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.

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.

 

8Books Review: Heroine’s Journey by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine’s Journey brings an end to Sarah Kuhn’s delightful Asian American superheroine trilogy. In the first of the series, Heroine Complex, we meet Evie Tanaka, assistant to superheroine Aveda Jupiter. In the second, Heroine Worship, we explore Aveda Jupiter aka Annie Chang’s inner self. And here in the last, we traverse between worlds with Bea Tanaka, Evie’s younger sister, as she tries to, well, what else, save the world from demon destruction. Bea’s superpower is that she can project emotions, controlling how others are feeling.

This final installment reminds me why I loved the original Heroine Complex so much. It’s got tons of great Asian American female characters, a stubborn but relatable title character, some sizzling hot romance scenes, and giant demonic unicorns. It’s got mother-daughter stuff, repressed emotions, katsu, and lots of rule breaking.

Incredibly fun to read and engaging, this book is in the “missed my subway stop while reading” category, so you know it’s a good one.

8Books Review: “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi is such a delightful YA novel, I can’t even tell you. Penny is starting college in Austin, TX hoping to be a writer. Sam works at a cafe and sleeps there too, stuck on his ex and having put aside his dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Sam and Penny meet (surprise). Through a funny turn of events, they start texting, but don’t interact IRL again for awhile. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue, as do honesty, hilarity, and drama.

The novel switches between Sam and Penny chapters, each getting a distinct and truly enjoyable voice. There is so much spunk and so much snark, I loved every bit of it. (I mean, in the first ten pages, there’s a list of things one can do in response to some racist BS that includes: “Slap the ever-living shit out of her with the other half of a pistachio donut.” I was hooked.)

And Choi’s not afraid to deal with big issues too. How technology affects our relationships. #momstuff. Things not told to other people. It’s not just about their friendship, but also about each growing up, growing into themselves.

Emergency Contact is smart, refreshing, honest, and most importantly, fun to read.

 

8Books Review: “Bury What We Cannot Take” by Kirstin Chen

Bury What We Cannot Take, the latest novel from author Kirstin Chen set in Mao’s China, is a doozy. After 12-year-old Ah Liam reports his grandmother to the Communist Party, the family must flee their little island off the mainland. His mother applies for temporary exit visas to go to Hong Kong where his father lives. But she is told that she can either take Ah Liam or her daughter San San, leaving one behind as proof that they will return.

The impossible decision shakes the family and its members to their core. The novel spins it’s way around this single moment. I had thought this might be the kind of book that spans decades, traversing all the way into some distant future. Instead, it stays rather compact, unraveling in minute details each character’s thoughts, decisions, actions, and internal conflicts. Mother, father, grandmother, son, daughter. One displaced family grappling with this harsh reality and the truth–often ugly, sometimes beautiful–that it reveals in all of them.

At the novel’s heart are questions about the meaning of family–what is real, what is artificial, is family fragile or unbreakable. Bury What We Cannot Take is compellingly written, a fast and entrancing read, but also definitely an emotional doozy.

8Books Review: Though I Get Home by YZ Chin

Though I Get Home by YZ Chin is an intricate series of short intertwined vignettes following a small host of characters tied to Malaysia. Isabella Sin’s time in a notorious prison. Grandfather’s stories about working for a white man when Malaysia was still Malaya. Howie Ho in Silicon Valley. Howie Ho in Malaysia looking for a wife. Isa at a protest. Bets predicting whether the monsoons will come. Ibrahim on patrol, on a mission.

Threads weave through the stories, often invisibly. Together, they offer a deft commentary on life in Malaysia, on individuals living within a globalizing world and a country on the precipice. Some stories occupy just a few pages, others stretch out. Each unfolds carefully into the nitty gritty of humanity. Chin does not shy away from exposing tensions within attitudes about race, democracy, class, family expectations, the state, and more.

I confess, I was often unsure where the book was headed, but found the ride intriguing. Here are ordinary people in all their oddities, trying to make sense of and make decisions in a world that is changing on many dimensions. They are not glamorous, the picture painted is not flattering, and in this there is something fresh and refreshing about Chin’s writing.

There he sat, and there he waited, to see if anything could truly happen to anyone.

8Books Review: “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a delightful graphic novel about friendship and secrets and identity and love. Prince Sebastian is supposed to be looking for a bride. But at night, he secretly dons fashion forward dresses and emerges as the mysterious Lady Crystallia with the help of his friend and dressmaker, Frances.

Set in Paris, Jen Wang has created an extraordinary array of imaginative and beautifully drawn dresses and costumes that pepper a story full of heart and growth. What lengths will Frances go to to protect her friend’s secret? And at what cost to her own dreams? As Sebastian and Frances’ friendship evolves, so do the complexities of their choices. Though set in another time, in another place, the two are eminently relatable and lovable for their flaws and successes. Who do they want to be? Who will they be? Neither is perfect. Each encounters obstacles–the weight of expectations, the burdens of secrets, the freedoms of self-expression, the limitations of what looked like success. Together, and individually, they find a way through and the journey is truly charming.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a book to get lost in for an afternoon. A curl up on the couch with a hot cup of tea and go from one cover to the other. One huge, satisfying whirlwind ride.

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

and

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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