May 23, 2016
Asian American Literature Fans: Small Press Spotlight X 3 (Four Way, Unnamed Press, and Akashic)
In this post, reviews of Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) and C. Dale Young’s The Halo (2016); Avtar Singh’s Necropolis (Akashic 2016) and Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer (Akashic 2016); Janice Pariat’s Seahorse (Unnamed Press, 2016) and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016).
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As part of my acknowledgement of this month, I am attempting to amass 31 reviews, so my rate would come out on average to a review a day in the month of May. Counting this post, I will be up to 13 reviews (if I have completed my addition properly). We’ll see if I’m able to complete this challenge, but as part of this initiative, I’m hoping that my efforts might be matched in some way by you: so if you’re a reader and lurker of AALF, I am encouraging you to make your own post or respond to one of the reviews. Would it be too much to ask for 31 comments and/or posts by readers and others? Probably, but the gauntlet has been thrown. LJ is open access, so you can create your own profile or you can post anonymously. I kindly encourage you to comment just to acknowledge your participation in AALF’s readership.
At last count, there were approximately 10 comments from unique users, and 2 reviews by Nadeen Kharputly, putting the community at 12! At the time of this posting, I have completed my 31 review challenge. You still have about 19 comments to go and one week remaining! Go team!
For more on APA Heritage Month, go here:
In this post, I am focusing on three smaller, independent publishers, whose books I have absolutely adored and who deserve way more recognition by readers in general and most certainly from critics, instructors, and scholars.
Spotlight on Four Way Books, with reviews of Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) and C. Dale Young’s The Halo (2016).
I’ll start out with Four Way Books, which boasts one of the most extensive catalogues that include minority poets. Four Way has been near and dear to my heart, as so many of the collections are grounded in the confessional lyric that first drew me to poetry. Some previous books we’ve already reviewed at Asian American literature fans such as Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s collections: Shadow Mountain (2008) and her follow up Bear, Diamonds, and Crane (2011). Four Way has also published works by other Asian American authors; we’ll be certain to roll out reviews of other works in the future.
For more on Four Way Books and their catalog, go here:
A Review of C. Dale Young’s The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016).
Well, it’s been an amazing experience just taking some time to dive back into ready poetry. I don’t really understand why I stay away. One of the highlights of this time has definitely been C. Dale Young’s The Halo, which is his fourth collection (after Day Underneath the Day, The Second Person, and Torn). Young’s The Halo is probably his most structurally cohesive collection, both on the level of theme and of form. In this work, he makes great use of a particular poetic structure involving the quintain. I’m not quite sure if this use of the quintain has a specific formal name, as I’m not all that well versed in such things, but the quintain organizes every single poem that appears whether or not there is six stanzas (which is generally the case in most of the poems, giving off a sestina-like geometric structure) or less. The thematic element obviously comes from the title. In this case, Young uses a motif related to a young man’s experience and shame over his status as a human who has somehow sprouted wings. The question that Young never answers, much to our delight, is how to understand this particular issue: is it simply a metaphor for social difference? Is it actually related to the fact that this lyric figure has extra appendages that should allow him to levitate? There’s probably an element of both somewhere in there. On the one hand, you have a poem like “Annunciation,” which seems to suggest a more literal reading of the wings: “I learned to hide my wings almost immediately/ learned to tuck and bandage them down” (8). On the other, you have a poem like “After Crossing the Via Appia,” which gives us this gem: “Because my wings had already erupted from between my shoulder blades. Because I had coveted another man in that secret space in my own head, the lean shape of him, his water-drenched skin as he rose/ from the sea off Fort Lauderdale Beach” (30). Here, Young gives us the chance to connect the sprouting of angel wings and the monstrosity associated with it to queer desire, but this reading is later undercut when the lyric speaker does seem to have a chance to explore his feelings with another man, but discovers that this man does not have wings like he does, so to what then does this angelic form refer? Without answering this question, let us turn to the other issue at hand: the central lyric figure’s story becomes complicated when he is in a car accident and confined to a hospital bed, unsure of whether he is alive or dead. The narrative, or so it seems, is that he was run over by a drunk driver, and lucky to be alive at all. There is a surreal moment when he begins to think that the doctor he sees above him is actually himself sometime in the future, as is noted in the poem “Mind over Matter” when the speaker reveals: “The man standing over me was me” (18). The fissure between reality and fantasy, perception and objectivity is where this book really takes flight, if to pun only briefly: we want this lyric figure to spread his wings and to find a way embrace his winged self. A long-ish poem toward the end, “The Wolf,” involves the central lyric figure in a wrestling match with an actual angel, and so we’re taken back into strongly Biblical territory here. As this lyric Jacob discovers yet again that he is just a mere mortal, stuck with some corporeal abnormality that he wants to desperately to hide, we still want him to find his way in the world and out from the under the weight of his self-denigrations and his burdensome wingspan. What Young’s poetry reminds us is that though things might “get better,” the material effects of social oppression are inescapable and tragically destructive. Love, deep connections, passionate desires can all be all too temporary, so what do we hang onto but by (poetically) remaking our wounds and traumas into something we can live with, to keep us warm and cozy during those long stretches us darkness, to find a way to see what can’t be seen (but so often felt) in the intimate space between our shoulder blades.
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A Review of Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way, 2016).
Well, gosh, I know I’ve been terribly behind on reading poetry and reviewing it as well. I always forget how much I’ve needed to read poetry, but it becomes apparent upon the first couple of pages of Rajiv Mohabir’s riveting, eclectic debut The Taxidermist’s Cut. Before I get started on reviewing, I wanted to first alert you to a great interview here:
At one point in this interview, Mohabir relates: “My dissertation will be a collection of poems that charts the historical journey of queer indentured laborers who traveled from India to Guyana as well as the personal: my own journey through cultural identities and surviving homophobias. I hope to put into conversation queer migration under Indian indenture (1838-1917), the whaling industry, and contemporary homophobic and racist violences.” This statement is an excellent way to consider the various forces at play in Mohabir’s collection, which draws on a complicated parental immigrant lineage on the one hand and the lyric speaker’s coming-to-terms with his queer/ racialized background on the other. There is a very interesting interlingual issue at work in this collection, and it made me wonder immediately about Mohabir’s background precisely because it reminded me so much of my own. Poetry comes into being for the child of immigrants often in association with a particular field of reference that is then placed alongside interlingual registers. As I was reading the Taxidermist’s Cut, I kept thinking about how his use of scientific language (especially in relation to plants and animals) and tropes connected to taxidermy in general fall in line with desire to categorize and classify every aspect of our lives down to our identities. What Mohabir so effectively deploys is a hybrid mixture of scientific language and discourses of identity that create a lyric amalgam that wonderfully renders the confusion arising in a queer racialized coming of age: the subject seeks power over his life through the process of naming, yet finds himself often stripped of any sense of security through the illicit nature of sexuality and the strangeness of his racial identity. Here are two of my favorite examples of this kind of “hybrid lyric”:
From “Carolina Wren”
On my mother’s porch, a mother
wren nested amongst Rhododendron roots.
Her eggs hatched into naked skins. I read,
Wrens reject their young if a boy should touch,
or be touched by, another boy but only after
I wrapped it in my fingers. Beginning
To fledge, mother smelled only a child’s
Foreign oils. She abandoned the baby chick (69).
These stanzas show us a really splendid example of lyric equivocation. Here, the lyric speaker is learning a lesson concerning the titular “Carolina wren,” but we’re unsure about how to deal with the italics that signal the “lesson.” On the one hand, the lyric speaker is learning about the problem of touching birds, as the “foreign oils” mark them for expulsion from the nest. On the other, this kind of lesson begins to accrue texture in relation to the development of his social difference: he is foreign in multiple senses of the word. These so-called “oils” of difference mark him perhaps as a figure who cannot be embraced by his family. But because of the ways that the italics are dropped into the poem, we wonder about what the “it” refers to: the indefinite antecedent might at first seem to suggest the boy’s handling of a bird, but given the racialized sexuality of the lyric speaker, the “it” takes on more metaphorical conceits concerning desire and yearning that track throughout the collection. Another wonderful example of the ways that these italics serve to complicate any reading practices appears in “Reference and Anatomy”:
There are many men’s fingertips up and down my own thighs. You ask me their names, so you can stuff them inside me. I smile, They’re all there,
frozen in thick sheets of lake ice, corpses
gossiping about exactly where and for how long
I’ve tongued each man—
You pluck nimbus feathers, to search for
the underlying structure as you position me—
You say anything I say to you is a fairytale” (83).
There’s an intriguing potpourri of mixed metaphors, as the lyric speaker seems to be engaging in an erotic encounter with another man, but the nature of this intercourse is complicated through the problem of naming (a thematic we saw in the previous poem). The “names” being referred to here seem connected to other men and their fingertips, which are somehow dead but animated enough to “gossip.” As with other poems in the collection, the lyric speaker is continually invoked in relation to his bird-like qualities—these “nimbus feathers”—but his social difference marks him as an oddity, something to be examined as spectacle perhaps rather than engaged as an object of beauty rather than a subject of desire. He is being plucked, then stuffed, then filled so as to be displayed, having been hunted perhaps and then transformed as a icon of successful predation: thus, the “fairytale” takes on a darker meaning here, as our lyric speaker finds himself remade into something perhaps both majestic and grotesque at the same time. The Taxidermist’s Cut is a collection that revels in making meaning out of poetic dissonances.
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Spotlight on Akashic Books with reviews of Avtar Singh’s Necropolis (Akashic 2016) and Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer (Akashic 2016)
Another wonderful indie/ smaller press is Akashic Books. They are perhaps most well known for their noir series, but they have also published a number of Asian American and Asian Anglophone author, including Nina Revoyr, Yongsoo Park, and Eric Gamalinda. For more on Akashic, go here:
A Review of Avtar Singh’s Necropolis (Akashic 2016).
Avtar Singh’s stateside debut is Necropolis, which is coming out of Akashic Books. This novel was definitely one of my anticipated reads for this year, partly because of the gruesome, but nonetheless intriguing plot description. We’ll let the official blurb over at Akashic briefly take it away from here: “Necropolis follows Sajan Dayal, a detective in pursuit of a serial (though nonlethal) collector of fingers. He encounters would-be vampires and werewolves, and a woman named Razia who may or may not be centuries old. Guided by Singh’s gorgeous and masterful writing, the novel peels back layers of a city in thrall to its past, hostage to its present, and bitterly divided as to its future. Delhi went from being an imperial capital to provincial backwater in a few centuries: the journey back to exploding commercial metropolis has been compressed into a few decades. Combining elements of crime, fantasy, and noir,Necropolis tackles the questions of origin, ownership, and class that such a revolution inevitably raises. The world of Delhi, the sweep of its history—its grandeur, grimness, and criminality—all of it comes alive in Necropolis.” The opening of the novel is superbly gothic, as it explores that aforementioned collector of fingers. Sajan Dayal is on the case, as well as some of his coworkers, including a younger investigator Smita and a faithful stalwart in a man named Kapoor. Dayal, also known as the DCP, discovers that the collector is somehow obsessed with a mysterious woman (the aforementioned Razia). Dayal and his coworkers employ Razia in order to locate the individual who is engaged in the finger severing. As we discover—and here is your spoiler warning—the serial finger collector is none other than some sort of otherworldly creature who is giving these body parts to Razia as a kind of tribute because Razia is apparently a vampire. The fact of Razia’s vampire-hood is something that the novel toys with constantly. Because Singh more or less creates a realist fictional world, the references to werewolves and vampires reconstruct New Delhi as a location that must be reconsidered from the vantage point of the supernatural. Thus, in this particular work, Singh pushes us to link the supernatural with global capitalism, creatures of the night with drug lords, life everlasting with the desire for the urban elite to retain control and power over the proletarian masses. The most compelling point for Singh is the character of New Delhi, a place that has become a strange amalgam of the ancient and the supermodern, a place that therefore is the perfect one to generate a speculative fiction and a noir-ish narrative. The pacing of the novel is unfortunately uneven because Singh uses Razia and the finger collector as more of a framing device. The middle chapters turn to individual cases that the DCP and his followers must investigate. The structure ends up mimicking the investigatory serial procedural—reminiscent indeed of shows you might watch such as Bones or Castle—in which there are individual mysteries, which are sometimes linked by a larger one. The opening is such a seductive one that when we’re forced to move away from Razia and her possible vampire background, these other plots can seem like diversions, even as they accrue an important texture for understanding the larger forces that Singh is grappling with concerning urban decay and decadence, poverty and exploitation, corruption and wealth accumulation. Despite these momentum bumps, the novel is a compelling one and certain to be a great addition to courses on detective fiction and noir, especially given its focus on a city that has not necessarily or traditionally been attached to mystery and mayhem. Singh is giving places like Los Angeles and San Francisco a run for their money in this re-envisioning of the urban noir.
For more on the book as well as a purchase link, go here:
A Review of Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer (Akashic, 2016).
Before I get started on this review, I wanted to send a huge thanks to NKharput for her reviews of Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer and Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What!
Please go here for those reviews:
Ali Eteraz’s Native Believer is his fiery debut novel, which reminds me a bit of the work of Ayad Akhtar and Mohsin Hamid in its provocative consideration of what it means to be Muslim in the United States. Eteraz is author of at least two other major publications, including the memoir Children of Dust (reviewed here in AALF awhile back) and then the short story collection Falsipedies and Fibsiennes (Guernica Editions, 2014). As I was reading up on Eteraz’s updated bio, the amazon site reveals this kernel: “Recently, Eteraz received the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize judged by Mohsin Hamid, and served as a consultant to the artist Jenny Holzer on a permanent art installation in Qatar.” I can’t say I’m surprised by the fact that Hamid and Eteraz have made their connection given the many obvious thematic and tonal parallels between their fictional works. Native Believer opens up with a party thrown by the narrator (known as M), who is a non-practicing South Asian Muslim and his wife (Marie-Anne), who is Caucasian. This party is important for the narrator based upon his work in a public relations firm; he needs to show the right amount of social graces to help cement his place in a company that would allow him room to advance. But it is also during this party that a senior colleague notices something stowed up high on a bookshelf: it’s the Koran, something that his mother placed there before she passed away. While the narrator believes this moment to be a relatively meaningless interaction, there is a question as to the import of this moment when he finds out he is fired from his job soon after. Did his senior colleague find his copy of the Koran to be evidence of some unpatriotic impulse? While he mulls over this question, he wallows in the wake of his unemployment. Meanwhile, his wife is struggling with her own career advancement in a sales company. She ends up trying to throw side projects the narrator’s way, as a means to keep him busy and perhaps to offer him entry into a new line of work. As the narrator continues to look into other job positions and freelance work, he meets up with a variety of salty and complicated characters, including a Muslim firebrand named Ali Ansari and a former co-worker named Candace, with whom the narrator embarks on an affair. Eteraz is going for quite a bit of shock value in this work, and part of the point is to undermine what it means to be both Muslim and American and to challenge any reductive positioning of Islamic fundamentalism and secularism. Readers should be forewarned that there are a lot of scenes involving sex both in graphic and comic ways. The title is thus ironically invoked: our narrator is a “native believer” insofar as he’s American and understands that his distant religious background will ultimately cause others to consider him as part of a “residual supremacist” group that will bring the nation to ruin. The concluding arc makes us wonder about the primacy of the romance plot to this kind of narrative, which seems to making larger claims about what constitutes the “brown body” in the post-9/11 moment. Those readers who have been following this larger body of work will necessarily position this novel as part of a masculinist ethos that can be seen in the writings of the aforementioned Hamid, and others such as H.M. Naqvi and Ayad Akhtar. I’ve been wondering about the gendered phenomena that tend to polarize the cultural productions, and it would be interesting to consider works such as Naqvi’s Home Boy, Akhtar’s American Dervish, and Eteraz’s Native Believer in contrast to fictions such as Nafisa Haji’s The Writing on my Forehead and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Queen of Dreams. Certainly, an incendiary novel; one wonders how it will be received in Muslim majority countries.
For another useful review, please go to Kirkus Reviews:
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Spotlight on Unnamed Press with reviews of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse (Unnamed Press, 2016) and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016).
Finally, one of the newest presses that I have been introduced to is Unnamed Press, which has put out two of the most surprising and wonderful reads for me this year, but they are also the publisher of many other Asian American and Asian Anglophone authors, including Ranbir Sidhu and Kristine Ong Muslim (I hope to review these in the future. For more on the offerings over at Unnamed Press, go here:
A Review of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse (Unnamed Press, 2016).
Wow, this novel was a real surprise for me. Janice Pariat’s debut novel Seahorse (she is also the author of a short story collection, which has not been published stateside and thus the subject of frustration for me as always) was the second book I read out of Unnamed Press. At this point, I’ll make the typical spoiler warning for those that do not want to hear more about the plot. To that end, we’ll let the official web page over at Unnamed Press do some plot work for us: “The seahorse is the only creature where the male is responsible for reproduction. Male seahorses bear their burdens, as does our protagonist Nem, a hero driven by his decades-long love for Nicholas, whom he met at a University in 1990s Delhi. Nem was not like his classmates, crowding around a TV set to watch music videos and talk about ‘doing it’; instead he opted for lonely walks around ruins. On one of these occasions he spied Nicholas, an enigmatic young professor from London, in the park with another male student. With surprising ease, Nem seduces the much sought-after professor. It is in the wake of this brief but steamy affair, when Nicholas returns to London and Nem tries to continue with his life, that the story truly begins. Nem graduates from university and becomes a successful art critic, but his memories of Nicholas dominate his existence. After an invitation to speak at a conference in London, Nem's obsession with Nicholas returns. Still single, Nem wonders if this will be the opportunity to reconnect with his old and influential lover. Instead, Nem is immediately swept up in London's cosmopolitan world, hobnobbing with the city's diverse artists and writers and enjoying the London club scene. Meanwhile, Nicholas artfully avoids any direct contact with Nem, instead orchestrating a series of clues that lead to Myra, a woman Nem had believed to be Nicholas's sister. Brought together by their love for Nicholas, Nem and Myra begin a friendship with surprising consequences.” So this summary provides a great deal of context for the story, but does leave out Pariat’s wonderfully poetic prose. She further employs first person narration to great effect, as she delves into Nem’s lovelorn melancholic subjectivity. The novel moves back and forth between two time periods. The diegetic present involves Nem’s time in London, trying to track down Nicholas. Instead of bumping into Nicholas, Nem bumps into Myra, who Nicholas discovers is not actually Nicholas’s sister, as she is first introduced to him in that capacity. In the diegetic past, Nem tell us about his quixotic involvement with Nicholas, which occurs mostly over a holiday period in India. Nem and Nicholas’s days revolve around lovemaking, wine and cheese consumption, and explorations on the topic of art, philosophy and the humanities. These sequences are some of the most poetic and elegant of the work and thus are pivotal in constituting why Nem would be driven to go to London in search of someone like Nicholas. In Myra, Nem ultimately finds a kindred spirit, someone torn asunder by love and affected by its incredible loss. The concluding sequence I found surprising, but Pariat is working within the confines of a complicated dynamic of desire that confounds any easy conceptions of gender and sexuality. The last two pages I especially found infuriating because of the way they are ambivalently staged and which possess a kind of non-sequitor-like quality that made me immediately want to grab someone who had already read the book to discuss what these pages meant. On the other hand, despite my gut reaction to the conclusion, it didn’t overturn my overall sentiment about this work, as it reminded me of many other novels that deal with obsession and love, even in the most complicated and thorniest of circumstances. Another recommended read.
For more information on the book, go here:
For a purchase link, go here:
A Review of Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016).
So, I’ve been trying to do a better job of keeping track of small/ indie press offerings, and as part of that effort, I’m reviewing Esmé Weijun Wang’s intriguing and complex debut, The Border of Paradise. The official site over at Unnamed Press gives us this pithy description of the novel, but I am providing you with a spoiler warning here, so do not read further unless you want some major details revealed: “In booming postwar Brooklyn, the Nowak Piano Company is an American success story. There is just one problem: the Nowak’s only son, David. A handsome kid and shy like his mother, David struggles with neuroses. If not for his only friend, Marianne, David’s life would be intolerable. When David inherits the piano company at just 18 and Marianne breaks things off, David sells the company and travels around the world. In Taiwan, his life changes when he meets the daughter of a local madame — the sharp-tongued, intelligent Daisy. Returning to the United States, the couple (and newborn son) buy an isolated country house in Northern California’s Polk Valley. As David's health deteriorates, he has a brief affair with Marianne, producing a daughter. It’s Daisy's solution for the future of her two children, inspired by the old Chinese tradition of raising girls as sisterly wives for adoptive brothers, that exposes Daisy’s traumatic life, and the terrible inheritance her children must receive. Framed by two suicide attempts, The Border of Paradise is told from multiple perspectives, culminating in heartrending fashion as the young heirs to the Nowak fortune confront their past and their isolation.” The element that I found perhaps most fascinating about this novel was the use of alternating first person perspectives across a wide historical swathe. The novel first begins David and Daisy’s perspectives, but later shifts to their children: William and Gillian. Wang continues to complicate the narratorial equation by later adding the perspectives of Marianne and Marianne’s brother. After I finished the novel, I didn’t think of the work as being framed by suicide attempts exactly, especially because the conclusion is far more murkier than the description conveys, but the novel is an impressive and complicated depiction of mental illness as it tracks across generations. There is a point where I got a vaguely Faulknerian impression of this novel, as William and Gillian must live in a home that becomes gothically rendered. What’s perhaps most terrifying about the novel, and a true testament of Wang’s talent, is that you don’t necessarily see right away how deep the problems these characters possess actually run because they are so good at rationalizing all of the dysfunctionality going on around them. Wang makes an interesting choice in the last chapter to narrate it from the third person perspective, and I wondered what encouraged her to go in that direction since she so effectively used the first person throughout the rest of the novel. I especially found Marianne and Marianne’s brother’s characters to be vital to the impact of the novel because they clarify what a dire situation that William and Gillian eventually find themselves in. I wasn’t too keen on the title, though the novel is definitely one meriting multiple reads and certain to be an excellent choice for classroom discussions.
For more on the book go here:
For a purchase link, go here:
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 email@example.com with any concerns you may have.
AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is the social media liaison and expert. Current, active as well previous reviewers have included (but are not necessarily limited to):
Sue J. Kim, Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
Jennifer Ann Ho, Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill
Betsy Huang, Associate Professor, Clark University
Nadeen Kharputly, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego
Annabeth Leow, Coterminal MA Student, Stanford University
Asian American Literature Fans can also be found on other social networking sites such as:
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