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.
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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