Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

If 2017 was finally the year that ushered in feminist science fiction fabulism, let 2018 be a stronger contender for more releases of the same kind!

Last year, I read two notable books in this category and reviewed them on the blog: The Power by Naomi Alderman (one of the best books Barack Obama said he read that year) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Folks may have casted this book as a dystopian read but come to think of it–a world where women held a tangible, lethal power over men? More would argue that that’s actually utopian.

I remember these books while I was reading Heartland by Ana Simo, a copy that Restless Books sent to me late last year. I didn’t know much about Simo, but after reading that the New Yorker was born and raised in Cuba and participated in early women’s and gay and lesbian rights groups, I felt an instant kinship.

Heartland is the dystopian tale of a queer Latina from Elmira County who loses her ability to write and is only comforted by the fact that she will gain some semblance of her old self by committing murder. A likely but unsuspecting target: Mercy McCabe, who has recently broken up with the love of our narrator’s life, Bebe.

If this plot doesn’t interest you, consider this: how all of these things were executed, down to the would-be murderer’s schemes/thought processes/details are hilarious. Meandering between establishing an identity as a queer woman of color, as a writer, as someone worth remembering, Simo’s prose simultaneously probes and tickles.

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Living Out Our Truths, with Gucci Mane (A Book Review of “The Autobiography of Gucci Mane”)

I remember hearing Wasted for the first time in 2009, at the height of my Lil Wayne obsession (specifically Tha Carter III) and I couldn’t help but mouth off the catchiest line ever:

Rock-star lifestyle, might don’t make it, living life high every day clique wasted

Granted that I wasn’t really living a rock-star lifestyle (I was going to school full-time, working part-time), was only really getting wasted on the weekends–I took this song on as a sort of paean. On the worst days, I could always count on this song to lift me up, its beat thrumming wildly in my chest. Those days are seared in my memory as I navigated a tumultuous relationship, balancing my responsibilities as a student and a health professional, an immigrant still trying to find solid footing.

I remember that time when I picked up The Autobiography of Gucci Mane (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Gucci Mane, Neil Martinez-Belkin and read this same line from Wasted, at a time when Gucci himself was at the crossroads of his life in the streets and in the studio. Born Radric Delantic Davis, Gucci was one of the first artists to pioneer trap music way before artists like 2Chainz and Fetty Wap started popularizing it.

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Beyond the Rice Fields with Naivo

Ravinkazo nanintsana
Ka ny lasa tsy azo ahoana
Fa ny sisa ampanirina

Leaves falling
There’s no protecting those that drop
But those that stay are made to grow

(Malagasy Hainteny)

First, an embarrassing confession: I am woefully ignorant about Madagascar, the Malagasy people and the Malagasy culture.

It wasn’t until I signed up for Restless Books monthly book subscription that that changed, when I received a copy of Beyond the Rice Fields (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Naivo, the first book in Malagasy to be translated in English. Last year’s book reviews comprised of titles gleaned from bestseller and notable lists (particularly from The New York Times and other mainstream publications such as the Indie Book of the Month), as well as shortlisted books for various distinctions so Naivo’s book is a welcome change.

Located in the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. And here I was, thinking that growing up in an island nation myself I had a pretty good grasp of other island nation kin. This book is admittedly the first time I’ve come across any form of Malagasy literature, a surprising and embarrassing detail I honestly can’t shake off.

So I take the book in, prepared to be humbled. And boy did I.

Beyond the Rice Fields is primarily the story of Tsito, a slave who worked his way towards his emancipation. But unlike many slave narratives I’ve read previously, the conext of Tsito’s slavery is set during a time when a nation’s own people dealt with each other in a feudalistic manner–even before the vazaha, or white people came.

Naivo traces the young boy’s life from the time he caught the eye of a traveling merchant, Rado, up until he was gifted to one of Rado’s daughters, Fara. As the story wove in between the eventual lovers, he also portrayed the historical and colonial roots of Madagascar.

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From Critical Mass to Critical Relationships, with adrienne maree brown

“Humans? Some of us are surviving, following, flocking — but some of us are trying to imagine where we are going as we fly. That is radical imagination.”

One of the lessons of 2017 was making space for spontaneity, which looked like leaving portions of my planner blank. It felt counter-intuitive at first, but like all things that feel natural, it grew on me. Suddenly I was more conscious of what I said yes and no to, paying close attention to how these answers felt in my body. It was Trump’s first year in office after all and instead of feeling fired up, I felt disjointed. My work in the local and diasporic Filipino communities felt insincere, and I tried different approaches to no avail. I knew I had to disengage for my own sanity.

I made space. I slowed down. So when I finally got around to reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Amazon | Indiebound), it felt like a homecoming. I’ve been reading speculative + science women-centered fiction and brown’s work seemed to encompass all these stories into tangible practices for one’s self and our respective communities. brown’s work as a social justice facilitator, healer and doula resonated with me throughout the book, and I’m looking forward to reading more of their work in an anthology they co-edited called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.

I love how Emergent Strategy is a “radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live,” how it weaves how we take care of ourselves with taking care of our communities and the place/s we live in. That how we approach practices towards preserving ourselves are directly linked to our survival as a species, and also with the way we move about in this planet.

These links are glimpses of emergence, the core of emergent strategy.

emergence, libromance, adrienne maree brown, emergent strategy

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The Great Five from Libromance: Best Fiction Books of 2017

Running a book blog is lots of hard (but pleasurable!) work and one of the things I’m always excited for are end of the year lists, best picks and titles deemed noteworthy usually announced around this time.

I’ve seen a lot of best of the year book lists and here are some of my favorites:

Out of all these lists though, I’m particularly partial to The New York Times best of the year book list, which usually consists of fiction and nonfiction books. Selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review, it is something I look forward to every year.

So when it was finally released on November 30th, I was thrilled to see all five of their listed fiction books as titles I read and reviewed this year on the blog! Five-starred and highly rated, these books are the kind I hope to read for the rest of my life, stories that move and shake and empathize and challenge. I cried throughout most of them, and I’ve probably listed them on numerous lists prior to this post. They are the kind of stories I love reading and I hope to write in the same vein someday.

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The Great Five

Here are *the great five* of 2017, along with excerpts from my book reviews this year:

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was like having a deep, deep breath lodged in the cavity of my chest, something I held on to for its entirety. Ward’s newest novel isn’t for the faint of heart either, but for someone who’s strong of will, someone who can understand the gravity of what it means to be healed, and what it means to need healing, specially at a time when the world just feels too heavy. Read the full review here.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The book follows the lives of reluctant lovers (at first), Nadia and Saeed in the process of living, of leaving. Saeed is very much the son of his parents, timid and reserved, while Nadia is out on her own, having left the roof of her parents’ house as soon as she was able to. She dons black robes for protection, as she rides her motorcycle through the city of an unspecified country. It is a love story as much as it is a story of migration and transitions. Instead of focusing on the journey out, what Hamid focused on was how wars move and change people. Read the full review here.

Autumn by Ali Smith

This is a novel set in the UK, not a love story but a story about love in many forms. There’s Elisabeth and her mom, living alongside their neighbor, Mr. Daniel Gluck, and the world around them revolving in varying degrees of discovery and reconciliation. Theirs (the main characters’)  was no ordinary friendship, no feudal relationship. They talked about arts, books, ways of looking at the world. The ever-present question, always Gluck’s greeting to the young one was: What you reading? Read the full review here.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This endless work and suffering is what bookends the story, manifested in different characters. Lee portrays all kinds of women in Pachinko, as she lays out layers of complexities. With each generation, she highlights the struggles of Korean women within their respective socio-economic contexts: women who aren’t allowed to work because of their husband’s beliefs, women who are imprisoned in their marriages because of economic and social reasons, women who are fiercely independent, women who long to come home to Korea, women who long to move to America, broken women, heavy-hearted women, happy women, but always, suffering women. Read the full review here.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

This book is something I dove right into where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand. Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips. Read the full review here.

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Have you read any of these books? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Who Run the World? Girls! With Naomi Alderman (A Book Review of “The Power”)

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
Octavia Butler

I remember reading Octavia Butler’s book once, the first time I’ve ever been drawn to science fiction. It was crossing a realm of spirituality that I never knew could exist in science fiction, because I’ve long dismissed the genre as something that young men only enjoyed. That was an embarrassing mistake.

These days, I seem to gravitate towards certain kinds of literature, always on the lookout for the next best read. After reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, I wanted more. I started reading this book soon after, and ended with the most appropriate title I could have ever picked up — Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy (review coming soon). I was on a feminist science fiction kick, and I didn’t even realize it!

The Power (Amazon | Indiebound) by Naomi Alderman cements this period for me, as I dove right into a world where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand.

Scientists are confounded. Government officials are panic-stricken. Mothers become fearful, unsure of what’s happening at first.

And then it becomes apparent: it is only young girls who are gifted with skein, electricity humming and coursing through their bodies. Chaos ensues, as everything gets upended.

Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips.

There’s a girl who calls herself Eve, (called Allie before the power) who listens to a voice she hears in her mind for the next steps, the back and forth conversation which has proved to save her life more than once. After repeated assaults by her guardian, she runs off to a convent and finds herself cared for by nuns, along with other girls who have run away themselves. This is where Eve finds footing to fulfill a prophecy, of being the chosen leader by the Goddess.

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A Lifetime of Looking, with Lisa Ko (A Book Review of “The Leavers”)

Days after reading Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Amazon | Indiebound), one question lingered in my mind: can we really spare our loved ones the most gory, painful thing in our lives in order to save them–whatever “saving” looks like?

The story is written in the same format Arundhati Roy’s latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where you find out more and more about the characters, the bulk of the story and really, the depth of the plot as you go on. But I guess that’s a major driving point in the book, the search for elusive truth. As with our lives, tbqh.

The Leavers is a book about a Chinese immigrant family in New York, a mother and her son, as they struggle to make a new life for themselves away from home. And almost like every immigrant family I know, both Pei-lan/Polly and Deming/Daniel go through the process of navigating cultural shifts and managing personal transformations.

From learning how to survive as an immigrant (all the bureaucracy, whether above ground or not), the tenderness between mother and son grows with each new discovery. Each day that they are together, specially when Polly has the rare day off, the duo ventures out into the new world they’ve made for themselves.

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Thanksgiving, or The U.S. Apology to All Native Peoples

In 2009, the United States issued an S.J. Res. 14 “to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.”

Thanksgiving has been synonymous to a long holiday weekend, a table laden with food, a time to spend (sometimes uncomfortably) with family, a holiday bespectacled with gratitude and warmth.

My immigrant family has adopted this tradition for over a decade now, although the only thing that resembles the traditional American celebration is a barely-touched turkey at the end of the evening. The tables are usually filled with Filipino dishes and an assortment of sweets, pies and dessert, as conversations toggle between the best Black Friday sales and what’s happening back in our hometown of Apalit, Pampanga.

I have participated in all of this, but because I am a product of my own curiosity and more and more, a stickler for authenticity, I remember trying to figure out where Thanksgiving came from and what it really stood for. That was back in 2004.

I was horrified as soon as I found out. I was coming of age, coming out, coming to terms with trying to acculturate in a new land, only to find out that this land was actually built on the genocide of Native Americans.

I think of all these things as I currently reside in Northern California — Ohlone land. I don’t get a lot of things right but there is a constant re-education interwoven with love, respect, history and memory; an acknowledgment of a reality rooted in the loss of lives of many tribes and indigenous people.

So I remember, I honor in the best ways I can: this Thanksgiving, an homage to the work of Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota poet, writer and artist.

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On Saturday, December 19, 2009, US President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. No tribal leaders or official representatives were invited to witness and receive the Apology on behalf of tribal nations. President Obama never read the Apology aloud, publicly — although, for the record, Senator Sam Brownback five months later read the Apology to a gathering of five tribal leaders, though there are more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the US. The Apology was then folded into a larger, unrelated piece of legislation called the 2010 Defense Appropriation Act.

My response is directed to the Apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document. I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation — and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.

I started reading Whereas on the eve of Thanksgiving, in the same year the #NoDAPL camps were forcibly closed, where Native Americans, allies and protesters stood in defiance of a pipeline project which cuts across Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

I have so many questions regarding the Apology and its language, its delivery as Long Soldier writes, one of only seven apologies made to Native Americans. It reads like someone’s troubled conscience trying to appease itself of its mistakes, without undermining its inequitable gains.

Some parts of it are downright offensive, some playing it safe. Some are affirmative, some negating. Some hopeful, some guaranteed to elicit long sighs.

It almost reads like poetry, Long Soldier says, in an interview with Krista Tippet. In her book Whereas, she writes rightful responses to this Apology as she maps out words, pain, history, remembrance and the right to life.

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Her poem-responses carry the weight of what wasn’t written down, of what wasn’t acknowledged. They relay the untold stories and the depth of what should’ve been read out loud. She writes about living conditions, mental care, how the Apology was followed by budget sequestration.

And instead of the haphazard ways the U.S. government has continued to treat this issue, the people, Native American lives, Long Soldier offers solutions, poems on what the Apology could’ve looked like.

this land
ill-breaking
“apologizes”
boundaries

Bring this to the table, bring this with you. Bring Long Soldier’s poetry in the arcs of your mouths, in the same manner that you say thanks.

 

Deviant Lives, with Carmen Maria Machado (A Book Review of ‘Her Body and Other Parties’)

I picked up Carmen Maria Machado’s book of short stories Her Body and Other Parties (Amazon | Indiebound) after seeing it on the National Book Awards shortlist for fiction. The title first drew me. I looked up to see who Machado was and found she’s a queer Latinx (yes!), which made me want to read her work even more. And whoa. As soon as I finished one story, I knew I was in for a wild, beautiful ride.

The first story on the book called The Ribbon was my first introduction to Machado. Hers is a concise but weighty voice, one that told the story but kept important details hidden. It was both what she is and what she isn’t saying that drew me even closer to the text, a kind of magnetic pull impossible to resist.

I think it’s also in the way she writes about women in the book, filled with audacious desire and a wonderfully overwhelming presence that had me enthralled. They were eerie in their brilliance, as if something hummed underneath the story line.

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The Woman’s Lot, with Min Jin Lee (A Book Review of ‘Pachinko’)

As I write this, Trump’s visit to Southeast Asia is underway. The 12-day tour in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines reflects the increasing importance of the region tied to American interests, in aspects of geopolitics and economics.

South Korea is his second stop, and I think about the increasing provocation from his administration and North Korea’s regarding nuclear weapons. This has been the most dominant issue in the news cycle. Many cower in fear, but many more are calling for anti-militarization, specifically from a country with the largest military budget in the world.

This was the context as I read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Amazon | Indiebound), a multi-generational saga of a Korean family in the early 1900s. From the shores of Yeongdo beside the port city of Busan comes Sunja, the daughter of a poor couple who has thrived in spite of living under imperial Japan’s tutelage.

Lee’s book tells Sunja’s story from her birth throughout her life, as she moved from Korea to Japan. After becoming pregnant with a man who turned out to be married, Sunja’s life turned upside down. Her pregnancy was sure to bring shame to her family, until a sickly minister, Isak, volunteers to take her as his wife and bring her to Osaka.

It is in Osaka where most of the book takes place, as Sunja and her newfound family (Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife, Kyung-hee) face the rest of their lives head on. Two more generations follow, with Sunja’s sons and their respective children, as they try to survive in a country that either ignores or loathes Koreans.

Throughout the entire story, the women suffer the most — from carrying the burden of shame with Sunja’s unwanted pregnancy, to being the kind of wives their husbands expected them to (such as Kyung-hee’s predicament), to the indelible and incredible task of mothering.

Even at a young age, this was what her mother taught Sunja.

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