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Asian American Literature Fans – Friday Megareview for August 3, 2012

Asian American Literature Fans – Friday Megareview for August 3, 2012

Get the headstart on the weekend by doing some, what? Yes, reading.

In this post, reviews of: Cathy Yardley’s Ravish (Avon Red, 2008); Cathy Yardley’s Enslave (Avon Red, 2009); Don Lee’s The Collective (WW Norton, 2012); Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (The Penguin Press, 2012); Michelle Sagara’s Silence (Daw Books, 2012); and Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir (Riverhead Hardcover, 2012).

A Review of Cathy Yardley’s Ravish (Avon Red, 2008); Enslave (Avon Red, 2009).

I have generally resisted the call of reviewing romance novel titles simply because of my “elitist” predisposition to avoid books that only come out in trade paperbacks. Avon Red recently published a series of books by Cathy Yardley (author of Dixieland Sushie among a number of other titles) that have come out in trade paperbacks, so I am going to be reviewing two of them here. These books are essentially modern retellings of popular fairy tales (Crave = Cinderella; Ravish = Sleeping Beauty; Enslave = Beauty and the Beast).

For fans of the romance genre, Yardley’s Ravish will not disappoint: it has the requisite sex scenes, a cataclysmic central romance plot, Caribbean voodoo priestesses, zombie spells, broken promises, and psychoanalytic inquiries all thrown into a rather eclectic genre “pot.” Our hero is Jacob White who is called in to take a medical case of the “sleeping beauty” named Aurora Jacquard (nicknamed Rory). Jacob realizes something magical is soon amiss when the highly charged sex dreams he is having aren’t probably dreams at all. He seeks counsel from his psychoanalyst brother Aaron and later, when it seems clear that Rory is perhaps under the malevolent influence of a voodoo priestess named Serafina, calls on Aaron’s lover, Mahjani, a professor of folk legend and practitioner of voodoo, to help out. Apparently, Rory’s parents once enlisted the help of Serafina in order to conceive, but they back out of a promise to Serafina. Breaking this promise results in a curse, which appears in the form of Rory’s comatose state, which is only induced when she is about to have sex for the first time.

In Enslave, Yardley retells the story of beauty and the beast. Our heroine is Nadia Bessenova who is willing to sacrifice herself in order to save her father, who seems to be in debt to a crime lord known as Dominic Luder (our BEAST). For those of you who have been invested in the cult romance phenomenon known as Fifty Shades of Grey, Enslave might be of interest because the central romance is focused through themes of erotic sadomasochism. Another plot involves Nadia’s sister Jelena who is in an arranged, picture bride marriage with a man who she detests. Jelena believes that she must find a way to become independent, gain power, and finally free her sister Nadia from the bonds of a man who has threatened the cohesion of her finally. Jelena is willing to go to great lengths to make sure that she can find the money that might be able to pay back specific debts. Like Ravish, Enslave contains the familiar genre elements, but does surprise in a specific queer plot that does arise and plays out in perhaps an unexpected fashion.

Though both novels are certainly made to entertain, there is a strong political and cultural impulse to be found in these narratives, especially in relation to class, globalization, and migration. In Ravish, the Jacquards take advantage of their mobility and their affluence to attempt to explore all possible options in their quest to conceive. In Enslave, Jelena and Nadia’s lives do border on the discourse related to the trafficking in women where the line between green card marriages and bondage begins to blur. In this regard, I think it would be a mistake to engage these novels simply as frothy, cast-off romances without attention to deep, contemporary social inequalities. But, perhaps you might think I am just over-reading.

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A Review of Don Lee’s The Collective (WW Norton, 2012).

I rarely like to make predictions about how a particular work will be received, but it’s unquestionable that Don Lee’s fourth work (after Yellow: Stories, Country of Origin, and Wrack and Ruin) will find major interest among academics and those concerned with ethnic studies—oh, and of course we hope, with a wide popular audience, but that is to be assumed. Soon enough, critical articles and book chapters will be devoted to the novel. The Collective is a metafiction and a metacommentary on the question and the complications of Asian American literary representations. The novel begins ominously with the suicide of a 38 year old Korean American, Joshua Yoon, who runs into the path of a speeding car, who also in the process ends up inadvertently killing a young child in that collision. The story is narrated from the perspective of Joshua’s best friend, Eric, and what follows is a retrospective on their friendship and the formation of a group known as 3AC, an Asian American artists’ collective, which will at some point be based out of Joshua’s home on the East Coast. The core of the group remains Joshua, a talented writer who has ends up publishing three books, Eric himself, and Jessica Tsai, a Taiwanese American sculpture and artist. Though there is much tension both sexual and racial among these three, they nevertheless still forge a strong “collective” with the intent of supporting and disseminating Asian American culture out into the world. Naturally, given the very complexities and problems that have rooted the term Asian America, the group suffers from squabbles over its vision and what actually defines “Asian American.” The group finally begins to unravel when one of Jessica Tsai’s art installations is targeted by area politicians for simply being a form of pornography. There is an elegiac quality to Lee’s work here, despite all its humor and comedic sex scenes, suggestive of the futility of creating Asian American art in the wake of postmodernism and post-race discourse and the relative fantasy of an audience perhaps more strictly attuned to the most common themes of the field (broadly defined). Fans of Lee’s work across his oeuvre can rest assured about some familiar tropes and character types. Eric is not unlike many other iterations of sensitive, earnest but wounded Asian American heterosexual male characters that can be found in his other publications. Further still, Lee makes passing references to Rosarita Bay, the geographical terrain of his first and third publications and characters from those works do appear, such as Caroline Yip, one of my favorite characters from Yellow, deemed an “Oriental Hair Poet.” Nowhere to be seen, from what I recall, was Marcella Ahn. But that’s just splitting Asian hairs.

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A Review of Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir (Riverhead Hardcover, 2012).

Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir engages an interesting motif of the coffin. The memoir opens with Huang’s grandmother requesting that she be buried in a coffin instead of cremated. This request is particularly problematic because it occurs in the context of communist China, where it is forbidden for individuals to be buried; rather they must be cremated, but Huang’s grandmother fears that she will be forever burning in the afterlife. The grandmother’s obsession proves to be a sore spot for Huang’s nuclear family. Huang’s father is very much stuck under this grandmother’s finger (she is his mother) and he feels compelled to honor these wishes even at the great cost it will incur to find a way to honor these burial wishes. Huang’s mother finds the grandmother (she is her mother-in-law) to be overbearing and ridiculous in her request and the power plays among grandmother, father, and mother erupt occasionally into large-scale family squabbles. Huang uses this narrative to reveal the complications of cultural traditions in the communist era and the shifting nature of kinship. Huang, as a child, believes himself to be part of the “little red guard,” opposing bourgeois ideals and promoting Mao’s reform policies, so his grandmother’s comes off as subversive and unnecessary. For his part, Huang grows up to be the favored first son, excels in school, and eventually engages a life of the language arts, becoming a translator and traveling abroad to focus on schooling. As he grows older, he begins to see the issue of burial increasingly through the lens of filial piety. When his father unexpectedly dies at the age of sixty due to pneumonia (and prior to the death of his grandmother), he observes the difficulties and the challenges in what death means in terms of honoring one’s past and one’s ancestry. Huang holds tremendous regret over the way he handles the details of his father’s funeral and uses this experience to influence his future decisions in the ways of family. Huang’s memoir is a unique look at communist and post-Communist China; the memoir is arranged such that each chapter is more or less thematically structured, but the success of this work becomes the overarching motif of mortality and the afterlife and the ways that successive generations must honor the past.

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A Review of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (The Penguin Press, 2012).

With a title like Narcopolis, you had to be prepared for pretty much anything to happen in Jeet Thayil’s strangely plotted debut novel. Thayil is author of a number of poetry collections and his first foray into the fictional terrain shows a particularly and not surprising level of lyricality in terms of the writing style. Narcopolis is perhaps another way of naming the urban terrain and underworld of drug pushers and drugstore owners who live in Bombay. The novel begins sometime in the seventies and our unnamed narrator is getting to know some of the more common denizens of this drug underworld. As the story unfolds, certain characters come to the center. There is Dimple, the hijra and prostitute, later the surrogate daughter to Mr. Lee, the owner of some amazing opium pipes and who flees China seeking a new life outside of communist rule. Dimple will later become something of a mistress to a man named Rashid, who owns a khana shop, which is frequented by numerous customers. If the plot is meandering, we might say it is because it is filled with the haze of its drug-addled characters, who drift in and out of their own lives like living specters. At one point, there is a clear shift in the drug economy, as the culture moves toward heroin and cocaine and other stimulants rather than depressants like opium. This change naturally leads to other problems, including increased violence and brutality among the drug underworld, the pushers, the prostitutes, and the addicted customers. At some point, Dimple attempts to leave that life behind; the narrator returns in and out of the narrative at various points to help catalog the changes that the “narcopolis” undergoes. Despite the fluidity of the narrative, Thayil creates some fabulously interesting characters—Dimple, in particular, is one whose perspective you want to return to again and again. Of course, in terms of the social contexts that the novel touches upon, there is much to laud—the incredible class stratification of a densely populated Indian city, the continued tensions between religious populations, and the existential woes that are seemingly only ameliorated by moving oneself into an altered state. An original work with metafictional undertones that tie up the ending, giving the novel a perfectly circular quality.

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A Review of Michelle Sagara’s Silence (Daw Books, 2012).

I’m not quite sure why Michelle Sagara occasionally publishes under a slightly different moniker, but for Silence, the first book in what will be called the “Queen of the Dead” series, she dropped the “West.” She is still concurrently publishing in the Chronicles of Elantra series, which is published out of a Harlequin imprint and there she goes by Michelle Sagara West. In any case, Sagara takes on quite a unique approach to the paranormal fantasy genre that has taken the young adult fiction world by storm. In Sagara’s Silence, you won’t have any zombies, vampires, fairies, or werewolves. Instead, Silence is about a teenage girl named Emma Hall who discovers that she may or may not be a Necromancer. Of the recent books I have read in this general area of paranormal fantasy, I did enjoy this one the most simply for the fact that it treads what was for me original ground due to the topic of Necromancy. Although I had been aware of what Necromancers were due to the incredible amounts of time I lost to a game called Diablo II in which there was a class of adventurers that could raise the dead from corpses, I still hadn’t read much about them in the realm of fiction (that I can remember). The problem with being a necromancer is that they feed off the energy of the dead, often for nefarious purposes. Thus, Emma is supposed to be killed by another teenage boy named Eric (a Necromancer Hunter?) and then later, his more aggressive friend, Chase. Killing off Emma doesn’t turn out to be so easy for either boy. You see, Emma’s basically striving to be the best person she can. She’s still mourning the tragic death of her boyfriend Nathan and the early departure of her father (Brendan), while dutifully working through her new life with her mother (Mercy). She’s got a really tight circle of friends, which include the bookish Allison, the all-around superstar Amy, Allison’s autistic brother, Michael, among a handful of others. Things start taking a turn for the spectral (see what I did there) when a party at Amy turns ghoulish (oops, I did it again) and the group of young teenagers bumps into another Necromancer intent upon doing them ghostly harm. With Emma realizing that she has some sort of power over the dead, she resolves to use that power for good. Her first pet project is to attempt to free a spirit who has been trapped in a plane of existence where he is still stuck in the burning home that killed him, but Emma’s quest is of course riddled with significant danger and the final arc of the book shows us exactly what she and her friends are up against when they try to direct a spirit to a new location. This book is apparently the first of Sagara’s that takes place in a reality that most closely matches our own. Most of the novel is set in Toronto, though to a certain extent, the setting is not nearly as important as the plotting here. A fun read, one that will no doubt entertain fans of all ages and perusing inclinations. Would it be too much to call reading this novel a frightfully good time? Probably.

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