Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for December 21, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for December 21, 2014

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!  Spend some of your vacation time reading some—what else?—Asian American literature!

In this post, reviews of Cory Doctorow’s In Real Life (illustrated by Jen Wang) (First Second, 2014); E.C. Myers’s The Silence of Six (Adaptive Books, 2014); Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal (Pantheon, 2014); Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others (W.W. Norton, 2014); Natasha Deen’s Guardian (Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2014); Oh Yong Hwee (writer) and Koh Hong Teng’s (illustrator) Ten Sticks and One Rice (Epigram Books, 2010); Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions (with illustrations by Amanda Thomas) (Lanternfish Press, LLC); Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Sorry for my long stay away from AALF, I’ve been busy moving and trying to get my new digs in order, while also somehow making time for the holidays and new teaching responsibilities! I haven’t had as much time to read and to review as usual, so you will get a couple of lightning-form reviews here (not my preference, but better to get the brief word of out on books rather than not discuss them at all)! I’m also apparently still in academia.

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 American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail with any concerns you may have.

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s In Real Life (illustrated by Jen Wang) (First Second, 2014).

Jen Wang illustrates on In Real Life, which is penned by Cory Doctorow, a noted science fiction writer. Though Wang’s duties are limited here to the visuals, the work is no doubt relevant to those interested in transnational Asian/ American studies, as the narrative involves a young high school girl named Anda who goes into the land of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role play game) and strikes a friendship with a Chinese player, one who is working for a company that farms virtual gold and later sells it in “real” life. The plot line is inspired by a rather interesting introduction penned by Cory Doctorow in which he explores the unity of games and economics and reminds us that, in many ways, our lives are revolving around forms of game play. Jobs are in some sense perhaps simply more sophisticated forms of games, where we must work with other “players” in order to achieve some sort of goal. You might have limited resources, but the outcome is ultimately similar: to find out a way to get on top. The graphic narrative explores this concept through the ways that MMORPGs collide with the worlds external to them. In this case, Anda’s Chinese buddy is farming for gold that will then have an economic value in the “real” world. At the same time, Anda sees the MMORPG as a venue for correcting and intervening in issues related to social inequality. Anda, especially inspired by her father’s work, wants to advocate for this Chinese player, one who goes by the name Raymond (he’s particularly interested in increasing his English skills), and wants to help Raymond organize his fellow workers to agitate for more work-place rights. Doctorow is keen on marking the complexities of this kind of interaction, and it’s not surprising that things go from bad to worse when Raymond’s organizing causes job tension and results in being fired. Thus, Anda’s quest is not so easily completed. There’s also another plot concerning female gamers and Anda’s place in a guild, but I found that it came secondary to this issue of transnationalism and labor activism that crops up in an unexpected, but socially conscious way. Wang’s visuals show a signature style, and she doesn’t deviate too much from her panel use and sketch modes offered up in Koko Be Good, which is a very good thing. Another outstanding title out by Frist Second, which has generated an impressive catalog of works by Asian/ American graphic narrative writers and/or artists, including Derek Kirk Kim, Thien Pham, Lat and Gene Luen Yang.

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A Review of E.C. Myers’s The Silence of Six (Adaptive Books, 2014).

So, if like me, you’ve been wondering what E.C. Myers’s latest offering will be (after Fair Coin and Quantum Coin), but now you can finally read it! The Silence of Six is a hacker-inspired thriller involving lots of secret passwords, social networking sites, executable files, and romps through Silicon Valley and Bay area locales. The opening of the novel is mysterious enough. A televised debate is occurring between presidential candidates at a Granville, California area high school. Max, our ostensible hero and protagonist, is watching when he receives an encrypted text from his buddy Evan. Max hadn’t been really thinking much about Evan lately, especially as he had become more popular in the wake of his successful courtship of Courtney, a high school reporter and once uber-desired cheerleader. Not soon after that text, the debate is interrupted by a mysterious masked figure appearing on all of the video screens.  This mysterious figure is none other than Evan himself, but he gets offed by the conclusion of that video after having proclaimed something about “the silence of six.” What does the phrase mean and why are all the government officials involved with the debate suddenly demanding all phones, recording devices, and computers that were present during the event? Why are the governmental officials so adamant that they do not post updates on networking sites such as the ubiquitous Panjea (the obvious analogue to Facebook) concerning what happened? Such questions deeply trouble Max, who has grown up in a household in which distrust of the government is large and the desire to hack into any system looms as a major pastime. Though Max had moved away from his hacker background and had begun to assimilate into the “normal” high school activities, Evan’s death and the mystery behind the silence of six propel him into an unofficial investigation. Soon, he realizes that Evan may have stumbled on to something far more serious than some recreational hacking activity, something involving the most well-known hacking groups on the internet. The FBI, soon realizing that Max may be conducting his own investigation, grow suspicious and are soon on his trail. Max must go on the run, while trying to figure out more about Evan’s background as a hacker and how he is connected to the silence of six. His quest leads him to meet DoubleThink, an infamous online hacker, who turns out to be none other than another high school aged student, a teen by the name of Penny Polonsky (who has been further aided by her younger sister Risse). Though at first not sure of each other’s motives, the three end up becoming a firm alliance working toward unraveling Evan’s centrality in the silence of six. What we discover—and you should probably stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled somewhat—is that the silence of six is a phrase meant to invoke the not-so-accidental deaths of six individuals with connections to hacking, but I’ll stop from revealing the final stages of the novel. Myers’s novel, besides its involving plot, is of course following alongside a long set of cultural productions querying the place of technology and information gathering. What is privacy in a period when anybody’s computer and phone can be hacked into? What value do we place upon the minutest details of our personal lives and how are we being manipulated in ways we might not even know? The recent semi-scandal involving Facebook’s commandeering of feeds in order to study users’ responses to more positive or more pessimistic stories is of course something that The Silence of Six directly critiques. As we hurtle toward ever more effective ways to gather data, novels such as this one remind us to slow down, consider the consequences, and at the same time, remember what it is that drove us to innovate in the first place. A definite recommended read for lovers of the paranormal young adult fiction and another inspired effort from Myers.

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A Review of Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal (Pantheon, 2014).

Well, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ha Jin’s latest effort, A Map of Betrayal, which comes on the tails of Nanjing Requiem. Ha Jin is of course the very prolific writer of numerous novels, short story collections, and poetry collections. A Map of Betrayal takes on a subject of great interest to Asian American literary critics: espionage (two works of critical relevance here are the outstanding monographs Leslie Bow’s Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion and Crystal Parikh’s An Ethics of Betrayal). It follows in the tradition of other works such as Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist in exploring the Asian American’s potentially divided national loyalties. The story is told for the most part in alternating first and third person narrative perspectives. Our first person perspective, which takes place in the present day, is given to Lilian Shang, the biracial daughter of the convicted spy Gary Shang and a stay-at-home, generally-disaffected housewife Nellie (nee McCarrick). Lillian is a history professor and wants to find out more about the life of her mysterious father. She, for instance, looks into the whereabouts of his first wife and in doing so discovers that the first wife may be still living in a section of northeast China. Lillian goes to China only to discover that Gary’s first wife has already died, though one of her children has survived (the other died as a young child during the famines that occurred throughout the Mao’s Great Leap Forward). She visits her half-sister and makes a strong bond with her adult nieces and later her nephew Ben, who is in some sort of strange occupation that requires him to travel all the time. The third person perspective follows Gary’s life trajectory, beginning with being recruited by the American government while also operating as an intelligence agent for China. As he goes further into his espionage duties, he must travel to various locations, including Okinawa, Hong Kong, and then later to the United States, all the while leaving behind a wife and two children. As his party affiliations grow deeper and he must maintain his cover, he assimilates into American life by marrying a second woman (Nelly) and having another child, Lillian. Throughout this period, he continues to gather intelligence for China, receiving promotions over time and garnering bonuses for the things he is able to reveal. The novel seems largely an allegory for the divided loyalties of any migrant subject, who must try to find a way to balance affiliations to multiple countries. Interestingly enough, and here I will be providing a major plot spoiler, we discover that Ben is also in the intelligence gathering business. But instead of taking the path that his father does—proclaiming that he served both countries, even when each end up ultimately renouncing him—Ben escapes with his loved one and attempts to evade the intelligence authorities. For Ben, then, his loyalty is to himself and his wife, rather than to any one country. The novel suggests the importance of individual ethics in a time saturated by nationalistic ideologies, but this retreat into the private sphere is still ever perilous. The conclusion indeed makes us wonder whether or not Ben has succeeded in his escape into a thirdspace: beyond migrant or citizen, spy or patriot. An intriguing and rousing effort from Jin, perhaps his strongest since the collection A Good Fall and a novel that will be certain to be adopted into course curricula and one that will become the subject of numerous critical articles.

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A Review of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others (W.W. Norton, 2014).

I’ll be honest: I really struggled throughout the reading of this novel. My admission isn’t to say that you would hate this book, but it will definitely be a challenge for those who perhaps aren’t as fond of “Dickensian-styled aesthetics.” By this phrase, I mean to say that there are a lot of characters in this novel, and the constant shifts in narrative perspective and time can serve to be a nuisance to a reader who might be more used a linear plot and a first person narrator. Neel Mukherjee’s follow-up to A Life Apart is an intergenerational saga focused on the Ghosh family. Fortunately, publishers saw fit to include a very useful family tree at the beginning of the novel, something I referred to again and again when I got confused about who was related to whom. Even in a Dickens novel, there is usually some sort of central storyline and protagonist, but the novel’s rhetoric is a bit unclear for a couple hundred pages, until we begin to see exactly why two different stories are being juxtaposed. First, there is a storyline concerning Supratik (told in the first person), the oldest son of the oldest son (Adinath, who has a number of siblings including Priyonath, Chhaya, Bholanath, and Somnath) of the family patriarch (Parfullanath, who is married to Charubala). Supratik has gone off with a Communist group (with ties to the Naxalites: reminding me issues brought up in Lahiri’s The Lowland and Chaudhuri’s Calcutta) to help out with farmers and sharecroppers, many of whom are being jilted by landowners due to loans they can never pay off. The other storyline follows the Ghosh family as a whole and by mean whole I mean that Mukherjee pretty much follows most of the major characters on the family tree at some point or another. For instance, we discover that Chhaya possesses an incredibly close relationship with her brother Priyo(nath) at a young age, but she later grows up to be a spinster. Priyo’s marriage to Purnima is under some strain, and he seeks the comforts of mistresses, especially those who can indulge in a particular scatological fetish, while his own daughter Baishakhi is coming-of-age and falling in love with a neighbor. The youngest sibling Somnath grows up to be something of a ruffian and his attitudes toward women end up costing him his life. Before he is killed (after attempting to assault a woman), he is married off to a woman named Purba, whose family is just overjoyed that she has managed to find a match with a man from a supposedly respectable background (they know nothing of his reputation). Purba’s son, Swarender, also happens to be a mathematics genius. Bholanath, one of the middle children, suffers the fate of many in this position, as he is often overlooked because he is rather average in all respects. The entire family is essentially supported by one business, the paper and printing company started by Parfullanath (who himself was divested of a potential inheritance in a jewelry store when his father unexpectedly dies). The family’s internal squabbles certainly give light to why Supratik might have left; indeed, Supratik’s lessons in Marxism convey that the family is often the structural unit that grounds oppressive hierarchies. We can see how the Ghosh family’s dysfunctional dynamics cannot ultimately mask the fact that they hail from the upper middle class, with all of the privileges that might come from that background. Thus, Supratik’s escape from the family is in some sense his desire to break free from what he sees to be a constraining and sometimes wasteful community structure. His believes that he best possible avenue for change is to address resource inequality, a mission that he cannot seem to initiate directly from within his own family. The Victorian-style aesthetic that Mukherjee emulates is perhaps the perfect vehicle to explore issues of class and narrative attention and resources; we see how each character does not get the same trajectory nor can expect to from the vantage point both of the third person narrator or based upon their contextual points of origin (an individual character’s gender, caste background, sexual background). The book seesaws in momentum, and readers must be able to balance their attention among a vast array of characters. Though readers will be tested, the persistent will be rewarded in the final arc, as storylines and threads converge, and we begin to see how the naturalistic drama that Mukherjee has set into motion will come to a devastating close.

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A Review of Natasha Deen’s Guardian (Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2014).

Natasha Deen’s Guardian was one of the surprising YA fiction reads for me this year. Trolling the internets at night when I am having insomnia has become an incredibly productive way for me to come across books by Asian American and Asian Anglophone writers that I haven’t yet had a chance to read. Natasha Deen is also author to a number of other young adult and genre fictions, including the True Grime series. I have much to catch up on apparently. In Guardian (the first in what could be a series, but it’s unclear), our protagonist and first person narrator is Maggie, a mixed race (half East Indian) teen who has a gift: she helps transition those who have just died, helping them move to the other side. Her gift is particular to those ghosts who are having trouble figuring out what to do after they have passed. But, her talent becomes far more than she bargained for when the high school bully, Serge Popov, is found dead. Serge is none other than Maggie’s primary antagonist, so when Serge is dead, there is some sense that that part of her life has come to an end, until she discovers that Serge is tethered to her and cannot transition to the other side. Having to deal with Serge being with her at almost every waking (and sleeping) moment encourages Maggie to embark on her own unofficial investigation concerning the murky details around Serge’s death. It becomes apparent that Serge was killed, but the murderer’s identity is far from easy to figure out. Thus, Deen’s novel incorporates elements of the paranormal alongside the noir plot. Set in a sleepy, rural Canadian town, the killing of course reverberates through the tight-knit community. Nancy, a police officer and the girlfriend to Maggie’s Dad, is on the case trying to figure out who might have been behind the murder. At the same time, as Maggie dives deeper into her own unofficial investigation, it becomes apparent that Serge’s relationship with his parents was far from ideal. Serge’s father, Reverend Popov, was known to be abusive, while his mother seems to acquiesce to whatever the Reverend says or does. Serge not surprisingly suspects that the Reverend was behind his murder, but Maggie realizes that she must unravel the mystery soon before another person is killed. Though the mystery aspect of the novel disappointed me overall, the novel has an interesting concluding arc along the paranormal spectrum that I wasn’t prepared for and was pleasantly surprised by. Further still, the textures that these concluding sequences add offer Deen the perfect opportunity to create further installments with Maggie as our stubborn, plucky heroine. Another critique of the novel was its use of dialogue; there were times when it was difficult to figure out who was actually doing the speaking. Deen tends to be a minimalist when it comes to signal phrases in relation to dialogue, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that Maggie must often navigate conversations with dead characters and non-dead characters, with the non-dead characters often unable to or aware that the dead characters are in the “scene.”  Despite these small critiques, Deen’s Guardian is certainly a recommended read for those interesting in young adult/ paranormal fictions.

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A Review of Oh Yong Hwee (writer) and Koh Hong Teng’s (illustrator) Ten Sticks and One Rice (Epigram Books, 2010).

Ten Sticks and One Rice, penned by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, is published by Epigram Books, a Singaporean publisher. For more on Epigram Books, go here:

Singapore’s Asian Anglophone literary archive is quite large, one that has been virtually ignored here in the American “West,” but I’ve been encouraged to read much more into this area ever since working with a brilliant undergraduate student, who hails from the powerful city-state and who is always letting me know about the cool new books that are being published over there. Little did I know that there were also a ton of graphic novels and graphic narratives to be reviewing from this area of the world, which brings me to this one today. Our protagonist of Ten Sticks and One Rice is none other than Neo Hock Seng, who is described at the back of the book as an “illegal bookie,” “a secret society member,” and “a street hawker,” who must deal with Singapore as it “transforms from a kampong to a cosmopolitan city… even as he finds his old ways and values increasingly challenged.” At the start of the narrative, Neo Hock Seng is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. At the same time, we discover that one of his closest friends from long ago, Boon Shan, has died. He takes this opportunity to put together a proper funeral, which would include a festive meal and celebration of Boon Shan’s life, as well as an elaborate funeral procession. Boon Shan’s death gives Hock Seng a chance to reflect back upon his life, and the graphic novel often shifts backward in time to periods when he was a young boy and then later when is an adult trying to make ends meet and to provide for his family. His interest in being an illegal bookie and a secret society member certainly stem from the challenges of upward mobility, but he eventually settles into work as a “street hawker,” selling sticks of satay and rice (hence the title). Throughout Hock Seng’s maturation, he maintains some old traditions, even when it causes strain with his friends, who sometimes see him as a holding too hard to outdated social norms and mores, but it becomes evident that Hock Seng’s predilections toward these cultural rituals are in fact a way to strengthen family and friendship ties. By the conclusion of the graphic narrative, we see that his own family is starting to shift in their cultural practices, something that Hock Seng cannot control, but the conclusion is one that clarifies that Hock Seng does not seek to impose his will upon his childrens’ live. He only gently reminds them of what good can come from honoring the past. The artwork is able to convey the gravity of Hock Seng’s life and does a great job of fleshing out the changes in his face over the years. The one area that could have been improved is the clarification in time shifts; it might have been useful to have another grayscale employed whenever the narrative moved back in the past, as the cuts sometimes seemed slightly abrupt. Despite this small critique, the graphic narrative is well worth reading, especially as it dovetails with the discourses of hypermodernization that have long seen associated with Singapore as one of the Asian “tiger” economies. What is being lost in this relentless drive to become a global city, the narrative might seem to be elliptically asking? Hock Seng would tell us to make sure to look into the local past before we step so stridently into the global future.

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A Review of Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions (with illustrations by Amanda Thomas) (Lanternfish Press, LLC).

Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions is a curious, but formalistically innovative work that one would probably not call a novel (or set of stories), but rather a fictional encyclopedia filled with imagined diseases. On a personal note, I very much enjoyed reading this compendium of made-up maladies precisely because my mother is a pathologist. I grew up with phrases such as “malignant melanoma” and “Creutzfeldt-Jakob” being bandied about in conversation over breakfast. Thus, I read Paralkar’s work with much gusto and easily finished it one sitting. There is a frame narrative that accompanies the fictional Encyclopedia of diseases, which involves a librarian talking to an individual named Máximo, an apothecary, who is being shown the document. The librarian gives Máximo the occasional tidbit about his or her own life (I can’t quite recall if the work marks any gender for this narrator-figure), while also relaying some choice details about the structure and the thematic unity of the Encyclopedia. The frame narrative is what gives this work a general sense of forward movement; it is quite essential because otherwise what you read are a vast array of strange diseases with equally strange manifestations: for instance, in one case, one of the illness involves the growing of wings upon a person’s back. The reason for “catching” such a disease is constituted by the patient’s desire to move beyond the bounds of his or her subject position. Here, Paralkar uses the disease manifestation as an obvious manifestation of a figure who dreams probably too big and thus cannot seem to accomplish his or her goals. In the case of Exilium volatile, “When ships sail over the broadest expanses of ocean, their passengers become vulnerable” (64) to this particular malady in which “they grope for memories that might lend them some sense of belonging, but unable to find any, they believe for a terrible instant that the sum of their existence lies confined within the ship that carries them” (65). The disease manifests acutely during the voyage, only to subside when “their vessel approaches its harbor” (65). Again, Paralkar uses this illness as a metaphor for the internal struggles of migrant figures, who attempt to situate a stable sense of home, as they must move from one place to another. For all of the generalities of the disease compendium, there is a general sense that the narrative is set in the Old World (Italy), sometime perhaps in the Early modern period. As in practically all cases, the diseases are somehow connected to emotional states of being that involve individuals and larger communities, but the fanciful nature of this encyclopedia does have darker ramifications. Indeed, by the conclusion of this work, you can’t help but wonder about the necessity of disease taxonomies, whether or not actual maladies that exist in medical literature today may somehow be imagined. An intriguing and innovatively structured fictional work.

Buy the Book Here (and find out more about a cool indie press):

A Review Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Over time, it’s become fairly clear that I enjoy the memoir form because of its voyeuristic qualities. The best in this genre, in my humble opinion, really appear no different from lyrical diaries: excruciating details that are perhaps meant only to be read by the person writing them, but somehow (as readers) we chance upon these texts and receive access. We are invited into a realm, then, that seems so intimate. The oddity of the memoir is of course the actual distance that can exist between reader and writer. My response after reading Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers was one that I could not actually act upon: I wanted to call this Maria Chaudhuri up and tell her what a wonderful thing she had shared with me, but who was I: nothing but this distant reader, a veritable outsider. I could have called myself a beloved stranger, but such a moniker would have been obviously hyperbolic. The memoir is this kind of genre then that invites the intimacy of the reader without actually allowing for it. In the best memoirs, you are frustrated by this intimacy because you realize, then, this incredible distance. The distance is of course one way to get at how these connections between reader and writer cannot be made superficially. Indeed, Chauduri’s poetically rendered work is very specific in its contexts. The author grows up in Bangladesh in a home filled with half silences and unexpressed feelings; not surprisingly, given her highly introspective nature, she seeks escape and soon finds it by going to the United States for her college education. The course of the narrative spends most of the time focusing on the narrator’s distant relationship to both of her parents as well as detailing two major but “failed” romantic relationships; much less is spent upon her connection to her siblings (with the exception of her sister Naveen). Chaudhuri doesn’t shy away from the messy and the murk of romance and family; this ability to look as squarely as possible into her own shortcomings and the elliptical language of love and self-delusion is what makes Beloved Strangers so haunting in its many evocations.

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