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In this post, reviews of Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes (Wings Press, 2011) and Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (Wings Press, 2010), May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl (GemmaMedia, 2013), Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012), Samit Basu’s Resistance (Titan Books, 2014), Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel (Black Heron Press, 2014).
A Review of Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes (Wings Press, 2011) and Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (Wings Press, 2010).
I earlier reviewed Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves, which comes out of Wings Press, a unique independent publisher devoted to works with multicultural and political contours. For more on the press, go here!
Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes is a kind of lyrical exploration into spirituality. The collection is roughly structured through three intercessions, which—if you aren’t always familiar with some religious terminology (like myself)—are forms of prayer that are dedicated to the struggles and lives of others. In this sense, there is certainly a mode of empathetic observation that comes across in many of these poems, the lyric speaker reaching out and attempting to move across places and times (place references abound throughout the collection: Mexico, Fredericksburg, Spain, Pensacola etc), with the hope of some greater power that can offer divine interventions. In “Fiction,” the lyric speaker considers the possibility of healing amongst those (perhaps veterans?) who wallow in their traumas: “Upon the stage, God’s people seemed consoled: their soldiers were no longer-flesh-and-bones, but extras from a dinky distant town; their scars were pastry, they were sharing crusts, a cherry picker’s loot in thin disguise” (9). “Fiction” introduces a general lyric approach that Starnes excels in, gesturing to material contexts, without ever directly referencing any one thing. In this respect, I’d be very interested in seeing Starnes at a reading in person; the poems tend to have an elliptical and abstracted quality that make them possess a dream-like ambience, but at the same time, there is a sense of masking that covers many lyrics and perhaps she’d be able to give some more backstory to some of them. For instance, amid a kind of pastoral filled with religious imagery in “Provinces,” there is a phrase concerning a “hung jury of a father in drapery robes” (24), but this legal reference is not brought up again in the poem; then, later, there is an interlingual register introduced in the conclusion, where the lyric speaker calls out “Hija” (24). In poems like this one, there is a sense of a rootedness that is butting up against other images that speak of bucolic vistas undermined with the sense of a coming judgment; thus “shepherds” and “pastures” mixed up with “tombs,” “psalms,” and “lambskins” (24-25). Because of this haziness, Starnes must resort occasionally to ordering notes that appear before or after poems. The concluding arc of the poems appears the most cohesive, as the elegies begin to emerge; the lyrics becoming mournful yet precise in their yearnings. My favorite sequence appears in this final arc, in the poem “The House that Bled,” and I reproduce a large portion here (but will lose the exact formatting, but perhaps that will encourage you to get the book!):
“We fear yet love our scars.
We’re drawn to storied houses, to strip and
tell their stock of wood,
armlock of newer plaster.
We know that someone notched, nicked,
bliested their beams and mantles,
until the white gypsum hung.
Houses withstand their centuries,
double-rooms and double tales, luster
and bristle inside-out, wished-back
wounds hoisting their wishable omens.
The rough of heaven clings to them
and cannot flee, eliding” (74).
I adore the extended metaphor that the lyric speaker draws out here, the ways in which poets and artists seek out the depraved, the broken in search of a kind of reinvigoration, a rebirth that one might call, at least in the context of this poetry collection, a lyric-spiritual resurrection.
The spirituality that tracks through Fully into Ashes is on full display in Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh, which is a beautifully produced chapbook. As I’ve mentioned before, I find chapbooks to be an interesting form, especially because they are often so materially ephemeral. With limited print runs, often hand-bound, chapbooks are fairly hard to track down. Ephemerality, especially as it relates to the human body and how it perceives, its place in the world, the fact of its existence, seems to be the questions that root the lyrics in this chapbook. As with the full collection, Corpus Homini abounds not only with religious references, but intertextual registers, which give the chapbook a wonderful sense of thickness. It is clear, for instance, that Starnes has been influenced by Modernist poets; there was a moment where I simply said: oh, these lines directly invoke T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and then, about five pages later, there is a quotation pulled out from a different work by Eliot. The conclusion to Corpus Homini sees a frail old man who seems to fall near his doorstep, which is then followed by a lyric section called “One Birth.” Starnes bring us back to the circularities of the body: “Let us suppose we all consume,/ will be consumed, and consummate our living with the heart pressed hard against the freeze” (33). As with Fully into Ashes, Starnes is masterful in her use of pastoral images imbued with a sense of impermanence, no doubt a nod to her interest in the Romantic era poets, the picturesque always giving way to the overwhelming and overpowering nature of the sublime.
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A Review of May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl (GemmaMedia, 2013).
May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl, a sequel to Dragon Chica, follows the protagonist (Nea Chhim), as she navigates life in the wake of knowing her family secret. Struggling in her university studies, Nea makes a drastic decision to leave school for a period and travel out to Southern California. She clearly seeks to find out more about her father, who she was raised to understand was her Uncle. Once there, Nea helps her father out at their business, a donut store, where she begins to understand more about the circumstances of his life and what may have lead to the decisions he has made about his family. Life and work at the donut shop is far from ideal; business is relatively stagnant. Her father employs two workers, Anita (who has some sort of close, but unexplained connection to her father) and Sitam, a good-natured employee. Hoping to find a way to help out, Nea realizes that she can put her energy and skills to good use. She helps to invigorate the business with a couple of key changes, including getting more publicity for the donut shop. A local news feature based upon Nea’s biological father has the unexpected ramifications of reuniting Nea’s father with his son (and Nea’s brother) Paul. The new addition to the family clearly causes strain, especially because Nea does not understand why Paul has come back into his life: is Paul looking for money? Does he have an ulterior motive?
As with Dragon Chica, Chai creates a narrative filled with politically engaged writing; this novel not only dramatizes the personal struggles of a character coming to terms with her expanding sense of family but deals with the larger atrocities of the Cambodian genocide. The stories of survival that filter throughout the novel are tastefully done and depict these immigrant families and networks as ones imbued with a sense of melancholy, but also continued hope for other trajectories and potentialities. Chai is never sentimental in her portrayals and Nea is a character that readers can certainly identify with, even despite some of her more impulsive actions. With representations of Cambodian Americans and Cambodian immigrants being still relatively nascent, Chai continues to draw upon a larger Asian American identity politic that is refreshing and aesthetically expansive and critically underrepresented.
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A Review of Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012).
It was pylduck who alerted me to this trailblazing title (by a trailblazing press) based upon his review here:
I believe this work may be one of the first, if not the first, sole-authored published work by an American of Asian descent who identifies as trans. On this level alone, Aoki shoulders such a heavy burden, fortunately for us, she realizes that the work must cater to a diverse audience and offers us a mixed-genre cultural production that moves across a variety of topics including childhood abuse, animal-human transformation, queer bashing of all sorts, and ethnic/racial otherness. As I’ve tarried longer and perhaps too long within Asian American cultures, I’ve sometimes had this nostalgic view of identity politics, specifically for its activist rhetoric (not so much of its masculinist ethos of course). Aoki understands the nexus between artistry and politicism, activism and aesthetics and mines this fertile terrain through which to highlight social justice issues and present them in such nuanced and often excruciatingly complex ways. I agree with Pylduck’s sentiment that we could have used some more fiction, but the element that I was missing was the corporeal aspect. It’s clear that many of these pieces are transfigured from performance pieces and other genre/media, so I wonder what might have been lost in translation. The title is of course evoked by the structural conceit of the collection, which takes us through the seasons, a metaphorical look at the cycles of change. Of course, given the many points at which Aoki brings up trans issues, the notion of the changing seasons is entirely contextualizable, especially since, as she brings up, the prefix trans is always suggestive of change and mutability: transformation, transition, etc. I often found the lyrics to carry the strongest affective pull in the collection; here’s a little teaser from a performance piece called “Deal with the Devil”: “And then, I tell myself it’s me./ As I take another pill, get another day older,/ and all I’ve managed is to live a little longer in a world/ I can’t find a place in:/ That I might be more than a pill or a syringe,/ or memories or scars./ That I was made in the image/ of someone who said her body is okay as it is,/ but stays up nights wondering/ what it would be like to carry a child” (108). Here, a lyric speaker who understands change, the shifts required of her, but who nevertheless deserves a moment of rest. A powerful and groundbreaking work.
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A Review of Samit Basu’s Resistance (Titan Books, 2014)
Taking place in the near future, Samit Basu’s Resistance is the sequel to his highly entertaining American debut Turbulence. Resistance takes place not too long after the concluding events of Turbulence; the superheroes that had banded together and even some of the supervillains from the first book find new life in this particular narrative as a new “big bad” comes into town by the name of Norio, a non-superpowered human who is intent on weeding out those individuals with skills and abilities that he deems to be destructive. You see: he is on a plan for revenge due to the fact that his own father was a casualty of a large scale battle between superpowered entities. He believes that superhumans must be stopped. The heroes of the first book have gone their separate ways. Uzma has joined an elite superhero force known as the Unit, which boasts an international group of individuals that hail from countries such as China, India, and the United States. The Unit must consider a number of possible quests, including the potential task of finding a woman (Romena) who is presumed to have a special blood property that causes those who are superpowered to lose their abilities. At this point, Aman is thought to be dead, but he is actually in hiding. Tia, or at least one of the Tias given her ability to multiple herself into seemingly endless copies, seeks to find out more information about a problematic omen portending the end of the world. She visits a young boy named Kalki who divines that he will be a part of this cataclysmic scenario. Once Norio begins his quest to round up any superpowered individual with the intent of depowering them, the novel really gains major traction. Individuals who had not been in contact with each other, begin to see each other in the hopes of finding a way to defeat Norio, on the one hand, and to prevent the end of the world, on the other. As always, Basu peppers the novel with popular culture references that make the reading experience so pleasurable and so geared toward fans of speculative fiction. The major inclusion of Japanese characters and contexts obviously stems from the grand tradition of anime and the novel benefits from this stylized cultural aesthetic. I can’t recommend this novel enough simply for the engaging plot, but Basu is obviously breaking new ground, especially for American audiences, in uniting international contexts, a diverse array of characters from multiple nations, and the genre of speculative fiction. This novel is certainly one to add to your reading list, or if you’re an instructor, your syllabus!
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A Review of Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel (Black Heron Press, 2014).
Leonard Chang’s newest offering sees him explore the form of the autobiographical novel in Triplines. The tone and ambience produced by this novel is not entirely unlike Chang’s social realist fictions Crossings and Fruit ’N Food, his previous and his first publications respectively. In between those two novels, Chang penned detective fiction (Over the Shoulder, Underkill, Fade to Clear, which are all part of the Allen Choice series and the stand-alone Dispatches from the Cold). The autobiographical novel is always an interesting aesthetic choice because it immediately puts the reader on a kind of notice, especially as he or she attempts to discern what might be fabricated and what might be most authentic. In the acknowledgments that follow the novel, it is clear that Chang consulted some family members in order to corroborate accounts depicted. Chang also chooses an interesting discursive mode, as the entire novel is narrated from a kind of retrospective third person storyteller. In this sense, Chang promotes the divide between author and the fictional storyteller, as well as the author and protagonist. Lenny, our ostensible hero, is a young adolescent, with on older brother, Ed (about to graduate from high school) and a younger sister Mira. His mother Umee suffers harassment and domestic violence from their alcoholic father Yul. For the most part, Lenny, Mira, and Ed do not suffer the same kind of physical assaults, but nevertheless Yul stands as an ominous storm cloud constantly raining on their lives. Yul and Umee at first run a novelty-type store (called Sweet ’N Gifts, reminding us of his first novel’s title), but it eventually goes out of business. The failure of the business ultimately increases tension in the family; each child chooses to deal with the situation in their own ways. Ed maintains physical and emotional distance from the family, rarely staying at home. Mira remains introverted and artistic, constantly writing, reading, or playing music, while Lenny languishes in his own attempt to move toward what we might call Asian American manhood, trying to find his sense of self beyond his domineering father. Lenny, for instance, finds great interest in martial arts, which becomes a compelling outlet for the physical trials he suffers under Yul, who attempts to push him to become more hardened. Later, Lenny sees the opportunity of being a kind of gopher for a pot dealer as a quick means to achieve some financial capital. But, the clear talent that Lenny develops and the way that he survives is through his skills of observation, something that he will later put to excellent use as a writer. The character that perhaps undergoes the greatest change is Umee, who begins the novel as a battered housewife, but over the course of the plotting initiates a search into a new career and, by the conclusion, stands up to her husband and achieves independence from him. There is a poetic quality to this work, one reminiscent of the sparer writing style Chang employed in his first novel. What emerges from this portrait of a dysfunctional Asian American/ Korean immigrant family is a reminder of the fallacy of the model minority myth. Underlying this novel is an interesting kind of secular spirituality, which appears through the constant ways in which Mira and Lenny find refuge in a church across the street, which they break into after hours and find a sense of peace, a break from the constant fighting occurring between their parents. Without a false sense of sentimentality, Chang’s Triplines is a highly compelling read. The novel further resonates quite well with with the “dysfunctional” Asian American family plots that appear in works such as Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger.
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