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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for June 17, 2012

In this post, reviews for Indu Sundaresan’s In the Convent of Little Flowers (Washington Square Press Paperback edition, 2009); J.J. Lee’s The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, A Son, and A Suit (McClelland and Stewart, 2011); Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire (Harper, 2006); Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men (Knopf, 2012); Abha Dawesar’s Babyji (Anchor Books, 2005); Yuko Taniguchi’s The Ocean in the Closet (Coffee House Press, 2007).

A Review of Indu Sundaresan’s In the Convent of Little Flowers (Washington Square Press Paperback edition, 2009)

“Shelter of Rain” delicately opens Indu Sundaresan’s short story collection (Sundaresan is also the author of a number of other historical novels set in India). In this story, our narrator Padma (an alteration of her given name Padmini) discovers that her biological mother is still alive. Her world is thrown into turmoil when she receives a letter from the convent orphanage from which she was adopted as a young girl by an American couple who lived in Seattle. Padma must decide what to do with the knowledge of her biological mother is alive and is apparently suffering health-related problems, and whether or not she will consider traveling back to India to visit her. Her adoptive parents are supportive and the tale is interwoven with the voice of the nun who decided that the American couple would be suitable parents for Padma. “Shelter of Rain” is largely more reflective of the realist aesthetic of the collection as a whole. Most of the stories are set in India; Sundaresan texturizes her work through various shifts in narrative perspectives and contexts. Many of the stories have a particularly tragic trajectory (especially “Three and a Half Seconds,” “Fire,” “The Most Unwanted”) and focus on the tensions occurring in India as it modernizes and old religious traditions and gendered paradigms become disrupted. “Three and a Half Seconds” focuses on a married couple whose son Bikaner ends up becoming a kind of monster who rails against his parents’ class background and ultimately pushes his parents to kill themselves. “Fire” follows this theme as it explores the contexts that surround a 12 year old girl’s assent to the ritual of sati. In “The Most Unwanted,” the main character, Payal, returns to India amid the death of the family matriarch. She harbors incredible resentment toward her family, which stoned her younger sister Kamala to death when she attempted to flee with her husband, a Muslim man, by the name of Aziz; the family is of the Hindu faith. The “Key Club” explores the complicated network of relationships that comprises a married couples’ swingers group. In the Convent of Little flowers is certainly a collection that I could add to my course on transnational Asian American literatures; many of the stories engage the fluidity between America and India. This collection is one of many by South Asian Anglophone writers that I have found to be quite outstanding (alongside Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Rishi Reddi’s Karma and Other Stories, the work of Lahiri, etc). Plyduck earlier reviewed the work of Imad Rahman and Nalini Jones which may be of interest here:



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A Review of J.J. Lee’s The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, A Son, and A Suit (McClelland and Stewart, 2011).

The Measure of a Man was, to put it mildly, a quite surprising read for me. There are many immigrant memoirs and many second generation Asian North American memoirs out there, but few combine the typical immigrant and generational tropes with a story about the history of tailoring. In The Measure of a Man, J.J. Lee uses the narrative of his father’s life and his father’s suit (the one he has decided to tailor himself) as a way into a larger story about tailoring, apprenticeship, and the quality of men’s clothing craft. You’ll find much to praise when you finish this memoir. First, you’ll discover the random bits of fashion advice that you never understood. For instance, you will know the rules about buttoning suits, the difference between suits and blazers and why one is more appropriate in certain situations than others, what it really means to buy a suit that is tailor and hand-made (versus factory constructed), the importance of lapels and other accoutrements (like boutonnieres) among other such phenomenally interesting tidbits. You’ll also discover that apprenticeship as a tailor is going the way of the dinosaur; it takes a very long time to properly apprentice in this position and talented young individuals are often encouraged to go into fashion and design rather than tailoring. Given Lee’s architecture and design background, his interest in tailoring gains the eye of an expert, though Lee has a long way to go. He first must master the meticulous art of sewing. Along the way, J.J. Lee is metaphorically stitching together his own memoir in which he reveals a rather contentious home life. An alcoholic father in particular makes Lee’s upbringing quite complicated and it is clear that his father is better at dreaming up ideas than executing them. This idiosyncratic memoir (and part history/biography) is certain to keep you interested and might make for an excellent pairing with Alex Gilvarry’s satire of the fashion world, The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.

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A Review of Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire (Harper, 2006)

(perfect cover for this book)

Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire is more of a journalistic account than a traditional novel. The protagonist and narrator, Niu Niu, has returned to China and is working for a media outlet, covering the contemporary scene. She has three close friends, Beibei, a high powered music industry executive, Lulu, an attractive young woman who continually falls in love with married men, and CC, a woman who was educated in the UK and whose parents are successful business owners living in Hong Kong. Niu Niu herself comes from a complicated family background. Her parents are divorced, though she never finds out exactly why her parents broke up and each has since remarried. Niu Niu’s reporting reveals a China in flux and very much invested in the West. One of the clearest instances of this investment in the West comes in the form of a repetitive romance motif in which Caucasian men travel to China, men whom Niu Niu thinks would be considered quite average by Western standards, but who are highly prized once they arrive. They are symbols of a Western fetish that emerges and re-emerges in the affective impulses of the youth, growing up in the haze of Starbucks, McDonald’s, GAP, and Hollywood. What is absolutely interesting is that Niu Niu’s account reveals the great divide between those who return to China and those who have never left, but retain an image of the West in their minds. For Niu Niu and others like her (like CC, for instance), the fashions are the West are not necessarily all that hegemonic. Indeed, Niu Niu’s graduate schooling at UC Berkeley leads her to return to China in rather basic modes of clothing, more functional than flashy, evidence of her turn toward anti-consumerism and feminist politics. Her fashion-forward friends, Beibei and Lulu, quickly acculturate her and remind her of what is deemed acceptable to be hip, young, and beautiful in contemporary China. Niu Niu has a great reportorial eye, but the novel, given its episodic form, seems overlong. The various exploits, to a certain extent, become somewhat repetitive and some of the most interesting characters simply drop out of the narrative because of the focus on this ethnographic approach. Nevertheless, Wang’s account does beg some large existential questions concerning the future of a given nation, especially as its youth hurtles forward, seemingly mesmerized by seductive capital, the latest brand names, and promises of everlasting publicity and fame. The surprise of it all may be that we’re not talking about America, but China.

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A Review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men (Knopf, 2012).

It’s difficult to define Hari Kunzru’s Gods without Men. It’s billed as a novel, but from there, it could be termed a speculative fiction, a historical fiction, a Western, a science fiction, an immigrant novel, a philosophical treatise on religion, an Asian American novel, among many other monikers. The main grounding narrative occurs in 2008 and focuses on an interracial married couple, a South Asian American man of Sikh religious background named Jaz and his Jewish American wife Lisa. Their relationship is on the rocks due in large part to their autistic son Raj and they undertake a vacation in the California desert with the hope of connecting as a family. Unfortunately, Raj ends up disappearing, leading to the central mystery of the novel. What has happened to him? This mystery is deepened by the many other chapters in the novel that take place in different historical periods. These other plots all converge on a geographical location in the California desert, a place in which the individual finds some sort of spiritual communion with the land. These historical tapestry that the novel engages includes the early California colonial period of the late 18th century; just after World War I; during the counterculture fervor of the late 60s, among other temporal moments. Something strange is occurring in the desert and it’s not quite clear what is the root cause. Is there some sort of spiritual force? Is it an alien being? Is it a deity rooted in a bygone native culture? These questions are never answered. The plot only thickens until the weight of these different questions and these different stories from other time periods cause the novel to lose its progressive bearing and its urgency. Certainly, a work that will induce great literary discussions, but the novel may prove taxing for anyone more desirous for a linear story.

Oh and a spoiler:

Raj does end up returning from the desert a year after he original went missing. A young teenager named Laila (who has a younger brother named Samir) is working at a military base at the behest of her Uncle Hafiz. They are helping out the military stage the ethnic and cultural milieu that service members are likely to encounter in the Middle East. But once Laila encounters Raj, her story largely disappears from the narrative, though her familial circumstances were so painstakingly drawn out earlier.

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A Review of Abha Dawesar’s Babyji (Anchor Books, 2005).

I occasionally teach a course focusing on gender and sexuality in Asian American literature and I’ve been steadily reading some books I have wanted to consider adding, which brings me to the title reviewed here: Abha Dawesar’s second novel Babyji. This novel struck me precisely because Dawesar does not shy away from explicit representations of queer desire in South Asian context. There are relatively few depictions of queer Asian or Asian American women in fiction written in English, so Dawesar’s novel is already quite pioneering. Our first person protagonist, Anamika Sharma, is a seventeen year old student, gifted with an extremely brilliant mind and also willing to engage her budding same-sex desires. She begins three affairs: one with a divorcee, a woman by the name of Tripta Adhikari (nicknamed India), another with a servant woman named Rani and another with a classmate named Sheela. There are numerous complications that arise as Anamika attempts to juggle all three relationships, while also maintaining her stellar grades as Head Prefect and also keeping her sexuality a secret from her parents. Though she realizes that she is transgressing certain borders of propriety, Anamika is particularly fearless and intellectually bold. At different points, she fends off the advances of the father (Adit) of her friend and classmate (Vidhur); she finds an ally in one of Tripta’s old friends, Deepak, who encourages her to complete her schooling in America; she also attempts to reform a delinquent classmate named who actually had tried to assault her with the creation of an improvised explosive device. Anamika’s rather aggressive personality seemed a bit manufactured and by the end of the novel and with all of the continual references to Lolita, it is easy to think of Animika perhaps as an allegory for queer desire as it finds a place in modernizing India. What is the future for the South Asian lesbian as it were? The fact that the conclusion gestures to Anamika’s impending move to the United States perhaps suggests the challenges of yoking western conceptions of queer desire in the contemporary Indian contexts. I certainly look forward to class discussion that are sure to arise over the various plot points that occur.

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A Review of Yuko Taniguchi’s The Ocean in the Closet (Coffee House Press, 2007)

Patchwork families exist at the heart of Yuko Taniguchi’s The Ocean in the Closet, a novel which (because of its historical setting already) begins to imagine the altering contours of the American nuclear family. The novel is narrated in alternating first person perspectives, one told from the viewpoint of Helen Johnson, a young, mixed race Japanese American girl and another told from the viewpoint of her Japanese great-uncle, Hideo, who has been estranged from that side of the family ever since his sister Ume dies and Ume’s daughter Anna (who is Helen’s mother) is adopted by an American couple. The complicated story is one offered in the historical context of post-World War 2 Japan. Ume works in a brothel during the American occupation, fathers a child from an unknown American serviceman. This child, Anna, is adopted by an American couple only after Ume dies from pneumonia. She immigrates only after strings are pulled allowing the American couple an opportunity to engage in one of the first cross-racial, transnational adoptions. But this American couple cannot deal with their five year old adoptee’s complicated acculturation and contemplate sending her back to Japan. Instead, their neighbors, the Hogans, offer to raise the child. Anna will grow up to marry an American who served in Vietnam named James Johnson; they will bear two children, Helen, and the younger, Ken. Amid marital troubles between Anna and James, Helen and Ken move in with James’s brother, Steve and Steve’s wife, Mary. It is through Uncle Steve and Aunt Mary that Helen and Ken begin to understand their more complicated family history—that Mrs. Hogan is not just a neighbor, but actually Anna’s adopted mother and that they have living relatives in Japan. Hideo, for his part, discovers about Anna and her kids through a letter written by the Johnsons that expresses the wish that Helen have the chance to find out more about the Japanese side of her family. Hideo is at first reluctant, but is persuaded to offer them a chance to visit due to his wife, Chiyo, herself a survivor of numerous traumas (she must find refuge as a Japanese colonial living in China after the WWII period) and who encourages him to engage this deeply troubling past.
I was only alerted to this book through pylduck’s reading suggestions earlier on in the site. I thought about including it in my upcoming course on trauma theory. I’ve retooled this course a couple of times; I always get tired of teaching the same books. I might add Taniguchi’s book this year. It offers an interesting aesthetic approach in the alternating perspectives, especially since one is a world reflected through the eyes of a child. Certainly, this novel explores the ways in which conceptions of family are deconstructed and reconstructed in the light of war, transnationalism, and conflict.

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