#AsianLitBingo: Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai


I’ve been wondering why I’ve not read Selvadurai’s works before. Why have his books escaped my eye? It’s such a pity because he is such a great writer.

I knew that this book was a gay coming-of-age story but didn’t know that a big part of the story would be about the riots in Sri Lanka.

“But we are a minority, and that’s a fact of life,” my father said placatingly. “As a Tamil you have to learn how to play the game. Play it right and you can do very well for yourself. The trick is not to make yourself conspicuous. Go around quietly, make your money, and don’t step on anyone’s toes.”

Funny Boy is also a story about Sri Lanka and the ethnic violence that erupted in the 1980s – which is what drove the author and his family to flee Sri Lanka for Canada. Selvadurai’s mother is Sinhalese (the majority group) and his father is Tamil. The 1983 “Black July” riots resulted in the deaths of an estimated 400 to 3,000, thousands of shops and homes destroyed, and some 150,000 people were made homeless.

What seemed disturbing, now that I thought about those 1981 riots, was that there had been no warning, no hint that they were going to happen. I looked all around me at the deserted beach, so calm in the hot sun. What was to prevent a riot from happening right now?

Arjie and his cousins spend one Sunday a month at their grandparents’ house, free of their parents. The boys play cricket for hours in the front and the field, the girls play in the back garden and porch. Arjie plays with the girls, mostly “bride-bride”, where he, being the leader of the group, plays the bride.

“I was able to leave the constraints of my self and ascent into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated, and around whom the world, represented by my cousins putting flowers in my hair, draping the palu, seemed to revolve.”

But his “funny” ways are soon discovered and the adults insist that he stick to the boys’ games.

“I would be caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.”

Arjie starts to attend a new school, as his father explains, it will force him to “become a man”. It is at this academy that Arjie meets Shehan, who is rumored to be gay. They become friendly and then, more than friends, but even that is something of a risk, as Arjie is Tamil while Shehan is Sinhalese.

Throughout the book, ethnic identity is brought to the fore. Arjie’s aunt falls for a Sinhalese man. But the community’s prejudice tears them apart. His mother meets an old friend, a reporter investigating police abuses of power, who disappears in Jaffna, where violence erupted.

Funny Boy is a moving, engaging read about a young boy’s journey into adulthood in Sri Lanka.

 


I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South Asian MC

Advertisements

#AsianLitBingo: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen

 

I probably should have first read Little House on the Prairie before reading this book. While I know of the story – and think I remember watching some episodes of the TV show – I cannot confirm if I’ve actually read the book.

This book luckily has plenty of layers and even a non-Little House reader like me can find plenty to love.

The story goes as such. Lee Lien is jobless. She has a PhD but she’s finding it hard to find a job. So she goes home to a Chicago suburb where her mother and grandfather still live – and where they run a Vietnamese restaurant. She has a younger brother who’s convinced that their mother is hiding money from them. He leaves, taking all the cash in the register and all their mother’s jewelry, except for a single brooch. This  brooch was left behind by an American journalist their grandfather had met in Vietnam in 1965. Lee Lien wants to find out if there’s any truth to the idea that the American was Laura Ingall Wilder’s daughter.

So in one hand, a literary mystery that takes Lee from Chicago to Iowa to San Francisco.

The story goes as such. Lee Lien is jobless. She has a PhD but she’s finding it hard to find a job. So she goes home to a Chicago suburb where her mother and grandfather still live – and where they run a Vietnamese restaurant. She has a younger brother who’s convinced that their mother has been hiding money from them. He leaves, taking all the cash in the register and all their mother’s jewelry, except for a single brooch. This brooch was left behind by an American journalist their grandfather had met in Vietnam in 1965. Lee Lien wants to find out if there’s any truth to the idea that the American was Laura Ingall Wilder’s daughter Rose.

So on one hand, a literary mystery of sorts that takes Lee from Chicago to Iowa to San Francisco in search of Rose Wilder. (I say ‘of sorts’ because if you’re coming to this book looking for an actual mystery, then you may be disappointed. Also, if you’ve already read all the Little House books and all kinds of non-fiction about the Wilders then you will also be disappointed. I’m adding these caveats as I’ve read some reviews on Goodreads and I reckon these readers were coming into the story expecting new revelations about the Wilders. It was however an interesting experience for myself, not knowing anything about the story behind the books, to learn  about Rose Wilder Lane, who, despite her own work, her journalism, her books (she was the first biographer of Herbert Hoover and her collaboration on the Little House series), she is today best known as being the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And on the other hand, this is a story about family. Her mother wants her to take over the business. Lee Lien feels a tug towards her family, wanting to help her mother and her grandfather. But she also knows that it is time to figure out things for herself, to learn where her research can take her, to carve her own path.

I really enjoyed this one.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South East 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.

In the country we love by Diane Guerrero


There was an article in the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper I glance at every day, about families in the Bay Area applying for dual citizenship for their American-born children at Mexican consulates. The fear of deportation has led them to plan for these emergency situations where the family has to be uprooted. It’s based partly on a misconception that US-born children won’t be allowed into Mexico without proper documents.

Reading the stories of the undocumented rushing to get Mexican citizenship for their kids made me angry and made me reflect on the story of Diane Guerrero, an actress on Orange is the New Black. She is an American citizen but her parents were undocumented immigrants from Colombia. And one day, when she was just 14, she returned home to find that they were gone. They had been taken by the immigrant authorities and were inmates in a detention centre.

Guerrero had to live with a family friend. Although they made her feel welcome, she was  always worried that she would do something to make them kick her out. She wasn’t an actual family member after all. And with everyone just barely making ends meet, an extra person in the house (even if her parents sent money) was difficult.

Guerrero applied to Boston Arts Academy, a public high school for visual and performing arts, and it was there she honed her performing skills. But her long-distance relationship with her family becomes even more fractured.

I love how Guerrero has become a fierce advocate for immigration. Guerrero is set to play an attorney defending undocumented immigrants. And the pilot sounds like it’s based on her story – that the attorney is the child of undocumented parents.

In The Country We Love, co-written by Michelle Burford, has a very casual tone of voice. I can imagine Guerrero talking as I read it. And I have the feeling it would be quite a good audiobook to listen to.

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?

Two diverse YA reads 

I would never have come across this book if I hadn’t taken part in the Litsy A to Z challenge.

It’s a novelisation of the life of Malcolm X, from his birth to his childhood in Lansing, Michigan, where his father dies and his mother gets sent to a state hospital after a breakdown, and he and his siblings get split up into foster homes. Later he moves to Boston to stay with his half-sister, he’s an intelligent kid, the kind who breezes through school. But he’s more interested in making a living, although not necessarily with legal methods.

I loved how the book is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the times. From the dandelion greens soup and the stale bread the family eats to the zoot suits, music and dancing of the city, to the sundaes and sodas of the neighborhood diner where Malcolm works.

And how Malcolm X’s story shows us that he wasn’t perfect. He made some terrible choices, hung out with the wrong crowd, got arrested for stealing but eventually found his way, even if he had to go to prison to figure that out.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian – Sherman Alexie

And from the streets of the big cities we head to the Spokane reservation, where Junior is a buddding cartoonist, born with many medical problems and picked on almost everyone. He decides to leave the reservation school and attend the all-white school in the nearby town. And is seen as a traitor for playing for their basketball team.

Indian families stick together like Gorilla Glue, the strongest adhesive in the world.

It’s a sad and difficult story to read, whatever your age – poverty, far too many funerals, alcoholism, hunger. And perhaps the worst of all is that feeling of hopelessness in the reservation, the feeling that this is the way things are and there’s nothing they can do about it. But somehow Junior manages to overcome that and fight for a better life for himself.

“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.

You can do it.

I’m not typically a YA reader but I thought these two books were really great reads, and I look forward to introducing them to my kids one day.

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

mantiger

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

 

ripelevenmain

I read this book for Readers Imbibing in Peril XI

(here’s the link to the review site)

diversity

Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf 

Read-Diverse-Books-Year-Round-1

 Read Diverse Books Year-Round