8Books Review: Go Home!

This is a review for Go Home! a new anthology out from Asian American Writers Workshop and Feminist Press, edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, with a foreword by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Ok that was for the SEO. Now let’s begin this not-really review. Why not really? Because

1. I’m mostly stealing from the pages in this book with roman numerals


2. I’m not going to tell you hardly anything about the book or whether you’ll like it or not. I’m just going to tell you to read it.

Foreword. Viet Thanh Nguyen:

The existence of Go Home! testifies to the power of language as a home open to all, albeit one that we must often fight for. Against the racist demand that we go back to where we came from, we say that we are already at home, not just in the United States, but in English.

Reading this collection, I visited all of these writers’ home and experienced their homelessness filtered through their stories and poems. All of their works were gifts to me, and I thought about how homes can be gifts too.

Editor’s Note. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan:

But this one book can’t contain all the vital voices. After you close the last page behind you, please open many more. Consider this book a doorway. The world presents ever-increasing ways in which we can be homed and unhomed. You may not see your own definition of home in theses pages, but we hope you find resonances and use them as a starting point for your own writing and thinking.

There. That’s the argument.

Read Alexander Chee and Karissa Chen. Read Mia Alvar and Chaya Babu. Read Marilyn Chin and Muna Gurung. Read the acknowledgements (always read the acknowledgements).

Go home, whatever, whoever, however, wherever that might be, and take this book with you.

8Books Review: Secrets We Kept by Krystal Sital

Krystal Sital’s debut memoir, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, is an intimate and powerful memoir about three generations of her family — their stories, their traumas, their secrets, and their relationship to the author’s grandfather. Eloquently written and deeply personal, Sital dives deep into her own history, the contradictions, and the troublesome relationships between men and women that powerfully shaped her grandmother and then her mother’s lives on the island they were all born on.

Trinidad is our fears and our loves. There we discovered our beings, we dug deep and planted our roots assuming we would never leave, sucking on the armored cascara with its silver-plaited shell, devouring the sweet flesh beneath, the only fish the legend says ties you to the land forevermore, smacking our lips when we were done. We never thought we would have to leave this place . . . But in the end we chose to flee.

A story of diaspora and migration, it is also about family and obligations and culture and tradition. Their flaws and freedoms. Shiva Singh, the author’s grandfather and a wealthy Hindu landowner, is the circle around which much of the book revolves. As he lies in a hospital in New Jersey, Sital watches her mother and grandmother cope with the decisions of his care. It leads to a slow unraveling of her mother’s story, of her childhood, her relationship with the man lying prone in a hospital bed undergoing weeks of surgery. A brutal past full of trauma, beatings, and terror.

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8Books Review: “The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore” by Kim Fu

Kim Fu’s latest novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is a gripping tale about a group of teenage girls at summer camp who set off for a fateful kayaking trip. Opening at Camp Forevermore, the novel then jumps through time and perspective, following the girls into their futures, but always returning to camp and that trip. Slowly, Fu offers more and more details about the moment that acts as the gravitational center of the novel. What exactly happened that summer?

Every chapter reveals something intriguing about human nature, closely following each of the five girls. What happens to a group of girls left alone in the woods? When everything is stripped away and survival is at stake who will they become? And as adults, how will this one moment, one night at summer camp, affect the rest of their lives? How will they handle the experience and the darkness of their choices? Some will be happy, others will be tortured. In each, Fu weaves a masterful story about rebuilding, redefining, yet being built and defined by this singular moment and the choices made during it. Small pieces of the camp story are told. Then we fast forward to one girl’s future. For Nita, Fu unravels a tale of motherhood. For Isabel, of marriage and loss. With The Lost Girls, you don’t always know where you’re going, but you know you want to go wherever Fu is taking you.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be okay. You would be surprised what children can forget.” Nita stirred. In defiance, she wanted to hold on to this memory. The plastic chairs, the strangers’ voices. But she felt it slipping away form her even as it happened, becoming clouded with sleep and doubt.

8Books: “Not Your Villain” by CB Lee

Not Your Villain is the page turning sequel to CB Lee’s delightful Not Your SidekickVillain picks up probably midstream with Sidekick, eventually merging plot lines. It follows shapeshifter Bells Broussard, best friends with Sidekick‘s Jess Tran, on his official, but secret, journey to becoming a HERO! But along the way, he and his friends realize that things may not be as they seem. Unearthing a massive cover-up turns Bells into the country’s most wanted villain…

A heartwarming bunch of friends, a fast-paced plot, this is the kind of book you open to page 1 and come up for air only when you’ve reached the end. And then Google when the third book in the trilogy is coming out. Bells (who is trans) and his other best friend Emma are charming additions to the Sidekick world. Are the heroes really heroes? Are the villains really villains? Do parents really know what’s best? Not Your Villain is packed with adventure, plot twists, and races towards its semi-cliff-hanging ending. But it’s clear this is the second book in a series, there’s a good deal of set-up, a lot of explanation…all waiting for Not Your Backup to come up.

NYC Theater Review: ‘Panorama’ at La MaMa

Maura Nguyen Donohue in Panorama. Photo by Theo Cote

Panorama is a world premiere play from Italian duo Motus showing at La MaMa (66 East 4th Street) as part of The Public’s Under the Radar Festival until January 21.

Though the description for the show is a bit dense–“proposing a post-nationalistic identity for all the populations of the world, focusing on the concept of fluid identity and nomad identity”–the play itself is actually an intimate look at the lives of the artists who make up La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company.

Sure it plays out in unique ways with shifting identities and the help of some expertly executed projections, life-feeds, and other technological boosts. But in the end, it’s about people. An inordinately human play about belonging and not belonging, about morals and identity, about taking a stand, about becoming an artist, about moving, about the emotional toll of today’s political climate.

Perry Yung in Panorama. Photo by Theo Cote

The play is based on interviews done with the actors, a refreshingly diverse group. Maura Nguyen Donahue, for example, who reveals in the course of the play that she added Nguyen so people would know she was Vietnamese, only to find out that her family’s surname was actually Tran (her mom purchased papers). There’s a wonderful camaraderie between the actors that bleeds through even beyond the lines.

There are some odd moments, some jarring notes, some nudity (this is after all, experimental theater, what do you expect), some delightful one-liners, and a whole boatload of honesty.

Panorama is playing at La MaMa, The Downstairs at 66 East 4th St. until January 21, 2018. Tickets $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors. Run time: 80 minutes.

NYC Theater Review: Once On This Island

Once on This Island, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre (W. 50th), is an utter delight. Your heart will swell and weep and swell again before the night’s over. The musical, set on a Caribbean island, follows Ti Moune, a young girl who’s fallen in love with someone from the other side of the island. Kept apart by class and culture, Ti Moune is guided by the gods on a remarkable journey. An amazing and diverse cast is captivating and engaging. And there’s a live goat on stage to boot.

I first heard about this revival because of Lea Salonga, who plays one of the gods. If you don’t already know who she is, I’m not going to tell you, except to say that I would see her in anything. But as amazing as she is, the whole cast of Once On This Island really blew me away. From the debut performances of Haley Kilgore playing Ti Moune (girl, those vocal cords are no joke) and Isaac Powell as her love Daniel, to Alex Newell’s blow the house down number “Mama Will Provide” and the tenor that hums in your soul from Quentin Earl Darrington, to the “Storytellers” who round out the cast.

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8Books Review: “An Excess Male” by Maggie Shen King

Maggie Shen King’s debut novel An Excess Male is a thrilling ride through a dystopia future where there is many more than one excess male. Some time in the not so distant future, China has so many men, that families include multiple husbands–husbands who must compete in an ultra-competitive, dowry-driven market to ever get married at all.

The novel follows four main characters, shifting perspectives with each chapter. The first is Wei-guo, a bachelor who has finally saved up enough to wed, but only as a third husband. The other three are the family of Hann, his brother XX, and their wife May-Ling. All four are caught up in the regulations governing society: the Willfully Sterile (registered homosexuals who are forbidden from marriage and other relationships), the Lost Boys (men with developmental disabilities who are also forbidden from marriage), detailed marriage contracts, a system where families pay doctors under the table to have girls so they can make money–a particular breed of social engineering that feels within the realm of possibility. The novel slowly unfolds the facets of this uneasy society as tensions mount and each of the four must make life-changing decisions about their futures, either together or apart. An Excess Male provokes questions of morality and rights, liberty and love, family and loyalty, but in a fast-paced drama. It’s quick, enjoyable read that dives into a smartly-conceived and imaginative future where all is not as it seems.

8Books Review: “Stolen Oranges” by Max Yeh

Stolen Oranges, a new novel by Max Yeh, is a whirlwind of a historical tale, recounting a series of letters written between Miguel Cervantes (of Don Quixote fame) and a Ming emperor as told by their discoverer–a Chinese American historian. I was first drawn to this novel by the back cover description: “this dazzling meditation on the intricacies of memory, language, and time.” And when it showed up at my doorstep, by the small size of the book itself, about the size of my hand.

I hadn’t even opened the book yet. Yeh’s story begins with the Chinese American historian, who is writing a historical book (which is to say that it reads like non-fiction, though it is fiction), introducing the circumstances that led him to discover and then translate a series of letters between Cervantes and Emperor Wanli. It is, in a particular style of history writing, a bit dense at times, but worth meandering through even if one, such as I, lack understanding of nearly all references to Don Quixote. But I found the gems to be in these letters that go back and forth. Both the Emperor and Cervantes’ letters offer ruminations on the promised topics of memory, language, and time in manner that is deeply philosophical, somewhat long-winded, yet mostly accessible.

Take this passage on words and language as an example:

Words are an empty palace we are born into, the halls and corridors to which, nooks and crannies, windows and doorways, were long ago constructed by innumerable and unknown builders and planners and workmen whose unknown and unknowable intentions and meanings are set in stone and wood and whose spaces form our whole lives, while we live so conformed under the illusion that we are ever building the palace the way we want it.

Perhaps out of context it is slightly less legible, but peppered throughout these fictional letters are intriguing nuggets about humanity. Though technically a novel, it is much more akin to a philosophy book, even more so than a history book. This is not what I would call an easy or fast read, but Stolen Oranges is rewarding for those interested in a well-executed deep dive into ideas and theories about language and being.

8Books Review: “Pashmina” by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani is a delightful graphic novel about a young girl looking for herself, navigating two worlds and two cultures. Priyanka is your average Indian American teenager until she finds a magic pashmina in her mother’s closet. Her mother won’t ask questions about the India she left behind or about Priyanka’s father, but the pashmina opens a new window.

The story follows Priyanka’s eventual journey to India and back again, all along insightfully considering questions about the choices we make, about family and growth, about when to hold on and when to let go. Priyanka is imperfect in the way all teenagers are, but I was charmed throughout by her audacity and spunk and her journey of self-discovery. Beautifully illustrated, Pashmina is a quick and enjoyable read.

8Books Review: “My First Book of Vietnamese Words”

My First Book of Vietnamese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Vietnamese Language and Culture, the latest addition to Tuttle’s My First Book of [fill in blank] Words series came out recently. It is written by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, and artfully illustrated by Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong. The book guides visitors through the English alphabet with short rhymes and some contextual information:

C is for Cu.

The owl flies at night,

but when he hoots our grandma says

that something isn’t right

A contextual note on the same page explains that an owl’s hoot in Vietnamese culture is bad luck or bad news.

With minimal existing knowledge of Vietnamese, I requested to also take a look at My First Book of Chinese Words to compare. Both are nicely illustrated and take readers through each letter of the alphabet explaining, for instance, that V is for violin, or xiaotiqin, because there is no “v” in Chinese (this being Mandarin Chinese of course).

My main critique of both was that though there is audio pronunciations available through the publisher’s website, the minimal explanation at the opening of each book does not adequately set anyone up to really pronounce these foreign words. Are the books for children whose parents speak the language? Perhaps, but I would guess this is not the main audience. The most useful aspect of these volumes is buried in the subtitle–an introduction to the cultures associated with these language, be it Chinese or Vietnamese. Superstitions and festivities, family relationships, and of course, food culture are liberally sprinkled throughout, and it is there that these books offer the most to their young readers.

8Books Review: “Origami Peace Cranes” by Sue DiCicco

September 21 is International Peace Day, what more fitting a day than to talk about origami cranes–or at least a book on cranes. Origami Peace Cranes: Friendships Take Flight by Sue DiCicco is a children’s book about friendship and making connections despite differences. Emma–pictured center on the cover–is nervous about going to a new school and thinks no one will want to be her friend. That is of course until her teacher invites them to all make paper cranes and write messages to one another. Then, Emma makes connections with her (very multicultural) classmates. It’s a very straightforward story about accepting others and accepting yourselves. The book includes easy to follow instructions for how to make an origami crane as well as paper.

I appreciate that the story touts self-acceptance and features a diverse crew (Kumar, Juana, Takako eating a bento box for lunch…you get the drift). That being said, I really did wish reading through it, that the main character was not white. And while it may not be traditional to write on your origami crane, the author is clearly interested in fostering creativity and self-expression in all forms and I can’t criticize that.

8Books Review: “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, follows a mother and son separated by immigration agents, borders, and new families. Deming Guo wakes up one day in the Bronx to find that his mother Polly has disappeared. Soon, he is Daniel Wilkinson of upstate New York. We follow Daniel as he struggles through high school, the emotional turmoil of his mom’s abrupt departure, makes a friend who isn’t white, makes a friend who was adopted from China (same but different), and graduates high school. Until he learns some information about his mom’s whereabouts.

The novel flits back and forth between Daniel’s story and Polly’s, told from her own perspective. But while we follow Daniel’s story more or less linearly, Polly’s unfolds more circuitously. From her present life in China married to a successful businessman who doesn’t know she ever had a son, we follow Polly’s life backwards and around: Days raising Deming in the Bronx to her life as a child in China, to the terrifying series of events that led to her forced separation from her son unfolding in the very last pages.

This is a story about family, about bonds that are broken and reforged. About immigration and injustice. About forgiveness and moving forward. Who are the people who live in between and how will they find their way? Lisa Ko’s two protagonists are deeply human, flawed and enticing, shaped by circumstances often beyond their control, yet seemingly fully aware of the choices they make. In the end, Polly and Deming search for themselves, in each other and in constant turmoil over what kind of life to lead. Parts of The Leavers are truly gripping, stunning in their storytelling arc, in other places, a bit slow, but overall, Ko offers an interesting arc and a truth about our current time.