Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 5, 2012.

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 5, 2012.

It is my little brother’s birthday today and a day of celebration deserves reviews of Asian American literature.

In this post, reviews for Marina Budhos’s Ask Me No Questions (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006); Marina Budhos’s Tell us We’re Home (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010); Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder (Felony and Mayhem, 2009; reprinted in the US also by Minotaur Books, 2010); Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul (Minotaur Books, 2011); Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (Harper Trophy, first published in 1984, reissued by Harper in 1986 and then again in 2003); E.C. Myers’s Fair Coin (Pyr, 2012).

A Review of Marina Budhos’s Ask Me No Questions (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006) and Marina Budhos’s Tell us We’re Home (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010).

I’ve been meaning to read something published by Marina Budhos for awhile. I still haven’t gotten to her two adult novels, The Professor Light, and House of Waiting. In Ask Me No Questions, Budhos turns to the young adult genre to explore the complicated post-9/11 milieu. Narrated in the first person, the novel is told from the viewpoint of Nadira, a fourteen-year-old girl who immigrated to America from Bangladesh. Nadira, along with her sister, Aisha, and her parents, are all undocumented immigrants. In the post-9/11 period, with all of the increased scrutiny and attention focused on those of Islamic faith, Nadhira and her family attempt to flee to Canada and to plea for asylum. They are turned away at the border; Nadira’s father is subsequently detained by the American police in connection with some money he had apparently donated to a mosque. Because of his status as an undocumented immigrant, his detainment of course complicates his residency and there is a possibility he will be immediately deported. Thus, the novel turns to Nadira and Aisha’s attempts to try to win his freedom. Aisha, in particular, begins the novel as your stereotypical model minority figure, but the stress of familial disruption increasingly affects her and her grades drop precipitously. It is up to Nadira to maintain the hope that their father will be freed, that their family will be reunited and that they will be able to claim residency somewhere. I’ve noticed that many young adult books have an endnote that often comes with something like a bibliography or pages of research based on historical contexts represented in the actual plotting. Budhos does include such an endnote; she explains that in the post 9/11 period, “During this period, hundred of immigrants, not sure what would happen to them, fled to the Canadian border, though many were turned back only to be arrested by U.S. immigration authorities. Many of these people were immigrants who had lived years in the U.S., and their children had been raised as Americans” (162). What I find fascinating here is the turn to the northern border, which definitely has not been the subject of as much “border theory” for U.S. ethnic studies overall. Certainly, Budhos’s young adult work possesses the kind of historical texture that I prefer admittedly as an Asian Americanist, an attentive consideration of the ways that individual experiences collide against larger power structures.

About halfway through Marina Budhos’s Tell Us We’re Home, I realized that Budhos had used the same narrative technique that I’d found in the work of Melissa de La Cruz in the Au Pairs series. If you recall, de la Cruz brought labor and service work to the Hamptons in the guise of three young, but beautiful women, only one of which really had working class roots, Mara. In the Au Pairs series, de la Cruz consistently shifted narrative perspective among the three principles: Jacqui, Mara, and Eliza. In Tell us We’re Home, Budhos also has three principles: Jaya, of Indo Trinidadian roots; Maria, who is from Mexico; and Lola from Slovakia. All three happen to be the children of mothers who work as domestics in a suburb in Meadowbrook, New Jersey. All three characters possess their particular family dilemmas. Jaya’s mother is fired and blacklisted from domestic service work when she is accused of theft. Maria must contend with a blooming romance with a Caucasian high school student, Tash, while also confronting the growing racial tensions that embroil her Mexican immigrant community and family members. Lola has clear anger issues and a dysfunctional family life; her father is depressed and her mother suffers from diabetic problems. In a relatively recent post, I wrote about the narrative move toward closure in so many ethnic young adult fictions I had been reading. Though Budhos works toward resolution in most of the conflicts in the story, there are certainly some elements left dangling, which I really appreciated. Like the Au Pairs series, Budhos is really working toward how feminist communities and friendships are created in the midst of labor-oriented economies. Jaya, Maria, and Lola, though hailing from very disparate ethnic backgrounds, come together based upon a similar class register. The other element that’s clear from having read a number of children’s work is the emphasis on courage and bravery in the primary characters. To a certain extent, it is far more important that in the youth-oriented genres, the protagonists are characters upon which the young readers can not only identify but potentially model their own personalities and choices upon.

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A Review of Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder (Felony and Mayhem, 2009; reprinted in the US also by Minotaur Books, 2010); Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul (Minotaur Books, 2011

Here is the mystery checklist from Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder: Our investigative team includes Inspector Singh, a Singaporean of Indian background and of Sikh religious persuasion and Inspector Mohammad, a Malaysian police officer and his subordinate, Sergeant Shukor. The murdered is Alan Lee, a wealthy business magnate, based in Mayalsian and owner of a logging company based out in Borneo. Our primary suspect is Chelsea Liew, a Singaporean and former beauty queen, and also Alan Lee’s ex-wife. Her motive is apparently related to the fact that during divorce proceedings Alan had attempted a sleight of hand to gain control of their three children, proclaiming status as a Moslem, thus ensuring his custody. There are other possible suspects: Jasper Lee, Alan’s younger brother, and an environmental activist and researcher, who will soon admit to killing Alan; Kian Min Lee, Alan’s youngest brother, the one who wants to take over the family company; Sharifah: Alan’s mistress; Ravi: Chelsea’s “mister”; Marcus: Alan and Chelsea’s adult son and former boyfriend of Sharifah; Douglas Wee: business conglomerate from Hong Kong based in bio-fuels and associate of Kian Min Lee; and Rupert: an Englishman based in Borneo. Inspector Singh is sent to Malaysia to help out with this investigation in part because Singapore has a vested interest in a case involving a former celebrity of high stature. Chelsea Liew was a former model and held high notoriety in Singapore, but Singh’s jurisdiction in Malaysia is tenuous and he realizes how difficult his investigation is going to be. Not surprisingly, Singh takes a liking to Liew and he’s naturally convinced she cannot be the killer, and so are we, since as seasoned mystery readers, we tend to understand that the most likely culprit is probably and actually the least likely to end up being the actual murderer. The texture of Flint’s narrative is tremendous, as she weaves together a crackling plot and adds other dimensions that speak to the complicated transnational social contexts that link both Singapore and Malaysia. Like Thrity Umrigar’s The Weight of Heaven, this novel also explores the havoc that global capitalism plays on local and indigenous groups. Thus, the novel contains a considerable ecocritical rhetoric that could obviously be the subject of a longer academic study. Certainly, this mystery is one that I would consider adding to a course with postcolonial themes or genre foci. Also, I give Flint kudos for her alliterative title, which is just fun to say aloud =).

In A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, Singh is dispatched to Indonesia to help investigate a suicide-terrorist plot that kills scores of people in Bali, the island best known as a tropical island getaway in the popular imagination. He is there to aide a female Australian investigator named Bronwyn. They make a spirited pairing, as each does not conform to what we might expect in a Hollywood power couple. Singh, in particular, is overweight and his turban becomes the target of anti-Islamic sentiment despite the fact that he is of Sikh faith. The investigation is thrown a huge wrinkle when Bronwyn and Singh are specifically routed to another mystery which has occurred. One of the victims of the bombings, Richard Crouch, was found to have been killed prior to the bombings (in the location known as the Sari Club), as a bullet wound was found in the remains of his body. The list of possible suspects in his murder is long; it could be his wife Sarah, who is engaged in an affair with a younger man, a surfer named Greg. Perhaps, it could be any of his local associates who are of the Muslim faith: a man named Ghani or his wife, who had harbored feelings of love for Richard Crouch. It would be any number of expatriates living in Bali, such as the couples: Julian and Emily Greenwood or Tim and Karri Yardley. Everyone seems to have a motive and Singh intends to found out who is behind the “bali conspiracy most foul.” Like Flint’s first novel, A Bali Conspiracy most foul combines the best in genre fiction with a strong political and social texture. Here, Flint explores the religious tensions that have mired Indonesia, which possesses a large Muslim population. Bali is one of the few locations in Indonesia with a very strong Hindu community, so religious tension that opens up the novel is obviously positioned within this background. Another wonderfully engaging mystery from Flint. I can’t wait for the next installment to be published stateside.

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A Review of Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (Harper Trophy, first published in 1984, reissued by Harper in 1986 and then again in 2003).

I recall reading this book as a child and being generally uninterested in it. From my vague recollections, I didn’t really identify with the Chinese elements that began the novel and it speaks to me now of the interesting ways that, as children, we can more easily identify with ethnic contexts over racial ones. The author, Bette Bao Lord, is the author of a number of works, including the novels Spring Moon and Middle Heart. Now, looking back at this narrative, I can obviously see its applicability to the wider Asian American and Asian immigrant experience. The main character, Shirley Temple Wong, comes to the United States (Brooklyn in particular) as a child and like so many other characters we’ve seen before, encounters racial oppression and difficulties in the acculturation process. The year is 1947, which is apparently the year of the boar and also a big year for baseball fans in New York. Most of the novel focuses on Shirley’s various adventures at school and how she is often the subject of exclusion from daily sporting activities. Lord includes an important foreshadowing device in the form of the character Mabel, an African American girl who more aggressively pushes for Shirley’s inclusion on sports team. This interracial connection is later paralleled by Shirley’s interest in Jackie Robinson; she identifies cross-racially insofar as she understands the challenges that racial minorities can face. One of the obvious challenges in these types of young adult oriented and children’s historical fictions is their conceptions of racial discrimination. Though it is clear that there are racial tensions at play throughout the novel, the systematic nature of social inequality is rarely, if ever engaged. I believe that this element tends to be a problem related to the form and genre of youth-oriented works. Nevertheless, Lord’s work reveals the importance of cross-racial identification in the construction of the American minority subject.

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A Review of E.C. Myers’s Fair Coin (Pyr, 2012)

I’m a total fan of anything related to speculative fiction and E.C. Myers’s debut novel, Fair Coin, will absolutely draw you in based upon its intriguing plotline. The story centers on Ephraim, a teenage boy, your average high schooler you might say, except for one day he discovers a strange note in his locker related to the titular coin, which apparently can grant him wishes. Being a high schooler and apparently only concerned with his own circumstances, Ephraim’s wishes start off relatively small, ones related to mother’s rather desultory parenting skills. Then, Ephraim begins to get a little bit more ambitious by wishing for a fellow classmate, Jena Kim, to develop feelings for him. Later, Ephraim even includes his best friend, Nathan, in on the secret of the coin. Yet, all is not exactly right with this magical coin. Indeed, any time Ephraim uses the coin, something in his reality is distorted. In fact, as he continues to use the coin, the distortions become larger and more concerning. It is unclear and unpredictable how a particular wish may affect some other part of his life or the life of someone he knows. It might be as innocuous as his backpack changing in color, or it could be related to the health of a loved one. In this way, Ephraim considers stopping the use of the coin entirely for fear that he may end up causing more harm than good. To be sure, the trope of a wish backfiring against the wisher is not new, but Myers has a keen eye for the common science fictional trope related to alternate realities and uses it to great effect in this novel. Further still, Myers handles the plotline and pacing perfectly. Indeed, I started this novel late on a Saturday night and it was only after 2 a.m. that I realized I should probably stop reading so that I could get a reasonable amount of sleep. Of course, I finished the novel the next morning. An entertaining and mind-bending new read that plumbs the depths of the speculative fiction landscape. With writers like Ted Chiang, Vandana Singh, Marie Lu, Laurence Yep, Samantha Sotto, Alma Katsu and others delving into non-realist and superrealist genres, there’s certainly a fun course to be created, exploring both the political and aesthetic concerns of the Asian American writer and the speculative fictional world.

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