August 26th, 2012

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Marie Lu's Legend

I've had Marie Lu's young adult novel Legend (G. P. Putnam, 2011) checked out from the library for awhile and finally got around to reading it. After I wrapped my head around the narrative voices, I couldn't stop reading and finished the book within a day. The book is the first in a series, and stephenhongsohn noted that the followup book is out next year, so there won't be too long of a wait!

Legend takes the form of interwoven first-person narratives. One voice is that of Day, a 15-year-old boy from the slums who is the most wanted criminal of the Republic. The other voice is June, a 15-year-old girl from a privileged class, training in the most prestigious military academy for the Republic. The author's bio on the book jacket notes that the impetus of this story came from Lu's watching Les Misérables and "wondering how the relationship between a famous criminal and a prodigious detective might translate to a more modern story." Day is the criminal with a heart of gold, then, though his character also becomes a bit of a renegade saboteur, working to undermine the Republic's regime more than simply stealing to help out his family. June is the righteous arm of the law, but instead of questioning her own worth as a person and her own ideals, she begins to see how the Republic is not all she was brought up to believe it is.

The post-apocalyptic world Lu creates is fascinating. It is set in a future where the United States has become fractured into different warring polities, where flooding and a changed climate have reshaped the landscape dramatically. The novel is set in a Los Angeles where many of the high rises are flooded up to the fifth floor or more. One of the things that this first novel in the series does well is set up a lot of questions about this world. It's set in the future, but how much is our own present world supposed to be the past for this future? What happened to split the country up? What are the allegiances between the different polities (the Republic and the Colonies are the two major ones, it seems, though there may be others)?

The novel is ultimately very much about the encounters between Day and June and what they ultimately learn about and from each other. Both are prodigies (the title of the followup book, incidentally, is Prodigy), extremely gifted youth in their mental, physical, and deductive faculties. What is fascinating is the way they are set up as parallel characters, equally outstanding but with entirely different life circumstances. In this way, there is a pointed commentary about how social factors influence the expression of more innate abilities.

The Republic is an authoritarian state that presents itself as a benevolent meritocracy. All citizens take the Trial at the age of 10, and if they pass, they get assigned to particular jobs in the Republic based on their scores. If they fail, they get sent to labor camps, which June discovers during the course of the novel are not what they seem.

The general trajectory of the plot is the hunt of Day by June. The novel begins with Day's infiltration of a hospital to steal a cure for the plague that has afflicted his younger brother Eden. Through a series of events, June becomes the lead agent in the quest to bring in the Republic's most dangerous criminal, and how she goes about finding Day is particularly fascinating. One of the central issues in the novel is the presence of plagues that pop up in different sectors of the city every year. The Republic deals with the plague in very ruthless ways, quarantining families and taking the sick away. Of course, the wealthy get yearly vaccines that prevent them from getting sick, so it is only the poor neighborhoods that suffer from this illness.

There are a few hints of the importance of race in this post-apocalyptic world such as mention that the Republic has conquered China, either by wiping it out or subjugating it as a business market (the mythical idea in business of taking over the consumer market of such a vast country). And Day is listed as predominantly "Mongolian" in his files, despite his bright blond hair and blue eyes. The use of an outdated racial term, Mongolian, is also interesting in its reference to a scientific worldview that is more willing to assign values to different groups of people based on physical characteristics (and implied psychological or mental characteristics).
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Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for August 26 2012

International Press and Writers Spotlight (Oberon Books, Spinifex Press, Ansh Das)

Is the summer almost over? Well, there’s still time to read some books! I think.

In this post, reviews of: Nirjay Mahindru’s The Bottle (Oberon Books, 2005); Nirjay Mahindru’s Mandragora: King of India (Oberon Books, 2005); Dolly Dhingra’s The Fortune Club (Oberon Books, 2005); Ursula Rani Sarma’s The Magic Tree (Oberon Books, 2009); Tanika Gupta’s Inside out (Oberon Books, 2003); Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behsharam (Shameless) (Oberon Books, 2002); Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman (Spinifex Press, 2012); Ansh Das's Always Forever (CreateSpace, 2012).

A Review of Nirjay Mahindru’s The Bottle (Oberon Books, 2005); Nirjay Mahindru’s Mandragora: King of India (Oberon Books, 2005); Dolly Dhingra’s The Fortune Club (Oberon Books, 2005); Ursula Rani Sarma’s The Magic Tree (Oberon Books, 2009); Tanika Gupta’s Inside out (Oberon Books, 2003); Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Bensharam (Shameless) (Oberon Books, 2002).

Earlier, I review a handful of Oberon Books. I continue part two of my review of Oberon’s Asian British plays. For more information on Oberon books, please go here:

Mandragora: Kind of India is Nirjay Mahindru’s debut play and one can easily see the influence of Shakespearean drama to this piece. Interestingly enough, multiple sites have this publication officially credited to Nirjay Mahundru ( and goodreads list his name incorrectly and in amazon’s case the problem is a little bit comedic because the cover is shown next to the purchase button with the correct spelling). But I digress: this play was certainly compelling in its speculative premise. The titular Mandragora is a king of India during the pre-colonial period and must deal with the changing times when “chalky whites” arrive to challenge his claims to the territory. One of the “chalky whites” known as Hastings steals an important artifact and Mandragora imprisons Catherine, Hastings’s apparent paramour, in order to encourage him to return the precious stone. Hastings, as the obvious symbol of the oncoming colonial destruction, introduces conceptions of capitalism and conquest to other locals and he begins his own attempt to carve out and foment power. Catherine, for her part, seems to symbolize something altogether different in her eventual willingness to lose herself in the “Indian culture,” despite her difference in ethnoracial background. What is particularly notable about this work is how playful it can be, with the requisite jester type figures that would be found in a Shakespearean play, who offer a chance to catch one’s breath. Mahindru includes the occasional rhyming couplet and satellite characters certainly bring much heft and life to this spirited work. As with all plays, I would be keenly interested in the staging, especially the later battle sequences which, depending on the level and the ambition of the production company, I’m sure could be quite epic.

Nirjay Mahindru’s The Bottle is a rather strange and darkly comic play about three Asian British men who are looking to change the status of their lives as quickly as possible. Ravi, who seems to be more or less the central character, inherits a café and he believes that this new entrepreneurial venture may allow him to gain a stronger foothold as he aims for a more financially secure future. He enlists the help of his friends Irvin and Suresh to help him out, but there also happens to be the issue of a safe. Yes, the café has a safe that Ravi believes holds an incredible stash of monies, though the three characters cannot seem to get the safe open. What occurs is, more or less, a comedy of errors surrounding the safe: they use a stethoscope to see if they can hear clicks; later they must contend with a rather eccentric customer who keeps returning and interrupting their plans; stranger still is when they discover that there are dead bodies in the basement. The unique plotting of the drama allows Mahindru the chance to explore the malaise of youth who have grown up in the shadow of economic instability and continued racial tension. At one point, the friends begin to turn on each other and we see how each character holds particular dreams and aspirations that have, for one reason or another, begun to crumble. The success of this play is entirely in Mahindru’s ability to generate such snappy and funny dialogue; the repartee among the three best friends is a definite highlight. The use of the basement also made me wonder about verticality in productions with a small cast; I wonder how such scenes would be “blocked” and how spatial difference is created.

As with many of the other publications out of Oberon Books, Dolly Dhingra’s The Fortune Club focuses on legislative and juridical transgression. In this particular scenario, a group of adults decide to become criminals. The emotional center of this drama appears with two characters who happen to be sisters: Renu, an actress, and Priya, her more responsible older sister and who happens to be running the titular Fortune Club (dive bar). The rather ironic name of this bar becomes more apparent as Priya reveals that they are in dire financial straits and that they must rely again on relatives to help make ends meet. Part of the problem is that Renu does not know how to properly budget, but during a New Year’s eve party at the bar, attended by Priya and Renu’s friends and loved ones, they hatch a plan to get rich quick. Of course this scheme involves a mode of crime: identity theft. In this case, they research the backgrounds of various celebrities and affluent socialites, document their personal information and credit card numbers and proceed to buy whatever it is that they want. These schemes get increasingly outlandish until at some point they are actually purchasing items simply to pull off their identity thefts—the height of which is definitely their decision to take on the “role” of Prince Mohammed of Brunei. The subtitle to this drama states that it is “inspired by a true crime,” but I didn’t see any more accompanying information within the drama to help clarify the background of this play. Nevertheless, this drama’s narrative certainly has become more germane in light of the global economic downturn. The more satirical take of this work might strike differently at this point with so many out of work and seeking some salve for their financial troubles. Dhingra’s drama is very noteworthy for its crackling and witty dialogue; the characters spark off the page and you could see how important it would be for the group of actors cast in this play to have a kind of “ocean’s eleven” type chemistry for it to be successful.

Ursula Rani Sarma’s The Magic Tree is the first play I think that I’ve read from Oberon Books that had me mystified by it conclusion. It seems to be a speculative play about the nature of good and evil and whether or not there can be any redemption. The two main roles are given to a young attractive woman named Lamb and then her romantic lead named Gordy. Lamb seems to be on the “run” (suggestive of her name on one level) and is looking to start a new life, while Gordy is part of a crew of men who are intent upon finding some unlucky woman to gang rape. This dark premise turns on its head quickly. Gordy likes Lamb and realizes he cannot go through with the plan. Doc, the violent antagonist of the play, comes into the scene trying to force the act, but Gordy kills him to protect Lamb. Lenny, who is part of the crew but seems to be more interested in eating than anything else, is an interesting side-character. Lamb’s name is also thus suggestive of a form of sacrifice here with all of those religious connotations. The second act involves Lamb and Gordy having traveled to Cambodia. The titular “magic tree” is actually referring to a tree used in the violent executions of civilians under the Khmer Rouge. Again, there is this comparison between individual acts of violence and then systematic ones that come up in this particular way. I was a little bit confused as to the singular nature of the first act and then this move to widespread genocide in the second. Further still, Lenny seems to have been killed or has disappeared by the second act, presumably and possibly at the hands of Gordy. It’s clear though that Gordy has an incredible attachment to Lamb and will do anything to try to save her. Lamb, though, seems to be a depressed figure, who is in some sense trying to absolve herself of guilt over how she treated her “special needs” sister. Can there be individual or societal redemption? The play seems to suggest that the process is incredibly intricate and tortured in its own way; this play definitely leaves you unsettled.

One of the best things about the Oberon publications is that they include a number of paratextual materials, often with an author’s note discussing why the play was written in the first place. Tanika Gupta’s Inside Out was inspired by her time interacting with women in the UK prison system and the resulting play comes from her consideration of the futility of the carceral state which seeks to address a social problem without addressing the roots of the issue. In this case, she is particularly critical of the fact that prisons function to cover a wound, but do little to actually engage why the wound was created in the first place. This play is about two half-sisters; one is racially mixed, the other is white. Their mother is Chloe, a woman who is currently in an abusive relationship. Affy is able to escape the home when her father—presumably from a sense of guilt—is willing to take her back. Di is thus stuck with Chloe, but realizes that such a life may be an incredible dead end. Di seeks to leave one day, but tragically, that event results in a fight and Di ends up killing her mother. Di is imprisoned for the death and the later act explores how Affy and Di treat each other after Di has been released from prison. Gupta’s point is very clear: Affy and Di aren’t really all that different from each other, one just happened to have a father that enabled her the opportunity to leave a problematic domestic location. Di thus becomes a victim of circumstances rather than what modern society labels her: a criminal. The strength of this play is that Di and Affy are such normal characters; there dreams and hopes not so uncommon, which makes Di’s trajectory all the more tragic and capricious.

In Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behsharam (Shameless), two second generation South Asian British sisters struggle to come to terms with their immigrant upbringing. Apparently, this play broke a number of box office records in the UK. The older, Jaspal, rebels by becoming a prostitute and drug-user, while the younger, unfortunately named Sati has an unnatural attachment to a cardboard cutout of a football star. The play opens with Sati having been reunited with Jaspal after many years apart. They have a climactic fight and the scene shifts four years earlier to 1994 where we see the seeds of the family’s disintegration. Jaspal is in a dead-end relationship with a semi-retired black British boxer named Patrick; she sleeps with her drug dealer, Stan, in order to get access to more narcotics. Jaspal’s father dreams of becoming a poet, while everyone wonders where Jaspal and Sati’s mother has gone—the story being that she has been on a pilgrimage for the last seven years. A wrinkle is added into the equation because there is discussion of two mothers. Indeed, Sati and Jaspal have a stepmother, but the reason for Mum #2, as she is known, is not revealed until the later arc of the play, where secrets start tumbling out. So, from this point, you may not want to read if you do not want to be spoiled, but we see that Sati has been shielded from the truth that her mother was institutionalized after her father sought to have a divorce in order to marry a woman who would be able to bear him a son. Indeed, once Mum #1 realizes her time is up, she has a psychotic break, so the pilgrimage story is cooked up to keep Sati in the dark. For her part, Jaspal’s acting out is obviously related to the fact of the gendered dynamics that place so much value on Indian sons. There is a kind of self-degradation at work and a desire to break free, however chaotically, from an immigrant context that has suffocated her. Certainly, part of the play’s mass success can be seen in Bhatti’s colorful dialogue, most specifically dramatized by Beiji, the grandmother figure who also happens to be a kleptomaniac. With a flair for the idiosyncratic, Bensharam is a uniquely offbeat and sobering work.

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A Review of Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman (Spinifex Press, 2012).

As part of my continuing efforts to review books from international presses, here we have Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman that comes out of Spinifex Press. For more information about this press, go here:

Merlinda Bobis is the author of numerous other publications and I’ve been meaning to read something by her for a very long time. I finally sat down with this admittedly very complex novel. By the time I finished it, I still had some plotting questions and if anyone else has read it, I hope they respond to this post because I want to find out exactly how some things might have occurred. Some might consider the narrative “postmodern,” but I generally have ennui over terms such as postmodern, postrace, and really post-anything these days, so we’ll just call it slightly experimental and definitely metafictional. The premise is about a young man named Luke McIntyre who travels to the Philippines in search of his missing Australian father, a journalist by the name of Tony, who had traveled to the Philippines presumably in search of a major story. He is entangled somehow with a woman named Pilar, who many believe to have been the leader of a revolutionary cadre in a location called Iraya. The whereabouts of both Pilar and Tony are unknown. There are a number of manuscripts that Luke must sift through which provide him with a little bit of a backstory, but the revelations do not really come until the last 100 pages, so you have to be really patient with this novel, otherwise you risk missing some of the most important connections that characters have with each other. Luke happens to be staying with an important man named Alvarado who has one seemingly mute daughter and another drug-addicted one named Stella. In the backstory, we discover that Pilar was brought up in the household of a midwife, as her mother dies in the childbirth of her younger sister, the titular Estrella, shortened to Eya, and the fish-hair woman, who apparently has some magical ability to entangle corpses in her hair from the river. This conceit is fascinating and a bit morbid, but works especially in its most figurative application as a way to configure the body count that rises over the course of the novel. Pilar eventually falls in love with a married man, Benito, who also happens to be one of the leading individuals in communist insurgencies. He is a baker and he whisks Pilar away into the hills, where they foment revolution. The townfolk, led by a corrupt mayor, are heralded under the nation’s attempt to cleanse the countryside of all communist influence—here we have that oh so wonderful Truman Doctrine—and periodic purges are conducted under the guise of Total War and through a group ironically called the “angels.” Were Pilar and Tony murdered? Did they really love each other? Who ended up killing them—the revolutionary cadres who might have wondered about their motivations or the “angels” seeking to purge the countryside? Those questions can only be answered if you read the novel! But seriously, I have some plotting questions. And, if there ever is a reprint of this novel, I highly recommend the publishers consider adding two family trees—a skeletal one at the beginning and then one fleshed out with all the dual names and identities in the final pages. Of course, Bobis adds to the quite rich work of Filipino Ameican and Anglophone writers who have explored conceptions of revolution in their work; I’m thinking of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, Gina Apostol’s The Gun Dealer’s Daughter, and Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War.

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A Review of Ansh Das’s Always Forever (CreateSpace, 2012).

I was alerted to this self-published title by Marshall Moore, the editor of Signal 8 Press, and was intrigued by its premise. Ansh Das’s Always Forever is a memoir concerning the author’s brief romantic relationship with a man named Mikee Francis. Das meets Mikee in the context of the Mr. Gay World Competition (held in the Philippines) and much of their fledgling connection must be maintained through long-distance channels (as Das lives in Hong Kong): e-mails, facebook, and instant messaging become prominent forms referenced throughout the memoir. Tragically, Mikee suffers from health complications that will take his life and this work is certainly devoted to providing a kind of recovery of Mikee’s life. While such a topic is difficult to write about, Das’s memoir is imbued with a form of spirituality that is key to lifting him out of any sort of pathological depression. Indeed, Das takes on the very serious project of honoring Mikee’s life in various ways, most specifically detailed in the strong bonds he maintains with Mikee’s nuclear and extended family. In this process, Das finds an alternative home space in the Philippines. If there is a writing cure to the process of loss, Das models it effectively here. Mikee’s spirit lives on in this memoir and Das’s impassioned sense of purpose creates an indelible portrait of a life that had already affected so many in such a short span of time. The social import of Das’s work is particularly large: with so few memoirs detailing Asian queer relationships and even fewer still on this transnational scale, Always Forever stands as a pioneering publication.

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