Tan Lin’sInsomnia and the Auntglows neon yellow—like hilighters, French fries, hot mustard packets from Panda Express, or a Waffle House of scallion pancake-flavored commercial. In this remote control scrapbook Lin grieves the death of his estranged, mixed race aunt, who owned a motel in the middle of nowhere and watched a lot of TV. Tucked among postcards, a photograph of Ronald Reagan bottle-feeding a chimpanzee and footnoted Google reverse searches, Lin tries to extract ghosts from cached pages and remember his aunt’s eyes in the white noise and signal snow of “the Asian American immigrant experience,” which is really just America being watched on TV.
I have watched hundreds of movies with Asians and fake Asians in them, and the one thing that makes them all the same (except the white Asians) is that the Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen and you are never allowed to look too deeply into theirs. I think it is for this reason that whenever I think about my aunt, and TV for that matter, I can never remember my aunt’s eyes (they appear to belong to someone else), and think instead of Robert Redford, who said in an interview that it is necessary for the body to lie to the mind (not the other way around) when acting and that the various strata of lying are continually searching for each other in the wilderness that most people call the truth and that my aunt calls television (11).
Instead of working on this review, I decide to re-watch an episode of the (cancelled) TV series Dark Angel. I think about Jessica Alba in Seattle (driving a motorcycle, and how I always thought she was half-Filipina) and Tan Lin in Seattle (driving 87 miles to see his half-Chinese, half-white aunt), and as I compulsively watch episode after episode on the internet I begin to understand what Lin already knows. Like an addiction, serial television—with its timed commercial breaks, its catchy theme songs, its over-rehearsed staging of the spur-of-the-moment—feeds us with its promise of repetition and allows us to watch from a distance. On TV, sexual tension is always prolonged and people never say what they really mean. When we’re watching, it’s easy to avert our eyes, to lie. Television channels feelings and vends emotions. This is why the corner convenience store sells potato chips and ice cream for one or two dollars more than other places. Thinking about one particular television-consumed immigrant relative of my own makes it difficult to write about this book. Continue reading “Review: Tan Lin’s INSOMNIA AND THE AUNT”→
Schizophrenia (literally, “to split the mind”) is defined as a breakdown in relation between thought, emotion and behavior, leading to a sense of mental fragmentation (Oxford American Dictionaries). While fragmentation and the diasporic experience are hardly strangers within the lineages of Asian American literature, Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene maps crucial connections between schizophrenia, im/migration, racism, trauma and mental illness. This book arcs through the air in a perpetual state of departure, “[a]nd the line the book makes is an axis” (5) around which perception begins to whirl. Without much visual formatting on the page, we see that the whole image is broken. What is extraordinary about Kapil’s writing is that we experience it as a texture—the psychosis of her narrative registers in us as a sensation.
Partition, schism. Split or division, cleft. Schizophrene focuses on the Partition of British India in 1947 “and its trans-generational effects: the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on” (1). Kapil’s research into migration and mental illness can be traced back to her chapbook Water-damage: a map of three black days (Corollary Press, 2006), in which previous versions of some of the text in the “Partition” section of Schizophrene appear.
In Water-damage Kapil chooses an informative epigraph from Elizabeth Grosz’ Architecture from the Outside: “The psychotic is unable to locate himself or herself where he or she should be: such subjects may look at themselves from the outside, as others would…They are captivated and replaced, not by another subject…but by space itself.” Replaced by space itself, occupied. Replaced by segregated grids and militarized nation-state borders, lines that “split the mind.” “Because it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space” (41), Kapil cradles the colonized psyche, imprinted by occupation, in her hands.
Parked in a corner of Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot, I turned up the volume on my headphones and listened long past the comfort level of both my bladder and my thirst, testing the limits of the quickly fading sunlight. I chuckled and tick-marked at record speed, drunk with the spot-on parody and ridiculous brilliance of her lines. What I love about Lu’s work is her sharp wit, subtle delivery and deadpan hilarity, which you have to slow down and listen for in order to fully appreciate. Thus, parked, I listened.
Lu’s characters, all of them, are also listening. This book is a mock-documentary novel that tracks the mid-highs and mid-lows of a band of ambient noise musicians, the Ambient Parkers, who record in parking lots and garages and sample car trunk thuds, gridlock traffic honks, revving engines and the like. Aspiring to capture the nature in the machine, their material is capitalism and its doomed, sublime ambience.
Reading this book is like watching an indie webisode spin-off of “Behind the Music” (“Behind the Noise”) run by a group of nerdy, over-enthusiastic volunteers and bored unpaid interns with MFA degrees. Lu tracks the Ambient Parkers’ absolute mediocrity in awkwardly-awesome crescendos and geeky-fantastic loops. Parts of it read like an overly self-conscious, overly detailed fan blog with absolutely no web traffic, which is crafted with earnest, superb engineering and is as addictive as low-calorie reality TV. The band’s fits of self-induced melodrama and cheesy enlightenment register as mere blips and farts to The Alternative Mainstream—yet, anonymously, the band continues, and miraculously, they continue to be heard. Continue reading “Review: Pamela Lu’s AMBIENT PARKING LOT”→
The NY Times began the new year with a piece about the Hmong American Writers’ Circle and the cultural context in which it operates. And our most recent issue of the Lantern Review put a spotlight on HAWC in Community Voices. This is only the beginning of much-deserved attention for this unique generation of new writers.
How Do I Begin is an apt title for an anthology of writers whose ethnic identity is doubly marginalized: though the Hmong roots are in southwest China, most emigrated/fled to the US from places like Laos or Vietnam after the Vietnam-American War. Burlee Vang, in his introduction to the book, describes himself as “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” The written language of the Hmong was lost after assimilation in Imperial China long ago; this is not to mention assimilation into Thai and Lao culture, where most Hmong are provided an education only in their host countries’ official languages. The Hmong language has remnants in traditional embroidery but they have become indecipherable. Writers identifying as Hmong American today, therefore, have the tremendous task not only of writing themselves into history and literature, but also of gathering their names and identities from the pieces available. English is their adopted language, and so these writers must weave a warp and woof through multiple traditions.
“Sewing,” “pockets” and “stories” being things that don’t quite exist in the Neverland, Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them sews pockets in and around the mythos of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. Cutting snippets of Barrie’s source text, including Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and events in Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, Boully centralizes Wendy’s experience and sews up bits of her story, stitching the make-believe into the made-quite-real. In her pockets, open ends and open endings fit and hover.
“places in the earth are breaking”
Every page of not merely because is footnoted with a section called “The Home Under Ground,” while the rest of the text wraps itself around. Boully is famous for having written an entire book in footnotes, The Body: An Essay (Slope Editions, 2002 and Essay Press, 2007); these footnotes referenced empty pages—a nonexistent text. In notes 1 and 2 of The Body she writes, “…everything that is said is said underneath… / It is not the story I know or the story you tell me that matters; it is what I already know, what I don’t want to hear you say. Let it exist this way, concealed…”
That she chooses to reference the concealed, underground home where Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys lived in her footnotes to not merely because made me think of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Small Arguments (Pedlar Press, 2003). Thammavongsa studies a variety of fruit and insects and reveals, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things in daily life.” Boully’s line “A mushroom head here, a celery stalk there, three new baby bird graves, a fiddlehead here; places in the earth are breaking” echoes Thammavongsa’s poem “The Ground”: “You will not leave / or keep from / this ground, a breaking.” Continue reading “Review: Jenny Boully’s NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN STALKING TOWARD THEM”→
Karen Tei Yamashita—writer, professor, and globetrotter—possesses an oeuvre that is anything but conventional. From her debut eco-fantasy novel Through the Arc of the Rainforestto her latest novel, the incredibly ambitious I Hotel, Yamashita has time and again demonstrated a preoccupation with offbeat human experiences.
At the center of I Hotelis the history of the titular inn, the International Hotel, a low-income housing complex located in San Francisco that became the source of much controversy and conflict when its residents, mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese bachelors, were threatened with eviction in the 70’s. Working with this historic centerpiece, Yamashita crafts a highly experimental novel comprised of prose, screenplay, quotes, analects, and even comics. And in an effort to give it a more comprehensible structure, the novel is divided into ten “novellas,” each corresponding to a year between 1968-1977. For research, Yamashita interviewed residents from the community, and their stories serve as seeds for the novel. Despite her efforts to shape the novel around fictionalized versions of these culled stories, the “fiction” elements end up coming across as secondary to the overwhelming amount of synopsized history and culture that fills the novel in the form of primary source-like documents. Thus, we have a “novel” in which the most compelling sections are the ones that feel least like a novel.
In each novella, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of various protagonists. In an interview with Kandice Chuh for Discover Nikkei, Yamashita said she roughly structured the book so that each “novella” followed three central characters, with one typically serving the role of a mentor. Characters include the son of activists, a saxophonist, and a dancer, among others. But despite being modeled on actual people these colorful figures feel hastily formed, like participants in a dress rehearsal. The scenes they exist in feel ethereal and unanchored. There’s no sense of settling into moments and scenes and exploring characters and their connection to their settings. Instead, there is mostly dialogue, and not even very effective dialogue. The dialogue often is too heavy-handed or too inconsequential. Despite efforts to spotlight characters and how they negotiate trying circumstances, what takes precedence is an overriding narrative voice that attempts to bridge them all together.
More often than not, what hamstrings the conventional narrative threads is the intrusion of an overriding polemical voice that waxes and wanes about humanistic subjects such as philosophy, history, politics, film, art, and literature. The personal stories are undermined in part because when the novel does digress into the polemical mode, the most compelling writing actually arises. In several of these sections, the language is mesmerizing. There are passages that are so stylistically crisp and stirring that I initially reread them to deconstruct the source of their power:
“Do you command great armies and oversee great territories, or are you the fodder of stinking bodies sacrificed at the front? Do you rule by the will of God or the Mandate of Heaven, or do you grovel in the dirt for your subsistence and share your food with animals? Do you stand at the pinnacle of power, however precariously protecting, with the great umbrella of your powerful arms and silken sleeves, a hierarchy of hapless fools and ungrateful subjects, or are you a struggling peon of unfortunate birth? …The rise and fall of civilizations held in dusty monuments for thousands of years may suddenly be compressed in no doubt brilliant minds to explain the present moment.”
Yamashita is fluent in the language of so many disciplines and subcultures that no matter the subject being explored—whether it’s French poets, Marxist theory, or Imelda Marcos—the writing feels commanding.
The fluency and command Yamashita demonstrates, however, cannot mask the novel’s lack of narrative cohesion nor can it salvage characters that seem never to set themselves apart from the farrago of activity all around them.
But I suspect this lack of cohesion is due less to oversight and more to the progressive aspirations of the text. The novel (if it can even be called a novel) is so brimming with experimentation and historical substance that it ignores more traditional narrative preoccupations, like continuity, character development, and standard conflict resolution structure. But this doesn’t make it an inferior work; it just makes it different, in my opinion. That’s not to say the novel isn’t without it’s shortcomings, but with a certain mindset the shortcomings can be seen as consequences of a different kind of preoccupation, one geared less to achieving the typical objectives of a novel and more towards rendering a kind of spoken word historical epic that captures the zeitgeist of one of the most transformative periods in American history.
While reading I Hotel, I couldn’t help but call to mind Junot Diaz’s critically acclaimed novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Specifically, I thought of a statement Diaz made in an interview, in which he said he initally planned for Oscar Wao to be a multimedia extravaganza filled with comics, web site tie-ins, and other postmodern pyrotechnics. In the end, though, Diaz reigned in his ambitions in favor of a more formally conventional family saga that was distinguished by its unconventional voice. In I Hotel, Karen Tei Yamashita seemingly aims to realize the mega-project Diaz abandoned by creating a novel that combines various formats and syncretizes diverse voices in order to capture the complexities of a community caught up in the turbulent currents of history’s unfolding.
Whether she has created something compelling and worthwhile depends on your expectations going into the book; if you’re expecting clearly rendered stories that will resonate and stick with you, then I Hotelmay not be for you, but if you’re looking for a head rush from reading about a host of interesting subjects in a variety of unconventional formats, then you’re probably in the right place.
Let me begin with this disclaimer: I don’t usually read Asian immigrant memoirs. At least, not until very recently. This particular book came to my attention while I was randomly perusing some Asian American culture blogs, where it had received some attention, in part I’m assuming, because of its provocative title. The reason I wanted to put out this disclaimer up front is because, unlike a lot of other reviews for this book available on the web, this one is not written with an academic background in ethnic studies or extensive experience with the canon of the Asian American memoir. So, what can my review offer? Well, as the child of Asian immigrants who had never read Asian immigrant memoirs until very recently, I found the experience of reading this particular memoir and studying the blogosphere’s response to it to be interesting because of the questions it raised for me as an ethnic person in contemporary America who occasionally writes things for public consumption (Exhibit A: this blog post). So, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the book, I’m going to share some thoughts on the responses it has elicited, which I have found to be equally interesting.
First off, a quick rundown of the book and its author. I Love Yous Are for White People is by Lac Su, a young Vietnamese immigrant who, as a child, escaped South Vietnam with his family in 1979 and immigrated to America. The memoir begins with a harrowing boat dock escape then explores Su’s experience of growing up in Los Angeles in a series of chapters that read like individual essays. As noted by many reviewers, the book touches upon themes of filial piety, identity negotiation, and the pains of cultural transition. Also noted by many reviewers: what carries the memoir is Su’s voice. Even though a lot of the anecdotes feel either far-fetched (at one point, he blows balloons out of discarded condoms found in the hallway of his family’s apartment building) or too familiar (there’s a scene in a restaurant where his father doesn’t understand how food stamps work), I remained engaged because Su narrated these moments with self-deprecation and earnestness. It is hard not to like a guy who constantly notes how his father calls him “Big Head”—evidently the translation of a Vietnamese “term of endearment.”
While there were a lot of interesting and amusing moments in the memoir, of particular interest to me was the prevalence of violence throughout. I got the impression that for Su and his family, violence was encoded in their family’s story from the get-go. From the boat-dock escape amidst machine gun fire at the beginning, to the brushes with street violence sprinkled throughout, Su’s family just couldn’t get a break. For me, the most riveting scene in the book was a scene of random violence in which street thugs attack Su’s father while he tries to bike to work; the ostensible leader of the gang pins Su’s father on the ground and attempts to shove a screwdriver into his throat (Su’s father avoids serious harm by turning his head to the side in the nick of time). In addition to depictions of random violence like this, there are countless scenes of domestic violence in which Su’s volatile and overbearing father punches, whips, slaps, or uppercuts everything and everyone in sight, including his wife and children. Then, in the latter half of the memoir, Su recounts incidents of gang violence in which he engages in hand-to-hand combat with other local street toughs. Cumulatively, it comes across as one big olio of dominance rituals and tribalism.