Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for August 23 2014.

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for August 23 2014.

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide ranging and expansive terrain of Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2014); Khanh Ha’s Flesh (Black Heron Press, 2012); R. Zamora Linmark’s Drive-By Vigils (Hanging Loose Press, 2011); Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental (Alice James Books, 2013); A.X. Ahmad’s The Last Taxi Ride (Minotaur Books, 2014).

A Review of Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2014)

Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream explores the challenges of upward mobility in a time of great change. The title is of course a nod to the aphorism concerning the impossibility of a certain outcome. Here, that aphorism is being directed at a kind of skepticism of the potential for upward mobility within an American context. Liu employs not only personal anecdotes but also statistics, cultural references, sociological studies, which all point to the concentration of wealth in a particular stratum of American society. Liu reminds us now that the greatest predictor of actual financial success is whether or not your parents are already wealthy (this finding also corroborates the scholarly work of a number of sociologists etc that I’ve researched independently). Liu’s point is that the dream of upward mobility might actually be shifting elsewhere; he explores, for instance, the fact that many of his Uncles eventually returned to Taiwan where they achieved great success in a land where a racial glass ceiling did not exist for them in the same way that it did in the United States. Indeed, Liu’s father is one of the few in his family to stay in the United States. But the larger message that Liu seems to be conveying is that there has been a monumental shift in the world order: China stands as a beacon for these mutable dynamics of power and perhaps a threat to the American ethos of meritocracy.
Liu has an incredibly engaging writing style, which is important because this family memoir is written in block segments. Narratively fragmented, there is an occasional loss of flow that is only overcome because Liu is quite calculating in his trajectory over the arc of the work. Though Liu is rather direct in addressing increasing disparities of wealth, he is still ultimately an optimist: he believes that America can be made and remade through the work of its diverse citizenry. For those who are cultural studies scholars, Liu does devote a considerable amount of time to notable Chinese Americans in the field of arts, sciences, sports, etc. He spends quite a bit of time dissecting the various approaches that Chinese American writers have had to their craft (referencing Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing, and Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog: all titles already reviewed on Asian American literature fans). Liu’s aim is to explode the specifics around what Chinese American success can look like, while still evading the model minority label. A politically engaged and thoughtful account of Chinese America and of Liu’s family.

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A Review of Khanh Ha’s Flesh (Black Heron Press, 2012).

At its core, Khanh Ha’s Flesh is about questions of family, how to honor one’s parents, and how to go about dealing with a perceived injury. The story begins ominously enough. Set in the French colonial period of Vietnam, a young boy (who is our narrator) must watch his own father executed; the executioner is none other than this young boy’s granduncle. To complicate matters, a smallpox epidemic soon sweeps through the village; the young boy’s younger brother dies, while the young boy himself is scarred by the disease. There is an interesting use of a narrative perspective shift early on, as Ha briefly moves the discursive viewpoint to a Catholic priest named Danto (and into the third person), who appears in the village in order to impart his religious viewpoints and offer his spiritual support in light of the plague. But the novel quickly shifts back to the young boy’s first person viewpoint and from this point onward, the boy is on a quest to make sure that his father and his brother get an honorable burial spot. Working for a boatman at one point, he realizes that he may be able to secure family plots through an association with a traveling geomancer. A series of exchanges occur between the geomancer, the narrator, and the narrator’s mother, and it becomes apparent that in order to for him to secure these spots he must work in the service of that geomancer. At this point, the narrator essentially becomes an indentured servant and is later transferred to work for one of the geomancer’s most prized customers. While in Hanoi, he also chances upon an elderly dying Chinese man, who charges him to find granddaughter, Xiaoli, who can be found working out of an opium den. The old man hopes that the narrator will be able to relay not only the fact of his death, but also Xiaoli’s mother. Though the narrator dismisses this request as one he cannot complete, he eventually does bump into the very same Xiaoli, but withholds the information about her mother and grandfather, fearing that the news would be too traumatic. This point is probably the one which pushes the narrative (at least for me) further out from the realm of credulity than I would have preferred, but Ha’s politically engaged writing is clear: he seeks to explore the limited lives of indentured servants who struggle under the weight of clearing their debts. Xiaoli, like the narrator, is ultimately an indentured servant, so when love begins to blossom between them, the narrator’s motivations become obscured, and he tries to balance his service to his employer (and his employer’s requests and rules) against his desire for Xiaoli. Ha’s work is an intriguing addition to the Vietnamese American literary canon, especially given its historical focus and its exploration of the interethnic relationships among diasporic Chinese and local Vietnamese populations (calling to mind Vincent Lam’s novel The Headmaster’s Wager, earlier reviewed here).

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A Review of R. Zamora Linmark’s Drive-By Vigils (Hanging Loose Press, 2011).

(unfortunately the most high res pic I could find)

I don’t think there is any other poet that can mix such incredible humor and poignancy in lyric, and R. Zamora Linmark is in fine form with his latest poetry collection, Drive-By Vigils (Hanging Loose Press, 2011). Somewhere along the way of writing my first book, I realized I had to cut down on what I felt was extraneous to the research process. Since I focused on fiction, a lot of what obviously got cut was the poetry. Reading Drive-By Vigils and reviewing it is part of my “catch up” period. Linmark’s brilliance is in his irreverence: his mixture of high and low, popular culture and canonical literatures. In this collection, you’ll get Hamlet rewritten in raucous form; a quotation from Ally Sheedy’s character from The Breakfast Club in a poem that is basically a kind of elegy to John Hughes; a woman warning a lyric speaker from stepping in dog shit; Lorca being reframed from the angle of pidgin English; Carson McCullers being called—yes, you heard it here—a “fag hag” (18). Still, there is a somber confessional quality to all these poems and we know we’re getting into the heart of the collection’s soft and gooey center with poems like “Chronicle of a Virginity Foretold,” which seems to take as a point of reference the use of a timeline as a formal impulse (something you might have seen in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life); there is a moment where it’s obvious that the lyric speaker is wrestling with the demons of his own queer sexuality and then Linmark’s brilliance will hit us with his reference to 1984 in which “Frotting and fear of dying increases” (40). Here, the lyric speaker clearly engages the years in which the AIDS epidemic emerged, but pairs it up with the growing interest in exploring his queer sexuality. Linmark’s poetic textures also emerge from the scope of the collection, which has a wide geographical sweep, where lyrics take us to Hawai‘i, the Philippines, Europe (particularly Spain), Latin America (Argentina) then also its impressive temporal span (we’re never far from any form of colonialism in this collection and its centuries-long bearing on the Philippines, for instance). Linmark’s title is partly a sly wink at the rapidly changing world in the age of the internet, plane travel, and other time-space compressing technologies, while also referencing the lyric speaker’s obvious devotion to Spanish writers (like Lorca and Borges). In keeping with chronology as a kind of formal impulse, the last poem subverts its own sequencing to remind us that we’re in Linmark’s poetic world: a dazzling jumble of politically engaged and aesthetically dynamic awesomeness.

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A Review of Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental (Alice James Books, 2013)

Again, I’ve been trying to catch up on some poetry reading and that process includes going back to some presses that have been historically very supportive of Asian American poetry. Alice James is one such press; it is the established independent press that runs the Kundiman Poetry Prize. I don’t think Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental appears in conjunction with that competition, but comes out independently and is striking in its environmentally conscious lyrics, interesting use of punctuation (double colons), its devotion to questions of materiality, transformation, and loss, and finally and perhaps most importantly: this strange thing of water. There is a point in the reading of a collection where I am wandering around an element through which I can get a sense of coherence. In We Come Elemental, it is primarily this issue of water: what it is, how it is all around us, and inside of us. The cover not surprisingly shows what seems to be a beach or shallow body of water upon which stands the body of something that looks like a human covered in dirt and moss and stones; this figure is doubled by a figure in the far horizon, an echo of this humanoid creature standing atop water. This cover stands as a useful way of conceptualizing the problem of loss and transformation and our relationship to the environment. We live so close to bodies of water and see ourselves refracted over bodies of water (through representation, through how we settle into cities). Beyer takes us into very specific geographies, too: San Francisco, Oakland, Manhattan all take center stage in this poetry collection. But this question of colons is something that integrates the contextual issue of transformation and shifts it into a formal register. Though there can be many interpretations of the double colon, I find them particularly intriguing given their connections to analogy. Some of us may have a bad memory trip when thinking about double colons and analogies because it takes us all the way back to the SATs, where the double colon is a place marker for the word “as.” For Beyer, the double colons might function in a similar sense in that there are rough equivalences to be made that link individuals, elements, animals, bodies of water, and geographies in a relational way. This sequence is a good example of what I am getting at:

Matter transforms human
body to maggot nest the hiss
of dry ice against a metal sink.

Flesh shreds or just grows old
and turns to dirt to concrete to building
:: internal energy equals heat minus work.

Wood to smoke becomes
a manifestation of something else
:: smell that lingers a tenuous

cling to my jacket’s cotton lining.
If burning is not disappearing
then neither is drowning:: the body

shows up again on another shore
in the folds of a current
whisked through the Atlantic.

Translation is a form
of disappearance:: my name gone
all wrong in their mouths (40).

These lines all operate to consider the nature of “matter” as it takes different shapes and morphologies. I especially find the comparison between the wood burning to the “smell that lingers” as particularly effective rendering of matter in its transformations. What’s interesting is that there is the suggestion that matter itself does not ever transform (the law of conservation of energy after all) but finds itself remade anew, but when we get to conceptions of translation, there is a disappearance when the “name” is not uttered in the way that it should. Thus, for the lyric speaker, what seems to still disappear amongst all of this matter in transformation is the nature of speaking and the nature of communication, who is hailed and how this individual is hailed. As the poems move forward, it is clear that Beyer’s lyric speaker is invested in rooting out a form of communication that might urge a call to action, individuals transformed into currents moving in the same direction, perhaps even toward a more engaged and productive relationship to one of the most precious elements: water. In this year of such incredible drought, the clarion call of Beyer’s poetry collection cannot be loud enough.

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A Review of A.X. Ahmad’s The Last Taxi Ride (Minotaur Books, 2014).

(again, the highest res pic I could find =( )

A.X. Ahmad’s The Last Taxi Ride takes on a more global approach to the noir-ish series started with The Caretaker. Ranjit Singh is back with a couple of key changes: he’s divorced; his ex-wife has moved back to India, and his daughter has moved with her. Fortunately, the daughter is soon to visit, which puts Ranjit in higher spirits. Ranjit is still struggling to make ends meet. He’s a cab drive in New York City, but he also happens to help out with a local businessman with potential mob connections named Jay Patel. As a cab driver, he ends up coincidentally taking on a famous customer: Shabana Shaw, a Bollywood actress whose star is fading. Ranjit’s connection to Shaw seems only one of a fan to a star, but a chance reconnection with an old buddy, Mohan, from Ranjit’s military days begins to collapse various worlds together. Mohan, who is the bellman for the building in which Shabana Shaw resides, is able to give them access to her swanky New York City apartment. One night when she is gone, they have dinner together. But, is it not soon after that meal that Ranjit is pegged for Shabana Shaw’s murder, and Mohan is nowhere to be found. With Ranjit’s prints all over Shabana’s apartment, he seems to be the obvious culprit, but readers know the truth to be otherwise. Shabana was killed in a brutal manner, with her head smashed. Fortunately for him and the readers, Ranjit is able to make bail, but it becomes clear that his work with Jay Patel marks his position as more precarious than he has realized. Ranjit is tasked by Jay Patel to find Mohan for a reason that he does not understand, and Ranjit begins to see that the key to finding out the identity of Shabana’s murderer will be to find his former military buddy. From this point forward, the novel becomes the classic detective quest for the most part. Ranjit, as our noir detective, must find Mohan, and unravel the various skeins that have been tangled together, even though he must deal with a broken arm, shady mob bosses, and individuals who have useful knowledge concerning the mob underworld but are not necessarily willing to share such information. Ahmad uses an effective intercutting structure (one that was also used in The Caretaker) that provides important background to Shabana’s life and her struggle to make it as a Bollywood film actress. Perhaps the most important element introduced at this point is Shabana’s contentious relationship with her sister Ruki and her reliance upon mob bosses for protection and support. Ahmad is also game to make apparent the complicated racialized existence that enfolds Ranjit, as a South Asian immigrant taxi driver. The diversity of New York City comes most prominently to the surface with Ahmad’s effective use of minor characters, who hail from a variety of backgrounds and classes. Ahmad never lets the plot get away from him. Though there are occasional momentum shifts, the central mystery always propels readers assuredly forward. An entertaining, politically textured noir fiction!

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