Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for April 21st, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for April 21st, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

In this post, reviews of N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books 2010); Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books, 2014); Gary Pak’s Brothers Under a Same Sky (University of Hawaii Press, 2013); Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2014); Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights (William Morrow, 2013); Janie Chang’s Three Souls (William Morrow, 2014); Carrianne Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications, 2013); A Review of Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012).

A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books 2010).

N.H. Senzai’s debut novel Shooting Kabul (a young adult fiction targeted at children who are in grades three to seven) follows the adventures of an 11 year-old-Afghani transnational Fadi who comes to the United States in the wake of turmoil in his home country. His father had originally returned to Afghanistan after having received a PhD in an agricultural field in order to help out with the country’s recovery process. With the emergence of different factions (including the Taliban), Afghanistan is embroiled in internal conflict. To protect his family, Fadi’s father Habib and his ailing wife Zafoona decide to evacuate. A big problem arises when the youngest child in the family, Mariam, is accidentally left behind: each family member believes that he or she was at fault. Fadi, being the one who had been physically closest to Mariam at the time of the accidental separation, seems to harbor the most guilt. The question of whether or not they will be reunited with Mariam becomes increasingly tense, especially when they become refugees and have to travel to the United States. Once in the states, Fadi begins to explore his artistic interests in school, especially developing his photographic skills. There is a photography contest that would give him a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to India, a country he feels would get him close enough to Afghanistan and Pakistan and perhaps offer him the opportunity to redeem himself by finding his sister. Senzai’s young adult novel also weaves in the events of 9/11, a moment that causes Fadi much strife not only because he realizes it means more instability in Afghanistan, but also because he is targeted for his ethnic difference. Senzai has taken quite a serious topic and shifted the focalization through the eyes of a young boy. To pull off the complexity of the historical contexts, Senzai must employ a third person omniscient narrator, one whose voice and whose scope is broader and deeper than that of the young Fadi. As with most novels targeted at this age group, closure is emphasized, thus potentially obscuring the gravity of family rupture and racial prejudice in light of 9/11 and the ongoing conflicts and wars in the Middle East and Western Asia. Fans of children’s literature will be happy to see Senzai effectively weaving in an extended intertextual reference to The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a favorite read of Fadi’s. Certainly an important addition to children’s literature through its attentive consideration of ethnic and social contexts not often seen in this younger readers’ arena.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books, 2014).

wish a higher res pic were available!

Loosely connected to her debut Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai’s sophomore effort explores the adventures of a 12 year old Afghan American named Ariana, who reluctantly must help her cousin, Laila, adjust to her recent migration to the United States. Ariana is part of a family that runs a grocery store—the titular Kabul Corner—which has had a tenuous existence as part of a strip mall in Fremont, California. Though their business has stabilized, Ariana’s family finds it troubling when another Afghan American family opens up a grocery store in the same strip mall. The owner of the strip mall property was pressured into leasing the land to that family due to the need for rental income. Further tensions arise when it is discovered that the competing store, Pamir Market, is siphoning off some of Kabul Corner’s regular customers. Indeed, at one point, the baker who was behind a bread product that was popular at Kabul Corner jumps ship and is hired by the Pamir Market. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the owners of Pamir Market are from an family whose roots are traced back to a feud that was supposedly settled with Ariana’s family sometime back in Afghanistan. Thus, Ariana’s family surmises that the Pamir Market’s emergence is perhaps traceable to the fact that the feud was never actually resolved. When fliers appear decrying the quality of Pamir Market’s groceries, it becomes evident that something fishy is going on. Is the family running Pamir Market trying to gain sympathy by suggesting that Ariana’s family had created those fliers? Or is someone connected to Ariana’s family secretly behind the problematic fliers? The problems between the two stores continue to escalate, as evidenced especially when Kabul Corner is burglarized. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Ariana, along with her cousin Laila, and her school friend Mariam—the very one who was left behind in Afghanistan in Senzai’s debut and who returns here as part of the same fictional universe—and Wali, with whom the three have generated a tentative alliance and who is the son of the Pamir Market’s owners, attempt to unravel the mystery behind the fliers and the burglary. Interspersed between the narrative concerning the competing grocery stores, Senzai generates a transnational subplot when Laila’s father, a translator for the US army, goes missing. How will all these various storylines be resolved? Senzai is certainly game to answer that question and the novel’s twinned detective-type plots push the reader along at a brisk pace. Along the way, Senzai no doubt operates to create a narrative that fleshes out the cultural contours of a diasporic community attempting to make American lives in the shadow of war and conflict. In this sense, as with many other young adult and children’s literature publications, the narrative not only serves as an entertaining story but also a kind of veiled ethnographic apparatus meant to give a partial glimpse into a community’s struggles as well as its triumphs.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Gary Pak’s Brothers Under a Same Sky (University of Hawaii Press, 2013).

Gary Pak’s fifth publication (after The Watcher of Waipuna and Other Stories, A Ricepaper Airplane, The Language of the Geckos and Other Stories, and Children of a Fireland) is the story of two brothers, Nam Kun (Robert) Han and Nam Ki (Nammy) Han who end up becoming estranged after the Korean War. I’ve read all of Pak’s other work and I found this book to be the most disorienting stylistically of his oeuvre: Pak changes perspective quite often, moving from first to third and back again, often times covering similar ground from a different viewpoint; then the narrative itself is far from chronological. Roughly, the novel begins with a kind of frame narrative in which Nam Kun travels to Southern California. He is temporarily staying with his daughter Shelly (and her husband); Shelly and Nam Kun go to the local state hospital (Sweet Briar). Nam Kun finally finds out that his brother has been institutionalized. Nam Ki does not even remember who Nam Kun is and thus begins the story of estrangement. Nam Kun believes that part of the large distance between them occurred far prior to Nam Ki’s mental illnesses. Indeed, Nam Kun pressures Nam Ki into serving for the American military during the Korean Conflict, even though Nam Ki believes that he should not undergo this route due to his devout religious faith. Once in Korea, Nam Ki must endure the horrors of war, which include questionable orders by commanding officers, outright racism, and of course, grisly killings, some of which are conducted under dubious auspices. Nam Ki eventually comes to a crisis point during a particularly tense battle in which he is the sole survivor of his unit. These collective experiences are part and parcel of Nam Ki’s loss of faith in God and the eventual disintegration of his mental state. A late stage and potential romance with a Korean woman named Margaret ultimately only exacerbates his problems and thus readers come to understand why Nam Ki has come to be in a mental institution. There is a late stage reveal concerning Nam Kun’s own experiences in Korea that serve to catalyze a final arc, but there were some moments where I got confused about what happened to which brother, so be forewarned that there will be perspectival changes coming at you at a rapid rate. In terms of this book’s resonances with others, it obviously adds to the rather small body of work focused on the representational recovery of the Korean War from the perspective of Korean American writers (adding to Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, among others). What is absolutely unique about this book is the prospect of a Korean American having to serve in Korea, a possibility that I had not thought could have occurred, but was no doubt possible. As always, Pak’s work is politically textured, making for a novel that will no doubt stimulate discussion.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2014).

I read Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir on a flight to Southern California. At a briskly paced length (the memoir stands at under 200 pages), I devoured this incredible work that explores the narrator’s complicated adoption history as well as the development of her sense of equanimity over her life’s circumstances. Stein details her difficult and tumultuous childhood and early adulthood years, a time in which she acts out, delves into drugs and drug-running, at one point tries to commit suicide and at another, barely evades imprisonment. She also struggles with addiction for a number of years, including one stint in which she almost overdoses. This period of incredible exploration and rebellion is of course part and parcel of a longer history in which she attempts to carve out her own space for understanding her sense of family, belonging, and identity. At the tender age of 12, while snooping in her parents’ room, she ends up discovering that she was adopted from a mother who was serving time for an undisclosed offence. It will only be two decades later that she will begin to consider this origin point with her adoptive family, one which includes an older brother (also adopted), a father who is an academic (a Miltonist) and a very put-together, elegant stay-at home mother. Stein realizes she is different from a very young age, not only because of her multiracial features, but precisely because of her complicated sense of kinship. Once Stein fully engages in some investigation into her mother’s life does she find a sense of purpose that carries her through to the ending point of the memoir. There have been a number of astonishing and incisive adoptee memoirs/ creative publications that have appeared in the last decade and Stein’s work will certainly add its unique intervention in its social contextual representations. There are moments of incredible heartbreak and poignancy that come with Stein understanding the possibility of two mothers, rather than one. Her story calls attention to David L. Eng’s account of “poststructural kinship” from his latest book and reveals the tortuous path toward embracing the possibility and the emergence of alternative social formations. A must-read.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights (William Morrow, 2013).

Though well known in her home country of Singapore as well as in other former commonwealth countries, Ovidia Yu has not had her American debut until Aunty Lee’s Delights, a frothy murder mystery (intended as a series; the second will be published in 2014) that follows the titular Aunty Lee as she investigates the untimely deaths of two patrons and friends. The novel does not set up the murder mystery until well into the narrative, but we do know rather immediately that the news has reported a dead body found on the island resort of Sentosa. Aunty Lee is putting on a dinner partner with the help of her undocumented worker and friend Nina. Invited are Harry Sullivan, Lucy and Peter Cunningham, Selina and Mark Lim (who is the son from the first marriage of Aunty Lee’s now dead husband), Cherril Lim-Peters, and Carla Saito. One person who is invited but is supposedly not going to show up is Laura Kwee, but it later becomes apparent that the missing body is none other than this dinner guest. Further still, the aforementioned Carla Saito arrives without an official invitation, seeking the whereabouts of Marianne Peters, the daughter of a family that Aunty Lee knows well. Saito’s unexpected appearance only leads to more questions: where is Marianne Peters and how is it that Carla Saito knows about Laura Kwee. With Carla Saito, the novel initiates its first apparent and possible suspect. For her part, Aunty Lee has always been interested in the local news, but this particular case, given its connection to her own life, propels her into her own investigation. Certainly, there are actual officials on the case, but Aunty Lee is obviously the center of this plot and her keen intellectual acumen gives her an ability to generate more leads. Yu’s work is fun and funny, even given the dark topic; the earliest section in the novel concerning the dinner party is the liveliest in part because there are so many shifts in third person perspective that you get a sense of most of the colorful personalities of the invitees. There is also a touch of the Sherlockian investigatory structure, as Aunty Lee’s unofficial inquiry is strongly supported by her ever-loyal employee, Nina (who is of Filipina descent). Yu weaves in a multicultural tapestry, largely indicative of Singapore’s history as a nexus point of trade and capital: the Peters family is of Indian descent; Carla is Japanese American; Lucy, Peter, and Harry all of Anglo backgrounds. Once the mystery is solved, readers might balk at the identity of the killer as well as the killer’s motive, but the comic textures of this particular work are sure to keep you interested.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Janie Chang’s Three Souls (William Morrow, 2014).

Janie Chang’s debut Three Souls is a historical fiction that has an immediate hook to its narrative perspective. The young narrator, Leiyin, is telling us the story from beyond the grave. Indeed, she is observing her own funeral. This event gives her the chance and her “three souls” to emerge, which accordingly provide her with a kind of commentary on her own life. From her funeral (which occurs in 1935), we travel back into the past and learn of the secure, but restricted life she leads as a young girl. She is the third daughter in a well-to-do family. She has two older brothers and two older sisters; her father is very stern and follows patriarchal traditions and uses strategy in marriage and matchmaking. Her oldest sister, for instance, is betrothed to a man known to be addicted to opium, a match that is made due to the fact that this individual is connected to a powerful family line. Leiyin’s path becomes complicated when she meets a poet (named Hanchin) who exudes a charismatic, romantic, and political influence over her. Leiyin begins to believe that her life is better served by following her dream of becoming a teacher to those in less fortunate positions. This occupational choice is not one supported by her father. With the help of her sister, she is able to get the funding she needs for tuition and makes a clandestine trip to another city in hopes of enrolling at a college. Her plans are found out and she is forced to return to her home; her father, in an attempt to reform her ideas about her career aspirations, ends up forcing her into a marriage. Though Leiyin is opposed to the marriage at first, she begins developing strong feelings for her husband Baizhen. She soon is pregnant with a child that later turns out to be a girl (Weilan). The novel takes a dramatic turn when Hanchin arrives in town looking for an ally to hide a communist manifesto. Given their almost-romance that occurred years before, he realizes that he might be able to recruit Leiyin into the effort. As the novel moves toward resolution, there are questions of betrayal and political influences that result. It becomes clear, too, why Leiyin has not been able to move beyond the grave and why it is she continues to watch over her family, especially her daughter. As a ghost, she still somehow has the power to influence the actions of those still living by entering their dreams. In this respect, Leiyin knows that she must act with what little time she has in her spiritual limbo in order to protect the ones she loves.
This novel reminded me a lot of Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning, as both books are narrated from the perspective of a ghost figure. By this point, I’ve seen three novels by Chinese American authors who have used this conceit: Lan Samantha Chang in Hunger, Tan in Saving Fish From Drowning, and now Chang and it’s certainly an appropriate “ethnic form” if we might call it that, especially given that the female ghost figure seems more largely an emblem of lost feminist agency and the hope that something can still be rectified from beyond the grave. The challenge for Chang and others who write in this genre is the complicated nature between individual stories and the political climate and historical texture; for instance, Chang must work to interweave the growing Chinese governmental tensions/ problems with Japan with Leiyin’s desire for independence and romantic agency. It’s certainly why these novels tend to be on the longer side; there are really at least two narratives going on: one about a character and another about a nation (as its own character?). This storytelling approach is not allegory as Fredric James most infamously argued, but simply the desire to mark the individual and the structural alongside each other, a kind of “dialectic” that makes Asian American literature so rich and so challenging to execute. Chang’s heroine is crafty and that’s the biggest strength of this book: we want Leiyin to succeed in her various quests (both in life and in death) because we know so many cards are already stacked against her.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Carrianne Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications, 2013).

I’m going north of the border and reviewing Carrianne Leung’s debut novel The Wondrous Woo, which is told from the perspective of Miramar Woo, the oldest of three children (she has one younger sister, Sophia, and then a younger brother, Darwin), who resides in Scarborough, Canada with her family (her father is the one who convinces his family to immigrate). The novel immediately takes a dark turn when Miramar’s father is hit by a car and succumbs to his injuries. Soon after this moment, Miramar’s brother develops an amazing and prodigious talent in music, while Sophia becomes an incredibly brilliant mathematician. Both are whisked away to various areas: Darwin heads out on a European tour, accompanied by the Woo matriarch, while Sophia heads off to McGill University under the tutelage of a professor. Darwin is a big hit and Sophia is a revelation; both are utter spectacles, and the Woo family becomes known for the two children with The Gifts. Of course, Miramar does not seem to have any talent and this lack of a gift weighs upon her heavily. She attends Carleton College, where she engages in the requisite search for her identity. Much of her time there is spent having sex with her boyfriend Jerry, a cad of a man with obviously rakish intentions. We are not surprised when that relationship fails, but it becomes clear that this romance was sustaining any sense of stability in her life. At that point, she finds herself listing in one job position to the next, eventually deciding to make a rather radical break and moving away from her family without telling them where she is. Indeed, she begins to perceive her family is holding her back: her mother’s budding romantic relationship with another man certainly causes strain upon everyone, while Sophia and Darwin continue to garner accolades for their talents. While on her self-imposed exile, she develops a relationship with a strange Chinese Canadian man by the name of Mouse, who seems to have no real or discernible past. He does have an interest in Kung Fu movies (see the cover of this book for the obvious connection) and Miramar and Mouse begin collaborating on writing film and movie scripts. But Miramar eventually realizes she has avoided the importance of her family in her life and must make a decision about how she will continue to relate to or NOT to relate to her mother and her siblings.
Leung’s novel is particularly engaging because she masters a kind of tragicomic tonality that leads to a reading experience generously peppered with narrative poignancy and quirky humor. The slightly offbeat storyline occasionally verges on the surreal, which gives the plot the occasional jolt: besides the Gifts of her siblings, her mother also must confront the occasional psychotic break, which alludes to a larger theme of madness that runs through the novel. Coming out of Inanna publications, this novel is clearly originating a publishing industry that fosters experimentation and innovation, reminiscent of the work of other Asian Canadian writers such as the recently reviewed Corinna Chong (recall the mother who studies crop circles). Certainly, a novel that takes its own spin on the model minority narrative and immigrant development.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012).

Pylduck already reviewed Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012) here:

Pylduck’s review does a very comprehensive job in reviewing this title and I can’t say that I can add too much. I was immediately struck by the lavish visuals, something that certainly makes this illustrated memoir a notable one. The memoir is narrated in vignettes and each shows Liu’s experiences as a young child. One of the most compelling vignettes occurs in relation to visiting her father’s home village. Liu ends up wearing one of her favorite coats even though her mother suggests that she wear something else. Once she gets to the village, Liu is faced with a clear class difference, which does not become apparent until she realizes that everyone she sees lives a far grittier and dirtier life. At one point, she goes outside to play with some of the children and has brought some books to share, only to find out that none of her peers can read. They also maul her when they see her jacket, transfixed with the “little white duck” monogrammed on the front. As they each touch the little white duck, it becomes smudged with dirt and soon looks black. Liu’s experiences serve to highlight the general life of privilege she has had. There is of course many references to Communism, Chairman Mao, and the ideological beliefs of her parents. Her mother, in particular, benefits from communistic healthcare when she is able to have surgeries that address issues that arise due to the complications from polio. In another vignette, Liu is confused about why everyone is crying, only to discover that Chairman Mao has died and there is an entire nation in mourning. I certainly agree with Pylduck’s stated sentiments here:

“One thing I found interesting was that Liu's memories of China and her childhood are sometimes deceptively simple (or politics-free), but there is a lot of information woven into the stories about the state of China at the time. For instance, in the story about how she planned with her sister how to catch rats for the country (school teachers assigned children the task of bringing her two rats' tails as part of the pest eradication program), the fact that schools were essentially conscripting children into a program to control the pest program suggests other issues. The memoir gives a quick note about how the sparrow, for instance, used to be on the list of pests that children were to help kill, but then when people did kill off sparrows in large numbers, they ended up upsetting the ecological balance, and the insect population skyrocketed and became a big problem (helping to cause the famine earlier in the century).”

As with many other immigrant literatures, the personal and the familial is always a gateway to the political and the social. In almost every single story, there is a larger social context being implicated in a single narrative. For instance, Liu comes from a family with two daughters, a feature that was relatively rare in that generation because of the one child rule. Liu’s mother became pregnant when that law was instituted, so she was able to have the second child without being taxed. This dynamic between the individual and the nation makes this memoir something applicable to all age groups. Children will delight in the spirited stories and beautiful images, while adults can engage with the nuanced representational facets of Liu’s memoir.

Buy the Book Here:
 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on April 21, 2014 19:30
No comments have been added yet.