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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 14 2012

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 14 2012

In this post reviews of: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (Vintage, 2009); Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (Vintage, 2012); Leonard Chang’s Crossings (Black Heron Press, 2009); Eric Gamalinda’s People are Strange (Black Lawrence Press, 2012); Melissa De la Cruz’s Serpent’s Kiss (Hyperion, 2012); Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter (WW Norton, 2012); Cynthia Arrieu-King’s People are Tiny in Paintings of China (Octopus Books, 2010); Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012).

A Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

First off: a caveat. Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t an Asian American writer per se, but we’ve always been troubling definitions within this blogging community and I see no reason to discontinue the practice. Indeed, Ishiguro is always a bit difficult to situate from any ethnic literary tradition because after his first two novels, there hasn’t been much related to Japanese or Japanese-British figures within his fiction. Never Let Me Go operates in much this fashion as the race of its major three character are left unmarked. Kathy H. narrates the novel and she is the prism through which we see a love triangle eventually emerge among her and the other two major characters: Tom and Ruth. She’s a relatively unreliable narrator, prone to many anachronic digressions. The first sixty pages or so of the novel is set at Hailsham, what seems to be an exclusive boarding school for “gifted” students. As it stands, I’ve been meaning to read this novel forever. I let the hype get to me and possessed expectations that would have made it impossible for Never Let me Go to live up to. And now let me lead on to spoilers for the novel.

**Spoiler Alert**

I knew for some reason that this novel was about clones. Knowing this revelation, the novel didn’t have much traction for me. In some ways, I found the relative nonchalance of the characters concerning their fates as clones and as essentially human reservoirs for harvestable organs to be a more than a little disconcerting. I suppose I expected them to act more like the Replicants from Blade Runner, refusing the expectation that they must eventually donate vital organs for “true” human others. The discourse on cloning is, I think, far more interesting than the actual romance plot itself, which is a problem because so much of the novel sets up the romantic tensions among the three characters. We are lead to think it tragic to believe that the two clones who finally end up with each other: Kathy H. and Tommy are not able to get a deferral, some mythical chance to live together for three to five years or some such short amount of time, prior to the expectation that they would have to give up their vital organs. Here, I think is where the novel falls shortest: the romantic attraction and connection between Kathy H. and Tommy. Nevertheless, Ishiguro’s talent cannot obviously be denied. He is a seductive storyteller; we’re drawn in despite the occasional glaciation that the plot experiences.

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A Review of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (Vintage, 2012).

The hardcover edition of The Cat’s Table came out the year before, as is typical, but I haven’t gotten around to reviewing this title until it has come around in paperback. If you’ve had a conversation with me about literature in person, you know I’m always raving about Ondaatje in terms of his style. Even when I don’t find the plotting as compelling, I always savor his multitextured writing. The Cat’s Table seems to be a semi-autobiographical fictional novel concerning a young boy named Michael who is traveling to England from Sri Lanka as a young boy (the year is 1954). It is Ondaatje’s follow-up to Divisadero. He makes fast friends with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and much of the novel is structured with respect to their many adventures. The beginning arc seems episodic at first, but Ondaatje is a patient writer and the many denizens on board have their various motives for their travels aboard the boat titled The Oronsay (I couldn’t help thinking about Ghosh’s work here with his boat trilogy). The title refers to the fact that those who are of a lesser class status are grouped together in one section of the boat, dine together, and are generally sequestered from other. One nexus point appears around a prisoner who is being transported; the boys are particularly intrigued by his backstory and want to find out more about him. As the novel moves toward the conclusion, the main figures from the boat emerge to the center; the prisoner and his daughter Asutha are somehow intertwined with the life of Michael’s distant cousin, Emily. There is a final sequence that seems speculative in its scope and shows Ondaatje at his best, augmenting the tragedy that seems to have made that journey to England so unforgettable and so heartbreaking. It is this sequence that I believe Ondaatje is working the readers toward, reminding us of the complicated ways that people are bound together by finite moments in the past.

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A Review of Leonard Chang’s Crossings (Black Heron Press, 2009).

Over the “winter break,” I spent some time catching up on reading that I just haven’t had time to do. One of this pile was Leonard Chang’s latest novel, Crossings, a departure from his Allen Choice trilogy (Underkill, Fade to Clear, and Over the Shoulder), as well as his other detective novel independent from the Choice series (Dispatches from the Cold), but returns to the genre conventions of his debut work, The Fruit ‘N Food. By “genre conventions,” I mean to say that Crossings is more in line with the social realist leanings of The Fruit ‘N Food, where we consider whether or not the racial minority’s trajectory is a product of some innate flaw or the constraining power matrix in which he is enmeshed. The story concentrates its emotional core on Sam, a Korean immigrant and recently widowed, who struggles to rebuild his life in the wake of the death of his beloved wife, Sunny, and the enormous debt he has incurred in order to provide Sunny with the most comfortable palliative care. He has remarried a woman, Hyunjin, who is of mixed race background (her father was an African American soldier; here Chang develops the difficult life of the mixed-race Korean). Sam does not love Hyunjin and also loses touch with his son, David, as he wallows in his melancholy. In order to get himself out of debt, he decides to work for a mob boss named Mr. Oh, someone who already has had long ties with Sam’s brother, Jake, the more successful sibling. The other major plot points involve illegal trafficking in women, where young, single Korean women are duped into immigration schemes that ultimately result in their exploitation, often to the point of their death. Such women are portrayed as hapless victims in which their bodies are ruthlessly brutalized and their psyches completely undone. One of the more fortunate women is Unha, who is “chosen” to work as a hostess and waitress at a hip Korean nightclub. Her fate is distinguished from someone like Minji who is taken to work a massage parlor, where she is conscripted into sex acts with clients. Perhaps, most alarmingly, Chang elucidates on how everyday suburban locations in Silicon Valley, California possess their seedier locations, even in the midst of extreme American wealth and affluence. In this banality of the everyday, Chang slowly reveals the continuing challenges faced by Korean immigrants, as they continue to face the harsh reality of transnational movement and class immobility. Chang’s prose here also seems to be a departure from his detective series and does remind me much more of his debut work in its sparseness, a characteristic which fits the somber lives of so many of these characters. If there are flaws in the story, it is that it seemed as if there was a pressure to more firmly resolve each major characters’ arc, which results in an epilogue that serves to distract rather than to complete the novel. In some ways, we already know that there can only be one ending for a man so desperate as Sam, someone willing to do anything to find the kind of “pure” love he idealizes with his first wife. Everyone else is merely an afterthought.

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A Review of Eric Gamalinda’s People are Strange (Black Lawrence Press, 2012).

BEST COVER EVER! Flip it over and then you get a mermaid!

Ah, what a pleasure to be reading Eric Gamalinda’s first American fictional publication. Like Gina Apostol, Gamalinda has published extensively in Filipino presses, but has had limited publications stateside. He is author of two poetry collections which have come out in the United States (Zero Gravity and Amigo Warfare), but his other works such as Peripheral Vision and Empire of Memory are only to be found in the Philippines. I have been able to get some of Gamalinda’s work while up in San Francisco through Arkipelago Books. In People are Strange, Gamalinda’s stories certainly live up to the title. There are colorshifting entities, work drones, poets-turned-con artists, celebrity impersonators, mystics among other such unique figures. One of my favorite stories, “I Alone and the Hours,” involves a woman who keeps receiving e-mails from a husband who has already died in a tragic accident. Believing it to be some kind of hoax, she tracks where the e-mails seem to be coming from only to come to discover something quite extraordinary about the source. This short story sets us up quite well for the others, as something is always slightly off kilter about each narrative. For instance, in “Famous Literary Frauds,” Gamalinda riffs off the infamous case of James Frey. In this case, an aspiring poet and creative writing teacher ends up colluding with a young and attractive looking, but very average student to get his own poetry published. As this student (instead of the teacher) achieves more and more notoriety, the charade becomes difficult to sustain. “People are Strange” was perhaps the most experimental and speculative story in the bunch as it involves an individual who can change color and therefore identities. The narrator also happens to be named Eric Gamalinda: “No, my special talent is this: I can change my color at will, and so thoroughly and flawlessly, that I can actually pass myself off as white, black, Asian, Hispanic, or, when I resume being Eric Gamalinda, as Vaguely Pacific Island Slash Questionably Latin, which I guess is what I am—a mutt, a mishmash, a miscellany, allegedly born of Chinese and Spanish great-grandparents, raise in Manila and educated under an American system established at the turn of the 20th century” (60-61). While such a confession might seem to be a veiled allegory for the nature of writing itself, Gamalinda pushes this literalization quite far, as it becomes clear that the character has been part of a larger experiment in which he has become the only survivor. We revel in the idiosyncratic nature of these stories and we’ll hope that Gamalinda has far more in store for us with fictional publications stateside.

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A Review of Melissa De la Cruz’s Serpent’s Kiss (Hyperion, 2012).

Our favorite witches are back at it again, stirring up a cauldron of trouble in de la Cruz’s follow up to the debut of her series. Serpent’s Kiss follows Freya, Ingrid, and their mother Joanna, as a new set of mysteries and conflicts emerge. Freya must contend with the fact that her lover, Killian, may or may not be involved with the destruction of a mythical bridge. Embroiled in this plot is also Freya’s twin brother, Freddie, who has escaped from limbo and seeks to find a way to cast the blame for the bridge’s destruction upon Killian. Ingrid’s troubles are twofold. On the one hand, she must navigate her growing romantic feelings for Matt Noble, a mortal and police detective. On the other, she is also harboring a group of unruly pixies who can’t seem to remember where they are from. Finally, Joanna finds herself dealing with the affections of two men, while also trying to figure out why a dead witch seems to be haunting her from the grave. Though certainly focused on the female characters, Freya’s twin Freddie also has his hands full as he falls in love with a woman named Hilly and must contend with impressing Hilly’s family who hail from a very affluent and cultured class background. As with all of de la Cruz’s work, she shows a deft hand in the plotting and dealing with changes in narrative perspective. Those who are interested in supernatural elements and romance narratives would be the best audiences for this work. As with much of de la Cruz’s fictions, the story is much more difficult to tether to explicit political or sociocultural contexts. The historical and cultural texts appear most readily in de la Cruz’s flexible use of Nordic and Scandinavian lore; there is also the requisite reconsideration of the American colonial period and the emergence of witch-hunts. After having read a number of de la Cruz’s novels, I can’t seem to recall any first person narratives and it would be interesting to see how the tone of her work might shift in that context.

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A Review of Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter (WW Norton, 2012).

Gina Apostol has been one of those writers who has been published elsewhere but not extensively in the U.S. She has been a part of a couple of anthologies, but nothing self-published until the Gun Dealers’ Daughter. This novel was already published in the Philippines via Anvil Press and Apostol has two previous novels (Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata). Apostol is of course indicative of the rather complicated placement of Filipino/American writers. In this novel, our protagonist and narrator is Soledad Soliman, an affluent college age woman who, at the narrative’s inception, seems to be in a confused state. There is some issue with the loss of memory, but slowly, she begins to gain more awareness about her past and her involvement in revolutionary organizations, working to topple Marcos-era governmental supporters. Much of this novel concerns Soledad’s relationship to two other primary revolutionary figures that she meets in college: a dashing and equally affluent young man named Jed and a more working class insurgent known as Soli. The novel begins with the more mundane aspects of their disruptive activities, which include defacement of public properties through graffiti and other urban art. As Soledad (shortened to Sol in the novel and obviously meant to invoke a kind of twinning with Soli) becomes embroiled in revolutionary activities and the stakes become increasingly higher, she begins to understand that all is not as it seems. There are multiple secret agendas being advanced in this novel and Soledad realizes that she is not entirely in control of her participation in these insurgent activities. Indeed, her parents are very much a part of the current and corrupt governmental regime, so it becomes clear that Soledad might have become a pawn meant to allow the other insurgents to gain access into her own household. As with much of the Filipino American literature I have read, there is a strong allegorical impulse here concerning the nature of memory and amnesia. Soledad must fight so strongly to retain what had happened in the past. Given her status as a Manila socialite, her movement into revolutionary activities and her subsequent shielding from the most devastating actions that come out of them reveal the ambivalence of crossing class lines. If anything the novel reminds us that those with the most to lose are the ultimately the ones that must be sacrificed to maintain the status quo; all others find safe houses and refuges that ultimately protect them from the most damning of fates. A rather chilling novel.

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A Review of Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012).

This review is devoted to Jenny Zhang’s deliciously strange and delightfully naughty poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, a book that I believe could only be written by someone who is either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Who knows, it’s only just a guess but the title was an immediate hit for me precisely because it reminds me of numerous e-mails written by relatives which included the occasional homonymal typo that ended up changing the meaning of an entire sentence. Thus, the titular dear Jenny finds out that “we” are “find” instead of presumably the fact that they are fine. One of my favorites was when a family member would ask me for a “shit” of paper. In any case, you get my drift.

You can find out more about Jenny Zhang here at:

Zhang’s collection is hard to describe. It seems to be at once both an exploration of language poetry (at least most loosely defined) and lyric stream-of-consciousness. Poems do not necessarily accrue over a sequence to make some sort of transparent meaning; we sometimes wonder if the lyric speaker is constantly poking fun at some subject, us, probably both and all at the same time. Language is that thing that confounds us, overpowers us, and in the end, we attempt to reconstruct in some sort of way to dramatize these idiosyncrasies, but enough babble. Let’s see an example shall we? For instance, who is this “Michael”?

We find you strange
this wire of weird hanging ass-out
the fiery cleavage, the eternal spotlight
of a sunset line of weirdness inside me
weirding out your mother
who was always weirder than my mother
who was as weird as the first Chinese person
to say his name was chinga and the rapper
chingy took that and made a song
about his dick that my kids memorized
for school where I teach old people yoga (56)

I agree with the “we” that this Michael must be “strange.” What I find absolutely fun and refreshing about Zhang’s poetry is how one line simply falls into the next, linked by a word or phrase and by sonic connections (alliterative primarily), and of course, those funky turns of phrases that defy easy explanation (“sunset line of weirdness” anyone?). “Michael” is pretty indicative of the collection as a whole, but I’ll leave you with one more mischievous gem:

Bloodturd, my friend

bloodturd, my friend
you are ophelia’s Chinese cousin
and she is also a turd
this stool I stand on has so much meaning
I cry because of the meaning
I cry because of feelings
I find you friendly
exhumed like facing spirits
who give each other
wonderful blowjobs

and that’s that (74)

Somewhere Shakespearians are probably irate that Ophelia, bloodturd, and “wonderful blowjobs” could appear in the same poem, but wouldn’t the Bard have approved of such bawdy juxtapositions, aimed square at the revelers in the pit? We’re certainly not all on those balconies.

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A Review of Cynthia Arrieu-King’s People are Tiny in Paintings of China (Octopus Books, 2010).

When Iris Law at the Lantern Review picked PATIPOC as part of its reading recommendations, I meant to get on this collection right away, but my poetry time has dwindled significantly because my first book project has focused on formal elements in Asian American fiction. Poetry, though, has always been my first love when it comes to literature and it is the form I naturally gravitate to as a creative writer. PATIPOC is of course a particularly textured work, the kind that revels in the expansiveness that is the English language. Iris’s brief review is probably better than any sort of summation that I could make about PATIPOC and I’m linking it here:

But I wanted to discuss the framing device that Arrieu-King employs as part of her collection and consider its larger effect on the poems as a whole. In Iris’s post, her one reference to an ethnoracial background is located in the term “family heritage,” but what makes PATIPOC such an interesting collection to me is the italicized sections that begin every major break in the poems. These are meditative renderings on the nature of race and ethnicity as they erupt in everyday moments, much of which detail the complications of mixed ancestries. The first lines of these italicized sections roots us in such a context: “I visit the premier of The Joy Luck Club in France as an American Scholar with a French Mother and Chinese Father” (1). If there is an invocation an autobiographical sentiment, it occurs immediately. Of course, the reference to The Joy Luck Club, perhaps one of the ur-texts of Asian American literature given its popularity and commercial appeal, roots us firmly within a particular ethnoracial tradition. At the same time, there is that question of what this work means for this subject; she cries through most of the movie and later discovers that her “white women” friends also do, too, there is that question of what art might mean based upon any subjective variations in the audience. The next sequence details the lyric speaker being confused for “Cherokee,” while the following two also deal with questions of ethnic and racial identity. As we move into the collection, Arrieu-King does not necessarily remain invested in explicit lyrics related to race and ethnicity, so these framing sections, which appear periodically, do the work of reminding us of a kind of contextual scaffolding in which the autobiographical lyric rests. In intimate love poems like “White Suitcase” or the last leavetaking depicted in the elegiac “Daylight Saving Time,” Arrieu-King is always positioning us both within the confines of specific poems and the authorial inspirations that lead us further afield into the realm where aesthetics and politics productively combine. A sumptuous work.

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