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

Book Reviews, Fiction

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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Amidst reveling in the simultaneous grandeur and details of the Big Apple, poverty, the struggle to assimilate and immigration woes descend upon the family. And it only gets worse.

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

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love, Writing

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’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

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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Fiending for (More) Fiction

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

After doing my #FinestFiction reading challenge in the summer where I attempted to read the longlist for the Man Book Prize, I was hooked. Not only did I push myself to read out of my usual genres, I also stuck with some books I would’ve otherwise put down already. I learned a lot. And I discovered authors I wouldn’t have read otherwise, like Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid, whose books will be permanently etched in my memory.

In the spirit of that reading challenge, I’m doing another one. More than I actually followed the Man Booker Prize, I’m a huge fan of the National Book Foundation. Headed by Lisa Lucas (!), the NBF is the presenter of the annual National Book Awards. Last year’s NBA fiction titleholder is Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.

This year, I’ve decided that I will be reading the fiction shortlist, a compilation of five mighty books:

Out of this list, I’ve read three so far and I’m slowly making my way through Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing. One of my favorite books this year is nominated — Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I’m currently working on reviews for both Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, two books I also really liked.

The ceremony is on November 15 in New York City, which means I’ve got about two weeks to finish and review the books. If you’re looking for a book to fall in love with, I guarantee any of these because the finalists for the NBA for fiction have always been stellar. In addition to these fiction titles, I’m also reading one book shortlisted for the nonfiction prize (Marsha Gessen’s The Future is History) and another one shortlisted for poetry (Danez Smith’s Do Not Call Us Dead: Poems).

National Book Awards for Fiction shortlist:
Judges are Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Annie Philbrick, Karolina Waclawiak, Jacqueline Woodson (Chair)

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
Haris Abadi is a man in search of a cause. An Arab American with a conflicted past, he is now in Turkey, attempting to cross into Syria and join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But he is robbed before he can make it, and is taken in by Amir, a charismatic Syrian refugee and former revolutionary, and Amir’s wife, Daphne, a sophisticated beauty haunted by grief. Told with compassion and a deft hand, Dark at the Crossing is an exploration of loss, of second chances, and of why we choose to believe—a trenchantly observed novel of raw urgency and power.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
A vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging, The Leavers is the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away—and how one woman learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Which one are you rooting for? 
Tell me in the comments below!

We Won’t Back Down, No

Sunday Spotlight

It’s been a little over a week since Trump won the presidential election and what gives me hope these days is the rising resistance against a fascist regime.

As a queer Filipino immigrant, I feel the fear in my chest. While waiting for his victory speech early Wednesday morning, the sight of white millennials in the crowd cheering and smiling with their red “Make America Great Again” caps made me cower.

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Around the country, people are taking to the streets to show their collective power against what a Trump presidency will look like. The rise of hate crimes against people of color and immigrants since he won is a manifestation of the Trump brand: a toxic concoction of white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny and hyper-capitalism.

In San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, people filled the streets — thousands deep — to denounce his presidency. The next day, thousands of high school students in San Francisco walked out chanting “Not my President!” It is anger, it is rage, a fury unfurling itself and it demands to be seen, heard and felt.

Many organizations, both grassroots and nonprofit, have come out against Trump, have compiled resources for the most vulnerable of our population, have affirmed their commitment to uplift the voices of those that Trump aims to silence. GABRIELA, a Filipino women’s organization that I’m a part of, calls on people of the U.S. to intensify its mass movements and defend the democratic rights of the most disempowered people. The Black Lives Matter movement also released a statement, calling for a reckoning of the country’s inherent anti-blackness and to operate from “a place of love for our people and a deep yearning for real freedom.”

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Writers have also spoken out, indignant at the thought of fascism and the delusion that many have started to buy into. Teju Cole wrote a piece on The New York Times where he referenced Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” a play about mob mentality, conformity first created as a response to fascism during World War II. Sixteen writers from The New Yorker also wrote about Trump’s America post-election, which include essays from Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison.

At last night’s National Book Awards Ceremony, the mood was somber. I was particularly moved by Terrance Hayes’s speech, who quoted Elizabeth Bishop: “Poetry is a way of thinking with feelings — imagine 20 years of thinking with one’s feelings while someone is trying to kill you.” Colson Whitehead won the award for fiction with The Underground Railroad, of which I read and wrote about last month. PEN America published a few writers’ reflections on the results of the election with Walter Mosley penning: “the older we are, the more we live in the past.”

A few days ago, I started reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and my nose has been buried in these pages since then. His searing satire on race and popular culture couldn’t have been more timely — since the country appears to be rapidly regressing decades back and is looking to align itself with fascist regimes.

Where do we go from here? Perhaps a line from the International League of People’s Struggle statement can guide us:

“History shows us it is the parliament of the streets, not the parliament of the state, that determines change.”

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