#AsianLitBingo: The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

“And so it came to pass that sisters who had been the best of friends were forced to follow separate paths. ‘Separate’ is not quite the right word. Our paths were more distinctly different, as if she were to follow the day and I the night; or she the inner road and I the outer, she to traverse the heavens and I the earth. That was the ‘law’ of the island – that was our ‘destiny’.

It feels like a bit of a gamble for Natsuo Kirino, best known for her crime/mystery novels, to have written this retelling of the Japanese creation myth.

Yet it also remains true to her female-focused narratives, with this being a more feminist rebelling.

Apparently when Kirino’s books, especially Out, were first published in Japan, many criticized  her plots and one radio DJ refused to speak to her because in Out, a woman murders her husband.

Also, later I realize that The Goddess Chronicle is part of the Canongate myth series and that Kirino was invited by the publisher to write a story based on ancient Japanese myth.

I didn’t know anything about this myth of Izanaki and Izanami before reading the book – and you don’t really need to but I guess it would enhance your reading of it.  Izanaki and Izanami are deities commanded to make the lands of Japan. Their first attempt resulted in a deformed island and upon consulting the other deities, they learn that it’s because Izanami (the female) had spoken first. And when they try procreating again, Izanaki speaks first and Izanami gives birth to the many islands of Japan. After giving birth to the fire deity, Izanami dies. Izanaki pursues her to the underworld. (You can read more here)

The Goddess Chronicle begins with a dual thread of a story of a young woman whose journey has echoes of the goddess’ life. Namima who lives on a tiny remote island, where the islanders believe they are ruled by ancient gods.

“They sustained our lives; the waves and wind, the sand and stones. We respected the grandeur of nature. Our gods did not come to us in any specific form, but we held them in our hearts and understood them in our own way.”

Her sister Kamikuu is apprenticed to the Oracle on her sixth birthday. She lives with her and learns from her. And she is to no longer see Namima again. Namima is tasked to carry food to Kamikuu. Despite the poverty and scarce resources of the village, the food for Kamikuu is bountiful and rich. Yet she barely eats it, and as is tradition, the leftovers are tossed into the sea

Namibia is due for a very different life.

“Kamikuu, Child of Gods, is yang. She is the high priestess who rules the realm of light. She resides at the Kyoido on the eastern edge of the island, where the sun rises. But you are yin. You must preside over the realm of darkness. You will live here, in the Amiido, on the western edge where the sun sets.

That is, she is to care for the dead. She is to live with them, tend to their decaying bodies, and never return to her village.

But Namima wants more than this dreadful life she is expected to live, just because she is second-born. Things take a very different turn for her when she meets a young man, a fellow outcast whose family is shunned because his mother cannot produce a female child.

We eventually meet the deities Izanaki and Izanami and gods being gods, their story does sound rather silly and petty but they will never change. Or will they?

It took me a while to get into this story. Sometimes with translations one can never tell – is it the translation or is it just how the original story is written? Quite a bit of over-explaining makes the narrative a bit clunky. But overall, I really enjoyed learning about this Japanese myth and I especially liked the human story running alongside. Although I so wish that there was a better resolution to Namima’s story.

 

 

 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Retelling with Asian MC

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#AsianLitBingo: Goat Days by Benyamin 


Yes there are goats in this story.

But first, we meet Najeeb, and he and a friend are trying their very best to get arrested. Life in prison is far better to what he has suffered through recently.

What could be worse than prison?

It is the 1990s. Najeeb is from Kerala, a state in India. He’s intrigued by all the stories of those working in the Gulf and thinks it a quick easy way to make some fast cash and take care of his pregnant wife and their future child. But things do not go the way he expects.

He is put to work with goats. He tended to goats, milked them, fed them, herded them. The goats were treated better than he was. He didn’t have a cot to sleep on, or shelter. And this is the desert, which means ridiculously hot days and freezing cold nights. The precious water was meant for the goats so he wasn’t allowed any water to wash up with. He is only given khubus (a kind of bread) to eat for lunch and dinner, and some raw goat’s milk in the morning for breakfast. And barely enough water to drink.

We follow him through his days. His hard, painful, extremely dirty days where the only other human he sees is his Arab owner, a mean man who watches him through binoculars to make sure he doesn’t run off while herding goats – and won’t hesitate to shoot. When finally Najeeb meets other people, two Sundanese men who come to shear the sheep, although they don’t have a common language, he is just thrilled to see different faces, to smell a different smell. 

“The sense of dejection that descended one me as they departed! I had been enjoying the scent of two humans till then. Now, there were only the animals and me. Grief came, like rain.”

He didn’t expect to be a goat herder. He just wanted to make easy money – his relative got him a work visa. And when he landed in Saudi Arabia, not speaking a word of Arabic, not knowing any details except a name. Someone comes to claim him and they drive far off into the desert where he begins work. There is no choice for there is nothing but sand around. Where can he go? He doesn’t know where he is. He can’t speak the language. And somehow he survives three years, barely human, treated worse than an animal. He is a slave.

“My thoughts were not of my home country, home, Sainu, Ummah, my unborn son/daughter, my sorrows and anxieties or my fate, as one would imagine. All such thoughts has become alien to me as they were to the dead who had reached the other world. So soon – you might wonder. My answer is yes. No use being bound by such thoughts. They only delay the process of realization that we’ve lost out to circumstances and there is no going back. I realized this within a day. Anxiety and worry were futile. That world had become alien to me. Now only my sad new world existed for me.”

What a painful  read, brutal even. It’s hard to attract people to read such a book, I know. But I am glad I read it. It is a short read, at just 255 pages, and essentially while it is a rather simple story, it is well portrayed, it is moving and a very unique look at life in Saudi Arabia, far from the towering skyscrapers and modern amenities, far from another human face. It is terrifying to think that this is happening out there. 

“Every experience in life has a climax, whether it be happiness, sorrow, sickness or hunger. When we reach the end, there are only two paths left for us: either we learn to live with our lives or protest and struggle in a final attempt to escape. If we choose the second path, we are safe if we win; if not, we end up in a mental asylum or kill ourselves.” 

I am using Goat Days for Asian Lit Bingo – Poor or working class  Asian MC

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

Kiffe Kiffe what?

Well, the title is a play on words. Kif-kif is Arabic slang that means “same old, same old” and kiffer (used mainly by young teens in France) kind of means ‘to be crazy for’.

“…it’s just kif-kif tomorrow. Same shit, different day.”

 

This book is a different look at life in France, one from the perspective of a teenager of Moroccan descent. Her father has returned to Morocco to start a different family there – i.e. one with a son. And so  her mother has to work desperately hard at a housekeeping job in a crappy motel.

“Everyone calls her ‘Fatma’ at the Formula 1. They shout at her all the time, and keep a close watch on her to make sure she doesn’t steal anything from the rooms.

Of course Mom’s name isn’t Fatma, it’s Yasmina. It must really give Monsieur Winner a charge to call all the Arabs ‘Fatma’, all the blacks ‘Mamadou’, and all the Chinese ‘Ping-Pong’. Pretty freaking lame.”

Doria is 15 so you can expect all the usual teenager problems and angst. And being abandoned by her father, she feels lost.

“What a shitty destiny. Fate is all trial and misery and you can’t do anything about it. Basically no matter what you do you’ll always get screwed over.”

But it’s an especially interesting one as she is a young Muslim girl in France. For instance, she has to get her mother to write her note explaining that she won’t be eating in the school cafeteria because it’s Ramadan, and the principal thinks she forged it because her mother’s signature is a poor one.

Her family is poor and they survive on help from their neighbours, the grocer letting them rack up a bill, and this being France, help from the government – social workers come by and Doria even gets access to a psychologist. But it’s not an easy life for Doria, who doesn’t do well in school, doesn’t seem to have many friends, and has to wear horrible hand-me-down clothes. TV is her main escape.

It is perhaps the ordinariness of her life that appeals to me. That she is just a regular teenager living in France, her life isn’t terribly full of drama in the YA sense – some stuff happens to people in the neighbourhood but you wouldn’t find it hard to believe that this happens out there in the world today.

“Once, he told my mom that in ten years on this job, this was the first time he’d seen ‘people like you with only one child.’ He was thinking ‘Arabs,’ but he didn’t say so.”

I don’t read much translated French literature. And I find it difficult to name any contemporary French writers. Muriel Barbery is the only contemporary translated French author whose work I have recently read. (Please enlighten me!).

And perhaps because of this, I felt that it was rather refreshing reading this authentic teenager’s voice by French-Algerian writer Faïza Guène. This first book of hers was published in 2004 when she was just 19 years old. It’s been translated into 22 different languages. Kiffe kiffe demain was translated into English in 2006  under the title Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow.

She’s had another of her books translated into English, it’s called Men Don’t Cry.

A Woman in The Crossfire

“What am I going to do? My daughter is far away from me, my mother is far away from me, I am forbidden from going to my own village and my own city. I can’t do anything. I am suspended in the air. All I do now is translate people’s agonies into words through my interviews and meetings with those escaping massacres and prisons.”

 

This book. How does one go about writing about this book?

This brave book. This mad book. This book that I want to tell more people to read and that more people should read but is full of despair and violence and fear and hate that I am unable to say, hey, read this, for it is uncommon for people to want to read about things like this. This book that terrifies me, that there is a country out there which treats its people like this. I mean, it is one thing to read about revolutions and violence and brutality in news articles but it is another complete different entity to read of it in these far more personal stories and interviews that Yazbek tells us in her book. I didn’t have the stomach to take notes about the torture that these people went through though and this post may be the poorer as a result of that.

Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer, a novelist, didn’t have to write this book. She is a member of the Alawite clan, the same one the dictator Bashar al-Assad belongs to. She belongs to a influential, well-to-do family. She could have been safe, cocooned by her family, but she chose to use the best weapon she had – her words.

“It isn’t enough for them to kill people; they were buying and selling their bodies. Oh my God, how can we live alongside these murderers? How can they walk freely among us?”

She first started posting about her opposition to what was going on in Syria on Facebook, on websites. She kept a diary of her observations, her personal reflections, of her conversations with those who protested, who were arrested and tortured. It is painful to read of these acts of violence happening to men, women, teenagers, children. And it is difficult to read of Yazbek’s struggle between fighting for what’s right and keeping herself and her teenaged daughter safe. She is disowned by many of her relatives, receives death threats from strangers. Several times she is snatched up and taken to an unknown location to be interrogated. She lives in fear. Her daughter once “said bitterly that the only way I could make her feel better was to appear on state television and proclaim my loyalty to the president.”

“I don’t like to talk about heroic deeds. Heroism is an illusion.”

But Yazbek, who now lives in exile in Paris, unable to return to her homeland, has indeed done something heroic. Risking her life, her daughter’s life, to gather stories, to write these things down, to convey to the rest of the world what is going on – that is heroic. Even after her exile, she returned to Syria three times, talking to Syrians, gathering their stories and compiling them in her 2015 book, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria.

She explained why she does this in an interview with World Literature Today:

“I’m writing for the whole world to see what the people of Syria experience on a daily basis. I wanted to convey the voices of these victims to the world. It’s the role of the educated Syrian elite—writers, artists—to engage in this situation, to take part in social justice.”

What Samar Yazbek has done – is doing – is truly admirable. Her bravery in bringing these stories to the world’s attention. Her need to tell the truth – and going against her clan in order to do that.

Throughout the book, I kept wondering, could I do that? Would I be that fearless?

Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Higashino

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Sometimes, it’s as important to prove there is no answer to a question as it is to answer it.’

Having read two Higashino books in these recent months, I cannot help but marvel at how he keeps the reader, well, reading.

Especially with a detective/crime story that is so quiet and relatively uneventful compared to many others out there which are more action packed. That makes it sound like nothing happens in this book but that is not true.

There is a death. A man is dead, poisoned by arsenous acid, likely something he drank in his coffee. A woman, his wife’s employee, is the one who found him. His wife Ayane is the main suspect – her husband had told her that he was leaving her for another woman – but she was hundreds of miles away at the time. What about Hiromi, the one who found him? It’s a locked-room mystery and Tokyo Police Detective Kusanagi is on the case. But he is smitten with Ayane, and unable to believe that she has anything to do with her husband’s death. His assistant, Kaoru Utsumi, believes otherwise. And so, she seeks the help of Professor Manabu Yukawa, a physicist whom Kusanagi often ropes in to help out, except now the two of them seem to have had a bit of a quarrel.

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It’s one of those crime stories where possibilities are tossed around, then shot down. Compared to other crime cases, this one seems rather simple. A man poisoned. And you pretty much know who did it, but the how is really just something you try to puzzle out, along with the detectives on the case.

Salvation of a Saint is a far quieter story than the last Higashino I read, Under the Midnight SunBut I enjoyed it for its intriguing details, its puzzle of a crime and the way Higashino’s ‘villains’ are often themselves victims.

The thing with reading translated works is having to wait for translations to emerge from publishers. This series with Kusanagi and Yukawa is known as the Detective Galileo series. The Devotion of Suspect X (a very good read) is the first in the series, Salvation of a Saint is the second. The third book, A Midsummer’s Equation, (published in 2011) was just released in English earlier this year. It is really confusing! The Devotion of Suspect X is book 3 in the series, but Salvation of a Saint is book 5, A Midsummer’s Equation is book 6. At least according to Goodreads. But when I check Wikipedia I realize that some of the books are classified as short stories, so book 4 (which I now guess to be in terms of publishing order) is a short story, so perhaps that is why the English language publishers decided to skip it? Confused! Also, disappointed! I would love to read his short stories too. Higashino also has another series called the Detective Kaga series, but so far only one of those has been translated into English, called Malice. And once again, the English language publisher has picked a book in the middle of the series, in publishing order, this is book number 4. As I cannot read Japanese, I am at the mercy of publishers who would be willing to have his work translated!

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

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While not as well-rounded as Beauty is A Wound (my thoughts), Man Tiger, first published in 2004, is a great introduction to Eka Kurniawan and Indonesian literature. After all, it tops out at 172 pages, versus Beauty is a Wound (first published in 2002) which has 470 pages.

Man Tiger is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. There is a murder. A man in a small village has been killed. Everyone knows that it was Margio, who insists:

“It wasn’t me,” he said calmly and without guilt. “There is a tiger inside my body.”

There are a lot of mystical elements to the story, which is told in a cyclical, rather conversational manner (perhaps in the Indonesian storytelling fashion?). But this is also a story about an ill-matched relationship, a couple who are constantly at loggerheads, a broken family.

Man Tiger could be described as crime fiction, maybe magic realism (although when I see those two words, I tend to flee from the book, so scratch that), domestic fiction? I don’t know, I guess the easy way out would be to file it under ‘translated fiction’ as it doesn’t really seem to fit into any proper genre. But if you’re looking for a different, diverse, translated read, one that’s quick, one that’s different, and yet also gory (you should see the way Margio kills the man), passionate, and just completely apt for autumn (i.e. ripe for any Readers Imbibing in Peril, or just up for a weird read).

If you’re interested in reading more from Indonesian writers, may I suggest The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (my thoughts)

Some things you might not know about Indonesia.

  • It’s the world’s fourth most populous nation with some 261 million people speaking over 580 languages and dialects.The main language is Bahasa Indonesia
  • It’s made up of 17,000 islands and some 130 active volcanoes

 

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I read this book for Readers Imbibing in Peril XI

(here’s the link to the review site)

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Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf 

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 Read Diverse Books Year-Round

Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

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Eileen Chang is the queen of Chinese lit. The sad reality behind that statement is that while many readers may be able to name a modern Chinese author, it is most likely that that author will be male. Here are some examples: Mo Yan, Ma Jian, Su Tong, Yu Hua.

Eileen Chang was born in 1920 in Shanghai but left for the United States in 1955. She lived there for 40 years, and died aged 74 in Los Angeles, sadly she had become a recluse and was found by her landlord several days after her death. Chang’s works, which she had written in Asia in the 1940s, remained popular in Hong Kong and China. But her English-language novels (she wrote two semi-autobiographical ones, The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change) were not successful and remained unpublished until 2010, 15 years after her death.

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I’m guessing that she became more known in the English-language world when the movie Lust, Caution, directed by Ang Lee, starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Tang Wei, based on Chang’s novella, emerged in 2007. It was critically acclaimed, won many awards, and was also controversial, partly because of the many sex scenes that had to be cut out before it was shown in China. (In Singapore, also a very conservative country, a cut version was released with an 18 rating. But eventually a R21 rating was allowed for an uncut version). That was definitely when I first learnt of Eileen Chang. I remember all that controversy about the film and I kind of remember watching the movie, but not really what it was all about. Something sensual and dramatic and full of those gorgeous vintage cheongsams.

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And of course Tong Leung Chiu Wai, one of Hong Kong’s most successful actors.

I had noticed recently that the Singapore library’s Overdrive catalogue had some Eileen Chang e-books available. That made me realize it had been a long time since Lust, Caution, both in terms of the movie, and when I had read the novella. I downloaded the book and just fell into it.

Half a Lifelong Romance was initially serialized in a Shanghai newspaper in 1948, under the title Eighteen Springs. It was published as a book in 1950. But it was only translated into English in 2014.

Half a Lifelong Romance tells of the love story of Gu Manzhen and Xu Shijun, who first meet as colleagues at a factory in Shanghai. They fall in love but because of class differences, their relationship is not an easy one. Shijun is the only son of a well-to-do family, whereas Manzhen’s sister supported her family working as a taxi dancer and escort, but eventually marries a rich client of hers. Manzhen and Shijun face some economic and class struggles but their relationship is a good one, and there is talk of marriage, but their families try to pressure them into arranged marriages, and then one awful, disastrous really, incident tears them apart. (I can’t say more than that).

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Chang has written such an unforgettable story. It is dramatic, perhaps a bit melodramatic at times, and despite the twists and turns, Chang keeps her focus steady. It definitely kept me up, wanting to find out what happened to Manzhen and Shijun. Was their love meant to be? Or would all the impediments – family, class, money, that horrible thing that happened – would that break them?

Chang writes very cinematically. Her description of Manzhen’s sister, for instance, is furnished with such details, even a sweat stain that makes a difference:

Her apple-green silk cheongsam was fairly new, but there was a darkened area at the waistline, a sweat stain left by a dance partner’s hand. It was a bit unnerving, that hand-shaped mark jumping out of the cloth. Her hair was rumpled, still undone, but she’d put on that stage make-up of hers: blocks of bright red and solid black, with blue eyeshadow. It looked pretty from a distance – up close it was rather scary. Squeezing past her on the narrow stairway, Manzhen felt her senses flooding, dread creeping over her. She could scarcely believe this was her own sister.

 

There is such beauty and genius in her writing. I realize I am saying this about a work in translation, so kudos also to her translator Karen S Kingsbury who did such a wonderful job! I listed Chang’s Lust, Caution, in my crazy-long list of 100+ books by Asian authors but this book really should be up there too. It has the right kind of crazy, some beautiful writing (and also beautiful translated writing), a flair for the dramatic (which sometimes one needs in a book), full of social mores and conservative thinking (and also characters who break all of those conventions), an eye for costume changes, and a vintage soundtrack (ok that may just have been me, I kept thinking of Teresa Teng’s Ye Lai Xiang 夜来香)

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I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge

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Read Diverse Books Year-Round