#AsianLitBingo – Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

I wouldn’t have heard of this book if not for the lists of suggested reads for Asian Lit Bingo. I initially read it with the thought of using it for the “Queer Romance with Asian MC” square but ended up using it for a different square so as to get a bingo!

Don’t Let Him Know opens with Romola who is visiting her son Amit in America not long after her husband Avinash dies. Amit finds among her things, part of a letter from someone named Sumit. And Amit assumes Sumit was his mother’s former lover, before she met and married his dad. But she doesn’t know how to tell him – can she even tell him? – that this letter from Sumit wasn’t written to her, but to Amit’s father and Romola’s late husband, Avinash.

The book reads more like a collection of linked stories than a novel. We move from character to character, back and forth in time, through various stages of their lives.

It opens with an adult Amit and Romola as a recent widow. Then move back to the time of Romola and Avinash as newlyweds in Illinois. We also meet with a young Amit and in another chapter, an older Amit trying to find his own way in America.

I was surprised that a lot of the chapters belonged more to Romola and Amit than to Avanish. I guess I was expecting to learn more about Avanish and his coming to understand (or perhaps failure to understand) his true self, one that he kept hidden for so long and just seemed so uncomfortable with. I wanted the book to explore more of that.

Still it was a worthwhile read.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South Asian MC

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee #AsianLitBingo

The first hospital stay, I was a compliant patient, a Sweet Asian Doll, and for this I was branded with a Severe Lifelong Mental Illness. Later, I would be told I had a twenty percent chance of maintaining a full-time job, a twenty-five percent chance of living independently, a forty percent chance of attempting suicide, a ten percent chance of succeeding.

I was twenty-six years old.

This was an exquisite book.

It’s not an easy tale to tell – one of mental illness, of immigrants both legal and illegal, of family and relationships both wonderful and strange.

Miranda, as the older sister, has always been protector, defender and the responsible one. And even more so now that their mother has passed away. Lucia brims with vibrancy and vivacity. She’s unconventional, some may say strange. She’s lived in South America and is marrying an Israeli man she barely seems to know. And worse, she’s started hearing voices.

Just as soon as she married Yonah she decides she wants to have a child and leaves him for a young Ecuadorian man, Manny, who is in the country illegally. Eventually they move back to his small village in Ecuador which soon proves a problem for Lucia’s condition.

Lee said in an interview that she has family members with schizophrenia and in the book it is clear that she’s dealt with various aspects of it, especially the way Miranda tries to handle the various hospital staff who don’t seem to understand how best to treat her sister. Miranda has done all her research and is familiar with all the problems the different drugs give her sister.

In bringing in Manny to the story, we see someone who cares for Lucia and also tries to appease her, not knowing exactly what she needs but still trying his very best to help.

Everything Here is Beautiful is a must-read. I seldom say things like that so I hope you know I mean it. It was a story gently and thoughtfully told, one that explores different perspectives, one that shows us how mental illness affects family and loved ones.

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

#AsianLitBingo – The Land of Forgotten Girls

Ever since Erin Entrada Kelly’s third book, Hello, Universe, won the 2018 Newbery award, I’ve been curious about her books. And now that I’ve read one, how I wish I could have read it when I was a kid!

It’s a bit of a sad story really, two young girls move to the US from the Philippines not long after their sister and mother die and their father remarries this woman Vea, who really falls into the “evil stepmother” category. Life isn’t easy but then three years ago, their father returns to the Philippines for a funeral and never returns to America.

“Unfortunately, we still have Vea.”

Vea, who complains a lot, smokes a lot, and locks Sol in the closet when she misbehaves.

12-year-old Sol is defiant but her younger sister Ming is young and doesn’t know any better.

“I’m not a disobedient girl, even though Papa and Vea say I am. Vea thinks it’s because I’m being raised in America, but that’s not it. I just don’t think it’s right to obey orders that you know are wrong – and calling Vea “Mother” was as bad as cursing God.”

They live in lower-income housing. Thin walls, the kind you can hear all kinds of sounds through, and rats. It’s a bleak and depressing place, but Sol tries to make it a better one for her sister by telling her fairytales and stories she makes up or remembers from what their mother told her, including stories about their made-up Auntie Jove, a beautiful adventurer who travels the world and was blessed by fairies.  Ming holds on to the hope of being found by Auntie Jove.

Sol wants to make Ming a treehouse, a place for her to escape, and she breaks into a junkyard to get materials but gets caught by the junkyard owner, who has a change of heart and showcases his artistic side. Similarly, she finds a friend in neighbour Mrs Yeung, a silent Chinese woman. Perhaps there is hope after all for the two girls.

Sol is a great character – spunky, driven, and independent. She’s also a fierce defender of her younger sister. And while she does some silly things like stealing popsicles from the store and breaking into the junkyard, she knows right from wrong, and knows that their living situation isn’t ideal but that as a child, she can hardly do anything about it.

I really liked this story about a young, lower-income, immigrant girl struggling to fit in. As an adult reader, I think I wanted the book to touch more on race and class issues. But if I had been reading this as a 10-year-old I would have enjoyed this a lot, the way it brings in a bit of fantasy into reality.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian Immigrant MC.

See the rest of my TBR list here

Find out more details about the challenge here.

#AsianLitBingo – Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

“I also began to notice how white everything was. The students, the students’ teeth, and the fences surrounding the outdoor swimming pools we never used. We all seemed to categorize ourselves without ever explicitly saying anything. Where does that leave students who don’t have a clear category?”

It’s not easy being different in school. Leila already stands out because of her Iranian background, but she also holds close to her a secret – she likes girls.

“I’m not ready to announce my lady-loving inclinations as yet. I can hear the whispering, knowing that what they are snickering about could easily be me. I’m already different enough at this school. I don’t need to add anything else to that.”

A new girl joins Armstead Academy and Leila is immediately drawn to her. Saskia stands out – she’s just moved from Switzerland and is Dutch-Brazilian and is the rare person to ask about Leila’s heritage.

“It’s nice to be able to talk to someone about this stuff. Tess and Greg don’t get it, because people see basic white or black when they look at them. It’s the ambiguity that throws people; they want to know which box to put you in.”

Leila is drawn to Saskia – she’s confident, clever, poised, she stands out yet is comfortable with that. She’s not quite so sure why Saskia wants to befriend her though.

Leila constantly worries about coming out to her family. A family they know have shunned their son who was seen kissing another man. How would her own conservative Iranian parents react?

“You know where they’re from, being gay is illegal? They imprison people over there for feeling like I do! Sentence them to death sometimes.”

When I reflect back on Lucy and Linh, the other book I recently read that focuses on teenagers in school, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel is less complex, more simply told. There’s nothing wrong with that though. Sometimes a lighter read is what’s needed. It’s a lighter read yet it discusses some complicated issues that face many teens out there – discovering their own identity, standing up for themselves and what they believe in, relationships with family and friends, and learning that it’s ok to be different.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo -LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC

See the rest of my TBR list here

Find out more details about the challenge here.

#AsianLitBingo – Girls Burn Brighter

 

Goodness this was an intense read.

Poornima is the daughter of a weaver, who makes cotton saris that their region is known for. After her mother dies of cancer, her father is unable to produce enough saris. Poornima is in charge of the household chores and takes care of her younger siblings. At first he is unable to find anyone willing to work the looms. It is 2001 and weaving doesn’t bring in much money anymore, so he has no choice but to hire Savitha, who also is from the weaver caste.

While Poornima feels like her family is poor, she realizes they are well-off compared to Savitha. Before this new job, Savitha earned a little bit of money by scrounging for discarded paper and plastic in the garbage dumps. It took  her three days of rubbish collecting just to make twenty rupees. Her mother cleans houses, her younger sisters help dig through garbage and her father begs.

She remembered her mother saying once, as they passed them, “Don’t look,” and Poornima had not known whether she meant at the cemetery or at the children scrambling up the heaps. But now, standing in Savitha’s impoverished hut, and with her mother long dead, she thought she understood. Her mother had said don’t look and she’d meant don’t look at either the cemetery or the garbage heaps. She’d meant, don’t look at death, don’t look at poverty, don’t look at how they crawl through life, how they wait for you, stalk you, before they end you.

They become good friends. They eat their meals together and Poornima even visits Savitha’s home.

Obviously their futures aren’t exactly bright. Poornima, with her darker skin, is considered unattractive and there is barely hope for a decent arranged marriage. She gets an offer from a family but the signs aren’t good – she doesn’t get to meet her groom until the wedding itself and the family demands even more money – money that they don’t have.

For Savitha, an act of violence destroys her and she runs away from the village. And it seems like the two friends will now be separated forever.

Poornima’s married life is well, horrifying really. And she decides to go in search of Savitha.

What a brilliant debut novel. It’s full of emotion and vivid depictions of poverty in India. It is not an easy read – there is abuse, both mental and physical and sexual. There is so much pain and poverty. But Rao brings in some small moments of joy, such as Savitha’s delight in eating yogurt rice with a banana.

I read for Asian Lit Bingo – Poor or Working Class Asian MC

Find out more details about the challenge here.

#AsianLitBingo Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung

I thought I would be reading a light-hearted YA teenaged about school friendships. But it was so much more than that. And I am so glad.

Lucy Lam is from the Australian suburb of Stanley, a place “where many people work in banking and advertising – that is, their mums clean banks and their brothers put Safeway ads into mailboxes. It’s a place where people have four cars in their driveways – but only one that is working.”

Somehow she wins a scholarship to an elite private girls’ school. In fact, she is the “inaugural Equal Access student” and the headmistress constantly makes sure she doesn’t forget that.

Her family is from Vietnam and they are Teochew Chinese. They fled Vietnam for Australia when Lucy was just a few years old.

Her father works in a carpet factory and her mother makes a little bit of extra cash by taking on garment sewing in their garage. She also has a baby brother, who spends most of his time in the garage with their mum.

I was kind of excited to see the mention of a Teochew background as it’s something I’ve not come across in fiction before. Part of my family is Teochew, as in our ancestors originated from this region in Guangdong, China (I’m also part Hokkien and Hainanese).

(Back to the story!)

Lucy, writing about her experience in letters to her friend Linh, is at first enthralled with the glamorous school and wealthy classmates. But she soon discovers that the school is pretty much run by a clique of ultra-rich girls known as the Cabinet, even some of the teachers are at their mercy.

I loved how this book handles elitism and privilege, racial prejudice and the experience of Asian immigrants in Australia. It was thought-provoking and also rather amusing especially when a parent of Lucy’s classmate invites her home to demonstrate how to make rice-paper rolls.

“I could just see her at the market, Linh, marveling at the beauty of it all, extolling the parsimony of ethnic women and their ability to select ripe avocados and mangoes, bitter gourds and rambutans.”

Lucy and Linh was a sharp, funny and just fantastic read. We don’t get many Australian books here in the libraries of suburban America, which is such a pity, so this was an extra pleasure to read.

I read for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian Refugee MC.

Find out more details about the challenge here.

#AsianLitBingo : Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Keiko Ishida has always been so thoughtful and well liked. I didn’t think anyone could hate her enough to kill her in such a gruesome way. Or was I wrong about her? If I had made an effort to understand my sister, could I have changed her fate?

It was too late for these questions to matter. Keiko Ishida had fallen into an irreversible sleep. Even a tsunami couldn’t wake her from her eternal dream.

A subtle and quiet book set in Japan, Rainbirds opens with Ren Ishida in a car, clutching an urn, inside of which were the ashes of his 33-year-old sister, who was murdered, stabbed in the small town of Akakawa.

Keiko Ishida worked as a cram school teacher in Akakawa and Ren, who also studied the same subjects as her, takes over her teaching position temporarily and even resides in the same small room. He slowly begins to find out more about the life of his sister, whom he hadn’t seen in seven years and who was several years older than him. There was always a hint of the melancholic about her.

My sister didn’t seem to hear me. Looking out the window, she said, “Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”

Rainbirds may open with a murder but it isn’t exactly a whodunnit. The author doesn’t rush into details or push suspects into view or leave red herrings. Instead it’s a gentle and strange wander into life in this small town, as he meets Keiko’s colleagues, landlord, and strikes up friendships. Among all this are strange dreams that Ren has, dreams he cannot forget and which haunt him.

Rainbirds is an unusual read. I came into it knowing that the author lives in Singapore, is originally from Indonesia, and has set this book in Japan. But I didn’t know what to expect from this debut novel. So I was intrigued to find the prose had a Japanese flair, the pace gentle but with a good rhythm, and the secrets aplenty and waiting to be unraveled.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Contemporary with Asian MC.

#AsiannLitBingo – Such a Lovely Little War by Marcelino Truong

A beautifully illustrated graphic memoir of a young French-Vietnamese boy living in Vietnam with his family during the 1960s.

Marcelino Truong’s father worked as a translator for Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1960s. The family moves from the US, where they had been living for the past three years, to Vietnam. I’m not sure how old the three kids are but they look between the ages of 6 to 12. Their mother is French and their father Vietnamese.

It’s fascinating seeing the Vietnam war through the eyes of this young boy, upper-class, who lives in a nice apartment with servants to help his mother do housework and drive them around.

And more unusual for that time, whether in Vietnam or the US, a biracial family,

I may be from Southeast Asia (Singapore), but we never learnt anything much about the Vietnam War in school. I’ve since then read some books about it but I’ve learnt from this graphic memoir too, especially about Madame Nhu, the de facto First Lady at the time (the Prime Minister was a lifelong bachelor and she was his sister-in-law). She pushed for “morality laws” like banning divorce, abortions, dance halls, boxing matches.

Truong has a beautiful illustration style. The images look a little like woodcuts.

He occasionally includes drawings from his childhood, letters from his mother to his grandparents in France.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – multiracial/multiethnic Asian MC. Find out more details about the challenge here.

#AsianLitBingo 2018 TBR list

I’m glad to hear that Asian Lit Bingo is back as I had a great time last year reading books to fit the categories. Here is my wrap-up from last year.

This month-long challenge is in celebration of Asian American Heritage Month and you can learn all the details here at Lit CelebrAsian.

Here are the rules:

Eligible Books:

  • Fiction books should have an Asian main character (can be one of several main characters) and be by an Asian author to qualify. It does not have to be #ownvoices, but reading #ownvoices books is strongly encouraged!
  • Nonfiction books should be by an Asian author with a focus on Asian people, whether it’s a[n] [auto]biography, history book, essay collection, etc. A nonfiction book can count for prompts other than the nonfiction square provided that it that focuses on a person/group that corresponds to that prompt (e.g. an autobiography of a Asian trans woman could count for either the nonfiction category or the LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC category).
  • The free space is for any book with an Asian main character by an Asian author.

Here’s my pool. I know I probably won’t be able to read all the books on this list but it’s always fun making up a list!

East Asian MCRainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Asian Refugee MC Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung

Asian immigrant MCAmericanized : rebel without a green card by Sara Saedi

Asian MC with disabilityEverything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee

Multiracial/Multiethnic Asian MC – Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC – Wave by Hoa Pham

West Asian MC – Here We Are Now by Jasmine Warga

Asian Muslim MC – Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Religious Asian MC – A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Poor or Working Class Asian MC – Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

SFF with Asian MC – The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid

Historical Fiction with Asian MC -The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey

Retelling with Asian MC – Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Contemporary with Asian MC – How I became a North Korean by Krys Lee

Graphic novel with Asian MC – Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang

Queer romance with Asian MC – If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Romance with POC/Indigenous love interest – I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maureen Goo

Central Asian MC – ?

Translated work by an Asian author – Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

South East Asian MC – Man by Kim Thuy

Asian Superhero MC – The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

Asian Transracial Adoptee MC – The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Non-fiction by Asian Author
The porcelain thief: searching the Middle Kingdom for buried China by Huan Hsu

South Asian MC – Half Life by Roopa Farooki

#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