Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for December 23, 2012

Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for December 23, 2012

In this post, reviews of Brigitte Wallinger-Schorn’s “So There It is”: An Exploration of Cultural Hybridity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Rodopi Press, 2012); Derek Kirk Kim’s Tune: Vanishing Point (First Second, 2012); Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Shadow Play (Minotaur Books, 2010); Rebecca Lim’s Mercy (Hyperion Books for Children, 2011); Mike Jung’s Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Scholastic Press, 2012); Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2010); Kim Gek Lin Short’s China Cowboy (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012); Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was talking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011).

A Review of Brigitte Wallinger-Schorn’s “So There It is”: An Exploration of Cultural Hybridity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Rodopi Press, 2012).

Wallinger-Schorn’s monograph emerges in concert with the new formalisms wave in Asian American cultural critique focusing on poetics. This study is part of a thankfully growing group of books that is giving attention to a long neglected side of Asian American cultural production and makes a nice addition to other works such as Timothy Yu’s Race and the Avant-Garde, Steven G. Yao’s Foreign Accents, Josephine Nock-Hee Park’s Apparitions of Asia, and Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry. Wallinger-Schorn’s is probably the book that is written for the widest audience of the current poetry books as it tackles some of the major modes of cultural hybridity (broadly defined) in Asian American poetics (including narrative hybridity, formal hybridity, and linguistic hybridity). Unfortunately, the monograph will price out most of the critics interested in the work, but I hope this text finds a larger life perhaps in course adoptions or excerpted as part of its secondary materials. Because the book is arranged in broad thematics, Wallinger-Schorn is able to move through an impressive swathe of examples and readings, bringing in readings of more contemporary poets such as Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Victoria Chang alongside poets who emerged in earlier generations such as Cathy Song, Kimiko Hahn, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. For those looking for in-depth readings of one particular work, your best bet is to look elsewhere.

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A Review of Derek Kirk Kim’s Tune: Vanishing Point (First Second, 2012).

Let’s begin at the end: Derek Kirk Kim’s Tune: Vanishing Point is the first part of what looks to be a series of graphic novels with the main character, Andy Go—a a Korean American slacker and our dynamic protagonist. There was a point about three quarters of the way through the graphic novel where I realized that there was simply no possibility that all of the plot points were going to be resolved with any finality and that the only way for this book to be achieve its greatness was clearly to have more installments. And then, there was that lovely final page arc where it becomes clear that Tune: Vanishing Point is simply the beginning of a series. Tune is Kim’s first graphic novel since Same Difference which came out quite awhile ago and then was reprinted by First Second within the last couple of years. Andy Go is not entirely unlike Simon from Same Difference in the sense that he does not seem to have to have a clear career trajectory. Andy is attending school for illustration when he decides that that particular education path is not for him and he drops out. His parents, fearing that Andy will become a parasitic Gen-Y slacker, give him seven days to find a job. Thus, the graphic novel explores Andy’s various misadventures as he attempts to hammer down a job. Of course, Kim throws a wrinkle into the narrative equation in the form of the romance plot. In this case, Andy harbors romantic feelings for one of his sassy former classmates and illustrator buddies, Yumi. Andy has little experience in the dating department and so his feelings for Yumi remain unexplored, until one day they bump into each other and she leaves behind her sketchbook. Though Andy valiantly attempts to give Yumi’s sketchbook back to her before she boards a bus, he arrives too late. Andy, realizing it may be an opportunity to get to know Yumi better but at the cost of her privacy, ends up looking through her sketchbook and discovers that Yumi thinks he’s “cute.” Of course, Andy is entirely jazzed by this realization, but reality soon hits that he must still find a job. What kind of job will Andy ultimately find? And how will he be able to get the sketchbook back, given the rather strange location he finds himself in at the graphic novel’s conclusion? A fun read and backed by Kim’s wonderful drawing style, we’ll be chomping at the bit for the sequel to appear.

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A Review of Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Shadow Play (Minotaur Books, 2010).

I’m a huge fan of the Minotaur Books Imprint for the simple fact that it focuses on a genre that I enjoy: the mystery/ detective fiction. I’ve reviewed some here, including works by Qiu Xiaolong, Laura Joh Rowland, and most lately, Cassandra Chan. There’s always a degree of innovation and idiosyncrasy in these works, no doubt the work of sophisticated writers and talented editors, but for the most part: I haven’t been necessarily surprised by what I have read from the imprint thus far. With Rajorshi Chakraborti’s second novel (after Or the Day Seizes You, which I think was only published in India, making it again more challenging to find stateside) I was absolutely challenged and astonished by its rather strange structure, plotting, and even its contribution to the so-called mystery/detective genre. It does not fit the roughly bi-linear structure offered by Tzvetan Todorov in what is still the classic typology of detective fictions in which there is the detective/ investigation plot and then the crime/ murder plot, with the detective plot always trying to catch up to the crime/ murder plot over the course of the narrative. In Shadow Play, you have at least four narrators, one modeled on the writer himself, another who seems to be a serial killer-turned-assassin, the writer’s editor, and then finally, the writer’s wife. By fictionalizing a person modeled on himself, Chakraborti clearly invokes a kind of metafictional paradigm we might say that is more characteristic of postmodern fictions, but there’s something different working here with respect to a rather strange murder-plot involving the Raj character. Indeed, the Raj character engages in a brief romantic dalliance with a journalist who is about to publish a nonfictional account concerning the power held by six mega-influential people all over the globe and who seem to hold the strings over all the major events that have been occurring. When that journalist seems to have been the target of an assassination, the two plots begin to potentially converge, but the central question remains: what is the line between fact and fiction? In one of the most compelling sections of the novel, Raj and the journalist (Sharon) debate the issue of representation and ideology and the political import of any sort of writing: it’s this point that seems to be one of the primary mysteries uncovered but never solved by Chakraborti’s experimental work and the one that drives us inexorably toward the painfully unclosed, but fascinating conclusion. We might call Shadow Play a mystery novel of ideas.

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A Review of Rebecca Lim’s Mercy (Hyperion Books for Children, 2011).

Ah, so the paranormal urban fantasy genre meets young adult fictional romance meets the “fallen angel” figure in Rebecca Lim’s debut, Mercy, part of a larger series, which is being published stateside at slower installments than in Lim’s home country of Australia. The title refers to an angelic figure named Mercy, who has been shunted into a new body once inhabited by a young teenager named Carmen Zappacosta. The novel follows the mystery that arises when Mercy/ Carmen is placed with a host family. The family, The Daleys, have one daughter named Lauren that went missing and Mercy/ Carmen decides to help Lauren’s brother, Ryan, in the hopes that Lauren might be found alive. The other plotline involves the fact that Carmen happened to be a very talented singer, so part of her educational background involves performing in choir. Here, Lim showcases the socially complicated world of the high school in which Mercy/ Carmen is tolerated for her talent, but can hardly be considered popular. There are other issues to contend with once Mercy begins to realize that there are other angelic figures who are moving throughout her world, and she wonders if she can recover a fuller sense of her identity and her past. Lim’s is the first I’ve read that delves into the “fallen angel” genre; there have been clones (Sangu Mandanna’s Lost Girl), twin-souled bodies (Kat Zhang’s What’s Left of Me), vampires (Andrew Fukuda’s The Hunt), high school dramas and dramedys (Jenny Han’s Summer Series, Melissa de la Cruz’s Au Pair Series), necromancers (Michelle Sagara’s Silence), zombies (Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s Dead Love), postapocalyptic landscapes and worlds (Marie Lu’s Legend) among other such topics and narrative tropes, so this novel certainly moved me in a different direction. As with many other young adult fiction writers, race is hardly a topic of concern especially when angels and demons seem to be entering the picture, but target readers will most likely be turning to this work for an entertaining supernatural twist to the young adult fiction. Lim is particularly adept here in the plotting, which moves at a breakneck pace, powered especially by the central mystery. Fans of the mystery and detective genre thus should be intrigued by the novel’s premise.

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A Review of Mike Jung’s Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Scholastic Press, 2012).

Apparently aimed at those 8 and up (I guess I’m on the older end of the suggested readers for this work), Mike Jung’s debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities follows the rather extraordinary adventures of a young boy, Vincent Wu, who is enamored of a particular superhero, Captain Stupendous, and is the president of one of his many fan clubs. Off the top of the bat, Jung frames this work as a speculative fiction, especially as we see Captain Stupendous having to deal with a new villain known as Doctor Mayhem. Beyond possessing such great admiration for Captain Stupendous, Vincent also happens to have an innocent crush on his classmate Polly Winnicott-Lee. Though there seems to be little hope for a fledgling young romance, Vincent has a couple of bosom buddies, Max and George, who keep him company and otherwise engaged. I will reveal one major spoiler that is actually uncovered early on in the plot: Captain Stupendous has a particularly interesting secret identity. In this novel, we soon discover that Captain Stupendous’s secret identity is none other than Polly Winnicott-Lee, who has taken on that hero persona as it has been handed down unexpectedly to her. The thrill of this revelation is one of the high points of this novel for the simple fact that Jung subverts the masculinist conceptions of the genre and complicates how heroes can be conceived and finally constructed. Further still, there is this rather interesting, but unspoken discourse of gender fluidity that the novel must play with, as Polly must occasionally negotiate what it means to occasionally have the body of a male superhero. Jung’s other skill here is clearly in the action sequences, which makes this novel potentially perfect to be adapted into a movie. Mike Maihack provides useful companion drawings that ultimately suggest a future fun-filled addaptive life for this novel as an animated cartoon.

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A Review of Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2010) and China Cowboy (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012); Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was talking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011).

I earlier reviewed the work of Jenny Boully and Brandon Shimoda (who has since come out with two full length poetry collections) from Tarpaulin Sky Press and I wanted to review some of their newer offerings that would be most germane to this reviewing community and blog. There was a point about a third of the way through that I stopped reading Kim Gek Lin Short’s prose poetry collection, China Cowboy, to read the book blurbs. I had many questions? Am I reading what I think I am reading? Is this allegory? Is it meant to be literal? Was something put into my drink? In any case, after having just read Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, I did not think a work could provoke such a strong reaction in me. On the literal level, Short’s novel is a brutal read. A 12 year old Chinese girl living in Hong Kong is repeatedly raped by an American man from Missouri named Ren, who is meant to invoke the Western mythos of the cowboy. So, the first read through, simply on the plotting level, is brutal. After sitting with the work and letting it stew for awhile and thinking about all of the wordplay going on in the text, its humor, other readings begin to emerge. The plot is a bit surrealistic, so we Short seems to be pushing us along a different direction, with constant references to Clint Eastwood and Dante’s Inferno. At this point, I found a couple of reviews quite illuminating:

Sarah Heady makes some great points and literary allusions here, the Nabakov being one that I thought of immediately simply because of the dates that Short includes in the text refer to Hong Kong’s transfer over to China, some sort of suspended adolescence. If national or postcolonial allegory is being invoked, then we have the problem of Mr. Ren (with a full name of O’Rennessey) and what he might symbolize. When I think back to Annie Wang’s The People’s Republic of Desire, the danger is always in attaining a fantasy object is that that object becomes far more than you can handle—in that case, the ugliness that comes out of the excessive desire for the West. Mr. Ren appears as that and of course more, but is Mr. Ren more largely an allegory for U.S. capitalist desire? Hard to say with any sort of finality, but Short still is able to have some obvious fun with these strange characters. At one point, La La, our Chinese anti-heroine, is able to take on her dream of becoming a form of her own “china cowgirl,” as she takes on the stage name of Patsy Clone and sings her own songs. The latter portions of Short’s work take a further unusual turn as the collection becomes “meta.” Mr. Ren commemorates his warped relationship with La La through a series of microphone installations, while the last section seems to be a libretto of sorts, at least an album insert, with the lyrics of Patsy Clone songs. At another point, it seems important to note, La La dies from what seems to be poisoning—what sort is unclear—but another dark drive of Short’s text becomes emerges when it seems that there are other La Las to take her place. If there is anything to say about this text, it is sure to provoke discussion and Short shocks in her daring and experimental work.

I guess I should have expected that I would have a similar reaction to Short’s The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits. I thought: what have I gotten myself into reviewing this work? What can I possibly say that will make sense of the prose poetry contained within this deceptively slim volume? Now that I have cast aside the desire to make any sense, I will simply write some impressions. Part of the reading experience was simply figuring out what to hold on to as a reader: over time, a sort of fascinating series of dense vignettes arises between our principle characters (if we can call them that): Toland and Harlan. Then, of course, other things come up: mason jars, balls of yarn, dolls, Denver, bugs and more bugs. A representative passage might be found on page 31 in a section called “Audition”:

Harlan has an audition. The director appears, he asks Harlan if he would like a potion to drink. Harlan reads the script and answers, ‘Yes.’ The director signals to an immature larva who spills a cloudy tincture of borax. ‘Jean Toland is our protagonist, have you heard of Toland? Are you familiar with her hamartia’ ‘Yes. I studied at a sister institute—here are my references. My emphasis was in bugs so Toland’s hamartia inevitably surfaced throughout my studies. ‘Did you say ‘bugs’?’ ‘No.’ The director called Harlan a week later. The direct deigned to cast Harlan as Toland’s bane.

What is to be made of such a passage, except that Toland and Harlan have a very unique relationship, one that cannot be read as some simple love affair. The theatricality of their connection is certainly something that is repetitively invoked across Short’s collection, as their various misadventures together accrue over time, perplexing us until we give in to both of them as our delightful readerly bane. What can we do but embrace our bug-eyed Harlan and Toland, our offbeat lead characters, and enjoy the way that Short continually refigures and remakes our relationship to the English language.

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Jenny Boully has never shied away from unique book titles and not merely because of the unknown that was talking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011) follows in that tradition. Here, we have Boully’s reconsideration of J.M. Barrie’s well-known novel (and play) Peter and Wendy. Perhaps what is most important about Boully’s take is that she probably would reverse the order of those names and make Wendy our primary consideration. For those that recall the novel, Peter Pan’s Neverland is not populated with many females. Further still, what females appear, so many are so invested in Peter Pan that it gives Boully the perfect opportunity to redirect her creative lenses to ruminate upon gendered politics of the novel and how it can be reimagined in the 21st century. The most interesting aspect perhaps of Boully’s prose poetic work is the structural conceit. There is a main narrative that flows from one page to another, but there are sections on evert page entitled the “house underneath” which refers to the place that the Lost Boys lived (alongside Tinker Bell). The “house underneath” functions as a kind of side conversation, giving us pause concerning some of the main narrative developments. The “house underneath” sections were some of my personal favorites, as they also provide Boully the opportunity to get a little bit more meta and consider what aspect of writerly construction goes into the creation of characters and their various motivations. Perhaps, Wendy might take a different path, these sections seem almost to encourage and of course: what is really so great about Peter Pan, this boy who never grows up, who is so petulant, and at the end of the day, wants you to export your domestic work as a child-mother. Really is he all so wonderful, this Peter Pan? He sort of sounds like a drag and Boully really revels in these sorts of upturned meditations, especially as Wendy is that character through which the theme of love and its many slippery manifestations can be explored. As is consistent with prose poetic works, there are blocked off paragraph-type pieces that are dense and absolutely lovely to read through with Boully’s spirited narrator guiding the way. There are some lovely reviews of this work; one of finest is Jai Arun Ravine’s over at the Lantern View (oh and Ravine also reviews The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits), which contains some inspired passage analysis:

I agree with Ravine’s point about Barrie’s Neverland already being so twisted. Indeed, Jacqueline Rose takes up this novel as the point of a fierce critique of the childhood fascination with innocence, thus following in that grand tradition of re-reading fairy tales through the lens of psychoanalysis. Boully’s work is far more self-conscious about these psychic pitfalls and so we’re lead into another narrative landscape in which we’re always re-thinking our choices and where we will go and where at the end of the day and at the end of our lives we will want to sleep.

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