A Review of Judy Fong Bates’s Midnight at the Dragon Café (Emblem Editions Reprint, 2004) and Judy Fong Bates’s China Dog and Other Stories (Emblem Editions Reprint, 2005)
The protagonist at the center of Judy Fong Bates’s Midnight at the Dragon Café is a young Chinese girl, Su-Jen Chou, otherwise known as Annie, who has immigrated to a small town called Irvine, located in Canada. She has a complicated family background. She has an older brother who dies at a young age; her half-brother Lee-Kung possesses a different mother. Though Bates has written what might be considered the quintessential immigrant tale, her ability to create such an engaging narrator lifts this above some of the more prototypical examples in the genre. There is an episodic quality to the novel, as we see the struggles of the family as they acculturate to their Canadian setting. The family runs a restaurant; much of the tension revolves around successive generations. That is, how will the family continue to succeed in Canada? This question is borne largely on the shoulders of Lee-Kung, who must find an appropriate wife and continue the family line. Su-Jen maintains a rather observer-like status as the youngest. When the narrative strays away from the family dramas, we move to Su-Jen’s various adventures at school, where she finds another set of challenges to confront. She eventually forges a strong bond with a Caucasian girl named Charlotte. It is this access to this other world that clarifies how different Su-Jen is from her parents and her half-brother; as a younger immigrant, she gains linguistic facility in English on a level unattained by her parents. The novel is immensely readable and can certainly be adopted in any course focusing on traditional Asian American or Asian Canadian literary themes. Fong Bates is also the author of a short story collection, China Dog and Other Stories, as well as a memoir, The Year of Finding Memory. I plan to review China Dog and Other Stories eventually. The Year of Finding Memory is currently only published in Canada and used copies are pretty pricey, so it’s going to be awhile before I am able to get a hold of that one.
(unfortunately the best quality pic I could find)
China Dog and Other Stories is a very loosely interlinked story collection. All of the stories focus on Chinese Canadian immigrants and almost all take place in service contexts: restaurants, laundries, and other such laboring sites. The first couple of stories take place in the first person mode, but from there, Bates shifts all the stories into the third person. What’s interesting about this collection is how well Bates is able to take similar contexts and reorient our perspectives around it. For instance, in the opening story, “My Sister’s Love,” a Chinese immigrant family arrives in Canada and sets up a laundry business, but one daughter, Lily, must be left behind. When they have saved enough money, she comes to the states, but has difficulty acculturating; when a wealthy benefactor sponsors her as a god-daughter and is obviously romantically interested in her, Lily’s parents put a stop to his presence around the household. Interestingly enough, this moment creates a wide rupture between Lily and her family from which they never seem to recover. The narrator from the second story, “The Gold Mountain Coat,” is also a young girl who lives in a laundry, though this time the story focuses on neighbors, John and Ken, who work in a restaurant owned by their father and due to the thrifty nature of their father, must share an old winter coat. A quandary arises when they realize they need more coats, as one of the brothers intends to get married. Both opening stories show a keen eye toward the complications and the struggles of Chinese immigrants and set the stage for the following stories. The last story, China Dog, is one of my favorites, as it possesses one of the more surrealistic entries in the collection; the main character, Ming, marries into a family that is known to have a curse surrounding it. Intending to protect her future progeny from the curse, Ming visits a local mystic who tells her to buy a porcelain dog and then later smashes it to symbolize that the curse has been lifted. The ending shows us though the strange ways that the occult and the real can intermingle in a tragic sequence that provides a fitting ending to this social realist work. For those looking to add shorter selections to their courses, China Dog and Other Stories is certainly excerptable and provides an invaluable look at Asian Canadian literary contexts.
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A Review of Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish (Little Brown and Company, 2012).
I remember seeing the cover to Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish online practically a year ago and was really excited to read it. Akhtar’s debut novel follows a young boy named Hayat as he comes to understand both the possibilities and limitations of his Muslim faith. The novel is ultimately a form of the bildungsroman, as he comes of age through the understanding that faith can both offer one hope but that it can also potentially destroy. The novel contains an important frame narrative. In the opening, we discover that Hayat is college aged and that he harbors incredible guilt over the death of her mother’s family friend named Mina (who comes to live with Hayat’s family after her divorce to a domineering husband and her later immigration to the United States with her young son, Imran), who has succumbed to cancer. The novel then flashes back to the events that caused Hayat to act out and to sabotage Mina’s relationship to a kind and brilliant young physician, Nathan Wolfson, who also works for Hayat’s father (Naveed). Nathan happens to be of the Jewish faith and though this religious affiliation presents an initial obstacle to his relationship to Mina, he seriously considers converting in order to marry Mina. Hayat, as an adolescent boy, develops serious erotic attachments to Mina that encourage him to develop a fundamentalist attitude and he attempts to do whatever he can to deter any potential match-up with Nathan. But, Hayat does not realize the dangers of his meddling and the concluding arc sets up a far more tragic path for Mina as a character, a path that Hayat believes he initiated. Akhtar is particularly talented at inhabiting the mindset of a young adolescent, unsure of his own desires, his beliefs, and his place in a larger familial and religious context. The novel presents an important addition to the Asian American literary canon in that it is a domestically situated work concerning Muslim Americans of Pakistani descent, certainly a novel that opens up important discussions concerning faith, fundamentalism, and religious strife.
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A Review of Duncan Jepson’s All the Flowers in Shanghai (William Morrow, 2012).
Duncan Jepson’s debut novel All the Flowers in Shanghai is an assured work of great imagination and plotting. Set in the 1930s, the story is a first person account of Feng, who comes from a middle class family that looks to improve its class standing. Feng’s older sister (just named Sister in the novel) is to be married off to a son (Xiong Fa) from the very prominent Sang family, but Sister ends up dying from cancer before the marriage takes place. Since the Sang family would very much like to see their son married off, they decide to marry him off to Feng, much to her consternation. Indeed, Feng initiates a fledgling romance to a young fisherman named Bi and she further realizes that she rarely if ever will her beloved grandfather again, the one who took her on tours of the local gardens and helped nourish her love of botany. At first, Feng is horrified and traumatized by her experiences as Sang’s wife, undergoing brutal rapes from her husband and having to deal with extended family members who intimidate her. Over time, Feng begins to realize that she does hold power in subtle ways and begins to exert what control she might have. One of the most obvious sources of her agency comes from her reproductive potential. To that end, when she first bears a female child, a ruse is devised so that the child will be raised by someone outside of the Sang household and she pretends that the child has died. The second child, though being of the favored gender as a boy, ends up with a foot deformity, which makes his status more questionable as the heir apparent for the Sang family. As Feng gradually acclimates to life as a housewife, she begins to take advantage of the monetary advantages that her new family provides her and she begins a life of conspicuous consumption. The novel takes a considerably darker turn once communism begins to change the social landscape of China and Feng realizes the family she has created is not at all the life she would have chosen for herself had she any power over her romantic investments.
Jepson’s novel is an engrossing read, but those more familiar with Asian Amiercanist thematic tropes might find the narrative familiar. Certainly, Jepson does draw from mother-daughter and intergenerational thematics that have been the hallmark of other novels such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Lan Samantha Chang’s Inheritance, among many others. I also was a little bit confused by the ending, which contains a metafictional impulse that gives us a sense of why the novel is being narrated in its peculiar way. Indeed, Feng seems to be telling her story to her daughter, the one she had given away.
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A Review of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower (Knopf, 2011).
I admit that I was sort of intimidated by the length of Aravind Adiga’s latest publication, Last Man in Tower. For some reason, it looks much longer than its 400 page length. Given the fact that most contemporary novels do not clock in at much longer than 300 pages, Adiga’s is certainly the longest I’ve read since Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (which was over 500 pages). I shouldn’t have worried; as with Between the Assassinations and White Tiger, Adiga provides us with an illuminating look at contemporary India. Like White Tiger, there is a satirical tone to this work, as it focuses on construction companies who are looking to tear town two towers known as Vishram Society (A & B). The novel’s cover includes a man who looks to be falling and its association with two towers seem to suggest there might be a subtle nod to a 9/11 context (especially given the American audience sure to be reading this narrative), but Adiga is focusing on another kind of event going on all over India in its rush to modernize. The novel sets up the central tension when a man named Shah attempts to buy out all the members of Vishram Society Tower A, but there are originally four holdouts: Mrs. Rego, Mr. and Mrs. Pinto, and then Masterji (Yogesh Murthy), a teacher who does not agree with the changes that contemporary India is undergoing. Shah also hires an enforcer and an informant to help make sure that the holdouts will cave, but Masterji eventually becomes the extremely persistent and titular “last man in tower,” unwilling to take higher payouts or forced eviction, doing whatever it is possible to stay in his unit. As the novel moves toward its inexorable conclusion, you get the sense of a naturalist aesthetic at work. Masterji comes to represent an old guard in India, a different generation that is quickly disappearing. In its place, we see global capitalism, secularization, and profit as the new religions that bind and fragment contemporary communities. One of the most chilling aspects of the novel is the ways in which local communities can turn against one another, so much so that the structural frameworks of power, those at the very top, do not have to worry about actually moving a muscle. In other words, those at the bottom and middle tiers of economic levels are conditioned to fight against each other, while those at the top continue to profit. The other element that I found particularly fascinating is the way in which Adiga includes sign posts and legal documents scattered throughout the narrative. These physical documents seem to be one of the last traces of the ways that people communicate outside of the internet culture—perhaps a statement of the increasing alienation of local communities.
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A review of Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Viking 2012).
Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, juxtaposes two contexts which I never thought I would ever see in a fictional work: New York’s fashion industry and the post-9/11 context that saw the detainment of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. To a certain extent, I couldn’t help but think of the movie Zoolander while reading this book, as the main character, Boyet (shortened to Boy as his nickname) Hernandez (of Filipino descent) is arrested for his connections to Al-Queda operates and insurgents. In Zoolander, we are reminded that Derek is a sleeper agent tasked with destroying the Prime Minister of Malaysia. In From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, the story begins innocently enough: Boyet is hired to create a couple of suits for Ahmed Qureishi, a Pakisani immigrant, who is purportedly a fabric importer. As Boyet attempts to scale the heights of New York’s fashion industry, he begins to see Ahmed as a possible investor for his newest collections. Despite some misgivings about Qureishi’s more shadowy background, Boyet nevertheless assents to Qureishi’s support. As his fashion designs gain more and more attention, Qureishi’s funding begins to dry up, leading to increased tension and the revelation that Qureishi’s dealings may not be entirely aboveboard as Boyet had always suspected. The title’s importance comes to light in the concluding arc as Boyet is interviewed by a journalist concerning his detainment at a super secret U.S. facility for suspected terrorists. Boyet tasks the journalist with bringing to light his “memoir.” Gilvarry’s novel is an interesting satirical take on American paranoia in the post-9/11 period. Boyet is a spirited and flawed character, with an incredible knowledge of pop and high cultures (regularly hobnobbing with the biggest designers and the stars) but obviously NOT an enemy combatant. Gilvarry’s ingeniously mocks American surveillance systems when Boyet’s Irish buddy, Ben Laden, is mistakenly detained for his homophonic name. While the plot seems ludicrous, Gilvarry’s novel is obviously more suggestive of the increasing infringement on civil liberties that occurred in the post-9/11 moment. At the same time, the novel does seem to be simultaneously poking fun at the insular culture of the high fashion industry. Indeed, the politicism is itself a potentially commodifiable product for designers and other fashionistas. One of the most original novels I’ve read in a long time and certainly, one of the few distinctly comic Asian American literary works (though I’m not sure if Boyet would know and would certainly not approve that we were occasionally laughing at him and the other characters).
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