August 21st, 2009

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Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's Rules of the House and In the Absent Everyday

The kind folks at Apogee Press (Berkeley, California) sent me copies of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's two books of poetry as well as some of their other books a few months back. This post reviews the books by Dhompa, and I plan on reviewing the others later. I enjoyed reading these two books back to back, giving me the experience of moving through a span of her poetry in quick succession: Rules of the House (Apogee, 2002) and In the Absent Everyday (Apogee, 2005).


The biographical note at the back of the books states that Dhompa grew up in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. She has an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University and now lives in San Francisco where she works for a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid to the people of the Himalayas. These details offer some suggestions of experiences that might inform her perspective. A sense of exile and refugee-ness seems to inform her poetics, and some thoughts on the Tibetan diaspora in relation to other forces (Christian missionaries, China's claims on the region) seep through as well.

Dhompa's words exhibit a gnomic quality. The lines of her poems are carefully worded sentences that suggest larger truths extracted from observations of everyday habits and utterances. Her first book, Rules of the House creates a speaking persona enmeshed in a particular family and community (especially with reference to neighbors and elders). Though there are some characters named throughout, what is striking is the abstracting or universalizing of recurring characters, likely family members, via single-lettered names. As a couple of the poems in the book mention, "Without a name the story could be anyone's" (91). The characters given one-letter initials are F, M, and S, corresponding to Father, Mother, and Son, it seems, with the speaking persona taking the role of daughter. Throughout the book, these characters surface periodically and speak. M, especially, seems to be a figure of special significance for the speaker of the poems, one who passes on life lessons that are both profound and flawed. In this way, the relationship sketched out between M and the speaker could correspond to narratives of mother-daughter relationships, offering a sense of cultural and familial transmission that succeeds at times and fails at others because of the exiled quality of the family's life outside of their homeland.

The lines of most poems in this collection are long. In fact, one way to characterize these long lines is to think of the stanzas as prose poems, driven not by the length of the line but by the space necessary for words to create startling juxtapositions. Some stanzas run three or four lines while others are just a single line. "Sun storm" begins with these two stanzas:
Like brides behind veils, my people peep from drawn curtains and feel the air with their fingers. They do not see any use for heat and are not hospitable to it. Electric fans focus on bare shoulder blades and erect nipples.

Mosquitoes persist. Hands do not move fast enough.
Read together, the stanzas offer some commentary on each other--both draw out details of how people deal with hot days. The second stanza, however, also carries separately a more expansive quality, one that gestures away simply from a sense of exhaustion from dealing with heat and insects and that transfers the movement of the swatting hands into a more existential statement about impoverishment and the inability to do enough (to move fast enough).

The poem "How rules are made" begins with this stanza:
The silver lining, M said, would come, would come. Some things remained the same: the curtain in the neighbor's house, the one-eyed dog's bark, new hit songs on Sunday afternoon radio programs. (41)
The rest of the poem sketches out how "S was unfortunate" and connects these moments to proclamations that obliquely and directly comment on gender. For example, after examining S's throat, a doctor notes, "this is one fine esophagus your kid got there, madam." The poem ends with a couple of claims as well:
The boys wanted to be men. F was not available.

M kissed us on our lips and said she was good as any man.
In this way, there is a suggestion that the rules that govern their lives--the ones invoked by M in her lessons--are gendered as well as somewhat haphazardly cobbled together out of specific instances. The movement from particularity to universality (rules) is one that the poems try to trace.

Another aspect of this first book, Rules of the House, that I find fascinating is the sequencing of poems. Most of the poems are one or two pages long, but the collection is also comprised to some extent by interwoven series of poems. One series is structured as lessons--First lesson (14), Second lesson (20), Preparing for the third lesson (46), Third lesson (48), Fourth lesson (70), and Fifth lesson (92). Another series has parentical roman-numeraled titles from (i) to (ix). The effect of these dispersed series (rather than having the serial poems printed contiguously) is to tie together the observations into a fragmented narrative about the exilic life of the family.


The lines are different in this book. On the page, the poems look more like short lyrics. Some are also multi-paged, with a single stanza occupying each page. Others look like prose poems in evocative paragraphs.

One thing I noticed particularly about this collection is a more common occurrence and invocation of a "you" (different people). For example, "Error" reads:
You wish to be presented formally, preferably by a relative who has merely heard of you. Accept it to be equivocal. Two mentions of your adversity to flowers. I could point towards a childhood and you'd be clear of all blame. Not far from a view of your city, mimosa in frugal yellow wraps the edges of a driveway. I am writing around you. You have entered this kingdom. Give a little hope. (24)
The effect of addressing "you" directly is to create an intimacy of the poetic space that is not as pressing in the first collection that instead offers insight into a family and community of which the reader is not a part. In "Error," the "you" seems to be a member of the speaker's community, someone adhering to similar codes of conduct when strangers (potential suitors?) meet. The reader of the poem, then, is aligned with this person whose life is hinted at with references to intimate details such as "adversity to flowers" and "a childhood."

As with the first collection of poems, In the Absent Everyday is most powerful when its words evoke images that are dense in meaning that seems to lie just out of reach, rooted often in the everyday encounter. In the title poem, for example, the speaker notes, "I am always receiving messages from people / I haven't met. The understatement of her / heel" (11). Here, the idea of coded messages passed to the speaker from strangers emerges in a concrete gesture as a woman's heel. What that message is remains engimatic, but the force of its suggestiveness is in the mundane quality of a woman's heel--the idea of a bare foot in contrast with the highly-gendered high-heeled shoe--yoked to a sense of expressive nuance in its "understatement." Later in the same poem, the speaker notes, "Days, taciturn as a tattoo tucked / under a shirt, slip unseen, away" (18). This description of the quiet and inexorable passing of days is rich. The "taciturn" or understated quality of the tattoo, something that can't in fact speak, begs the question of what form that tattoo takes and whether it makes a difference for that sense of days passing by.

Dhompa is certainly a poet worth keeping in mind for Asian American literary studies. As the book blurbs mention, Dhompa is perhaps the most widely-distributed Tibetan American poet. As much as her poetry might be infused with a particular kind of Buddhist perspective, though, it is not the same as popular texts by Tibetan philosophers. Her poetry is strongly engaged with language as a medium through which she expresses and pushes against the ideals of a Tibetan refugee community. She certainly fits within the mold of other Asian American poets in exile or diaspora-oriented writers (I think to some extent of Agha Shahid Ali in this respect, especially because he writes about Kashmir as a contested region riven by ideological and religious difference).
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Patti Kim's A Cab Called Reliable

I picked up Patti Kim's debut novel A Cab Called Reliable (St. Martin's Griffin, 1997) at the St. Paul Public Library. It's short length was a draw as I decided between a few different Korean American novels about growing up in an immigrant household.

I am tempted to classify Kim's as young adult fiction, but I don't know if it is marketed as such. The novel features the first-person narrator Ahn Joo, a young girl faced with some horrible circumstances. The narrative is told retrospectively, but the narrative voice tries to capture the perspective and feelings of Ahn Joo at the age being narrated. The effect seems to me a classic move on the part of young adult fiction--creating a greater sense of identification for the reader with the protagonist. This particular character also seems especially precocious in her ability to deal with some of the difficulties of her life, another quality of young adult fiction that tends to favor hardy protagonists who must face a heartless world without even the help of their parents. (Note: My reading of the novel as "young adult" fiction is not meant to denigrate it or to suggest it is not sophisticated enough to be called "regular adult" fiction. There are conventions that make particular narratives especially amenable to being marketed for a young adult audience, though, and this novel seems to fall into those conventions for me.)

There is somewhat of a lack of clarity, though, with how much that precocity is added by an older narrator's perspective. There are certainly many moments in which the young child notices things and describes them very astutely even though she doesn't understand the meaning of them, especially difficult moments like when her father persists in rubbing her belly long after she no longer has tummyaches and when she spies on her father having sex with a woman who works at the Korean market:
Heavy breathing came from my father's bedroom. His door had not been shut tight. I peeped through the crack. The blinds were pulled up. The moon nestled in the window's upper-left corner. The calendar was still in the month of May. My eyes moved toward the left of the drawer, half its mirror cut off by the frame of the door. I saw only half of Loo Lah's wave of a bare back growing out of the dresser top, her calf pasted to the back of her thigh. She sat like a frog about to jump off one lily pad onto another. I saw half of her permed head, which my father's hand seemed to clutch and sway. One of his legs hung over the dresser. His foot rested inside an opened drawer. The metal handles clinked.
As this example demonstrates, the narrator casts about to describe what she sees, some of it seemingly irrelevant to the moment which is seeing her father have sex with Loo Lah like mention of the moon and the calendar. Likewise, Ahn Joo does not call the scene one of sex because she is, at that moment, too young to know what sex is. These experiences, however, also lead the narrator to experiment with her body and that of a neighbor boy before she feels that desire that leads people to pleasurable bodily encounters.

At the beginning of the novel, Ahn Joo's mother leaves her behind with her abusive father, taking her younger brother with her. The eponymous cab called Reliable is the car that Ahn Joo sees her mother hurriedly jumping into as she returns from school that fateful day. This cab takes on associations of abandonment for Ahn Joo and foregrounds the theme of reliability (or lack thereof) for the remainder of the novel, functioning in that respect like the streetcar of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. The novel quickly follows Ahn Joo from elementary school into high school as she excels particularly in writing. She faces racist as well as well-meaning but exoticizing classmates and teachers at school, and her English teachers like her stories about Korean culture that highlight difference and inscrutability. Her father, meanwhile, shapes up a bit and stops treating her so badly. Their relationship takes on more qualities of the immigrant and child dynamic, with the father illiterate in English and reliant on Ahn Joo at times to broker exchanges with white Americans.

At the end of the novel, there are two chapters that break with the general narrative voice. One includes excerpts of letters written by Ahn Joo to her absent mother over the course of many years. The one-sided conversation is touching and helps to flesh out some of the things that the narrator doesn't say in the rest of the narrative explicitly. The final chapter then marks another shift in which the narrative voice addresses the father as "you," narrating both a shared past and a present-day encounter with the father in a way that shifts the attention of the narrative to the relationship between Ahn Joo and her father and away from her yearning relationship with the always absent mother:
You liked anchovy soup, so I stunk up my hair and the house to cook it for you. You wanted eel, I almost burned down the house smoking it for you. You liked live squid, so I fought with its tentacles to dump them in the kimchi for you. I cut them up, dumped them in the stinging red sauce, and they were still moving.
The chapter fills out a dynamic between Ahn Joo and her father that is much more explicit about her yearning to please him as well as how she pushes back against his expectations to be a certain kind of daughter, girl, and woman.

A Cab Called Reliable is a thoughtfully rendered coming-of-age story that blends the more typical immigrant narrative with that of the broken home. Rather than telling the story of a complete nuclear family (father-mother-siblings) struggling to acculturate, this novel strips away the mother who is often central to such narratives of inter-generational conflict (mother-daughter relationship). Of course, the mother's absence is a persistent force in the novel, but it is instead the story of Ahn Joo and her father as they muddle their way to some version of the American Dream and success without the full family
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Edward Jae-Suk Lee's The Good Man

I came across Edward Jae-Suk Lee's debut novel The Good Man (Bridge Works Publishing, 2004) at the St. Paul Public Library, and I am very happy to have stumbled across it so unexpectedly. I have never heard of the author or the novel, but the story traces out exactly the kinds of issues I am interested in with respect to language, region, and encounter.

While browsing the fiction shelves at the library, I saw many Korean American novels, and while I will likely get around to reading many of them someday, I was also hoping for different kinds of stories from the standard immigrant-child narrative of acculturation. Lee's novel really seemed to fit the bill, and I was not disappointed.

The narrative centers on a few characters in a rural valley in Montana. The novel begins with Gabriel Guttman, a mysterious, one-eyed white man with a faulty memory, as he returns to the familiar valley of his childhood. We find out quickly that Guttman is a veteran of the Korean War and has difficulty dealing with the trauma of the fighting and his own actions. The other major character is Yahng Yi, the sixteen-year-old mixed-race daughter of the "Chinawoman" who lives in the valley. Yahng's story sketches out the very limited, rural world in which she has grown up. Other important characters include Yahng Yi's mother (never named... always called by the narrative and other characters "Yahng Yi's mother") who was a Korean peasant from a fishing village; Emily Cottage, of a long-standing family in the valley who was Gabe's love before he went off to war; Jihn, Yahng Yi's older brother (a Vietnam vet); Hamm Finn, the landowner and cattle rancher of the valley with the most influence and wealth when Gabriel returns; Jude Finn, Hamm's drunkard, gambling grandson; and Val Rey, a Native American boy who is friends with Jude.

The narrative focuses often on the rural life of the valley, and like other fiction set in such areas of the West, it has some remarkable language about that world. The sheep ranch that Yahng Yi runs, during the time of the novel's present, has a number of pregnant ewes giving birth. This passage describes one such birth:
The lamb's shoulders were out, and the ewe went to the ground, its head reaching back toward her hindquarters to clean the membranes from the lamb's mouth. Yahng Yi went over to the ewe and it blatted softly and reached its head up to meet Yahng Yi's hand. Yahng Yi rubbed it behind the ears, and stroked the soft down around the neck. The lamb was halfway out and breathing normally. The ewe stood and the force of gravity dropped the lamb to the ground. It wobbled on little brown legs, the birth sac still covering its hindquarters, and searched for a teat while its mother licked it. The ewe walked off a little way, the lamb trailing it and rubbing its small black head along the top of the ewe's udder. (37)
This kind of prose might be described as spare, echoing the simplified quality of life that the characters experience and the way they speak as well--if not a more direct kind of speech at least a pared down form of communication.

One of the more provocative aspects of this novel is its focus on Gabriel, the white American veteran of the Korean War, rather than the mother's perspective (though the narrative does provide some of her backstory such as how she and her two sisters left behind the fishing village of their childhood for the mainland only to encounter the war). Gabe suffers from memory loss, linked to the loss of his eye, and the novel slowly unravels his past as he struggles to connect his present self to the snippets of the past that he remembers from the valley. He has lived away from the valley for forty years, having abandoned Yahng Yi's mother (whom he saved in Korea and brought to Montana with him) and Emily Cottage. The novel weaves this memory loss to some extent into a physiological condition--whatever accident that led to the loss of his eye also severed the connection between the right and left halves of his brain, and that severing of the two sides (creative versus analytical) characterizes his inability to make sense of his past and present. The novel traces how Gabe tries to make sense of this particular part of his past that he is able to remember as well as how he comes to grips with the parts that are not available to his conscious mind but plague his nightmares. The novel's focus on a white American veteran of a war in Asia puts it in good company many other novels about the veteran experience (and dealing with psychological trauma), and it would certainly be worth considering how a Korean American author's approach to writing such a character compares to a similar character created by a white veteran author.

Yahng Yi's story is the other central component of the novel, particularly how she deals with a burgeoning sexuality and the claustrophobic quality of her rural life with a mother tethered to a haunted past. Yahng Yi's mother has taken up the shaman tradition practiced by her own mother, and her forays into altered states (brought on by hallucinogenic teas) are a desperate attempt to make her world whole again after the war's dislocation and her abandonment by Gabe. Yahng Yi herself seems precocious in her independence and ability to keep the sheep ranch running on her own. The way she deals with Jude Hamm's bullying presence is also remarkable, and the tensions broughout out by her sexuality and her objectification by men in the valley are crucial components of her coming-of-age story.

In addition to the Montana setting, what caught my eye particularly was the presence of Val Rey, the Native figure of the story who lurks in the background, interested in Yahng Yi but too shy to express his feelings. Towards the end of the novel, Val tells Jude Hamm a coyote trickster story (172), cementing his cultural identity as a Native American (he also eats hallucinogenic mushrooms). The idea of encounter or recognition between Asian/Native characters emerges in the end when Val sees Yahng Yi in a particular way: "Her dark eyes, dark like his and glossy, and the eyelids folded at the inside corners, the epicanthic fold, a trait shared by their ancestors. She is like him in so many ways. Her face, her skin, her hair" (232). This kind of visual cross-identification happens in other works of Asian American and Native American literature (the most famous example perhaps being Tayo's recognition of his relatives' faces in dead Japanese soldiers in Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony). Of course, it is the setting of the novel that most enables such encounters and recognitions--in this case, the rural West as spaces adjacent to reservations where contact between Indian and white people is the strongest basis of racial difference (rather than white-black). Such spaces incorporate or deal with the anomalous presence of Asian and mixed-race Asian peoples differently than the spaces of urban California or New York where heavy concentrations of Asian communities work to create different understandings of Asian Americans.

It would be interesting to teach or write about The Good Man in the context of Western Literature, war veteran literature, and rural life literature. I can't really think of other Asian American literature that has the same orientation towards these issues except perhaps something like Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation which is set in Idaho with a protagonist who is the mixed-race daughter of a white American veteran and a Japanese woman (though the tone of that novel is far more playful that that of Lee's novel).
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I had a backlog of reviews that I just uploaded. :D What other Asian American books have people been reading this summer? Please post your thoughts or lists. Reviews can be informal and short. We like hearing about what people are reading.
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