In this post, reviews of Janice Lee’s Kerotakis (Dog Horn Publishing, 2010); Daughter (Jaded Ibis Press, 2011) with photographs by Rochelle Ritchie Spencer; Janice Lee’s Red Trees (self-published, 2011); Oliver Chin’s 9 of 1: A Window to the World (Frog, Ltd., 2003); MariNaomi’s Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 (Harper Perennial, 2011).
Reviews of Janice Lee’s Kerotakis (Dog Horn Publishing, 2010); Daughter (Jaded Ibis Press, 2011) with photographs by Rochelle Ritchie Spencer; Janice Lee’s Red Trees (self-published, 2011)
Of the three works currently available by Janice Lee, I read Kerotakis last. It is perhaps equally as challenging and experimental in its form and content as Daughter. Here, Lee takes an interesting generic approach that seems to evoke a drama, as there is a kind of dramatis personae included at the beginning, letting us know that there will be four characters: a cyborg (G.I.L.L.), a brain, the person whose body houses that brain (Dr. Eynan), an artist/painter figure (Zosimosa). Of the four, Zosimosa seems to be the least prominent, though her presence might be detailed in the various sketches and drawings that track throughout the collection. Zosimosa is also the figure who helps us understand the importance of the kerotakis, which is apparently a heated palette that allowed painters to keep their paints in liquid form. The kerotakis was later also used in alchemical processes, thus providing Lee a way to consider the ways in which objects transform in their function as our relationships to them transform. But, the primary relationship explored in Kerotakis exists among the cyborg, G.I.L.L., a brain that is traveling through time, and Dr. Eynan. These three do form a kind of alternative holy trinity, as the cyborg figure is continually making observations and posing philosophical questions that make this work quite existential in its tonality: “Thou Shall Notice Everything. This is my function, quoted from the Holy Texts, passed down by Deity Eynan.” There is a strange moment at the conclusion of Kerotakis, where it seems as though the brain, traveling through time, makes contact with the cyborg. This communion allows Dr. Eynan’s brain to stop traveling through time, but also leaves the cyborg a “used, empty vessel.” I was not quite clear about what occurred in the final pages of Kerotakis, a new chapter in the cyborg’s existence or not? But, if I’ve learned anything from reading Janice Lee’s work, it is that the work is as much more about producing questions and uncertainty than posing categorical interpretations and readings. My one gripe about this book is that there is no pagination. Hehe.
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Toward the end of Janice Lee’s experimental, post/modernish, psychoanalytically-inflected, atmospheric, philosophical, multi-genre, avant-garde novel, Daughter, there is a reference page with sources cited in the narrative, which includes some prominent writers and figures including Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Given the incredible use wordplay, I also expected there might be some Gertrude Stein factored in there as an influence despite the name not appearing on the reference page. There’s a point at which you start reading this work and you have to let go of the desire to find narrative cohesion; instead, what you receive are impressions and from those impressions, you begin to hazard some interpretations. At its core, I read Daughter as a meditation on identity, one induced by the philosophical underpinnings of dissection. What does it mean to take apart another body and how does that body reflect anything about who I am, where I come from, the nature of my relationships and my life? The sublimity of the dissection is made apparent early on when we can’t quite see what it is that is inside a glass jar; I actually thought it might be some marbles, but the narratorial “I” becomes fixated on certain binaries, one of which is the relationship between “I” and an octopus. We see repeated images throughout this lusciously produced work (there are stunning photographs that appear throughout) of an octopus from many angles inside a jar. There are prose poetic blocks concerning the relationship between this “I” and the octopus: “Are we talking about the octopus or me? Once in awhile, a dead octopus washes ashore, tossed onto the beach by waves. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are no waves here, where are we again? Am I becoming a blur or are you? Keep me on the edge over the edge under the edge at the edge—“ (79) and then later: “I am not myself these days. My interest wanes with the withdrawal of texture. There is not enough interior space in the body, and yet the distance allows a different kind of spectatorship. Is this the end of my exploring? Will I arrive where I started? Am I knowing this place for the first time? There is a fear of personal extinction and synchronicity. I am touching the octopus’s heart, or is it touching mine?” (93) and then again: “It was insistent, the corpse, in the daughter’s careful execution of the process, as if the octopus was asserting its physical presence all the more she cut into it” (103). Why does the dissection of the octopus create such a crisis in the titular daughter? At various points, this figure is trying to reconcile whether there is really any difference between subject and object; are things mirrors or actually different? These questions are always made all the more fascinating because Lee will drop in scientific statements and terms like “convergent evolution,” which relates how two evolutionarily dissimilar entities might still evolve in such a way to possess similar organs. Octopi and humans apparently have very similar complexities in their visual organs. In identifying with the Other, does not become unmade and undone, what Lee calls “personal extinction”? Other binaries include in the novel: doctor/daughter, mother/daughter, Juan/ Jorge (some sort of meta-spiritual brother-set that appear in the novel as playscript). These terms also of course invade the other major terms, creating a patchwork that is dream-like and metaphysical in quality. The constant references to the sea immediately bring to my mind the work of Virginia Woolf, Kazim Ali (in Quinn’s Passage), and Jennifer Chang (from the beginning of History of Anonymity). It’s difficult to hazard answers to the philosophical questions offered in Lee’s work, but the deluge of beautiful images, (which also include various angles of a woman wearing a white mask), dense poetic prose, ethereal in its syntax makes for a sumptuous reading experience, sure to grow richer in conversations with others. As a quick note, I’d like to briefly state that the production quality on the print bound volumes are just amazing (reminiscent of the work out of Chin Music Press) and while there is much to laud in the growing demand for digital services, there is something quite singular in being able to peruse this novel and turn the occasional page to come upon an exquisite vista of seascapes.
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In Lee’s self-published chapbook, Red Trees, she explores some more autobiographical themes and includes a detailed note preceding the text explaining some of the challenges she faced in its publication trajectory. It’s particularly interesting to see how the course of “real life” events might alter the vision and the production of a creative project. In Red Trees, Lee employs a prose poetic form to explore some of the more common themes of Asian American literature, including interracial tension, class mobility, citizenship and assimilation. Of course, she also complicates these themes by presenting them in metaphorical and densely lyrical ways. The titular “red trees” are a riffing device that Lee uses recursively throughout the chapbook, an image that seems to denote the failure of certain fantasies to materialize. Red trees are what emerge from behind the ruins of the American dream; red trees are what the bodies of immigrants become as they struggle to make ends meet. Because Red Trees is a limited edition chapbook, I am hoping that Lee strongly considers a revision and extension of this work. Highly teachable, hypnotic in the best possible way, it’s the kind of work that reminds of the best in le thi diem thuy, Julie Otsuka, and Kazim Ali.
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A Review of Oliver Chin’s 9 of 1: A Window to the World (Frog, Ltd., 2003).
Thanks to pylduck, I was alerted to this title. Pylduck reviews Oliver Chin’s 9 of 1: A Window to the World:
As I’ve intimated before, I rarely disagree with pylduck’s reviews. I especially found this observation to be true: “In contrast to some of the graphic novels reviewed on this community that have been amazing for their lack of text (and use of illustrations to convey narrative and subtle characterizations), Chin's book is heavily text-based, with the text often outweighing the black-and-white illustrations on the page. Some paragraphs are even in smaller font, as if a standard font size were not adequate to squeeze the words into the limited spaces between illustrations. However, this text-heaviness is by no means a liability for the novel. In fact, the stories being told in this graphic novel are perhaps best done in textual narrative form.” Pylduck’s review is fairly comprehensive in the way that it speaks to the class assignment that is the premise for the graphic novel, so I will speak to some general reflections. First, I have to say: if students always did such a great job on assignments, teachers should be so lucky. The history teacher’s assignment forces students to interview a complete stranger and discuss the impact of 9/11 on their lives. These interviews are packed with personal histories and explore quite complex viewpoints. Given the fact that the graphic novel was published less than two years after 9/11, it is quite an extraordinary work, filled with nuance and deep insights. The other point to make is that Chin clearly worked hard to pair up students and their interviewees with an eye toward diversity. The students all come from different backgrounds and pairs are alike; thus Chin is able to plumb different historical, national and social contexts, including Japanese American internment and Middle Eastern political complications. Certainly, another graphic novel that one can add to a course curriculum.
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A Review of Meera Syal’s Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee (New Press, 2000)
Set in London, Meera Syal’s novel gets the prize for the most inventive title that I’ve come across in a long time. The title seriously makes me giggle every time I say it out loud and Syal clearly was drawing upon some of the immigrant aphorisms that emerge and get “lost in translation.” In any case, the novel follows the lives of three women of South Asian descent; these are the beautiful and calculating Tania, the harried mother Sunita, and the innocent newlywed Chila. They are three friends, though they are at very different stages in their life. When Tania encourages both Sunita and Chila to take part in a documentary she is producing about the everyday married lives of South Asian women, they do not realize that she might actually edit them in less than flattering ways. When the documentary is finally screened, it ends up being a big success, but both Sunita’s and Chila’s relationships end up being lampooned more than celebrated. This moment obviously places tremendous strain on their friendships. Complicating matters is the fact that Tania will end up kissing Chila’s husband Deepak in a moment of weakness following the screening of the documentary. Prior to marrying Chila (and unbeknownst), Deepak had been in a relationship with Tania. Somehow, Chila, Sunita, and Martin (Tania’s then boyfriend) all witness the event through a window at a party. These two major events set up the second half of the book, which sees the three women attempting to sort out their friendships and relationships. Chila is pregnant and struggling to rebuild her marriage; Sunita is engaging in a flirtatious (though non sexual) dalliance with a doctor ten years younger than her named Krishan, much to the ignorance of her husband and psychotherapist, Akash. And Tania is engaging in an affair with Deepak. Sunita and Chila are, not surprisingly, not in contact with Tania.
This novel was an absolutely engaging and humorous read. You’re not necessarily going to come out of this book with a larger social context for the South Asian diaspora, though Syal’s obviously got a very keen eye on the complications of ethnic communities and romantic relationships in an immigrant milieu. Further still, Syal has a really engaging and quite mathematical narrative technique. Third person omniscient narration is interspersed with first person narrative accounts from all three of the major female characters. It seems as though each major female character gets three different turns to narrate her story, the most hilarious of which is the chapter narrated in the first person from the perspective of Chila as she is giving birth. As a random sidenote, I looked up some biographical information on Meera Syal and had no idea she was an actress and recently starred in a couple of Doctor Who episodes I saw. Syal had a great role in those episodes!
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A Review of MariNaomi’s Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 (Harper Perennial, 2011).
MariNaomi’s Kiss & Tell is a brave and courageous graphic (in both senses of the word) memoir that rather unsentimentally depicts pretty much every sexual encounter that the protagonist has experienced, which include everything from simple make-out experiences to threesomes. The memoir begins with the protagonist giving her family background, detailing the relationship between her Caucasian father and Japanese mother. Aspects of race and ethnicity and specifically issues of mixed-race only appear occasionally in the graphic memoir; the central concerns are related to the protagonist’s exploration of her many relationships and how formative they were in the constitution of her identity and her maturity. In this way, I agree with the point that pylduck made in his review, which can be found here:
Pylduck writes: “Aside from the early mention of her parents' mixed race relationship, there isn't too much more discussion of race in the memoir. There are the brief moments where an ex-boyfriend ends up dating other Asian and mixed-race Asian girls as well as other moments when people comment on her black boyfriend and she responds, what does his race have to do with anything?” I do have to admit, I often wondered a little bit about her parents and about issues of race, which seem to disappear into the background for the majority of the memoir. It is clear that the protagonist is precocious in many respects and sexually liberated, though her non-traditional approach to her life does grate against her parents. At one point, she runs away from home and lives on the streets and engages in numerous ill-fated love affairs, but our narrator is plucky, if not, resilient. One of the most poignant sequences involves the narrator’s involvement with a man by the name of Jason Towns, who becomes one of her most significant romances, but by the conclusion of the memoir, the narrator does not know what actually happened to him. Given the rather blunt representations and rather encyclopediac account of her sexual experiences, it is not a surprise that the writer explains in her dedication: “This is dedicated to my parents, who I pray will speak to me after they read the contents of this book.” Of course, we are all the more enriched for the frankness of this work and it would certainly make for an interesting discussion.
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