ventures. His personal life is an endless morass of sexual encounters. In fact, it seems as if most of the novel depicts graphic encounters with the various random women, prostitutes, and other sex workers with whom the protagonist engages. This novel is not for the faint of heart: this protagonist comes off as particularly unsavory, so if you’re looking to sympathize with the main character, you should look to another book. But, if you’re interested in a more elliptical critique of contemporary Chinese society, you won’t find a more incisive example. Yu fully commits to the extremities of this character, who knows no limits to sexual hunger or to corruption and will continually succumb to his most basest instincts, because apparently, he lives in a society that supports such actions. Indeed, it is a society that seems to encourage it. The novel is not unlike Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire (reviewed earlier) in its focus on characters who cannot seem to find a moral center, even though they seem to desire it. If there is a critique to be made of this particular novel, it’s that the diary form lends itself to a kind of fragmentation and circularity that makes some of the sexual encounters seem monotonous. Certainly, that is Yu’s point per se, but this kind of representation tests the patience of the reader, even as it enacts and models the very foundations the excoriating critique being offered.

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http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Naked-Official-Ouyang-Yu-ebook/dp/B00K24Q9IG (kindle edition)

A Review of Michele Lee’s Banana Girl (Transit Lounge, 2013)

I was immediately startled by Michele Lee’s Banana Girl, as it sort of posed a reversal in gendered perspective from Ouyang Yu’s Diary of a Naked Official. In this case, the individual engaging a number of sexual escapades is the memoirist and creative nonfiction writer Michele Lee, whose work ends up reading as a kind of diary-esque log of personal experiences growing up and living in Australia, as the child of immigrants of Hmong background. Michele’s status as a self-proclaimed “banana girl,” is a nod to her belief that she is intimately Westernized and doesn’t necessarily identify as an immigrant or as an Asian. Yet, Michele’s title is much more ironic than it might seem or as it is portrayed in the narrative space precisely because she is more than willing to engage aspects of her ethnic and racial background as a way to understand her mutitextured identities. Michele is engaged in the theater arts and is a playwright. In between her dating travails, anonymous and “no strings attached” sexual encounters and ongoing sexual escapades, there is a longer narrative concerning an arts grant that will take her back to Laos, where she will do some fieldwork that will help inspire and inform her future creative endeavors. The memoir opens with about five weeks before she leaves and one of the most striking narrative threads that will appear throughout is the question of intimacy and desire that surfaces in the wake of sexual dalliances. A trip to Auckland to meet a named nicknamed only as Jackie Winchester ends up going badly, with Jackie deciding that the two should just be friends (of course, this designation occurs after they have had sex). Michele comes to realize that her expectations of men can shift, especially because she had desired so much more from this man, who had presented himself as much more than a random lay. Their connection from this point remains tentative, and Michele attempts to figure out why she is so tortured about this man. One of the most playful aspects of this memoir is Michele’s usage of nicknames for individuals, like her exes (one is called Husband) or her sexual partners (Cub; Mr. Mercedes). For all of Michele’s belief in her Westernization, it is often her dealings with Laos itself that come off as the most vivid, the desire to understand a past that cannot be experientially accessed it itself something that drives this memoir into a higher register in the sections that deal with this country and its tortured history and mobile inhabitants. Though the memoir suffers abrupt shifts in temporality and has a meandering quality, the author is so assuredly direct that you can’t help but keep reading. Indeed, there were moments where I was not expecting the author to go so squarely in a particular direction. One of the most humorous sequences for me occurs very close to the conclusion and it involves the memoirist and another person watching a set of youtube videos of individuals basically doing outrageous, ridiculous, or gross things. There is nothing necessarily groundbreaking about this part of the memoir, but I was not prepared for the author to delve into so much detail about what she was seeing, but that’s precisely the brilliance of this work. It takes you there and then goes further.

For another similarly themed book on sexuality and gender (but from the male perspective), please also see David Mura’s Where the Body Meets Memory; Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man.

For another book on Hmong ethnic contexts (from the American perspective), please see
Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer.

For More information about Banana Girl and where to buy go here:


A Review of Isaac Ho’s Hell is Full of Strippers (Digital Fabulists, 2012); The Repatriation of Henry Chin (Digital Fabulists, 2011).

Isaac Ho definitely should win an award for Hell is Full of Strippers, a novella (maybe a novelette), simply based upon its hilarious title. This slim fictional work follows the adventures of an unnamed young man who gets himself into all sorts of trouble. The story begins with the main character realizing that his affection for a woman named Sharyn is not being returned. He seeks solace at a strip club called The Old Cameltoe (another outrageous name). Once there, he receives an unforgettable lap dance with a woman named Sable, a woman who bears a strong, but not exact resemblance to Sharyn. The main character finds his job as an IT employee rather unfulfilling and his life takes an even darker turn when he is served legal papers by Sharyn: she has filed a temporary restraining order on him, based on events that took place on the very night that he had that fateful lap dance with Sable. Thus the novel turns into a sort of quest plot, as the main character desperately tries to locate Sable, who would be able to prove that the narrator was somewhere else other than harassing Sharyn. Along the way, we know he’s going to get more lap dances and meet more strippers, drink more booze and get into more trouble. By the conclusion to the novel, it’s clear that Ho has been setting us up for awhile through the lens of an unreliable narrator. Certainly not in the vein of Ishiguro, but nonetheless, Hell is Full of Strippers offers the kind of unreliable perspective where everything is obviously distorted through the eyes of someone who could drink less and exercise more. The political conceit of the novel seems more difficult to pin down. Certainly, the women that the main character meets possess a kind of depth that escapes full characterization because everything is focalized through this male figure. If Hell is Full of Strippers is a veiled social satire, it seems to function from a kind of postmodern critique in which meaning and ethics are constantly shifting. The regular-ish main character, even in his rather ribald and unadorned depictions of sex acts, seems like a sad target for all that befalls him, but even his buffoonery does not grant him much readerly empathy. Finally, it’s clear that the man has an interest in marking the social differences in the women he meets, but he himself is not identified in any way (racially or ethnically). What becomes apparent is that we do not actually know too much about the main character’s personal life (at least in terms of his own history and beyond his relationship with Sharyn), which leaves us swimming on the surface of things, living on the superficial veneer that speaks to the “hell” of this character’s life. This book coincidentally dovetails very much with the above titles by transit lounge concerning sex and social critique.
As a last note, Isaac Ho’s work is being published by Digital Fabulists, part of a new incarnation of press’s that are particularly attuned to the e-market. I was able to get my hands on a physical copy and I just wanted to state that there is still a clear attention to the highest production qualities and editing that must come with the material book! For more information about Digital Fabulists, go here:


Their entire list seems eclectic, with an obvious interest in speculative fictions!

But back to reviewing. In The Repatriation of Henry, Isaac Ho takes us into the land of speculative fiction and Asian American literature, one of my favorite intersectionalities. Reminiscent of the work of Perry Miyake in 21st Century Manzanar, Ho explores what might have happened if America freaked out over China’s global economic domination and decided to “repatriate” all citizens of Chinese ancestry into internment camps. Yes, this novel is a post-internment speculative fiction in which the title character, Henry Chin, along with his daughter, Elizabeth, are carted off to an assembly-type center and then are supposed to be shipped off to somewhere in the desert. Henry, though, has other plans in mind and seems to have been aware that just an event might happen, and is able to escape along with Elizabeth into the wilds. His plan is to have them trek for a long distance and cross over the border into Canada. Hot on their trail though is a governmental representative named Babcock, who is sure that Henry is more than just an average Chinese American. Indeed, researching into Henry’s background, Babcock discovers that Henry has an extensive military background and thus must be some sort of terrorist or spy. While Henry and Elizabeth adjust to their experiences in the wilderness, they happen to encounter a militia group that essentially takes them hostage. At this point, the novel turns a little bit into a comedy of errors, as the governmental agencies in pursuit of the two fugitives come upon hostile fire generated by the militia. Henry is able to make his escape at this time, especially with the help of a former military buddy named Clyde, but while Elizabeth had been held captive by the militia, she was raped. Thus, Henry, Clyde, and Elizabeth must go to a hospital to receive medical care, knowing that this detour will likely mean they will have to turn themselves in. The final sequence of the novel is perhaps the most satisfying because the characters move into an entirely new direction, portending the radical actions necessary to incite serious and sustainable social progression, especially given the glacial nature of the legislative process. A more lighthearted take on a dark topic.

For a related title on Asian American literature and speculative fiction, see Perry Miyake’s 21st Century Manzanar.

Buy the Books Here:


Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for August 28, 2014

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused (Push Reprint Edition, 2014);
Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2014); Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well (Sourcebooks Fire, 2014); Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone (Atavist Books, 2014); Marty Chan’s The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles: Demon Gate (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2013); Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter (Quercus, 2014).

A Review of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused (Push Reprint Edition, 2014).

I’ve been meaning to read Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused for a very long time, since it was originally published in 2002, but I haven’t had the proper motivation until I realized a sequel was coming out this year (called Bombay Blues). Push put out a paperback reprint this year, so it seemed like the right time to review it. Hidier’s Born Confused is narrated from the first person perspective of Dimple Lala, who turns seventeen early on in the novel and is experiencing many of the growing pains that come with being the child of South Asian immigrant parents. She understands herself to be an “ABCD,” which is short for “American Born Confused Desi.” The “confused” portion (and of course such an important part of the title) is the requisite ambivalence between being American and Asian. As Dimple tells us, when she’s in America, she doesn’t feel American enough, and when she’s in India, she doesn’t feel Indian enough. This confusion manifests especially in her social relationships. Her best friend, Gwyn, for instance, though a kind of misfit herself, is able to use her gregarious personality to attract the attention of her male peers. Dimple, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky and seems to find herself on the outside looking in, especially when Gwyn takes a liking to a young college boy named Karsh Kapoor. Though Karsh is the son of a family friend and an obvious potential romantic interest for Dimple especially given their shared ethnic background, it is Gwyn who immediately and aggressively pursues him. This central storyline is bolstered by a number of others, especially the one related to Dimple and her connection to her parents, however strained by the fact of cultural assimilation. Certainly, Hidier’s heroine is lively and believable, especially in her complete immersion in teen angst, but the general ethos behind the liminal position of the immigrants’ child is a well-trodden ground. Hidier’s novel doesn’t necessarily offer anything incredibly new in this regard, but nevertheless, allows her winning storyteller to come to a sense of her identity that many teens—and the novel’s target audience—can no doubt relate to. Perhaps, the most important political undercurrent of the novel appears through the regime of female friendships and how they are destabilized or reformulated in the shadow of looming heterosexual romances. Here, we can see the longer effect of the courtship plot on young adult novels, as any female who is single may become a competitor for the heroine, who is single herself and as is foundational in any courtship plot, seeks to find the proper and suitable match. The strength of Hidier’s novel is in the creation of this accessible protagonist, one who will be embraced by a wide audience, and whose quest to ameliorate her disorientation is energetically rendered.

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A Review of Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2014).

Ah, Shaun Tan has returned with Rules of Summer, a board book, aimed at young readers. The target audience will no doubt delight in the incredible images and the ethos of the narrative, which at first seems to be about some of the things that a young child might encounter on adventures through long summer days without schooling (at least from a western perspective). Yet, the rules are often whimsical and unexpected. The pictures, too, don’t ever work from an obvious connection to the “rule” being laid out. For instance, one of the early rules about never leaving a sock hanging from a clothesline has what seems to be two children cowering against a wooden fence (see picture below).

The clothesline is in the foreground with the item of clothing hanging on it. Above the children and behind them seems to be a large rabbit-looking like figure partially obscured by the wooden fence, with an enormous eye looking over the scene. What is the deal with this red rabbit? Are we supposed to be thinking metaphorically here? All of the images in the book operate in this elliptical way, where what we see does not necessarily match up directly with the rule being explored. As one moves through the board book, it’s apparent that Tan’s signature stylistic flourishes remain: strange looking creatures often posed in semi-industrial environments. Looking back to Tan’s phenomenal The Arrival, we can say that issues of social difference and labor never disappear from his work, even when it is catered to such a young audience. As I have mentioned before, this factor is what makes his work so relevant to readers of all ages. Another must read from brilliant Tan, who can do no wrong!

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A Review of Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well (Sourcebooks Fire, 2014).

Where should one start in this review for Rin Chupeco’s debut novel, The Girl From the Well? Perhaps, with the fact that this novel is clearly influenced by Japanese folk myth, especially the one that was the basis for the American version of the film, The Ring. In that film, we know of a drowned girl who returns to kill people who have seen a video tape; they always die seven days time. The Ring is a remake of the Japanese film, Ringu, and there is little connection to the Japanese origin of this story. Alternatively, Chupeco her re-envisions the Japanese folktale from the perspective of the drowned figure herself, while transporting the tale, much like the American film, to another country. In this case, our narrator, Okiku, as she is called (and we only find out later on in the novel), takes revenge upon murderers, especially those who have committed unspeakable crimes against young children. As a spirit of vengeance, she is not unlike the serial killer Dexter: the killer with an apparent ethical vision in the killing of other killers. The story’s central tension is set up fairly immediately with the introduction of a young teenager, Tarquin, who Okiku immediately notices is a bit different. First of all, he sports strange tattoos on his arm. Second, he is able to see Okiku, even though she is undead. Third, there seems to be a malevolent spirit attached to him, a kind of counter-ghost figure, one who is bound to him and unable to enact any violence… yet! Finally, Tarquin’s cousin, Callie, a teaching assistant and Tarquin’s new high school, is aware of the strange goings-on with him and wants to find out the root of these events. Of course, her interest in Tarquin’s health and well-being soon entangle her in ta web of death, vengeance, and evil spirits. There is also the creepy issue with Tarquin’s mother, who is languishing in a mental institution. We discover late into the narrative that Tarquin is half-Japanese and that his mother, Yoko, seems to be exist in an altered state of reality. When Tarquin and his father visit Yoko, it becomes apparent that Yoko is probably not as mad as she seems. Chupeco clearly engages in some culturally-specific research, especially as the narrative later moves to Japan, and she is able to weave in elements of horror quite effectively. Perhaps, the most interesting stylistic choice Chupeco uses is the narrative perspective itself. Okiku exists in such a disembodied form for so much of the plotting that some full chapters seem told from the perspective of the third person. At other moments, it’s apparent that Okiku is split into multiple subjective positions, able to articulate her thoughts in the first person, but sometimes seeing herself in the third. This use of storytelling is quite apt for Okiku’s traumatized psyche, a state that has lasted for many centuries. Chupeco’s vision of the young adult world is refreshingly free of a romantic plot, and this kind of streamlining enables her to devote narrative space to other more germane concerns. Indeed, Chupeco never lets the gore fall completely out of sight and thus relishes in our narrator’s unique desire for deadly retributive justice. The interesting conclusion makes it difficult to know whether or not this book will be part of an intended longer series, but we’ll be eager to see what Chupeco has in store in her next publication. A promising and entertaining paranormal YA debut.

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A Review of Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone (Atavist Books, 2014).

Kamila Shamsie’s latest effort (after Burnt Shadows) is A God in Every Stone. Shamsie is the author of numerous novels, a number of which we haven’t yet had a chance to review here, but perhaps we’ll eventually get to them =). In A God in Every Stone, Shamsie takes on the historical and panoramic sweep that marked Burnt Shadows. In this case, the novel starts out just before the beginning of World War I. Our third person protagonist focalizes through the perspective of Vivian Spencer, a woman out of time if you will; she’s an anthropologist and is on site on a dig in Turkey with a full team. Her situation is of course unique: she’s a British woman and a proper lady is not supposed to be out in the wild, unmarried and doing such things as getting herself dirty in situ. There’s a circlet she’s after, something that hails all the way back to Alexander the Great. She’s falling in love with a man about twenty years her senior, Tahsin Bey, also at the dig site, while discovering how much she is driven by her desire for knowledge of the past. Her idyllic time spent on that dig is cut short when she discovers that World War I has broken out; she must return to England. Once there, there decides she must work as a war nurse, but anthropology and the past still call out to her. She knows she must take the next step that was planned in the process of their digs: to go to Peshawar (what is now a place found inside the borders of Pakistan, but at the time was part of British India). Shamsie fractures narrative perspective with a second character: Qayyum, who at the beginning of the novel finds himself fighting for the British, even though he is of part Pashtun background. He is eventually injured during a battle in France, loses an eye, and is to be sent home. On the way back, which includes a train ride, he and Vivian Spencer get to know each other a little bit, before they part ways: Vivian to get her anthropological fieldwork going, and Qayyum returns to his family in Peshawar. Vivian gets a little help concerning the local culture, life, and geography through a young boy named Najeeb. What Vivian doesn’t know at the time is that Najeeb is actually Qayyum’s younger brother. When a former military buddy who has gone awol arrives in Peshawar to attempt recruit Qayyum to fight in the war against the British, Qayyum finds himself with a troubling decision to make. The conclusion of book I occurs when Vivian Spencer receives a letter that alters the course of her life, pushing her to leave Peshawar and return to England. There is something called ellipsis that follows at this point, as a stretch of about 15 years passes without mention. Najeeb is an adult and has taken on the path that Vivian had paved for him, working for the local museum. Qayyum has moved into the Indian independence movement, swayed by the non-violent protest rhetoric espoused by Gandhi and a local charismatic leader. Vivian is encouraged to return to Peshawar by Najeeb, insisting that he has found something very important related to the original anthropological artifact that had altered the course of Vivian’s (and other characters’) life. Vivian is at first unconvinced, but later realizes that she must see her original quest through and travels to Peshawar, but as Qayyum’s storyline attests: there is much unrest in the area. The conclusion of the novel takes a drastically different turn, introducing another character that takes so much of the focus off of the original three major characters that you’ll wonder whether or not this other figure was deserving of her own novel. Shamsie takes a lot of risk with this introduction; this character is pivotal and enthralling and readers may balk at the movement of the plot away from the anthropological elements, but therein lies a part of the narrative’s critique. What is the value of finding history in artifacts when history is being created right in front of you. The balance between these two elements is never quite in sync and Shamsie is well aware of the fact that these characters serve as allegories. If we come to think of Vivian as a kind of stand-in for a gentle, more benevolent form of empire, we’re not disappointed that the artifact is never found. Instead, we’re already looking toward a future in which characters sacrifice their lives for the chance of something greater than themselves, greater than any one object, which at the end of the day can never tell the full story. An ambitious, if uneven work by Shamie, one that obviously shows a great deal of dedicated research and ethnographic detail.

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A Review of Marty Chan’s The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles: Demon Gate (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2013).

What a curious, unexpected young adult fiction that Marty Chan has written with The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles: Demon Gate (part of an intended series, as the sequel will be coming out in 2015). Chan who is a Chinese Canadian writer and playwright (author of numerous works) creates a counterfactual, steampunk-ish fictional world in which dimensional creatures come through the demon gate and wreak havoc on America. Chan is having some metaphorical fun with race and ethnicity, as the dimensionals are an obvious analogue to immigrants. The novel opens with the main character, the titular Ehrich Weisz falling through the demon gate and finding himself in another version of the United States, certain that his brother Dash has somehow died in the process of dimension-hopping. What is left behind is a medallion with a strange inscription: he vows to figure out the importance of the medallion, but he first must survive in the new world. Even though Ehrich himself is a dimensional, he looks like the dominant class in this other version of the United States, so he is able to pass, and he even becomes part of a patrolling crew to make sure any new dimensionals are first detained before they can enter the country. Recalling both Ellis and Angel Islands, the demon gate and its patrol are sort of this world’s variant of the INS. Ehrich develops a strong friendship with a scientist, Nikola Tesla (the same name of the famous scientist and inventor), who is charged with making sure that any strange objects that come through the demon gate cannot be used to harm citizens and to see if they might have any use value in terms of helping patrols control the influx of dimensionals. As Ehrich works for that patrol, he eventually crosses paths again with some dimensionals who he believes were originally involved in his brother’s disappearance and thus, the quest plot begins. Ehrich attempts to pursue a number of strange dimensionals with different colored-skins, strange shapes, and exterior appendages; these include characters named Amina, Ning Shu, and Dr. Serenity. Chan’s novel is heavy on the action-sequences and one can tell that he had fun in the reconstruction of a fictional world that is not too dissimilar from our own. Steampunk influences are prominent, which further contributes to the novel’s rich textures. Though the pace of the novel can seem jumpy at times, from the perspective of a race and ethnic studies scholar, the novel does much in terms of thinking about the fictive construct of phenotypic difference. Indeed, it becomes evident as the novel goes on that the dimensionals are not really so demonic (at least not all of them) and that some of the so-called humans are not nearly as ethical or heroic as they might have at first seemed. In this sense, Chan brings us back to the artificiality of racial difference as a mode of policing, but does so in an inventive way.

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A Review of Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter (Quercus, 2014).

According to amazon.com, Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter was a #1 bestseller in India. This distinction is particularly impressive given Parajuly’s chosen form, which is the short story collection. In The Gurkha’s Daughter, Parajuly explores the varied lives and life courses of characters who hail from Nepal and/or India, many of whom will attempt to move transnationally (primarily to the UK or the United States). The title word, Gurkha, refers to a soldier from Nepal. Parajuly is able to use an effective structural conceit for this collection: a map which occurs before each story, delineating some of the key cities or towns in which characters reside or to which characters travel. Most of the stories are written in third person perspective, though toward the conclusion Parajuly begins to deviate, offering two stories from the first person perspective: the title story and then the final story, “Immigrants.” I focus on some of the ones that had the most impact for me as the reader and especially consider what makes this group of stories a collection rather than a random assortment of short narratives. As Rocio Davis notes in her book Trancultural Reinventions, the first and last stories often tend to carry the most weight and it becomes apparent that for Parajuly, the conflicts that occur between classes and castes generate a variety of tensions that make for an excellent bridging thematic. In the opening story, “The Cleft,” a servant girl (Kaali) with a cleft palate is determined to escape from her life of servitude by going across the border and getting an operation. The story’s larger narrative surrounds Kaali’s employer, Parvati, a widow who is on her way (with a number of other family members, including her sister-in-law Sarita and others) to her mother-in-law’s funeral. Throughout the story, it is apparent that both Parvati and Sarita are preoccupied with their own lives, choosing to see Kaali as an apparent peripheral figure with no complexity of thought or life. However, Parajuly includes short key passages in italics from a mystery figure who tells Kaali that she can be beautiful, that she must use what money she has to go across the border to get a surgery. Kaali clearly has hopes and dreams of another life, perhaps one filled even with stardom. This story sets the tone for the many that follow: characters seek some measure of self-determination in fictional worlds that constrain them in some way, whether it is a Nepalese woman who seeks purpose in her life after her children have gone to study abroad or the young daughter of the Gurkha who desires the connection of an alternative kinship. In the last story, “The Immigrants,” Parajuly contrasts two figures from different classes: Amit, who makes six figures and lives in New York City (an Indian ethnic from Nepal) and Sabitri, a cleaning woman, who begins to work for Amit in exchange for English lessons. This story is narrated from the perspective of Amit, and we begin to see some of the issues that he faces as an immigrant in America. For instance, upon meeting an American who clearly knows a bit about Nepalise cuisine, Amit muses, “This was interesting. It’s not every day that you came across an American who knew about momos. When I told people I was of Nepalese origin, they instinctively asked me if I had climbed Mount Everest. When I answered no, I hadn’t climbed Everest and no, I did not know anyone who had, they were disappointed. When I mentioned I was from Darjeeling, most people asked me a tea question” (201). Here, Amit gets to the core of the one other issue that the collection sets out to complete: to demystify Nepal through the everyday lives of relatively run-of-the-mill characters. As Amit and Sabitri come to a new understanding of their employer-employee relationship, Parajuly shows us that those who hail from Nepal are far from touristic curios, to be observed upon with a superficial exoticism. Certainly, an intriguing and intricate short story collection, one no doubt influenced by the increasingly globalized world in which we live. Parajuly’s work joins an outstanding group of story collections with a strongly transnational focus and it’s certainly one I can adopt in the classroom.

For a similar title reviewed on Asian American literature fans, see Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In other Rooms, Other Wonders (reviewed by Pylduck):


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27 August 2014 @ 03:05 pm
Jaswinder Bolina's second book of poems Phantom Camera (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2013) won the Green Rose Prize in 2012, a prize previously won by another poet reviewed on this site, Jon Pineda (for The Translator's Diary).


I noticed two things about the poems in the first part of this book.... First, that the poems often seemed to be persona poems (written in the voice of someone who is not the poet himself) addressed to a you, often named, in the second person. Second, there are frequent mentions of Chicago as a place, which makes sense knowing that Bolina was born there. A few of his poems are available online in various places, including nearer poems not in Phantom Camera. Here are a few: Aviary; Sunday, Sunday; and Oops Canary.

Bolina's poems might be characterized as experimental; there is a philosophical bent and an interest in places where language makes meaning in weird ways. Thematically, Bolina's poems range from contemplating (romantic) relationships to addressing the geography of America (often the Midwest).

Poking around online, I came across this newer poem by Bolina, "Letter to a Drone Pilot", which is quite a bit more explicitly engaged with political questions than most of the poems in Phantom Camera.

Edited to add: Bolina has this interesting essay on race and writing: "Writing Like a White Guy."
Current Mood: peacefulpeaceful
Title: Things to Make and Break
Author: May-Lan Tan
Publisher: CB Editions
Publication Date: February 2014

Cover art.
[Disclaimer: I obtained a review e-copy of this book at no cost.]

May-Lan Tan’s debut collection of short stories comprises sordid, gut-wrenching narratives told in compellingly hypnotic prose. The description provided for the titular character in “Julia K.” is just as applicable to Tan’s writing itself: “Language, as she deployed it, was neither a line cast nor a bullet fired. It was a catholic mechanism: the sharp twist of a pilot biscuit into the waifish body of Christ.”
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Get the book online: Amazon | CB Editions
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for August 23 2014.

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 Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2014); Khanh Ha’s Flesh (Black Heron Press, 2012); R. Zamora Linmark’s Drive-By Vigils (Hanging Loose Press, 2011); Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental (Alice James Books, 2013); A.X. Ahmad’s The Last Taxi Ride (Minotaur Books, 2014).

A Review of Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2014)

Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream explores the challenges of upward mobility in a time of great change. The title is of course a nod to the aphorism concerning the impossibility of a certain outcome. Here, that aphorism is being directed at a kind of skepticism of the potential for upward mobility within an American context. Liu employs not only personal anecdotes but also statistics, cultural references, sociological studies, which all point to the concentration of wealth in a particular stratum of American society. Liu reminds us now that the greatest predictor of actual financial success is whether or not your parents are already wealthy (this finding also corroborates the scholarly work of a number of sociologists etc that I’ve researched independently). Liu’s point is that the dream of upward mobility might actually be shifting elsewhere; he explores, for instance, the fact that many of his Uncles eventually returned to Taiwan where they achieved great success in a land where a racial glass ceiling did not exist for them in the same way that it did in the United States. Indeed, Liu’s father is one of the few in his family to stay in the United States. But the larger message that Liu seems to be conveying is that there has been a monumental shift in the world order: China stands as a beacon for these mutable dynamics of power and perhaps a threat to the American ethos of meritocracy.
Liu has an incredibly engaging writing style, which is important because this family memoir is written in block segments. Narratively fragmented, there is an occasional loss of flow that is only overcome because Liu is quite calculating in his trajectory over the arc of the work. Though Liu is rather direct in addressing increasing disparities of wealth, he is still ultimately an optimist: he believes that America can be made and remade through the work of its diverse citizenry. For those who are cultural studies scholars, Liu does devote a considerable amount of time to notable Chinese Americans in the field of arts, sciences, sports, etc. He spends quite a bit of time dissecting the various approaches that Chinese American writers have had to their craft (referencing Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing, and Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog: all titles already reviewed on Asian American literature fans). Liu’s aim is to explode the specifics around what Chinese American success can look like, while still evading the model minority label. A politically engaged and thoughtful account of Chinese America and of Liu’s family.

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A Review of Khanh Ha’s Flesh (Black Heron Press, 2012).

At its core, Khanh Ha’s Flesh is about questions of family, how to honor one’s parents, and how to go about dealing with a perceived injury. The story begins ominously enough. Set in the French colonial period of Vietnam, a young boy (who is our narrator) must watch his own father executed; the executioner is none other than this young boy’s granduncle. To complicate matters, a smallpox epidemic soon sweeps through the village; the young boy’s younger brother dies, while the young boy himself is scarred by the disease. There is an interesting use of a narrative perspective shift early on, as Ha briefly moves the discursive viewpoint to a Catholic priest named Danto (and into the third person), who appears in the village in order to impart his religious viewpoints and offer his spiritual support in light of the plague. But the novel quickly shifts back to the young boy’s first person viewpoint and from this point onward, the boy is on a quest to make sure that his father and his brother get an honorable burial spot. Working for a boatman at one point, he realizes that he may be able to secure family plots through an association with a traveling geomancer. A series of exchanges occur between the geomancer, the narrator, and the narrator’s mother, and it becomes apparent that in order to for him to secure these spots he must work in the service of that geomancer. At this point, the narrator essentially becomes an indentured servant and is later transferred to work for one of the geomancer’s most prized customers. While in Hanoi, he also chances upon an elderly dying Chinese man, who charges him to find granddaughter, Xiaoli, who can be found working out of an opium den. The old man hopes that the narrator will be able to relay not only the fact of his death, but also Xiaoli’s mother. Though the narrator dismisses this request as one he cannot complete, he eventually does bump into the very same Xiaoli, but withholds the information about her mother and grandfather, fearing that the news would be too traumatic. This point is probably the one which pushes the narrative (at least for me) further out from the realm of credulity than I would have preferred, but Ha’s politically engaged writing is clear: he seeks to explore the limited lives of indentured servants who struggle under the weight of clearing their debts. Xiaoli, like the narrator, is ultimately an indentured servant, so when love begins to blossom between them, the narrator’s motivations become obscured, and he tries to balance his service to his employer (and his employer’s requests and rules) against his desire for Xiaoli. Ha’s work is an intriguing addition to the Vietnamese American literary canon, especially given its historical focus and its exploration of the interethnic relationships among diasporic Chinese and local Vietnamese populations (calling to mind Vincent Lam’s novel The Headmaster’s Wager, earlier reviewed here).

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A Review of R. Zamora Linmark’s Drive-By Vigils (Hanging Loose Press, 2011).

(unfortunately the most high res pic I could find)

I don’t think there is any other poet that can mix such incredible humor and poignancy in lyric, and R. Zamora Linmark is in fine form with his latest poetry collection, Drive-By Vigils (Hanging Loose Press, 2011). Somewhere along the way of writing my first book, I realized I had to cut down on what I felt was extraneous to the research process. Since I focused on fiction, a lot of what obviously got cut was the poetry. Reading Drive-By Vigils and reviewing it is part of my “catch up” period. Linmark’s brilliance is in his irreverence: his mixture of high and low, popular culture and canonical literatures. In this collection, you’ll get Hamlet rewritten in raucous form; a quotation from Ally Sheedy’s character from The Breakfast Club in a poem that is basically a kind of elegy to John Hughes; a woman warning a lyric speaker from stepping in dog shit; Lorca being reframed from the angle of pidgin English; Carson McCullers being called—yes, you heard it here—a “fag hag” (18). Still, there is a somber confessional quality to all these poems and we know we’re getting into the heart of the collection’s soft and gooey center with poems like “Chronicle of a Virginity Foretold,” which seems to take as a point of reference the use of a timeline as a formal impulse (something you might have seen in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life); there is a moment where it’s obvious that the lyric speaker is wrestling with the demons of his own queer sexuality and then Linmark’s brilliance will hit us with his reference to 1984 in which “Frotting and fear of dying increases” (40). Here, the lyric speaker clearly engages the years in which the AIDS epidemic emerged, but pairs it up with the growing interest in exploring his queer sexuality. Linmark’s poetic textures also emerge from the scope of the collection, which has a wide geographical sweep, where lyrics take us to Hawai‘i, the Philippines, Europe (particularly Spain), Latin America (Argentina) then also its impressive temporal span (we’re never far from any form of colonialism in this collection and its centuries-long bearing on the Philippines, for instance). Linmark’s title is partly a sly wink at the rapidly changing world in the age of the internet, plane travel, and other time-space compressing technologies, while also referencing the lyric speaker’s obvious devotion to Spanish writers (like Lorca and Borges). In keeping with chronology as a kind of formal impulse, the last poem subverts its own sequencing to remind us that we’re in Linmark’s poetic world: a dazzling jumble of politically engaged and aesthetically dynamic awesomeness.

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A Review of Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental (Alice James Books, 2013)

Again, I’ve been trying to catch up on some poetry reading and that process includes going back to some presses that have been historically very supportive of Asian American poetry. Alice James is one such press; it is the established independent press that runs the Kundiman Poetry Prize. I don’t think Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental appears in conjunction with that competition, but comes out independently and is striking in its environmentally conscious lyrics, interesting use of punctuation (double colons), its devotion to questions of materiality, transformation, and loss, and finally and perhaps most importantly: this strange thing of water. There is a point in the reading of a collection where I am wandering around an element through which I can get a sense of coherence. In We Come Elemental, it is primarily this issue of water: what it is, how it is all around us, and inside of us. The cover not surprisingly shows what seems to be a beach or shallow body of water upon which stands the body of something that looks like a human covered in dirt and moss and stones; this figure is doubled by a figure in the far horizon, an echo of this humanoid creature standing atop water. This cover stands as a useful way of conceptualizing the problem of loss and transformation and our relationship to the environment. We live so close to bodies of water and see ourselves refracted over bodies of water (through representation, through how we settle into cities). Beyer takes us into very specific geographies, too: San Francisco, Oakland, Manhattan all take center stage in this poetry collection. But this question of colons is something that integrates the contextual issue of transformation and shifts it into a formal register. Though there can be many interpretations of the double colon, I find them particularly intriguing given their connections to analogy. Some of us may have a bad memory trip when thinking about double colons and analogies because it takes us all the way back to the SATs, where the double colon is a place marker for the word “as.” For Beyer, the double colons might function in a similar sense in that there are rough equivalences to be made that link individuals, elements, animals, bodies of water, and geographies in a relational way. This sequence is a good example of what I am getting at:

Matter transforms human
body to maggot nest the hiss
of dry ice against a metal sink.

Flesh shreds or just grows old
and turns to dirt to concrete to building
:: internal energy equals heat minus work.

Wood to smoke becomes
a manifestation of something else
:: smell that lingers a tenuous

cling to my jacket’s cotton lining.
If burning is not disappearing
then neither is drowning:: the body

shows up again on another shore
in the folds of a current
whisked through the Atlantic.

Translation is a form
of disappearance:: my name gone
all wrong in their mouths (40).

These lines all operate to consider the nature of “matter” as it takes different shapes and morphologies. I especially find the comparison between the wood burning to the “smell that lingers” as particularly effective rendering of matter in its transformations. What’s interesting is that there is the suggestion that matter itself does not ever transform (the law of conservation of energy after all) but finds itself remade anew, but when we get to conceptions of translation, there is a disappearance when the “name” is not uttered in the way that it should. Thus, for the lyric speaker, what seems to still disappear amongst all of this matter in transformation is the nature of speaking and the nature of communication, who is hailed and how this individual is hailed. As the poems move forward, it is clear that Beyer’s lyric speaker is invested in rooting out a form of communication that might urge a call to action, individuals transformed into currents moving in the same direction, perhaps even toward a more engaged and productive relationship to one of the most precious elements: water. In this year of such incredible drought, the clarion call of Beyer’s poetry collection cannot be loud enough.

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A Review of A.X. Ahmad’s The Last Taxi Ride (Minotaur Books, 2014).

(again, the highest res pic I could find =( )

A.X. Ahmad’s The Last Taxi Ride takes on a more global approach to the noir-ish series started with The Caretaker. Ranjit Singh is back with a couple of key changes: he’s divorced; his ex-wife has moved back to India, and his daughter has moved with her. Fortunately, the daughter is soon to visit, which puts Ranjit in higher spirits. Ranjit is still struggling to make ends meet. He’s a cab drive in New York City, but he also happens to help out with a local businessman with potential mob connections named Jay Patel. As a cab driver, he ends up coincidentally taking on a famous customer: Shabana Shaw, a Bollywood actress whose star is fading. Ranjit’s connection to Shaw seems only one of a fan to a star, but a chance reconnection with an old buddy, Mohan, from Ranjit’s military days begins to collapse various worlds together. Mohan, who is the bellman for the building in which Shabana Shaw resides, is able to give them access to her swanky New York City apartment. One night when she is gone, they have dinner together. But, is it not soon after that meal that Ranjit is pegged for Shabana Shaw’s murder, and Mohan is nowhere to be found. With Ranjit’s prints all over Shabana’s apartment, he seems to be the obvious culprit, but readers know the truth to be otherwise. Shabana was killed in a brutal manner, with her head smashed. Fortunately for him and the readers, Ranjit is able to make bail, but it becomes clear that his work with Jay Patel marks his position as more precarious than he has realized. Ranjit is tasked by Jay Patel to find Mohan for a reason that he does not understand, and Ranjit begins to see that the key to finding out the identity of Shabana’s murderer will be to find his former military buddy. From this point forward, the novel becomes the classic detective quest for the most part. Ranjit, as our noir detective, must find Mohan, and unravel the various skeins that have been tangled together, even though he must deal with a broken arm, shady mob bosses, and individuals who have useful knowledge concerning the mob underworld but are not necessarily willing to share such information. Ahmad uses an effective intercutting structure (one that was also used in The Caretaker) that provides important background to Shabana’s life and her struggle to make it as a Bollywood film actress. Perhaps the most important element introduced at this point is Shabana’s contentious relationship with her sister Ruki and her reliance upon mob bosses for protection and support. Ahmad is also game to make apparent the complicated racialized existence that enfolds Ranjit, as a South Asian immigrant taxi driver. The diversity of New York City comes most prominently to the surface with Ahmad’s effective use of minor characters, who hail from a variety of backgrounds and classes. Ahmad never lets the plot get away from him. Though there are occasional momentum shifts, the central mystery always propels readers assuredly forward. An entertaining, politically textured noir fiction!

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23 August 2014 @ 02:34 pm
I've had a copy of Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters (Simon & Schuster, 2013) sitting in my must read soon pile for half a year because, like stephenhongsohn, I love Yoon's debut short story collection Once the Shore (and had a chance to teach it as well).


More than anything, the power of this language is in the contemplative sentences. Describing the plot would do little justice to it, even though the plot itself is full of potential for lots of interesting exploration into history, transnational movements, war, romance, and more. In brief, the story focuses on Yohan, a man from northern Korea who ended up conscripted into the North Korean military and eventually was captured by American allies to South Korea. He spent time in a prisoner of war camp where he learned to mend clothes, and after the end of the Korean civil war, he moved to Brazil to become an apprentice to Kiyoshi, a Japanese tailor in a seaside village. The novel interweaves moments from throughout Yohan's life, often with flashbacks and thus disrupting a linear narrative structure. Throughout his life, Yohan encounters people with whom he forms friendships and other kinds of relationships. In addition to Kiyoshi, these people include Peng, who as a boy traveled with an entertainment troupe and later ended up in the POW camp with Yohan; Bia and Santi, an itinerant girl and boy in Brazil who pop in and out of Yohan's life; and Peixe, the groundskeeper at the church in the village.

To provide a sense of the language in this novel, here are a few paragraphs:

In the fall, Yohan climbed to the top of the hill town. He passed the church where the road ended and crossed a sloped meadow, heading toward the tree on the ridge.

The tree was tall and had been shaped by the wind. Its branches were long and thick, extending out in one direction. Some nearly touched the ground.

He rested there, on the peak of the hill, and looked out at the distant lighthouse and the old plantation house to the north. Breakers approached a cliff. The wind was steady, consuming the noises, and he watched the town go about its day. (p. 49)

As this passage shows, Yoon's language is spare. Many of the sentences are concise descriptions of basic actions or objects. Yet, the choice of words often evokes something more emotional (sometimes verging on pathetic fallacy). The middle paragraph describes a tree, but the description suggests the impact of nature and the course of life on a living being's shape. This type of writing is highly metaphorical, and in some instances, it is a kind of metonymy where the tree comes to stand in for Yohan himself.

One thing I am curious about is the naming of this novel for people who appear briefly towards the end of the novel. The eponymous snow hunters are a group of people, possibly a nuclear family unit, scavenging in the winter. From a distance, it looks like they are gathering snow, and Peng describes them that way--as snow hunters (p. 152). This description is curious, and the deliberate misinterpretation of the family's actions, which is more accurately probably scavenging for food, clothing, and other necessary supplies for surviving a winter in a war zone, suggests both a violence and a beauty. I need to think more about snow hunters as the overarching image or idea for the novel, how they might encapsulate or capture all of the themes of the novel.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
15 August 2014 @ 11:33 am
This week, I listened to the audiobook recording of Bich Minh Nguyen's Pioneer Girl (Viking, 2014; Dreamscape Media, 2014), narrated by Bernadette Dunne. Earlier this year, stephenhongsohn also reviewed the novel. I agree with stephenhongsohn 's comment that this novel interestingly stakes a claim for Vietnamese American literature as part of a broader American literary history.


Pioneer Girl focuses on Lee Lien, a second-generation Vietnamese American woman who has just completed a PhD in American literature with a dissertation on Edith Wharton, whose novels explored early twentieth century New York high society. Throughout this story, Nguyen draws out tensions and resonances between canonical/traditional/white America and Vietnamese America but especially in inserting Lee's family into the history of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie as emblems of the myth of the American frontier. What is fascinating is that the Little House books were already always a nostalgic look back at frontier/settler life when they were published in the twentieth century, and they continue to serve as a touchstone for many Americans of an idealized frontier past, both through the books and the popular television series based on the books in the 1970s and early 1980s.

At the heart of this novel is a pin/brooch that her family owns. Its history is what potentially links her family to the Little House. I am curious how much this speculative history stuff is real (or at least how much of the archival documents the novel identifies are real, if not the interpretations). The story goes that Lee's grandfather owned a cafe in Vietnam during the war. An older white American woman by the name of Rose visited the cafe for an extended period of time, chatting with him often. When she left, she left behind the pin, which Lee's grandfather kept. The pin became a kind of heirloom, held by Lee's mother and eventually taken by Lee as part of her family history.

The novel takes on kind of a literary mystery quality, with Lee visiting various libraries and museums to find documentation of Rose's visit to Vietnam, perhaps mention of her grandfather and his cafe. As she searches out clues of her family's presence in the lives of the iconic Ingalls/Wilder/Lane family, she negotiates her own family's dramas. As in Short Girls, Nguyen provides plenty of exploration of sibling dynamics in an immigrant family, something that she does really well as an added layer to the usual considerations of intergenerational (parent-child) conflict in these types of stories. The novel is also on the lighter/more humorous side in some ways though it is not as funny as Short Girls. I do agree with some other online reviews of the novel, though, that I kept expecting more to happen in Lee's quest to find out about the pin, Rose Wilder Lane's connection to her family, and so on.

A couple of other reviews of the book:

  • BookDragon (interestingly, Terry Hong found the fake Asian accents problematic in this audiobook, but I didn't notice it that much in comparison to the bad accents in Mambo in Chinatown)

  • Hyphen Magazine

Current Mood: amusedamused
Title: A Certain Exposure
Author: Jolene Tan
Publisher: Epigram Books
Publication Date: April 2014

Cover art of a boy pulling apart the shirt of his school uniform, Superman-style, to reveal the title.

[Before I proceed with this review, let me provide a categorical disclaimer: I’ve known Jolene for, wow, is it four years now? and have the highest respect for her work. Take this disclosure of potential prejudice for what you will. P.S.: I paid for my copy of the book, fair and square!]

Lawyer and activist Jolene Tan burst into the Singapore literary scene this year. Her first novel, A Certain Exposure follows twin brothers Brian and Andrew through the late 1980s and the 1990s, from their family apartment in a Singapore public housing estate to Andrew’s suicide in a Cambridge dorm room. The narrative jumps between their uneasy fraternity during the turbulence of high school, to Brian’s survivor’s guilt in the confines of lower-middle-class Chinese morality.

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Buy the book online at: Epigram Books | Select Books | Books Kinokuniya
14 August 2014 @ 11:55 pm
As of today, it looks like we have 995 books reviewed on this community! Which book will be our 1000th?
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
11 August 2014 @ 11:55 pm
Jean Kwok's second novel, Mambo in Chinatown (Riverhead Books, 2014), explores contrasts between Chinese and Western cultures as understood by an American born Chinese, Charlie Wong, who is the older daughter of immigrant parents. Her mother has passed away, so it is just her, her little sister Lisa, and their father who live together in a small Chinatown apartment in New York City.

The novel sketches out an insular world for Charlie, one confined almost exclusively to Chinatown where she works as a dishwasher in the same restaurant where her father makes hand-drawn noodles. Kwok works through a number of common themes regarding cultural conflict and generational differences. At the heart of the novel is Charlie's move to a new job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, something she keeps a secret from her father (she tells him she is working as a receptionist at a computer company instead). Although Charlie's mother was a professional dancer in China, Charlie does not believe that her father would allow her to work in a dance studio because he would think it is too Western and too dangerous for a Chinese girl.

As you might expect, Charlie goes on to find herself over the course of the novel, coming into her own self and her own body through the vehicle of dance. Along the way, she learns to carry herself more confidently but also to dress more revealingly and to wear makeup as befits her age. On top of all that, she falls in love with a white male dancing student, Ryan.

As much as the novel carves out binaries between East and West, it also sees confluences and similarities in some places. Charlie's experience with tai chi, for instance, allows her to understand ballroom dance more quickly than otherwise. Ryan's understanding of feng shui and the idea of spiritual balance is partially what endears him to Charlie since she sees that he is, in some ways, also a bit Chinese.

The other major narrative strand in the novel centers on Lisa, who has always been the smart one in the family. Although she has a chance to test for entrance into Hunter High School, a prestigious public school in the city, she also comes down with a mysterious, debilitating condition where she loses strength in her legs. Her father tries all sorts of Chinese medicine (his brother has a traditional medicine practice in Chinatown) and even witchcraft (they consult the Vision, an older woman who performs rituals and spouts prophecies). The novel pits these Chinese medical arts and spiritual beliefs against Western medicine throughout.

The audiobook version made me cringe a little with the performer/narrator Angela Lin's use of accented English for the older generation of Chinese immigrants, even when those characters were supposed to be speaking Chinese. I understand that there is a need to differentiate the dialogue of different characters, and as Arthur Chu recently put it (I came across his blog post while I was listening to Kwok's novel, in fact), the immigrant generation does speak often in heavily accented English. I do wonder how performers of audiobooks might aurally signal dialogue spoken in a foreign language (but written in English) without recourse to accented English...

As I listened to this novel, I also kept thinking that there was another second novel by an Asian American author, published sometime in the earlier 2000s, also set in New York City in the subcultural world of dancers, but I couldn't remember the author, title, or other details of the story. After searching through our librarything list of reviews, I was able to figure out that the book I was thinking of is Patricia Chao's Mambo Peligroso. These two novels might make an interesting pair to read together, particularly to consider how each negotiates interracial contact as well as the physicality/spirituality of dance.
Current Mood: workingworking
In this post, reviews of Monica Chiu’s Scrutinized! Surveillance in Asian North American Literature (University of Hawaii Press, 2014); Crystal S. Anderson’s Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production (University Press of Mississippi, 2013); SooJin Pate’s From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption (University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Joseph Jonghyun Jeon’s Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012); Wendy Law-Yone’s A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma (Columbia University Press, 2014).

A Review of Monica Chiu’s Scrutinized! Surveillance in Asian North American Literature (University of Hawaii Press, 2014).

(unfortunately the highest rec pic I could find!)

It’s an absolutely wonderful time to be an Asian American cultural critic. The archive continues to grow at an exponential pace, as evidenced by Monica Chiu’s Scrutinized! Surveillance in Asian North American Literature, which focuses on books that have been published, for the most part, within the last decade. Her monograph follows in line with other studies such as Tina Chen’s Double Agency and Betsy Huang’s Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction in its exploration and investigation of Asian Americans, detection, spy tropes, anxiety and paranoia, especially in the post-9/11 moment. Perhaps, the most succinct crystallization of the project occurs on page 4, when Chiu writes: “While overtly racist acts such as exhibiting Asian subjects are confined to the past, Scrutinized! argues that current Asian North American novel’s fascination with mystery, detection, spying, tracking, and surveillance is a literary response to contemporary social agitation surrounding race…. Scrutiny of raced subjects privileges a dominant gaze that makes legible a kind of Asian North American subjectivity. Scrutinized! suggests that a history of surveillance has created Asian North American subjects (authors and their characters) who watch themselves being watched. Their categorization as inscrutable ironically reveals a national obsession over their visibility and fear about their perceived illegibility” (4). The primary textual works engaged in this study include: Don lee’s Country of Origin (chapter 2); Nina Revoyr’s Southland (chapter 3); Susan Choi’s Person of Interest (chapter 4); Suki Kim’s Interpreter (chapter 4); Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field (chapter 5); and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (chapter 6). Chiu picks an absolutely dynamic set of books, all of which I would consider to be ones that have the unique combination of aesthetic complexity, political texture, and entertainment value. Of these books, I have taught Southland, Interpreter, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist and they make for great classroom discussions. Chiu has had similar experiences; the openings of her chapters often invoke issues raised up when she has taught these books. Most impressive about this monograph is Chiu’s painstaking research. For instance, chapter 2 focuses on Orientalized spaces and pushed Chiu to contextualize her reading of Lee’s novel through the study of sexual subcultures, Asian and Asian North American ghettos, and the hospitality industry. In chapter 5 and in what I consider to be one of the most unique methodological approaches to criticism, Chiu’s analysis of Sakamoto’s novel is influenced by her study of Japanese Canadian internment photography, a visual archive that unveils and encrypts that kinds of traumas sustained by those who were incarcerated. Chiu’s work is also impressive in its mobilization of various hermeneutics and disciplinary models, including but not limited to psychoanalysis, trauma theory, and narratology. Certainly, a study that contributes to the ever-complicated contours of Asian North American racial formation and a book that could certainly be used as a companion in a course devoted to Asian North American detective fiction, which now boasts a rather impressive set of texts. Indeed, Chiu only has so much time to make her case, but it’s clear that her study could have been far longer, as she mentions the many other Asian North American writers who have worked in this genre (such as Dale Furutani, Naomi Hirahara, and I would add some newer writers like Steph Cha and A.X. Ahmad). As I have mentioned with other monographs coming of the University of Hawaii Press, let us hope this titles move into paperback!

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A Review of Crystal S. Anderson’s Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production (University Press of Mississippi, 2013)

Crystal S. Anderson’s brilliant monograph, Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production (University Press of Mississippi, 2013), is on the forefront of the growing trend devoted to comparative race studies and seeks to show the asymmetrical but interconnected ways that racial and ethnic representation appears in popular culture, print, film, and other such media. The book is rigorous and expansive in its scope and sweep. Individual chapters focus on critically acclaimed novels including Gunga Din Highway (Frank Chin) and Japanese by Spring (Ishmael Reed) as well as influential films (e.g. The Matrix trilogy). Beyond the Chinese Connection challenges traditional conceptions of race and ethnic studies, transnationalism, and sociopolitical rhetoric in its evocation of Afro-Asian connections. Taking Bruce Lee and his filmic oeuvre as a starting point, Anderson shows the textured interactions and interrelationships between African American and Asian/ American cultures and communities over half a century. Interrogating boundaries of ossifying disciplines and subfields, Anderson’s thesis superbly and precisely conveys how we must understand American cultural production through its hybrid influences and cross-cultural exchanges. Her monograph marks a more nuanced approach to American Studies and cultural studies that is both broadly impactful and socially conscious. Not surprisingly, her book received unqualified endorsements from two of the leading scholars in American Studies, the very senior professors Gary Y. Okihiro and Bill V. Mullen. At the core of Anderson’s argument is a continuum based upon two terms used through the book: cultural emulsion and cultural translation. Anderson shows that in some cases representations of Afro-Asian connections ultimately operate to distinguish racial and ethnic groups rather then presenting them as some sort of harmonious mixture, a separating effect called cultural emulsion (5). Other representations function with a kind of cross-cultural dialogue in which one culture or group is informed by or influenced productively by another, something that turns into cultural translation (5). Cultural productions fall somewhere along this continuum. Anderson reads three main thematics as the basis of her chapters: interethnic male friendships (chapter 2), ethnic imperialism (chapter 3), and interethnic conflict and solidarity (chapter 4), as the structural grounds upon which all of her analyses are made. Anderson thus convincingly shows how Bruce Lee and his films became one pivotal launching point for the next fifty years in Afro-Asian cultural representations. On a personal note, I found this monograph fun to read just on the basis of its panoramic sweep of literature and film; many of these cultural productions are more popularly embraced by a larger audience and will be sure to interest an accordingly wider readership.

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A Review of SooJin Pate’s From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

SooJin Pate’s From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption is an astute and wide-ranging study. It intervenes in the work of orphan/ adoptee studies by focusing on a transnational process by which bodies shift in their meaning and signification, especially in the context of war and global capital. Prior studies in relation to orphans and adoptees have typically focused on the domestic U.S. context; Pate’s work provides the bridge between what she calls militarized humanism and the construction of the social orphan, who is ultimately a figure imbued with social death. Particularly important to Pate’s overall argument is the distinction between orphan and adoptee, two terms that get elided. The production of the term Korean orphan is most salient within the U.S.-Korean conflict context, a figure who emerges through America’s empirical designs. The Korean orphan is not necessarily or actually an orphan as Pate explains, precisely because so many children were separated from parents and were routed into orphanages only because they could not or were not reunited with family members. The orphan eventually evolves into an adoptee by the process of a kind of American pacification process: the orphan must be checked for health, must be presented in the proper way to Americans, and must ultimately be a kind of tabula rasa that can be rescripted as the assimilable American citizen. Only then can the orphan become an adoptee. Once an adoptee, Pate’s work shifts to the process by which the adoptee appears as part of a problematic kinship system in which his or her Korean past is disavowed. Here, Pate takes a nod from David L. Eng’s work in which he links adoptees to queer theory in relation to kinship. Pate’s point in this final chapter—and perhaps one of her strongest—is that the adoptee cannot have two mothers or two families in the official scripted version of the story. At the same time, engaging analyses of adoptee narratives—for instance, Jane Jeong Trenka’s outstanding the Language of Blood—shows how adoptees can resist the restructuring of kinship into a white heteronormative form. The reading here could have been strengthened with a more extended look at Trenka’s follow-up Fugitive Visions (though Pate does refer to it in her conclusion) which does complicate the nature of the adoptee’s attempts to reconstruct a semblance of family. Pate’s work is wide-ranging, highly compelling and certainly an incisive addition to American studies, transnational studies, and orphan/adoptee studies.

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A Review of Joseph Jonghyun Jeon’s Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012).

I read Joseph Jonghyun Jeon’s brilliant monograph Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry awhile back but it’s taken me some time to write up anything on it. This work is part of the Asian American new formalisms wave that has been particularly robust in the poetry arena, especially with works by Steven Yao, Xiaojing Zhou, Josephine-Nock Hee Park, and Timothy Yu. Jeon’s work is in some sense a natural extension of Yu’s monograph on its focus on the avant-garde, but takes its own unique and exciting direction, especially with respect to poets and poems that do not necessarily depict race in more direct or transparent ways. This issue is perhaps most critical in avant-garde poetry due to formal experimentation and highly fragmented style; there is no narrative and often no explicit social contexts from which to draw a “racialized” reading. Jeon’s introduction, for instance, makes clear that art and poetry must not only be read with respect to lyrical content but for the conditions and contexts in which art and poetry is produced. This approach clarifies how race moves outside a particular poem or lyric but can still necessarily influence its creation and how process that must be taken into account in critical reading practices. Further still, Jeon is highly invested in forms of comparison and for Jeon, “objecthood” or thinginess in Asian American avant-garde poetry is a way to get at the issue of racial representation and how it can be encrypted or alternatively represented in lyric. He goes about comprehensively and commandingly backing up his claims in his luminous readings of various Asian American avant-garde poets and their respective creative works; these include chapters and analyses devoted to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Cathyong and John Yau. Though, by now, those within the field are well familiar with these names, the brilliance of Jeon’s work is in how he can interpret lyric through this hermeneutic of “object” analysis, thus reinvigorating how we see and understand avant-garde poetry. Rather than conveying a postrace aesthetic, these lyrics, poems, and associated collections continue to mine the fertile terrain of social inequality, oppression, and power dynamics in ways that are intricate, multipronged, and certainly sophisticated. Perhaps, my favorite chapter was the one that focused on Berssenbrugge: Jeon opens with a highly provocative conceit concerning the use of “tails” in Berssenbrugge’s collaborative work. The “tail” becomes a signifier not only of an excess, but also aberrance and oddity, a feature which gets elliptically connected to racial difference. One of the most interesting features of this chapter is the material nature of poetry collections; as Jeon points out, the paper stock used in one of the poetry collaborations came from Nepal, showing us the more encrypted ways by which ethnicity emerges. Later, still, Jeon takes the chapter in a wholly surprising direction with the X-ray, mining Berssenbrugge’s interest in science, one that certainly calls attention to the metaphysical nature of her poetry. The X-ray, as Jeon directs us to “see,” becomes an apparatus for Berssenbrugge to introduce discourses related to visuality: transparency, color, what can and cannot be found underneath the surface of things. Again, here, the technology of the x-ray is itself a circuitous mode by which to introduce racial discourses. Readings of bodies and organs appear more largely in Jeon’s analyses through which issues of labor, capital, and colonialism are consistently invoked. Perhaps, most importantly, Jeon’s effortless readings give us so many ways to enjoy the work of Asian American poetry and remind us of the field’s infinite interpretive variances. A must-read for any poetry fan, Asian American cultural critic, and devotee of inspiring literary analysis.

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A Review of Wendy Law-Yone’s A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma (Columbia University Press, 2014).

I was thrilled when I saw that Wendy Law-Yone had published a new novel a couple of years back called the Road to Wanting. Unfortunately, that book was not published in the United States. But, Law-Yone also saw fit to follow suit quite quickly with her newest publication, A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma, which is available stateside through Columbia University Press. This rigorously researched hybrid work—part biography, part autobiography, part history—is a project that Law-Yone took on as a kind of promise to her father, who had amassed an archive of papers and documents that could be used later to recreate a narrative concerning his life and his work. Law-Yone eventually heeded this call, which is this publication. As Law-Yone effectively points out, her father’s life is a useful jumping off point to discuss not only an extraordinary personal and family history, but also a larger national and independence narrative. Indeed, Law-Yone’s father ran a very prominent newspaper in Burma called The Nation, which emerged not soon after the country gained independence and had survived the ravages of World War II. Law-Yone’s family certainly struggled in the period prior to Burma’s independence, but they saw a short period of prosperity once the newspaper took off and eventually gained a loyal readership. But, readers can obviously expect a change of events, especially because of the country’s long military governance, one that saw the reduction in civil liberties, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the massacre of revolutionaries. Not surprisingly, Law-Yone’s father is eventually arrested, his work for the newspaper considered subversive. Law-Yone herself eventually is able to escape the country through a marriage with a writer. Law-Yone’s father will eventually be freed and Law-Yone’s entirely family will eventually exist in exile, with most living either in another country in Asia or in the United States. Even while in exile, Law-Yone’s father continues to dream of revolution, trying to rally rebel groups primarily stationed in Thailand. With little funding and little international support, the exiles and the dissidents find it difficult to produce any real results and Burma continues to be ruled by a violent military junta. Law-Yone herself must deal with a disintegrating divorce, internal tensions in the family (especially over her brother Alban’s struggle with schizophrenia), even while maintaining a career that sees the publication of two acclaimed novels (The Coffin Tree and Irrawaddy Tango) and raising three children (one the product of her husband’s prior marriage). The conclusion is a fascinating look at Law-Yone’s archival research, one that is able to track both her maternal and paternal grandfathers’ origins, the former being a British national and the latter a Chinese merchant. Throughout Law-Yone exerts a respectful and almost hagiographic view of her parents, who clearly lived extraordinary lives. If there is a critique to be made of the book, it is that the narrative occasionally flags due to the generally flattened tone that occasionally surfaces because Law-Yone sticks to a very detailed script, one that must have been painstaking to create and to outline. To be sure, Law-Yone could not consistently generate a dynamic narrative because there are so many tasks to complete: her father’s biography, her family’s exile, her own coming-of-age, and the struggle of a country to find a more democratic rule. The continuing dearth of publications in the United States penned by those of Burmese descent makes Law-Yone’s work quite pivotal in its depiction of an obscured social history.

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With apologies as always for factual inaccuracies, typographical and grammatical errors. Please direct any correspondence or further concerns to ssohnucr@gmail.com.

In this post, reviews of Lisa See’s China Dolls (Random House, 2014); Evonne Tsang’s I Love Him to Pieces (My Boyfriend is a Monster); illustrated by Janina Gorrisen (Graphic Universe, 2011); Mukul Deva’s Weapon of Vengeance (Tor Forge, 2014); Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore (Seizure, 2014); Samrat Upadhyay’s The City Son (Soho, 2014).

A Review of Lisa See’s China Dolls (Random House, 2014).

Lisa See branches out somewhat in her latest offering China Dolls, which takes on the pre-World War II American context from the perspective of three young Asian American women who are seeking fortune and fame in the performance arts. The setting is San Francisco California and we have three narrators: there is Grace, the very Americanized runaway from Plain City, Ohio, looking for a fresh start in life after running away from harsh physical abuse from her father; there is Helen, the seemingly filial daughter of a very Confucian Chinese American immigrant family; and lastly, there is Ruby, the sensual and popular Japanese American masquerading as a Chinese American. All three are looking to get hired in Chinatown. Helen and Grace are able to land jobs, but Ruby’s ethnic passing is occasionally unmasked and she must work elsewhere. Ruby’s job leads her to work for the Golden Gate International Exposition, but her occupation requires her to be in various stages of undress. All three begin to experience various difficulties in family life, romances, and most of all their friendships with each other. First, Grace falls in love with a military man named Joe, failing to realize that he has been carrying on with Ruby. When Grace and Helen walk in on Ruby and Joe mid-coitus, Grace runs away from Chinatown to try to start a new life as a performer in Los Angeles. Helen ends up trying to find her and works with her to start up a kind of three person performance group with a man named Eddie, otherwise nicknamed the Chinese Fred Astaire. Ruby, for her part, achieves minor fame in San Francisco’s Chinatown as Princess Tai, while Helen, Eddie, and Grace struggle to make ends meet. Helen eventually becomes pregnant in an ill-advised affair with one of her employers and the three eventually return to San Francisco to work at the very same location that they first started at. As the novel goes on, the three must inevitably tarry with the historical milieu of World War II, which includes the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese Americans, as well as the recruitment of Asian American men into the military. See is up for the challenge of twining together history with these three character trajectories and the plotting itself never flags. Though See has typically focused the construction of protagonists around Chinese and Chinese American characters, her use of a cross-ethnic perspective is an interesting choice that brings to mind the complicated positionality of Asian American panethnicity in the pre-World War II period. Fans of See’s fictional productions will see much in line with the feminist impulses of previous works, as she continues to mine the fragile alliances that women create amongst a patriarchal, sexist world. Late stage revelations in the narrative create an interesting and jarring reconfiguration of these three female characters and their tenuous friendships. The novel also functions with a kind of meta-marketing Orientalist conceit. The title itself might draw in those seeking an entertaining story of Oriental ladies who dance and perform, but as the novel shows, these three characters are well aware of the roles they must play and do what they can to exert agency within and beyond Orientalist paradigms.

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A Review of Evonne Tsang’s I Love Him to Pieces (My Boyfriend is a Monster); illustrated by Janina Gorrisen (Graphic Universe, 2011).

In I Love Him to Pieces, Evonne Tsang has penned an entertaining story of an unlikely couple—Dicey Bell and Jack Chen—who must work together to survive a zombie apocalypse. Janina Gorrisen takes on illustrating duties and helps flesh out—see what I did there—the narrative through her engaging visuals. Though Dicey is a jock and Jack is a nerd, they still find an attraction to each other, but even as their romance begins to bloom, the story shifts to focus on an outbreak of a dangerous fungus that has turned people into zombies. Thus, Dicey and Jack must find their way to a motel, while Jack uses his connections to get the CDC to help break them out of the city. Jack’s parents are important researchers and scientists and thus are able to provide Jack with a measure of security when the outbreak shows no signs of abating. Dicey’s family is an issue though and Jack must do what he can to find a way to bring them all to safety. The CDC and government agents finally arrive to whisk Dicey and Jack out of the city, but they run into zombie-trouble and many of the agents are either shot dead or infected. Jack himself suffers a bite from a zombie, but with the help from one agent, he is given experimental pills that may help him stave off a transformation. Though the narrative is obviously not that different from the many other zombie outbreak stories that are out there, the romance and chemistry between Dicey and Jack can’t be denied. They’re an odd couple that works and so you’re rooting for them to find a way to still be together, even as it becomes evident that Jack may be succumbing to the infection. The one element that I thought could have really improved the graphic novel would have been the inclusion of some other color palettes. Certainly, it would have cost quite a bit more in production to have had a graphic novel in full color but I kept thinking that the black and white tones could have been offset in energy through the tactical use of a third bright color. Since the zombies are always seeking for a bite to eat, the color red might have been a good choice to give the pages some more pizazz. The graphic novel does include some useful extras, including a hilarious “faux” interview at the conclusion and the artist’s note for the inspiration for the main characters (why they look the way they do). A fun, flesh-eating frolic through a zombie-infested land in which a fledgling romance is put into obvious peril!

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A Review of Mukul Deva’s Weapon of Vengeance (Tor Forge, 2014).

For some reason, when I began this book, I thought it was in the mystery genre (the dangers of not reading book jacket covers), but Mukul Deva’s Weapon of Vengeance is more like an action-thriller, one that could certainly see a big screen adaptation (with probabe revisions to its highly naturalistic ending). Deva’s third person narrative perspective primarily toggles between two main characters: Ruby Gill, a British national of half-Indian, half-Palestinian background who is a sort of double agent for MI6, which is a British military intelligence organization, and then her father, Ravinder Gill, with whom Ruby is estranged. Ravinder has just been promoted to a position to head the anti-terrorism task force that must oversee the successful inauguration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace summit being held in New Delhi. As a child, Ravinder and Ruby’s mother Rehana divorced and Ruby was raised to think that Ravinder had abandoned them. Ruby’s mission is to disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace summit by assassinating some of those in attendance. To help her out, she has teamed up with a former acquaintance, Mark, who is looking to help secure a set of guns that will enable them to carry out their terrorist attacks. Deva is interested in some sort of Oedipal/ Electra-complex relation here: Ruby realizes that she might have to kill her own father in order to carry out her plan. Ruby attends to her conflicted feelings by reminding herself of promises she has made her mother, but her internal struggle reveals a schizoid subjectivity: there is the daughter who seeks rapprochement with her father and there is the terrorist who seeks to kill anyone involved with upholding the safety of the summit (such as her father). Caught between these poles, Deva has created a naturalistic plot in the sense that it is clear that only one can survive. Will it be Ravinder and those seeking to protect the delegates for the summit, or will Ruby be able to carry out her brutal plan of vengeance? To answer this question, you’ll obviously have to pick up this book yourself, but another big sell for the novel is Deva’s own background as an a former member of the military. There is an author’s note that goes on to detail that many of the contextual references are based upon his knowledge of security and management of terrorism and hostage-type situations. It is clear from the kind of detail offered in this novel that Deva seeks to immerse the reader in an authentically constructed fictional world. Weapon of Vengeance is a fast-paced and intense action-thriller, certain to engage readers of others in this genre, such as Dan Brown or Tom Clancy.

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A Review of Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore (Seizure, 2014).

Hoa Pham’s slim, but dense novella comes out of an Australian publishing house called Seizure. You can find out more about this press here:


Interestingly enough, it seems as though the press is primarily run by volunteers and it’s clear that these individuals seek to publish books that push the boundaries of given genres and topics. In Pham’s The Other Store, the protagonist Kim Nguyen is a 16 year old Vietnamese girl who almost drowns. Though she survives, that event also bestows upon Kim particular gifts: she can now read minds and she can also speak to the dead. Once others get wind of her talents, Kim inspires both fear and avarice. Her father immediately wants to put her to work to gain more money, while a Communist party government employee hires her to help identify the remains found in mass graves. This individual also purportedly also possesses psychic powers, and they travel to different parts of Vietnam to go about their business. This process is challenging for Kim: she must confront dead ghosts whose families are still seeking their remains and clues about their fates. Additionally, the ghosts often have their own demands for recognition, and soon, news of her power reaches other spirit and human populations. Further still, once Kim identifies the remains, there are political ramifications. For instance, if the remains are identified as coming from a Vietnamese individual from the South, their remains may not necessarily be forwarded to their families, since they are linked to non-Communist governmental entities. Kim eventually realizes that she cannot escape the reach of the Communist party. A chance encounter with an overseas Vietnamese teenage boy (just one year older and also a psychic) makes her realize that she may be able to leave to America under the auspices of a short trip, while truly seeking asylum. Reverberations of the Viet Nam War appear all over this particular text, but it never surfaces directly, and this fiction presents another case of the shifting generational representations emerging from writers in this period. Pham’s novella is both an assured depiction of a character struggling to follow her Buddhist precepts while under the watchful eye of government power. Certainly, we might read this novel as a critique of nation-state formation following the war, especially with respect of corruption and continued violence directed toward particular communities who might be seen as subversive to the nation-state’s interests. Though ghostliness is a trope not necessarily new to Asian diasporic narratives (see Janie Chang’s Three Souls or Sandi Tan’s The Black Isle for recent examples reviewed here), Pham’s novella presents this spectrality from a dynamic direction, offering us a view of Vietnam from a post-war perspective. A surrealistic, lyrical and understated novel that shows us the lasting ramifications of the Vietnam War.

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A Review of Samrat Upadhyay’s The City Son (Soho, 2014).

Samrat Upadhyay’s follow-up to Buddha’s Orphans is the strange and disconcerting novel The City Son. Narrated from a shifting third person perspective, the novel (set in Nepal) follows a set of main characters wound together through tortured family dynamics. In this way, the plot reminds me very much of the work of Akhil Sharma in Family Life or Da Chen in The Last Empress, both novels which explore sexual assault and exploitation across generational divides. In this case, a wife, Didi, discovers her husband, Masterji, who is living in the city, has taken on a mistress (Aspara). Aspara has a son, Tarun, through Masterji, and Didi is determined to meet Tarun, to find out more about this little boy, but immediately readers are set off by the interest that Didi has in Tarun. She dotes on him, as if this child were her own, making him special dishes and certainly attempting to undermine the hold that Aspara has on Tarun. It is soon apparent that given Didi’s slightly elevated social position that she can offer Tarun things that Aspara cannot. Even when Aspara’s connection to a rich business magnate, Mahesh Uncle, offers her and her son a way out of their social positions, Didi’s emotional and affectual hold on Tarun has been firmly established. At this point, the novel takes a very dark turn: Didi begins an illicit love affair with this young boy, something that is carried over into adulthood. At that point, Tarun’s proxie father, Mahesh Uncle, is able to set up a suitable arranged marriage with a beautiful young woman, Rukma, who has a past of her own (involving a love affair with a man who ends up getting engaged and then marries another woman). Tarun and Rukma’s marriage is not surprisingly rocky from the start and Didi, with her incredible focus on Tarun, continues to exert a problematic pall over Tarun’s life in all ways. As with Chen’s The Last Empress, the novel leaves quite a lot of interpretive room in terms of how to situate this relationship in a larger social context. It becomes evident that one of the sources of tension appears in the social arrangements in Nepal that leave women in disempowered positions. Indeed, by the novel’s conclusion it is apparent Masterji’s original “sin” is one in which his own social position is never finally challenged, though the reverberations of his extramarital affair affect so many others, including his own sons, one of whom becomes a drug addict and the other whose disaffecting nature comes to be undermined by the eventual revelation of Didi’s relationship with Tarun. Thus, we might return to the novel’s title, “the city son,” to think about the ways that the movement toward urbanization creates ripples in traditional Nepalese family systems and metonymically shows the complicated trajectory for a country’s modernization process. Fortunately, even given the dark topic, Upadhyay’s sparkling prose renders this plot in a luminous light that grants grace to these damaged characters.

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Vietnamerica cover

GB Tran’s much-acclaimed Vietnamerica, a graphic memoir of his family’s history in Vietnam and the U.S., was published in early 2011, but I just got around to reading it, so I’m going to talk about it now. In addition to winning many awards, it has been much reviewed, including here (April 28, 2011), the L.A. Times, diaCRITICS, Washington Post, and many other places, so I won’t reiterate a summary. Rather, I’ll just mention a couple things that struck me.

Although the story is bookended and filtered through the perspective of the American-born GB, his parents, and to a much lesser extent his siblings, most of the forward narrative drive takes place in Vietnam. Within this text, the U.S. is a place of remembering and reflection, while action – war, marriage, migration, even building one’s own house – takes place in a remembered Vietnam. It’s not a typical adjusting-to-life-in-America/generational conflict story, although these things are briefly alluded to. Like Maus, which it’s often compared to, the text is much more about excavating the traumas of the past that shape the present.

Vietnamerica is also visually intriguing. As other readers have noted, the pictures of people are very unstable; characters look different from page to page, perhaps highlighting the sense of uncertainty of memory. Tran makes full use of the space on and between the pages, particularly to convey senses of time. For instance, in two sections depicting imprisonment for long periods of time (Tran’s father in police custody; his father’s friend, Do, in a labor camp), the page’s panels depicting the monotonous horror are repeated in increasingly smaller size in the bottom, right-hand corner, in an infinite regression of fear, exhaustion, and violence. In another section towards the end, GB is learning about past events from family and friends. The events from the past are depicted in the panels on the bottom third of the verso (left) page and through the recto (right) page. GB’s question appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the recto page, which trails to the top of the next verso page, which takes us to the “present,” or the time and place of the telling. I also love the plays on communist Vietminh propaganda posters; I have a weird fascination with communist art.

Vietnamerica seems like it would be very teachable. I’d love to hear about your experiences with it in the classroom!
The Cry and the Dedication is Carlos Bulosan’s unfinished manuscript about socialist guerilla fighters in the Philippines in the 1940s and 1950s. Poet, novelist, and essayist Bulosan is best known for America Is in the Heart (1946), his semi-autobiographical story of Filipino American migrant farm workers on the West Coast. Cry and the Dedication has many of the same stylistic traits – particularly the soaring utopian rhetoric undercut by the depiction of harsh realities – but it is more definitely politically radical in its outlook than America.

The narrative centers on seven guerilla fighters (6 men and 1 woman) as they make their way across the countryside; each person represents different social classes – urban, rural, peasant, city worker, petit bourgeois, etc. They are headed to the city, where an ally from the U.S. will provide one million pesos for the resistance movement. As they progress, they pass through each person’s hometown, where almost invariably they encounter tragedy and/or betrayal. As E. San Juan notes in the introduction, these homecomings-that-are-not-homecomings suggest the impossibility of any kind of easy return home; at the same time, the seven also encounter glimpses of hope and possibility. Of the seven, arguably the two key characters are Dante and Hassim. Dante, who is 35 years old (just like the narrator-protagonist of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy), has lived part of his life in the U.S. and has returned to join the guerilla fighters and document their history. Hassim is the very young but wise leader of this group, a self-taught former factory worker in the city. The fates of these characters are very significant, as the introduction notes.

The great Marxist literary critic E. San Juan, Jr., provides the introduction that begins by describing his discovery of the manuscript amid Bulosan’s papers in the University of Washington archives. The introduction also provides historical and theoretical context for the novel, which is very helpful; Bulosan imagined the manuscript as part of a four-novel series about Philippine history. Unfortunately, Bulosan died young (age 42) from tuberculosis, so this final magnum opus was never realized.
30 July 2014 @ 08:42 am
Celeste Ng's debut novel, Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2014), begins with the blunt statement, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast."

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng

This statement captures a moment prior to a horrible knowing, a moment still immersed in familiar feelings and relations among the family members. Lydia, the second child of three, has been the gravitational center of the family, bearing the brunt of her parents differing expectations and therefore becoming the only child who really received full attention in the family.

The novel churns through the aftermath of Lydia's death, with each parent struggling to make sense of the tragedy and what it means for their expectations of life (as lived through Lydia). Marilyn, the mother, particularly feels the loss since she invested so heavily in Lydia as a chance to recapture her dreams of becoming a doctor--a childhood plan derailed in her junior year at Radcliffe College when she became pregnant with her oldest son, Nathan (called Nath). She is a white woman from Virgina whose interest in science and being a doctor put her at odds with the prevailing ideas of women's work at the time, a contrast sharpened by the fact the her mother was her local school's home economics teacher and an adamant supporter of the idea that girls must learn to be good housewives. James Lee, the father, meanwhile, is a Chinese American professor of American history (specializing in cowboys) whose need to be just like white Americans leads him to feel shame at seeing his mixed-race son growing up like he did, never quite an insider in their Midwestern community in a small college town.

Nath, in the meantime, has been the supportive older brother to Lydia, understanding the terrible burden that Lydia faces as the only child who seems to matter to the parents. Of the three children, he seems to experience the most difficulties as a mixed-race Asian and white child in their all-white town, something his father disdains in him. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, is the forgotten member of the family who sees and hears much though rarely interacts with her parents or siblings.

In addition to these family members, the other key figure is their neighbor Jack, a suspicious neighbor in Nath's class who had been spending time with Lydia in the months before her death. Jack bears the brunt of Nath's anger in the aftermath of his sister's death, and he is convinced Jack is responsible for it.

This novel is a careful working through of the desires of each family member, particularly the parents and the two older children, in light of lifelong frustrations. James cannot get over being Chinese and different from other Americans. Marilyn cannot forget her dreams of becoming a doctor. Nath wants some approval from his parents, who only see Lydia. And Lydia, poor Lydia, understands that embodying her parents' expectations (to be friends with everyone for her father and to become a doctor for her mother) is the only thing that keeps their delicate family together. The narrative structure is full of flashbacks with the various characters, particularly the parents. In the present time frame, the story also proceeds forward from the day of Lydia's death through the police investigation and through the end of the school year for Nath.

This story treads familiar ground in terms of Asian American experiences in small towns as well as feminist concerns regarding women's work. I'm trying to think of other novels where there has been a Chinese American male character who so thoroughly internalizes a sense of racial self-hatred but can't think of any off the top of my head. The tragic mulatta narrative is present here, of course, with the death of a mixed-race characters as the center of the story. And there is another familiar narrative that emerges later in the novel that provides even more texture to the story, but I don't want to spoil it for people!

All in all, this novel is a welcome addition to the body of Asian American literature. It is particularly great for providing some reflections on 1950s experiences (James Lee as a graduate student in history at Harvard and Marilyn as a woman in the sciences) and the 1970s (Nath's obsession with space travel in the years after the first moon landing, for instance). It certainly fits in with other books that explore the complicated dynamics of family relationships.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version of this novel.
Current Mood: morosemorose
ShadowHero-Cov-300rbg-550x850  I just read Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero, their imagining of the origin story of the Green Turtle, the 1940s Asian American comic book hero (invented by cartoonist Chu Hing). They locate the Green Turtle’s origins firmly in Asian American history, with Hank, our hero-to-be, the son of immigrants and growing up in 1930s Chinatown while working in his father’s grocery store. It’s also a classic superhero origin story, with primal scenes of violence and hurt that will shape the hero’s quest in later life, but with an Asian Americanist take – a wry awareness of racial formations and racist stereotypes. Basically, Shadow Hero is awesome and you should all run out and read it immediately.

An extra-special touch is the section at the end that provides the publication history of the original 1944 Green Turtle comic, including the publisher’s unwillingness to make the hero Asian American and cartoonist Hing’s subversion of that decision. Also included is a reproduction of the entire first Green Turtle adventure, from Blazing Comics #1, which is fascinating and complicated on a number of levels.

Gene Luen Yang is the much-acclaimed author of American Born Chinese (reviewed 2011-02-10), Level Up (reviewed 2011-11-26), Boxers and Saints (reviewed 2013-09-21), and other works. Sonny Liew is a comic artist based in Singapore who is known for Malinky Robot and My Faith in Frankie.

The Shadow Hero was originally published as monthly e-issues, with original cover art for each issue, and the full graphic novel was published earlier this month. There’s also a book trailer here (as well as links to buy the book): http://geneyang.com/the-shadow-hero.
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 21st, 2014

Questions/ concerns/ comments? Please e-mail me at ssohnucr@gmail.com . With apologies as always for factual inaccuracies, grammar and spelling mistakes, etc.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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:


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.

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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 [71].

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.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 10, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, grammatical errors, and other such things. Feel free to contact me with any questions: ssohnucr@gmail.com.

In this post, reviews of Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief (Disney-Hyperion, 2014); Leila Rasheed’s Diamonds and Deceit (Disney-Hyperion, 2014); Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (First Second 2014); Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014); and Elsie Chapman’s Divided (Random House Kid’s Division, 2014).

A Review of Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief (Disney-Hyperion, 2014).

This novel was one of the highly anticipated new releases of 2014 in the young adult/ fantasy romance genres. In Livia Blackburne’s debut Midnight Thief, she draws upon the long history of Anglo-Saxon mythology and fantasy to create a story about an orphan named Kyra, who moves from moonlighting as a thief to becoming a trained assassin. There are palaces and armed guards, talk of griffins, people who can speak to animals, antagonists called demon riders, all the things you would want in this kind of genre. Certainly, enthusiasts of role-playing games and Dungeons & Dragons will immediately embrace this novel with its familiar vocabulary, settings, and ethnic signifiers. Other readers will be drawn to Kyra as a romantic lead, coming of age in an environment where it is unclear what her prospects might be. Given a lack of noble heritage, her options for male romance seem limited to the assassin’s guild leader, James, who is considerably older than her. As Blackburne’s narrator (the story is told from the third person) points out a number of times, Kyra is lucky enough as it is to have room and board at a tavern called the Drunken Dog. She’s found her own patchwork family with a fellow former street urchin, Flick, and other strays who have managed to survive out on the streets and later, to make a living out of what skills they developed. Kyra’s got a knack for speed and sleight of hand, which makes her a target of the assassin’s guild, who want her abilities to gain a better sense of the Palace, its layouts and its structural weaknesses. Kyra, sensing the possibility of a steady paycheck in an economically turbulent time, decides she will take on this position, even at the consternation of Flick, her most trusted friend. The other narrative involves Tristam, a knight, who must endure the death of a very close ally, James, and vows to seek vengeance against the Demon Riders who killed him. The Demon Riders seem to have magical abilities related to large, vicious cats, and these barbarians have increased the number of raids and attacks in the area. Though these two narratives are unrelated in the first hundred or so pages, Blackburne is patient and eventually draws the two main characters together. Some of the later stage reveals are not at all surprising, but Blackburne is certainly aware of her target audience. Readers of YA/ fantasy romances will get all that they have wanted: a spirited female protagonist of humble origins who makes it in a world of magic, mischief, and misogynistic men and still manages to find the one guy—with appropriately chiseled abdominal muscles—who might actually have a sense of feminist empowerment. For scholars of race and ethnicity, Blackburne’s novel is of course part of the postracial fictional contingent, which is not really so post-racial after all. The Barbarians, and Demon Riders, come to signify as the racial Other; along the way, there is talk of miscegenation and the problems that come with it. As with many other works in this YA/ fantasy genre, racial difference tends to be allegorized or analogized. Where the novel eventually moves with this issue is more suggestive of an ethos toward uneasy cultural hybridity, but Blackburne’s debut leaves quite a bit of room for more exploration of the fictional world. There is no indication that this novel is part of a planned trilogy, so we’ll wait to see if we will have more adventures with Kyra. I can already imagine future titles in what could be the three-part arc: Midnight Assassin? Midnight Rogue? Midnight Scoundrel? LOL.

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A Review of Leila Rasheed’s Diamonds and Deceit (Disney-Hyperion, 2014).

Leila Rasheed returns with her follow up to the “At Somerton” series with Diamonds and Deceit (after Cinders & Sapphires). As with other YA fictional romances, this one looks to be the standard trilogy. In this installment, there are a number of different storylines that Rasheed will juggle. Ava, our ostensible protagonist from book 1, is getting married to a rich aristocrat named Laurence, even though she still harbors feelings for the Ravi, the Indian student with whom she engaged a brief romantic dalliance, but realized—especially given their different racial backgrounds—that such a match would be unthinkable and ill advisable given her own privileged status. Rose, who was once a handmaid, has now become a member of Ava’s family. The transition from handmaid to an elite is difficult, as Rose must entitle herself to the wealth that she once only viewed on the sidelines. Complicating matters is the rakish Duke of Huntleigh, who has come to town for the season and with an eye on Rose. Little does the Duke know of Rose’s humble origins. Charlotte Templeton is in her third season and is desperate to land the right marriage proposal. Unable to woo Laurence, Charlotte looks to disrupt other romances and has her sights set on the affluent Duke of Huntleigh. Meanwhile, in another romance plot, Sebastian Templeton desperately attempts to find a way to save his valet (and lover) Oliver from taking the fall for an accidental death which has been incorrectly determined to be a homicide that Oliver perpetrated. Finally, Michael Templeton is still in love with the domestic servant Priya, a match as ill-advised as the one that could have happened between Ravi and Ada (given the interracial/interclass issues). Michael seeks to find a way to be with Priya despite this difference in class and race, much to the ire of his aristocratic family. The publishers of this volume saw fit to include a very useful family tree at the novel’s beginning and which graces the binding pages of the hardcover edition, but noticeably absent from this tree are the many servants, housemaids and other employees that help run the various estates that appear in the novel. See the diagram here:


In this sense, the family tree fails to get at the complexity of Rasheed’s work, which indeed seems to “queer” every single romance that appears, either through an interclass, interracial, and/or same-sex paradigm. Rasheed establishes the aristocratic norm and from there explores illicit variations on that norm. This second installment, as they all seem to go in the trilogy format, is fairly dark and reveals that there are significant consequences, especially from those hailing from the lower classes, as they attempt to move up along society’s ladder. Further still, Rasheed is continually operating with a larger historical tapestry in mind, with references to World War I and colonial India always in the background. Rasheed’s work is no doubt entertaining, but one would be remiss not to mention the novel’s obvious and important social critiques.

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A Review of Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014).

Jenny Han must have heard my prayers because she’s written a novel where an Asian American appears as the sole narrator and protagonist of the work. I think every single one of Han’s publications thus far has used first person narration in some form. Her co-authored work with Siobhan Vivian (the Burn for Burn series) boasts three different narrators, one of whom is Korean American. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean Song is our teenage Korean American narrator and protagonist. She has two sisters, an older one named Margot who has left for college in Europe and a younger sister named Kitty. Her father raises them on her own, since their mother passed away when they were much younger. The novel begins with Margot getting ready to leave for college; she has also recently broken up with her boyfriend Josh, an issue that is more largely a family dilemma since Josh has been sort of like an extended member of the family. The hijinks ensue when a set of letters that Lara Jean had written to the five boys that she has “loved” is mailed out to them. Not all of these letters reach their destinations, but they do reach enough of the “boys,” to make some romantic trouble. For instance, at one point when Lara Jean was years younger and before Margot was dating Josh, she had a crush on him. When she realizes that Josh is getting a little bit too close for comfort, she concocts a plot with Peter Kavinsky, another boy she had once “loved” to keep Josh from getting too close. Peter is already in a shaky relationship with a popular high school girl named Genevieve, so his aim is to make Genevieve a little bit jealous. Thus, they forge a pact to follow this “fake” relationship in the hopes that it will solve each of their problems. Genevieve will be jealous of Lara Jean and get back with Peter and Lara Jean will be free from Josh’s attempts to get her romantic attention. Of course, we know that such a plan will not operate as it is supposed to, especially in any young adult fiction where romance is on the horizon. It becomes readily apparent that Peter is growing quite fond of Lara Jean and with Josh not backing down, our proverbial love triangle is set. Who will Lara Jean choose? Will she give in to any lingering feelings with Josh, knowing that her older sister Margot might be upset with her when she finds out? Is Peter only being nice to her because he is a “fake” boyfriend? To find out, you’ll definitely have to sit down and read this novel.
On the racialized front, Han is quite subtle in ways that reveal just how insidious social difference can be. Though much of the novel is filled with seemingly first world plights like what types of cookies—fruitcake cookies anyone?—must be baked for Christmas, occasionally we’ll get a moment that takes the narrative a little bit deeper. For instance, Lara Jean laments the fact that she doesn’t have many choices for Halloween costumes because she’s half Asian. Indeed, anytime she dresses up as a particular character whose racial background does not match with hers, then she’s confused for an anime or manga figure. While this event might seem insignificant, Han’s reference to pedestrian moments like this one reveal the ways in which social difference continues to surface in the everyday. In my opinion, this work rises to the top of Han’s growing and popularly embraced oeuvre. And what luck: there is certain to be at least one more addition to the Lara Jean saga with P.S. I Still Love You.

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A Review of Elsie Chapman’s Divided (Random House Kid’s Division, 2014).

Divided is Elise Chapman’s sequel to Dualed (which was released last year). In the first installment in what is only a planned duology, West Grayer, our protagonist and our narrator, must kill her “alt” in order to complete. In the fictional world that Chapman has created, every individual has an alternate being living in a sort of mirror city. Eventually, an “idle” is made “active” and must be on the hunt to kill their alt. Only one survives. The cultural ethos behind this battle to the death is that the individual who completes the killing of their alternate is the only one worthy of survival. Because resources in this fictional world are limited, this kind of contest becomes a way to limit population growth and focus on the individuals with the will to help society continue onward. Given the fact that those in West Grayer’s world inhabit only a small section of a world butting up against a hostile placed called The Surround, the need for hardy individuals is paramount. In the sequel, West Grayer is called in by a member of the Board and requested to go on a secret mission to assassinate some alts. In exchange, West Grayer will have the guarantee that her future children will not have alts created. Further still, West will be able to get marks removed from her wrist that denote that she was once a striker, a sort of assassin for others who want to get rid of their alternates without having to complete the act on their own. West agrees to the terms offered by the Board, although this decision creates a wide gulf between her and her romantic partner Chord. She cannot tell him what is going on, but when it becomes apparent that these contracted killings are more than she bargained for, Chapman’s novel kicks into high gear. West Grayer is a protagonist haunted by the choices she had to make in book one; book two is all about dealing with the fallout of killing people she perceived were innocent. If West is hardened and traumatized by her survival, the second book offers her the chance for minor redemption. The pacing is razor fast and you’ll probably have to slow yourself down in order to catch all that is going on. Certainly, an entertaining read and a fitting ending to the Dualed duology. I have to say though I was disappointed to discover that there wouldn’t be a third installment because it’s quite clear that Chapman has more to explore in this world, especially with the area of The Surround, which remains a complete mystery.

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A Review of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (First Second 2014).

I’ve resisted the call of reading Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, which was all of two days. I should at some point simply give up this idea that I will not write on graphic novels and just do it. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer is the kind of understated, coming-of-age story that I sometimes do not expect to encounter in the graphic narrative form, but then again, this dynamic duo is also author of the superb graphic novel, Skim, which I have taught with much gusto in previous course iterations. The story follows Rose and her family, who always take a family vacation to Awago Beach. This year things are different. Rose’s mother is suffering from depression, the likes of which stem from a previous miscarriage. The strain on the family is obvious: there are squabbles and all-out fights that surface and we see how it affects Rose, as she also confronts her own adolescence. Rose’s (mis)adventures at Awago Beach emerge most forcefully through her close friendship with Windy, the adopted daughter of a lesbian couple who live in a nearby cottage. Rose and Windy talk about anything and everything, but mostly about their futures as women, their possible romances, and the local store employees and associated denizens, who are all teenagers and engaging in sexual activities of various sorts that results in the pregnancy of one of the young teen girls in the group. These twinned narratives function perfectly. Rose’s mother must deal with her depression among her family members, while Rose considers what it must mean for this young teen girl, Jenny, to be a mother and that her father does not acknowledge his paternity. All around Rose is the question of family formation, whether in the alternative kinship posed by Windy and her mothers, Jenny and her pregnancy, and her own relationship to her mother and father. There are no easy answers and the Tamakis are quite content with a very subtle resolution that will leave readers of all ages satisfied. The illustration as always is lush, though there is a less formal experimentation than there was in Skim. The Tamakis are also quite comfortable with allowing the images to carry parts of the discourse, where full sets of panels include little text. There is so much to interpret and soak in at this Awago Beach that I’m sure I will return again. Simply superb.

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02 July 2014 @ 08:00 pm
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 2, 2014

Apologies for errors, inaccuracies, etc… should you need to contact me, please e-mail me at ssohnucr@gmail.com.

In this post, reviews of Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes (Wings Press, 2011) and Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (Wings Press, 2010), May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl (GemmaMedia, 2013), Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012), Samit Basu’s Resistance (Titan Books, 2014), Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel (Black Heron Press, 2014).

A Review of Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes (Wings Press, 2011) and Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (Wings Press, 2010).

I earlier reviewed Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves, which comes out of Wings Press, a unique independent publisher devoted to works with multicultural and political contours. For more on the press, go here!


Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes is a kind of lyrical exploration into spirituality. The collection is roughly structured through three intercessions, which—if you aren’t always familiar with some religious terminology (like myself)—are forms of prayer that are dedicated to the struggles and lives of others. In this sense, there is certainly a mode of empathetic observation that comes across in many of these poems, the lyric speaker reaching out and attempting to move across places and times (place references abound throughout the collection: Mexico, Fredericksburg, Spain, Pensacola etc), with the hope of some greater power that can offer divine interventions. In “Fiction,” the lyric speaker considers the possibility of healing amongst those (perhaps veterans?) who wallow in their traumas: “Upon the stage, God’s people seemed consoled: their soldiers were no longer-flesh-and-bones, but extras from a dinky distant town; their scars were pastry, they were sharing crusts, a cherry picker’s loot in thin disguise” (9). “Fiction” introduces a general lyric approach that Starnes excels in, gesturing to material contexts, without ever directly referencing any one thing. In this respect, I’d be very interested in seeing Starnes at a reading in person; the poems tend to have an elliptical and abstracted quality that make them possess a dream-like ambience, but at the same time, there is a sense of masking that covers many lyrics and perhaps she’d be able to give some more backstory to some of them. For instance, amid a kind of pastoral filled with religious imagery in “Provinces,” there is a phrase concerning a “hung jury of a father in drapery robes” (24), but this legal reference is not brought up again in the poem; then, later, there is an interlingual register introduced in the conclusion, where the lyric speaker calls out “Hija” (24). In poems like this one, there is a sense of a rootedness that is butting up against other images that speak of bucolic vistas undermined with the sense of a coming judgment; thus “shepherds” and “pastures” mixed up with “tombs,” “psalms,” and “lambskins” (24-25). Because of this haziness, Starnes must resort occasionally to ordering notes that appear before or after poems. The concluding arc of the poems appears the most cohesive, as the elegies begin to emerge; the lyrics becoming mournful yet precise in their yearnings. My favorite sequence appears in this final arc, in the poem “The House that Bled,” and I reproduce a large portion here (but will lose the exact formatting, but perhaps that will encourage you to get the book!):

“We fear yet love our scars.
As artisans

We’re drawn to storied houses, to strip and
tell their stock of wood,

armlock of newer plaster.
We know that someone notched, nicked,

bliested their beams and mantles,
until the white gypsum hung.

Houses withstand their centuries,
double-rooms and double tales, luster

and bristle inside-out, wished-back
wounds hoisting their wishable omens.

The rough of heaven clings to them
and cannot flee, eliding” (74).

I adore the extended metaphor that the lyric speaker draws out here, the ways in which poets and artists seek out the depraved, the broken in search of a kind of reinvigoration, a rebirth that one might call, at least in the context of this poetry collection, a lyric-spiritual resurrection.

The spirituality that tracks through Fully into Ashes is on full display in Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh, which is a beautifully produced chapbook. As I’ve mentioned before, I find chapbooks to be an interesting form, especially because they are often so materially ephemeral. With limited print runs, often hand-bound, chapbooks are fairly hard to track down. Ephemerality, especially as it relates to the human body and how it perceives, its place in the world, the fact of its existence, seems to be the questions that root the lyrics in this chapbook. As with the full collection, Corpus Homini abounds not only with religious references, but intertextual registers, which give the chapbook a wonderful sense of thickness. It is clear, for instance, that Starnes has been influenced by Modernist poets; there was a moment where I simply said: oh, these lines directly invoke T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and then, about five pages later, there is a quotation pulled out from a different work by Eliot. The conclusion to Corpus Homini sees a frail old man who seems to fall near his doorstep, which is then followed by a lyric section called “One Birth.” Starnes bring us back to the circularities of the body: “Let us suppose we all consume,/ will be consumed, and consummate our living with the heart pressed hard against the freeze” (33). As with Fully into Ashes, Starnes is masterful in her use of pastoral images imbued with a sense of impermanence, no doubt a nod to her interest in the Romantic era poets, the picturesque always giving way to the overwhelming and overpowering nature of the sublime.

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A Review of May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl (GemmaMedia, 2013).

May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl, a sequel to Dragon Chica, follows the protagonist (Nea Chhim), as she navigates life in the wake of knowing her family secret. Struggling in her university studies, Nea makes a drastic decision to leave school for a period and travel out to Southern California. She clearly seeks to find out more about her father, who she was raised to understand was her Uncle. Once there, Nea helps her father out at their business, a donut store, where she begins to understand more about the circumstances of his life and what may have lead to the decisions he has made about his family. Life and work at the donut shop is far from ideal; business is relatively stagnant. Her father employs two workers, Anita (who has some sort of close, but unexplained connection to her father) and Sitam, a good-natured employee. Hoping to find a way to help out, Nea realizes that she can put her energy and skills to good use. She helps to invigorate the business with a couple of key changes, including getting more publicity for the donut shop. A local news feature based upon Nea’s biological father has the unexpected ramifications of reuniting Nea’s father with his son (and Nea’s brother) Paul. The new addition to the family clearly causes strain, especially because Nea does not understand why Paul has come back into his life: is Paul looking for money? Does he have an ulterior motive?
As with Dragon Chica, Chai creates a narrative filled with politically engaged writing; this novel not only dramatizes the personal struggles of a character coming to terms with her expanding sense of family but deals with the larger atrocities of the Cambodian genocide. The stories of survival that filter throughout the novel are tastefully done and depict these immigrant families and networks as ones imbued with a sense of melancholy, but also continued hope for other trajectories and potentialities. Chai is never sentimental in her portrayals and Nea is a character that readers can certainly identify with, even despite some of her more impulsive actions. With representations of Cambodian Americans and Cambodian immigrants being still relatively nascent, Chai continues to draw upon a larger Asian American identity politic that is refreshing and aesthetically expansive and critically underrepresented.

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A Review of Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012).

It was pylduck who alerted me to this trailblazing title (by a trailblazing press) based upon his review here:


I believe this work may be one of the first, if not the first, sole-authored published work by an American of Asian descent who identifies as trans. On this level alone, Aoki shoulders such a heavy burden, fortunately for us, she realizes that the work must cater to a diverse audience and offers us a mixed-genre cultural production that moves across a variety of topics including childhood abuse, animal-human transformation, queer bashing of all sorts, and ethnic/racial otherness. As I’ve tarried longer and perhaps too long within Asian American cultures, I’ve sometimes had this nostalgic view of identity politics, specifically for its activist rhetoric (not so much of its masculinist ethos of course). Aoki understands the nexus between artistry and politicism, activism and aesthetics and mines this fertile terrain through which to highlight social justice issues and present them in such nuanced and often excruciatingly complex ways. I agree with Pylduck’s sentiment that we could have used some more fiction, but the element that I was missing was the corporeal aspect. It’s clear that many of these pieces are transfigured from performance pieces and other genre/media, so I wonder what might have been lost in translation. The title is of course evoked by the structural conceit of the collection, which takes us through the seasons, a metaphorical look at the cycles of change. Of course, given the many points at which Aoki brings up trans issues, the notion of the changing seasons is entirely contextualizable, especially since, as she brings up, the prefix trans is always suggestive of change and mutability: transformation, transition, etc. I often found the lyrics to carry the strongest affective pull in the collection; here’s a little teaser from a performance piece called “Deal with the Devil”: “And then, I tell myself it’s me./ As I take another pill, get another day older,/ and all I’ve managed is to live a little longer in a world/ I can’t find a place in:/ That I might be more than a pill or a syringe,/ or memories or scars./ That I was made in the image/ of someone who said her body is okay as it is,/ but stays up nights wondering/ what it would be like to carry a child” (108). Here, a lyric speaker who understands change, the shifts required of her, but who nevertheless deserves a moment of rest. A powerful and groundbreaking work.

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A Review of Samit Basu’s Resistance (Titan Books, 2014)

Taking place in the near future, Samit Basu’s Resistance is the sequel to his highly entertaining American debut Turbulence. Resistance takes place not too long after the concluding events of Turbulence; the superheroes that had banded together and even some of the supervillains from the first book find new life in this particular narrative as a new “big bad” comes into town by the name of Norio, a non-superpowered human who is intent on weeding out those individuals with skills and abilities that he deems to be destructive. You see: he is on a plan for revenge due to the fact that his own father was a casualty of a large scale battle between superpowered entities. He believes that superhumans must be stopped. The heroes of the first book have gone their separate ways. Uzma has joined an elite superhero force known as the Unit, which boasts an international group of individuals that hail from countries such as China, India, and the United States. The Unit must consider a number of possible quests, including the potential task of finding a woman (Romena) who is presumed to have a special blood property that causes those who are superpowered to lose their abilities. At this point, Aman is thought to be dead, but he is actually in hiding. Tia, or at least one of the Tias given her ability to multiple herself into seemingly endless copies, seeks to find out more information about a problematic omen portending the end of the world. She visits a young boy named Kalki who divines that he will be a part of this cataclysmic scenario. Once Norio begins his quest to round up any superpowered individual with the intent of depowering them, the novel really gains major traction. Individuals who had not been in contact with each other, begin to see each other in the hopes of finding a way to defeat Norio, on the one hand, and to prevent the end of the world, on the other. As always, Basu peppers the novel with popular culture references that make the reading experience so pleasurable and so geared toward fans of speculative fiction. The major inclusion of Japanese characters and contexts obviously stems from the grand tradition of anime and the novel benefits from this stylized cultural aesthetic. I can’t recommend this novel enough simply for the engaging plot, but Basu is obviously breaking new ground, especially for American audiences, in uniting international contexts, a diverse array of characters from multiple nations, and the genre of speculative fiction. This novel is certainly one to add to your reading list, or if you’re an instructor, your syllabus!

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A Review of Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel (Black Heron Press, 2014).

Leonard Chang’s newest offering sees him explore the form of the autobiographical novel in Triplines. The tone and ambience produced by this novel is not entirely unlike Chang’s social realist fictions Crossings and Fruit ’N Food, his previous and his first publications respectively. In between those two novels, Chang penned detective fiction (Over the Shoulder, Underkill, Fade to Clear, which are all part of the Allen Choice series and the stand-alone Dispatches from the Cold). The autobiographical novel is always an interesting aesthetic choice because it immediately puts the reader on a kind of notice, especially as he or she attempts to discern what might be fabricated and what might be most authentic. In the acknowledgments that follow the novel, it is clear that Chang consulted some family members in order to corroborate accounts depicted. Chang also chooses an interesting discursive mode, as the entire novel is narrated from a kind of retrospective third person storyteller. In this sense, Chang promotes the divide between author and the fictional storyteller, as well as the author and protagonist. Lenny, our ostensible hero, is a young adolescent, with on older brother, Ed (about to graduate from high school) and a younger sister Mira. His mother Umee suffers harassment and domestic violence from their alcoholic father Yul. For the most part, Lenny, Mira, and Ed do not suffer the same kind of physical assaults, but nevertheless Yul stands as an ominous storm cloud constantly raining on their lives. Yul and Umee at first run a novelty-type store (called Sweet ’N Gifts, reminding us of his first novel’s title), but it eventually goes out of business. The failure of the business ultimately increases tension in the family; each child chooses to deal with the situation in their own ways. Ed maintains physical and emotional distance from the family, rarely staying at home. Mira remains introverted and artistic, constantly writing, reading, or playing music, while Lenny languishes in his own attempt to move toward what we might call Asian American manhood, trying to find his sense of self beyond his domineering father. Lenny, for instance, finds great interest in martial arts, which becomes a compelling outlet for the physical trials he suffers under Yul, who attempts to push him to become more hardened. Later, Lenny sees the opportunity of being a kind of gopher for a pot dealer as a quick means to achieve some financial capital. But, the clear talent that Lenny develops and the way that he survives is through his skills of observation, something that he will later put to excellent use as a writer. The character that perhaps undergoes the greatest change is Umee, who begins the novel as a battered housewife, but over the course of the plotting initiates a search into a new career and, by the conclusion, stands up to her husband and achieves independence from him. There is a poetic quality to this work, one reminiscent of the sparer writing style Chang employed in his first novel. What emerges from this portrait of a dysfunctional Asian American/ Korean immigrant family is a reminder of the fallacy of the model minority myth. Underlying this novel is an interesting kind of secular spirituality, which appears through the constant ways in which Mira and Lenny find refuge in a church across the street, which they break into after hours and find a sense of peace, a break from the constant fighting occurring between their parents. Without a false sense of sentimentality, Chang’s Triplines is a highly compelling read. The novel further resonates quite well with with the “dysfunctional” Asian American family plots that appear in works such as Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareviews for June 15, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to: sohnlitcrit@gmail.com

In this post, reviews of: Susan York and Arthur Sze’s The Unfolding Center (Radius Books, 2013); Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert & Whitman, 2014); Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat (GemmaMedia, 2013); Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014); Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel and Grau, 2014).

A Review of Susan York and Arthur Sze’s The Unfolding Center (Radius Books, 2013).

Arthur Sze’s been working hard! He actually has two different publications in the past calendar year (the other is Compass Rose), so I figured it was high time we spent a little bit of time reviewing some of his new work. Sze is author of numerous other poetry collections, including but not limited to Dazzled, Quipu, The Redshifting Web. What is of course interesting about The Unfolding Center is that it is a collaboration with the artist Susan York. We might look back to this review of Timothy Liu’s work and collaboration with Greg Drasler:


In Sze’s co-authored work with Susan York, there are eleven drawings that go along with eleven poems. Those involved with the production and completion of this piece also saw fit to include drafts of early poems and sequences, a truly eye-catching look into the creative development process. An accompanying interview at the conclusion (conducted by John Yau no less) provides key insights into the inspirations and intent behind many of the collaborative portions. Indeed, I was not entirely sure what to make of the poems and the pictorial sequences that followed (though I did notice the symmetry in numbers) until I read a little bit into that interview. Each poem has two different drawings related to it. The motivation behind each drawing is a section of dark and a section of light: the dividing line between the two acts as a tension point. For instance, in unfolding center #4, one picture contains a dividing line a third of the way down the page, the other about three quarter of the way down the page. The one on the left corresponds Susan York’s consideration of the poems central tension and the one on the right corresponds to Arthur Sze’s consideration of the poem’s central tension. I reprint the poetic portion from unfolding center #4 below:

4. I slice oyster mushrooms off an aspen
then, in the next clearing, stumble
into beer cans and plastic bags.
We cannot elude ourselves; we jump
across state lines where four corners touch,
and nothing happens. A point is a period,
an intersection, spore, center of a circle,
or— “Where are my honeymoon panties?”
a woman mutters, rummaging in her purse—
the beginning of a vector in any direction.

If I’m understanding the interview within its basic context, York’s consideration of poetic tension appears in the upper third. With ten lines, my guess would be after the period completes on the third line, while Sze places the tension at the bottom one quarter, which would be roughly with the question mark. The interesting element here is to think about what tensions that each artist or poet was considering when creating the so-called “dividing line.” There is much talk about light and dark in the interview itself and how poems can be illuminated or cast in shadow. If we take York’s vision of the poem, the philosophical turning point of this piece appears to be after the third line, especially because the lyric perspective shifts into a collective, but I agreed with Sze’s vision because I was startled by the words that the woman mutters. There is a desert southwest and interior Midwest regional impulse to many of these unfolding center poems and Sze has an especially vivid way of describing landscapes, so the intrusion of the direct quotation appears as particularly jarring. But, perhaps the most fundamental thing about this collection is that you must read and re-read, considering the vision of the artist and poet and rethinking how poetry is as visual as it is textual and how art can be as poetic as it is imagistic. A fascinating work driven much by philosophical insights. The one drawback I do find in this collection is one that I’ve seen in other illustrated pieces: the lack of page numbers! If one were to assign this book in class, it could be a hindrance. Otherwise, this lushly produced collaboration is sure to invite numerous interpretations and “unfoldings.” Just as a general note, this work is completed in an especially beautiful board book style (the actual size of this book is probably four times the cover size page of a regular trade paperback to give you a sense of the dimensionality), which allows the poems to “unfurl” in an epic way and gives the artist’s abstracted drawings a panoramic gravitas. This is the kind of book that you could enjoy for its literary value, but also certainly give as a special gift for the poet or the art lover, someone with a sense of orientation toward the avant-garde, the experimental, the slightly off-kilter. Finally, as a lover of Russian Modern art, particularly Malevich and Kandinsky, I found Susan York’s drawings to be both absolutely minimalist but ultimately so expressively nuanced. A delight for any who enjoys “non-representational” arts.

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A Review of Varsha Bajaj’s Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert & Whitman, 2014).

Varsha Bajaj’s Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood is a rather frothy, but entertaining debut novel that follows that titular adventures of Abby Spencer. Abby’s a teenager, is raised by her single mother and extended family (mother’s side grandparents); she happens to be half-South Asian, but has no contact with her father. When Abby shows a major allergic reaction to something she has eaten—she surmises coconut—the doctor advises that the family look into her father’s medical history because the mother’s side shows no hereditary issues with the foods that Abby had eaten. Thus, the truth of Abby’s parentage comes out and Abby discovers that her father is none other than a famous Bollywood actor named Naveen Kumar. Prior to his stardom, Naveen (who at that time was known by a different name) had a short but loving relationship with Abby’s mother. Though they do not end up getting married Abby’s mother had hoped that Naveen would end up participating in some way in Abby’s life, even if he had gone back to India. But, when Abby’s mother sends him a letter when Abby is very young, it is never answered and Abby’s mother assumes that Naveen wants nothing to do with Abby. Abby’s potentially deadly medical condition pushes her family to look back into her paternal ancestry; they locate Naveen, who tells them that he never received the letter that he had a daughter, and he is very enthused to meet Abby. Thus, the title comes to fruition: “Abby Spences goes to Bollywood.” She meets her father, but the relationship is slightly tentative. Though Naveen is friendly and Naveen’s mother (Abby’s paternal side grandmother) is especially doting, the fact that Naveen is in the public eye makes this relationship complicated. Indeed, Abby is in a kind of “closet,” as Naveen waits for the perfect time to release the news that he has a daughter. Given his stature in Bollywood, such a revelation would no doubt cause a large ruckus.
Bajaj’s novel manages to weave in an entertaining plot with a major social issue: that of poverty and class disparity in India. Abby is often struck by the clapboard housing and clamoring children that assail her wherever she goes and she realizes that her life is one of privilege and security. Though Bajaj cannot obviously resolve a social ill within this kind of fictional world, her novel takes on a more textured foundation due to this kind of historical and sociocultural grounding. The other element to note is of course the issue of mixed race, an aspect that Bajaj takes head on, as Abby must confront her dual heritages and figure out how to address the possibility that she might have ties to both her mother’s lineage and her father’s. Bajaj knows her target audience and there is a requisite romance plot that emerges over the course of the novel. A novel sure to delight its intended readership.

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A Review of Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat (GemmaMedia, 2013).

Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat is part of GemmaMedia’s open series, which offers established and exciting writers a chance for exposure to a wider audience through a very interesting book format: the novelette in mass market form. You’ll easily finish Barn Cat within about an hour, probably less. These are slim volumes with small sizing. Though the length, width, and height of these books are not that impressive, we should not discount their importance and their depth. Mori’s Barn Cat is a contoured exploration of an “alternative” family. Our narrator is Lily, recently estranged from her husband Sam, living in Boston, who finds out that her mother is missing. She must return home, which is to Denmark, a town in the Midwest where she reconnects with her stepsister Jill. Over the course of the narrative, many revelations are made concerning Lily’s mother, Kumiko, including the problematic relationship that she had with Lily’s stepfather. This novel thus exposes the communication gaps that appear in this family, ones that reverberate to the present day. Mori’s work is effortless; she uses succinct, pared down sentences to generate a poignant narrative that doesn’t rely on a cataclysmic paranormal plot or a central romance to generate tension. The “barn cat” of the title is a nod to the ways in which Lily finds comfort in the lives of animals, particularly of cats with whom she experiences a special bonding. The importance of animals to this book is evident in the ways that they become larger metaphors for alienation, community, and the chance for familial renaissance. A beautifuly, lyrically rendered novelette.

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A Review of Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014).

Sandra Tsing Loh is author of numerous other works (Mother on Fire, A Year in Van Nuys, Depth Takes a Holiday, etc) and is well-known for her performance shows; she returns to the publishing world with a lively, comic memoir about menopause, unruly teens, marital affairs, losing weight and perhaps most of all: finding happiness and fulfillment as she is about to turn fifty. Loh’s memoir is constructed in anecdotes, but is loosely organized by the cataclysmic event of an extramarital affair that ends in her divorce with Mr. X. She ends up living for a brief time with Mr. Y, with whom she had had the affair, only to have him move out momentarily—he tries to make things work in his own marriage—but then they move back in together. If this initial sequence sounds rather tumultuous, it is, and Loh makes clear that the issue exacerbating everything going on is her “raging hormones,” the fact of her experiencing menopause. How is one to deal with life-changing event, the common pedestrian trials of everyday life and everything in between? For Loh, to answer this question, she must ask for advice not only of psychotherapists, but also of her family, and her many girlfriends, who often offer her useful tips, some of which she chooses to implement and others that she exposes as particularly unfruitful in the context of her life. Loh’s tonality is a difficult one to ground a memoir in, because it requires the use of humor to propel a fragmented narrative forward; there are sure to be dips and lows in a memoir working in this way. At some point, Loh relies upon hyperbole to drive points home and that can detract against the very sobering reality of aging: the well of loneliness, the questions of fulfillment, the regrets about roads not taken, and the challenges of trying to find a more authentic path amid the cult of celebrity and image that is Los Angeles. Surely, a memoir also about an upper middle-class existence, some might find Loh’s navel-gazing to be narcissistic, overwrought, and evidence of a certifiable neurotic, but this “diagnosis” would be to miss the point: Loh is quite well-aware of the ridiculousness that can be the upper middle-class existence and attempts to shore what it is that she truly values. So take a chill pill and accept a ride with a madwoman in a Volvo.

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A Review of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel and Grau, 2014).

Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel is a short story collection that takes on some supernatural registers. Each story begins with a relatively basic premise, but all are generally linked by Vietnamese and Vietnamese American contexts. In the first story, “Boat Story,” told entirely in dialogue, a girl asks her grandmother about her experiences as a refugee. Though the girl already has a sense of what might be said, the grandmother proceeds to tell her a different story entirely, one in which the dead can come alive, something that seems far from the harrowing narrative that the girl had been expecting. This kind of story becomes a template for the others. Of course, this first story is a kind of metaphor for Kupersmith’s reconsideration of what Vietnamese American literature can be, attempting to alter its boundaries and the expectations of those seeking perhaps some sort of authentic ethnic experience. In the title story, for instance, a worker at a dilapidated hotel (the titular hotel) comes upon a strange woman, listing in the bathroom of one of the rooms. She seems to have a strange thirst for water and the story takes another unexpected turn when she decides to accompany this hotel worker on a trip with a transnational businessman, who has requested the company of a beautiful Vietnamese woman. In “Skin and Bones,” two young sisters travel to Vietnam on a sort of heritage visit, remaining with their elderly grandmother. One of the sisters—who is overweight—is under pressure to get fit, but while in Vietnam, she succumbs to the temptations of a street vendor who provides her with delicious breads. As with the other stories, the ending also moves into a kind of surrealist register. Kupersmith tackles a variety of different characters and contexts as the collection moves on: folktale storytelling within a religious institution, a transnational relationship with a surprise and perhaps immaculate pregnancy, a driver who must deal with a mysterious passenger. The last story of the collection, “Descending Dragon,” finally and directly engages one of the more common tropes related to Vietnamese American literature: trauma in the wake of war. In this case, the main character is subsisting in a nursing home and is increasingly afflicted by visions of a tank. Her daughter has promised to come visit her soon, but says that she cannot visit for Tet, the Vietnamese holiday. The strength of this collection can also be its weakness: Kupersmith’s stories have been influenced by her study of folktales and myths and she is clearly and dynamically reworking many within these fictional worlds, but for those who are radically unfamiliar with these terrains may find the subtlety inherent to be a little bit too distancing.

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Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for May 28, 2014

In this post, reviews of Samit Basu’s Turbulence (Titan Books, 2013); Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014); Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown (Disney Hyperion, 2014); and Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Fire for Fire (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013).

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to: sohnlitcrit@gmail.com

A Review of Samit Basu’s Turbulence (Titan Books, 2013).

Samit Basu’s Turbulence is definitely one of the most fun reads I have had in a long time. Basu is already known for his cult series The Simoqin Prophecies, which was published out of Penguin India. This series is hard to get in the States, but it established Basu as a speculative writer of formidable talent; descriptions make clear that The Simoqin Prophecies brings together postcolonial Indian Anglophone fiction and the fantasy genre. Basu takes a similar turn with Turbulence in what I would consider to be postcolonial Indian Anglophone fiction meets X-Men meets Tim Kring’s Heroes (specifically in its evocation of a Sylar-like big baddie). Turbulence explores what happens to a group of Indians who all happened to take the same plane flight. All those who were on that plane apparently exhibit special powers. Aman Sen, one of those individuals, attempts to unite those who were on that plane and keep them safe from forces that seem to be looking to kill them. Enter Uzma: a woman who was on the plane and who enters Sen’s would-be refuge and meets the others who are specially powered. For his part, Sen is gifted with incredible talents related to the internet. Others include Tia, who can make multiple copies of herself; Bob, who can change the weather based upon what he eats; and Sundar, who has become proficient at creating new technology, with the power of invention. Uzma’s gift seems to be a little less impressive: anyone one who meets her immediately falls in love with her. In any case, the plot takes on greater urgency when it becomes clear that there is an evil force looking to exploit the specially powered plane flight passengers and use them to rule over the entire world: Jai, the leader, has his own group of cronies with special powers, including Mukesh, who can take the form of a snake; Amina, a young girl who has taken on persona of an anime character in a video game and can accordingly injure people with special moves; Sher, a man who can take the form of a tiger; among others. Sen’s band of merry mutants seems to be the only thing stopping Jai.
Basu’s novel is so engaging because there’s a wonderful mix of action and humor. Basu puts to effective use some of the unique powers, with Tia’s multiple copies perhaps being the most comedic. Indeed, Tia’s many versions of herself often argue with each other, while others go on their own missions without informing the larger mutant clan. Basu is well aware of the intertextual resonances of his novel and is sure to cite other popular culture documents featuring mutants and monsters. Readers will be overjoyed to note that Basu’s follow-up to Turbulence, Resistance, will soon see its release in 2014. Truly, a pyrotechnic feat of the superhero-oriented imagination.

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A Review of Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014)

Marisa de Los Santos takes a break from her single-authored books to team up with her husband David Teague for their debut collaboration: Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014). Santos and Teague split storytelling duties up among three characters: Margaret O’Malley, her best friend Charlie, and Charlie’s grandfather Josh. Initially, readers are split into two different times frames, with alternating viewpoints from Margaret in 2014 and from Josh in 1938. In the present time, Margaret O’Malley’s father has just been convicted of murder based upon a fire that he reputedly had set, one linked to the very corporation that he had been trying to take down as a whistleblower for Victory Fuels, a large fossil fuel-related corporation. The circumstances are of course sketchy and Margaret makes it clear that her father was likely the victim of a framing. The novel then shifts to 1938 where Josh tells us the story of his parents’ move from Mississippi to Victory, Arizona, (in part due to his brother who seems to have some sort of respiratory ailment) a town that is just beginning its development of industries. In 1938, this industry is coal mining. These two time periods seem to be, for the most part, unrelated, except for the fact that Margaret and Charlie do happen to be best friends and that Margaret does know Josh in 2014, as an elderly man. But, about one-third of the way into the novel, we finally figure out what the strange maxim that Margaret lives by concerning “foreswearing,” which is related to the fact that everyone in the O’Malley line (seemingly passed down from Margaret’s paternal line) is able to do time travel. Whut, whut, you say?! Yes, time travel. So, this young adult fiction clearly moves into the realm of the paranormal from this point forward, though it obviously gestures to a social realist impulse based upon the issue of union organizing occurring in 1938 and the fight against big corporations destroying the environment in 2014. Margaret, after hearing a key story from Josh in 2014, realizes that if she travels back to 1938, she might be able to alter a set of events that would then result in a different set of happenings in 2014. Specifically, she looks to prevent another framing and murder that occurred in 1938; the father of Josh’s best friend, Aristotle Agrippa, is accused of murdering the then owner of the Victory company, Mr. Ratliff. The actual killer is none other than a man named Elijah Biggs, who will later go on to own the company and adopt Aristotle’s son (and who is Josh’s best friend) Luke. If this is all sort of confusing for you, you should read the novel and enjoy its many twists and turns. Santos and Teague certainly have created a stimulating and enthralling story, one easily read within a single night (especially for those like me with reading addiction). The twining of the sociopolitical with the family drama (and the paranormal no less) heightens the stakes of this particular novel and proves to make it quite relatable to current and past social contexts. As with many books aimed at younger audience, you can expect some sort of closed resolution. This formal conceit seems to one of the primary modes of distinguishing more adult-oriented narratives from the youth-oriented ones. The question I have is related to the impulse behind this approach: are we attempting to simplify the narrative of good over evil, re-introduce the viability of a proto-romance plot? Certainly, these works traffic in the ur-narratives of our time and exploit our desire to see the heroes triumph over perceived villains. If anything though, Santos and Teague’s narrative rises above strict binaries in its climactic reorientation of the central Big Bad.

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A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown (Disney Hyperion, 2014).

In what seems to be a stand-alone novel, The Ring and the Crown offers Melissa de la Cruz yet another golden opportunity to showcase her tried and true formula of romance and intrigue set in a paranormal fictional world. In this case, she’s created a kind of counterfactual history in which magicians and sorcerers live alongside British Royalty. The novel starts off a little bit slowly, as de la Cruz generates narrative perspectives from at least five different characters; the two most important characters are: Princess Marie-Victoria, who is set to be married to Prince Leopold VII, heir to the Prussian throne and Aelwyn Myrddn, a powerful mage, who is separated from Marie-Victoria at a very young age due to the potential destructive power of her abilities. A goodreads member actually created a relationship chart for this book which I thought was hilarious, but also quite on the money. de la Cruz creates so many different possible romantic combinations that you sort of want a chart somewhere in the book. By this point, de la Cruz has mastered a kind of shifting third person perspective with a focus on romance plots. Certainly, this approach has been successful for her, but I can’t help but hope that de la Cruz will branch out a little bit more narratologically, perhaps experiment with different storytelling approaches in the future.

For the relationship chart, go here:


The tension of the novel is that Marie-Victoria does not want to marry Prince Leopold; her sights are on another, a guard named Gill Cameron. The other major character is Prince Leopold’s younger brother Wolf, who ends up entertaining a possible romance with an American (named Ronan) who is on the lower fringes of the landed gentry. The Ronan figure is perhaps the one most connected to the traditional courtship and marriage plot; consider her a stand-in for a kind of Lizzie Bennet figure. She’s looking to secure the right match, especially in this case to help out the dire financial circumstances of her family. With so much of the focus on the relationships, de la Cruz’s novel loses its paranormal luster; the magical elements seem tacked on and only come into play—for the most part—in one sequence involving a switcheroo between Marie-Victoria and Aelwyn. Further still, readers may balk at the concluding pairing, which abruptly pairs two figures together that seemed one of the least likely couples. de la Cruz was certainly working with the hope that such a surprise might delight, but the gamble, at least in my opinion, does not work within the logic of that fictional world. de la Cruz, as always, is exceedingly steady in her publications, the coming months and years offer another installment in the Blue Bloods series (a take I think on an adult-oriented fictional approach to this series) and then of course the Witches of East End Series and the Heart of Dread series. It remains to be seen whether The Ring and the Crown is part of a larger sequence of books, but if so, let’s hope de la Cruz gives us more of the magical and the mystical to flesh out what will surely be another “game of thrones” type plot.

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A Review of Lauren Francis-Sharma’s ’Til The Well Runs Dry (Henry Holt, 2014).

Lauren Francis-Sharma’s debut novel ’Til The Well Runs Dry uses a polyvocal first person narrative to great effect in the complicated story of a mixed race family in the Caribbean. This particular novel mines the crucial interracial histories that have linked those of African and Asian descent in Trinidad. The three first person perspectives are given to Marcia Garcia, who begins the novel as a teenage seamstress who hails from an impoverished background; Farouk Karam, a police officer, Marcia’s lover and later father to her four children; and then Jacqueline Karam, one of Marcia and Farouk’s children. Because the novel is split into these perspectives, there are always at least three “diegetic” plots occurring. For her part, Marcia simply struggles to make a life for her and her four children (Patsy, Jacqueline, Yvonne and Wesley). Her life with Farouk is complicated because Farouk’s parents, who are of South Asian ancestry, do not welcome her as a potential marriage partner. Their relationship sours after this point and Marcia must also contend with a romantic rival in the form of the daughter of a woman who practices Obeah. Marcia and Farouk are separated, though Farouk does do what he can to help support the family. His life as a police officer keeps him busy, but his professional job takes a complicated turn when he starts laundering money and he must work with corrupt officials and organized criminals. Jacqueline Karam gives us the perspective of the potential of the next generation. Jacqueline is bookish and observant, realizes that her prospects in life are limited and considers education as a possible escape route from poverty and obviously desires a life different than the one that has mired her mother. Francis-Sharma’s ability to clarify the boundaries of these three very distinct narrative positions is one of the great strengths in this novel, which grants us a kaleidoscopic viewpoint of a family that always seems to be stuck in some sort of peril. These characters are complicated and flawed, and as I mentioned earlier, this work adds much to the representational terrain of Afro-Asian Caribbean literatures; it certainly could be taught alongside works such as Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda, Kerry Young’s Pao, and others.

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A Review of Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Fire for Fire (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013).

(hmmm... I think Kat is in the middle and Mary is on the right?)

I was saving this read for a time when I needed to take a mental break from some research, knowing Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s next installment was sure to be entertaining. In the follow up to Burn for Burn, revenge continues to get both sweeter and more complicated. The trio that began the first book are back for more retribution: there’s Lillia, the popular, pretty and smart Korean American; Kat, the gothic, punkish rebel; and Mary, the formerly overweight, bookish, slightly socially awkward wallflower who all come together to hatch a plan for revenge. In the first book, the intended target Reeve is now suffering from a devastating leg injury that jeopardizes his chances for a college football scholarship. Though the three seem to have gotten the revenge that they so desired, the injury has done little to change Reeve’s character. A chance encounter with Mary, who has long harbored feelings for Reeve but was unceremoniously dropped as a friend and ridiculed for being fat, reveals that Reeve is still in need of more character refinement, so the three teens hatch a plan to get back at Reeve yet again. This plan involves Lillia pretending to win Reeve’s heart, which will of course be all an act. Lillia will then proceed to break his heart in the way that he broke Mary’s. Of course, nothing ever goes as planned and we’re not surprised when Lillia starts becoming confused about whether or not Reeve is really as bad as everyone makes him out to be. Things also get complicated because Lillia’s bestie, Rennie, also has her sights set on Reeve. This rivalry generates enough tension to create the narrative momentum needed for the plot to move toward to its cataclysmic conclusion. If you thought the ending of the first book had some generally negative and catastrophic results, this installment raises the stakes in multiple ways. The first novel hinted at the possibilities of the paranormal and Han and Vivian finally take one of the characters in the direction that all the readers were probably expecting. Even with this expectation fulfilled, Han and Vivian do surprise us with where the novel ultimately goes with this particular character and leaves readers with an excruciating cliffhanger that will have all fans lining up to buy the third copy right away. Definitely an improvement over the first of the series.
As always, you can’t help but wonder what “reality” this novel is set in; Han and Vivian create a fictional island (not unlike the many we have seen in other novels reviewed in this community) that allows them to construct a kind of isolated laboratory where you can almost forget that there’s supposedly other stuff going on in the world. In this sense, the insularity that emerges in the lives of these teen characters seem potentially alarming, especially since Han and Vivian do choose to set the fictional world in a realist aesthetic frame (indeed characters do end up traveling to colleges in preparation for graduating high school, rooting this fictional world on one that is somewhat like our own). In any case, Han and Vivian do some interesting and subtle, but nonetheless compelling work with race in this novel that cannot be overlooked. Lillia is a character that is more fully fleshed out in this version and her viewpoint is definitely the one that carries the weight of this novel, especially given her pivotal role in the faux-romance plot.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 10 2014

In this post, reviews of Kathryn Ma’s The Year She Left Us (Harper, 2014); Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (WingsPress, 2014); Soman Chainani’s The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes (Harper Children’s Division, 2014); Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014); Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (Goose Lane Editions, 2014).

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to: sohnlitcrit@gmail.com

A Review of Kathryn Ma’s The Year She Left Us (Harper, 2014).

I really enjoyed Kathryn Ma’s short story collection All that Work and Still No Boys, which I earlier reviewed here:


Naturally, I was stoked to find out Kathryn Ma was about to publish her first novel, which I am reviewing here. In The Year She Left Us, Ma employs three narrative perspectives (two first person and one third person) to construct a rather complicated and unsentimental intergenerational family saga. Our ostensible protagonist is Ari (Ariadne) Kong is adopted from a Chinese orphanage by Charlie (Charlotte) Kong, a social worker who hails from a Chinese American background. Charlie raises Ari as a single mother, but has support from her extended family, including her sister Les, and her mother, Gran. There is also a larger adoptee community that Charlie relies on in the Bay Area; Ari calls these adoptees the Whackadoodles. The novel starts off with Ari having been in China, a sort of trip that allows her to think more about her identity, but she supposedly severs a finger by accident and her mother comes visiting to make sure she is okay. This incident is just the beginning of a longer and difficult trajectory that the novel takes us on: Ari wants to stay in China, defer college, get a better sense of where she was born, what she might have been taken from. Charlie is anxious and perceives the growing distance between them, while Gran wants Ari to head off to Bryn Mawr. When Ari announces that she’s going back to China and deferring college, she realizes that she’s striking out on her own and must separate from her mother’s company. Ari attempts to save money for the plane flight while working for a store selling specialty pens and inks, but the novel stages a midway intervention when Ari tries to sell some trinkets she finds in her mother’s home (without her mother’s knowledge of course). While pilfering whatever she can, she manages to stumble upon a photo of a man who was holding her as a baby. She realizes that there may be more to her story on the American side than she realizes and she is determined to find out who his man is and what this man meant to her adoptive mother. This trail eventually leads her to Alaska; she ends up crashing with a good friend of the man (Aaron Streeter) who was in the photo. Aaron Streeter died in an accident while hiking in Alaska and Ari realizes that she can get to know more about him and his life by staying with Aaron’s friend Steve and his wife Peg. As Ari discovers, Aaron was also purportedly in a relationship with Charlie when the accident happened and was determined to help raise Ari when he was tragically killed. But, there are contradictions to the story, as it seems that Aaron might have wanted to get back with his wife and that his son Noah might have been a factor in that decision. Without giving the rest of the plot away, I will say that Ma’s novel does not operate with a deterministic trajectory. The narrative seems to create only more loose ends as the plot moves further and further into each character’s lives and backstories. Gran, for instance, harbors deep family secrets concerning a brother who seems to have been developmentally challenged. While this kind of unfurling might have completely unraveled the novel, Ma is able to construct a story that reads often much more like an unedited memoir, achieving a realism that is both poignant and impressive. The choice of narrative perspectives can sometimes be uneven. Gran, in particular, is such a strong personality that her first person viewpoints can often overpower the other perspectives. Ma also makes the interesting choice of narrating the sections related to Charlie in the third person; it would be interesting to hear why Ma chose this one character for that particular perspective over the first person, which is given to both Ari and Gran. Finally, this novel is one that could be taught alongside a number of other outstanding Asian American narratives/ memoirs concerning adoptees such as Jane Jeong Trenka’s Fugitive Visions and Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth.

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A Review of Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (WingsPress, 2014)

Wang Ping latest poetry collection, Ten Thousand Waves, explores many themes resonant across her growing body of work, including transnationalism, global capitalism, China’s modernization, political activism, art and cultural production, Tibetan independence, labor and sacrifice. “Dust Angels” provides a stanza that might be seen as a kind of overarching artistic impulse that unites these many poems:

they say we fake our sickness
have never worked in their factories
they hire lawyers to erase our names, ban our union
Marx and Mao are history, they claim
only freedom of market economy
the golden path toward democracy (7).

Ping’s lyrics are most effective in the evocation of the dramatic monologue, as Ping is able to inhabit a lyric speaker so seamlessly. In this case, the “we” refers to the ghostly factory workers and laborers that move throughout the collection, as the unseen army motivating global capitalism. The intriguing “found” poem “The Price of a Finger” brings together rules and guidelines (that would be on posters and signs) located in factories and businesses to generate a critique of working conditions and the lack of rights given to laborers. The party line is generated in the hopes that working conditions seem tolerable: “Kin Ki and other big producers/ have come under the greater pressure to adhere to global labor codes. They open their doors to foreign inspectors to assuage concerns that products used to entertain children in rich countries are not made under oppressive conditions in poor ones” (53). Of course, even with improvements in these facilities, the “price of the finger” still reminds us of the bodily dangers for these workers, who routinely sever appendages, so much so that Ping includes a diagram of one of the pictures she found on a factory wall in the notes that accompany the poems at the conclusion of the collection. The other quality of Ping’s work that is so effectively used is the panoramic descriptions that give sweep and scope to locations that are at once touristic centers and capitalist hubs: “Drunken tourists and their nightingales/ Money is the moon on Lhasa’s holy streets,” then “Wind, breath, naked riverbeds/ At dusk, a boy on motorcycle/ Comes home with his last herd/ Nomad daughter from the Sacred Lake” (20). We are always in the richly textured poetic hands of Ping, traveling across the vast expanses that link nomads to revelers and mystics. Many voices ring out in the collection clamor for recognition, “Who will know me but ghosts?” (90), a question that Ping can only answer with her ability to memorialize the lost and the downtrodden in the painful beauty of lyric poetry.
For more on the indie publisher WingsPress, see:


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A Review of Soman Chainani’s The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes (Harper Children’s Division, 2014).

Agatha and Sophie are back at it again in Chainani’s sequel to The School of Good and Evil. Please see this link for the earlier review:


In The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes, Agatha and Sophie have returned to the “real” world and attempt to adjust to their so-called storybook ending. For those that don’t mind being spoiled, Agatha chooses Sophie over the romantic lead Tedros. Therein lies a kind of proto-feminist rhetoric coming out of the first novel where women must work together and avoid the “marriage” plot. When both Agatha and Sophie break a rule and wish for something impossible, both are set back into the fairy tale world. They soon discover that this world has entirely changed due to the ramifications of their earlier actions. Rather than schools for good and evil, now there are schools for boys and girls. Thus, the factions are based upon gender at this point with girls of both evil and good backgrounds mixing together. It becomes apparent that the friendship between Agatha and Sophie is showing signs of strain. On the one hand, Agatha seems to be having dreams of Tedros, the very man she spurned at the end of the first book. There seems to be some sort of latent desire that is driving her back to him. On the other, Sophie is trying to keep her friendship with Agatha solid and will do anything to keep her. Sophie realizes that Agatha is a pivotal reason why she has not succumbed to her evil tendencies. This particular installment is far darker than the previous one and the conclusion will leave some feeling especially bereft. At the same time, these kinds of cliffhangers are certain to push readers to go get the third book. It’s not clear whether or not the “School of Good and Evil” series is meant to be a trilogy, but this portion is full of action and the metafictional impulse that made the first so intriguing.

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A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014).

This book has probably been the most surprising read for me this year, especially in part because this author was entirely unknown to me, though she has already published a number of novels (including a YA trilogy called Birthright, which I am going to get started on as soon as I can carve out some time, two adult targeted novels, another YA fiction called Elsewhere and another called Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac). Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014) kept me up into the late hours of one night, as I looked for the right kind of book to transport me away to another place and time. The novel takes place on a fictional island called Alice in New England, somewhere off the shores of Rhode Island. The main character is A.J. Fikry, a recently widowed man of mixed-race background (he is part South Asian), who runs the Island bookstore. The opening of the novel sees a new sales representative from Knightley Books traveling to Alice island in order to showcase the upcoming publications. This meeting goes badly; Mr. Fikry is particularly cantankerous and the representative (named Amelia) leaves the island with a far from favorable impression of him. The third person narrative perspective then moves to Mr. Fikry, focusing on his life, which takes a drastic turn when a baby is left at the bookstore’s doorstep and Fikry decides to put in the paperwork to adopt this girl, a two-year-old named Maya. Maya quickly develops a love of literature, something that certainly warms the heart of Fikry. And Maya’s ability to thaw Fikry into a doting father has other effects as well: Fikry begins to see Amelia as a potential romantic partner. Thus, the novel shifts into the courtship phase between Fikry and Amelia; their love blossoms among their mutual love of books and comes to fruition at a special event: a reading held for an author that both adore. Though the reading goes far from perfectly, their relationship is well on its way to marriage. As the novel moves toward the conclusion, Zevin ingeniously intertwines narrative mysteries. For instance, the focus on the romance plot leaves us sometimes inattentive to the mystery behind Maya’s origins: who was her mother (Marian Wallace)? Why did she commit suicide? These aporias are somehow unfolding in the island community, one that extends to Fikry’s officer friend Chief Lambiase, Fikry’s sister-in-law Ismay (the sister of his deceased wife Nic), Ismay’s husband Daniel. Readers of romance novels will find much to adore about this novel, but high literary aesthetes will appreciate Zevin’s nods to a more hallowed and canonical literary lineage. Indeed, Fikry is a bit of a book snob and initially specializes his store’s offerings based upon what he considers to be the best exemplars of fine literature. As the novel moves forward though Fikry realizes that he must change not only his tastes but what he can offer for the Alice island community, especially as fatherhood and a second marriage push him to develop new ways to appreciate culture and other seemingly lowbrow literary forms. Thus, young adult fiction, children’s board books, and mysteries all find their places along references to Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Kate Chopin. Zevin’s latest is certainly a novel that any contemporary English Major would greatly enjoy. The novel is not without its idiosyncrasies: the representation of race in this novel seems simultaneously important to the construction of characters’ identities, yet is never fully fleshed out. Indeed, Zevin introduces the fact of racial homogeneity in the Alice island community, especially with respect to the general feelings of alienation that Fikry experiences as a minority. Further still, the fact of Fikry’s complicated adoptive paternity and connection to Maya mark this particular family as one especially anomalous to the larger populace of the island. But, these issues eventually recede quite dramatically into the novel’s background, as the romance plots and mysteries take center stage.

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A Review of Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (Goose Lane Editions, 2014).

Tamai Kobayashi’s first novel Prairie Ostrich (after a number of collections: Quixotic Erotic and Exile and the Heart) explores the ways a Japanese Canadian family copes and cannot cope with a tragedy. The narrative perspective tightly follows Imogene Murakami, nicknamed egg, with the novel being set in Bittercreek, Alberta sometime in the seventies. Through her viewpoint, we discover that her older brother was killed in a tragic accident. Egg’s mother deals with this trauma by turning to alcohol, while Egg’s father turns most of his attention to the ostriches that he raises. Egg’s closest relationship seems to be with her older sister, Kathy, a gifted athlete and who is likely queer. Kobayashi’s novel is immediately noteworthy in its lyricism. Despite the youthful narrative perspective, her life is rendered through a poeticism that exerts a dream-like quality over the fictional world. It is perhaps quite fitting given that Egg is herself quite immersed in culture, finding respite and refuge in stories. Though Egg is not often aware of what is going on around her, this kind of youthful unreliable narration gives this novel a gravitas that requires the reader to engage the various subtexts emerging. Egg, with her diminutive size, is picked on often at school and it is only through Kathy’s interventions that she is often able to avoid predation by bullies. Bittercreek is rendered through is austerity, something that registers most forcefully when it becomes clear that Kathy is seeking a way out of the small town. For Egg, this potential loss is one that keeps her on edge, as she has become so distanced from both her mother and her father. Many of the scenes that see her interacting with her parents are nuanced and heartbreaking. Kobayashi’s gift is in leaving scenes rather unadorned; so often using figural narration that lends itself to shorter sentences and staccato rhythms, everyday connections take on greater urgency, so when we see Egg’s father carefully and tenderly tending to the loss of a dead ostrich that has painfully broken its own neck as it panicked in the presence of the coyote, we immediately see how he cannot project his love back onto his own family. In this space of melancholy, the novel showcases the Japanese Canadian family’s slow disintegration. Fortunately, all is not completely lost, as Kobayashi grants us a potential opening into the possibilities of rebirth and reconnection.
This novel is quite interesting to think about in relation to the surge in YA fiction interests. Certainly, this novel could have been written in that vein, but the difference in approaches seems to be the stronger dissonance between a third person omniscient narrator and the youthful protagonist, a dissonance that produces the effect of irony, as we are constantly realizing what Egg is missing from what she is seeing and observing.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 5 2014.

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to: sohnlitcrit@gmail.com

In this post, reviews of Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Wanderers (HarperTeen, 2014); Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father (W.W. Norton, reprint edition, 2014); Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (WW Norton, 2014); Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani’s Jet Black and Ninja Wind (Tuttle Publishing, 2013); Julian Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour (Simon Schuster, 2014).

A Review of Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Wanderers (HarperTeen, 2014).

In Wanderers, Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s follow-up to Wasteland, our heroine Esther and her partner Caleb seek to find a better life beyond Prin. Big mistake. Spoilers forthcoming. For my earlier review of Wasteland, see:


The novel starts out with a catastrophic earthquake that kills off many of the townfolk. Caleb uses that event to encourage the remaining inhabitants to consider striking out for a land that would include a better source of water and more game to hunt. Once on the road, Esther, Caleb and their band of followers (with return appearances of Skar, the variant; Michal; Joseph; Kai; Rafe; Eli; Asha; Rhea and others) immediately encounter trouble. A trio of hoodlums lead by a particularly sociopathic figure named Lewt quickly demolishes solidarity among the former Prin-ers. Caleb is murdered causing the group is split, some deciding to return to Prin rather than to risk more harm. Esther, eventually recovering from her mourning, continues to seek potential refuge in a mythic place known only as Mundreel. The majority of the aforementioned returning characters decide to travel with her. Eventually, Esther is able to recruit a guide, though loses the respect of her companions when it is discovered that their guide is actually blind. From here on out, Kim and Klavan’s story turns increasingly bleak; one by one more characters are killed off and the question becomes: who will actually survive to make it to Mundreel? Further still, will Mundreel actually be the haven they hope it to be?
Kim and Klavan’s second book in the Wasteland trilogy relies upon the quest narrative to generate readerly motivation: we are wondering how Esther will be able to lead her people to a kind of promised land. Indeed, there is something inherently Biblical about this journey; these are a nomadic people seeking refuge in a place that might prove to be their salvation. As with the “big bad” of the first book, Kim and Klavan set up worthy menaces that mark this journey filled with death and injury. Interestingly enough, Kim and Klavan provide the most idiosyncratic social formation in a sort of cross-“racial,” queer relationship, suggesting the need for an alternative kinship to help establish the possibility of a future, however guarded or limited it may be.
A solid second act for the Wasteland trilogy and a must read for fans of the paranormal/ fantasy/ romance/ young adult fiction genres.

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A Review of Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father (W.W. Norton, reprint edition, 2014)

Akhil Sharma is due out with a new novel this year, the much anticipated Family Life. His first, An Obedient Father, has also received new life, as it has come out in a reprint edition; it had been listing for a number of years as an out-of-print title. Originally published in 2000 by Farrar Straus and Giroux, the novel received considerable critical acclaim. It won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for fiction. My own relationship to the text began far before I actually read it. Viet Thanh Nguyen engages a very short reading of the novel in his monograph Race and Resistance; the novel depicts a character very much in line with Nguyen’s general argument concerning the potential over-reading of resistance within so-called Asian American narratives. There are three narrative perspectives that appear in this novel; most of the novel is narrated from the perspective of Ram Karan, also called Pitaji, who is a corrupt official who collects bribes from local schools and who works under the supervision of a minor public servant, Mr. Gupta. The reason why Nguyen focuses on this character is that he is very easy to dislike: not only is he a corrupt official, he also very openly admits to his pederasty and incestual history. He repeatedly raped his 12 year old daughter Anita. Anita eventually comes to live with him in his flat; she has few choices, as her husband has died and she has no income. Once she observes Pitaji rubbing up against her young daughter Asha does the novel’s exploration of revenge and trauma begin in earnest. Anita is given two points in the novel as the first person perspective; these moments are important because they provide an unobstructed interiority and show us how little Pitaji can fully understand what it is he has done not only to her, but the family at large. The novel also does a fascinating job of interweaving political turmoil into the main plotting. When Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated, there is a shift in the power base and the two most prominent parties are pitted against each other: Bharatiya Janatas Party (BJP) and Congress. Mr. Gupta must consider where to place his loyalties, especially because he may be exposed as a corrupt official, taking his underlings down with him. Thus, Pitaji has much to worry about not only in the domestic space, where Anita’s rage grows over the course of the novel, but also in the occupational space, where he must find a way to avoid coming to financial ruin. Sharma’s debut was for me relentlessly depressing and hard to read for the simple fact of Pitaji’s characterization: there is a way that the novel presents him as a complex, flawed subject, even when we might come to find so much of his actions repugnant. Certainly, it is a multifaceted portrait of one family and its relationship to history and politics, but the eventual conclusion seems somehow still unfulfilling. Perhaps, that is the point: in this naturalistic narrative, there can be not developmental trajectory, no sense of transcendence for these characters that function almost as a variation on Sartre’s No Exit.

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A Review of Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (WW Norton, 2014)

Sometimes a book will keep me awake late into the night; this time it was Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. It’s a strange, sparely written novel narrated from the perspective of a boy named Ajay who immigrates with his family to America. He has one older brother, Birju, who is intellectually gifted, a father who embraces the capitalist spirit of America, and a doting mother. One day, Birju dives into the swimming pool and manages to land on his neck; he isn’t taken out of the water until three minutes have passed. He incurs brain damage and the rest of the novel is basically how that family survives in the midst of taking care of this bedridden, perpetually catatonic brother. It’s a tough novel: what does love look like in that situation? what is loyalty? The family is naturally torn apart at various points. Ajay’s father descends into alcoholism, while Ajay’s mother becomes a sort of spiritual guide that allows other Indian immigrant families into their home to receive blessings. For his part, Ajay finds his own way to excel in school and eventually is accepted into Princeton, thus achieving a trajectory that no doubt would have been similar his brother’s. The shadow of the brother’s life is always there: he must have almost round the clock care; he cannot speak, he cannot really move, and there is a question of how conscious he is of the things going on around him. There are difficult scenes that reveal the ambivalence that the narrator feels toward Birju in the post-accident period; as with Sharma’s debut novel, he never shies away from the prickly and darkest recesses of his character’s thoughts. The novel ends with the narrator feeling strangely happy and he thinks that he has a problem. That’s the gist of this character’s core issue: he has a problem because of happiness. I was thinking long and hard about this: hardship and pain had been so much of his life that he didn’t understand what to do with this feeling of love and contentment and happiness that enters. When happiness hits, it becomes this stranger, a riddle that cannot be solved: that was the life that this narrator leads. There is a metafictional impulse, too, this way that the narrator wrestles with the power of what writing can do, yet he ultimately becomes a rich investment banker.
The novel reminds me of the work of Jon Pineda, both in Apology and in Sleep in Me with respect to the care of a character who has endured a catastrophic injury. The developmental impulse of the novel is an odd one. On the one hand, Ajay seems to be the very epitome of the model minority subject; he attains a high level of intellectual and financial success, but at the same time, the family’s endurance and lives in America are far from ideal. By stripping away the layers behind supposed achievement, Sharma’s poetic novel provides its own corrective to narratives of Asian American uplift. Another highly recommended read!

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A Review of Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani’s Jet Black and Ninja Wind (Tuttle Publishing, 2013)

I’ve been devouring as much YA fiction as I can lately: I think it’s become my Asian American genre comfort food, which is not to say that all such works are frothy or insignificant of course. Indeed, the impact of this genre is quite large simply based upon the dedicated and wide readership; certainly, something we cannot thumb our noses at or castigate as a lowbrow genre unworthy of critical attention. But I digress. Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani’s meticulously crafted and thrilling Jet Black and Ninja Wind follows the adventures of a young teenager who must come to terms with her complicated inheritance. Indeed, our protagonist Jet is a ninja. The third person narration follows her perspective the most, but Lowitz and Oketani are quite aware of some of the genre impulses that ground the paranormal romance and do offer us an occasional shift to a figure, Takumi, who is simultaneously figured as villain and as a possible romantic lead. When Jet’s mother dies, Jet flies from New Mexico to Japan and meets up with her grandfather and her cousin, Hiro. But soon enough, Jet realizes that all of the training exercises that her mother mysteriously put her through while she was growing up must be employed in order to survive a threat that has emerged and that revolves around her very capacities as a fighter. Jet soon discovers that she comes from a long lineage of female ninjas (also called Kuroi), ones entrusted with a kind of treasure passed intergenerationally. Jet is unaware of what that treasure is, but there are shadowy underworld and corporate figures after her regardless; Ojisan and Hiro are of course her allies, but an early skirmish leaves her grandfather presumed dead, forcing her and her cousin to travel to Tokyo to get support from their Uncle Soji. While in the care of her uncle, Jet continues to get more information about her past and it becomes evident that she and Hiro must travel back to the United States in order to get to the bottom of the issue related to the treasure and how she may uncover its location and keep it from the nefarious forces that are after her (and her allies). Lowitz and Oketani pack a lot of history and ethnocgraphic information into this text that make it apparent that quite a lot of research went into this fictional representation. Interestingly enough, Lowitz and Oketani’s choice of New Mexico is no accident: they mean to connect the indigenous cultures of Japan—Ojisan and Hiro are part Ainu—with that of New Mexico—J-Bird (Jet’s mother’s partner) is Navajo. Thus, Lowitz and Oketani’s work continues to accrue intercultural and interracial texture as the plotting moves forward. I would be interested to hear more about the process of writing a young adult fiction in a collaborative mode, especially as there are more and more examples of this going on (e.g. Michael Johnston and Melissa De La Cruz’s Frozen and Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs).

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A Review of Julian Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour (Simon Schuster, 2014).

For fans of detective fiction, historical fiction, and/or Downton Abbey, Julian Go’s sweeping debut, The Steady Running of the Hour, will be certain to be one of your favorite reads for this year. The novel starts out immediately with the central mystery: is the young, college age Yankee Tristan Campbell (our first person narrator and ostensible hero) the heir of a large fortune? He has assumed that his great grandmother Elinor—an individual he knew little about—may have in fact been the sister to his actual great grandmother (Imogen Soames-Andersson). The difference in ancestry is vital because Imogen once had a romantic liaison with a man known as Ashley Walsingham, an Englishman of high society and an avid climber. Upon Ashley Walsingham’s death—he dies in a tragic accident while attempting to climb Mount Everest—he bequeaths his fortunes to Imogen, who by that point has disappeared, or to any of her surviving descendant. If no one claims the inheritance within 80 years, the fortune will be released to various charities and organizations. When Tristan is contacted at the beginning of the novel and requested to come to London, he discovers that there is only two months left on the clock. If he is to have any claim on this fortune, he needs to work quickly in order to gain any concrete evidence that it was Imogen, not Elinor, that was his actual grandmother. One large problem immediately arises due to the fact that the archive is devastatingly bare. Elinor was a sculptress of minor renown but Imogen’s legacy is less obvious and Tristan’s unofficial investigation is hampered by this limitation. Further still, Tristan’s lack of monetary income—he is working off of his savings in his archival search—certainly slows his progress. Tristan begins to travel all over Europe in order to find other archives that the solicitors have missed. For instance, he manages to gain entry to the home in which Elinor (or Imogen, we’re still unsure at this point) might have given birth to a daughter, presumably Tristan’s grandmother. Later, Tristan attempts to locate some of Elinor’s paintings on a hunch that perhaps Imogen was one of Elinor’s studies. Intercut with Tristan’s quest, Go provides a third person narrator who follows the formative years in the relationship between Ashley and Imogen. We see their connection blossom in a short five days, a romance cut short when Ashley must go off to serve in The Great War. During Ashley’s tenure on the war front, his spirits are only kept buoyed by the possibility that he will be eventually reunited with Imogen. Go takes a lot of risks with this novel; the split narrative structure is always one that causes a division in the reader’s interests, but fortunately both plots are incredibly interesting. The expansive scale—both geographical and historical—of this novel could have been too much for any writer, but first time novelist Go wields it commandingly and further still, the intergenerational and Transatlantic sweep is the appropriate tapestry for a central mystery that gains rich contours the further we get into the plot. Fans of Merchant Ivory Productions will probably wonder when this novel will be made into a movie, but there will be those who will balk at the ending (certainly a love it or hate it conclusion), one that will surely cause discussion amongst the readers propelled so assuredly to that point.
From a scholarly perspective, the novel is quite fascinating because it delves so much into the guesswork that occurs in archival research. Tristan must follow hunches and unexpected leads in the hopes that a narrative will be brought together; in some sense, the novel achieves a kind of metanarrativistic contour: will research produce some sort of definitive ending? Does it ever produce a definitive ending? The other element that Go begins to introduce is a twinned narrative structure. Halfway through the plot, Tristan meets a Frenchwoman that blossoms into a potential romance. When Tristan must leave France for yet another European country (by the novel concludes, he is in Iceland), we recall Ashley’s departure to war. Indeed, Tristan has known the Frenchwoman for a short amount of time, yet there is a connection there that cannot be severed. The mystery concerning love and devotion is certainly at play for both narratives, though the gravity of the historical portion—with long sequences devoted to World War I trench warfare and the climbing of Mount Everest—certainly weighs most heavily. Finally, perhaps, the most brilliant technique that Go employs in this novel is irony: the reader always knows more than Tristan actually does and so we can’t help but root for the narrator to get to the place where we are. The point at which Tristan knows more than we do can seem like a betrayal, which is why the ending—at least for some—might seem like an aesthetically incorporated form of treason.

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Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for April 21st, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to: sohnlitcrit@gmail.com

In this post, reviews of N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books 2010); Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books, 2014); Gary Pak’s Brothers Under a Same Sky (University of Hawaii Press, 2013); Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2014); Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights (William Morrow, 2013); Janie Chang’s Three Souls (William Morrow, 2014); Carrianne Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications, 2013); A Review of Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012).

A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books 2010).

N.H. Senzai’s debut novel Shooting Kabul (a young adult fiction targeted at children who are in grades three to seven) follows the adventures of an 11 year-old-Afghani transnational Fadi who comes to the United States in the wake of turmoil in his home country. His father had originally returned to Afghanistan after having received a PhD in an agricultural field in order to help out with the country’s recovery process. With the emergence of different factions (including the Taliban), Afghanistan is embroiled in internal conflict. To protect his family, Fadi’s father Habib and his ailing wife Zafoona decide to evacuate. A big problem arises when the youngest child in the family, Mariam, is accidentally left behind: each family member believes that he or she was at fault. Fadi, being the one who had been physically closest to Mariam at the time of the accidental separation, seems to harbor the most guilt. The question of whether or not they will be reunited with Mariam becomes increasingly tense, especially when they become refugees and have to travel to the United States. Once in the states, Fadi begins to explore his artistic interests in school, especially developing his photographic skills. There is a photography contest that would give him a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to India, a country he feels would get him close enough to Afghanistan and Pakistan and perhaps offer him the opportunity to redeem himself by finding his sister. Senzai’s young adult novel also weaves in the events of 9/11, a moment that causes Fadi much strife not only because he realizes it means more instability in Afghanistan, but also because he is targeted for his ethnic difference. Senzai has taken quite a serious topic and shifted the focalization through the eyes of a young boy. To pull off the complexity of the historical contexts, Senzai must employ a third person omniscient narrator, one whose voice and whose scope is broader and deeper than that of the young Fadi. As with most novels targeted at this age group, closure is emphasized, thus potentially obscuring the gravity of family rupture and racial prejudice in light of 9/11 and the ongoing conflicts and wars in the Middle East and Western Asia. Fans of children’s literature will be happy to see Senzai effectively weaving in an extended intertextual reference to The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a favorite read of Fadi’s. Certainly an important addition to children’s literature through its attentive consideration of ethnic and social contexts not often seen in this younger readers’ arena.

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A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books, 2014).

wish a higher res pic were available!

Loosely connected to her debut Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai’s sophomore effort explores the adventures of a 12 year old Afghan American named Ariana, who reluctantly must help her cousin, Laila, adjust to her recent migration to the United States. Ariana is part of a family that runs a grocery store—the titular Kabul Corner—which has had a tenuous existence as part of a strip mall in Fremont, California. Though their business has stabilized, Ariana’s family finds it troubling when another Afghan American family opens up a grocery store in the same strip mall. The owner of the strip mall property was pressured into leasing the land to that family due to the need for rental income. Further tensions arise when it is discovered that the competing store, Pamir Market, is siphoning off some of Kabul Corner’s regular customers. Indeed, at one point, the baker who was behind a bread product that was popular at Kabul Corner jumps ship and is hired by the Pamir Market. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the owners of Pamir Market are from an family whose roots are traced back to a feud that was supposedly settled with Ariana’s family sometime back in Afghanistan. Thus, Ariana’s family surmises that the Pamir Market’s emergence is perhaps traceable to the fact that the feud was never actually resolved. When fliers appear decrying the quality of Pamir Market’s groceries, it becomes evident that something fishy is going on. Is the family running Pamir Market trying to gain sympathy by suggesting that Ariana’s family had created those fliers? Or is someone connected to Ariana’s family secretly behind the problematic fliers? The problems between the two stores continue to escalate, as evidenced especially when Kabul Corner is burglarized. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Ariana, along with her cousin Laila, and her school friend Mariam—the very one who was left behind in Afghanistan in Senzai’s debut and who returns here as part of the same fictional universe—and Wali, with whom the three have generated a tentative alliance and who is the son of the Pamir Market’s owners, attempt to unravel the mystery behind the fliers and the burglary. Interspersed between the narrative concerning the competing grocery stores, Senzai generates a transnational subplot when Laila’s father, a translator for the US army, go