#AsianLitBingo: A Time to Dance by Padma Venkataraman

I wasn’t expecting a novel in verse. And really, I didn’t know what to expect except that this book nicely fit into the Asian Lit Bingo category of “Asian MC with Disability”. And of course, dance.

“Both feet on the ground again, I pirouette and leap,

rejoicing in the speed at which

the body obeys my mind’s commands,

celebrating my strong, skilled body — 

the center and source of my joy,

the one thing I can count on,

the one thing that never fails me.”

Growing up in Singapore, I knew a little (just a little) about Indian dance. In Singapore, ‘Indians’ (that is, anyone of South Asian ethnicity) make up about 7% of the population. And at my all-girls secondary school, there was a strong Indian dance group that performed at many occasions. I remember watching them walk on stage, the bells on their legs jingling. And all the many whirling and strenuous vibrant movements they made. It was such a huge contrast to the more gentle movements that the Chinese dance troupe performed. 

Veda is a dancer. A Bharatanatyam dancer. It is her life, it is her passion, it is her world. She lives and breathes dance. 

But her world comes crashing down when she loses her leg in a car accident. She now has to figure out how to walk again with a prosthetic leg. 

“It feels like Shiva destroyed my universes of possibility,

like He’s dancing

on the ashes 

of my snatched-away dreams.”

Somehow she finds the strength in herself to learn to dance again. She finds a new teacher and begins at the beginning with the youngest dancers. 

Veda is such a great character. She’s strong and resilient yet also very vulnerable and innocent. I love that she has a great relationship with her grandmother, who encourages her dancing, while her relationship with her mother is much more constrained. 

A Time to Dance is a sweet and beautiful story with dance at its heart and a courageous inspiring young woman at its soul. 

 

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

#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

#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

Malice by Keigo Higashino #AsianLitBingo


My love affair with Japanese crime fiction continues with this beauty by Keigo Higashino who may be better known for his Detective Galileo series, which begins with The Devotion of Suspect X, a brilliant crime story.

Malice features a different police detective and his name is Detective Kaga. According to Wikipedia, this is the fourth book in the series but the first three don’t seem to have been translated into English as yet. 

The Galileo series has faired better in terms of publication, with three out of four being published. Hopefully more of Higashino’s works will be translated. 

Because he has such an amazing way with plot twists. 

(I will try my very best to avoid spoilers in this post.)

Bestselling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is found dead in his home. A paperweight has been used to bludgeon him. In case that wasn’t enough, he has also been strangled. 

His body is found by a fellow author, Osama Nonoguchi, who writes children’s books, and Hidaka’s wife Rie. 

Hidaka was in his locked office. He and his wife, whom he had recently married, had been about to make their move to Vancouver, Canada, to start life anew. 

This is quite a puzzle for Detective Kyoichiro Kaga, who happens to have known Nonoguchi when they were both teachers. 

What is especially intriguing in this mystery novel is that the guilty party is arrested early on in the story. But Detective Kaga continues to puzzle over the case and digs far deeper and deeper until he finally figures it out. 

I loved the plot of this story. It’s hard to talk about it without giving much away. It definitely made me sit up in awe of the way Higashino twists and turns his plot around.

Malice was a quick read and it was entertaining with its plot puzzle. But I think Higashino’s other books like Under the Midnight Sun and Devotion of Suspect X are better reads, more elegantly written, than this one which, while decently written, wasn’t quite as stellar. 

Higashino nonetheless is one Japanese crime author I always look out for. I just wish I wasn’t at the mercy of American publishers and the way they pick whichever books to translate! 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – East Asian MC

#AsianLitBingo – Bright Lines

It is not an easy thing, describing this book. A family saga? An immigrant story? A bildungsroman?

All of this and more?

However you’d like to group it under, there is no doubt that this was an ambitious book. A book filled with larger than life characters. A book full of energy and colour and spirit.

It is 2003 and Ella, home from college, sneaks into the Brooklyn house of her aunt Hashi and uncle Anwar.

Ella is the adopted daughter, technically the niece. Her parents died in Bangladesh when she was very young. She’s at a crossroads in life. As is her sister Charu (Anwar’s daughter), about to head to NYU. Charu thinks herself an entrepreneur/designer, making hijabs out of unusual cloth for sale. Ella has also had a bit of a crush on Charu for quite a while now.

Anwar owns an apothecary, selling homemade beauty products, and Hashi runs a beauty salon out of their home.

And add to this mix Charu’s friend Maya, the daughter of a strict religious cleric, who has run away from home and is staying with them. It just so happens that Maya’s father is the very man whose storefront Anwar rents.

It’s a summer of love and relationships of the ‘forbidden’ kind, ‘forbidden’ more because of the culture and religion that they grew up in. Ella has her own awakening about her sexual and personal identity that is both brave and beautiful.

A bright, effervescent book about self-discovery and belonging. The lush verdant settings of New York and Bangladesh, and the detailed lives of the characters allow the reader to know them well and definitely made me think about how their lives are like now that the book has ended. Always a sign of a  good read and an excellent writer.

 
I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC. 

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!

The Song Poet – Kao Kalia Yang

 

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I have so much love for this book that I don’t know how to write about it. Will you just bypass it because, it’s a book that you haven’t heard of? Or maybe you don’t read memoirs? Or non-fiction? Why am I being so negative? Maybe instead you are excited because it is a book you’ve not heard much of! Maybe it’s interesting because it is memoir! Non-fiction! Hurrah!

Amazingly, I won The Song Poet from a Library Thing giveaway. (I seriously have the worst of luck when it comes to book giveaways). And what is perhaps more amazing is that I picked up the book and read it, within a few weeks of receiving it. I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to physical books. I buy them and then, save them for the end of the world or something.

Anyway, the book must have called out to me. It was meant to be. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. A book that sings and cries, a book that laughs and shudders. A book I brought along on a Bart ride to the city to pick up my passport from the Singapore consulate. It sat with me on the crowded train, it rocketed up many storeys up to the consulate building, then it basked in the sunlight at Ferry Building where I sipped a tiny and expensive mocha and watched the traffic on the Bay Bridge.

This may sound silly but I first learnt of the Hmong on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s Anatomy may be overdramatic and too many ridiculous things happen to one doctor at one hospital (she puts her hand in a body with a bomb, she steps in front of a gunman etc). But it was also one of the very very few popular primetime TV series to have a lead Asian character, and it wasn’t about Christina Yang being Korean. Or Asian. She was just a doctor. A friend. A crazy, intense, very intelligent person. But still. She was a person. But this episode has nothing to do with Yang. An episode in Season Two featured a patient, a young woman, who needed surgery but because she is Hmong, her father refuses. They decide to call in a shaman before surgery. I hadn’t the faintest idea if this was a good portrayal of the Hmong culture or not (the blog Petite Hmong Mommy found it kinda ridiculous) but it made me wonder about the Hmong culture. I later learnt more by reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, published in 1997, a work of non-fiction about a young Hmong girl living in Merced, California, who suffers from epilepsy. It is a moving, tragic book, in case you haven’t yet read it. But it is not by a Hmong so it’s still from the point of view of an outsider looking in.

The Song Poet seemed to me like your typical refugee in America kind of memoir at first. But the prologue opens with ‘Album Notes’, in which Yang writes about calling her father, Bee, a poet.

“I grew up hearing my father digging into words for images that will stretch the limits of life for my siblings and me. In my father’s mouth, bitter, rigid words become sweet and elastic like taffy candy. His poetry shields us from the poverty of our lives.”

His song poetry is hard to explain, and Yang describes it as such:

“The only way I know how to describe it as a form in English is to say: my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.”

It sounds fascinating.

The Song Poet is a story of struggle, of hardship, of determination, and quite simply of back-breaking, hardworking parents trying to make enough money to put a roof over their family’s heads, to put food in their kids’ mouths. This is a story that moves from Laos, to Thailand, to Minneapolis. And it is so very very difficult, to read of all the pain that other people put this family through, because they are different, because they are Hmong. They were driven from the Laos because of war and communism. In Thailand they lived in refugee camps, where the author was born. Then wanting to be more than just refugees, the family traveled to America. But in America, their lives are still difficult – Bee takes on backbreaking, dangerous work at a factory in order to make ends meet. His wife works the morning shift, he works the night shift. Just so that there is a parent around for their children.

Yang’s voice is just beautiful. My favourite part of the book is ‘Side A, Track 4: Love Song’, where she writes from her father’s perspective of his love for his wife Chue Moua, and all the many things that they have gone through, many miscarriages, across countries. I read and reread that chapter, trying to find something to quote here, but it is a chapter to be read as a whole. A few sentences, a paragraph, wouldn’t do justice to this emotional chapter.

Instead, I will leave you here with a quote from another part of the book. Equally unforgettable.

 

“In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.”

 

You can read an excerpt of The Song Poet over at Literary Hub

 

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

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Read Diverse Books Year-Round

The Partner Track by Helen Wan

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I hated being singled out for reasons I’d had nothing to do with. As long as I could remember, high-er-ups—not just bosses but teachers, professors, deans, recruiters, and HR directors—were forever asking me to serve on this committee, come to that reception, be a mentor, speak on a panel. I didn’t flatter myself by thinking that because I was pos-sessed of such wit and charm, such keen legal acumen, my absence was unthinkable. I knew the rule: When you find an attractive, articulate minority woman in your midst, who’s neither too strident nor too soft-spoken, who speaks English without accent or attitude, who makes friends easily and photographs well—you want her.

Ingrid Yung is a senior associate at a top Manhattan law firm and she’s up for partner. As one of the “women of colour” at the firm (or really, one of the few non-whites), she’s the “golden girl”, their diversity representative. And when some shit happens at the firm’s annual outing, the firm has to scramble to do damage control, that is, a “Diversity Initiative”. And of course Ingrid gets dragged in, her boss more or less makes her get involved, dragging her away from a very important deal that he already assigned her to.

“This country isn’t ready yet to ignore race or gender,” I snapped, regretting it the instant it was out of my mouth.

Silence. My words hung there in the air.

“I didn’t know you felt that strongly about it one way or another, Yung,” Murph said softly.

“Yeah,” Gavin finally said. “I mean”—and he said this gently, in a conciliatory tone—“I wasn’t even talking about Asians.”

Murph shot him a you are fucking hopeless look.

Gavin went on, “Seems to me like Asian Americans have done all right.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “I’m really glad it seems that way to you, Gavin.”

“Come on. I’m just saying that by any objective economic measure, Asians are right up there with whites.”

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This is workplace fiction. Law firm fiction. Not the more exciting courtroom drama kind of story but the kind of law that deals with mergers and acquisitions, deals, finance. That sort of thing. Nothing that I have the faintest idea about nor the slightest interest in. But what drew me in was Ingrid Yung. She is an Asian woman in a white man’s world. A determined, intelligent, confident woman, one who just happens to be Chinese-American. Her mom calls her often, worried about her single status, still wondering why she didn’t become a doctor. She was the kid in the elementary school cafeteria who ate all the funny foods. She was relatable. She was hardworking, determined, but also very human.

I did not appreciate Murph or anyone else scrutinizing what I was eating. It always felt, just a tiny bit, like I was back in my fourth-grade cafeteria, shyly unwrapping the scallion pancake or shrimp toast my mother would pack in aluminum foil in my lunchbox. “What’s that?” Becky Noble would wrinkle up her nose, her own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwich raised halfway to her mouth, causing all of the other girls to giggle.

 

Helen Wan is herself an attorney so she writes a pretty good workplace novel, although some parts of the dealmaking went over my head, she did set the place well and I enjoyed immersing myself into that cutthroat Manhattan law firm world for a little while.

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy.

Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything, that was asked of me, I would be rewarded.

So the best way to describe this book is that it is about race in the workplace. It hits hard in some places but still manages to have a light, breezy tone, one that makes it easy to read, but also a little predictable and perhaps a bit too stereotypical. To explain that more would reveal a little too much of the storyline. I came into this book with no expectations, it being a completely random choice from the Scribd catalogue (because Scribd forces us to use up our credits or not get any new ones!). I hadn’t heard of the book before, nor the author, and the cover, well, you might know that I am not a fan of the half-hidden woman, especially the half-hidden Asian woman, much less the woman seen from behind, so I do not like these covers at all. But don’t let that stop you, don’t let the ugh covers push you away, ignore the fact that you’ve not heard of the book (unless you actually have!!!), and just go ahead and read it. It’s not for everyone of course, it is contemporary fiction, set in New York, in a law firm, a little predictable, but it has at its heart a wonderful main character, a strong (yet vulnerable) Asian woman. And you know what, we could always do with more books like that!

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

The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai: Four Girls and a Compact

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The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai deserves a better reader than me. It required three renewals – easy enough as it was an ebook and no one else was interested in it. There was quite a bit of glancing through of passages. And I really got confused by the very many characters in this book. The lack of a true story arc didn’t really help matters. In fact, it seems that few Chinese have read this tome – The New Yorker said that it may be “China’s ‘Ulysses'”!

But while it is lengthy and not the easiest of reads, it is a fascinating look into a time that is hardly written about. Brothels in 19th century Shanghai, specifically, in the foreign settlements outside the city.

It begins with a young man arriving in Shanghai, fresh from the country, and falls for a courtesan who turns out not to be a virgin despite his having forked out plenty to ‘deflower’ her. It is a cutthroat business after all! The story is more episodic than most, so we catch glimpses of this young fellow throughout the book. The focus here is on the (many) girls instead.

Here’s what I did gleam from the book:

– there are different classes of prostitutes. There are girls and there are “maestros” who sing and don’t play finger games. The ones called ‘prostitutes’ are something else altogether. More like streetwalkers. Likewise, there are different ‘classes’ of sing-song houses, and within those houses, the girls were ranked. Although all of these girls really do provide more than entertainment, it is only hinted at in the book. Nothing hot and heavy here!

– there is a ‘humble’ side to a divan

– opium opium opium. All the time!

– Besides opium, plenty of drinking  and finger games. Having watched my share of Chinese movies, I can guess at what the finger games are like but I wish there was more description.

– To “call” a girl, you send a servant out with a ticket
– They did eat “western” meals and drink coffee, probably because they were in the foreign districts. I wish the western-style meals were described though. There were also ‘foreign’ policemen.
– Girls are bought at ages 7 or 8. And they can “do business” at age 16.
– The Shanghainese thought the Cantonese uncouth. Cantonese prostitutes are described as having “terrifying” physical strength.
– bound feet can make a “rickety noise”. Yikes!
– Although most of the girls, especially those who have been in the trade since young, are skilled in music and singing and charm, they were almost always illiterate
– Courtesans were not supposed to go anywhere on foot. They were usually transported from party to party by sedan or rickshaw, or even carried by manservants

– Plus, it was first translated by Eileen Chang, of Love in a Fallen City fame. The translation was discovered among her papers after her death.

Here’s the New York Times’ review for a more complete picture.

Also some background to how prostitution transformed Shanghai’s Old City in this article from CNN Traveler.

 

 

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2015 Translation

I read the Sing-song Girls of Shanghai as a Translated Classic for Back to the Classics Challenge

And for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge

 

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In contrast, the novella Four Girls and a Compact was light, breezy and easy to read. But also quite forgettable.

The girls are tired of work and life in the city. They’re ready for a break out in the fresh air. They send one girl out to seek their El Dorado.

“To get out of the hot, teeming city and breathe air enough and pure enough, to luxuriate in idleness, to rest—to a girl, they longed for it. They were all orphans, and they were all poor. The Grand Plan was ambitious, indefinite, but they could not give it up. They had wintered it and springed it, and clung to it through bright days and dark.”

The girls are a little indistinguishable but otherwise it’s a cute little story. It’s available to read online or as a free download at Project Gutenberg

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I read Four Girls and a Compact for the Back to the Classics Challenge – Novella

Who Ate Up All the Shinga? by Park Wan-Suh

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Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute publishes books! And such interesting ones too! Weatherhead Books on Asia includes books by Natsume Soseki, Zhu Wen, Abe Kōbō and more. As well as one of my all-time favourite books, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi (my thoughts).

I hadn’t heard of Park Wan-Suh before browsing their catalogue. My knowledge of Korean authors is a bit limited, but I have read books by Shin Kyung-Sook (I’ll Be Right There and Please Look After Mom), and the Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a comic series. There might be one or two more but that’s all I can recall at the moment!

But I haven’t come across any non-fiction reads from Korean authors. So I jumped at the chance to read this one!

Who Ate Up all the Shinga? is such a charming book. Park has a very personable tone to her writing. And it kind of reminded me a little of another favourite book in translation, Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Chihiro Iwasaki (Illustrator), Dorothy Britton (Translator). Tott0-chan’s story sticks to her early childhood years and focuses on this very fascinating school life she had in pre-WWII Tokyo. Park’s story begins with childhood but she goes on to tell us about her teenaged years as well.

It is an account first of her childhood in a rural village with less than twenty households in the 1930s. She has a grandfather who dotes on her, the only granddaughter. And this grandfather of hers tries to uphold the image of their family as “aristocracy” although that’s not entirely the situation. Plus it’s also a bit odd as their village is such a tiny one.

I am utterly fascinated by how the kids amused themselves. From making dolls out of grass, “noodles” out of pine needles, catching dragonflies and shrimp! It is such a gentle, idyllic life.

“We were part of nature, and because nature is alive, changing, in motion, not resting a single moment, we had no time to be bored.”

Her mother was determined to raise her and her older brother in Seoul, and when Wan-Suh turns seven, they move to Seoul for school, where she first discovers what city life is like. Korea is still occupied by the Japanese and Wan-Suh is made to learn Japanese in school.

Partly because her mother discourages her from playing with the neighbourhood kids, and partly because her classmates disdain her for being a country girl, Wan-Suh’s life in Seoul isn’t a joyful one. And she was thrilled to return to the village for summer.

“All day long, you’re going to be stuck in alleyways, playing marbles or skipping rope. The best treat you’ll have are the snacks you get by begging one chon at a time off the grownups. Meanwhile, I’ll be jumping around in the country like a puppy. Everything there is alive and breathing and moving around in the breeze. Tomorrow, I’m going to get to climb up hills and walk through fields and splash in streams. I’m going to get to breathe in air that’s got the smell of grass the wild flowers and soil.”

On another level, this is a story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Not entirely a happy peaceful one as her mother is quite a character. She’s rather demanding and determined, and was relatively educated at a time when women typically were not, especially those who were from the country. The account of her haggling with a porter to carry their bags when they first arrive in Seoul is quite hilarious. She is incredibly thrifty and hardworking, and yet at times, rather extravagant.

But her mother’s determination to have her children study in Seoul seems to pay off and their family does well, that is, until the Japanese leave Korea and things fall apart all around them.

It is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse at life in Korea during the Japanese occupation and its aftermath. And while that may sound like a difficult period to be reading about, Park’s friendly, confessional tone, and her family’s moving story will capture your imagination and your heart.

 

Park Wan Suh was born in 1931 in Gaepung-gun in what is now Hwanghaebuk-do in North Korea. Park entered Seoul National University, the most prestigious in Korea, but dropped out almost immediately after attending classes due to the outbreak of the Korean War and the death of her brothparkwansuher. During the war, Park was separated from her mother and elder brother by the North Korea army, which moved them to North Korea. She lived in the village of Achui, in Guri, outside Seoul until her death. Park died on the morning of January 22, 2011, suffering from cancer.

Park wrote her first book just before she turned 40, and went on to write 20-odd novels and more than 100 short stories, winning prestigious Korean literature awards along the way. 

Works in translation
My Very Last Possession: And Other Stories
The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
Sketch of the Fading Sun
Three Days in That Autumn
Weathered Blossom (Modern Korean Short Stories)
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel

2015 Translation

 

This is the first book I read for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge