8Books Review: “I Love You So Mochi” by Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn’s new YA novel I Love You So Mochi is an utterly delightful book about self-discovery, romance, family relations, and good eats. Kimi is at the end of her senior year in high school when she receives an unexpected plane ticket to Japan — from grandparents she’s never met. In Japan, she goes on adventures where she learns about her family, her passion, and, of course, there’s a very cute boy.

I’ve loved Sarah Kuhn’s work since I first picked up Heroine Complex, the first in her series of books about kickass Asian American superheroines, the kind of thing I wish I’d had growing up. I Love You So Mochi is no different.

It’s fun-loving, heart-warming, and investigates the complexities of Asian Mom Math. In addition to the whirlwind of Kimi’s love life, there’s also a moving exploration of family bonds, as Kimi gets to know her grandparents for the first time, and starts to understand what’s been left unspoken between herself and her mom, and between her mom and her grandparents (I don’t want to give any details away, but tbh I teared up a bit).

And there’s always a line that makes me laugh out loud. In this case:

What. Is this extremely handsome piece of mochi trying to flirt with me?”

You have to read the book for it to make sense, but it’s worth it — an ideal summer read.

8Books Review: “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s novel debut. In 2016, Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, earned national recognition, winning the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whiting Award. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous sings with Vuong’s poetic voice, snipping the narrative form into bites of elegant prose.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son to an illiterate Vietnamese immigrant mother; the novel is in English–a language out of the mother’s command. The premise itself is sentimental, and when compounded with the tender vignettes of Vietnamese matriarchy, poor immigrant lives, and deep war histories, the novel pushes emotional boundaries in a way that I found deeply Vietnamese. Vietnamese language and storytelling consistently play with words and imagery. Simple wording can give way to florid descriptions that toy with serious subjects like death, while also providing dissections of words (see Vuong’s surgery of the word nhớ). This novel exemplifies the importance of specificity.

As the neoliberal impulse of universalism continues to assert itself with the rising representation of minority voices, Vuong is able to capture the minutiae of a Việt American queer experience with subtlety. As a queer Việt American, I finished the book with dozens of dog-eared pages, sometimes frustrated that I wasn’t able to flag both sides of a page. Tiny details sparked memories from my childhood I hadn’t even stopped to consider: “…her breath a mix of Ricola cough drops and the meaty scent of sleep…”, a search for oxtail at the butcher, “bahgeddy” or spaghetti, Cool Ranch Doritos with jasmine tea. Amidst these were new threads: a gay hate crime in Vietnam to the recent Pulse shooting in Orlando, a death of a young lover to death of family, links of our collective Vietnamese history to contemporary Việt Nam burial customs

For those of us who read Vietnamese, Vuong inserts a gift in his spelling of Ma. The Vietnamese language has a variety of words for mom, but the Vietnamese Americans I know fall into two main camps, me or má. Vuong does not shy from using Vietnamese within his novel. He maintains the language of his mother and grandma throughout, adding the appropriate accents where necessary. His use of Ma for his mother then is a deliberate choice, hinting to the close assimilation of Việt Americans, but also Ma in Vietnamese means ghost, a choice that will overshoot many but those of us who understand this significance deeply.*

I highly recommend picking up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as soon as you can. Enjoy the richness that Vuong brings, the specificity that he captures brilliantly, and the nuance that his minority voice adds to American histories. Vuong’s writing captures joy and grief in stark relief and I look forward to his burgeoning career. I leave you with a particularly beautiful image that the main character recalls early in the novel (no spoilers):

You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

*I later found out Vuong gave this away in his New York Times interview! Still claiming this (and the entire novel) as something for us Viet kids–which Vuong also openly declares in the same interview.

***

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and once said he would be happy with rice and ruốc as his last meal (read the book, you’ll get it).


Asian American Commercial Watch: What are LISTERINE® Ready! Tabs

For some reason, this Listerine commercial has *27 million* views on YouTube (maybe it’s also used as a YouTube ad?). In any case, a little more info about Listerine® Ready Tabs™:

“With LISTERINE® Ready! Tabs™, there’s now there’s an easier way to get rid of bad breath fast. This not-a-gum, not-a-mint, not-a-candy bad breath treatment is a revolutionary chewable tablet that you can also swallow for up to 4 hours of fresh breath.”

The featured actor in this commercial is Daniel Hasse.  This  instance of an good looking Asian male in a national commercial spawned this reddit thread.

Personally, I think I prefer Mentos mints

Asian American Commercial Watch: Essilor Ultimate Lens Package – Eyezen Single Vision Lenses

While watching the March Madness game of Texas Tech vs. Gonzaga, I caught this commercial:

“Learn more about how you can get $100 instantly* when you purchase the Essilor Ultimate Lens PackageTM and a second pair of qualifying lenses at www.instant100.com.”

I’ve never heard of Essilor, but the commercial definitely caught my eye (pun intended) with a tall Asian American man.  It was good to see an Asian American shown as creative and making an impact at work, although making him a gamer seemed stereotypical.  Personally, when it comes to buying prescription glasses, I’m not necessarily drawn to brands but style – which could be of any brand.

Asian American Commercial Watch: McDonalds – Mike Ginn

I saw this commercial originally posted/shared on Facebook, with actor Mike Ginn playing a bartender closing up and catching breakfast after a long night:

“No matter how different we are, at McDonald’s, we have more in common than we think.”

I think maybe McDonald’s is trying to counter the feeling of divisiveness in our country generated by Trump and remind Americans that we share a lot of things in common, including simple things for breakfast. I, for one, do like McDonald’s breakfast – especially with the hash brown included in the meals, and of course, coffee!

 

8Questions with Brian Jian

Former 8Asians writer Brian Jian has just published his very first graphic novel, Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines, so we’re asking him the really important questions (hint: it’s the last one).

1. Your book has a pretty intense plot. What was the inspiration?

I’m not quite sure! The “Cliff Notes TL;DR” version of that answer is “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Wu Tang Clan.” 

2. I love that you dedicated Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines to your readers. What do you hope they come away with?

There are so many options now for entertainment. For anyone to take time out of their day and spend it on anything I do, I’m extremely grateful. I’m just trying to tell a story that hopefully resonates with anyone who likes a good story, with characters who seem genuine and relatable.

3. Have you always wanted to create a graphic novel?

I was heavily into comic books and superheroes as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s (this was DECADES before this whole superhero staple in our entertainment diet). Becoming a comic book artist was probably my first career goal, but then school, college, sports, etc. got in the way. Next thing you know, 25 years have passed and I decided, “It’s now or never!”

4. What’s something you wish you’d know before you started the process?

Everything. I self published this book so it was all on my shoulders; from the drawing, writing, researching, editing, lettering, tech support. And copyrights! There was one page where I used the lyrics of a KRS One song (it fit nicely with the narrative of a scene I wrote) but thank god I looked it up and found out lyrics are copyrighted (not just the music) and you can’t print a line from Hey Jude or Hotel California without being sued. Who knew . . .

5. Ok, fun stuff. Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines is being made into a movie. Who would you cast?

Most the characters in this story tend to skew older than the characters featured in most of the typical properties put out by our youth obsessed culture. That was completely serendipitous and not by design but I do like that it turned out that way.  My dream cast would include people like Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Whoopie Goldberg. One of the main characters is a woman named Amaka who’s in her mid 40’s. I didn’t realize Gabrielle Union was in her mid to late 40’s! She’d be perfect!

6. What are you reading right now?

Just finished “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and just started “X” by Chuck Klosterman.

7. Where can people find your work? What’s next for you?

www.brianjian.com or instagram.com/jianbrian. I’ve already started writing/illustrating Broken Toys Extraordinary Machines Book 2!

8. And last–the classic, the most important–what is your favorite Asian comfort food?

Soup dumplings. What else?

8Books Review: “American Sutra” by Duncan Ryuken Williams

American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan Ryuken Williams revisits Japanese American internment through the lens of Buddhism.

Williams begins as World War II breaks out and Japan becomes an enemy of the United States. He examines the Japanese Buddhist communities in Hawaii and the mainland, how Buddhism’s role in the community impacted the decision making around who was interred and in what sequence, how Japanese Christians fared in comparison, how internees found ways to adapt Buddhism for strength and survival, how Japanese Americans fighting in the war petitioned for their own priests and proper death rites, and countless individual stories.

This is an academic book, so it’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it what I would suggest as an introduction to the history of Japanese American internment (if you’re here, reading this, I can only assume that you don’t need such an intro), but what it does offer is a detailed, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking new angle. Religion offers an important lens, understudied and under acknowledged. Williams offers multiple views on its role, from Buddhism being another way in which Japanese were identified as alien, to its ability to offer solace to a Japanese American soldier being tortured in the Philippines.

And though covering a dark chapter in American history, Williams pitches this as a hopeful saga about American multiplicity, religious freedom, and offers a timely call for inclusion over exclusion.

8Books Review: “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” by Yukiko Motoya

By Timmy Pham

The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya, contains eleven stories wrapped in a dark fantasy. Drawn from a collection of stories originally in Japanese, the work was only last year translated to English by Asa Yoneda, and published by Soft Skull Press in November 2018. This collection is Motoya’s English-language debut.

At the heart of the stories is “An Exotic Marriage”, a new translation of “Irui konin tan” (previously translated as Tales of Marriage to a Different Sort), for which Motoya won the 154th Akutagawa Prize in 2016. The novella-length story centers on a troubled wife who has noticed her individualism slipping away both figuratively and literally as her marriage continues. The story builds itself around the realism of neighbors, an apartment dog park, and her husband’s obsessive media consumption, but, as with all the eleven stories, takes turns of dark whimsy, their faces begin to droop and metaphors of snakes devouring one another become more reality than figurative gestures.

The other stories of the collection are similarly haunting in a way that feels like Motoya has brought Grimm Brothers to the 21st century. In the story “Typhoon,” a child waits at a bus stop and learns about flying umbrellas from a raggedy man. The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is the quiet journey of a housewife who channels her quiet determination into a newfound hobby. “How to Burden the Girl” is especially odd, centering around a new neighbor with an anime appearance and Oedipean backstory that sounds like it was lifted from bloody video game. The stories are indeed dark, but demure in a way that is haunting. To call the stories feminist is an easy, but lazy label, as Motoya is able to offer a range of dark insights from capitalism and consumption in “Fitting Room” to women in corporate culture in “I Called You by Name.” Give The Lonesome Bodybuilder a read, as Motoya’s work will undoubtedly leave you confused and amused.

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

Asian American Commercial Watch: This is the Avery’s


Asian Americans are in more and more TV commercials these days, but when I saw this Wells Fargo ad, it immediately caught my attention.  Rather than the familiar white man Asian woman couple commonly portrayed in commercials, it has an Asian guy married to a non-Asian woman of color (either African American or Latina or both – hard to really tell here).  There have been a few commercials with an Asian male in an interracial relationship like this one of Asian male and white female, but I personally don’t recall any commercials with this particular pairing.  I also like the fact that the Asian American guy isn’t a nerd or martial artist and seems pretty outgoing and worldly.

While Wells Fargo has been in the news lately for a variety of problems and lapses in  judgment, I would have to agree with the commercial that eating out a lot can really strain a budget.  This ad was part of Wells Fargo’s rebranding efforts called This is Wells Fargo.

8Books Review: “Blame This on the Boogie” by Rina Ayuyang

By Timmy Pham

There are many things to love about Rina Ayuyang’s Blame This on the Boogie, but one that stands out to me is her waxy, crayon depiction of skin tone. In her first autobiographical comic, Ayuyang captures snippets from her life growing up as one of few Filipino Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the struggles of motherhood and postpartum depression in sunny California. Drawing from the vibrant colors of Hollywood musical cinema and flashy television, Ayuyang crafts a beautifully scrappy look into a unique and relatable (for me at least) Asian-American experience.

But back to the art for a second. Asian-American graphic novelists have been the rise, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from 2006 was the first graphic novel by an Asian American I read and fell in love with. More recently, I was thrilled to read and witness the success of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Both illustrators present clean story-lines with equally distinct coloring and lines. Blame This on the Boogie provides an entirely different approach. Ayuyang’s stories bleed into one another, with no clean panels to guide the reader, and her colors are pure and stacked. It is a strong and well-executed choice that echoes her love of dance and sport. As a darker-skinned Viet boy, I grew up avoiding the brown crayon, reserving it for trees and ground, but Ayuyang artful layerings of yellow, red, orange, and brown all help lend the full range of tone and dimensions to her depictions of herself, her family, and the racial diversity of an American experience. Cheers to that.

Content-wise, Blame This on the Boogie reflected back much of what I knew as the child of immigrants. Living room dance parties, a hungry acceptance of new American culture (yay football–though I grew up in Seattle and therefore am obligated to grimace at her love of the Steelers), and the fascination with American pop-culture that bleeds onto the internet (Ayuyang stans Kym Johnson and Hines Ward’s partnership in Dancing with the Stars) all reflect a familiar experience of a blended Asian-American world amid loud visiting titas. Give this graphic novel a pass through, the ballet sequence at the end (as is customary with Hollywood musicals) is a treat.

(Editor’s Note: Check out more of the gorgeous interiors over at Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

8Books Review: Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamay

Half Gods is a fascinating set of intertwined short stories spanning Sri Lanka and America, charting a story about family, survival, and home. Akil Kumarasamay’s debut collection is captivating and engaging. Two brothers, named after characters in the Mahabharata, lie at the center. Yet they are not the center. A grandfather wrestles with his life in New Jersey, while other remained in the chaos of war. A father looks for a son, disappeared in Sri Lanka’s war. A woman seeks solace in an unlikely, and yet likely, place. We get to see slices of individual’s lives, where the past haunts and guides them. An unraveling of who they are, more than plot.

This is the kind of collection that would be fascinating to read again. The writing is deft and intricate and yet deeply honest in the longing, loneliness, and comforts of humanity. In my first read, there was a single paragraph that struck me. It is not a turning point in a character’s life, yet says so much about living in the diaspora. A second would surely highlight another.

…All were parts of a childhood you had not care for, and now thinking of your son, who would never have to listen to cassettes of bhajans and deal with people he conversed with only in formalities, people who would drop everything to pick you up at an airport, hospital, cook meals when your mother was ill, all because they too traveled that same distance separating one part of the world from the other, you feel as if something dear has perished.

8Books Review: “The Bird Catcher and Other Stories” by Fayeza Hasanat

Fayeza Hasanat’s debut short story collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, is set in the Bangladesh and the United States. It is filled with questions about identity and belonging, about those who are seeking answers under the weight of expectations–their own or otherwise.

A favorite discusses a talkative grandmother who wrestles with the idea of home, herself an immigrant, residing with her children in the U.S. Several others turn on gender dynamics, and those who are between genders or missing some traditional aspect associated with proscribed roles for men and women. Many take dark turns, faced with life on the edge.

Hasanat’s writing is a bit flowery to my taste, but her concepts are intriguing and her characters vulnerable, and their experiences of feeling out of place honest.