paul and giles!
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Monica Youn's Blackacre

Monica Youn's third collection of poetry, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016), is long-listed for the National Book Award.


As Youn explains in a note at the end of the volume, the term blackacre is used in the legal realm to refer to a piece of land. She likens the use of the term to the generic name John Doe, used to refer to a person with an unknown identity. But perhaps most importantly, she describes the term as one that functions like a secret code for people who gone to law school.

The collection is composed of a few sequences of poems, starting with poems centering on the scene of execution and most powerfully, in the sequence of poems around blackacre, whiteacre, greenacre, etc. In these -acre poems, Youn takes up an extended engagement with the English poet John Milton and his grappling with his blindness, exploring her own experience of infertility and all the messy meanings attending bodies.

Here are some interesting links about the book:

(See also an earlier post of Youn's Barter.)
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Sequoia Nagamatsu's Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone

Sequoia Nagamatsu's Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) is a fascinating debut short story collection featuring Japanese folklore in a modern context.

where we go when all we were is gone cover

Monsters, demons, and otherworldly creatures live alongside humans in modern-day Japan, sometimes as oddities in plain sight and other times hidden from most people's views. Nagamatsu's stories also take on interesting forms, such as the opening story, "The Return to Monsterland," which alternates between letters a mother wrote to her daughter, the mother's field notes of different monsters as a scientist who studied Godzilla and other nuclear-weapons-created monsters, and the narrative perspective of the father who raises the daughter alone after the mother's death at the hands of Godzilla.

The stories sometimes take on the narrative distance of scientific (or anthropological) observation, and at other times they take a more intimate perspective of the creatures themselves. One story, "The Inn of the Dead's Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost," also takes the second-person point of view, with the narrator as a ghost addressing you as a newly-made ghost. The story, like "The Return to Monsterland," also serves as a kind of catalog of creatures in describing different types of ghosts and offering case studies of specific ghosts of each type. There are also pages that provide the answers for Q&A (but not the questions, inviting the reader to speculate on the questions the new ghosts might be asking).

As fantastical as the stories are, they ultimately examine how human individuals and families live with (and without) each other. The creatures function in a few ways in the stories but mostly serve to reveal some of the pathos of human existence. For example, in "Girl Zero," a grieving father seeks out a shape shifting creature to embody the form of his deceased daughter, and then the father and mother seek to integrate this daughter-not-daughter back into their lives, even as they struggle with the question of who this new daughter really is. In "HEADWATER LLC," a woman who had befriended a kappa as a teenager comes to regret how she sold out the kappa to become slaves in a water bottling company run by the girls she had wanted to be friends with.

The stories all are prefaced by a short, one-page document that previews the story in a particular form. The preview for "The Return to Monsterland," for example, takes the form of a transcript of what seems to be a news report of Godzilla's attack on a train in Tokyo. The preview for "Placentophagy" takes the form of a Bloody Mary recipe using placenta strips. The preview for "Rokurokubi," a story about a human/demon who can stretch his neck incredible distances, is an advertisement for a support group for "humans w/demonic afflictions."
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Vanessa Hua's Deceit and Other Possibilities

Deceit and Other Possibilities (Willow Books, 2016) is Vanessa Hua's debut collection of short stories, and the ten stories cover a range of characters with different experiences in and through the transnational links of Asian America.

cover of deceit and other possibilities

It's fitting that I finally sat down to write this review yesterday on an airplane bound for San Francisco because this collection felt very Californian to me in its selection of multiethnic characters and particularly the interplay of the individuals in their communities. The ethnoscape, to borrow Arjun Appadurai's term, is distinctively West Coast, especially for immigrant and middle class/professional Asian Americans and the second generation. The stories offer a sense of the perspectives, feelings, and experiences of Californians in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

The opening story, "Line, Please," drops us into a first-person narrative featuring Kingsway Lee, a Hong Kong pop star who is heading back to California where he grew up, on the tail of a sex photo scandal in which cell phone pictures of his many affairs with starlets and the leisure rich threaten his image and destroy his relationship with his girlfriend Viann. Kingsway is an unrepentant rake, fond of himself and his celebrity status in a way that belies his inability to grasp what his actions truly mean. The first line of the story, "Perhaps you've heard of me?" is both a brag and a flirtation, making you the reader complicit in his story that masquerades as a lament of his misfortune.

While staying with his parents, lying low as the sex scandal blows over, he sees himself still as irresistible to women such as Jenny Lin, someone he grew up with and runs into on his visit, and even a woman who works at a foot massage clinic he visits. The story as a whole sketches out the world of Hong Kong celebrity scandal, pulling out a strand that seems to me specific to the age of greater movement across the Pacific, where American-born Chinese sometimes make their way to Hong Kong to find a celebrity life unavailable to them in the United States. (Of note, too, is the suggestion that Kingsway's family is not from Hong Kong but instead Taiwan, highlighting some of the complicated crossings of geography, region, and dialect that undermine any singular understanding of Chinese identity.)

The second story, "Loaves and Fishes," takes a tangential storyline to the first. Pastor Alex Chan is on a flight to Hong Kong from San Francisco where he recognizes Kingsway, ostensibly on his return after the events of the first story. Pastor Alex is an evangelical Christian of the megachurch variety, and though he has faced some difficulties recently in his work, he sees this chance encounter with a fallen Kingsway as his opportunity to redeem himself and bring glory to God and his church if he can bring Kingsway into his fold. To accomplish this goal, he ends of sabotaging the flight in a show of quite twisted logic and a lack of concern for the consequences of his actions.

Likewise, the final story in the collection, "The Deal," features another evangelical, Pastor David Noh, who leads a group on a mission to Africa to spread the gospel and save the heathen people of a remote village. The trip signals a moment of desperation for this Korean American pastor as he struggles to keep his ministry, Bountiful Abundance, afloat: "Bountiful Abundance had taken root among Korean American lawyers, software engineers, college students and activists, the children of immigrants: strivers, all. The church had a different style of worship, not so serious, not so Korean." The story sketches out the moral and religious world of Pastor David, a former high school wrestling coach and teacher, whose salvation and ultimate calling to do the work of God has led him to a mission that seems beset with failings at every turn. Although I am not familiar with the world of Asian American evangelical Christianity, I know that it is a vibrant community that explores the intersections of faith, race, and often immigrant generations quite pointedly. These two stories engage with the worldview of Asian American evangelicism, albeit from a perspective that questions more than affirms in mere platitudes.

Of the stories collected in this book, the one that stands out the most is "What We Have Is What We Need" because it focuses on Mexican immigrants. This story, however, centers on similar tensions of family cohesion and a sense of impotent agency that pervade the other stories and dilemmas experienced by those other characters. The first-perosn narrator Lalo is a boy living with his parents in San Francisco while his other siblings remain in Mexico with their abuelita. On the one hand, there is the situation of the divided family across the border. And on the other hand, even within the ostensibly whole nuclear family unit subset in San Francisco (father, mother, and son), there is developing tension between the more working class masculinity of the father who is a locksmith and the aspirational, professionalizing mother who takes English language classes at a Latino social service agency and then joins the staff as a community liaison. Lalo's story reveals some of the ruptures that appear in the pursuit of the American Dream.

The other stories provide interesting glimpses into the experiences of characters with various backgrounds. In "For What They Shared," a Chinese immigrant and an American born Chinese woman face each other at a distance across a divide manifested in the difference between the immigrant woman's family camping trip with her husband and in-laws and the Chinese American's outing with rowdy white American friends. In "The Responsbility of Deceit," a closeted gay Chinese American man vacations at a small bed and breakfast in Napa Valley with his boyfriend and runs into his parents' good friends. In "Accepted," Elaine Park is denied admission to Stanford but cannot face telling her parents and so embarks on a large-scale deception in which she crashes in the dorm room of a couple of other first-year students, audits classes, and even joins ROTC as if she were enrolled. This story draws out to absurd lengths the effects of the intense pressure faced by many Asian American youth to gain admission to elite colleges. In "The Shot," a mixed-race man named Sam faces relationship difficulties that become entangled in a confrontation he has with other men on a public golf course. In "The Older the Ginger," a Chinese American man in old age makes a long overdue visit to his mother in his home village in China, only to encounter deceit and avarice at the hands of the villagers who all desire his connections to America. And in "Harte Lake," a widowed Japanese American woman goes solo camping as penance and to memorialize her hsuband's death, with unforseen difficulties and resulting ruminations on what her marriage has meant.

Overall, the stories weave a powerful web of insight into the lives of these Californians, and I think the collection would be an interesting one to read or teach alongside other California-based works. The stories do a wonderful job of teasing out the personal dilemmas faced by the characters while referencing and situating these individuals in the social context of Asian America.

Note: I went to the same high school as Vanessa Hua!
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    accomplished accomplished

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 8, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for October 8, 2016

In this post, reviews of Booki Vivat’s Frazzled (HarperCollins, 2016); MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese (2dCloud, 2016); Taran Matharu’s Inquisition (Feiwel & Friends, 2016); Tosca Lee’s The Progeny (Howard Books, 2016); S.B. Divya’s Runtime (Tor.Com, 2016); Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace (Harper, 2016); Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, 2016); Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp 2016).

A Review of Booki Vivat’s Frazzled (HarperCollins, 2016).

It’s so wonderful to be reviewing Booki Vivat’s debut novel Frazzled, as it provides Asian American literature with another critical offering in the middle elementary and middle grade areas. I’ve noticed that there aren’t too many books pitched for this age group by Asian American writers, so Vivat’s work is certainly most welcome. Intriguingly, Vivat’s debut is more apt to be described as an illustrated novel, something that verges closely to a graphic narrative. Vivat’s talents are on full display in her ability to weave both manga-inspired images with a plot that most kids of the target age group fully understand. At this point, we’ll let Publisher’s Weekly via B&N provide us with some basic contexts: “Abbie Wu, a beleaguered middle child who is daunted to enter middle school, knows that ‘nothing good ever happens in the Middles,’ as evidenced by the Middle Ages and the middle seat of the car. Yet her best friends are jumping right into middle school life and even having fun in their various electives, leaving Abbie feeling like a ‘sad reject pastry’ in desperate need of a ‘thing’ of her own. As the injustices of the middle school cafeteria mount, Abbie discovers a talent for social—or at least lunchroom—leadership. Could community organizing be her ‘thing’? Vivat’s funny, quick-moving debut skips along even faster thanks to the endearing doodles that appear throughout, punctuating Abbie’s travails with chibi-esque emotional outbursts featuring flailing limbs, speed lines, and exaggerated typography. Though this is, at heart, a straightforward story of social adjustment, Abbie and her supporting cast show real depth as they learn that passions can change, ‘not everything has to work out,’ and no matter how confident some people may seem, ‘the truth is, no one really knows for sure.’” The key element to this review is the fact that passions that “can change,” because Abbie initially comes off as something of a negative nancy: she’s a little bit neurotic, constantly casting aspersions on her middle school experience, and finding ways to feel underwhelming. At some point, this kind of perspective can try our patience, but Vivat is waiting for the game-changing moment that allows us to see Abbie and her life from a different viewpoint entirely. The reveal here is an unexpected, comic moment that seems exactly right for that period of our youth, where popularity and notoriety occurs hand-in-hand in the strangest, most circuitous ways. Naturally, we know that such a new affirmation of identity can only be transitory, but the inner change is what really matters, and Abbie’s shift thus comes off as unforced and progressive the same time. A spirited, winning debut.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese (2dCloud, 2016).

So, I’ve been really pleased to see how quickly MariNaomi has been producing graphic narratives. Turning Japanese is her third effort, and probably my favorite for the fact that it can easily be taught in a graphic narrative course that’s more focused on racial and ethnic elements. Unfortunately or fortunately (?), this title is same as David Mura’s problematic, yet rich memoir Turning Japanese. I guess both could be taught in the same course, though. To be sure, MariNaomi has explored her mixed race and ethnic background in previous works, but this particular narrative places such issues firmly at the center. The first half of the book involves MariNaomi in her young twenty-something years, as she engages in a long term relationship with a man named Giuseppe, who is something of a free spirit. They move from San Francisco to San Jose at a time when the city still had larger sections that had been less developed. It is there that MariNaomi gains employment at a Japanese hostess bar, which allows her to explore her interest in her Japanese ancestry. Though she is unable to find much time to practice her fledgling linguistic skills, she does gain a valuable insight into the inner workings of this kind of establishment. The author is thus able to use the graphic narrative form to great use as a kind of ethnographic exploration of the hostess bar culture, much of which involves catering to inebriated customers who seek intimate connections with individuals who can only offer perhaps a fraction of their authentic selves. The second half of the book shifts Mari and her partner to Japan, where she gets to explore her ethnic roots. She also gains employment at a hostess bar, but obviously the situation is quite different there. Her lack of Japanese fluency is certainly a cause for complications, but she makes a quick friend in another mixed race employee named Koiko. Outside of work, she and her partner are able to explore different parts of the city and find much to love: the pet stores, the toy shops, and the food. But by the conclusion of their time there, Mari and Giuseppe begin to discover that they have different priorities, and they begin to grow apart. I absolutely adored this particular graphic narrative because it so squarely looks at the challenging nature of acculturation, especially from the standpoint of a mixed ethnoracial protagonist. MariNaomi has always excelled in the navel gazing necessary in the graphic narrative form: she’s never looking to portray herself or anyone else all that heroically. It is in the mess, the flaw, and the inconsistencies that MariNaomi’s sketchy comic stylings hit their greatest marks. At the same time, I do hope we’ll get a chance to see other stylistic developments. I’d love to see MariNaomi tackle the use of color or at least more grayscale shading in the future. A definite summer must read and absolute required reading for graphic narrative fans.

Buy the Book here (and also check out a very cool press):

A Review of Taran Matharu’s Inquisition (Feiwel & Friends, 2016).

This young adult fiction was one of the publications I was saving for the right time to read. Last year, when I read the first in the Summoner series, I had that common reaction that comes when reading trilogies: “ugh, when is the next one coming out?” Well, the next one finally came out, and it was well worth the wait. Though the first half of the novel is mired in a lot of set-up, there is quite a bit of action-packed adventure and intrigue to make up for this momentum loss in the concluding arc. The set-up from the first half involves the fact that our hero, Fletcher, finds himself in prison due to his alleged assault of a noble named Didric. This event occurred in the first book, so I suppose I should say that there will be spoilers in this post (yikes). Of course, what actually happened was an accident, but Didric nevertheless uses his powers as a noble to get Fletcher jailed and to make him stand trial on bogus charges. Though he is eventually cleared of these charges, higher allegations emerge when another figure accuses him of treason. Eventually, these charges are also dropped, but only because it becomes evident that Fletcher’s ancestry is more complicated that it seems: he, too, is actually a noble. This revelation reminds us of the common conceit in my young adult fictions in which the “ordinary” hero really possesses extraordinary origins. In any case, after this point, Fletcher must work with many characters from the first book to help repair the rift between elves, dwarves, and humans. The plan is to use a difficult quest into enemy orc territory to save a human that has been held hostage there for many years. This undertaking will be posited as a kind of public relations venture spotlighting how elves, dwarves, and humans can work together. But this quest already begins with many complications: it seems as though there might be a traitor in their midst, and there is the question of strange creatures that have evolved. These creatures are none other than goblins, a strange hybrid mixture between orcs and gremlins, which are being spawned by the thousands. So, the second aspect of this quest involves the destruction of these new hordes, which are being used in raids against human populations that live in the borderlands. As with the previous book, perhaps the best part of this novel is the pokemon aspect: each major character on this quest into orc territory is a summoner, who has the power to control one or more demons. The more rare the demon, the higher level that demon might be; the variations are many. Fortunately, our hero gets a new demon in this novel: it’s called a gryphowl (named Athena), so Fletcher has to mediate the consciousness of Athena alongside Ignatius, his original Salamander demon. The snotty nobles from book one (like Tarquin and Isadora) return, while Fletcher’s dwarven friend Othello and elven friend Sylva all provide the requisite alliances, while some new characters surface like Cress, a first year summoner of Dwarven descent. The final forty pages or so leave us with our heroes in a terrible situation, but Matharu has us in our adept storytelling hands: we’ve moving into new spatial area in the last moments that readers have been wondering about, which is none other than the ether, the space from which the demons come. The ether hasn’t been explored very much, so we’ll have to wait another year (or so) to find out what new surprises that Matharu has in store for us. But, before I end my review, I wanted to say that I really appreciate Matharu’s willingness to use words like race in his work to reflect the fact that fantasy creatures are not simply analogies or metaphors for different kinds of social identities. For Matharu, the oppressions faced by dwarves is simply another consideration of how race can develop, even if it is in the terrain of speculative fiction. Such an approach also makes this book more teachable for many of us who happen to be Asian Americanists and want to incorporate young adult fictions into our courses.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Tosca Lee’s The Progeny (Howard Books, 2016).

So, this novel was one I knew would be a sort of guilty pleasure. I’ve had the chance to read and to review some of Tosca Lee’s other works, and she definitely expands her repertoire here with a fictional re-envisionment of the oft-considered Elizabeth Bathory, who is infamously known as the Countess who bathed in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youth. She is allegedly one of the most prolific serial killers in world history. In any case, Lee uses a common conceit of her previous works in that she’s always looking to revise traditional understandings or biases of a given figure. For instance, in Iscariot, she cleverly positioned the oft-maligned traitor to Jesus as a figure who betrayed for a very specific and justifiable reason. In a similar way, she’s telling us that we may not have the right version of events when it comes to Elizabeth Bathory. In this case, this story revolves around premise that Bathory’s descendants, the titular progeny, are being hunted and killed off. A group of individuals called Hunters are tasked with finding the progeny and killing them precisely because they are from a bloodline considered impure, deviant, and evil. Our protagonist and heroine begins the novel in an amnesiac state. She has no idea who she is, only that she erased her own memory for a good reason. She eventually discovers that she is one of the Progeny. Bathory’s descendants apparently all have some supernatural powers of persuasion, skills that are marked only through the female line, though male heirs carry genes that can be passed on to future female descendants. Because our heroine, who eventually discovers that her actual name is Audra Ellison, does not remember has past life, she’s in the dark as much as we are. Every person she encounters could be friend or foe, but eventually we discover that her most obvious ally, Luka, was once a Hunter, a figure who was tasked to kill her. In that classic Romeo & Juliet way, we have our star-crossed lovers, who must find the solution to their problem. You see: Hunters have about five years to kill their mark, at which point they are replaced by another hunter, with the assumption that the replacement will take out the previous hunter who failed. By the time the novel opens, Audra and Luka have known each other for three years, so their time is limited. Hunters are also expected to take the memories of their marks, so what Audra does is fake her death so that Luka might be freed from his burden to kill her, presumably so that they might eventually find a way to be together. But we discover that Audra wipes her memory for a different reason entirely; due to her memory loss, the motive is obviously unknown. Ultimately, she and we DO know that she used to have some important information that might lead to the destruction of the entire social structure of the progreny and the hunters, but what such information actually is remains unclear. The rest of the novel is a world-traipsing quest to figure out what it is that Audra knew, how she might be connected to other progeny, and whether or not Luka and Audra will find a way to establish their romance beyond the reach of the current climate in which she is expected to be killed off either by him or someone else. The strength of Lee’s novel is clearly in the close alignment between the reader and the narrative perspective: because we know as little as Audra does, we’re compelled to become one with her search. We want to find out what she used to know and in the process, move beyond the central mysteries driving the plot. This ingenious set-up makes it so that you are willing to overlook other elements that might present “suspension of disbelief” road blocks. For instance, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little bit when I discovered that all female progeny can pretty much make anyone else do what they want through their powers of allure. And then, the romance plot can seem a little bit too telegraphed and a little bit too perfect: the man, who was once an enemy, but who is really a bold, stoic, strong, and handsome partner. Yet, I was willing to overlook my such critiques because I wanted to find out what Audra knew and why she felt compelled to erase her memory. The novel also ends on an incredible cliffhanger that both made me want to hurl the book across the room (in part, because I expected that plot development to appear at some point but perhaps not so early), but also because I didn’t want to wait until the next publication to figure out what is going to happen next. Tosca Lee = winner; reader = in perilous anxiety. Game, set, and match to The Progeny. The sequel, Firstborn, is due out February 28, 2017.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of S.B. Divya’s Runtime (Tor.Com, 2016).

So, I think S.B. Divya’s Runtime is part of an emerging hybrid publishing model in which writers’ works are being released primarily online, but with the possibility of the purchase of print editions. The B&N description is exciting enough to whet the appetite of any hard sci-fi reader: “The Minerva Sierra Challenge is a grueling spectacle, the cyborg's Tour de France. Rich thrill-seekers with corporate sponsorships, extensive support teams, and top-of-the-line exoskeletal and internal augmentations pit themselves against the elements in a day-long race across the Sierra Nevada. Marmeg Guinto doesn’t have funding, and she doesn’t have support. She cobbled her gear together from parts she found in rich people’s garbage and spent the money her mother wanted her to use for nursing school to enter the race. But the Minerva Challenge is the only chance she has at a better life for herself and her younger brothers, and she’s ready to risk it all.” This novel is intriguing for how much it manages to pack in concerning its science fictional world (and considering its very short length), which include individuals who genderbend (called moots) and others who forsake cyborg technologies (nats, which is shorthand for naturals). There’s an obvious class differentiation between those who hail from Marmeg’s background, who are unlicensed (a term that seems to be an analogue to undocumented immigrants) and those coming from corporate-sponsored sectors, who are the primary challengers in the race. Marmeg might go the traditional educational route to rise above her class station, but winning the Minerva Sierra Challenge would enable her to explore her life as an implant-enriched individual, while allowing her to jump many class levels at once. During the actual race, Marmeg must make a difficult choice whether or not to accept the help of an “off the grid” organization comprised of individuals known as Mountain Mikes that would allow her to win indisputably. Later, her victory is put into question when she must make another complicated decision: should she save another racer, one who sabotaged her equipment? To help this individual, she would have to reveal certain technological practices that would disqualify her from the challenge. Plotting aside, one of the most striking choices Divya makes is the implicit use of ethnicity. It would seem that Marmeg and her family may be of Filipino descent, a fact made evident in certain ethnic markers such as cuisine. At other points, characters attain a possible level of ethnic marking through surnames (something I’ve seen occur in works such as Wesley Chu’s Time series). Because Divya’s narrative is so short, the resolution comes very quickly and wraps up in such a way as to feel a bit rushed. There’s so much going on in this particular world that even as Marmeg’s future becomes just a little bit more secure, we’re wondering about other unlicensed individuals who face turbulent career and life trajectories. But, I suppose the succinct story is cause to encourage Divya to return to this particular fictional world in a sequel.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace (Harper, 2016).

One of the books I chose to bring with me on a recent vacation was Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace, which is her third novel (after The Good Muslim and The Golden Age). For some reason, I thought this novel would last me the length of the flight to the Big Island, but I was entirely wrong. At about three hours in, I finished. But I digress: Anam’s book might be overwrought. After all, it’s told from the perspective of a narrator who is categorically heartbroken. Our protagonist and first person storyteller is Zubaida, who at the novel’s inception, is a PhD pursuing her doctorate in marine paleontology at Harvard. She’s adopted. She’s certainly a smarty pants. We soon find out that she’s going to be traveling to a rather rough and tumble area of the world on an excavation. Chosen out of a competitive graduate cohort, Zubaida knows this opportunity is huge, but before she leaves she attends a music concert by herself. She happens to sit next to a man, who will be having his own intensely personal connection to the performance before them. But, they will have a brief moment of intimacy: his hand holding hers. Then, with some amount of boldness, Zubaida will ask him out to coffee, but things are complicated. Back home, where Zubaida is from in Bangladesh, she already has a boyfriend named Rashid. She makes that clear to this man, Elijah, but they nevertheless engage in a number friendly forays in the days before she leaves. They realize their time together must be platonic and that it is limited, but they throw themselves headlong into this semi-problematic friendship with a kind of abandon that obviously betrays their rather stoic and Victorian treatments of each other. But, the narrator leaves us well aware of all of the passion simmering beneath. This tale is going to be a tale of broken hearts, and we’re all in for a very rough ride. In the second act, Zubaida is on the dig, but things go terribly wrong; their local guide and go-between is basically kidnapped and tortured (though they will not even find out he is alive until much time has passed), and their dig must be abandoned in haste. Zubaida returns to live with her parents in Bangladesh, attempts to recover from some of the stress of the experience and impulsively decides to marry Rashid. Things seem to be going well enough until she gets pregnant and has a miscarriage. During the recovery phase, she decides to live alone on the coast, meeting up with former acquaintances and helping a foreigner (Gabriela) out with a documentary film. Gabriela needs her own local go-between and Zubaida functions in this kind of semi-anthropological capacity, attempting to broker trust among the workers who are part of a ship dismantling crew. It is clear that the workers have a very difficult life, but they must rehearse a kind of party line that makes it difficult for Gabriela to garner any original and authentic material for her film. It is during this time that Zubaida makes some new friends, including a striking connection to a child laborer named Mo. Zubaida also eventually decides to invite Elijah out to the coast, even though he tiptoes around this possibility. Eventually he relents, even though he knows she’s married. He realizes that this moment is important, perhaps a turning point for Zubaida, and he risks the trip. They become intimate, and this period is obviously one of considerable bliss for Zubaida, except of course the guilt that bubbles up when she remembers the fact that she’s—uh oh—married. Complicating matters even further is an interesting narrative interruption: someone who is connected to Zubaida provides gives his account his star-crossed relationship to a woman named Megna. Much of that narrative involves his desire to reconnect with Megna, though he originally spurned her and refused to marry her even when he discovers that she is pregnant. Once he realizes his mistake, he has to track her down, but the leads are often false. One particularly harrowing detour leads to imprisonment and torture. He eventually finds out that Megna took a job in a brothel, where it is likely she later died from some sort of illness. It is not clear what happened to her daughter, but you can probably guess that Megna has some sort of connection to Zubaida. The novel’s conclusion is pretty harrowing. What I appreciated most was that there was no uplift narrative to be had, but there is also a sense of unrelenting melancholy in these pages that makes this novel, though utterly and irresistibly quixotic, still devastatingly depressing. The final pages also leave us with a kind of cliffhanger, brutal but ever so appropriate in its luminescent lack of romantic closure. Elijah, we hope you got the message.

Buy the Book Here (I am seriously insulted that at the time of posting this link, the book only has THREE out of FIVE stars):

A Review of Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, 2016).

So, Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, 2016) had probably one of the worst titles I’ve seen for books I’m reviewing this year. Yes, the novel (Tanabe’s third after The List and The Price of Inheritance, but honestly the first of hers I’ve read) is set in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, a period of time known for its extravagance, but beyond that, what’s probably far more germane is the passing narrative that is at this novel’s core. I’m sort of glad I didn’t read any book reviews or descriptions prior because I was able to make this discovery on my own, which actually came as a pleasant surprise. At first, I thought this work was going to be about upper class women attempting to carve out independent lives in an era in which women could not yet even vote, but Tanabe adds another wrinkle into this kind of theme with the main character, Anita Hemmings, who we quickly discover is not who she says she is to her fellow classmates. We’ll let B&N provide us with a description here: “Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country’s most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise ‘Lottie’ Taylor, the scion of one of New York’s most prominent families. Though Anita has kept herself at a distance from her classmates, Lottie’s sphere of influence is inescapable, her energy irresistible, and the two become fast friends. Pulled into her elite world, Anita learns what it’s like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman—the person everyone believes her to be—and even finds herself in a heady romance with a moneyed Harvard student. It’s only when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s brother, Frederick, whose skin is almost as light as his sister’s, that the situation becomes particularly perilous. And as Anita’s college graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret. Set against the vibrant backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era when old money traditions collided with modern ideas, Tanabe has written an unputdownable and emotionally compelling story of hope, sacrifice, and betrayal—and a gripping account of how one woman dared to risk everything for the chance at a better life.” There’s something of a throwback quality to this novel. After all, we can read Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars or Nella Larsen’s Passing to get at the critical issue of passing in some classic, brilliant narratives connected to the so-called tragic mixed race subject. Tanabe’s version, though, is certainly the kind that makes us scratch our heads about racial divides in the past. For starters, the constructedness of race is obviously on full display when someone passes in the first place, so the whole state of affairs and the struggles that Anita faces seem absolutely absurd looking back on it from the contemporary moment. Nevertheless, part of Tanabe’s point is cast us into another historical moment to reveal the dangers inherent in racial passing. There were times when this narrative certainly ran long, but readerly motivation remains apparent because we want Anita to find a way to endure despite how her live seems to unravel once her secret becomes more public. This novel also makes you wonder about questions of authorial choice and genre. Toward the novel’s conclusion, we get quite a meaty author’s note about the fact that this novel is based upon an actual Vassar graduate. Tanabe obviously used the fictional form to fill in details about the circumstances, but one wonders whether or not this type of story might be better served as a biographical account, albeit with major holes, or even the subject of some sort of historical study. In any case, it’s interesting to read a passing narrative about the 19th century published in the 21st, and I suppose this novel could make a pairing with those earlier works as well. Finally, this novel is the kind that made me exceedingly interested in the topic of my first book (shameless plug right here) because Asian American writers (in this case, Tanabe is part Japanese) are compelled to write narratives beyond Asian American characters (and associated contexts). To be sure, Tanabe has some fun with this issue; there’s a part-Japanese character that has a key role as a minor character and even Lottie is quite enamored of Japanese culture (at a time when Orientalism was perhaps more en vogue and acceptable than later in the early 20th century during the time of exclusion), but Tanabe’s work reminds us that we must define the field as expansively as we can to see how issues of racial difference and marginality, the kinds of issues we teach out and write about, are not necessarily restricted to works in which Asian American characters, themes, or perspectives predominate. While I wouldn’t necessarily teach an entire course filled with these more “oddball” choices, my point is that our teaching and scholarly attentions become limited if we do not look beyond identitarian paradigms to create boundaries around these sorts of issues.

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A Review of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp 2016).

Well, I have to say I absolutely adore Arsenal Pulp as an indie press, and a publication like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home is one reason why. This book, which seems to be a hybrid form of creative nonfiction melding memoir and poetry together, is pretty damn ferocious. The work primarily details the author’s struggles as a mixed race, queer identity, working class woman who migrates to Canada right after college in search of a supportive community. Piepzna-Samarasinha grows up in a family in which her mother and father have a strained relationship. Her father is Sri Lankan, while her mother is Caucasian. There is never enough money, but the author is always able to have enough support to borrow books and to study. For awhile, education provides the author a means of fulfillment and stable identity. But, her mixed race background and her foreign looks, often mark her at the many educational institutions she attends. She must contend with bullies and rich elites, all the while trying to figure out what it is that is driving her. She is able to go to college, but the refuge she seeks isn’t exactly found there. During these turbulent years, she’s also in a complicated relationship with a fellow activist, radical, and soul-searcher named Rafael. Her time in Canada is rough, to put it mildly. She’s struggling to make ends meet, while continuing her quest to find a place that might more fully embrace her. Toronto during this period is gritty, but also filled with diverse communities that clamor for social justice. Much of this memoir is also spent dealing with the traumatic aftermath of incestuous abuse. Much of this information is left fairly elliptical in the narrative, but over the course of the work, it becomes clear that the author’s mother had been the perpetrator. What makes this particular creative nonfictional publication so textured is the way the author works through this moment. Rather than demonize her mother, the author attempts to provide a deep excavation of her personal history, relating her rise out of challenging material circumstances and her deep need to grant her own daughter a better life than the one she had had. While the author’s father does not appear in as significant a role in the work, it is apparent that the author and her father are able to connect our their mutually queer backgrounds. At one point, the author discovers that there was a period in her father’s life in which he was dabbling in same-sex liaisons. What is perhaps most striking about this memoir is the clipped language, the poetic verve, and its confrontational tone. As the author makes clear at numerous points, she is a survivor, but she is also an artist and a fighter. By the creative nonfiction’s conclusion, we know that we cannot read this work as uplift, but we can say that the author has come to a place of dynamic equilibrium with respect to her many identities, her fractured past, and a future that seems, though unmapped and potentially troubling, filled with more possibility and promise than ever before. This creative nonfiction is certainly one I can see teaching, especially given its anachronic structure and poetic style.

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Sherry Quan Lee's Love Imagined: A Mixed Race Memoir

In Love Imagined: A Mixed Race Memoir (Modern History Press, 2014) Sherry Quan Lee writes about her experiences growing up in South Minneapolis with a mother from a black family who passed as white and a Chinese father. Lee elaborates on her subsequent adolescence and adulthood as she grappled with her mixed and covered racial identity. Lee had very little connection to her father after her parents divorced when she was still young, and as with other Chinese immigrants from earlier in the twentieth century, he was disconnected from his own family, so Lee never really grew up around other Chinese people.

love imagined book cover

I remember coming across Lee's name a few years ago when I looked around for Minnesota-based Asian American writers, but I never had a chance to read her earlier publications. Her name came up again for me in the context of a new collection of essays, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin. In Love Imagined, Lee offers numerous anecdotes from her childhood when people said outrightly racist things about black people, not realizing that she was black; at the same time, in later chapters, she also notes that many of her childhood friends, later in adulthood, mentioned that they always knew she was black and Chinese, even if they never acknowledged it publicly. Lee's writing captures perfectly the way race tends to operate in Minnesota--either as outright racism (especially in the mid-twentieth century) or as a concerted attempt to not name it.

One of the features of this memoir that was most interesting to me was Lee's inclusion of photocopies of diary pages and letters from her family. Seeing the handwriting directly offers a bit of the personality of the people she's writing about. For example, she provides excerpts of a diary her father kept and gave to her before he died, and the diary offers some glimpses into his life before she was born. Lee also provides lengthy transcriptions of some of this writing to illustrate how her family wrote (or did not write) about race and their own family history. This first-hand account of individuals and families who passed as white is important, and I imagine historians and literary critics alike will find the book useful for exploring race in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially how passing created disconnected families and silences.

The overarching idea that structures Lee's memoir is that of shame. For her, although she understands her mother's passing as white as her need to protect her children and give them more opportunities than they would otherwise have had, Lee herself has carried with her a sense of shame about being black because of the secrecy of her family. She also writes a lot about her romances, including four marriages that ended in divorce. And she writes about sexual encounters--some that she welcomed and others that were sexual harassment and rape.

Overall, Lee's memoir offers an unflinching account of a woman's life in Minnesota as a mixed race person. She struggled and continues to struggle to make meaning of her family and life, understanding that writing is one way that she can make sense and also share her perspective so that others might find a kindred spirit or learn about a different life.
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Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes's Secret Coders: Paths & Portals

I was excited to get the second volume of Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, titled Paths & Portals (First Second, 2016). This graphic novel series follows a young girl, Hopper, as she learns about computer programming with her friends Eni and Josh. They are secret coders because they learn not in a class but from the janitor of their private school, who turns out to have a secret past as a teacher.

paths and portals cover

The story has Yang's characteristic qualities of humor, insightful observations of social dynamics in school and family, and careful attention to both the incidental and critical aspects of race amongst friends and acquaintances. As Hopper and her friends learn about programming by writing LOGO programs for robot turtles that Mr. Bee, the janitor, has made, she also deals with her mother, who is the Mandarin Chinese teacher at her school; Principal Dean, who is up to something; and the bullying male rugby players at the school, who are the principal's henchmen.

I love the adventure of this series, and as Yang has written about, there is also an explicit attention to teaching readers about computer programming in a fun way. As Hopper, Eni, and Josh are confronted with puzzles such as how to program one of the turtle robots to walk along a pattern on the floor, they think through their process and then explain their solution. The narrative also pauses to ask readers to think about how they would solve the programming puzzles before proceeding with a solution.

See stephenhongsohn's review of the first volume in an earlier post here at asianamlitfans.
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Lily Hoang's A Bestiary

Lily Hoang's A Bestiary (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016) is a collection of evocative essays that reminds me a bit of Jane Jeong Trenka's The Language of Blood in its brief passages, revisioning of fairy tales, thoughtful engagement with word definitions/etymologies, exploration of the metaphorical qualities of the natural world (rats, for instance, in Hoang's book), and startlingly frank explorations of intimate and familial relations. It's also a memoir that lays the author bare, and you flinch at the emotional rawness of the pages as much as you are drawn in by the power of the language.

a bestiary cover

I've come to realize that I love writing that alludes to other literature/myth/history and that puts words together in ways that are suggestive rather than concretely expository. Meanings arise from the novel use of words (making a noun into a verb, for instance) or interesting connections created in pairing unlikely words. Hoang's book is full of such writing. Also, while some of the passages take on a more straightforward narrative form (like a fairy tale or some paragraphs of a memoir), Hoang frequently opts for short, aphoristic sentences that stand alone in sections broken up by a row of five small circles. The sentences do not form a linear train of thought but rather interweave a few ideas/narratives at a time. For example in the first essay, "on the RAT RACE," one page reads (with some lengthier passage excised in the quotation):
Games are not necessarily about victory. The process of learning requires failure.


Rats, in their little boxed mazes.
My sister, in her military boxed garage. Hidden away.


A king who does not rule.


My brother is paid to be a pacer, but he'd do it for free. ...
The sentences flit between scenes involving video games the author downloads for her mother; other activities shared with her mother; ruminations on rats, mazes, and the "rat race" as a metaphor for life's struggles; variations on kings, including a rat king, which I did not know is not a kingly rat but rather a knot of rats tied together by their tails and various detritus; and some thoughts on her brother as a marathon runner (riffing on the idea of a rat race).

If there is one thing that seems to undergird or haunt all of the essays, it is the fact of Hoang's older sister's death. Early in the first essay, Hoang writes:
My sister died nearly three years ago.
I stopped asking why [she went to prison] before once upon a time began.
I have re-named her my dead sister.
This sister is at once cautionary tale for Hoang and a lingering reminder of who she could never be, frozen in death as an untouchable family presence despite her messy life (prison time, drug addiction, infidelity, and divorce).

Hoang is a creative writing professor, and her essays sometimes touch on this career path, including some darkly humorous observations of the MLA job market:
The process of being on the job market bifurcates emotions. First, hope. A powerful optimism that this year will be the year, finally, finally, yes yes yes. Next, contempt. For the place you live and the place you work. You must tell yourself you hate your life. You must hate every aspect of your life. You must be miserable. This is the only way you can convince yourself to go through the trauma of the market.
   Hundreds pared down to ten.
   At MLA, you sit on a bed to interview. You hope your suit doesn't shift too much while you speak. You try not to gesticulate too much. You try to keep your words sharp. You fake it all.
Those of us who've done those MLA interviews know that there is a special emotion associated with sitting in your best business suit on a hotel bed, trying to be confident and professional while semi-reclined with two to five faculty members huddled around you.

Of particular interest perhaps to AALF is that Hoang does write at times about what it means for her to have grown up Vietnamese American, including a startling paragraph, "In elementary school, I was proud to be Vietnamese. I had not learned self-shame. And I have not attained that same level of confidence since. My naïveté was a power that experience has drained." In another essay, "on ORIENTAL BEAUTIES," Hoang catalogs the Asian American women in popular culture that she had as possible role models or simply mirrors for her self--Pam from the Real World, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, and Connie Chung--and she wryly notes that she only had this handful of women to see herself in and wonders how white women can even begin to make sense of themselves with so many more options. And throughout the book, Hoang writes about her difficult intimate relationships, touching on the idea that the white men she dates (and marries) might have yellow fever while also noting that she does not find Asian men attractive.

In addition to frequent thoughts on her dead sister and what it means for her to have a dead sister and to live with what her sister left behind (especially a son who deals himself with drug addiction and imprisonment), Hoang writes about her relationship to her parents as well--both of them in many ways typical immigrant/refugee parents with their narrow expectations of their children and their different way of understanding familial relations.
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Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus's Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Evan Turk, illustrator)

Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus's Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016), with illustrations by Evan Turk, is an autobiographical story of Arun Gandhi's experiences with his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, in an ashram (or service village). The illustrations are beautiful, richly textured through bright colors and materials.

be the change book cover

Hegedus explains in a note at the end of the book that she heard Arun Gandhi speak in the months after the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and knew that she wanted to work with him to tell his stories of his grandfather to bring hope back into the world. Be the Change is the second book in this series so far, and in it, Arun recounts how his grandfather's sense of nonviolence extended to being vigilant against waste or extravagance. As a youth, he did not understand how an act such as keeping a pencil worn down to its last few centimeters could be an important action in reducing violence in the world. But his father persisted in explaining, and over time, Arun understood how his every act has consequences that may be distant but nevertheless important in spreading peace and abundance for everyone.

Although this book takes the form a picture book, its story seems more appropriate for a slightly older child (the publisher notes K-3 as appropriate grade levels for readers), and the moral of the story is both simple (be the change) and layered (suggesting large scale things like the industries involved in making a pencil).
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MariNaomi's Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories

MariNaomi's Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories (2D Cloud + Uncivilized Books, 2014) collects a number of short pieces by MariNaomi into a volume of startling insights into human interactions and society. (Incidentally, the book's publishers are based in Minneapolis, my city!)

dragon's breath cover

While her earlier memoir, Kiss and Tell, focused on relationship and sexual encounters, Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories is more eclectic, ranging from childhood memories about family (revised in adult hindsight) to transitory though impactful encounters in adulthood. Often, these true stories end in the observation that the author does not know what became of a certain person--sometimes intimates and other times just casual acquaintances or even passersby--but these are people and encounters that have stayed with her and formed the canvas of her perceptions of the world.

You can find some excerpts of the book at Study Group Comics. The first piece in the excerpt, "Mr. Vanoni," is about a high school teacher whose lecture style was uninspiring but who occasionally took a lizard out of his terrarium and rubbed his belly until he fell asleep. This observation then unfolds into noting that another, more charismatic teacher died of AIDS that year and had a section of the yearbook dedicated to him while Mr. Vanoni, who also died unexpectedly that year, received a small portion of a page in comparison. The piece is disarming in its brevity and simplicty, but in the final panel, with a finger petting a lizard and the words, "REST IN PEACE, MR. VANONI," MariNaomi rectifies this imbalance in memorialization of the two teachers, suggesting that even the quiet people of this world deserve some attention, loving, and care.

All in all, MariNaomi demonstrates how much she is an important observer of the world around us by showing us little moments full of both pain and possibility.

See also stephenhongsohn's earlier review of Dragon's Breath.
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Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air

In his meditative memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016), Paul Kalanithi examines his life's striving for meaning, experiences, and an understanding of identity and death.

Although there are certainly a number of other excellent writers who are doctors with whom we might compare Kalanithi's brief volume (such as Abraham Verghese, who provides a foreword to the memoir, or Sanjay Gupta, whom Kalanithi references in his book), I found that Kalanithi's perspective called to mind most readily Vikram Chandra's Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, another memoir in which novelist Chandra explores his experiences and perspective as a software engineer on his sense of narrative and fiction writing. In both Kalanithi and Chandra's memoirs, there is a deep sense of expertise and embeddedness in the vocabulary of a distinctly nonliterary worldview that nevertheless comes along with a deep love of literature, metaphor, and the cadences of poetic lines. Indeed, Kalanithi recounts in the first half of the book how he studied both literature and biology as a double major in college, pursuing a master's in literature as well before turning an undivided attention to medicine for the next decade of his life. For him, literature is what makes meaning of experiences in people's lives; still, he felt an urgent need also to have those experiences, to dive into the stuff of life more than simply reflect upon it and come to deeper understandings.

As he found himself drawn to medicine, Kalanithi settled into neurosurgery as the specialization that best encapsulated his sense of how science and modern technology seeks to make sense of the sublime emergence of identity and meaning from the very material substance of the brain. There is a little something too neat in his retrospective narration of his career trajectory.... but clearly this was the experience of a young man who knew what he wanted to do at each step of his life, even if longer term goals were not always immediately apparent.

There is a lot to say about this memoir, especially Kalanithi's utterly beautiful language. One sample:
Before operating on a patient's brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another's cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
These are lines not meant simply to convey a thought but also to reach for that ineffable power of poetic language, strings of words that mean more than what they say. Additionally, Kalanithi ruminates on the origins and valences of significant words that he uses—patient and disaster, for instance—along with careful framing of his words with literary epigraphs and references to canonical works of English literature (T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land makes a few appearances, for example).

And perhaps most powerfully for me, Kalanithi writes about the importance of compassion in the work of doctors. This is a topic that is big in the medical humanities, of course, but one that seems to be a source of constant stress for those in the medical field due to overwork and the workings of the mind that tend to dampen doctors' ability to connect emotionally with their patients, sometimes as a way of preserving the doctors' own sense of self and worth. Speaking with another resident who could not admit that he messed up, Kalanithi said:
"All you have to do," I said, "is look me in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry. What happened was my fault, and I won't let it happen again.'"
This ability to accept responsibility for mistakes was at the core of Kalanithi's conception of the good doctor. It is not enough to be an excellent technician or even to have the best bedside manner if doctors cannot deal with the fact that they themselves will slip up, and those mistakes will lead to serious consequences and death for some of their patients.

See also stephenhongsohn's review of Kalanithi's memoir.
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