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Asian American Literature Fans: Wednesday Mega Review Round-Up

In this post: reviews of Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden (Simon Pulse, 2011), Alex Kuo’s The Man who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel (Haven Books, 2011), Ying-Ying Chang’s The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking (Pegasus Books, 2011), and Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust (Harper, 2009).

A Review of Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden (Simon Pulse, 2011)

Tabitha Suzuma’s young adult novel, Forbidden, is what I believe to be her first US publication, though she has apparently published numerous novels in the United Kingdom. Again, I’m completely annoyed that the availability of these previously written novels is limited, but there’s only so much one can do. Thank god for’s used bookshop area. Suzuma’s Forbidden unfolds in alternating first-person chapters told from the perspectives of two children in a broken family living in the UK. These main characters, Lochan and Maya, are the oldest; their mother is divorced and spends all of her time either drunk and/or out on dates with a man named Dave. Lochan, the oldest, is ostensibly the “true” parent of the bunch. He’s 17 at the start of the novel and has a terrible social anxiety disorder to the extent that he cannot speak out during classtime and cannot seem to make any friends. He’s smart though and excels in school. Maya, the second oldest, is about 16 and she’s far more socially adjusted, with a close friend named Francie. Both Lochan and Maya take care of the other three children, which include, Kit, a sullen 13 year-old; Tiffin; and Willa. At some point, the title comes into play because Suzuma takes on an incredibly controversial topic: consensual incest. That’s right, folks. Lochan and Maya end up professing their undying love for each other. Unfortunately, much of the novel is spent on the back and forth that occurs when Lochan and Maya are simultaneously attracted by and repulsed by each other. Thus, the force of their attraction and repulsion to each other is blunted by this see-saw narrative that concludes the novel. Suzuma deals with the topic delicately: we’re not meant to demonize Lochan and Maya; indeed, they seem as confused and horrified by their feelings as I’m sure many of the readers will be, but I think the question that the book does not resolve is the rhetorical impulse in such a controversial representation. Are we meant to understand consensual incest as a relational formation that is itself misunderstood? Should we understand consensual brother-sister incest to be a form of queerness? These questions are completely dodged by the way Suzuma ends the novel; in some sense, I believe the conclusion was a way for her to shut off any discussion of the possible problems that could arise in this depiction. Nevertheless, I would bet this work would make for an interesting literary and philosophical discussion.

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A Review of Alex Kuo’s The Man who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel (Haven Books, 2011).

Like Li Miao Lovett’s In the Lap of the Gods, Alex Kuo’s The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel is very much concerned with the dilemmas that arise with the building of hypermodern, mega-sized dams. Kuo is the author of numerous fictional works and poetry collections, including: The Window Tree (1974), New Letters from Hiroshima, and Other Poems (1974), Changing the River (1986), This Fierce Geography (1998), Chinese Opera (novel, 1998), Lipstick and Other Stories (short stories, 2001), Panda Diaries (novel, 2006), White Jade and Other Stories (short stories, 2008). While Li Miao Lovett focuses primarily on the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Kuo’s work is much more transnational, in the sense that the novel explores the history and the fallout from the constructions of dams both in the United States and China. The novel also takes a historical trajectory that moves us from the Civil Rights Era into the contemporary moment. We might even say that the novel advances a kind of transnational aesthetic, as the novel focuses on two characters, both mathematicians, and we shuttle from one country to another, as we follow their stories. G, who lives in the United States, opens the novel working at a teaching job in South Dakota during the most formative years of the Civil Rights Movement. He is particularly affected by problematic policies enacted by the administrations when some students demand more diversity within the curriculum. Ge, who lives in China, opens the novel working at a teaching job, who finds herself increasingly disillusioned by the communist ideologies energizing the youth. Each mathematician ultimately finds their teaching jobs unfulfilling and they move into new occupations. Ge, in particular, works for a company researching and creating projections concerning dam-based building issues, including sedimentation and flow rates. G, on his end, looks into the construction of dams on the Columbia River, noting the disastrous ecological effects that such a dam had upon the area: “From the 1930s, Go-Go years of the Grand Coulee to the John Day of 1968, thirty six dams went up on the Columbia and its tributaries, with nary a thought for their impact on the environment or people already living there” (141). Getting further into her research and realizing the destructive potential of dam building in China, Ge divulges, “We all know the completion of the dam is inevitable, that this is another horrendous instance in which we will suffer for generations—deprived of live on the river, life in the river and life from the river, and the river itself that connects us to the other life forms in the world, this excruciating loss of dreams, wishes, and yes, lies too. Unless some radical activist emerges and does something about it” (160). Thus, Kuo has created a highly political novel, a manifesto if we might call it that, against dam building. Interestingly enough, the bifurcated storylines do not come together really until the closing when Ge and G find themselves at the same conference, delivering a paper with the same title, and on the same very issues. Kuo seems to be getting at that possibility that, despite supposed differences in cultures and economic systems, that there are still incredibly weighty issues that are capturing people’s attentions in very similar ways. This ending, to me, speaks somewhat to the prospect of the global risk model, which suggests that any formidable activism to appear in this contemporary period will occur only when populations are equally experiencing similar dangers and perils. The other element I’ll mention briefly is that the novel is often extremely funny, with a satirical tone very much reminiscent of Linh Dinh’s novel, Love Like Hate.

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A Review of Ying-Ying Chang’s The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking (Pegasus Books, 2011).

This memoir is a fascinating study in form for the simple fact that it combines elements of the memoir with elements of the biography. Ying-Ying Chang, mother to Iris Chang, has generated an incredibly detailed and meticulous life story for herself and her beloved daughter. After a certain point, though, the memoir shifts considerably by focusing primarily on the younger Chang’s life. Certainly, hagiographic in tone, we can understand this approach given the very close bond between mother and daughter and the daughter’s tragic death by suicide. Chang employs a diverse archive, including transcribed letters and photographs to recreate the timeline of her own and her daughter’s life. We see from a very early age how goal oriented that Iris is and despite early setbacks in her career, which include some challenges in getting a job after completing her undergraduate degree and the relatively modest sales of her first nonfiction book, Thread of the Silkworm, she will come to great success. With Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang would become a New York Times bestselling author and suddenly, her publishing company had enough funds to properly promote her book and allow her to go on book tours. While the publicity garnered Iris Chang a financial stability for her writing that she had not previously had, it also resulted in an incredible increase in her visibility and a corresponding decrease in her privacy. The Rape of Nanking, of course, also generated considerable controversy, as it cast light on Japanese wartime atrocities. Although Iris responded to critiques of her book with great composure, there is a point at which Iris is approached at a book reading and spooked when that individual attempts to recruit her for a secret organization. At this point, the memoir shifts and records Iris’s troubles in the wake of the publication of her third book, The Chinese in America, and as she begins research on her fourth book, based upon the Bataan Death March. Iris was increasingly suspicious that she was being spied upon; she also had been pushing herself to exhaustion, to the point that she collapses and experiences a brief period of what is called reactive psychosis. Here, Ying-Ying commands a larger presence, as she poses various theories about what might have occurred in the lead up to Iris’s suicide, believing that it was a fatal combination of anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs. What is exceedingly clear is that the Chang family more largely had difficulties finding Iris adequate medical care during a very fragile period. Ying Ying’s work is evidence of an incredibly deep and loving relationship, a testament to the strong familial network that she helped to create. Her memoir helps shed light on what an incredible loss occurred when Iris took her own life and reminds us of the continuing difficulties related to treating, diagnosing, and healing adult-onset mental illness.

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A Review of Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust (Harper, 2009).

Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust is a memoir that focuses on the life of a Pakistani American Muslim. What is exceedingly interesting about the memoirist, Eteraz, is the different names he takes on based upon different moments in his Muslim upbringing and beliefs. The latest incarnation is the name given to us on the cover, but this name changing reminds me a little bit of the ways in which an American identity can be re-made and re-fashioned; here Eteraz puts an obvious twist upon this narrative by placing identity reconstruction in conversation with Muslim religious fervor. The memoir is quite episodic, but Eteraz is invested in showing how his upbringing is obviously instrumental in guiding the development of his Muslim and later, his Muslim American identity. One of the most fascinating moments in the memoir occurs when Eteraz returns to Asia and realizes that he is viewed not as a Muslim, but as an American; despite what he may profess and his beliefs, he is held accountable for the acts of the nation. Inasmuch as he seeks at many points to show his devoutness to religion, we see the murkiness of that project, especially as Eteraz confronts the challenges of reigning in and exploring his sexual desires. As relationships with the opposite sex constantly frustrate him and make him feel isolated, Eteraz also reveals the complications of higher education in relation to his religious interests. On the one hand, he does believe that he can uphold the ideals of Islamic beliefs even in light of the greatest critiques, but later, his interest in continental philosophy, especially that of the work of Emmanuel Levinas, begin to “fundamentally” change his outlook. Thus, the concluding arcs of the book focus more on Eteraz’s work as a religious reformist. Attempting to find a way to widen the scope of Islamic beliefs, Eteraz pushes for an increased tolerance of women’s power within the religion and agitates for multiple degrees of Islamic religious practices. While 9/11 does not figure prominently into the narrative, the event is still one that energizes Eteraz to conceive of different ways to show one’s religious devotion and this memoir can, in this way, be firmly situated in the growing body of texts in this period to complicate conceptions of terrorism, fundamentalism, American patriotism, and religious freedom. The memoir could have used a more forceful edit, given its occasional meandering quality and I do believe the later sections are far more successful in revealing Eteraz’s rhetorical impulses for publishing this work.

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