December 22, 2011
Reviews of Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (Picador, 1996); Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Father of the Four Passages (FSG, 2001 and Picador Paperback, 2002); Lois-Ann Yamanaka Behold the Many (Picador, 2006)
It’s cold out there; it’s time to stay by the fire or the heater or the space heater or pile on the blankets and get to some reading. In this post, you’ll find reviews for: Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (Picador, 1996); Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Father of the Four Passages (FSG, 2001 and Picador Paperback, 2002); Lois-Ann Yamanaka Behold the Many (Picador, 2006); Eugie Foster’s Returning My Sister’s Face: And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice (Norilana Books, 2009); Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (Simon and Schuster, 2007); Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference (First Second, Reissue, 2011).
Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers is narrated from the first person perspective of Lovey Nariyoshi. This novel immediately explores issues of class and racial formation, as Lovey voices the narrative through Hawaiian pidgin. Early on, we discover how much shame Lovey holds for her inability to speak standard English. The structure of this novel is episodic, with each chapter holding a kind of parable-like quality, revealing the complications of Lovey’s family and social life. Her best friend, Jerry, is an effeminate young man; she is otherwise a loner and constantly reveals her desire to be “haole.” The novel is most reminiscent of R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s, as we see that Lovey situates her life through the popular imaginary and through cultural icons. There are extended chapters on Barbie dolls and many references to film and television culture. While this novel doesn’t have a natural progression, Yamanaka is particularly keen on exploring the kinds of tragedies of working class Hawaii that make upward mobility so difficult and so illusory. Though characters obviously desire to alter their circumstances, access to educational, financial, and occupational resources are extremely limited.
Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Father of the Four Passages is narrated from the perspective of Sonia Kurisu, a twenty-something who is struggling to get her life back on track. With a father constantly traveling around the world (Joseph), and an absentee mother (Grace), Sonia, along with her sister, Celeste, are just twelve and thirteen, when they are moved to Hilo to be raised by their Grandmother Alma. As Sonia grows up, she dabbles in drugs, unprotected sex, and later moves to Las Vegas to try to complete an MFA degree. By this time, she’s already aborted three babies and has one living child, Sonny Boy; she’s in particularly bad romantic situation with an abusive man, Drake, and she only survives with the help of two friends, Bob, an elderly African American Vietnam War veteran, and Mark, a student at UNLV with whom Sonia had already known for many years living in Hawaii. The demons from her past come to literally haunt her, as the voices of her three aborted babies come out of nowhere and begin to demand things of her. She also soon discovers that Sonny Boy is autistic. Given Sonia’s age, I couldn’t help but think that she might be suffering from schizophrenia and I wasn’t entirely surprised when she overdoses on pills. At that point, she realizes that, despite her fears that she has become just like her failed mother, she must return to Hilo and get help from her closest family and friends. The novel takes a drastic turn here, as Sonia attends to being a mother, helping address her son’s autism, and dealing with the traumas of her abortions. Like Yamanaka’s other works, spirituality and Christianity always appear as major themes. Sonia finds her own way to navigate a kind of personal faith that combines local mysticism and Christian elements together; indeed, she calls upon a faith healer to help address family ruptures and her inability to properly work through her past. Park of Sonia’s healing process also emerges in establishing old contacts on the island. She meets up with Jacob, who was to be the father of the second aborted child and they tentatively consider their connections to each other. Sonia also finds that Sonny Boy, though not speaking, has attached himself quite closely one of Celeste’s daughters. That Sonia finds a way out of her madness reveals a rather redemptive story arc, one that I will admit I was a little suspicious of, given how incredibly dark the novel can be in its earliest stages. Yamanaka is particularly gifted at rendering a traumatized subjectivity through prose: time and spatial shifts are often unmarked; even within the same sections, sentences are not necessarily sequentially arranged. We’re supposed to be as confused as Sonia is. Not surprisingly, the prose style gets far more direct in a way by the end, though the spirituality is clearly ramped up to a high degree. I couldn’t also help noticing Yamanaka’s interethnic representations in this novel. Given the controversy over Blu’s Hanging and Yamanaka’s depiction of Filipino characters, I wonder what other readers made of Yamanaka’s depiction of the Korean bar hostess, Anna. These scenes were striking in the way that Sonia, given her own rather colorful background, denigrates Anna by calling her Cindy and being rather aggressive with her. In any case, this novel makes an excellent companion text to Behold the Many in its use of ghost narration, ghostly figures, Christian spirituality, and mystical healing.
Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Behold the Many is a very tough read. Set in 1913 on the island of Oahu, the novel focuses on three sisters, Anah, Aki, and Leah, as they struggle to survive the austere environment of an orphanage. They are sent to the orphanage not because they do not have parents, but because their parents cannot properly care for them anymore; what is particularly tragic is that their parents place a premium on the male child who can help their plantation laborer father out in the fields. They all come down with tuberculosis and without adequate medical treatment, Aki and Leah die. The novel takes a dark turn at this point because Anah had promised both Aki and Leah that they would be visited by family and would one day get to go home. Aki and Leah are ghosts who seek retribution on Anah, who they see as a liar; she is repeatedly called “mentirosa.” Anah bears the burden of their deaths, even as she comes to find love with a local boy named Ezroh. Anah is eventually able to leave the orphanage and marries Ezroh, but her demons follow her, even after she gives birth to multiple female children. Indeed, it is almost as if the ghosts demand a sacrifice, but it is unclear why Anah must be the one who is so afflicted and her sins seem to transfer to the lives of her children. As a novel that explores the ways in which trauma is represented, I think Yamanaka’s novel is particularly stunning. Do we see these ghosts as a manifestation of Anah’s guilt or are her experiences serving as an allegory for a historically conditioned form of trauma? And what do we make of the Christian imagery that tracks consistently throughout the novel? Do we read the experiences of Anah and her children as a form of religious allegory as well? These questions are all evidence of a text that provokes rich discussion. Fans of poetic prose will also find Yamanaka’s work quite engaging. This novel is probably my favorite of all of Yamanaka’s works that I’ve read!
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A Review of Eugie Foster’s Returning My Sister’s Face: And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice (Norilana Books, 2009).
Eugie Foster’s Returning My Sister’s Face was a delight to read, the kind of book you can curl up to on a cold winter’s day and be effortlessly transported to another time and place. These “tales” traverse diverse periods and geographical terrains; it includes stories set in China, Japan, and Korea. I read this book after I read Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Cathay and Marilyn Chin’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, and there’s something to be said about a college course that explores conceptions of “Asian” folk imagery and mystical tales (one could add Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh and Larissa Lai’s When Fox is a Thousand). I focus on a couple of the tales that resonated most with me. The collection opens with “Daughter of Botu,” a story about a family of rabbits who are transformed into humans and must deal with their new figures and their new lives. The main character, An-Ying, narrates the tale and eventually falls in love with a human of quite noble lineage and marries him. She leaves her family behind to live with him but he grows suspicious of her when she becomes pregnant and is about to bear a child, far earlier than would be possible had he been the father. You see: the problem is that An-Ying is a rabbit-human, thus the gestation period would likely be different. Further still, poisoning her husband’s mind is a fox-demon, Meng Shouzen, who had been pretending to be her husband’s mother. The conclusion to this story features an interesting twist on the romance plot that I didn’t see coming. “A thread of Silk” is a wonderful revenge tale based upon an actual historical figure. In this particular piece, the main character, Mae, intends to avenge the death of her father, a Japanese governor, when her brother, Sadamori, falls deathly ill due to a wound he sustained in the siege on the governor’s palace. She calls upon the power of the gods to help carry out this plan, which involves killing a man, Masakado, who has apparently been granted the a divine gift of almost-categorical invulnerability. Mae receives a cryptic message that love and war will almost certainly result in an incredibly problematic dilemma for her. In “Honor is a Game Mortals Play,” Ayame must avenge the death of her grandfather at the hands of a demon. When the demon, Ronin, she intends to kill actually tricks her and later delivers her into the hands of a beautiful woman, Ayame discovers that this woman is actually her mother, Yuki-onna, who is actually immortal and wants Ayame to give up any trace of her mortality. Ayame thus must make a fateful choice. “Shim Chung the Lotus Queen” takes place in Korea and is one of the few “happy ending” tales in the collection. Shim Chung is willing to sacrifice herself to a sea god, the Dragon King in order to restore the sight of her father. What actually occurs is that she is taken to the Dragon King’s palace, but she is later freed because she is so unhappy. When she returns to the mortal world, she discovers her father’s sight had not actually been restored, but I’ll encourage you to read this work to find out how things do felicitously resolved. My favorite story in this collection was “Year of the Fox.” In this story, a brother-fox and sister-fox, Jin and Mei, vow to avenge their mother’s death, likely perpetrated by a human. They both make an oath to wreak havoc on humans for one year and then reunite. Mei takes up with a noblewoman, Lian, who lives with two aged servants; the story gets very complicated because Mei ends up realizing that all humans are not evil and that she must amend her approach toward revenge. This story also reminds us that foxes cannot be seen solely as villains. Though the fox in the opening story certainly has the most evil plans, Mei comes to an entirely different sense of what it means to be at peace. Again, this collection is great fun to read and Foster certainly masters the mystical tonality of these types of folktales.
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A Review of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (Simon and Schuster, 2007).
Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People is another one of those books that has been on my to-read list forever. I finally sat down over Thanksgiving break to read it and it’s hard to hazard only one impression of it. Off the top of my head, the thing you will immediately note about the novel is that the narrative voice is so unique; Sinha has really taken a risk in using the first person narrative voice to inhabit the psyche of a character like Animal, who is used to thinking of himself as subhuman. His body has been physically damaged due the toxic gases expelled from a local factory and he literally moves on all four appendages. In the interview that follows that conclusion, Sinha writes that the Bhopal disaster was one of the inspirations for this novel, but adds that “This was the background, but novels are about people, not issues. I knew Bhopal too well. To write freely, I had to imagine another city. In this fictional place, which I called Khaufpur (‘khauf’ is an Urdu word that means ‘terror’), the characters could come to life.” I’m not exactly sure if I agree that novels are not “about issues,” but what I gather is that the issues can’t be too abstracted or they don’t make for a compelling novel. But I’m always interested in the relationship between fiction and nonfiction and the quite porous boundaries between the two terms. In any case, the novel is set in this fictional city of the aforementioned Khaufpur and much of the novel’s tensions appear in the guise of an American doctor named Elli, who comes to open a free clinic, only to discover that no patients will visit. Indeed, Zafar, one of the most charismatic local activists believes that Elli is affiliated with the Kampani (another word for “company”) that has perpetrated the toxic environment in which all the Khaufpurians now live. Another set of issues emerges because of Animal’s sexual desires, which are represented to be severely repressed; he places much of his libidinous energies in the fantasies he harbors for Nisha, a young and kind woman that Animal believes is really in love with Zafar. Though Zafar commands so much support in the local community, Animal finds him to be an overstuffed romantic rival. The novel is devastating insofar as it reveals the limits of activist work, the challenges of local communities to organize successfully, and the continuing ethical issues that surround environmental disasters. What is an appropriate settlement for those affected by such catastrophic events? The amount of suffering that many of the characters endure suggests that a dollar value is really incommensurate to the structural traumas encapsulating entire communities, generations, and cultures. What makes the novel quite an interesting piece to discuss is Sinha’s narrator: why Animal? How does his perspective give us the best way to consider these peoples and these issues? I’ll leave these questions for those that end up reading the novel!
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A Review of Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference (First Second, Reissue, 2011).
Simon and Nancy, our anti-heroes
Rejoice! Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference has been reissued by First Second and the handsome hardcover edition even includes a section devoted to the sketching, storyboarding, and drafting process that Kim employed while working on this hilarious work. I’d place Kim’s work alongside Tomine’s in his use of traditional panel separations and relatively sparse usage of captioning (though Tomine uses even less in something like Shortcomings). The main characters, Simon and Nancy, are two youthful Korean American, Bay Area denizens who have semi-slackerish qualities to them (again, I couldn’t help but be reminded somewhat of Shortcomings). What ultimately sets this plot into motion is a sort of chance phenomenon in which Nancy discovers that Simon’s hometown is the same residence as the very man who has been sending love letters to Nancy’s current residence. Those letters are not addressed to Nancy but someone else who used to live there, and they show a level of romance, obsession, and level of intimacy that certainly could be construed as stalkerish. Nancy had been playing a sort of prank by responding to this man’s letters. Thus, they embark on a kind of adventure to Simon’s hometown of Pacifica. For those of you who haven’t been there, Pacifica is one of those sleepy Coastal towns (a friend of mine actually lived there for some time) with a relatively modest population, but it’s just south of San Francisco and sits right on the ocean. The view as you drive from the freeway into the town is absolutely breathtaking and Nancy’s first impression was much like mine. In any case, a series of coincidences leads Simon to reconnect with an old high school classmate named Irene, who is blind, and for Simon and Nancy, to bump into Ben, the man sending the letters, at the local grocery store. From there, Kim is intent on exploring the complicated nuances of individuals as they drift in and out of each other’s lives—what assumptions we might have about them or how we might move past our own superficial impulses and impressions. Kim’s drawings are first rate; the humor is particularly the high point in terms of my personal reading experience. Simon and Nancy are an unforgettable Korean American comedic duo who bring this wonderful graphic novel to life.
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