March 7th, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for March 7, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for March 7, 2016

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

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews for Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown and Company, 2016); Christie Hsiao’s Journey to Rainbow Island (BenBella Books, 2013); Emiko Jean’s We’ll Never Be Apart (Houghton Mifflin Young Adult, 2016); Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2015).

A Review of Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown and Company, 2016).




Sunil Yapa’s debut novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is an intriguing study in the fictionalization of a major event: the 1999 WTO protests. We’ll let B&N provide the useful synopsis here: “On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor—a nomadic, scrappy teenager who's run away from home—sets out to join the throng of WTO demonstrators determined to shut down the city. With the proceeds, he plans to buy a plane ticket and leave Seattle forever, but it quickly becomes clear that the history-making 50,000 anti-globalization protestors—from anarchists to environmentalists to teamsters—are testing the patience of the police, and what started out as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence. Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the fates of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police Chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn't seen in three years, two protesters struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country's fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the President of the United States. When Chief Bishop reluctantly unleashes tear gas on the unsuspecting crowd, it seems his hopes for reconciliation with his son, as well as the future of his city, are in serious peril.” Though Victor does ostensibly seem to be the protagonist of this work, Yapa splits the perspective amongst these seven characters, who do include the aforementioned Chief Bishop, two other police officers (Timothy Park and Julia), two protesters (John Henry and King), Charles Wickramsinghe (the “elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka”). The fates of these seven characters eventually collide in a manner not dissimilar to something we might see in a Robert Altman movie. Victor, for instance, is pulled into the protests, even though he seems to be mostly ambivalent about them. King and John Henry, we discover, are lovers, though King is harboring a dark secret regarding her past, which limits her effectiveness in the protests. Chief Bishop (along with his fellow police officers) attempts to maintain order over his city, something that becomes increasingly difficult as the protests escalate in their scope and rhetoric. The actual diplomatic work being conducted by Charles Wickramsinghe is structured through intermissions, as he attempts to rally the support to gain Sri Lanka’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. Yapa is particularly deft in his use of analepses, effectively using flashbacks and shifts back in time to unveil the psychological shape of the main characters. Victor, in particular, comes off as a well-rounded figure seeking to find fulfillment, having struggled with a complicated upbringing involving migration and adoption. Yapa’s work is certainly provocative in its exploration of activism, racial discord, protest cultures, and police brutality, more so because Yapa is intent in twining the political with the personal. The narrative can sometimes sag because of this dynamic and the conclusion might strike some as too philosophically broad, but Yapa’s work is certainly fresh in its unique narrative conceit, as it employs a shifting third and second person narration to reveal the complicated interior lives of these seven characters. Further still, this work intrigues me, especially in its kaleidoscopic storytelling depictions, as the seven narrative perspectives all come from characters of varied ethnoracial backgrounds. Had this novel been published earlier, I might have written about it in my first book, which by the way, just passed its two year birthday (shout out to myself). Finally, readers of Asian American literature will no doubt find productive comparisons between this novel and Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, not only on the level of its seven primary characters, but its association around a climactic event (an apocalyptic freeway event in Los Angeles downtown vs. the WTO riots).

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-heart-is-a-muscle-the-size-of-a-fist-sunil-yapa/1121865205

A Review of Emiko Jean’s We’ll Never Be Apart (Houghton Mifflin Young Adult, 2016).




Emiko Jean’s We’ll Never Apart starts with an intriguing premise: an emotionally disturbed young teenager named Cellie starts a fire. In the process, it seems as though she will be ending possibly her own life, her sister’s life (Alice Monroe), and her sister’s boyfriend’s life (Jason). After this prologue, the narrative perspective shifts to Alice (and remains there for most of the novel), and we’re left in the wake of that fire. Alice doesn’t remember everything that happened that night. All she knows is that she tried to escape from a mental health facility with her foster brother Jason, but their eventual path to freedom is thwarted by the mentally unhinged Cellie, who arrives at precisely the worst time. From this point forward, Alice is stuck back in the mental facility (in/appropriately called Savage Isle, located it seems somewhere in California), navigating life in the C ward, where she’s able to filter in with other patients like herself. She makes friends with her new roomie Amelia, while developing a potential romantic interest with another troubled teen named Chase Ward (if you’re seeing the play on “chase” and “ward” in relation to finding out the truth in the mental facility, you’ll start to see that this novel tries a little bit too hard at times). At the same time, Alice eventually discovers that Jason was killed in the fire, which leads her to believe that Cellie is still alive and probably being held in the D ward, the isolation area in which the most damaged and deranged patients are kept in padded rooms. Alice hatches a plan, using Chase’s assistance, to find a way to get into D ward, so she might have the chance to kill Cellie, before Cellie would ostensibly kill her. Due to heightened security measures, though, Alice cannot get to D ward right away, so the novel gives us other things to worry about. For instance, Alice starts to write in a journal, as suggested to her by her therapist. The journal is a critical narrative device that gives us the painful backstory of Alice and her sister Cellie: how they were sent into foster care only after they were found living alone with the deceased corpse of their grandfather. It is in the foster care system that Alice and Cellie meet Jason; Alice and Jason will eventually develop a romantic interest in each other, which will cause Cellie to develop a sense of jealousy that will ultimately, or so Alice thinks, turn homicidal. First time author Emiko Jean takes a big gamble on employing an unreliable narrative perspective precisely because we’re already made to be suspicious. Readers like myself already figured out the central conceit undergirding the narrative soon after it began, and I simply hoped that I would be wrong. Because of this possibility, some readers will definitely be disappointed on the level of plot exposition at the conclusion, but the larger social context that Jean brings up is of course important: the necessity of proper care (both mental and physical) for youth in the foster care system. It is evident that the novel’s main intervention in terms of its critique of social inequalities remains the ways in which we let youth potentially rot in a system in which their lives are ultimately dependent upon the capricious care of adults.



Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/well-never-be-apart-emiko-jean/1120874784



A Review of Christie Hsiao’s Journey to Rainbow Island (BenBella Books, 2013)


So, I often alternate in between “adult” more serious reading and middle grade/ YA material, and I recently settled on Christie Hsiao’s Journey to Rainbow Island (BenBella Books). This title was one I chanced upon while browsing online bookstores and their offerings. In any case, Hsiao’s debut employs the more traditional fantasy conceits in order to build a storyworld involving a young girl on a quest to save her home, the titular Rainbow Island. After a dark sorcerer revives a long dead obisidigon through evil magics, Yu-Ning must take up her own destiny as a Darq Render to defeat the growing danger. As per usual, we’ll let the folks over at B&N take over with the rest of the plot: “Yu-ning thinks her perfect life on Rainbow Island will never end—until a nasty dragon called the Obsidigon returns from beyond the grave. Now her beloved island is in flames, her best friend has been kidnapped, and the island’s Sacred Crystals have been stolen. To make matters worse, she must venture into the dark corners of the world to uncover secrets best ignored, find a weapon thought long destroyed, and recapture seven sacred stones—without being burned to a crisp by a very angry dragon. With the help of her master teacher, Metatron, Yu-ning embarks on a dangerous journey to overcome not only the darkness attacking her home, but also the scars of sadness that mark her own heart. And while most people just see a normal kid, Metatron—and a few other unlikely allies—pledge their lives to the dark-eyed little girl with a magic bow and a crooked grin.” Yu-ning’s journey involves having to find a bow (called the Lightcaster) and its magical arrows in order to defeat the sorcerer and the obsidigon. She must travel to various islands and locations, challenge smaller villains and antagonists—such as a sweatshop boss and a taskmaster teacher—in order to navigate her perilous tasks. Throughout, Hsiao’s point is very clear: Yu-ning must use the power of love and light to defeat all enemies. For some, this message will obviously come off as trite and perhaps too simplistic, especially since the novel does dovetail with larger problematics of global capitalism and human trafficking even in allegorized forms. Further still, Yu-ning’s can-do attitude never flags, which marks her as a perhaps too-static heroine, one that never flags in her belief that good will always defeat evil. Certainly, the novel’s target audience will be pleased: the plot continually conjures up another challenge to Yu-ning, and Hsiao is especially willing to explore fantastic conceits that will delight young readers, such as talking animals, special magic items, and technological marvels. There are also some very striking visuals (more realist in their quality) included, which contrast significantly with the fantasy style of the narrative. Interestingly enough, Hsiao also seems to be intent on leaving the ethnicities of her characters unmarked, even as there are some obvious nods to an East Asian centric heritage of some of the places and figures. These layerings do make the world more textured, but some readers will no doubt overlook such intentionalities. Hsiao leaves the novel open for a sequel, but as of this time, there is no word on whether or not Yu-ning will have to face sorcerers, dark creatures, and obsidigons any time soon. For the time being, then, she and her allies can rest easy in the idyllic and love-filled place called Rainbow Island.



Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/journey-to-rainbow-island-christie-hsiao/1114591405


A Review of Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2015)


Here, I am reviewing Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel Private Citizens. So, this book is going to provoke a deep response in the reader in one way or another. The polarizing nature of this novel is because it is tonally mutable: it’s definitely satirical at times, but at others, you get a much more of a romantic, courtship narrative in which you see Tulathimutte working with characters who are trying to connect with each other in the turbulent period after undergraduate school. We’ll let the plot summary over at B&N do some work for us: “From a brilliant new literary talent comes a sweeping comic portrait of privilege, ambition, and friendship in millennial San Francisco. With the social acuity of Adelle Waldman and the murderous wit of Martin Amis, Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens is a brainy, irreverent debut—This Side of Paradise for a new era. Capturing the anxious, self-aware mood of young college grads in the aughts, Private Citizens embraces the contradictions of our new century: call it a loving satire. A gleefully rude comedy of manners. Middlemarch for Millennials. The novel's four whip-smart narrators—idealistic Cory, Internet-lurking Will, awkward Henrik, and vicious Linda—are torn between fixing the world and cannibalizing it. In boisterous prose that ricochets between humor and pain, the four estranged friends stagger through the Bay Area’s maze of tech startups, protestors, gentrifiers, karaoke bars, house parties, and cultish self-help seminars, washing up in each other’s lives once again.  A wise and searching depiction of a generation grappling with privilege and finding grace in failure, Private Citizens is as expansively intelligent as it is full of heart.” I’m tempted to review the language in this review, but I’ll avoid that task and just explain that the novel is grounded in those four characters. Cory is the progressive liberal of the bunch who has joined a start up with a more humanistic view of the future. Will is the Asian American of the bunch, perhaps the character modeled somewhat autobiographically after the writer. He is Thai, he’s short, he’s a bit angry, and he’s in a relationship with the very beautiful, wheelchair bound Vanya. Henrik is the scholar of the bunch, or so he was, until he drops out of graduate school, then struggles to find his footing Then, there’s Linda: she is a hot mess. She couch surfs, manipulates men to do things for her, and generally scrabbles her way through life. The narrative sees all four of them return to San Francisco a number of years after they graduated from Stanford. They’re not as close as they once were, and this novel explores why their paths have diverged, and of course, why those paths will eventually again converge. But the narrative is perhaps secondary to Tulathimutte’s incredibly engaging third person storyteller, who often undercuts the characters to mock them. There is both a benefit and a drawback to this kind of narrator. On the one hand, the narrator does make the work considerably humorous, but, on the other, you wonder sometimes about whether you can find an emotional center at all. It’s easy to hate every single one of the main characters given the way that the narrator is able to critique them with such stylistic verve, but the later stages of the book give way to other discursive modes. For instance, the introduction of first person journaling begins to chip away at this narrator, suggesting that there isn’t some postmodern hipsterish millennial tech bubble core to each of these characters, and that they wish to move beyond desultory relationships, for something better, even if it’s never quite possessed and always a little bit and only a dream.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/private-citizens-tony-tulathimutte/1121953916