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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 18, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 18, 2016

In this review post, all PENGUIN titles, including: Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (Penguin Books, 2014); Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine (Penguin Paperback, 2015); Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016); Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (The Penguin Press, 2014).

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:

A Review of Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (Penguin Books, 2014).

So, I’ve been working ever so slowly through The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (trans. By Jonathan Wright). I generally avoid reading works in translation. Having some facility in other languages, I have noted how often I have disagreed with other translators’ in the ways that they have shifted meaning from on language to another, but I realize that if I let this be the measure of how and what I choose to read, I would have never read Haruki Murakami, so I can’t let this rule be steadfast. On this level, I definitely broke that rule to read this work, which was both rewarding but also frightening. Blasim seems intent on unsettling the apolitical reader, who engages literature, especially fiction, as a mode of entertainment. There is much that is meta about this work, as many of the stories involves writers and artists, who themselves are wondering about the need or the nature of their disciplines and interests in times of war and violence. As for the collection’s relationship to the other aesthetic forms and genres: a number of the stories do have speculative impulses. The story I found the most fascinating in that regard was “A Thousand and One Wives.” Was this story a riff off of Scheherazade or not, I wasn’t quite sure because the narrative itself was so quirky, yet fitting. There was a point in the story at which the characters themselves wonder what the meaning of their special powers might be. I wondered, too, about the ways that the powers of making knives disappear and reappear seemed to be related to gender, until the last line of the story revealing that the narrator’s male child has the power to make knives reappear. The other element to this collection that I found difficult to get through were the various ways in which violence and torture were depicted, but there’s something going on here about the ways that writers are engaging these scenes of brutality as a mode of social critique. When I was reading Ali Eteraz’s recent novel, Native Believer, I was astonished and supremely uncomfortable when there was a waterboarding scene that was basically used as a way for two male characters to gain a sort of intimacy with each other. There was also a definite homoerotic impulse to that scene, but I wasn’t quite sure about what to do with such depictions. A similar issue arises in this particular collection, especially the first story, “The Corpse Exhibition,” but others as well that continually bring up the spectacular ways that a body can be tortured or a dead body put on display. Others involve elements such as cannibalism (“The Hole”) or suicide bombing (“Iraqi Christ”), but all seem to be twisting these narratives in such a way as to open up some sort of philosophical inquiry into death, dying, and destruction. What is the purpose of such scenes of subjection and power, violence and grotesquerie? “The Nightmare of Carlos Fuentes” was another really wonderful story, especially one that got into traumatic manifestations in terms of the latency affect. I also found it interesting on the level of racial representation, as we find someone of a particular Middle Eastern background passing for Spanish. Here, we have another form of racialization that has been going on, but hasn’t been quite theorized at least stateside with respect to the movement beyond the Chicano/ Latino; Af Am; Asian Am; Native Am; and indigenous axes. As a whole, this collection will offer much for classroom discussion in particular, given these rich and often not fully resolved short narratives.

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A Review of Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine (Penguin Paperback, 2015).

So, I will occasionally read material that’s not quite Asian American per se, but nevertheless has content that’s obviously germane to our faithful readers! Here’s the description over from B&N: “One afternoon, not long after Kelly Thorndike has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, an African American man he doesn't recognize calls out to him. To Kelly’s shock, the man identifies himself as Martin, who was one of Kelly’s closest friends in high school—and, before his disappearance nearly twenty years before, white and Jewish. Martin then tells an astonishing story: after years of immersing himself in black culture, he’s had a plastic surgeon perform ‘racial reassignment surgery’: altering his hair, skin, and physiognomy to allow him to pass as African American. Unknown to his family or childhood friends, Martin has been living a new life ever since. Now, however, Martin feels he can no longer keep his identity a secret; he wants Kelly to help him ignite a controversy that will help sell racial reassignment surgery to the world. Inventive and thought-provoking, Your Face in Mine is a brilliant novel about cultural and racial alienation and the nature of belonging in a world where identity can be a stigma or a lucrative brand.” What this plot summary doesn’t do at all is open up a can of warms the size of Texas (or any other large state) concerning the fact that the novel uses its fictional premise to compare racial reassignment to transgender identity. Row wants us to consider whether or not there is any essential difference between wanting to transition one’s race and wanting to transition one’s gender. Rather than hazarding my own perspective on the topic, Row ultimately does bring up some of the challenges of racial reassignment as a fictional possibility. That is, the scientific community has hardly embraced research that might point in this direction, thus leaving this work somewhere in the nether regions between realism and speculative fiction. Row’s strength is in the utility of multiple narrative discourses: we have first person autodiegetic narration, transcripts of interviews, excerpts from scientific articles, excerpts from dissertations, which all reveal the multitextured world we’re struggling to stay afloat in. The conclusion made me want to hurl the book across the room to be honest, as the novel went in a direction that I’d already expected it to early on, but the fact remains: this book will certainly spur deep discussions concerning identities and how they are socially constructed, what identity transitions we might recognize and others we deem to be problematic. For those wondering about its connection to Asian American literature fans, there are characters who are of Asian backgrounds seeking “racial reassignment,” and then there’s the fact of the main character himself who is married to a Chinese woman. This relationship becomes an important facet of the concluding arc and brings to mind whether or not we still have to have a conversation of what American Orientalism means in the 21st century.

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A Review of Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016)

So, I was having a weird Saturday: the kind that comes with eating too much food in the early afternoon and then wanting to pass out on the couch in the living room. What better thing to do while waiting to pass out then start reading a novel? That’s never a good idea for me because I have reading addiction. When I started reading Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016), which is his second publication after Family Planning (which we reviewed here on AALF awhile back), I figured I would read about 50 pages or so and then fall asleep. That didn’t happen. Instead, I got to page 75, then made myself stop reading, moved into a different room entirely, and made myself try to nap. The premise, via B&N, is this: “When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many ‘small’ bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.” What’s interesting about this description is that it neglects to name the parents of the children, who are essentially four of the main characters in the novel. Tushar and Nakul Khurana’s parents are Deepa and Vikas. In the wake of the tragedy, they obviously suffer incredible grief. Each character falls to forms of disintegration at different times, but their mourning takes a different turn when Deepa becomes pregnant with a third child. The novel takes a darker turn once about a decade has passed and Mansoor has returned to India after schooling. His parents, Sharif and Afsheen, are naturally concerned for him because his interest in computer programming cannot be pursued due to a repetitive use injury that first began due to his experience in the bombing. Mansoor’s time in recovery encourages him to find other venues to socialize, and he turns to a social justice advocacy group that attempts to overturn court cases against Muslims. Here the novel is very much exploring how racial formation in India operates through religious identifications. Part of Mansoor’s attraction to this group is that it is looking to watch out for Muslims, who have been targeted especially in the period following terrorist attacks in India and abroad. But, Mahajan’s larger point—and surely, this point is a going to be a thorny one—is portraying a kind of retrogressive circuitousness to these various social justice groups. Even Deepa and Vikas eventually start their own support group for those affected by terrorist bombings, from whence the name of the novel comes. Yet Mahajan is more intent to deconstruct the motives for these groups, especially as the very goals that they aim for never seem to be achieved. In the case of the bomber Shockie, he necessarily must target Muslims as well as Hindus because he cannot delineate how a particular detonation will function. For their part, Deepa and Vikas’s support group becomes a kind of crutch that enables them to wallow in a lurid fascination with terrorist bombings. In other words, it seems to enable rather than to work through their collective melancholias. Mahajan’s novel thus has an incredibly naturalistic impulse, but where the novel seems to gain the most purchase is when it more expansively considers why Muslims choose to radicalize. Shockie’s interiorities thus become part of the crucial center of the novel, revealing the incredibly complicated border dynamics between India and other countries like Pakistan. Unfortunately, these sections do not appear with as much frequency in this novel, so this narrative might actually pair quite well with another I read: Fatima Bhutto’s Shadow of the Crescent. These novels seem to present two sides of a similar issue: those who radicalize, on the one hand, and the incredible collateral damage that results when those who radicalize carry out their goals, on the other.

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A Review of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (The Penguin Press, 2014).

This review I wrote ages ago, but never posted it, probably because Plyduck posted one first, but I never got back on the ball to eventually put it up. At the heart of Celeste Ng’s tragic, but assured debut is a dysfunctional mixed-race Asian American family. It is the late 1970s. When the middle child Lydia Lee is found dead, floating in a local lake, the novel unfurls like an onion. Each major character offers a perspective that deepens the problems and tensions existing in the Lee family. The father, James Lee, a professor of American history, struggles all of his life as an “Oriental,” breaking barriers for others after him. His wife, Marilyn, a smart and non-traditional woman, begins to suffer under the desultory routine of being a stay-at-home mom; she yearns to return to her academic studies, which were derailed when she became pregnant with their first child (Nath, a boy). The family is rounded out with the youngest, Hannah, a pensive child who hides herself and is for the most part a quiet, introspective and introverted observer. The third person narrator continually roves through these various characters and each perspective shift offers more detail and more nuances to this family’s struggles. James, for instance, is engaging in an extramarital affair as a way to escape the complications existing in the home space. Marilyn finds herself obsessed with figuring out what happened to her daughter, especially because she invested so much of her time and energy into ensuring that Lydia would not follow the same path she did. But here is the root of the trouble: Lydia bears the burden of a motherly dream that begins to crush her. From there, it becomes evident that Lydia seeks her own form of escape, thus revealing yet another secret enfolding the Lee family. Ng’s work is powerful, definitely one of the strongest debut novels I have read in a long time and certainly a novel that I intend to incorporate in future classes. Alongside with Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Leonard Chang’s Triplines, Ng’s Everything I never told you is part of a set of incredibly multifaceted representations of the Asian American family. I have no doubts that her novel and the others will also become the center of critical attention in future years.

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