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Asian American Literature Fans Sunday Mega Review Round-Up

Asian American Literature Fans Sunday Mega Review Round-Up

In this post: A Review of Yuri Kageyama’s The New and Selected Yuri: Writing From Peeling Till Now (Ishmael Reed Publishing Group, 2011); Jenna Le’s Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011); Ella de Castro Baron’s Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment; Anosh Irani’s Song of Kahunsha (Milkweed Editions, 2007); Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke (FSG, 2011).

Yuri Kageyama is a poet whose work I’ve long been wanting to read, especially since her chapbook Peeling has long been out of print. She’s been on the literary scene for a number of decades and her work is both direct and passionate. In the New and Selected Yuri, we get a broad range of poetic works and short prose stories with topics ranging from racism, fetishism, abortion, activism, interracial desire, among other such issues. There’s a lengthier narrative track toward the end of the collection that comes off as playscript: a dialogue between a younger woman named Miu and someone named “Me,” perhaps the ghostly authorial double. While earlier sections are obviously very pro-choice in terms of the topic of abortion, what’s really interesting in “The Story of Miu” is the question of reproduction and what it means for the ostensible mother. At one point, “me” states: “I try to tell young women this ever chance I get, but it’s the most important experience in life to have a child, Okay?” (108). Later, when Miu goes through with an abortion, we see that these words of wisdom do not necessarily bear fruit in this specific story. It’s interesting to see Kageyama represent this particular reproductive politic in light of so many of the other poems and reveals a complicated and contoured approach to imagining so-called womanhood. One of the most obvious things to note off hand about Yuri Kageyama’s writings is that they reveal the anger at the heart of the racialized minority’s experience. Anger tends to be undertheorized as a complicated and nuanced affectual impulse within cultural studies. The literary critic Sue J. Kim is currently exploring this topic I believe and I am reminded of it when I read Kageyama’s work; she reminds us that there are so many things to be angry about, so many ways to express that anger, and so many ways that anger pushes one to actually go out and do something. Sometimes anger is seen to be an emotional impulse that cuts off, or at worst, is simply an uncalculated violence, but Kageyama pushes us to think of anger as a way to reconsider racialized and gendered subjectivities, the power dynamics that bind and constrain and that one must resist. In this way, I like to think of Kageyama as a kind of throwback, really rooted in the women of color, post Civil Rights activist poetics, moving strongly in line with others such as Janice Mirikitani, Nellie Wong, Kitty Tsui, and Merle Woo. I found this work particularly refreshing in this regard and Kageyama is not necessarily always going for the most lyrically and aesthetically crafted line, but uses elements like anaphora and repetition to strike out at and bring in the audience. Indeed, I can’t imagine some of these poems without an actual performance and it’s very clear that there is a spoken word dynamic that would lend increased heft to the collection. The fact that the book was put out by the Ishmael Reed Publishing Group is obviously no accident. Ishmael Reed has long had a very strong engagement with Asian American literary circles, especially and most famously with the Aiiieeeee!!! editors way back in the day. Thus, this book reminds me of the strong comparative minority engagements that we sometimes forget about as we work through our respective race and ethnic studies areas. A powerful work and I’m especially glad there is a way to access Kageyama’s writings in a one collected source.

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It’s really been an incredibly productive year for American poets of Asian descent, as at least thirty-three collections have appeared in this year alone. I truly hope that there is a readership for these works, as they are evidence of an exciting and truly innovative new generation of poets! Jenna Le’s Six Rivers is a testament to creativity in poetic structure. The “six rivers” of the title become the poetic framework for this collection, as we move through and travel from one river to another. Rivers become the perfect metaphorical trope because they both divide up the landscape and enable one to travel. Thus, the collection reveals various rupture points and communitarian possibilities. The first four rivers move us primarily autobiographically and autoethnographically (The Perfume River, The Mississippi River, The Charles River, The Hudson River), then we move to two more metaphorical and figurative rivers (The Aorta, and the River Styx). Le is quite clear about how the collection is arranged, at least, in terms of chronology. The first river, The Perfume River, moves us into the lyric speaker’s ethnic ancestry. The opening poem, “Mom’s Cocks,” is quite indicative of the desire to move into this past, as the lyric speaker compares her own interest in her mother’s life to be akin to that of the “aggressive rooster” who is “stuporous with misdirected lust” (13). While the rooster’s libidinous aims might be “misdirected,” the lyric speaker is certainly after something particular, to hear more about her mother’s life, where she “grew up beside the Perfume River in Vietnam,/in a brick house overrun by chickens” (13). The following three rivers take us to the places that the lyric speaker (as a rough autobiographical double) grew up, then schooled as an undergraduate, and later as a medical school student. The poem, “Trick,” perfectly encapsulates the childlike perspective of this section, as it refers to Halloween. In this poem, the lyric speaker reveals the hoodwinking that has occurred for her parents who come to the United States and face difficult circumstances: “But now the costumier/ is demanding you back./ He calls our house daily,/ ringing the phone off its hook” (23). These concluding lines suggest that America is a land only borrowed, never to be owned, never finally to be safely inhabited, never really that sweet treat. The following two sections take us respectively to Boston and New York City, where the poems track both the density and energy of each location. The collection then moves figuratively with the river of the “aorta,” reminding us of the flow within our bodies. This section very much reminded me of the “medicinal poetics” at work in C. Dale Young’s latest collection, Torn. This section is perhaps my favorite. One poem stands out as indicative of the challenges facing medical doctors, who must temper their empathy in order to treat and to diagnose patients. In “Elegy,” the lyric speaker mourns the loss of “an old Nepalese woman” from “metastatic breast cancer.” However, her body becomes used to explore how parasites are difficult to detect because they have no bone structure; thus the woman’s body is merely a functional and instructional apparatus without much more complexity. The lyric speaker reminds us of this unfortunate functionalization and resists it, linking the dead body with that of the instructing physician’s: “Good sir, no matter how straight your posture at the boardroom table,/ your intestines are as convoluted as hers./ I wonder: when she died, did her tapeworm outlive her/ by a minute, or two, or several? And did it feel a sense of loss?” (55). The lyric speaker’s rather satirical consideration of the tapeworm’s feelings makes explicit her disdain for the rather apathetic way that the body has been utilized—a wonderful poem. The “River Styx” moves the furthest afield from anything too autobiographical or autoethnographic, as it is of course rooted in Greek mythology, the boundary between the afterlife and the mortal realm. In the “River Styx,” it seems that Le uses this opportunity to engage consistent use of the dramatic monologue, lyrically inhabiting such figures as Sappho and Ada Lovelace. Le’s “Six Rivers” is a structurally complex and vividly imagined lyric collection.

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A Review of Ella de Castro Baron’s Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment (Sunbelt Publications, 2009).

Ella de Castro Baron’s Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment is a creative nonfictional mixed genre work that takes the issue of “employment” as a way to consider the problematics of one’s life direction and purpose. Baron includes poetry, e-mails, prose narrative, among other such genres and creates a multifaceted picture of her life. The rather longish title refers to Baron’s part Filipina heritage, her tremendous troubles with a serious skin disease called eczema (that runs in her family) and the quest for an occupation in light of her serious devotion to the literary and creative arts. Baron’s work is especially critical of the model minority mythos, an issue that she takes up in one section by discussing the infamous book called the Bell Curve. Baron posits her own theory concerning academic achievement based upon her experiences teaching in low income neighborhoods and acknowledges the vital importance of economic factors in the success of any student. Baron also simultaneously narrates her shift from a pre-medical background to English, one that also expounds upon the various identity issues that occur during the college undergraduate years. Baron attends Berkeley, where she is confronted with questions about her ethnic heritage and the viability of her own academic success. Though quite bright and a standout student where she grew up and having the support of many ethnic Filipinos in her hometown of Vallejo, Baron comes to Berkeley facing a rather abrupt transition. Following her college years, Baron takes a trip to Yosemite that almost ends in a tragic accident as she plunges over a waterfall. Not long after surviving this incident, which leaves her rehabbing her leg for over a year, she develops a serious skin condition that runs in her family. So severe is the form that she develops that she cannot work and attempts to find any and all possible therapies to reverse the condition. At one point, a sojourn to Hawaii helps reverse the eczema, but the lessons she learns from battling this disease fuel the rest of the work forward. There’s also a very difficult and poignant sequence in which Baron details the death of a family member. Baron’s work has the intimacy of a diary and it is this reflective quality that will pull you through to the end.

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A Review of Anosh Irani’s Song of Kahunsha (Milkweed Editions, 2007).

While I was reading Irani’s Song of Kahunsha, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between this novel and Dickens’s Oliver Twist. In this novel, the protagonist is an orphan named Chamdi who runs away from his orphanage in Bombay after he finds out it will soon be closed. Life on the streets does not necessarily improve things for him, as he soon discovers. He meets up with two other homeless children: Sumdi, who cannot run because of a leg condition induced by polio, and his sister Guddi. They recruit him into a plan to help escape the clutches of the local mob lord, Anand Bhai, who requires that all those who make money through unofficial means in his territory give him tribute. Thus, any time Chamdi, Sumdi, and Guddi go out to beg, they must turn over their earnings to Anand Bhai and see what is given back to them. Sumdi and Guddi want to leave the area, but to do so they will need to stage a dangerous heist, which will necessarily include Chamdi because he is so fast on his feet. Dickens is always masterful at revealing the complexities of British class mobility and Kahunsha is highlighting a similar issue but in the Indian context. What Irani does so well here is that he does show the limited agency of the homeless and other slum denizens, thus never revealing these characters to be total victims or categorically oppressed. In one particularly telling and tragic scene, Sumdi and Guddi educate Chamdi on how he must appear and how he must beg in order to properly elicit a favorable response from those passing by in cars. Nevertheless, the novel is naturalistic in tonality and we expect that the heist can never go well when so much rides on such young and vulnerable children. No less important to the plot is the question of religious persecution, as the novel presents the continuing tensions that occur among various religious sectors of Bombay. Though Irani is adept at imagining the depth and the limits of these characters, he does not necessarily offer a rounded characterization of the novel’s central antagonist, Anand Bhai. Indeed, he is a pit of evil, so dark that you realize that these children will likely never have any chance to escape as soon as he appears on the scene, slashing the eye of one of his cronies. The title of the novel refers to, one the one hand, Guddi’s masterful singing abilities, but on the other, the name that Chamdi gives to a magical location free of sadness. The “song of Kahunsha” seems to exist in that fantastical realm that these young characters never find.

pylduck reviewed the novel over here:

And I agree with his sentiment that Chamdi is at heart an idealist, which is why I think, the novel is so utterly tragic. In spite of all the darkness that continually surrounds him, he holds out hope for something better.

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A Review of Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke (FSG, 2011).

I will admit: something strange happened to me when I first started reading River of Smoke. After the first thirty pages, I lost all concentration and recalled only bits and pieces of what I had read. I decided to stop reading; I was worried that something about the novel was not grabbing me, that perhaps, I might not even be able to read it. This kind of reading experience has not happened to me in a very long time, so as I gave it a second go about a week later, I figured out what the issue was. The first 100 or so pages are primarily analeptic narratives that are fragmented by the sheer amount of characters that Ghosh includes. The ethnographic quality of the novel is certainly impressive, but as each character must get his or her own backstory, the novel’s forward movement is always in question. Though ships are all over this novel, attempting to get from one destination or another, there is a tremendous sense of retrogression, so much so that we can’t help but think that’s part of the whole game plan.

So, finally, we come to the second installment in a planned trilogy by Ghosh; he started it all with Sea of Poppies, which primarily focused on one ship, the Ibis. In book two, River of Smoke, we’ve added Redruth and Anahita to the list. The Ibis was all about coolie labor, but the Redruth and Anahita remind us of that ways that colonialism not only transformed bodies into commodities, but certain kinds of plants and flora. Indeed, Redruth and Anahita are both involved in various forms of trade related to opium, in the former, and tea and other such plants in the latter. The Redruth is helmed by Frederick Penrose; he forges a strong, paternal bond to Paulette Lambert, the young French girl, who had originally stowed away on the Ibis. The Anahita is helmed by Bahram Modi; he is hauling a precious and large cargo of opium, which is to be traded in Canton. Indeed, both the Anahita and the Redruth are headed to the same area. The main narrative though eventually focuses on the Anahita due to the impending opium crises. The Chinese do not want opium to be traded within the national boundaries and will not allow the drugs to be smuggled into the country. For those like Bahram, who have already made the trip and have considerable cargo to unload in some form, this pronouncement comes as a very bitter pill. Thus, given the historical backdrop of the Opium Wars, we know that the tension between European traders who seek to uphold tree trade and the Chinese government will continue to ratchet up to a higher and higher level. At the same time, we know that we are prior to the nuclear age, the Cold War, and fighter planes, so that we know any armed conflict on a large scale can only occur through the sea. The other interesting element about this novel is the way that Ghosh makes clear how heterogeneous the seafaring community was—so much so that creoles emerge routinely and linguistic cross-pollination seems commonplace. The question of national and ethnic identity seems to be at issue here precisely because so many of the traders, adventurers, shipmates, explorers, among others, simply seem prepared for the kind of diversity that will fall before them. It will be interesting to see how Ghosh wraps up the trilogy, but in the meantime, you can feast your readerly eyes on yet another epic installment in the Ibis Trilogy.

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