In this post, reviews of: Zoë S. Roy’s Butterfly Tears (Inanna 2009); Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates (Viking 2016); Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (Saga Press, 2016); Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island (Knopf, 2016); Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin, 2016); Brian Ascalon Roley’s The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal: Stories (Curbstone Books, 2016).
Mary 14, 2016
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As part of my acknowledgement of this month, I am attempting to amass 31 reviews, so my rate would come out on average to a review a day in the month of May. Counting this post, I will be up to 13 reviews (if I have completed my addition properly). We’ll see if I’m able to complete this challenge, but as part of this initiative, I’m hoping that my efforts might be matched in some way by you: so if you’re a reader and lurker of AALF, I am encouraging you to make your own post or respond to one of the reviews. Would it be too much to ask for 31 comments and/or posts by readers and others? Probably, but the gauntlet has been thrown. LJ is open access, so you can create your own profile or you can post anonymously. I kindly encourage you to comment just to acknowledge your participation in AALF’s readership.
At last count, excluding the comments made by Pylduck; five unique users have responded with comments. Latest APA Heritage Month Tally:
Me = 19 reviews; You = 5 comments! A much better stat! Keep it up! Let’s hope you guys can match the 31 posts/ comments =). I’m totally behind you!
For more on APA Heritage Month, go here:
This post focuses on an author’s second major full-length publication (at least according to my preliminary research). I apologize if any of these writers are mislabeled according to this category. I often use this category in general because I have been waiting a long time (impatiently HAHA) for a book to come out. Two writers on this list (Brian Ascalon Roley and Alexander Chee) are favorites of mine for their first books, so it is with only the highest pleasure that I review their subsequent publications. I’m still waiting on le thi diem thuy to publish the “second novel we are all looking for,” but that’s neither here nor there. If anyone does know the status of le’s future work, please do comment, because I’ve love to know what’s going on there. But, enough babble… on to the reviews!
A Review of Zoë S. Roy’s Butterfly Tears (Inanna 2009).
So, I’ve been reading through Zoë S. Roy’s Butterfly Tears, which is a short story collection. Roy is already the author of a third publication, but Butterfly Tears happens to be her second, so I am including it as part of this larger review post. I was immediately drawn to this work because of its focus on a general theme concerning Chinese women who are struggling with changing cultural values in light of modernization, especially in the period following the Cultural Revolution. The stories further show transnational verve, as characters travel from China to the United States or to Canada. The diasporic character of these migrations adds an extra level of instability to the lives of these female principles. Much of the stories involve star-crossed romances. In terms of literary taxonomies, Butterfly Tears is an intriguing example of a truly transnational and Asian North American work, as stories are set primarily in three countries: China, Canada, and/or the United States. The opening and title story, “Butterfly Tears” involves a protagonist (and Chinese migrant) named Sunni who realizes that her marriage to her husband may be on the rocks. Roy effectively uses analeptic intercuts to show us how moments in the past bring the diegetic present into better light: we see how young Sunni (growing up in China) reacts to the life story of Crazy Wen, a musician whose own romance was prematurely terminated. The fable of Crazy Wen allows Sunni to reconsider her adult life through a new perspective. Though Sunni is devastated when she discovers her husband’s infidelity, she understands that she cannot simply give up: she must keep herself together because other people rely on her and, for instance, she still needs to be a responsible parent. The third story, “Yearning,” is notable for the fact that it would become the basis of Roy’s next publication, Calls Across the Pacific. One of my favorite stories was “Balloons,” which offers Roy the opportunity to explore familial reunions amid the context of internet technologies. I especially was drawn to this piece because it was longer than many of the other stories and the characters have lengthier developmental arcs. The main character here, Suyun, eventually connects with a relative over the internet and realizes that her father’s brother may actually be alive. I found this story to be additionally intriguing because Roy employs a number of different discursive techniques to tell the tale, most notably the use of embedded letters and e-mails. “Twin Rivers” was also another standout for me, but also one of the most depressing stories, as the title character Jiang suffers from a disability that limits the use of one leg. As she adapts to life in Canada, she becomes the subject of a problematic romance with a man who is already married, leading her down a destructive path of obsessive behavior. Here, Roy works within the frame of the limited life options and paths for Chinese women even in the context of transnational migration. In “A Mandarin Duck,” Roy varies the theme of strained romantic relationships by exploring how a woman Huidi (with a son named Wade) attempts to make a new life in the shadow of an abusive relationship. And I’ll end with “Fortune-telling,” which seems to suggest the possibility of a same sex romance between its principle characters, but never fully explores this line of queer desire. If there is a critique to be made of some of the stories, it’s that I sometimes simply wanted to read further into a character’s life, but that’s the frustration of this form: you can’t always get much more than a brief, punctuated glimpse. The staccato cadences of Roy’s collection still finds a general adherence through the themes of Chinese female life paths and thus it might be better to regard Butterfly Tears as a loosely linked story cycle. Roy’s collection certainly can be taught alongside a number of others, and I especially see that this work would resonate alongside others with strong Chinese diasporic and transnational sentiments; these include Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Ha Jin’s A Good Fall, and Xu Xi’s Access.
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A Review of Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates (Viking 2016).
As a note, I always make a quick comment before any Penguin title to plug their CFIS program which gives qualified instructors 5 free exam copies per year. Because of this policy, I have been easily able to add new books to my courses routinely. The CFIS staff are wonderfully responsive and Penguin has the best exam copy hands down of any of the major presses. W.W. Norton is probably just behind.
For more on CFIS, go here:
While dealing with the flu this past winter, I read Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates, perhaps one of the perfect novels to have when you have a lot of time in bed. The plot is totally immersive and is certain to be picked up by book clubs, especially ones seeking female driven plots concerning motherhood. We’ll let B&N (as always) provide the basic scaffolding of the novel’s contents: “Mercy, a young Korean American and recent Columbia graduate, is adrift, undone by a terrible incident in her recent past. Hilary, a wealthy housewife, is haunted by her struggle to have a child, something she believes could save her foundering marriage. Meanwhile, Margaret, once a happily married mother of three, questions her maternal identity in the wake of a shattering loss. As each woman struggles with her own demons, their lives collide in ways that have irreversible consequences for them all. Atmospheric, moving, and utterly compelling, The Expatriates confirms Lee as an exceptional talent and one of our keenest observers of women’s inner lives.” The “expatriate” aspect of these three characters is that they have all moved to Hong Kong. Hilary Starr (not racially marked) and Margaret Reade (1/4 Korean) are wives of serious businessmen. Hilary and her husband David have been struggling to have a baby for eight years, and they are contemplating adopting a child who is of part Chinese part Indian (South Asian) background, but Hillary’s narrative is perhaps the least compelling and the least threaded of the three primary characters. Margaret Reade hires Mercy Cho to be the family’s babysitter. At that point, Mercy is pretty much moving from one job to another, so the possibility of stable finances draws her in to the orbit of the Reade’s. Mercy travels with the family to Seoul; Margaret immediately realizes that Mercy is not the best babysitter, but passes off her paranoia as being an overprotective parent. But (and spoilers forthcoming here) her intuition seems to be correct, as one day she, Mercy, and the three kids are in a market area and lose sight of the youngest (named G) for just a couple of seconds. G is gone, and much of the narrative is cast in the pall of his absence. Margaret (and her family) is trying to recover, while Mercy is trying to forget this past. Their lives begin to creep slowly back toward each other, but in the most subtest ways. Hillary’s husband David ends up having an affair, but engages this relationship with none other than Mercy. What Mercy does not know is that Hillary’s husband and Margaret’s husband work in similar business circles, which sets the stage for encounter in which all three characters will finally meet in the same physical space at Margaret’s husband’s fiftieth birthday party. Even with all the immense privilege that Margaret and Hillary do possess, Lee manages that rare feat of plumbing their psychic interiorities so deeply (through third person narration no less) that we still find them engaging and sympathetic characters, but the real coup is Lee’s portrayal of Mercy Cho: an incredibly flawed woman without a real understanding of American upward mobility and romantic courtship, who understands that she is without cultural capital even as she wields a rarefied educational pedigree. As Mercy creates one drama to the next, you begin to see that much of her circumstances appear not simply because of some character deficiency but the radically different class trajectories that the three main characters engage as the titular expatriates. It is in this sense that Lee’s novel provides its most crucial interventions concerning this particular character, who is in need of the most narrative attention in the end, and which Lee crucially provides as the most essential bridging apparatus to bring the narrative to its appropriate and somewhat uplifting conclusion. As with Lee’s previous effort (the epic war novel The Piano Teacher, and there is a fair amount of piano playing in this recent novel as well), there is a cinematic quality to the writing that makes one expect that this is the kind of work that may be optioned for motion picture adaptation. The question would really be about the issue of casting, as two lead roles would need to be awarded to Asian American actresses. I could see Mercy being played by someone like Jamie Chung or Arden Cho, but Margaret Reade would likely need to be mixed race and in her forties, so that role might be harder to cast, maybe someone like Julia Nickson.
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A Review of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (Saga Press, 2016).
I’ve been reading this phenomenal collection piecemeal. For everyone who has seen this book, you will know why: it’s over 400 pages with numerous stories collected. Nevertheless, I’ll focus mostly on a specific set of the stories. In my first foray, I rocked the first four or so of the stories, and the two that were absolutely fascinating to me were “The Perfect Match” and “Good Hunting.” “The Perfect Match” is a quirky love story in which characters believe their lives are tied to the endurance of a specific object. The protagonist, a young woman working a desultory office job, finds herself realizing that she’s crushing on a coworker. Her object is “ice,” and she lives in fear that an ice cube, which represents her life, will melt, unless she has a freezer always nearby. Even when she goes out to clubs or on social occasions, she needs to bring an ice cube with her and will go out of her way to find a place where it will be cared for in the proper freezing temperature. In her office, she stows the ice in a freezer near her desk. But when her coworker comes into her life, a man who everyone is attracted to, she nevertheless feels that she has a unique connection, one certainly cemented by their mutual love of literature and poetry. She eventually discovers that his object is salt: the very thing that makes it harder to freeze, but we understand that these objects are primarily metaphors. She needs to “warm up” her life, even at the cost of losing her “ice cube.” When the “ice cube” melts down after her moment with the coworker, she thinks she is going to die. The story then cuts to a letter penned by a close friend who tells her that she thought she, too, would die when her object ran out, which was in her case, a pack of cigarettes. When the pack ran out, she realized: she still had the box, and that she was not yet dead, and that she used the cigarettes as a false resource for living her life, that somehow these cigarettes would make her live her life to the fullest, when she could be doing that whenever she wanted. This letter is of course something that the protagonist now knows, too: that she must live, even if it means the possibility of being on the edge, losing something comfortable, living a life in security. Better to be devastated by life and love than to live in the hovel of a home without anyone else around you. When I read “Good Hunting,” (the fourth story or so), I knew I was in trouble: could any of the stories following this one be as good? LOL. In “Good Hunting,” which immediately made me think of Good Will Hunting (but I digress), our protagonists are respectively a demon hunter and a fox demon. They meet each other as youngsters, but the demon hunter and fox demon both discover that they are not really at odds with each other. The fox demon isn’t a being that needs to be vanquished and the demon hunter isn’t someone who is so intent on predation and killing. Instead, they strike up a unique friendship, but one that is coming under duress due to increasing modernization: railroads are being developed, automata are taking on the jobs of human workers, and people believe in magic and mischief a little bit less. The demon hunter doesn’t have demons to hunt anymore; the demons seem to be disappearing, but we discover that they may not be disappearing so much as they are being transformed. The fox demon, as we discover, is having a more and more difficult time turning into her true form as fox. Eventually, she is completely unable to change into her fox form; this fate is of course twinned by the fact that the fictional world is becoming ever more advanced in its technology and efficiency. But the fox demon’s human form does put her at some risk: she is particularly attractive and thus a target for men who might be up to no good. The conclusion sees the demon hunter take a new job, developing automata and technology for a corporation. The fox-demon, on the other hand, is severely assaulted by a man who subjects her to an incredibly twisted mode of body modification, as her appendages are changed into chrome machinery parts. Liu’s critique here is reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, especially in the ways that humans become functionalized to the extent that we cannot distinguish where the human ends and the machine begins, so much so the hybridity of human and machine exists as the fulcrum of a dangerous sexual fetish. But, Liu has one more wonderful plot trick up his sleeve: the demon hunter uses his power of technological innovation to provide the fox demon with the ability to transform back into the fox form, but this time with the help of his technological know-how. The end sees her go off into the distance in this fox/ chrome hybrid form. “The Literomancer” follows the travail of a young girl named Lily, who must travel to Taiwan with her family (in the post KMT takeover period). Her father has a new job position out that way; Lily does not want to be there and suffers from bullying in school, but she establishes a friendship with an older man and his adoptive son. The older man possesses a talent based upon reading the fortunes through an analysis of Chinese calligraphy. Lily begins to see how this talent might also be used in terms of her understanding of English, but the story takes a very dark turn when Lily’s explanation of her friendship with this diviner is discovered by her father. Here, we again see the historical past effect considerable influence on a domestic plot. The “Simulacrum” reminded me of a number of different A.I. type stories. In this case, a man develops a kind of software that allows a person to re-experience particular events (reminiscent of that virtual reality moment in Minority Report when Tom Cruise’s character longs to remember his long departed son), but this software of course can be used in a variety of ways. When the daughter of the developer discovers him employing the technology as a way to access previous sexcapades (even though it is a source of marital tension), the daughter loses all faith in her father’s sense of morality. The story ends with the daughter’s mother dying but imploring her to give her father a chance: that her father’s actions in that one particular moment of using the simulacrum cannot be how she thinks of him forever. This story is one ultimately about forgiveness and the belief that people can change. After my concern about the status of other stories after reading “Good Hunting,” my fears especially abated after reading “The Regular,” which is an intriguing detective type plot involving an investigator and a serial killer. “The Regular” refers to the serial killer, who has been picking his targets based upon high-end escorts who have technology implanted in their eyes (here we have shades of Blade Runner for sure) that allows them to record any of their sexual encounters with customers. It’s a safety measure that sex workers can use so that customers know that their actions can be turned against them in case an encounter goes wrong. But, the titular regular and serial killer realizes he can use this technology as a mode by which to effect forms of political change, as he can blackmail high ranking officials and diplomats based upon what he finds in the ocular recording implants. Thus, he targets these escorts precisely because of the value of the information that might hold. The investigator is charged to find out about the death of a Chinese American call girl, one who reminds the investigator of her daughter Ruth who was killed at a moment in time when the investigator chose not to follow the instincts of a device called the Regulator, which provides all users with enhanced powers of perception. The Regulator is an intriguing form of technology that renders the user a kind of cyborg, and the investigator exploits its powers (even at her biological detriment) in her search for the killer. Though I didn’t necessarily think Liu needed to psychologize the investigator as someone compelled in this search because of its connection to her own daughter, the story was particularly enthralling. Another highlight. In the back half of the collection, the stories I enjoyed the most were “The Paper Menagerie,” “The Waves,” “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel,” and “The Man who Ended History: A Documentary.” I can understand why “The Paper Menagerie” was selected as the title story (and it won numerous awards): it follows a mixed-race child’s disintegrating relationship to his mother. The story begins with him having a very strong and loving relationship with her mother based upon a magical connection to origami: she is able to make origami animals that come to life and play with them. As they get older though, their connection starts to falter under the duress of racial melancholia. The young child begins to realize his mother is “foreign,” and that he, too, is being marked as “different.” He wants his mother to speak to him in English. We’re not surprised that soon the animals stop coming to life. Later, his mother will die from a disease at an early age, leaving behind a letter the son cannot read because, of course, he completely disregarded the need to learn Chinese. “The Waves” was one of my favorite stories, as it explored the evolution of humans to different forms, but how perhaps the cycle of life form changes that humans would undergo would be cyclical. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” reminds me of something that might have been written as a kind of addenda to The Man in the High Castle, as the fictional world is set in a counterfactual timeline in which the Japanese Imperial power continued to rise in its power. The final story in the collection, “The Man who Ended History: A Documentary,” immediately brought to mind a story from Ted Chiang’s Story of your Life and Others (and later, this connection was affirmed as Liu did acknowledge the inspirational relationship) in terms of its form (and even the title). The content, though, was focused on the Nanjing massacre and thus uses Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking as the basis of a time travel storyline in which scientists discover the technology that will allow them to move observe and even to experience key historical events. This technology thus has the capacity to “end history” in the sense that one can be at any time and any place, but Liu seems way more interested in relaying the need to remember in whatever flawed guise that occurs, so that we do not become somehow disaffected to the atrocities occurring now, later, or those well into the past. Indeed, Liu seems well aware of the possibility of memory to be biased, but that such faults in our ability to retain the specifics of a given event do not make them somehow unreliable or untrue. Though I have spent most of my time recounting the stories in terms of their plot, I have to say that I find Liu’s command of the hard SF tropes to be compelling and do hope that he follows his current series with a work that might be set in space or in fictional world filled with robots or aliens. I would give yourself a lot of time to work through these wonderful stories; I definitely plan to adopt this book in future courses with the caveat that I know I’ll have to excerpt it. It will definitely pair quite well with Ted Chiang’s Story of your Life and Others.
A Review of Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island (Knopf, 2016).
2016 is apparently turning out to be the year of second publications by Asian American fiction writers (others have included Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son, Brian Ascalon Roley’s The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal, Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, among others). Shawna Yang Ryan’s follow up to Water Ghosts (which was originally published as a novel called Locke 1928 through a small press called El Leon Literary Arts) is titled Green Island. The title refers to the place where one of the main characters is imprisoned for approximately a decade, as he is interrogated due to his criticisms of the KMT. The novel is set primarily in Taiwan. The first hundred or so pages follows the tumultuous events that occurred in February and March of 1947 in which thousands were killed in the wake of the KMT’s brutal suppression of communist sentiment. The novel is narrated through the first person perspective, which at first seems strange, because this character opens the novel telling the story of her own birth, which not so coincidentally occurs during the violent period of national development. The main character’s father is taken prisoner, interrogated, tortured, but ultimately released, but of course the wounds of this period never quite go away. Indeed, readers begin to discover that this character is obviously suffering forms of PTSD and is described by others as “broken.” It also becomes clear that his release is due to the fact that he becomes an informant, having divulged the names of others who were seen as subversive due to perceived and assumed political leanings during that period. Thus, this man’s survival attaches to his family a kind of ignominy: he is understood in the community as a traitor and double agent. As the novel moves forward, the focus eventually shifts to the narrator herself, as she comes of age during a period that sees increased international mobility and transnational currents. The narrator is courted by a young Taiwanese American, who is pursuing his PhD at Berkeley. At the same time, she is beginning to discover that her father’s history is far more complicated than others have made it out to be. Initially, she and her siblings are ashamed of this broken man who returned home in silence, disgrace, and anger, but she realizes that there is more to his story. Thus, much of this novel is about the narrator’s motivation to recontextualize her father’s life in light of her own, which will tread an eerily similar path. Once the narrator ends up marrying the Taiwanese American (named Wei), they will settle in Berkeley. Wei is a professor of political science and continues to espouse anti-KMT views much to the chagrin of the protagonist. As the novel moves forward, they have two children (two daughters), and they choose to harbor a political exile. The political exile’s presence in the household creates considerable turbulence, especially in the wake of the protagonist’s ambivalence toward her husband’s continuing public rhetoric against the KMT. The narrator is at one point approached by a KMT operative and coerced into providing some intelligence for him. Thus, in some sense, her position is not unlike her father’s: she is forced to consider the safety of her own family even at the expense of her husband’s political ideals. A fateful decision, though, turns the narrative in a much darker direction, and the final act involves the narrator, her husband, and her two children returning to Taiwan. For those familiar with Taiwanese history, Ryan’s depiction of the 2-28 massacre will not necessarily present much new information, but most are generally unaware of this moment. In this sense, Green Island offers as much on the historical level as it does through its compelling fictionalization of one woman’s desire to balance personal freedoms against political ideals. Ryan packs in so much historical texture at times that the novel seems occasionally overburdened, but such is to be expected in this kind of ambitious work which necessarily reminds us that individual desire cannot be wrenched free from the structures of a violent national development. Strains of the understated elegance that marked the style of Ryan’s debut certainly come through in key moments, and these are the moments to read for.
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A Review of Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin, 2016).
Wow, wow, wow! What can I say. I have waited so long for this novel. Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh was one of the books that I can say made me look at the world anew. It made me see how a life like mine could be reflected in the fictional world in a commanding, textured way. In some ways, Chee’s Edinburgh is the kind of book that gives me hope about what can still be possible, what can still be achieved through fiction. I have taught Edinburgh so many times, I have lost count at this point. Students will back me up on this one; it’s hard to pass through coursework with me without having heard about this novel or having being assigned it (at the undergraduate and at the graduate level). So, reading Queen of the Night was an experience I knew I was going to relish. At approximately 500 pages, I took my time with it, forcing myself to put it down after about every hundred pages, refusing at any point to skim. It is a difficult, demanding, decadent but exquisite book, filled with sumptuous passages about late 19th century Paris. The novel is told in a frame narrative. The beginning opens with our narrator as a successful Paris opera singer, but there is some major intrigue as a novel has just been published purporting to lay out the life of some legendary woman, who ends up is really based upon the narrator. The narrator realizes that her identity may be revealed if someone is to make apparent the connection between the novel and her life, and she goes about investigating which person might have relayed the information to the writer. There are four main suspects: the narrator’s best friend when she was a teenager; a vicious man known as the tenor; a former elite known as the Comtesse, and then a pianist who had fallen in love with the narrator. The pianist is immediately ruled out because he had died, but the novel then goes about exploring the narrator’s quest to track down the three living individuals and basically to find out who might be the culprit. Interspersed with this frame narrative, the novel uses major analepses to provide the complicated backstory for this woman, who is Gatsby-like in her constant identity reinvention. As we discover, our heroine is born an American, who grows up in Minnesota with a gift: to be able to sing in a beautiful voice. Not long after her gift manifests, she begins to be targeted for it. Her own mother perceives that voice as a source of pride and forces her to wear a gag. Her family wonders if that gift is also a curse, and therein lies the ambivalence that will be coded into her life trajectory. Her entire family dies of some undisclosed fever when she is just about in her teens, so she travels to New York City, hoping to eventually make her way to Lucerne, Switzerland (from whence her mother’s family originates; she’s also part Scottish). By this point, her experiences have rendered her a kind of selective mute, even though she is still able to sing. Once in New York, as a young girl (and following the naturalist impulse of the novel), she is soon taken advantage of, but is able to make the most out of her options by joining what is essentially a traveling circus. She is hired as the pioneer girl, tasked with firing rifles and riding horses. Her special ability to sing one song is used at a climactic moment in her performance. That troupe eventually travels to Paris. Once there, our heroine realizes that she might be able to escape the troupe and get to Lucerne, but her plans go awry. For a time, though, she is able to make money by working for a different company; she befriends a courtesan, but that friendship is itself a complicated phenomenon. One night, while merrymaking with Euphrosyne (spelling?), she brandishes a knife to protect them and seriously injures a man. They escape from Paris, realizing that they are probably fugitives. When they return, they are detained and jailed by police. They are only released when their bail and fines are paid by Odile, who our narrator discovers is Euphrosyne’s mother. While working for Odile in her upscale brothel, one client, known only as the tenor, comes to discover her singing talent and demands to take her out to the opera. Eventually, this obsession with her leads him to buy her contract and associated fines, while training her to become an opera singer. She eventually auditions for a reputable school, but is turned down. This moment pushes the narrator to fake her own death, at which point she joins a convent and reinvents herself again, this time as a grisette, handling various seamstress-ing duties for royalty. In this period, she becomes a spy for a powerful elite known as the Comtesse, who is engaging in an affair with the Emperor. The Comtesse enlists her to find out everything about the Empress, most specifically what kinds of clothes she wears and when she goes out. Though the narrator enjoys her life as a grisette-informant, this espionage becomes complicated, especially when the tenor returns and demands that she come back with him, since he essentially owns her, but if I’m belaboring plot elements it’s only because the novel is an extremely intricate web of connections. As the novel moves forward, it becomes clear that Chee is working with themes of espionage and nation-state development on the one hand alongside a very, very thorny romance plot on the other. These dueling issues eventually come to a head, leading the heroine to her current situation, afraid that someone has found out her secret identity and plans ultimately to ruin her. The final 100 pages are paced in a breathless sort of way, paralleling the slow degradation of the falcon soprano’s voice (and here, Chee does gives us some typologies of opera singer vocal registers etc). Will the heroine retain her fame, her voice, and her love for only one man? The one challenge that this novel will present for me, at least in terms of how I will bring it back into my life again and again, is whether or not I can teach it in the quarter system. I sometimes toy with the idea of teaching a “long” Asian American novels course in which we would be assigned only the first 100 pages or so of each work, but then I realize some of the longest novels I’ve loved don’t really have all that much “Asian American” content. Toward the conclusion of Queen of the Night, Chee does include a reference to a Chinese American character, but other than that, there’s not too much that’s directly connected to what we might consider to be traditional Asian American themes or issues. But of course I’ve never really cared about content in this way, as I have argued elsewhere that Asian American literature is not so much about ethnoracial ancestry, as it is about how to understand authorial identity in tandem with the political texture of the cultural production. To be sure, Lilliet Berne—perhaps the most prominent alias taken by our narrator—is a figure who is highly eccentric: we understand that her rise in the Paris Opera world is exceedingly exceptional and her power, in the end, is still incredibly limited, because her rise is so much connected to others who are already born into positions of great privilege. Thus, the novel does very much connect to the issues of social inequality that have been central to so much work that comes out of cultural studies (and Asian American literature). In any case, Chee’s second novel is a luxurious epic, worthy of multiple reads. Most definitely worth the wait, but we’ll still hope that his next publication won’t take quite as long.
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A Review of Brian Ascalon Roley’s The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal: Stories (Curbstone Books, 2016).
This collection was one of the most highly anticipated reads for this year! Brian Ascalon Roley published a novel about 15 years ago that I am still teaching (practically every year) called American Son. Fans of American Son can rest easy knowing that The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal continues Roley’s compelling storytelling track record. But before I get any further, let’s let the folks at Northwestern University Press (Curbstone Books is an imprint of this press) give us plot summary context: “The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal is a collection of stories that focuses on multigenerational tales of intertwined Filipino families. Set in the huge yet relatively overlooked and misunderstood Filipino diaspora in the United States, this book follows characters who live in the shadow of the histories of the United States and its former colony in Asia, the Philippines. The impact of immigration and separation filters through the stories as a way of communing with or creating distance between individuals and family, country, or history. Roley’s work has been praised by everyone from New York Times literary critics to APIA author Helen Zia for his bare, poetic style and raw emotionalism. In the collection’s title story, a woman living with her daughter and her daughter’s American husband fears the loss of Filipino tradition, especially Catholicism, as she tries to secretly permeate her granddaughter’s existence with elements of her ancestry. In ‘New Relations,’ an American-born son introduces his mother to his Caucasian bride and her family, only to experience his first marital discord around issues of politesse, the perception of culture, and post-colonial legacies. Roley’s delicately nuanced collection often leaves the audience with the awkwardness that comes from things lost in translation or entangled in generational divides.” I always adore linked story collections, because they have a cohesion that’s a little bit more diffuse than a novel, but nevertheless are held together usually by characters that appear in multiple stories. Roley’s working with a very large extended family, so there is a very useful family tree that appears before the collection even begins. I was also really happy to see Roley experiment with different narrative discourses, as he moves deftly back and forth between first and third person. The standout stories for me are “Unacknowledged” and “New Relations,” which was already mentioned in NUP’s official book description. I found these stories so compelling because Roley sequences two first person narrators that hail from the same nuclear family. “Unacknowledged” follows the perspective of Twig, who suffers from a physical ailment that has stunted his growth and bodily strength. He observes his family, as they adjust to a new social dynamic when they hire a maid who was once the mistress of a relative. That mistress also happens to bring along her daughter Teresa, whose presence is the major force of disruption that the family must deal with. Twig’s big brother Matt ends up having romantic feelings for Teresa, which complicates family dynamics. The next story fast forwards to a period of time in which Matt is an adult and is in a marriage with someone from a Caucasian background. The premise of this particular story involves Matt’s mother coming to meet his wife’s family, as a sort of unification of both sides, but this unification necessarily involves extended family members. The wife’s relative, for instance, is married to a Filipina woman from Mindanao. The regional and class differences between Matt (and his mom) and the woman from Mindanao are the cause for much familial tension. These stories allow the reader to get a larger narrative arc to one specific family, so I naturally found them quite fascinating. Fans of American Son will be extremely happy to see that Roley does give Gabe and Tomas’s family some narrative room, as they are the subject of “Old Man.” Here, Roley chooses to give the first person perspective to Tomas, something he never did in American Son. It was wonderful to see how different Tomas viewed himself and it certainly complicates how we understand Gabe’s narration from American Son, though it seems as if the events that unfold in this story occur just before that the novel. In any case, fans of American Son (and of Asian American Literature) should reserve some reading time for Roley’s story collection and hope that he won’t make us wait as long for a third publication.
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