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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any concerns you may have.
In this post, reviews of Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song (Topside Signature, 2014); David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (Theatre Communications Group, 2009); Tania James’s The Tusk that Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015); Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character (Knopf, 2015); Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections (Graywolf, 2013); Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop (Kaya, 2014); Liana Liu’s The Memory Key (HarperTeen, 2015); Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know (Bloomsbury USA, 2015); Jo Whittemore’s Colonial Madness (Simon and Schuster Young Readers, 2015).
A Review of Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song (Topside Signature, 2014).
Ryka Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song (Topside Signature, 2014) is her follow-up to Seasonal Velocities. In He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song, Aoki fractures perspective amongst an expansive set of characters that reminds one of an Altman film if it was set in Hawai‘i and involved a plot concerning performance and the “true meaning” of an island identity. At its core, Aoki’s spirited, slightly surrealistic, and ultimately upbeat novel challenges settler colonialist rhetoric in its evocation of a pluralist ethos for Hawaiian identity. Indeed, the opening gambit is none other than the burden that one of the characters, Noelani Choi, feels concerning Hawaiian dance and whether or not she still feels rooted to this kind of performance. Though gifted with the ability to dance, Noelani is particularly ambivalent about her talents and much of the novel delves into her own spiritual and identity quest as it relates to hula and her halau (performance troupe). But there are a number of other quirky characters, including Kamakawiwo‘ole Shulman—Kam for short—a Jewish musician who relocates to the islands and fashions himself with an appropriate name for his new home. There is the friendship that develops over the course of the novel between Harry, a local man who is still recovering from the loss of his wife, and Steve Yates, a successful businessman, who relocates to the islands after it is discovered that his wife (Lisa) may be dying. Harry and Steve bond over their mutual love of fishing. There is Nona Watanabe, who holds a torch for Harry, but can’t seem to break past his melancholic subjectivity. Nona and Lisa become the natural opposing pair to Harry and Steve. One of the most hilarious and nefarious characters in the novel is Eva Matsuoka, owner of a successful plate lunch business, who is looking to steal the recipe for the super delicious chicken that Nona is somehow able to make. Though the narratives seem disparate at first, Aoki is patient and begins to gradually twine them, especially through the motif of the Hawaiian dance performance and what it means to be Hawaiian. Toward the conclusion, Noelani Choi contemplates: “But what is Hawaiian? Where you stay born? The color of your skin, hair? Your blood? Would be easy, yeah? Maybe if you eat opihi or kulolo?” (269). Noelani later decides: “It wasn’t always about blood or culture. It could be. Sometimes, the spirit gets passed on to someone born from the aina. But sometimes, it passes to someone without one speck of Hawaiian. And then what? You cannot just say no” (270). In this sense, Aoki’s He Mele A Hilo: A Hilo Song articulates an expansive and inspiring approach to the local and Hawaiian identities. Aoki’s novel would be productive to read alongside other writers already highlighted in AALF including Gary Park and Kristiana Kahahauwila; for reviews of their work, see:
For more on Topside Signature, go here:
For Ryka Aoki’s novel, go here:
A Review of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (Theatre Communications Group, 2009).
I’m obviously underread in the area of Asian American drama, a fact that is made (alarmingly) apparent as I am catching up on David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, perhaps one of the most innovative additions to the field in the last decade, given its emphasis on “meta-drama” (is that a word?) and Hwang’s self-conscious exploration of race and performance in this apparently post-Asian moment. For Hwang, the play gives him the opportunity to satirize the controversy over the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon. Though many years have past since that debacle, the reverberations of this event remain for Asian American Studies scholars, artists, actors, and activists, especially as elucidated by Hwang’s incendiary drama. Poking fun at himself, the producers of Miss Saigon, identity politics, all the while clarifying the necessity of sensitivity in racial casting, Hwang pulls off a rare feat that entertains, mocks, but still somehow manages to call attention to the white supremacist inclinations of performance fields. Hwang creates a lead role based upon himself and this “fictive” Hwang piece is working on the production called Face Value, which is in its casting phases. Eventually, Marcus Dahlman, who is apparently of Jewish descent (via Siberia), is cast in a lead role meant to be played by someone of Asian descent. Hwang, eventually realizing his error, tries to cover his tracks by proclaiming that Dalhman is indeed Asian, though by way of continentality—he comes from Russia after all, which is a country in Asia—rather than through racial difference and hypodescent. Marcus parlays mistaken identity into a full-fledged career as a so-called Asian American actor, changing his appellation to Gee, which is of course more appropriately Chinese than Siberian. Hwang is astute to play off the elision between continental and geographical definitions of Asia in contrast to racial formations of Asian groups, but he juxtaposes this main storyline alongside that of a conspiracy type plot related to his father who is caught up in an investigation of a Chinese corporation perhaps involved in fraud. This comparison point is meant to bring the satire back into the orbit of other rising anti-Asian sentiments in this contemporary moment, especially in relation to China as a major global power. In many respects, Hwang’s latest has much in line with the newest performances that Karen Tei Yamashita penned in Anime Wong—see especially the title work in that collection—concerning the rise of a new form of yellow peril in the 21st century. It is in this juxtaposition that Hwang reminds us that our work in race and ethnic studies is likely never to be finished so long as social difference, inequality and global capitalism remains embedded in our daily lives.
For more on the book and the production (as well as an interview) go here:
A Review of Tania James’s The Tusk that Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015).
Tania James’s third publication (after Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogramme: Stories) is The Tusk that Did the Damage. In this slim and naturalistic work, James takes on the subjects of animal studies, poaching, elephant subjectivity, and documentary filmmaking. There are roughly three narrative perspectives. One is given to an Indian man named Manu whose cousin is killed off by a violent elephant known only as the Gravedigger. Manu’s brother Jayan is already connected with the activity of poaching, but he is given pause when he is arrested in conjunction with his illicit hunting. The Gravedigger seems to have a larger vendetta against Manu and his family, and once the elephant comes a little bit too close to home, Manu and Jayan must make some difficult decisions about how they will protect themselves. A key figure in this subplot is Jayan’s wife who exerts a significant and almost romantic pull on Manu. The second perspective is given to a filmmaker named Emma, who has traveled to India to create a documentary film; she is working with a close friend and former lover named Teddy. The main “human contact” of their documentary is none other than a man named Ravi, a veterinarian who is well known for his championing of elephants and the protections he seeks for animals who are deemed to be targets for poachers. The third narrative perspective is completed in the third person and is more mythic: it follows the story of Gravedigger and his journey from being orphaned to his quest to exact a kind of revenge on those who have perpetrated brutalities against him and those that he loves. This third perspective is an interesting one because James chooses to provide readers only with a limited access to the animal’s subjectivity, an interesting move given the use of the first person for Emma and Manu. The toggling between these perspectives can sometimes result in uneven pacing, but James’s ultimate goal and message is obviously and strongly political: there are no winners in the industry of poaching. Elephants are targeted often for parts that become consumed only on an ornamental level, while lower caste and class individuals enter illegal trades simply to survive, while still others seek to shed light on difficult topics without falling subject to relativities and banal messages of hope and positive futures. Without a heroic center, some readers may find James’s novel too bleak, but the seriousness of the topic matter is appropriately matched by the author’s willingness to plumb the contradictory subjectivities of all the characters, human and otherwise. For another book on a similar topic and issue, please see Nikita Lalwani’s The Village, review on Asian American Literature Fans here:
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A Review of Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character (Knopf, 2015).
Well, this novel was a definite surprise. Deepti Kapoor’s debut novel A Bad Character is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who resides in Delhi. The novel is fairly anachronic, but the primary diegetic level appears set during a period when the protagonist is college age. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle because her mother has passed away, and her father has essentially abandoned her for a new life in Singapore. As a kind of dispossessed college aged orphan, it is really up to Aunty (as she is called) to marry the narrator off. The narrator, though, is quite resistant to all of the potential matches, especially because they are cloaked under the guise of propriety and decorum. The narrator realizes that her possible marriage matches are already limited by her tenuous socioeconomic status and the lack of support from her surviving parent. It becomes apparent, too, that the narrator is beautiful, an aspect that emerges most forcefully in the ongoing affair that she carries on with a young man, the titular “bad character,” who we discover at the start of the novel has been run over by a car and killed. We know that she and this young man have some sort of complicated romantic history, and it unfolds in fits and starts over a poetically written set of excerpts that move back and forth through time. Kapoor’s writing is raw and unflinching; the novel seems to be inspired in part by works such as Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. In terms of topic and approach, it also very much reminds me of Lawrence Chua’s Gold by the Inch, especially in the ways that the narrator and her lover spend the nights in wild abandon: driving through the streets of Delhi, snorting cocaine, or having sex. At some point, after the untimely death of her lover, the narrator discovers much of their relationship was a lie: his parents were never actually dead as he had stated, and he actually had a fiancé. These revelations spur the narrator further into a dark hole of romantic melancholy: she starts having casual sex and eventually becomes the kept woman for a successful transnational businessman. All throughout this indelicate disintegration, she waxes on and on about this love she cannot quit, this “bad character” who has infused her psyche so completely that he appears as ghostly presence no matter what she is doing, no matter who she is having sex with. This novel won’t be for everyone, but Kapoor’s talent cannot be denied. Her novel is daring, visceral, corporeal, and never shies away from the grittiness of modern Indian life, the desire for liberation amid still oppressive circumstances, urban ennui, and the romantic relationships that so often together become an unruly alchemical mixture so potent as to become the course for ruin.
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A Review of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections (Graywolf, 2013).
I’ve been consistently behind on my poetry reading; one of the big gaping examples is that I just recently got to Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections, which was notably the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He may have the distinction of being the only American writer of Asian descent to win the Pulitzer in poetry, but you can correct me if I’m wrong. I had to read 3 sections a couple of times to get a sense of its diverse topics and expansive scope. Seshadri is also quite interested in discourses of science and anthropology, as evidenced in poems like “The Descent of Man” in which the lyric speaker meditates on his physical decline through the extended metaphor of devolution. Certainly, Seshadri has mastered a certain kind of meditative, philosophical lyric (see the wonderful “Surveillance Report” for an example), but perhaps the most influential “section” from the collection appears late and takes the form of something more like a creative nonfiction short story. In “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” Seshadri explores the lives of fishermen on the Pacific Coast; this section is both harrowing and exquisitely wrought. Seshadri’s presumed autobiographical “I” is partly on a research mission, partly on a journey of exploration, as he sets sail with a group of seasoned fishermen. Seshadri is hardly prepared for the physical ailments brought on by rough waters and the constant storms, spending a number of early days on the cabin floor vomiting everything out. Once he gets his sea legs, he begins to get a glimpse of the parallax way of life for the fisherman, especially based upon the dichotomy of weather patterns that can befall a ship. One moment the seas may be calm and stunningly placid, while the next a storm may brew, bringing with it the portent of danger and death. Seshadri is also quite anthropological in his investigations, noting the high distrust that fisherman have for Russians, on the one hand, while much more latitude is given to the Japanese, on the other. There is a mutlifaceted culture out there at sea, and Seshadri’s foray into this prose section is evidence that we need to see a prose-based creative nonfiction from him in the future, to be sure. From that point forward, two poems remain. The notable “Personal Essay” is Seshadri at his most Whitmanesque: long free verse lines that give a sense again of the highly introspective lyric speaker. It is a fitting poem to follow “Pacific Fishes of Canada” and showcases the autobiographical speaker’s desire to find an intersubjective connection. The collection ends with “Light Verse,” a sense that Seshadri’s poetry project is now complete. We’re back at “standard time,” but everything’s a still a little bit off-kilter and we’re all a little bit better for it.
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A Review of Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop (Kaya, 2014).
So, I’ve been meaning to review titles from Kaya for a very long time, but I don’t think I’ve managed to do much of that here on Asian American Literature Fans. Most devotees of Asian American literature know that Kaya is one of the very few presses devoted to publishing within the general area. Kaya is well known for its innovative catalogue focusing not only on Asian American literature, but also Asian literatures in translation and the Asia-Pacific more broadly. Here’s a useful link:
Obvious notable books in their catalogue include Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, Kimiko Hahn’s Unbearable Heart, and R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s (which I am teaching this very quarter!). In this review, I focus on Gene Oishi’s novel Fox Drum Bebop. Oishi is actually the author of an earlier piece—something marketed as a docu-fiction—called In Search for Hiroshi, which was published in 1987. That docu-fiction is narrated in the first person and though both pieces have characters named Hiroshi, it’s clear that Fox Drum Bebop is a separate cultural production. Fox Drum Bebop might be called a novel in stories: each chapter seems to be a self-contained narrative that when linked together provide a multigenerational tapestry of one Japanese American family. At this point the internment has become something of an ur-narrative, but Oishi’s contribution is to look beyond the scope of this event to see how a family also evolves past that point. Though editorial and marketing blurbs seem to focus on Hiroshi Kono as the protagonist, he is part of a large family that includes a number of brothers (the all-American, but not so American Mickey, the tragic polio ridden Sammy, and Yukio), and one sister (Sachi). Hiroshi’s father, considered a Japanese patriot, is arrested alongside others in his community and is carted off to Montana, while Hiroshi, his mother Otsui, and his siblings must endure the desultory life of the internment camp (I believe they are held in Gila River). Sammy crumbles under the weight of interment and dies before their incarceration is over, but the other family members move on to construct their lives in the shadow of this event. Hiroshi learns to play various musical instruments, finds a great love of jazz, engages in an affair with an older piano teacher, travels to Europe, and eventually marries a Frenchwoman of Jewish background. The novel obviously comes off as largely episodic because of the way that it is structured in these self-contained chapters, but the mosaic is particularly affecting. Oishi is quite keen on elaborating upon not only the internment and its after effects, but the larger multicultural tensions that embroiled California throughout that period. Indeed, even as Hiroshi’s family eventually moves up the economic ladder, Oishi’s friendships and connections to other minorities reveal the schisms that push him to understand his asymmetrical foundations of racial difference and elucidate his privilege in certain circumstances. The payoff for the novel comes in many passages of quiet beauty and deep contemplation. As the novel comes to a close Hiroshi reflects, “The Nisei couldn’t talk about the camps, not only because it disturbed their self-image as Americans, but because it reminded them of a fear that ran too deep to probe. Somewhere at the core of their being, they were still terrified—afraid for themselves and afraid for their children. For all he or his family knew, they’d been brought to the desert to die, to starve in a barren wasteland crawling with snakes, lizards, scorpions, and other unknown dangers. Hiroshi recalled the propaganda: the Japanese were an evil race; they were subhuman, snarling apes, rats, vermin. Mother and many of the Issei had been convinced that they would [end of 271] all be killed out here in the wilderness. And though the site had been turned out not to be the extermination camp they had feared, the terror and the sense of their helplessness had remained. At its most primitive level, that terror had been the unspoken shame of being Japanese. But the real threat—the worst degradation, not existentially, but spiritually—was the shame itself” (272). Here, Hiroshi reveals the extent of his understanding of the traumas rooted in internment and how they come to bear upon his life even decades ever the event has concluded. This latency is of course mirrored in the act of so many Japanese American writers completing the kind of recovery work made almost impossible by the fact of this shame. It is in this sense that such publications are more than just fictions and constitute an archive of witnessing and of potential healing.
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A Review of Liana Liu’s The Memory Key (HarperTeen, 2015).
Liana Liu’s debut novel The Memory Key is part of the blob-like archive that has become young adult paranormal romance. The official HarperCollins site provides a useful plot summary here:
“Lora Mint is determined not to forget.
Though her mother's been dead for five years, Lora struggles to remember every detail about her—most important, the specific events that occurred the night she sped off in her car, never to return.
But in a world ravaged by Vergets disease, a viral form of Alzheimer's, that isn't easy. Usually Lora is aided by her memory key, a standard-issue chip embedded in her brain that preserves memories just the way a human brain would. Then a minor accident damages Lora's key, and her memories go haywire. Suddenly Lora remembers a moment from the night of her mother's disappearance that indicates her death was no accident. Can she trust these formerly forgotten memories? Or is her ability to remember every painful part of her past driving her slowly mad—burying the truth forever?
Lora's story of longing for her lost mother—and for the truth behind her broken memories—takes readers on a twisty ride. The authentic, emotional narrative sparks fascinating questions about memory and privacy in a world that increasingly relies on electronic recall.”
At its core, The Memory Key is also a mystery novel. Lora Mint’s malfunctioning memory key gives her the ability to recall past events with full clarity; she can remember minor details that give her reasonable cause to reconsider what happened to her mother. Lora Mint becomes our noir heroine in that respect, as she looks into her mother’s past, determined to find out if the circumstances behind her death were perpetrated by a malicious party intent on silencing research that might prove to undermine the virtual monopoly held by the makers of the memory key. Lora Mint’s mother, Jeanette (nee Lee) had worked for Keep Corp, as a kind of public relations scientist, but when her research indicates that there may be something wrong with the newest generation of memory keys, she is killed in a car accident. Lora’s investigation includes numerous trips to the library (where she also happens to work); she enlists the help of her best friend, Wendy, as well as Wendy’s brother Tim, while she conducts interviews with individuals related to Keep Corp and with Grand Gardens, the retirement home that seems to have a connection to all of the events that are unfolding. There are certain details of the plot that remain intriguing to consider from the level of social difference. Lora’s family background on her mother’s side is notably an immigrant one, but it’s never quite clear what that immigrant background is. Liu chooses to deracinate her fictional world in this way, though still referencing possible social difference in that immigrant background. It’s an interesting choice to make, one that didn’t make full sense to me, especially since the novel is so politically invested in its critique of governance and corporate interests. Liu’s novel is briskly paced, and most readers will find Lora to be a likable heroine, but the conclusion is surprisingly anti-climactic and undercuts the impact of an otherwise dynamic plot and narrative trajectory. The novel’s underwhelming conclusion nevertheless sets up the possibility of sequels, but one is uncertain at this time whether or not this work is a stand-alone novel or will see future installments. Certainly, fans of young adult fiction and paranormal romance will be pleased by this debut. It has all the requisite formula elements: the ordinary but not so ordinary young teen girl on a quest to defeat the big bad while snagging a potential paramour along the way.
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A Review of Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know (Bloomsbury USA, 2015).
Tautly written and perfectly understated in its impact, Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let him Know is a wonderful debut novel. Billed as a novel in stories, Don’t let him Know begins with an opening chapter involving a South Asian mother named Romola discovering that her adult son Amit has come upon a letter purportedly written by a former lover of Romola’s named Sumit. Romola immediately blanches at the letter, but Roy has us in his masterful hands. Indeed, though it seems as if Romola assents to the fact that she has been found out by her son, that she once had a love affair with this man before she had married the man who would come to be Amit’s father (Avinash), the second chapter reveals another secret entirely. The letter that was written was actually penned by a former lover of Avinash; Romola had come upon the letter by accident and realized what the letter had meant but never actually confronted her husband about it. Roy pens these stories in an anachronic order, so there is something of a palimpsestic experience to reading this novel. We discover things about characters that will then be contextualized in a new way by information brought up in the past. Roy’s opening gambit is somewhat of a risk because it holds our attention so acutely that when the novel starts moving to other characters and relational contexts, our attention is potentially challenged, and we wonder, for instance, whether or not the illicit romance between Sumit and Avinash will ever be fully explored. Roy frustrates readers in the best possible way. That is, the point seems to be about the elliptics of the immigration experience and that secrets remain buried instead of climactically revealed. The illict queer romance that opens the collection is of course directed at the many illicit variations on connections that appear in the novel, such as interracial/ interminority romance (between Amit and an African American woman) and the buddy love affair between Romola and a man who would later become a Bollywood Star. What is evident is that Roy is putting forth the asymmetrical, but interlinked ways in which characters act out on desires that can be labeled as deviant, and this central thematic provides the novel a solid enough foundation that we don’t mind how the plot will ultimately meander as a result of the formal conceit that Roy uses. Indeed, the final chapter’s minor triumph is a beautiful and fitting conclusion to a cultural production that revels in nuance rather than bombast and theatrics.
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For a useful interview, go here!
A Review of Jo Whittemore’s Colonial Madness (Simon and Schuster Young Readers, 2015).
I’ve been meaning to read something by Jo Whittemore for a long time. She’s the author of two different series for young readers, one that is fantasy based and another that occurs in an educational setting (with titles like Front Page Face/Off). Whittemore’s latest, Colonial Madness, gave me an opportunity to engage a piece of her publication oeuvre. As the official site states, the book’s synopsis is roughly like so: “Tori Porter is best friends with her mom, and most of the time it’s awesome. Not many girls have a mom who’d take them to a graveyard for hide-and-seek or fill the bathtub with ice cream for the world’s biggest sundae. But as much as Tori loves having fun, she sometimes wishes her mom would act a little more her age. Like now. Thanks to her mom’s poor financial planning, they are in danger of losing their business and their home. But an unusual opportunity arises in the form of a bizarre type of contest put on by an eccentric relative: Whoever can survive two weeks in the Archibald Family’s colonial manor will inherit the property. The catch? Contestants have to live as in colonial times: no modern conveniences, no outside help, and daily tests of their abilities to survive challenges of the time period.” Pitched at reading audiences aged nine to thirteen, I seem to fall completely outside of that group, but this novel proved to be the right reading option after a long night of teaching, and I needed something perhaps a little bit more escapist in character. What the synopsis doesn’t mention is the fact that the eccentric relative (named Muriel Archibald) is purportedly dead (or so we’re made to think based upon an early missive that Tori and her mom receive), and she has a huge inheritance that she intended to give away, but it comes with strings: relatives must compete in a contest based upon colonial-era challenges in order to have a chance to win the property. Thus, the interested relatives, who include the family of Tori’s cousin Angel, who also happens to be her close friend, all gather on the property to begin the contest. Hijinks obviously ensue, especially when it becomes apparent that the frontrunners may do anything to win the contest. An early challenge involving the making of breakfast sees Tori and her Mom come in dead last, with her mother having fallen asleep while attending to a task required for the ingredients needed for the breakfast. Tori soon loses faith in her mother’s ability to help them win the competition and this crisis is the root of the novel’s tension: the mother-daughter bond will obviously be the way that the two will have any chance to survive the colonial times. Whittemore is of course not content to leave the plot solely to the mercurial balance of mother-daughter connections; she adds another wrinkle into the novelistic equation with a rather innocuous romance plot that begins to emerge after Tori shows some interest in one of the employees working as part of the colonial-era townsfolk who populate the property. Though eventually outlawed from meeting up with this boy, Caleb, due to the perceived unfair advantage she might be receiving from this budding romance, Tori nevertheless continues to meet with Caleb in secret, even defying her mother’s wishes. Whittemore’s novel is certainly on the frothy side. For those wondering about what happened to indigenous populations and genocidal depictions, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Colonial Madness stays stringently on the side of popcorn entertainment fare. For those looking for a different form of colonial or postcolonial madness (from Asian American writers) in which race and indigenous cultures are featured prominently as elements of the plot, see Sabina Murray’s A Carnivore’s Inquiry.
For more about the book, go here: