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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
For more on the book go here:
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.
For more on the book, go here: