Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for January 7, 2015
I haven’t had as much time to read and to review as usual, so you will get a couple of lightning-form reviews here (not my preference, but better to get the brief word of out on books rather than not discuss them at all)!
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: Jay Antani’s The Leaving of Things (Lake Union Publishing, 2014); Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair (illustrated by Juliana Neufeld) (Arsenal Pulp Reprint Edition, 2014) and She of the Mountains (illustrated by Raymond Biesinger (Arsenal Pulp, 2014); Mei Mei Evans’s Oil and Water (University of Alaska Press, 2013); Andrew Koh’s The Glass Cathedral (Epigram Books, 2011); The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza (Epigram Books, 2013); Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead (Minotaur Books, 2015)
A Review of Jay Antani’s The Leaving of Things (Lake Union Publishing, 2014).
Jay Antani’s debut print novel The Leaving of Things (after the graphic novel he scripted entitled the Mysterians Vol. 1) is told from the perspective of Vikram, who at the start of the novel is leaving Wisconsin because his father has gotten a permanent job in India. Vikram is about college age and his plans to stay in Wisconsin and explore life with his girlfriend Shannon (as well as his best friends Karl and Nate) are obviously dashed. His parents are spurred to leave the United States, especially as Vikram is almost arrested for having been caught with a controlled substance (pot). He leaves the police department without having been officially charged and this moment is a wake up call for his parents, pushing them to go back to their homeland. Vikram, as well as his younger brother, Anand, are not particularly excited about these transnational prospects. Vikram spends the first half of the novel basically sulking, hoping to get letters from Shannon, while reluctantly transitioning to a college once attended by his father. Shannon eventually breaks up with him through a letter, while Vikram gradually begins to acclimate to India and even finds many things to like about his new home. A trip to the Taj Majal, for instance, grants him a unique appreciation for his ethnic background. He initiates a flirtation with a fellow student named Priya, who he later discovers is to be betrothed to a man arranged by her parents. Through all of Vikram’s various growing pains—and let’s be clear, the novel is a bildungsroman more than anything else—he maintains a steadfast connection with the United States; he eventually grows convinced he should apply to the University of Wisconsin. He does receive admittance, but by that point in the novel, he has made more friends at the college, has found renewed interest in his love for photography, and even has repaired his relationship with his parents. Should be actually go back to the United States? Whereas the Vikram at the start of the novel would have been absolutely incensed by any hesitation on the part of this India-adjusted Vikram, Antani’s point seems to be that Vikram must be able to see exactly where his parents have come from and in so doing get a better sense of their sacrifices and their cultural attachments, which in turn help him to understand how he can better relate to them. Further still, in the process of this “leaving of things,” he comes to understand the plasticity in his own concept of identity and homeland. Some late stage complications do arise concerning Vikram’s visa and whether or not he will be able to finance an education in the United States, but Antani seems determined to give the novel a firm resolution. Readers may at first balk over Vikram’s teen angst, especially as it casts an ominous cloud over the first half of the novel, but patient readers will appreciate Antani’s character development by the conclusion.
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A Review of Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair (illustrated by Juliana Neufeld) (Arsenal Pulp Reprint Edition, 2014) and She of the Mountains (illustrated by Raymond Biesinger (Arsenal Pulp, 2014).
Something’s up in those Northern Waters! Canada has long been at the forefront of queer Asian North American cultural productions (see the work of Shani Mootoo, Shyam Selvadurai, Larissa Lai, and Lydia Kwa for some obvious and wonderful examples). Vivek Shraya adds to this growing archive of writings produced by writers north of the border with two wonderful cultural productions: God Loves Hair (in a reprint edition as it was originally published in 2011 and a Lambda Literary Award finalist, which also comes with a cool blurb by Sara Quin for you big Tegan & Sara fans like myself) and She of the Mountains. Shraya has quite the interesting biography and readers of AALF should be aware that he boasts an impressive musical catalogue. For more on Shraya, go here:
For one of his songs (with Sara Quin featured no less):
God Loves Hair is billed as a young adult fiction, which is an interesting genre label considering that the work makes such generous use of page space, large lettering, and illustrations. Upon first impression, I thought I was reading something geared toward elementary school students and the opening stories did focus on a protagonist who was aged very young, but as the stories move forward, it’s clear that there’s something of a bildungsroman going on. The protagonist moves from childhood to his teenage years and learns to confront his budding sexualities and genders. God Loves Hair begins with the title story in which a Sri Lankan mother vows that if her first two children are sons, she will sacrifice their hair to God. The vow seems to have worked because her first two children are born sons, and she ends up keeping her promise by traveling back to her homeland to cut off the hair of her sons. Other stories involve the difficult adjustment periods that the protagonist faces during schooling: he’s not normatively masculine enough or white enough to fit in with the general crowd, so he’s singled out quite early on for being “gay.” While the protagonist does admit to some same-sex desires, it’s never quite cut and dry where this protagonist stands concerning his sexuality. Further still, his genderqueerness emerges occasionally with respect his periodic interest in feminine cultures. When God Loves Hair ends, the protagonist sees the image of two Hindu mythical figures joined together such that one half of the body seems male and the other female. This moment is the one that allows him to see that there is a place for him somewhere, that the two halves of his desiring selves might find a place in one body. Juliana Neufeld’s lush color illustrations provide a useful visual analogue that gives his tale far more accessibility to different age groups than suggested by the “young adult fiction” label. Though the general themes are represented in complex ways, the general story—a Sri Lankan coming of age in Canada—should appeal to many audiences.
She of the Mountains is Shraya’s adult debut, though he takes a similar path by again using an illustrator, but there is a bit of a difference with the visuals. Raymond Biesinger’s visuals are far more abstract, perhaps even geometrical in style, as he makes use of a two-tone/ three-tone color system in which hues of green and black most often take center stage (and mirror the colors found on the cover). The visuals are exceedingly appropriate given the more poetic and impressionistic quality of the novel, which is splint to two rough storylines. One is mostly rendered from the first person perspective of Parvati, who is married to Shiv (or Shiva). This story is Shraya’s reconfiguration of the relationship between these Hindu deities. In this version, they have a son together named Ganesha, but Shiv accidentally lops off Ganesha’s head. In order to rectify things, Shiv is able to procure another head for the infant, but it comes in the form of an elephant. Parvati still manages to find a way to love her strange, “queer” son, even while that son begins to realize he is a little bit different, not exactly like his younger sibling, who seems to be the apple of his father’s eye. The second storyline (told in the third person) seems far more autobiographical and seems to riff of the early sections of God Love Hair in its evocation of the cruelness of school cultures. As the protagonist is pegged as gay, he begins to wonder whether or not he actually is gay. This soul-searching/ desire-searching is the general theme grounding the novel, as the protagonist’s confusion is especially made palpable after a same-sex encounter leaves him rather nonplussed. It becomes clear that the protagonist finds much emotional fulfillment with women, and he begins a lengthy romantic relationship with a close female friend, even though he very much cannot identify as heterosexual or gender normative. He seems to lack a conceptual vocabulary to understand his various sexual and gender fluidities. The word “queer” finally offers him enough wiggle room to encapsulate his complicated desires, but Shraya’s work goes far beyond the exigencies that arise over sexuality and gender. Indeed, Shraya’s novel paints a delicate picture of an individual who is also struggling with the fact of racial and ethnic difference, something repeatedly invocated by the split between the protagonist’s mind and body. There are points where he cannot seem to understand the connection between the way he feels and the estrangement from the brown-ness of his physical exterior. His romantic relationship provides him a measure of comfort and security, but he cannot find a way to unify his body and mind in a constitutive manner. The struggle for self-acceptance is at the core of Shraya’s work and marks the protagonist as a deeply introspective, tortured figure with whom so many readers can identify. Shraya’s poetic and elegant writing can sometimes verge on being too abrupt (indeed, there were points where I had to re-read a section because a major plot point had occurred in the “break” between two blocks) and the one drawback of this stylistic is that we want to dwell a little bit longer in the effervescent fictional world Shraya has so lyrically and elegantly crafted.
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A Review of Mei Mei Evans’s Oil and Water (University of Alaska Press, 2013).
Mei Mei Evans’s Oil and Water (University of Alaska Press, 2013) is perhaps the first book I have read by an American writer of Asian descent that is set in Alaska. It tells a sort of fictionalized account of the Exxon Valdez disaster, changing the basic circumstances but remaining true to the incredible devastation wrought by the oil spill. Evans toggles the third person perspective among a number of different characters including a harried fisherman named Gregg (a vet), his deckhand Lee (who is a Korean adoptee and a lesbian), Lee’s friends Daniel (also a vet and a widower) and Tessa, who is married to Daniel. The novel essentially begins with the spill overtaking Gregg’s boat; Gregg and Lee are mired in the muck but are eventually able to make landfall. As information slowly starts to trickle out, they realize the gravity and extent of the spill, which is of course an environmental catastrophe. As the company that owns the supertanker goes into damage control, the residents of one local Alaska town called Selby rally together in order to address the oil spill. It is quite evident that the economic and financial support offered by the big oil companies has been welcomed in relation to pipelines and drilling, but in the wake of the disaster, there is obvious rage over the lack of preparedness concerning the possibility of a major oil spill. Debates begin to rage about the ethics around the oil company’s business practices and the manner by which the company uses the spill as a way to manage the local residents (and to pay them off, something that Lee considers to be blood money). Once the oil spill becomes a national issue, the spotlight brings in out-of-towners, many of whom are simply looking to make a quick buck off of the money rich oil companies. Evans obviously knows her historical and contextual details, and the novel is layered with considerable depth, ranging from the effects of the oil spill on otters and sea bird populations. More ominous are the issues related to the health of those who inhaled the hydrocarbons from the spill. The novel certainly possesses a political sophistication that should make this work of special interest to ecocritics and regionalist scholars. There is a naturalistic tone to this work, which is not surprising given the rugged but austere nature of the land. Evans’s poetic writing emerges in some sublime passages that invoke both the apocalyptic effects of the oil spill as well as the inherent beauty of the Alaskan coastal communities. Despite the fierce cold, the inclement and often dangerous weather patterns, one can understand why characters like Lee are so drawn to the hardscrabble, frontier life. Evans is also careful to consider the racial elements of the story, especially as many characters are of indigenous or minority backgrounds and their livelihoods exist in obvious distinction from the white elites who populate the oil company’s crisis management teams. The momentum of the story itself flags at times, but this uneven development is certainly due to the fact that the major antagonist is an oil spill, and so Evans must wrangle with an environmentally anthropomorphized villain to generate plotting tension.
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A Review of Andrew Koh’s The Glass Cathedral (Epigram Books, 2011)
Andrew Koh’s The Glass Cathedral was originally published in the mid-90s, but Epigram Books has put out a series of “Singapore Classics,” which includes this particular title, which I’ve known about for awhile, but could never get my hands on. That is, until now! In Koh’s work, love blooms in an English class. It could have been just like any other love story, except we’re in Singapore, where homosexuality is outlawed and our protagonist, Colin, is a devout Catholic, while his potential partner, James, is certainly not the church-going kind. Though there are some cringe-inducing moments, some of which is certainly attributable to Colin’s naïveté, the novel bravely delves into an issue that has long been a thorny one for the modernizing city-state. As Colin comes to terms with his feelings, he begins to question his religious beliefs, bringing his concerns to other members of the church. Eventually, he confides in Father Norbert, who has been a close advisor to him, only to discover that Father Norbert has been harboring some queer feelings himself. Of course, no romance would be complete without a love triangle, and Father Norbert additionally makes clear that he has feelings for Colin. Father Norbert, being the devout man of faith that he is, takes his issues to a church elder who suggests he travel on a spiritual retreat to Thailand. Meanwhile, Colin’s relationship with James is heating up, which presents a problem because both men are reaching marriageable age and family members (and others) are on their cases concerning the appropriate female partners. Thus, Colin and James must conduct their relationship in secret, something that requires James to make up a girlfriend named Rose. Eventually, though, the secrecy takes its toll: Colin and James must make a pivotal decision concerning whether or not they can take their relationship to the next level. Given the time and context of Koh’s work, the novel is certainly groundbreaking for its themes and willingness to take on such a controversial topic. Though almost two decades have passed since the novel was published, not much has essentially changed concerning the legal rights for queer men in Singapore (from what I understand). Thus, the impact and importance of this work perhaps remains as vital as when it first emerged and Epigram’s choice to include it as part of the classics series certainly calls attention to their commitment to political progressivism and social equality.
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A Review of Cyril Wong’s The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza (Epigram Books, 2013).
I’m continuing to work through some of the catalogue over at Epigram Books, a Singapore based publisher. I also continue to be amazed at the depth of the archive concerning Asian Anglophone fictions. I’ve slowly been tracking publishing houses in Canada, India, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and other locations and have come to realize how limited the U.S. based archive is especially in terms of general access. In any case, Cyril Wong is one writer whose U.S. presence remains problematically low, especially given his numerous publications. The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza is his first novel (after a number of poetry collections and a short story collection). The story is told in the first person from the perspective of the titular Mrs. de Souza; she is just about set to retire and is having her last day in the classroom. Her husband Christopher has recently passed away; both she and her husband are of Eurasian backgrounds (the name de Souza a nod to a Portuguese heritage). Much of the story is told in flashback mode and Mrs. de Souza uses her “last lesson” to reflect upon a painful experience she had while advising a young student named Amir. Amir had come to the narrator in order to express the fact that he believed he was gay, and he wanted to share that knowledge with someone else, perhaps get some advice about what to do with the information. Mrs. de Souza does not know how to deal with this admission and struggles to counsel the boy properly. Wong seems to be intent on exploring the limits of the instructor’s position, someone who often times has to consider the appropriateness revolving around how to counsel a student beyond the bounds of the classroom. Though Amir seems perfectly satisfied having shared the conflicts concerning his sexuality, Mrs. de Souza is not content with leaving it at a conversation and takes it upon herself to contact Amir’s father. That conversation, which occurs over the phone, is brief and Amir’s father ends up hanging up on her. Mrs. de Souza’s intervention seems to have gone badly, and in the following days Amir is nowhere to be seen and is not in class. She later learns the devastating news that he is dead, apparently having committed suicide. The novel uses this episode as the structure and the grounds for Mrs. de Souza’s desire to remember the past and to find a way to make meaning out of her career. The conclusion is sobering and unsentimental, certainly to strike polarized reactions in the reader. I couldn’t help but feel an Ishiguro-vibe throughout, especially as Mrs. de Souza is made out to be an untrustworthy narrator; her memories are often hazy, time periods sometimes meld together (confusing the reader to be sure), and Mrs. de Souza apparently occasionally has visions of her dead husband. Wong’s work seems more philosophical in nature, related to the impact we make in our occupations, regardless of type or stripe. Do we leave some sort of positive legacy in the world; can we be defined by one event as a way to understand what we have done, what we have accomplished? These questions are hardly answered by the conclusion, but the existential issues are of course the whole point. A solid novelistic debut from Wong.
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A Review of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead (Minotaur Books, 2015)
If Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead is any indication of the kind of year it will be for fans of Asian American literature in 2015 (and literatures in general penned in English by writers of Asian descent), then we should rejoice. I was able to pry the novel away from my hands one night, but finished it in the next, while looking at the clock continuously in hopes that I would not be sleeping too much past my bedtime and ruin my schedule the next day. The Unquiet Dead is a deeply disturbing and depressing but no less brilliant debut novel that uses the best in form and social contexts to get at the thorny issue of war crimes and justice. The novel is told from a third person perspective, with focalization primarily shifting between two main characters, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Esa Khattak, a Pakistani Muslim, a detective with a particular Canadian crime division related to sensitive issues often involving ethnic minorities, is asked by a close friend (Tom) to research the suspicious death of a man by the name of Christopher Drayton. Esa, realizing the gravity of the case immediately, asks that his partner, Rachel Getty, be assigned to the investigation as well. Rachel, as Esa knows, is level-headed and will not let her feelings get in the way of the case, while Esa understands that given his personal history, he may find the investigation difficult to navigate on his own. Khan leaves readers in the dark early on. Like Rachel, the readers know far less than Esa does, but eventually it becomes clear that Christopher Drayton may be the assumed identity of a man who may have perpetrated the massacre at Srebenica. Here, Khan uses an actual historical event to ground the detective plot, though Drayton is of course her fictive construct. The cast of supporting characters is large and therefore offers Esa and Rachel a number of possible suspects, including those (such as Mink Norman and David Newhall) connected to a museum that Christopher Drayton had planned to donate money to and his soon-to-be wedded wife Melanie Blessant, who is a divorcee with two teenaged daughters (named Hadley and Cassidy). Others such as Nate Clare, once a very close friend of Khattak but obviously estranged from him, and the Imam at a local mosque complicate the plot even further. Rachel receives her own mystery subplot related to the disappearance of her younger brother, Zach, who has not been seen for seven years. His leavetaking is associated with a highly dysfunctional family life involving a sour mother and an alcoholic father. Khan does not leave this subplot fully explored (though there is a reunion of sorts), obviously leaving things open for future investigative installments involving Khattak and Getty.
Khan’s choice to use the Srebenica massacre is a dicey one for many reasons: it requires considerable research and immediately introduces this novel to a host of possible critiques concerning the nature of entertainment as it relates to war crimes. But, readers are in the right hands here: Khan is able to deftly weave in historical elements with the kind of depth required of such a task (it is clear that considerable research and care went into the details included), while at the same time never letting the reader get settled into an entertaining, by the numbers mystery plot. The conclusion is certainly more noir-ish than anything else: Khan’s narrative seems to direct us to wonder about the possibility of justice at all and that one death and the circumstances around it, however mysterious and however homicidal in question, may simply pale in comparison to other crimes it might be connected with it. And perhaps, even more darkly, Khan’s narrative makes you wonder whether or not you want a crime to be solved precisely because your empathy for the victim in question is continually eroded as the plot moves forward. Finally, this novel encouraged me to do some research on Srebenica itself, to consider the novel beyond its fictional world, and consider what was being depicted in the text. Perhaps, Khan’s novel is the only kind that could have been written about such an event precisely because we cannot have a fitting resolution based upon a period of time that involved so much slaughter. The novel seems to direct us to the final message that there can never be enough justice for the unquiet dead. Highly, highly recommended with a word of caution to those who are disturbed by graphic imagery and textually represented violence.
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A Review of Kimberly Pauley’s Ask Me (SohoTeen, 2014).
I’ve been late to the game reviewing titles by Kimberly Pauley (thankfully, pylduck has been on top of it), but her latest publication, Ask Me, gives me a chance (in part) to rectify my oversight! I read Ask Me not long after Kendare Blake’s Antigoddess, so I was already in the prophecy mindset when I started reading this book. In Ask Me, our protagonist is Aria Morse, a teen who has the gift of prophecy, handed down to her over generations (since she is the descendant of an original group of Sybils). Prophecy might be a great way to get rich quick, but as we discover, prophecy doesn’t work that way. Any question that Aria is asked, she is forced to answer with the gift of prophecy, but the problem is that her answers do not always make sense until after an event or action has taken place. And because Aria is asked questions daily and in different contexts (such as in school), she soon becomes marginalized. There is something strange in her utterances as she answers any question within earshot, trying to mutter what she says under her breath so she will evade as much notice as possible. With the help of an ipod, she is able to drown out most conversations, but still occasionally runs into problems. The novel opens with an ominous prologue in which an unnamed figure has run over a man. Later, a high school student named Jade goes missing, and she is discovered to have been murdered. There is obviously some connection between these two events, but it’s unclear what is going on. Aria, for her part, is badgered by her grandmother to take action, especially since her gift might be of help to investigators, but Aria just wants to be normal and left alone, so she is reluctant to make her gifts known to anyone else. Eventually, we discover that Aria’s own mother won’t speak to her (Aria’s gifts manifest at a very inopportune moment in which her mother asks her a rhetorical question concerning her father and Aria is forced to answer that her father is having sex with another mother), which is why she lives with her maternal side grandparents, who take them in because Aria’s grandmother once too had the gift of prophecy. Though her grandparents struggle to make ends meet, it is in this home where Aria is most welcomed. Of course, no paranormal young adult fiction is complete without romance, and we’re not surprised when two hunky teenagers of different stripes begin to take a liking to Aria. One is Alex, a brutish and large football player who is the son of a town drunkard. The other is Will, a mysterious but suave and enormously popular student and ex-boyfriend of Jade. It is clear that these two may have some sort of involvement with Jade’s murder and the hit-and-run killing, but Aria’s romantic feelings for both begin to color how she views these suspects. Pauley’s narrative is a seductive one and the conceit of Aria’s forced-to-answer prophecies makes for a quite entertaining read. Pauley also has the formula down pat: a strangely awkward girl, who has some sort of extraordinary ability, who is put the test to take down an evil figure and who manages, along the way, to get some romantic interest, too. A must-read for young adult paranormal romance fiction fans.
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