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Asian American Literature Fans Megapost for April 13, 2013.

Asian American Literature Fans Megapost for April 13, 2013.

In this post, reviews of Abhishek Singh’s Krishna (Image Comics, 2012), Amit Majmudar’s The Abundance (Metropolitan Books, 2013), Indira Ganesan’s As Sweet As Honey (Knopf, 2013), and Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (Knopf, 2013).

A Review of Abhishek Singh’s Krishna (Image Comics, 2012).

Abhishek Singh’s lushly illustrated graphic re-telling Krishna engages the story of the Hindu avatar. Singh follows the general storyline offered by important source materials. Much of the early half of the novel follows Krishna’s upbringing, which in part involves the taming of dangerous animals; later he seeks vengeance against the evil figure who tried to have him killed as an infant (due to a prophecy). Singh’s work is especially minimalist and relies upon the power of the visuals to carry the story. This aesthetic also encourages more interpretive work on the part of the reader, connecting panel sequences against each other. A definite must-read for those interested in the graphic narrative form, especially in its unique reconsideration and recreation of spiritual texts. I’ve included extra pictures in this review so you can get a sense of the epic tapestry that Singh creates in this work.

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A Review of Amit Majmudar’s The Abundance (Metropolitan Books, 2013).

I was pleasantly surprised to see the listing for Amit Majmudar’s The Abundance appear so soon after his luminous debut novel, Partitions. Majmudar is also the author of two poetry collections. The Abundance shows Majmudar’s range as a fiction writer, as he moves from the historical foundations of his first novel to the immigrant setting of his second. Set in the Midwest, the unnamed narrator is an aged grandmother of Indian descent who is dying of cancer. The novel is far more about family dynamics than anything else and Majmudar takes some time carving out some of the intricacies that emerge here. The narrator’s husband, Abhi, is a successful medical doctor, while her two children, Mala and Ronak, take divergent routes to their Americanization. Ronak ends up marrying out of class and caste, a Caucasian American named Amber and working first in finance, while Mala dutifully follows Indian customs, getting an arranged marriage, while also following in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a medical doctor (an ENT specialist). With the focus so often on sons in Asian cultures, you can expect that Ronak, despite his more rebellious ways, is still perceived as the favored child. Mala, looking to get closer to her mother in the little time that is left, makes concrete efforts to connect, especially by learning the cooking recipes that have been a part of the family life (from whence the hardcover’s bright book jacket filled with spices takes its inspiration). One important backstory becomes the realization that the narrator did ultimately place her own career as a medical doctor on the backburner to raise Mala and Ronak, so Majmudar takes on the question of balancing a professional career and the work of motherhood. As the novel moves toward the conclusion, Majmudar includes two intriguing developments, a kind of metafictional nod to the book’s construct. First, Ronak finds out that Mala is documenting their mother’s recipes and thinks it would be a good idea to get it published as a book. Of course, the problem becomes the commercialization and sentimentalization of the whole experience of the narrator’s dying, and this event places a serious wedge among family members. Second, we discover that Mala has a keen interest in English, a topic that she perhaps eschewed in order to follow her parents’ professional trajectories. At some point, Mala and her mother discuss a kind of autobiographical conceit where the writer might take on the first person perspective of their biographical subject. These two events allow Majmudar’s book to rise above its more traditional immigrant family saga in that it gestures to the narrative not only as a deeply moving story concerning disease and disintegration and the aging process, but also one that delves into the craft and aesthetic implications behind that narrative.

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A Review of Indira Ganesan’s As Sweet As Honey (Knopf, 2013)

With the imprint of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse all over these pages, it was clear to see the inspiration for Indira Ganesan’s third novel, As Sweet as Honey. As Sweet as Honey takes place on a fictional island called Pi (apparently the settings for Ganesan’s other novels which I admit I have not yet had a chance to read! EEEK!). Fortunately, Woolf’s novel is not replicated too directly and Ganesan takes her own approach to the theme of loss as it moves into the transnational and immigrant context. Woolf’s novel is so much about the connections among individual characters and how they all cannot or do not necessarily articulate their direct thoughts and feelings to each other. The modernist aesthetic works insofar as readers are still provided tremendous access to the patchwork of thoughts and feelings of each character through Woolf’s use of the stream-of-consciousness style. Thus, characters, as much as they are alienated from one another, nevertheless find cohesion through the stylistic. In this sense, Woolf has always been the quintessential modernist writer. But I digress. Ganesan looks to focus more broadly on the theme of the lighthouse as perhaps a kind of allegory for transnational movement. The Mrs. Ramsay analogue is Meterling, a very tall woman who embarks on a very non-tradition marriage with Archer, an Outlander from the UK. Meterling is soon pregnant. Love marriages are a big no-no, as we have seen in various books, so Meterling and Archer’s union creates a little bit of a scandal, but tragedy strikes when Archer dies due to a heart condition. In the wake of the romance’s abrupt conclusion, Meterling begins to eventually develop relations with Archer’s side of the family; one individual in particular, Simon, Archer’s younger brother, takes great pains to get to know Meterling and wouldn’t you know it: Simon and Meterling fall in love. There are of course many complications: Meterling’s extended family find the mourning period too brief and worry that yet another marriage to someone outside caste and class would result in residual fallout for other women of marriageable age within their kinship system. Further still, once Simon and Meterling decide to bring up the child in the UK, they begin to realize that there is a spectral presence following them. And of course I haven’t even spoken about Ganesan’s interesting narrative perspective, which primarily invokes a vague “we” standpoint of three young children brought up on Pi (mostly it’s from Mina’s perspective, but we also get shades of her siblings Rasi and Sanjay), who are our primary focalizers. The second portion is the most fascinating from the storytelling perspective, because it’s unclear how this information comes to be known and who is directing our vision of the fictional world. The final arc brings us back to Pi, where a reunion of sorts occurs. Ganesan brings us back to the lighthouse motif, but we don’t even need it: we already have that sense that return never means reclamation, that time passes and all we can do is live with our choices.

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A Review of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (Knopf, 2013).

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is a brutal and astonishing memoir, written as a chronicle of one woman’s life following her experiences during and subsequent to the Indian tsunami of 2004. She, along with her family, (her two children Vik and Malli, her husband Steve, and her parents) are in a seaside Sri Lankan community known as Yala when the wave hits. She has little time before realizing what is happening and in a split second decision: she takes her children, her husband, gets into the car of a jeep, but they are still eventually overtaken by the rushing water. Indeed, she does not pause to warn her parents who had been staying in the next room. Moments like this are ones that haunt her in the difficult years that will follow. Deraniyagala is separated from her family at that point and their fates at first are unclear and the memoir from this point takes the perspective of a woman coming to terms with various forms and manifestations of loss. The struggle of mourning is depicted with devastating clarity and this memoir is not for the light of heart. Deraniyagala does not shy away from some of the deepest and conflicted feelings and events that arise during this period: suicidal ideation, obsessional tendencies, and the desire to self-destruct. Of course, there is an arc and trajectory to this work and the conclusion sees Deraniyagala find new ways to cope and to find the will to survive.

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