Ah, that word ‘diverse’. I don’t know about using it, because when I come to think of it, how ‘diverse’ is it, for me, a Chinese-Singaporean living in the US, to be reading a book written, say, by a Chinese-American. If I were to read ‘diversely’, I guess I should be reading something by an old white man (haha!). As diverse more or less means (according to good old Merriam-Webster which I am guessing, was founded by old white guys):
So being different from me would definitely be an old white guy.
But no, we are not talking about reading diversely in that sense. But more of the publishing world at large. That there is a need to expose more people to diverse views, translated works. Because many of the books out there are indeed written by white men. (And yes, white women too)
(Also, if you haven’t yet read this article in Lit Hub by Matthew Salesses about diversity in publishing, please do:
Even when I read, as a boy, about animals fighting medieval battles, I read about animals who were culturally white. When I read about time travel or magic, I read about white time travelers or white magicians. Children who didn’t fit in, sure, but children who fit into an idea about what those kind of books should be like and who could be their heroes.
As a reader, who happens to be Asian, I really appreciate stories that aren’t about diverse characters being diverse. As in, the Asian character doesn’t have to be “Asian”. I don’t know how to really explain this. But it’s the reason I don’t really read Amy Tan. And also why “Oriental” covers turn me off!
Fresh off the boat – Eddie Huang
Lots about Huang’s life resonated with me. While I didn’t grow up in America, his anecdotes about growing up in a Taiwanese-American family were amusing and familiar.
“I remember for Thanksgiving at our house we would just eat hot pot or some strange spread of sautéed Chinese items, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole from Boston Market, and sushi from Public ’cause I guess it really made the table pop. These days my Jamaican friends have turkey but it’s flanked by oxtail, beef patties, rice and peas, cabbage, etc. My Cantonese friends have turkey with lobster steamed over e-fu noodles, salt fish fried rice, and stir-fried squid with yellow chives.”
In case you haven’t heard of Huang, he is famous for two things, his New York eatery BaoHaus and the TV series Fresh Off the Boat which is loosely based on his life and was only the third prime time series to center on an Asian-American family (and which he is no longer involved in).
The funny thing is he is proud of being Asian and also very proud of not being your typical Asian (i.e. the studious, obedient, parent-approved Asian). And he’s always reminding the reader about that.
“It wasn’t that I wanted people to carry around little red books to affirm their “Chinese-ness,” but I just wanted to know there were other people that wanted this community to live on in America.”
The thing is, I want to like Huang. I kind of understand the issues he went through as a minority kid growing up in the US (note, I didn’t grow up in the US, but my kids are, and I wonder whether they will face similar issues when they go to school). But he is hard to like.
Then of course he writes something like this:
Whether it’s food or women, the ones on front street are supermodels. Big hair, big tits, big trouble, but the one you come home to is probably something like cavatelli and red sauce. She’s not screaming for attention because she knows she’s good enough even if your dumb ass hasn’t figured it out yet.”
I mean, I understand the sentiment behind this quote but ugh.
Mayumi and the search for Happiness – Jennifer Tseng
This should have really worked for me. It had all the right boxes ticked – Asian female character, set on a small island (I have a bit of a fascination for small towns), and bookish, for Mayumi is a librarian (who recommends Elena Ferrante!), so there is plenty of book talk. But I felt so distanced from the book.
I was as common as the weather, as was he, as were we. Show me a middle-aged woman who lacks desire and I will show you a liar. Show me an unusual young man and I will strip him down to commonness. I have no intention of making public excuses. I do find myself looking within for reasons I might give, if only to myself, for my own behavior. I obsessively recount the past in search of my mis-steps.
Mayumi has a failing marriage, a young daughter, and an unhealthy obsession with a teenaged boy she first meets when he comes to the library. And starts sleeping with him. In case that’s not enough, she becomes friends with his mother.
I marveled at Tsung’s writing, her phrases and words, beautifully written. But Mayumi is not a likable character. I suppose that may be the point, this flawed woman in a strange relationship with her own husband and child, creating an even weirder, uncomfortable (at least for the reader) relationship with this teenaged boy. All while living on this little island, working in its library. Not all characters have to be likable. But surely at least one character in a story has to be? I didn’t care for this young seduced boy, I really didn’t like Mayumi’s in-the-background husband or demanding child, and as for the boy’s mother, I’m not sure if I really had any feelings for her either. So I am quite puzzled by this book. It is a story about obsession. An unrelenting obsession.
Perhaps in an attempt to normalize my questionable undertaking, I developed an appetite for stories of deviant love: Lolita, The Price of Salt, The Cement Garden, King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, even The Thorn Birds, which was, though not particularly well-written, with its blasphemy and incest, doubly satisfying. That spring I read more queer novels than I had read in my entire adult life. (Queer was a term I was borrowing with increasing looseness and frequency. Indeed if this was queer society, I too was a member.) I both relished their transgressive hotness and tortured myself with the fact that many a homosexual would find me morally repulsive. Heavily peppered with scenes of socially unacceptable sex, descriptions of guilt, fear, and forced secrecy, fascination with beauty and frustration with an uncomprehending world, such novels were like compact mirrors that I carried in my cloth bag. One could always pop one open, look in, and see oneself reflected there.
However, while I have mixed feelings about this book, I would definitely read more of Jennifer Tseng’s work!
Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
I am going to give two thumbs up for the audiobook version! Because Ansari is an excellent reader. He reads fast, he reads quotes in funny accents just for fun, and he occasionally makes an aside to the audiobook listener, like pointing out that there’s an awesome graphic here but as we’re listening, we can’t see it so he’s going to have to describe it. Also they kick off the audiobook with some incredibly sleazy music. Hilarious.
But audiobook version aside, this was an interesting listen/read. I am not sure if I would have picked up the print version otherwise actually. I was looking for books to use up my audiobook credits on Scribd (because that evil corp limits the number of credits that can be accumulated) and just happened to enjoy the preview then picked it up as a full title credit.
Wow is dating these days difficult or what. Sure dating sites and apps have opened up a whole new world and people whom one would not ordinarily meet but it’s like that thing where you stand in the supermarket trying to buy some jam and you end up not buying any because you can’t decide which one to buy as the mind is completely bamboozled by the options.
Paper Menagerie and other stories – Ken Liu
Liu’s short story Paper Menagerie won SO MANY awards (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy) and it is easy to see why. It is achingly beautiful and sad. (And hey you can read it for yourself here. Now, don’t just ignore this link, go read it. It will move you and break your heart.)
In Paper Menagerie, Jack is the son of an American who wed a Chinese he picked out of a catalogue. His mother makes these paper animals that come to life, which he plays with at first, but as he grows older, he becomes ashamed of them and of his Chinese heritage.
One of my favourite quotes from Paper Menagerie:
Mom looked at him. “If I say ‘love,’ I feel here.” She pointed to her lips. “If I say ‘ai,‘ I feel here.” She put her hand over her heart.
Dad shook his head. “You are in America.”
As with all short story collections, there were some that I liked more than others. But unlike some other collections, there was not a single one that I skipped. I liked how many of his stories brought in bits and pieces of Asian culture. Like Good Hunting, which involves a father and son demon-hunting team searching for a fox spirit. The Litigation Master and the Monkey King has a man who communes with the Monkey King. And they span various genres like SF, fantasy, steampunk and dystopia. The only thing I would say is that the stories tend to have an tinge of sadness, gloominess. So this collection is something that you would kind of need to be in the right mood for.
Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?: A Fantastical novel – Maryse Condé
This is my introduction to Condé (although this is her 12th novel!) and it was a beguiling and colourful one. Condé was inspired by a real-life crime on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, in which a baby was found abandoned on a heap of garbage, her throat slashed.
The bewitching Celanire, always with a scarf around her neck, turns up in a village to take over a home for ‘half-caste’ children and proceeds to turn life upside down for the villagers, empowering women, enthralling men, and leaving death, violent deaths, in her wake (the director of the Home she has come to assist, for instance, dies after a giant spider bites him on his penis).
The story moves from Africa to Celanire’s native Guadeloupe and to Peru. And it is lush and colourful and enveloping. A little meandering and mysterious, but full of passion and poison.
I read these books for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf