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Asian American Literature Fans – Sunday Mega Review Post for January 29, 2012

Asian American Literature Fans – Sunday Mega Review Post for January 29, 2012

In this post, reviews for:

Romesh Gunesekera’s The Match (The New Press, 2008); Hanif Kureishi’s The Body (Scribner, 2002); Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father (Scribner, 2010); Lan Samantha Chang’s Everything is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (W.W. Norton, 2010); Keshni Kashyap’s Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary (Houghton Mifflin, 2011); illustrated by Mari Araki; Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon, 2011).

A Review of Romesh Gunesekera’s The Match (The New Press, 2008).

Romesh Gunesekera’s The Match is an interesting novel in that it explores the contours of the Sri Lankan diaspora. Our ostensible protagonist, Sunny Fernando, is the son of a journalist from Sri Lanka who decides to move to the Philippines, attracted by the possibilities of the country’s interest in a free press. The novel starts in 2002, takes us back to 1970 and then more or less proceeds chronologically. Each section takes place in a different year. Sunny is motherless (Sunny’s mother committed suicide) and he seems relatively attached to his father. The novel’s opening sees Sunny in the profusion of adolescence, seeking out the affections of the only other Sri Lankan individual (named Tina Navratanam) around his age in their foreigners’ compound, Urdaneta. He takes it upon himself to try to arrange a cricket match, which will bring together all the local families of the area, including Tina and her parents, as well as a couple of other expatriates and foreigners living in Urdaneta. Though “team Urdaneta” wins against a visiting Hong Kong group, Sunny never establishes himself as Tina’s hero; instead, by the ending of the novel’s first section, Tina has moved to America and Sunny finds himself disillusioned after he discovers that his mother’s suicide may have been, in part, induced by his father’s failure to adhere to particular career aspirations. The second part moves us to London where Sunny is in engineering school. He meets makes some friends, including another Sri Lankan immigrant named Ranil and Ranil’s girlfriend, Clara. He also becomes reacquainted with a friend from his Manila days, a young man by the name of Robby. Given Sunny’s intense attraction to Clara, it is not surprising that they embark on their own relationship when Clara’s relationship with Ranil stumbles. They will have one child together named Mikey and Sunny will pursue a career in photography. Much of the novel from here explores the complications that arises attempts to deal with the way his inability to retain stable friendships and family structures. Gunesekera remains attached to the thematic of cricket and returns to another match at the novel’s conclusion giving this work an interesting circularity.
Gunesekera is particularly gifted at intertwining a personal, family narrative within a larger structure of historical and political events. Throughout the novel, we’ll get snippets of what is going on with the Marcos-regime, the increase in violence in Sri Lanka, or the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Further still, Gunesekera employs an omniscient narrator who grants us an ability to see into Sunny’s quite vivid mindscapes. There are particularly beautiful passages of philosophical and poetic insight. The novel becomes uneven though in terms of its linear plot development; the novel reads episodically without much upward movement and the opening section is certainly the novel’s most compelling section. That being said, I’ll leave you with one of many gems from Sunny’s mindscape: “Sunny wanted to photograph hope embedded in love. Or love embedded in hope. Something promising despite the true nature of the world. Against the odds. Something more all-encompassing than that Parisian kiss imprinted in a million heads. Something that could be found, just as it was lost, like life itself. Unexpectedly. Undeservedly” (293).

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A Review of Hanif Kureishi’s The Body (Scribner, 2002) and My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father (Scribner, 2010).

I was immediately intrigued by the premise of the Body. The main character is an aging, but well respected and rather well-known writer, married to a woman named Margot, when he meets a young man, Ralph, at a party. Ralph comes to him with a rather outlandish claim that he could have the chance to plant his brain into the body of someone younger. Indeed, Ralph has already undergone the process, in part because he had always courted a deep desire to play Hamlet; by the time Ralph had realized how important this part and an acting career could be to him, he was already quite old and could not land the parts he desired. In any case, our narrator and protagonist decides to undergo the procedure, picking out a body of a man who is in his mid-twenties, apparently quite handsome and apparently in his previous life was a homosexual and suffered from acute mental illness which resulted in his suicide. Kureishi does not belabor the science behind this process; he uses this novel’s premise as a way to meditate on the dilemmas and quandaries related to aging. The philosophical mindset of our narrator, though, seems rather focused on one goal: to employ the body to experience particular excesses: the excesses of sex, drugs, but not so much rock ‘n roll. To a certain extent, the novel, despite its rather short length, is rather episodic. Though the idea behind Kureishi’s novel is quite intriguing, the narrator is unfortunately rather unsympathetic and at best, narcissistic in a way that we find it difficult to follow his exploits, much that seem ultimately repetitive or hollow. The final arc of the novel seems to move the novel in a new direction. Our narrator begins to tire of his NewBody and even decides to visit his wife, who has no idea that he’s visiting her in this other form; he realizes how much he misses his wife and their son. A minor character, Matte, who had been pursuing him in order to steal his body for his brother who is dying of cancer, reveals the curse that comes with this apparently flawless, youthful body. Kureishi, in this sense, finally upturns the expectation youth is the preferred mode of being, but this message is conveyed in a very elliptical way. Indeed, the extreme consumerism and hedonism on display throughout this novel is largely more symbolic of the desire for and the danger inherent in being young—one is not only in the preferred subject position, but one is envied to the extent that one becomes a target for violence and brutality.

Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father was first published in the United Kingdom in 2004; I think it had its first publication in the U.S. in 2010. Again, I would love to read an article as to why certain books get a delayed release in the U.S. or are not even released at all. This book is a creative nonfiction, mixed-genre work; some parts autobiography, some parts biography; pictures are included throughout and we get a deep and in-depth look at Kureishi’s highly complicated relationship with his father, who Kureishi reads a man who deeply detested rivalry and if anything never sought an equal in his son, but rather someone who he could depend upon without having to worry about some sort of strained competitiveness. Much of this work ruminates upon an unpublished novel of Kureishi’s father, one that Kureishi reads with some fear, realizing that this manuscript might offer some keen insight into his father’s beliefs and motivations. Since it does not seem as if his father was ever that directly communicative, the unpublished novel becomes one of the ways that Kureishi still has to “read his father,” however speculative this process may be. He is quick to admit the many aporias of this practice, especially in relation to the fact that eighty manuscript pages remain missing (from the middle of the novel), but this project arcs out into other interviews and other memories. For instance, this book is in some ways as much about Kureishi’s father’s brother, Omar, as it is about Kureishi’s father. Omar comes to considerable prominence as a cricket reporter and there are characters within the novel that seem to be analogs to the relationship between Omar and Kureishi’s father. Interestingly enough, Kureishi also reads Omar’s two memoirs alongside his father’s unpublished novel; thus these this work begins to read more and more like a form of reflective literary critique. Regarding Kureishi’s project of “reading his father,” he writes: “And me? What sort of remark have I just made? What have I been doing, opening up father like this, examining, diagnosing, operating on him, so that his work feels like a cross between love-making and an autopsy? I have to say I don't know what sort of book I am making here, as I spin my words out of his words, stories out of other stories” (94). A couple of things to note from this passage. First, one of Kureishi’s uncles makes a big impression upon him concerning Freud (not that Kureishi necessarily believed or supported Freudian psychoanalytic theory), but there’s something to be said about this passage in relation to this background. Second, this passage gets at the core of biography as a kind of creative process and reminds me somewhat of Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed. Regarding being an artist, Kureishi writes: “Most artists work continuously their production rarely ceases, and, if it does, this causes much anxiety and loss of meaning. The freedom to be an artist, rewarding thought it is, is another form of bondage or slavery, as dad seemed to understand. If father’s life and moods were determined by the train timetable, the life of any artist is controlled by as strict a timetable, internalised” (176). In relation to this process, I wondered if it has analogs to people who have to write criticism. As I’ve been on the verge of completing a book manuscript on Asian American fiction, I am wondering what I’m supposed to do, where the next project will come, and the “anxiety” is certainly appearing. I don’t know about it being comparable to “bondage or slavery,” but I can appreciate hyperbolic metaphors as much as the next reader, I’m sure. A fascinating work, one that could be taught I think in any workshop format concerning life-writing and biography.

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A Review of Lan Samantha Chang’s Everything is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (W.W. Norton, 2010).

I’ve been meaning to review this work for some time. Chang is a favorite of mine and I’ve loved her previous two novels; I’ve taught Hunger more times than I can remember. Chang deviates from the Chinese American themes that dominated her first two works to focus on a romance triangle that unfolds in the space of a premiere creative writing institution located in the Midwest (perhaps a fictional nod to her own occupation as the director of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop). There is Roman, our ostensible protagonist and heady hero; Roman’s close friend, Bernard; and their brilliant, talented, but cold teacher named Miranda Sturges. Roman immediately embarks on an ill-conceived affair with Miranda, which will ultimately color his entire creative writing career. Bernard, while harboring significant feelings for Miranda (when I first wrote this review, I wrote Romanda, which is in some ways accurate given that the actual romantic pairing that occurs is between Roman and Miranda and our Branjelina of this novel if you will), will take an entirely different path toward creative enlightenment. While Roman gains accolade after accolade seeking the perfect judge to his work, Bernard is always after the perfect reader. Chang thus seems to stage a polemic about the way that creative writers (and their ostensible reading audiences) always have different reasons and motivations concerning the nature and true intent of art. Chang is always exceptionally talented at managing the narrative space; she knows that every single sentence counts. This slim novel manages to pack quite an articulated life trajectory not only for Roman, but also for Bernard and Miranda who are ultimately always interconnected with Roman’s life. If there is one critique of the novel to be levied, for all this talk of poetry, there is very little actual poetry that appears in the novel. It would have been interesting to see exactly what kinds of poems these characters are writing. In that space of ellipticality, these characters’ creative lives appear a little bit diffuse and almost ghostly.

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A Review of Keshni Kashyap’s Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary (Houghton Mifflin, 2011); illustrated by Mari Araki

First off: this graphic novel is a little bit different than many that I’ve previously read in that there are longer portions of actual text that are not necessarily appearing alongside panels. Indeed, standard panels are often dispensed with entirely. The other element to consider is one of collaboration and authorship. Like other graphic works that have been reviewed on this site, the writer and illustrator are not one and the same, making this genre a little bit different to define and to read than others. In this case, Kashyap’s spirited script imagines the life of Tina, a 10th grader and South Asian American living in Southern California. The graphic novel goes on to depict Tina’s angsty high school life. The novel’s premise begins with Tina writing an existential diary as part of a class project. Peppered with references to Sartre and Spivak, the graphic novel engages the meandering meditations of Tina as she attempts to navigate a romance with a fellow high schooler named Neil, to rehearse for the lead of the high school production of Rashomon, and to maintain a non-solitary existence by forging strong friendships. With so few Asian American works engaging a strongly comedic tonality, Kashyap’s narrative is already quite unique and one I plan to include in future curricular offerings. Mari Araki’s drawing style is a welcome pairing; there are certain panel sequences that absolutely spark off the page. For instance, when Tina must engage a stage kiss as part of her dress rehearsal, Araki makes sure to convey the trauma of that moment with a particularly horrific view of the lead actor’s longer than normal tongue. This panel sequence is worth the price of the buying the book alone! In the spirit of Tina’s class assignment, I give her diary an A+.

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A Review of Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon, 2011).

I had a very odd reaction to Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem. The political motivation behind this narrative is quite clear. Jin cites numerous sources in his author’s note as inspirations for this novel, one that delves into the infamous Nanjing massacre. Not surprisingly, one of Jin’s sources is Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, probably the most well-known contemporary source on that event and certainly credited with renewing interest in what had occurred approximately half a century before its publication. Though Jin takes great pains to be historically accurate, to the extent that he focuses the narrative so much on an actual figure, Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and the dean of a women’s college that will be converted into a refugee center during the invasion period, the narrative is itself bogged down by a kind of reportage. The narrator, Anling, an employee at the women’s college and one of Vautrin’s assistants and friends, provides us with her first hand account of the many atrocities that occur, the struggle to save as many lives as possible, and finally Vautrin’s later mental decline and suicide. Perhaps, the most fascinating element of this novel is how Jin explores conceptions of wartime atrocities. Though the Japanese military and soldiers are the indispensable locus of evil during the invasion, the antagonistic center of the novel turns quite considerably the second to a far more congenial-seeming figure, that of Mrs. Dennison, the former college president who has returned. Mrs. Dennison is intent upon returning the college to its former glory. Mrs. Dennison sees certain developments in the curricular offerings to be a step down from what a secondary institution should offer, particularly the sections of the school devoted to vocational, rather than educational instruction. Mrs. Dennison, in contrast to both Minnie and Anling, fled during the invasion, thus her connection to the remaining refugees and students at the college is different and we might say even detached. Mrs. Dennison seems to symbolically convey how quickly the effects of the invasion were also so quickly being glossed over and effectively erased, a fact that Minnie could not stomach. Mrs. Dennison thus becomes one of the most fully fleshed out antagonists with an agenda to subvert Minnie’s power and influence. Later, when it is insinuated that Minnie had actually at some point offered some of the refugee women staying at the college to Japanese soldiers coming through as prostitutes, she suffers a serious mental illness from which she never recovers. Jin’s whole inspiration for this novel is admirable, but yet the novel never quite fully gains its form or its footing.

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