In this post, reviews of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (Knopf, 2013), Oonya Kempadoo’s All Decent Animals (FSG, 2013), Alison Singh Gee’s Where the Peacocks Sing (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), Farhana Zia’s The Garden of my Imaan (Peachtree Publishers, 2013), Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (Melville House, 2009), Anis Shivani’s The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Press, 2012), Brenda Lin’s Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound (University of Indianapolis Press, 2004), Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (The Dial Press, 2013).
A Review of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (Knopf, 2013).
The Blind Man’s Garden is the kind of novel that makes you immediately wonder about the status of the creative writer as a researcher, historian, and ethnographer. The novel is set in Pakistan and Afghanistan and follows the lives of two sibling figures (Jeo and Mikal). Jeo is recently married, but decides to engage a humanitarian mission, offering his services as a medical doctor to those in war-torn Afghanistan. Jeo and Mikal are able to sneak into Afghanistan, but they are soon ambushed and separated. Jeo is killed, but Mikal’s fate is unknown. Back in Pakistan, Jeo’s wife, Naheed, is grieving, but it soon becomes apparent that she harbors a secret. Under pressure from her mother to remarry, Naheed actually remains steadfast in her belief that Mikal might still be alive. Indeed, Naheed had had a romance with him prior to marrying Jeo. Thus, in some ways, the novel turns into a love story amid a conflict-ridden and devastated landscape. In this sense, The Blind Man’s Garden evokes some of my favorite works to appear in the last couple of years, which include Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists and Roma Tearne’s Mosquito. This novel is an incredibly ambitious work in that Aslam must balance different plot strands alongside providing readers—many of whom will not necessarily be familiar with the history and the culture of the Afghanistan and Pakistan—a sense of the social contexts in which all the characters are mired. Further still, the novel spotlights Aslam’s keen ability to pause a scene and dwell in the richness of description. In this sense, Aslam reveals that even the darkest fictional worlds possess some measure of beauty and hope. The novel is in some ways connected to the world of Aslam’s previous effort, The Wasted Vigil, as one character, David Town, returns. In this case, he is the interrogator assigned to extract information from Mikal. Though the novel occasionally flags as Aslam weaves must weave together the complexity offered by various historical, cultural, and aesthetic strands, The Blind Man’s Garden is an incredibly important work simply for its political considerations, gesturing to the continued and problematic nature of empire-building as it continues in the borderlands of the Middle East and South Asia. Certainly, this novel can be paired with a number of others recently published and reviewed here at Asian American Literature Fans such as Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Oonya Kempadoo’s All Decent Animals (FSG, 2013).
I’m been trying to break some bad habits and pick up some novels of writers who have been on my to-read list for much too long. Oonya Kempadoo’s first two novels have unfortunately been languishing on my bookshelves still (Tide Running and Buxton Spice), but her new novel gave me some extra motivation and I read it in a couple of sittings. Kempadoo, of mixed-background and who has lived in many areas of the world, creates a third novel that is at its core a kuntslerroman, a narrative concerning the development of the artist-figure. Our protagonist is Ata (short for Atalanta), an apt name insofar as Ata is a fiercely independent spirit, who follows her artistic beliefs far enough to the point where she attempts to make a career of it, especially as her work is connected to the festival of Carnival. The novel teems with a spatial register that is imbued with the vitality of a specific geographical setting—that of Trinidad. Ata is a graphic design and costume maker, who will later come to realize that her interests in creative production actually are far wider in scope. She engages in a love affair with man who is working for the French branch of the United Nations, a man by the name of Pierre, but as the narrative moves on, her close friend Fraser is diagnosed with end-stage AIDS. Thus, the novel shifts to the consideration of her life in the shadow of this man’s inevitable death. Kempadoo texturizes the narrative through temporal jumps and occasionally shifts the perspective to other characters and she employs a stream-of-consciousness technique that continually and dynamically refocuses the narrative. Kempadoo’s novel ultimately provides a fascinating lens into the lives of a core group of characters, especially as they collide with and are enmeshed in the social contexts of an island society attempting to keep pace with a global economy. The class stratification, the racial division and segregation, as well as artistic freedom, are all issues that strongly undergird the character trajectories and give weight and heft to Kempadoo’s third novel. Though the narrative does not always completely gel, Kempadoo’s artistic writing style makes the reading experience a luxurious one.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Alison Singh Gee’s Where the Peacocks Sing (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
I was probably not in the right frame of mind to read Alison Singh Gee’s Where the Peacocks Sing, a memoir about the author’s exploration of her identity as well as her romantic relationship with an South Asian man named Ajay. The memoir begins with Gee’s consideration of her early career in journalism, where she is stationed in Hong Kong. This job gives her the opportunity to meet globally recognizable movie stars such as Jackie Chan and Gong Li and enables her to go out practically every night of the week. As a kind of celebrity nexus point, Gee is swept up in the social fervor and lives the high life, dating an affluent man, while rocking all the latest red carpet looks. But, there was something missing in Gee’s life, an aspect that did not become readily apparent until she began a correspondence with another journalist by the name of Ajay. As their relationship becomes more serious, Gee essentially shifts her life priorities, willing to give up her fast-paced life and consider what it would mean to be fully engaged in a romance with a South Asian man who attaches significant importance to his family roots. These family roots include a Palace located in India, which is in some state of disrepair. Gee gamely embarks on a quest to fully embrace the ethnic and provincial roots of her soon-to-be husband, which includes a trip to Mokimpur, but all is not immediately well. Gee struggles to fit in and to find a sense of kinship among Ajay’s closest relatives. Over time, though, Gee begins to acclimate to Ajay’s understanding of both India and his family and by the memoir’s conclusion, she sees that his family has become really an extended part of her own. When I started out the review by stating that I was probably not in the right frame of mind, I mean to say that reviews are necessarily influenced by our own personal states and I was sort of in a bad mood. Fortunately, Gee has an enterprising spirit and this style is fortunately infectious. Where the Peacocks Sing is written to imbue the reader with a sense of rebirth and hope and by the conclusion, I did indeed feel better. In terms of this community, Gee, who hails from a Chinese American background does reveal to us the difference between an ethnoracial U.S-based identity and a South Asian transnational one (through Ajay) and I believe that this memoir would make quite an interesting textual selection in terms of thinking about panethnicity as a paradigm for understanding Asian American racial formation. Undoubtedly, the text also speaks to the growing thematic of multiracial and multiethnic families in American literature.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Farhana Zia’s The Garden of my Imaan (Peachtree Publishers, 2013).
So I’ve been in a bit of a work funk lately and have been escaping into books here and there. Farhana Zia’s The Garden of my Imaan has been sitting on my “to read” bookshelf, so I finally picked it up! Zia’s debut novel is told from the first person perspective of a fifth grader named Aliya, who happens to be Muslim and South Asian American (of Indian ancestry). The novel is targeted toward advanced elementary and middle-school aged children and its focus is to articulate the challenges of growing up as a religious minority. Indeed, Aliya struggles to balance the universal issues of schooling such as belonging and popularity with particular cultural values such as religious dress and customs. As part of a school project, she starts to write to Allah, as a way to convey conundrums that surface during her daily life. For instance, she finds it difficult to maintain her fasting during Ramadan. Further still, she seeks gain the kind of courage she sees in a new classmate from Morocco named Marwa who is absolutely unapologetic and fearless about her Muslim faith. Fortunately, Aliya has some good friends and reliable family members who keep her grounded and more confident. As with some of the youth-oriented fictions I’ve read, Zia’s aim is undoubtedly to shed like on cultural and religious traditions and communities that have been targeted in light of the heightened animosity that emerged after 9/11. Though the narrative itself is not necessarily the most dynamic or original, Zia’s political rhetoric is unequivocally admirable.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (Melville House, 2009).
It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by Tao Lin. There’s a certain style that Lin has mastered that borders on the absurd and you can never quite figure out where a particular narrative will go. In Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, a novella of sorts, our protagonist is Sam, a young Taiwanese American writer who moves through a series of relationships and is repeatedly arrested for shoplifting (hence the title). It would be hard to describe a specific plot beyond this statement, except to say that Lin’s novella also operates to document the ubiquity of social media, brand names, and other such ephemera in the contemporary moment (references to youtube, gchat, flickr, photobucket, myspace, Odwalla juice and Moby abound). Though Sam might seem to be a peculiar character, his ennui is mirrored by the many characters who crop up in his life, and the meandering narrative is more largely reflective of the meandering psychic space that is being represented. A representative passage perhaps can be found here: “A few days later he and Sheila were on a train to New York City. They drank from a large plastic bottle containing organic soymilk, energy drink, and green tea extract and wrote sex stories to sell to nerve.com for $500. Sheila’s sex story had chainsaws and Sam’s sex story had Ha Jin doing things in a bathroom at Emory University. Sheila said she felt excited to be in New York City soon. They talked about making their own energy drink company. They got off the train and stood [end of 12] waiting for another train. They climbed a wall and sat in sunlight facing the train tracks” (13). I obviously enjoy this passage for Lin’s irreverent nod to Asian American culture in his reference to Ha Jin, but if we want to take this work seriously for a moment, we can place it perhaps in the mode of the twentysomething-identity quest to be found in a time where humanistic inquiry and the creative life can seem to be superfluous. What meaning can such endeavors hold amongst the preponderance and speed of the internet culture, so while we think on this issue, we might as well pilfer a thing or two.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Anis Shivani’s The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Press, 2012)
When I saw that Anis Shivani had put out another collection, I was curious to see how it would stack up against Anatolia and Other Stories, which was one of the most surprising reads for me in the last five years. The Fifth Lash and Other Stories is far more thematically unified in terms of an explicit connecting arc, as Shivani’s various stories involve characters typically of South Asian and/or Muslim backgrounds. But from there, Shivani showcases his storytelling versatility through narrative perspective, historical and geographical context and tonality. I’ll briefly focus on a handful to illustrate. The title story takes the narrative perspective of a close and former political advisor to Bhutto and the regime changes that occur in the Pakistani political realm. Here, Shivani’s story takes flight amid the behind-the-scenes drama as well as the shifting alliances that have made Pakistani politics one of the most turbulent in the recent decades. Both “Growing up Blind, in a Hotly Contested State” and “The House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Road” take on the topic of extramarital problematics. In the former story, a U.S.-based academic focused on Middle Eastern politics must come to the realization that his very low-key relationship with his wife is not the result of some common understanding, but a deliberate distancing on her part so that she can engage in an affair. The latter explores the “open secret” of a household servant named Zainab, who is fired due to the fact of indecorous state as an unmarried, pregnant woman. But her dismissal covers up the central issue: her pregnancy is likely the result of a long going affair with one of the family members. In “Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy,” the transnational narrator comes full circle, first completely detaching himself from his Pakistani origin and later taking a prominent role in campus politics and reclaiming the importance of his heritage, only to question this shift in his priorities by the story’s end. And my favorite story, “Censor,” takes a fragmented and satirical look at the ways in which laws of propriety—even as outdated and outmoded as they can be—remain central to the regulation of South Asian culture. An eclectic collection full of darkly comic circumstances and complicated narrative perspectives.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Brenda Lin’s Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound (University of Indianapolis Press, 2004).
I am reviewing Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound, which was already reviewed here by pylduck sometime ago.
I was encouraged to pick up this title because I’ve actually become part of an impromptu reading group concerning Taiwanese/ American culture and representation. It’s part of an ongoing effort related to the fact that a member of my family wants to get to know more about her heritage, so I’ve been involved in picking out the books and coming up with some questions for each meeting. One of our first book picks is Wealth Ribbon, which is a wonderful creative non-fiction concerning the complications of identity in a very transnational age. Lin would be the quintessential “flexible citizen,” defined by Aihwa Ong in her already classic book, as Lin grows up both in the United States and Taiwan. Her parents are part of a generation that was unsure whether or not Taiwan would survive and so they casted multiple nets of national affiliations, raising Lin as a young child in the U.S. Even when Lin later moves to Taiwan, she is enrolled in an American school, thereby ensuring a continued bilingual upbringing. She will later return to the United States, embark in an interracial relationship with a man named Billy, and then later return to Taiwan with Billy, with all the complications that come with traveling as an as-yet unmarried young woman. This memoir is particularly noteworthy for Lin’s ability to deftly weave together historical elements with a personal account of her family. There is a very strong matrilineal impulse to Lin’s work that makes this memoir one that could be easily paired alongside something like Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, or Ng’s Bone.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (The Dial Press, 2013)
Lavanya Sankaran’s debut novel The Hope Factory (The Dial Press, 2013) follows in the tradition of other South Asian writers seeking to explore the complicated nature of national modernization, especially as it relates to class collisions; the novel is reminiscent of Bharati Mukherjee’s Miss New India and Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower in this regard. Sankaran is also author of the short story collection, The Red Carpet, which pylduck earlier reviewed here:
As with The Red Carpet, the majority of this story is set in Bangalore and mainly follows the perspective of two major characters: Anand and Kamala. Anand comes from the upper class, is a factory magnate, and is looking to expand his business. This process requires him to ask favors of various folks, who might be able to get him the land he needs. Anand is “married with children” and seems to be the picture of modern Indian success, but of course, Sankaran wants to complicate this characterization and we begin to see that there are cracks in his marriage and his kinship relationships that will challenge his own vision for economic growth. Then, there is Kamala, who exists on the other side of the class equation. Fortunately hired to work in Ananda’s house, Kamala is a fiercely independent woman who is seeking to keep her life in balance and especially looking to finance a better education for her gifted, but troubled young son Narayan. Sankaran’s novel exposes the incredibly wide gulf between the classes and the perilous challenges that they must face. When Sankaran finally places the two major characters in a more coherent plot trajectory, we begin to see how one life can be leveraged against another. Sankaran’s work appears most luminous in its critique of global capitalism, which reduces land and the lives who reside there to mere parcels of space to be reconfigured for profit.
Buy the Book Here: