Tags: asian american novel

A Review of Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

A review of Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House, 2010).

After having reviewed The Vagrants, I suppose I was bracing myself for a collection far more dark in its execution. In a way, I’m glad that Li has returned to the short story form, as the scope of the stories are more domestically situated and not quite as gothic and graphic as what was depicted in her debut novel. These are really stories that give one time to breathe and to contemplate, precisely as they radiate a kind of quiet and dignified sadness. If there is a link to all characters within every story, there is a sense of loss that permeates the layers of each individual psyche. These are characters, many that understood they once had a chance to act upon a dream, but now feel as if a certain moment or possible future has been irreparably lost. While I won’t spend time to discuss each story, I will take on a longer reading of the first story from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, which is one of the first major forays that Li takes in using the first person narrative perspective. The majority of the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl unfold through a third person perspective, a narrative mode through which Li has already shown numerous times how effective she is at using. In “Kindness,” which opens Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (a novelette of sorts as it is approximately 80 pages in length and certainly the longest “story” in the most recent publication), the novel is told from the first-person perspective of Moyan, a middle class Beijing urbanite destined for a brighter future based upon a higher class background in a modernizing Chinese world. This story is clearly evocative of the kinds of changes that China has undergone as Maoist policies have been further hybridized with Western capitalistic influences. But, this is really just the backdrop to “Kindness” as it focuses on the ways in which individuals can irreparably alter the course of one life. Moyan, as she comes to understand herself, had opportunities to become a different kind of person, but a close connection to an educated woman, Professor Shan, results in a very different trajectory. The story is thus about reflecting upon one’s life and thinking about the various detours that one might have taken if one had the chance to do things over again. In retrospect, Moyan thinks about Lieutenant Wei, a woman she had met at a Communist army camp, who although very strict as a military superior during that period, nevertheless hinted at the possibilities of a stronger bond and friendship. Moyan, by this time, had been schooled by Professor Shan, to believe that love is essentially a kind of trap, one that leads to more suffering. However, “Kindness” seems to suggest that risk might be rewarded in certain circumstances; it is more the question about when one takes such risks, such leaps of faith. The following stories follow with this general thematic and many are linked in relation to aging widowers, childless couples, spinsters, orphans and the like, all those who might experience problems related to kinship. The title story, which ends the collection, is in many ways another variation on this theme of lost chances and the routes that people might take to at least be able to partially recover what they most desire. A Chinese spinster agrees to be paired up with the son of her beloved female professor, if only to be able to keep this professor in her life. The complication is of course that the son is a gay man, but he returns to China in part to honor his filial duties. In these steps at compromise, we see that characters attempt to exert agency in a rapidly changing and modernizing Chinese world. Another understated and lyrically grounded work from Li.

Also, Kudos to Li who just received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. The good news for Asian American literature fans is that we probably can expect more publications in a small period of time. Yes, for MoAR reading!

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A Review of Chandra Prasad’s Death of A Circus (Red Hen Press, 2006).

A Review of Chandra Prasad’s Death of A Circus (Red Hen Press, 2006).

Red Hen Press is one of my favorite small presses; the books that I end up reading from that press tend to be innovative and dynamic. Such is also the case with Chandra Prasad’s Death of A Circus, a novel that I recently encountered with much interest. Prasad is also the editor and contributed to Mixed, an anthology about the mixed-race experience, as well as a novel from Atria Press entitled On Borrowed Wings. She also recently published a fictional novel based on the life of Amelia Earheart. It is clear based upon Prasad’s publication history that she has a particular interest in what might be called historical fiction as every single one of her major publications takes place within the first half of the 20th century.

In Death of A Circus, Prasad explores the intriguing lives of a band of misfits who end up working for the Binglebright Circus, an independent entity prior to the domination of the scene by the Ringling Brothers. There are approximately four main narrative viewpoints in Prasad’s novel, the most prominent of which is focalized through Lor Cole, a young African American man who seeks fame and fortune. Realizing the potential limits of his life given his background, Lor moves to the big city, searching for the chance to become successful on his own. When his options begin to run out, Lor joins the circus, first as a roustabout, then later recruited as one of the high-wire act members. Another narrative viewpoint involves that of Cirella, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Cirella must fend for herself early on as her father abandons her mother and the family at-large. With so many mouths to feed, Cirella is forced early on to help pay for her siblings food and basic living expenses. Cirella soon learns that her beauty is an advantage and begins to prostitute herself in various ways. She, too, finds herself in the circus, dreaming of becoming a main-stage act, later realizing this dream as a ferocious fire-eater. The third narrative viewpoint belongs to that of Ranju, the wild animal trainer, who has the most curious background of all the major characters of the novel. Prasad’s characterization seems to suggest that Ranju possesses some sort of mixed ancestry, perhaps part animal himself. It is suggested based upon his first name that he may also be of South Asian descent, although this fact is never fully corroborated. Ranju’s mother is consistently described as a “trickster” figure, with the ability to transform into animals. Ranju will later come to raise the daughter of a woman, who was essentially raised by wild animals and stayed “feral” so to speak. The final major character is that of the child produced from the illicit affair between Cirella, who by that time had married Mr. Barnacle, the owner of the Binglebright Circus, and Lor Cole. The child, named Stalwart but nicknamed Bump, is born of the tragic circumstances of his mother’s death, but he also is born with congenital deformities which produce wart-like growths all over his body.

With this unique cast of characters, Prasad explores the tricky contours of fame-seeking and the heady rush of spectacle. What become of ethics in an instance where profit generates so much of ones livelihood as is the case with a moving circus? Such a question drives the plot forward as each character must make cataclysmic decisions which impact the lives of the other circus performers. It is clear that Prasad took great pains to research this era and the social context of the circus, which makes for a compelling narrative, but the resolution still left something to be desired, as the conclusion wrapped up a variety of seeming disconnected plot points so quickly. Further, given the interesting racial “minority” backgrounds of so many characters, including Lor, Stalwart, and Ranju, in particular, it seemed interesting that the discourse on “race” itself rather lacked any prominent influence on the social relationships individuals maintained with each other. I wondered if this was a result of the fact that a circus in the 1920s would have operated without such import on racial difference, but given the continuing Civil Rights issues of the time, I couldn’t help but contemplate on how this might have more adversely affected some of the characters.

In any case, an intriguing novel with very original characters!

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A Review of Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered

A Review of Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered (Riverhead Books, 2010).

The Surrendered is the kind of novel that might cause you to have trouble sleeping. One might think that insomnia is a reason to avoid reading this novel, but instead, it’s a testament to the very dark places Chang-rae Lee is willing to go in his fourth work (after Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft). I had to read this novel in chunks, especially because certain chapters could leave me a little bit drained after having finished them. The story opens with a harrowing sequence just after the initiation of the Korean War. We are introduced to the main character, June, as she is on the run of what remains of her family, traveling south, along with her two younger siblings. What we realize over the course of the chapter is that June had many more family members alive prior to the novel’s opening, including a mother, father, older sister, and older brother, all of whom in some capacity die or are feared dead. By the conclusion of that first chapter, June is the only one alive, and we’ll already understand that survivorship can be its own curse. This chapter sets the tone for the entire novel. In reading the New York Times review of The Surrendered, I couldn’t agree more with this observation: the body count is high. In this regard, the novel deviates entirely from the previous three Lee has written simply based upon the way in which we can’t ever be sure who will survive and who will not. In essence, the war novel, we see, might really be a form or subgenre of the horror novel. From this point on, more characters are introduced and more time periods, and the scope of the novel correspondingly widens. Besides June, who grows up and immigrates to the United States, bears a son named Nicholas, and then spends the rest of the novel trying to locate him, there is Hector, a Korean War veteran, languishing after the traumas of his experiences; there is Sylvie Tanner, the wife of a reverend and daughter of tireless missionaries, who resides in post-war Korea helping to run an orphanage. This triad appears as the core of the emotional and physical turmoil that the narrative follows. The reason this book is so difficult to read through too is an issue that I earlier raised with Nadeem Aslam’s novel, The Wasted Vigil. Even in the most depraved circumstances, Lee’s prose is simply crystalline and stunning that we are pushed to read further, in dissonance, I would argue, with what the content of the narrative itself.
In terms of recent fiction I’ve read, this book reminds me of Janice YK Lee’s The Piano Teacher in that it is interested in a multiethnic cast of characters who are brought together in the terrain of conflict and violence.

Like Lee’s The Piano Teacher, we are also within the purview of the atrocities committed under Japanese colonialism, but of course, move into a later period, with the Korean War as an ever-present specter. The Surrendered also falls in line with the continuing trend within Asian American literature where spaces of other countries take a very prominent role in the construction of the narrative. Lee is in a stellar company even specifically within Korean American fiction writers and texts published within the last ten years. I am thinking here of Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Sonya Chung’s Long for this World, Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Hyejim Kim’s Jia, Don Lee’s Country of Origin, Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s Somebody’s Daughters, among others, all which have major narrative segments that take place in Korea.

There is not much more I can say about the novel, except to read it. Lee always brings so much to his writing that there is a buffet for readers of every type and mindset. It is a difficult, emotionally draining work, but in the depths of despair, Lee always provides his characters with a complexity and nuance that makes even treading to these abyssal places a thought-provoking and revelatory journey.

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A Review of Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins 2010).

A Review of Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins 2010).

Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter is a powerful debut novel that tracks the problematic forces related to transnational adoptions. The titular secret daughter is that of Usha, born to Jasu and Kavita Merchant, parents living in rural India. By cultural decree and because of the need for a son to help generate labor, the Merchants first two children, both girls, find perilous and unstable fates. The first daughter is immediately killed, while the second, Kavita forces her husband to allow her to at least travel to an orphanage in Bombay in order to give that daughter a chance at any life, rather than simply be killed off. Before Kavita gives up her baby for adoption, she names the daughter Usha. After this child is given up, Kavita does provide Jasu with a son, much to his rejoicing. Nevertheless, Kavita never forgets about her daughter Usha. The other storyline involves Krishnan and Somer Thakkar. Krishnan is an elite Indian transnational who comes to the United States for schooling, excelling in medical school. While attending Stanford, he falls in love with Somer, an American woman, who is his intellectual match. While their marriage seems to develop fortuitously enough, issues arise when Somer continually faces miscarriages and later discovers that she is suffering from early menopausal symptoms. Realizing that their only chance to have a child may be to adopt, they travel to India with the support of Krishnan’s mother (Sarla), who encourages them to come to adopt a child at the local orphanage. The beneficiaries therefore of Kavita’s decision to “save” her daughter by putting her up for adoption are the Thakkars. Due to paperwork mishaps, though, the daughter’s name is written as Asha, a mistake that in some ways evokes the dilemmas facing the adoptee, specifically of the duality that exists in relation to the adopted family and the biological family.

The strength of Gowda’s novel lies both in the characterization and the compelling plot line. I found it very difficult to put the book down precisely because of the way that Gowda constructs the narrative through fragmented “voices.” Early on, the perspective shifts from one maternal figure to another, with Kavita’s experience being placed in comparison to Somer’s. As the novel continues to move forward though, the fictional terrain is continually textured by the addition of more voices and viewpoints, as we come to see what Jasu might think or see, how Asha struggles with her adoptive background, how Kavita cannot ever forget about that daughter despite the fact that she and Jasu now have a boy named Vijay, how Kris and Somer experience a disintegration in their marriage, in part precipitated by how little they really understand each other’s lives. When Asha wins a prestigious fellowship to pursue her journalism studies in India, both Somer and Kris realize that the moment they’ve been both dreading and expecting has occurred: that Asha seeks also to find out her adoptive origins. In this regard, the readers are also wondering whether or not the lives of Jasu and Kavita will ever collide with that of Somer, Sarla, Asha, and Kris. Indeed, this tension is easily what makes the plot so irresistible to follow, but beyond the fictional representation, the social contexts make clear the challenging issues that still must be considered in relation to transnational adoptions, especially the cultural economy that privileges boys over girls in many Asian societies as well as the privilege that enables one to adopt as if one is “saving” another life. Another powerful and compelling issue surfaces in relation to the experience of poverty in India as Kavita and Jasu must reside in a unhygienic shantytown when Jasu decides they must move to Bombay in order to make any semblance of a new life. Even when their financial situation improves, the way in which the family improves their station more permanently belies the very questionable nature of lasting class mobility, as depicted in the novel. These bleak circumstances are ones that are not finally answered through the novel’s conclusion and it is perhaps one element that provokes more thought about the limits of fictional worlds.

With the rise of fictional works related to adoption and the continuing activism of adoption groups over laws related to kinship, immigration, and adoption policy, Secret Daughter is a timely work.

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A Review of Sonya Chung’s Long for this World

A Review of Sonya Chung’s Long for this World

It is perhaps appropriate to begin this review of Sonya Chung’s debut novel, Long for this World, by discussing the importance of the title. One major thematic thread that runs throughout the narrative is survivorship, so the question becomes: who is long for this world and who is not? Because so many of the characters face such challenging circumstances, mortality is not something that any of them can simply take for granted. The novel’s opening makes this very clear as we are situated in the post-war Korean terrain where the future is cloudy and the economic situation grim. We understand then the motivation of one of the main characters Han Hyun-kyu who “escapes” from a provincial island community and ends up immigrating to the United States, finding his own footing and attempting to pin down the oft-desired “American Dream.” While in the United States Hyun-Kyu ends up marrying Lee Woo-in, a brilliant, if not troubled psychiatrist, who is the relative of a woman that Hyun-Kyu was very fond of. The strain that develops between Hyun-Kyu and his wife is evidenced by the way in which Woo-in is eventually referenced by her honorary title, Dr. Lee. They have two children, an older daughter, Jane, who ends up developing a much stronger bond with her father, and the younger son, Henry, who is favored by Dr. Lee. The novel begins its upward arc as soon as Hyun-kyu basically abandons Dr. Lee and travels to Korea, seeking to reconnect with the brother he left behind. This brother, Han Jae-kyu, has built quite a life in Korea, along with his wife, Han Jung-joo, and their seemingly picture perfect family, which includes two sons, happily married, as well as one daughter. However, this familial stability has been ruptured in part the daughter’s pregnancy and apparent depression, which has cast a certain pall over the family’s immediate circumstances. When Hyun-kyu arrives in Korea in the midst of these tensions, we begin to see the way in which individual characters must negotiate new trajectories, find new footing, and confront internal struggles and long-buried rifts. Jane, being the one closest to her father, immediately travels to Korea, seeking him out. Jane’s brother, Henry, remains in the United States, still dealing with time spent in rehab due to alcoholism, an addiction, in part, developed in tandem with his relationship with his eccentric mother.

In some senses, the most riveting characters within the novel are the artist-figures. Here, Jane, Hyun-kyu’s daughter, has developed a career was a war photographer and photojournalist. This dangerous work has led her to various areas around the globe, including Darfur, Sudan, as we all Iraq, where she is almost mortally wounded. The question that Jane’s work does bring up is the ethics behind depictions of war and what part photographs have in the documentation of such politically fraught situations, where human rights violations continually occur. One question that Chung seems interested in asking is how one negotiates the challenge of aestheticizing war terrains as an art form. This conundrum certainly dovetails with the form of fiction itself: at what point does one understand the representation of war and trauma as simply an “art”? Jane’s own positionality is refracted through that of Min-Suk, the beloved brother of her uncle’s wife, Han Jung-joo Hyun-kyu’s sister-in-kaw). Whereas Min-suk has already achieved a level of success as a painter in Korea, he finds himself losing any sort of inspiration in his art form. Min-Suk’s ennui seems to be exist in the relative detachment of his artwork from reference and politics. While his art is popular and commercial, he cannot seem to find a “belief” in his work. Consequently, when Min-suk and Jane meet, we know this connection is going be both important and transformative.

What I appreciated most from Chung’s Long for this World is the narrative ellipticality. We have many different perspectives and subplots, none of which are presented simply nor wrapped up in neat and tidy ways. For instance, the very intriguing and marginal character Choi Jin-Sook, a sort of maid figure, who works in Han Jae-kyu’s household, is given important narrative space despite the fact that she figures relatively unimportantly in the major plot. Chung’s choice to include Jin-Sook’s observations and nuanced subject position as a laboring class Korean woman is vital in establishing the incredible texture to the novel’s terrain. And of course, Jane’s point-of-view as the central protagonist solidly grounds the novel. One can’t think of the irony related to Han Hyun-kyu’s own experiences as a survivor of the Korean War when he discovers that his daughter’s career interests will lead her constantly into war zones. Finally, the novel is truly a global one, rather than transnationally configured. It is not simply a story of Korea and the United States. Jane’s photojournalistic work reminds the readers of a continuing need to contextualize mobility, trauma, and intergenerational divides through the conflicts and violence that uproot families in so many different locations.

Long for this World is a wise and multifaceted work, one that contextualizes the domestic dramas of one Korean/American family within a larger global terrain!

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