Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 6, 2015.

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 6, 2015.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

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.

In this post, reviews of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above (Balzer + Bray, 2015); Mike Wu’s Ellie (Disney-Hyperion, 2015); Karl Taro Greenfield’s Subprimes (Harper, 2015); Anita Kushwaha’s The Escape Artist (Quattro Books, 2015); Griffin Ondaatje’s The Mosquito Brothers (House of Anansi, 2015); Mia Alvar’s In the Country (Knopf, 2015); Taran Matharu’s Novice (Feiwel & Friends, 2015); Nina Revoyr’s Lost Canyon (Akashic, 2015).

A Review of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above (Balzer + Bray, 2015).

I knew that the basic premise of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above concerned an intersex protagonist, so I was pretty jazzed to read this debut novel, which is firmly couched in the young adult fictional realms. Our first person storyteller and featured heroine is Kristin Lattimer. Upon losing her virginity to her boyfriend Sam, Kristin experiences serious pain during/ after intercourse, so much so that she sets up a doctor’s appointment with her OBGYN. Once there, it becomes apparent that there may be some anatomical issues, as her vagina is deemed to be unnaturally short. Upon further tests, Kristin discovers that she’s biologically intersex, as she still possesses some rudimentary gonads, which she may elect to remove (though there are risks associated with the surgery). Indeed, as she is informed, a gonadectomy will necessarily force her to take hormone pills for the rest of her life, and there is the possibility of other side effects as well. She is also diagnosed with AIS, which is androgen insensitivity syndrome. Though biologically intersex, Kristin identifies as female in terms of her gender and heterosexual in terms of her sexuality, but these identifications don’t mean much to many of her classmates who soon find out about her medical diagnosis when one of her close friends becomes a little loose-lipped about what Kristin’s diagnoses. Sam soon dumps her, while Kristin is the subject of cyberbullying, especially as she is repeatedly called a hermaphrodite. Thus, Kristin faces intense shame in the face of the fact that so many of her schoolmates know about her intersexuality and are being outwardly prejudiced toward her. Fortunately, a friend from an earlier period, the class nerd Darren Kowalski, is there to help her out. Additionally, Kristin volunteers her time at a clinic and learns to look beyond her own issues to see that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. For a young adult novel, Gregorio has tackled a very difficult topic; she does so with a strong understanding of the medical background of AIS, which increases the texture and impact of this novel. Though Gregorio does not identify as intersex herself, the author’s note details the impact that one former patient of hers had on her. Once the controversy concerning the middle distance runner Caster Semenya hit the news, Gregorio knew she had to write on this topic. Gregorio’s choice to address this issue in the young adult arena has its advantages and its drawbacks. Certainly, the novel will appeal to a younger audience and even influence a more liberal attitude to develop amongst the target audience, many of whom will be under normalizing scrutiny as high school students. At the same time, the novel’s more limited focus on romance and the travails of high school can at times overshadow fact that Kristin’s experience is of course more largely part of a huge discourse on queerness that needs to be understood as having a longer historical and contextual trajectory. Fortunately, Kristin does have a network of AIS supporters to draw from, including an understanding father and great doctor, but her experience is not necessarily the most common one, and in this sense, we must attend to the fact of the novel’s fictionality and perhaps its optimistic exceptionality.

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A Review of Mike Wu’s Ellie (Disney-Hyperion, 2015).

It’s been AGES since I’ve reviewed any picture and board books, but I’ve had more motivation to read them ever since one of my nieces who is autistic just learned to read, and we’ve been celebrating that event with the purchase of a number of different cultural productions so that she can explore the wonderful wide world of literature. Mike Wu’s Ellie is a spirited story of the titular elephant who attempts to save a financially beleaguered zoo through her unique talent: she uses her trunk to paint. Ellie’s talents obviously draw wide interest, and soon the numbers of visitors coming to the park soars, thereby ensuring the survival of the zoo. I agree with the sentiment provided by Publishers Weekly stated here: “Wu is a literal writer, but his visual storytelling, rendered in sweet, throwback-style watercolors, shows creativity and poise.” There is little that breaks this work out of the mold of many other outstanding coloring books, but Wu’s visuals are sure to capture the attentions of its youthful target audience. Of course, those who oppose the zoo as an institution and site for the displaying of animals will want to steer clear of this book. Despite possible political misgivings, the picture book is an important metaphorical exploration of the power of art to inspire and to save a larger community.

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A Review of Karl Taro Greenfield’s Subprimes (Harper, 2015)

In the not too distant future, there exists a world that might look like the one depicted in Subprimes, which is Karl Taro Greenfield’s second novel after Triburbia. Greenfield is also the author of numerous other nonfiction books, including the memoir Boy Alone and the more anthropological, creative nonfictional works Speed Tribes and Standard Deviations. Subprimes might be seen as a natural follow-up to Triburbia, if we were to imagine an increasingly gentrifying world in which class disparity results in extreme forms of urban dislocation and segregation. In the fictional world of Subprimes, there are those who are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, which is the majority of people living in the United States, and then there is the 1%. The title invokes the 99% who must live in subprime areas, houses given up due to mass foreclosures and areas that ended up becoming ghost towns due to rampant speculation. These individuals basically squat on properties that have become abandoned, hoping that they will never be pushed out due to redevelopment or revitalization. Greenfield’s version of the United States might not seem that far out of reality, except he dials up the class disparity factor by giving it an Octavia Butler-style postapocalyptic feel. As the 99% seek to find homes, they must continually move from one place to another as their itinerant status is regulated, policed, and marked as unwelcome. Greenfield fragments narrative perspective amongst a group of core characters, including Sargam, a mixed race and charismatic leader of the 99% who begins to foment a revolution against those who continually seek the displace the homeless wanderers; Arthur Mack, a man who seeks to make a new life in the wake of having been prosecuted for securities fraud; Arthur’s estranged wife, Gemma, who attempts to find her independence from her husband while raising her daughters; and a first person narrator, a journalist, who makes a connection with Gemma and later must go on the run with his children. Ultimately, it is the class warfare emblematized by Sargam’s makeshift community in Valence that leads all of the characters together. Greenfield’s novel is best understood as a biting satire of the current neoliberal economic model and deregulation of financial institutions, which is seeing most of the wealth in the world retained by a select few. In this sense, Subprimes may be an unfortunate harbinger of an actual future. The novel is most successful when it turns up the satirical impulses. For instance, Greenfield makes the most of the Inland Empire by transforming its value. Whereas places like Riverside have often been seen as one of the most undesirable Southern California locations, for Greenfield’s fictional world, Riverside is practically a mecca. Such is the nature of social inequality as it has become hyperformulated in Subprimes. Certainly, this novel is of interest to any scholar and fan of speculative fiction and satirical treatises.

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A Review of Anita Kushwaha’s The Escape Artist (Quattro Books, 2015).

After reading a book the length of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you need something like Anita Kushwaha’s novella The Escape Artist. This slim fictional work gives you a chance to breathe a little bit and enjoy something much more compact in its form. The plot summary is given here: “The Escape Artist is the story of Nisha, a nine-year-old Indian-Canadian girl whose vivid imagination keeps her entertained in the loneliness she experiences as an only child and one of the few children in her neighbourhood. After her grandmother dies, her aunt Neela comes to live with Nisha and her parents. Neela suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after having witnessed the death of her father when she was a girl. Neela and Nisha bond over their active imaginations, dreaming up adventures together in the room Neela all but refuses to leave - until an unexpected emergency.” Nisha is the narrator of this story, which is told retrospectively, though we’re unsure of how many years have passed since the events of the novel. The opening of the novel sets up Nisha’s general boredom, as she seeks to find a better playmate than the children who live closest to her. Neela’s presence thus offers Nisha a potential salve precisely because she has a more mature attitude, while still maintaining a kind of childlike wonder that allows her to connect more readily to Nisha. They spend many hours together, but at one point, Nisha discovers that she can say the wrong thing, leading Neela to shut down and to isolate herself. Indeed, as Nisha finds out, it is extremely difficult to get Neela out of the house. Thus, Nisha ends up pushing her mother to tell her the details surrounding her grandfather’s death, providing Nisha a better sense of why Neela might have been so traumatized and why, for instance, she does not want to leave the house. The concluding sequence details a kind of bildungsromanesque plot that forces Nisha to grow up, perhaps a little bit faster than she wants, but the brevity of this novella does have its drawbacks: we do wonder about the period following the concluding events and all the gritty details that come in the wake of her coming-of-age. The story also reminds me somewhat of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Rishi Reddi in the novella’s nuanced depictions of South Asian North American family lives and local communities and would pair well with any number of stories from Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, and Karma and Other Stories. We’ll look forward to future works from Kushawa.

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A Review of Griffin Ondaatje’s The Mosquito Brothers (House of Anansi, 2015).

So, there I was on a Friday night with writers’ block. I gave up on some of the revisions I was working on and picked a couple of different books out. The first was Griffin Ondaatje’s The Mosquito Brothers. I don’t read many books targeted for children in the mid to later elementary school years, so this book was a great one to remind myself of the different techniques that writers can take to engage their intended audience. As the official page notes, the story revolves around a young mosquito by the name of Dinnn (three “n’s” for those that are counting) Needles. The plot is described like so: “After he nearly drowns in a parking-lot puddle, Dinnn Needles is fearful of many things, including flying. When his four hundred siblings swarm off without him, he finds time to dream —about family stories, a lost brother, adventure in The Wild and, above all, how to be cool.” Dinnn is one of 401 children who are born in a mosquito “clutch,” so to speak, so he has to compete for the attention of his parents and his many classmates. As the runt of the litter, Dinnn attempts to carve out a sense of individuality by wearing a tiny leather jacket, which is later inscribed with the word “mosquito brothers,” which provides us with the origination of the title. In the latter half of the book, Dinnn goes on a country adventure with his family, manages to survive a harrowing encounter with predatory dragonflies and is even reunited with a long lost half-brother. Ondaatje’s choice to anthropomorphize an insect more commonly associated with pestilence and parasitic qualities is an intriguing one. Here, children will have to consider and perhaps even discard their presumptions about what animals deserve value and even human sympathy, but the novel does generate other questions, especially because the mosquitos in this narrative rarely if ever feed on the blood of animals directly. Ondaatje’s choice to elide this particular manner of consumption is one that is a gamble in some sense, especially as it undercuts some of the impact of his decision to recreate mosquitos with so many relatable and endearing qualities. The illustrations by Erica Salcedo are quite vital in establishing the amiable qualities of these mosquitos and Salcedo’s technique serves the general conceit and ambience that Ondaatje generates through the written word. Certainly, an inventive work, one that will impress young readers in the hybridity that Ondaatje creates between insects and alternative social formations. 

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A Review of Mia Alvar’s In the Country (Knopf, 2015).

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a short story collection, or at least it seems to me. These days, I hear rumblings that it’s getting more and more difficult to publish a collection and that the big publishing houses are less likely to consider these kinds of manuscripts. Fortunately, Knopf didn’t pass on Mia Alvar’s In the Country, a wonderful meditation on the Filipino diaspora. Alvar takes inspiration from the fact that the Philippines has one of the biggest diasporic populations, in part spurred by governmental incentives to encourage laborers and corporate entities to work abroad. Thus, these stories take place (or mention) a number of countries beyond the Philippines, including most prominently United States and Bahrain. Most stories are told in the first person mode, though Alvar never operates from what might be called an “autobiographical” impulse, as the narrator may not be Filipina or may not even be a woman. The opening story, “Contrabida,” for instance, involves a pharmacist who travels home because his father is dying. He has also brought back some contraband, hence the title, which comes in the form of a very powerful painkiller, one apparently more effective than morphine. This story is representative of the many others that come afterword: characters generally come from modest or upper middle class backgrounds, but struggle to find connections to the people they hold most dear. Many of the stories thus come off as quietly pessimistic and exude a realist aesthetic that is important for the collection’s cohesion. In “Miracle Worker,” the narrator, a housewife in Bahrain, puts her skills to use in special education to help direct a child, who has a developmental disability, to show more awareness to external stimuli. Her conflict comes in the form having to tell the child’s parent, who believes that her young infant will somehow overcome the disability, that her improvements will always be limited. “Shadow Families” is perhaps my favorite story in Alvar’s collection. Alvar decides to use a first person plural narration, articulating the extensive reach of the Filipina diaspora as it connects housewives together, even as their families start to change and even to disintegrate due to transnational movements and cultural adjustments. “Esmerelda” was another sentimental favorite, as it follows as a domestic laborer and office cleaner who falls into an unconventional romance with the businessman she often sees while working her shift. The title story, “In the Country,” by far the longest of the collection, gives us a sense of Alvar’s potential as a novelist. The story employs anachronic sequencing to explore the lives of a given family under the Marcos regime, especially as they attempt to find a sense of justice amid corruption and Martial law. In many ways, this story reminded me of the work of a number of other Filipin@ writers such as Jessica Hagedorn, Gina Apostol, and Ninotchka Rosca in its obvious critique of a governmental regime that harmed so many. Alvar’s collection is a wide-ranging and epic in scale, surely a work that gestures to a bright literary future. In the Country would also be an excellent work to teach alongside others, especially Lysley Tenorio’s equally outstanding Monstress.

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A Review of Taran Matharu’s Novice (Feiwel & Friends, 2015).

Taran Matharu’s debut Novice (Feiwel & Friends, 2015), which is probably part of an intended trilogy called Summoner, is another addition to the paranormal young adult archive. In this work, our protagonist is an orphan named Fletcher Wulf, who is raised by a blacksmith in the provincial town of Pelt. Fletcher’s life is guided by the forge: he is being apprenticed and must learn the tools of his trade. Given his status as an orphan, his chances for upward mobility are limited, but by developing a skill, Fletcher will be able to secure future employment. At the same time, there are dangerous changes afoot: criminals are now being allowed to serve in the military due to the fact that humans are waging war with the orcs and the military is running low on options. Fletcher’s life goes into disarray when he comes upon a summoning book and uses it to summon a demon.  After this summoning occurs, he engages in a fight with the local bully Didric and ends up seriously injuring and possibly even killing him. Fletcher realizes that he must leave Pelt behind and the secure the independent life that his adoptive father had helped make possible; he decides to head toward a major city and look for work there as a tradesman. Once landing in a more urban location, Fletcher not surprisingly gets into more trouble, but his demon and his summoning skills are noted by a battlemage known as Arcturus, and he is given a provisional acceptance into a local school where he will learn the magical arts. The schooling portion ends up being the strongest, as Matharu is able to weave in the complicated social dynamics that occur amongst teenagers while still keeping the readers interested through his worldbuilding. In this particular fictional world, demons come from different classes and different skill levels; the higher the skill level, the more rare the demon and the more difficult the demon will be able to control, but the more likely it will be powerful when it is more fully grown. Demons are captured in a space known as the ether, an alternate landscape that is as dangerous as it sounds and has rules all of its own. In the summoning world, there are class divisions. First, there are the nobles, who are usually gifted with their first demons from their parents. Then, some commoners are also able to summon, though they must be given demons from other mages who have been able to capture one for them. Complicating the social dynamics in this fictional world are the dwarves, who have long been subjected to “racist” policies handed down to them by humans. Additionally, the isolated elves have made a bid to re-align with humans, sending a chieftain’s daughter (named Silva) to train at the school. Not surprisingly, Fletcher, who is obviously a clear outcast, makes fast friends with his commoner classmates (Rory, Genevieve, Atlas, Seraph) and his dwarven classmate Othello. Silva’s position as the chieftain’s daughter is complicated, as she must attempt to establish more diplomatic alliances with the first year nobles, who include snobbish twins Tarquin and Isadora, while also realizing that her closest allies are actually the commoners. Matharu knows how to add some excitement into the plot by developing these class rivalries and building these competitive tensions into a final tournament that will be instrumental in deciding where the summoners will be posted for their military positions. The nobles obviously want nothing to do with the commoners, the dwarves, and even the elves, so they attempt to ensure that they will top the tournament standings, but Fletcher and his merry band have other ideas. I read Matharu’s debut in one sitting and look forward to the following installments. It’s clear that Matharu understands the fantasy-based lore that he draws from and the assuredness comes off in the evenly paced plotting and dynamic narrative momentum. Matharu does draw from one common genre conceit in which the protagonist is an ordinary but also extraordinary young individual from humble origins, but he does complicate other more established tropes. There is no clear romance plot in this first installment, and the narrative certainly does not suffer from this lack. An enterprising paranormal young adult fiction debut. As I told a friend of mine, this novel is like Pokemon, but with demons. Gotta read this novel and the following all.

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A Review of Nina Revoyr’s Lost Canyon (Akashic, 2015).

Well, what a happy day! I get to review Nina Revoyr’s fifth novel, Lost Canyon, published after four outstanding works, including The Necessary Roughness, Southland, The Age of Dreaming, and Wingshooters. Lost Canyon returns Revoyr to the use of rotating third person narrative perspectives, an aesthetic she employed to great effect in Southland. That particular novel moved back and forth through different historical moments. Lost Canyon toggles between the perspectives of three characters but all in the contemporary moment: Gwen, an African American who engages in social advocacy for at-risk youth in Watts; Oscar, a Chicano real estate developer, whose fortunes have fallen on hard times after the global economic downturn and the subsequent impact on home buying; and Todd, a Caucasian financial executive from a humble background who finds his ascendancy into the white collar elite to be somewhat mystifying. These three characters are united by the fact that they all work out at SportZone with a woman named Tracy, a fitness instructor with the kind of zeal that pushes them to their physical limits. Tracy also is the nexus point for the plot because she’s leading the three characters on a challenging multi-day hike through the Sierras. Once the four characters finally make their intended destination, they discover that the trail that they wanted to hike has been closed due to a raging wildfire. On the advice of a ranger, they consider an alternative, less taken path. This less taken path is of course not the greatest choice to make, but they nevertheless embark on what will end up being a perilous journey. All at first seems to be going well, but then they come upon a patch of marijuana, which is being policed by an individual who might be a henchman for a Mexican cartel. Miraculously, they are saved when a random sharpshooter kills the henchman, but the four are freed only to realize that they have a new captor: a white supremacist by the name of A.J., who is not so keen on the fact that this ragtag band of adventurers only has one blonde individual in its party. Complicating matters is the fact that A.J. may have an accomplice who will soon be joining him. The four have to hatch a quick plan to escape and realize that they must cross over a distant mountain ridge, if they are to make it to safety. Thus begins a longer cat and mouse narrative as the four characters struggle with the elements and with armed adversaries who are seemingly out to hunt them. Revoyr’s fifth novel is driven by a mix of plot and naturalistic descriptions. Indeed, the novel works best when considered from the frame of writers such as Jack London and even John Steinbeck. The environment is both cruel and beautiful and becomes a character in its own right. Certain to polarize readers, the open-ended conclusion will leave all wondering about the fate of one character in particular and this lack of resolution places this novel on a somewhat surrealistic ground. The novel additionally opens up a larger discourse concerning race wars that are being conducted in non-urban areas. Fans of Revoyr will appreciate her keen and meticulous eye toward the depiction of the mountainous landscapes and topographical features; this skill has been especially evident throughout her oeuvre, especially in her ability to render space in its myriad forms and scales (the city, farmland, etc) with such wonderful and rich detail. Perhaps, the greatest achievement in this novel is the realistic transformations that each character undergoes due to the traumatic and pivotal events that occur. 

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