Sunday, August 18, 2019

CBR11 #5: Saga Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

CBR11bingo: And So It Begins

It was a time of war.
Isn't it always. 

Volume 1 of Saga kicks off with Alana giving birth to a baby as Marko talks her through it. The two are lovers from two different worlds which have been warring for as long as anyone can remember -- but politics is not at the forefront of the couple's minds. They are more keenly aware of their newborn's traits, like how she has Alana's wings and Marko's horns, but her eye colour is a mixture of both parents' greens and browns.

And then all hell breaks lose. The Landfallians, Alana's race, bust into their birthing hideout and threatens to kill them. Minutes later, Marko's comrades come through with magic sparking through their fingertips, also threatening their lives. The couple miraculously escape, but the next week is spent dodging ghosts, soldiers, and freelance assassins sent by their respective sides as they navigate their way through a magical planet trying to figure a way out of it.

It's a pretty rapid, fast-paced introduction into the world of Saga, and the incredible artwork makes it all the more easier to wade through some of the stranger fantasy aspects. You understand immediately that it's an epic adventure that's Star Wars-like in its creation -- Marko's moon, Wreath, has been fighting Landfall for independence (I assume) for as long as forever, but it's on the losing end. And war is a profitable machine that needs to be sustained, even if it eats up the population in the neighbouring moons and planets.

But Alana and Marko's immediate need for safe haven makes it a much more intimate look at how a family struggles to keep up with having a new life wholly dependent on them. The parents -- who are exquisitely rendered by Staples -- seem young, inexperienced in raising a new life, and they want different things.

Marko seems more idealistic, spouting off about never picking up a sword again, but being incredibly formidable when forced to protect his family. Alana, on the other hand, is more nails-to-the-wall about survival, but also entertains a romantic notion of wanting "to show our girl the universe".

But how is that possible when both their worlds are trying to get them killed? The very idea of a wings and horns (or "moony", which is derogatorily flung out by the royals, who have TV screens showcasing their thoughts for heads) procreating makes everyone super disgusted... but it's clear that their copulation is also a political problem. If the two sides are seen as not only getting along, but having a baby, then that could cast doubts on the need for an ongoing, never-ending -- and highly profitable -- war.

Saga came highly recommended by Pajibans (you know who you are!), and I could see why immediately, even if I struggled at first to "get" the world at first. But what makes it easier is the narration of Hazel, the daughter, who gives hints of what's to come by.

Even in the printed words, the attention to detail by the creators is astounding. Like the placement of the Hazel's words and the use of punctuation evokes an image of longing while introducing the beginning and drawing out the details so that readers can be immersed fully in that world. If anyone is hesitant about starting an epic graphic novel because it seems too insider-y, don't be. The themes within Saga will be universally understood right from the very first page.

One thing not great about graphic novels though: Oh, how I wish they were longer!

Monday, July 8, 2019

CBR11 #4: Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli

CBR11bingo: The Collection

My first experience with Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli was her evocative, heart-wrenching run-down of a questionnaire she had to translate when interviewing children seeking asylum in the US for the New York court system. I still think of Tell Me How It Ends frequently, which is what pushed me to seek out more of her writing.

Sidewalks is a collection of her essays (heyo, first Bingo square!!), translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. Much of Luiselli's writing feels very nostalgic, almost like she's constantly looking back at a different time period, a late author who inspired her, a past make-out of a city that she loves. In my head, I see her as almost a painstakingly thoughtful individual who would always be ruminating on what an impact of a slight change in the map would mean -- maybe annoying and exasperating in person, but in essay-form she gives you an "ah ha! I do that too!" moment, which always feels comforting.

It is for this reason that I liked the essay "Relingos: The cartography of empty spaces" the best. Basically, a relingo -- far as I can tell -- is a patch of small space all over major cities that happen when urban spaces are built around it. "Nowadays these residual spaces on and around certain corners of Reforma...are abandoned to the perpetual comings and goings of ambulant street vendors, tourists, delivery men, petty thieves, the homeless, people taking strolls, dust and debris." You know what these spaces, and so do I, even if I don't quite know what English word we would use for it.

But she somehow transposed this concept of "empty spaces" into something greater, as a sort of a freedom for our minds to wander into. "A relingo... is a sort of depository for possibilities.... Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely."

Also in this essay, Luiselli pins down how I feel when writing, that itchy feeling I get when I'm searching for a way to say something and coming up empty. And then repeating something that feels familiar... and it being actually completely wrong and unoriginal and bad, because I'm really unintentionally plagiarizing myself or some idea previously read.

I know that the times I feel most excited about what I'm writing are when I should be most suspicious, because more often than not I'm repeating something I either said or read elsewhere, something that has been lingering in my mind... 

In contrast, the worst moment to stop writing is when I no longer feel like going on. On those occasions, it's always better to keep rapping thoughts into the keyboard, like drilling holes in the ground, until the exact word emerges. 

If you like sort of a quiet, meandering drum of nostalgia, I would highly recommend this slim collection of essays. There were times when I felt like it was just a bit too much navel-gazing -- for example, there is immense privilege in being able to travel to Venice just to search for the tombstone of her favorite author like she did in the first essay "Joseph Brodsky's Room and a Half" -- but it more than made up for it with little passages that felt so intimately recognizable.

Oh, and by the way, Cannonballers would probably love her whole bit on the agony of arranging books on a bookshelf in "Return Ticket". It begins with the simple sentence, "I've spent weeks putting off the inevitable ordering of my bookshelves", before going into how she describes every single book found in a home.

The book on the bed is a generous and undemanding lover; that other one, on the bedside table, an infallible oracle I consult from time to time, or a talisman against midnight crises; the one on the couch, a pillow for long, dreamless naps. Some books get forgotten for months. They're left in the bathroom or on top of the fridge in the kitchen for a while and are replaced by others when our indifference eventually wears them away. The few we really do read are places we always return to. 

It's like she got a peek at my home! And just for fun, here is how I arrange my home bookshelf, after having moved several times and having to constantly cull my collection:

Top level (which is visible for everyone) -- my favorite books, my to-be-read pile that I am excited about.
Second level (which is not visible) -- my occasional favorites, like when I'm itching to reread a familiar sentence. And a to-be-read pile that I am NOT excited about but feel a duty to keep because these are books I should read.
Third level (not visible also) -- Travel guides, history books, books I was gifted but know I'll very likely never, ever read.

All fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels are mixed together; I don't order them alphabetically, more like by feel. Like, "East of Eden must go next to Black Swan Green."

If anyone has read down this far, how do you guys organize your shelves?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

CBR11 #2-3: Year One and Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts

CBR11 #2: Year One by Nora Roberts

My first Nora Roberts! The two books were a gift from my friend who's a huge Nora Roberts fan, and she thought Year One could be a good entry point because I'm a real sucker for dystopia fiction.

It starts out with a family vacation in Scotland, when a peasant is shot and falls right in the middle of a stone circle, and its blood seeps into the frosted ground. What appears to be a regular hunting expedition turns deadly days later when the shooter is afflicted by an incurable disease that spreads like wildfire across the globe. It wipes out the majority of the population, but it also sparks an awakening in folks with magic in their blood -- strengthening their powers, which will either help them survive or make them targets.

My favourite parts were in the beginning, when the world was going to shit and people were getting rushed to the hospital. I find being able to picture the boring logistics of trying to get people to emergency rooms, doctors struggling to cope with the onslaught of sick people and their desperate families to be somewhat comforting. This is what we will see when an epidemic happens.

Year One moves fairly quickly, jumping from various important characters to the next, and that was kind of my biggest issue with it. I felt like more time could have been spent in exploring the group dynamics of the people hiding out in the forest, or in how the town of New Hope was actually set up. Like I said, I want to know the boring logistics of how to get a small town functioning again, or how to break up arguments between longtime friends under constant stress... and I wanted to know how all these various important characters were able to establish trust and friendship with each other.

I understand that shared experiences under stressful circumstances can build relationships quickly, but I felt like Roberts really skimmed a lot of that. And honestly, by the end of the first book, my biggest complaint was that I was expecting *some* sexual tension from the Queen of Romance, and Year One really did not deliver on that.

Still, I kept on reading, which brings me to the next review...

CBR11 #3: Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts

In book two, we are focusing more on The Chosen One. Her name is Fallon, and she is the daughter of the now-deceased Max and Lana. Raised by Lana and Simon -- who is such a steady, trustworthy character that he might as well have "THIS IS A GOOD MAN" stamped on his forehead -- Fallon's grown up knowing she was essentially born to save the world from its current darkness.

And boy is there a lot of it: There are truckloads of really terrible scavengers roving the streets, picking off people they think are magical or just weak; there is the dark magic contingent, who sort of work with these anti-magic people to kill the good magic people; and then there are pockets of people just trying to fend off those who take advantage of the chaos, trying to live their lives.

Fallon and her family are in the third camp, except her parents have been trying to teach her and her brothers how to be good, how to learn from right and wrong, how to farm, and how to use her powers in a responsible manner. But when she turns 13, she has to go off with her Merrick (OG BtVS, anyone? Anyone?) who then basically puts her through Hogwarts, except his school is a cottage in a forest where elves live nearby.

I was quite a fan of the training montage section of the book -- it's what comes after that annoys me a bit, and this came up in the first book as well. Roberts is very good at setting up premises, yea? Like, she gets you somewhat invested in the characters in the beginning and shows you their growth -- and then bam! It's years later, and that character has grown up so much they are basically unrecognisable, but it's hard to get the connecting tendrils to understand how they've changed so drastically. We are able to infer from what's happening in the book that, "She grew up. Fast." but it can be quite jarring if it's not expanded upon.

I mean, Fallon went from a sulky teenage girl, wondering if she should take the mantle of destiny... to straight up commanding a whole host of seasoned fighters, and not feeling any sort of nervousness about it. She no longer questioned whether she can save the world -- instead now, she's thinking of how she can save the world. At the end of the day, Fallon is a 16-year-old, and we all know we were notoriously inclined to self-doubt and angst when we are 16.

I don't know if I'll seek out the third book when it's out. I guess if my friend gifts it to me, I'll read it, because I do find it to be a relaxing read, overall.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

CBR11 #1: No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

Man, I've been terrible at this reviewing thing, hey? No better way to get back into it than to just jump in.

Close to a decade ago, when I was agitating to start a "real career" in journalism I was semi-obsessed with reading books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I was more concerned about the writers' inner lives, and yearned to understand how they handled these stressful situations -- against the backdrop of devastating American-backed wars.

And now, I have little patience for such naval-gazing (Jeffrey Gettleman's saccharine-titled "Love, Africa" comes to mind), likely due to a niggling sense of discomfort when reading about accounts where the humanness of locals are flattened, rendered two-dimensional, to prop up the rich, layered experiences of roving journalists -- many of whom have moved on to plump positions.

Anand Gopal does not do this with his book, "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes". It's actually quite amazing how little he's been able to insert himself in, choosing only to show up when talking about traveling around the country to interview former Taliban members.

He attempts to piece through the omnishambolic mess left by American forces in Afghanistan, a ever-changing country made murkier by the criss-crossing loyalties of ethnic groups and political factions. Looking back at the pages I marked in preparation for this review, I realised I had dog-eared all the books in which he just made a line-by-line detailing of how the US government completely fucked up trying to stamp out the Taliban, choosing to listen to power brokers who made use of rumours to eliminate their political competition or sort out private grievances.

This could all have made for confusing reading, but Gopal does a great job of navigating through the morass by choosing to focus on three main characters --  politician-turned-strongman Jan Muhammad; Mullah Cable, a reluctant former Taliban commander whose switching alliances show how tenuous loyalties can be post-war Afghanistan; and Heela, a schoolteacher turned intrepid renegade -- arguably the heart of the book.

Watching Kabul -- her hometown where she was university-educated before meeting and marrying her husband -- devolve under Taliban rule, it is easy to feel Heela's fear and horror when her husband handed her a burqa for the first time so that they may escape to his home province Uruzgan.

Musqinyar handed Heela the bag and she opened it and stared. She could not believe it had come to this. Folded inside was something she'd never handled in her life: a soft, sky-blue burqa.
She held up the embroidered garment and inspected it. The head-to-toe wrapping had no openings except a thick mesh-like covering for the eyes. As she put it on, the rock dire road, the brilliant mountain peaks, the rumbling motor were all snuffed out. Heela's world went black. 
Heela's story is seriously incredible, just the sheer will to exercise her desire to be a productive person, and it seriously just keeps evolving. Once she got to Uruzgan, she was determined to keep working despite living in a cloistered village where spies could literally get her killed, especially since Heela was engaging in subterfuges with her husband to try and corral Afghan women to vote in the country's first ever elections.

The title is taken from an Afghan proverb -- "There is no good men among the living and no bad ones among the dead." -- and it is reflected in Gopal's decision to portray no true villains or true heroes in his story.

By the book's finale, Heela may stand out with her "happy hero's ending" painted by Gopal -- but it's important to keep in mind that her story is not yet over. She will continue to evolve, as will the rest of the country as they pick up the pieces and I hope writers like Gopal will continue to chronicle it.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

CBR10 #1: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I've been excited to read Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel Freshwater months before I finally held it in my hands. I thought I could wait for it to be published in paperback before I bought it, but its appearance in several of "best of" year's list gave me the final push to just. buy. it.

And I really, really enjoyed it. I was worried that having high expectations might ruin some of the shine of it for me, but I was just so delighted to be surprised by the subject matter, by the way of exploring it, by the telling of it. I can't even say it surpassed my expectations of it because I felt like it kind of smashed any preconceptions I had of it wide open, dismantling my ideas how such a story could be told.

Freshwater follows a young Nigerian girl, Ada, who was born with twin spirits in her known as "ogbanje" in Igbo culture, an ethnic group in the southern part of the country. The ogbanje, as Emezi explains, is a vengeful spirit/s that is born and reborn in a human in several different personalities. As life comes at Ada, the ogbanje is reborn, adding multiple personalities in Ada's mind to help her cope with the rushes and troubles of her world.

It is really hard to describe exactly what was so exhilarating about reading Freshwater. In the beginning, it was the idea of the two spirits who helped to crystallize parts of Ada's anger that made me so happy. That just really appealed to me because I liked how anger and rage can actually be a part of you that should be acknowledged and embraced, not stifled and shamed as a bad thing.

Every review I've read about Freshwater will also talk about how Emezi is trying to talk about being trans without using those words, but I think what's more revolutionary is that she's taking our understanding of mental health and putting it under a very specific cultural lens that is *not* defined by Western medicine.

I've done a bit of reporting on mental health issues in Asia, and it's always been fascinating to me how other cultures talk about trauma and other issues. Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have started seeking help from traditional healers and religious leaders in the camps, forgoing the Western specialists provided by NGOs and development agencies, because the context and understanding that these community people have to healing is more emotionally/spiritually effective for the refugees than, say, going to talk to a therapist.

That being said, the way Ada and the obangje within her is presented isn't really something that needs to be healed, so much as just accepted by Ada. It is a delight to see Ada's voice represented in the book, so that it doesn't seem like she's some passive vessel hosting the spirits. At the end there is a reconciliation of all these spirits and Ada, an acknowledgment that every part of your self is valid and should be heard.

"Ah, we have always claimed to rule the Ada, but here is the truth: she was easier to control when she thought she was weak. Here is another truth: she is not ours, we are hers."

What a beautiful statement to behold. In our world of binaries, it's really soul-sparking to see that we can be multiple and complicated and full -- and that every parts of ourselves, even the tumultuous, not-so-nice bits, should be embraced and acknowledged. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who's ever felt any thrashing in their heart. Instead of advocating to quell the tumult, Freshwater pushes us to see the unrest as a part of our whole.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

CBR9 #11: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

I'm not exactly sure how Rupi Kaur became such a publicly praised and well-known poet, but the first time I read anything of hers was just a snippet on Instagram – which incidentally is what brought on the backlash. How dare this millennial poet use a millennial mode of social interaction to publicize her millennial words? The word instapoets may be descriptive – "young poets publishing verse primarily on social media," says that Guardian article I linked to – but it also sounds so dismissive, so much like a verbal slight created by a person who is bitter that someone younger than him/her has been brought into prominence.

So the piece I saw on Instagram many months ago was selfish, and it is actually in this collection of poems, Milk and Honey. I would hardly call it a poem; it's written almost like an essay:

i will tell you about selfish people. even when they know they will hurt you they walk into your life to taste you because you are the type of being they don't want to miss out on. you are too much shine to not be felt. so when they have gotten a good look at everything you have to offer. when they have taken your skin your hair your secrets with them. when they realize how real this is. how much of a storm you are and it hits them.  
that is when the corwardice sets in. that is when the person you thought they were is replaced by the sad reality of what they are. that is when they lose every fighting bone in their body and leave after saying you will find better than me. 

I read this during a particularly tumultuous time in my last relationship, which imploded about a month later. But I knew right then, when I read this, that I recognized something in it in us.

We can mock Kaur's poems for being simplistic, for having those line breaks in the middle of hyper-emotive sentences. But the truth is that much of what she is writing about is that it is universal, and that's why it resonates with the Instagram crowd. I mean, this next poem pretty much captures my feelings three months after I read selfish and a month after my break-up:

you leave
but you don't stay gone
why do you do that
why do you
abandon the thing you want to keep
why do you linger
in a place you do not want to stay
why do you think it's okay to do both
go and return all at once

and this, relevant six months after the break-up:

people go
but how
they left
always stays

or this, which basically describes my emotional make-up of this year:

i don't know what living a balanced life feels like
when i am sad
i don't cry i pour
when i am happy
i don't smile i glow
when i am angry
i don't yell i burn

Is it so terrible to have poetry that strikes you straight in the heart? Even if it was made famous by millennials sharing it on Instagram? Is it a crime to identify with something so universal?

I don't think so. If anything, I think this has opened me up to giving poetry more of a chance. I have a short attention span for poetry, but after reading this and Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth earlier this year, this makes me a bit more eager to give this genre a shot.

Monday, December 18, 2017

CBR9 #10: That Month in Tuscany by Inglath Cooper

I can't remember the last time I read a book that is straight-up romance genre, but I've been meaning to try more since the CBR community always has such fun reviews of them. So when I saw this Kindle edition book going for $0.99 on Amazon, I imagined re-living Diane Lane's sojourn in that Tuscan sun movie and bought it.

It begins with Lizzy Harper, disgruntled housewife, being told at the last minute by her workaholic husband that he won't be able to make their long-planned Tuscan vacation. Instead of taking no for an answer and sulking at home, she decides to just go by herself. Once there, she had an in-flight meet-cute with Ren Sawyer, who she thought looked vaguely familiar. Turns out he is a rock star, one that her own college-aged daughter used to have posters of up on the bedroom wall.

From there, the two lost souls – him nursing self-loathing due to his brother's death, her due to the realization that she had supplanted her innate awesomeness for her shitty husband/marriage – decide to sightsee and spend time together.

This part of the book, which also features Lizzy's shitty husband traveling to Italy at the last minute to try to get her back after he was found cheating with a subordinate, is probably the best section of the book. I'm gonna spoil the part that I didn't like, because the overall message really bothered me. This development also came out of the blue – like it was just plopped in there from another book Cooper was workshopping or something – so I don't even know if it's fully considered a spoiler in so far as it just felt so goddamn out of place. But consider this fair warning if you're someone who cares about spoilers.

Where it really just crashed and burned is when Cooper throws in some sub-plot about their daughter getting kidnapped by sex traffickers, a really stupid plot device to force Lizzy to leave Ren and go home. This was completely shoe-horned in, and it really messed with the overall character development of Lizzy and the message that Cooper was going for.

In the beginning, Lizzy is portrayed as this by-the-book person who rarely ventures out of her comfort zone. She is often nervous to go to new places, and the act of going to Tuscany by herself is not only sending a message to her shitty husband, but also sending a message to herself that she can be free to pursue her passions and indulge her own personhood. This move is shocking to her daughter, who is strong-willed and a tad bit rebellious. Her daughter is often exasperated by her mother's over-protectiveness, and believes that her mother just smothers her with too much attention and fear.

So to have her kidnapped by sex traffickers is to send an alternate message: Your mother is right. You should not go out at night, sleep with attractive men, and walk home alone. You shouldn't even go to the neighborhood bar because you will definitely encounter men who want to sell young women like you.

These are two completely conflicting messages that Cooper has pushed on us. And it really galls me because this sub-plot is just so unnecessary. Putting aside my general hatred of this whole Liam-Neeson-Taken genre (I believe that a lot of this shit is said more to oppress and suppress the adventurous spirit of young women  under the guise of society's "concern"), it is also such a stupid way to get Lizzy to go back home. You want to show actual conflict? Remove external circumstances, and make it internal, so that when she triumphs over what she thinks she should do for what she wants for herself, then it's more earned.

It is also frankly an insult that the kidnapping was, like, just a sub-plot instead of being treated like a fucking life-altering event that will forever traumatize her. One chapter is spent on her daughter's eventual escape, and maybe half a chapter spent on her daughter learning to leave the house by herself many months after... which was only plotted like this so that she could catch her mother's shitty husband in the middle of a make-out sesh with his subordinate, making her realize that it's her father that's the shitty person, not her mother. And then we fast forward to mom re-uniting with Ren, and then eventually marrying him.

Like, what??! I couldn't believe Cooper used a sex-trafficking/kidnapping subplot as a way to further a ROMANCE NOVEL ABOUT EXPLORING NEW THINGS/LEAVING ONE'S COMFORT ZONE... and then glossed over it after the daughter was back home. I can literally think of a dozen different better ways for Lizzy to leave Italy to reunite with her family (she decides to do it for the family's sake because she's always done what everyone else has wanted all her life),  and for her daughter to figure out her dad is a scumbag. Just have the daughter go surprise him with lunch without the kidnaping subplot. You don't need to have her kidnapped, escape, and then leave the house for the first time in order for a surprise lunch to be believable!!

I just got really mad at it towards the end. Honestly, I wish an editor had just cut out all the kidnapping stuff. Thematically, it doesn't work, and to employ it as a plot device that is resolved after two chapters is honestly offensive.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

CBR9 #9: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I started reading this essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie many months ago, when I felt inspired to download it. It is very simply written as it was originally a TED talk delivered by the author. She gave very clear examples, with some humor and snark, on why it is absolutely silly to deny women equal rights to exist in the world they inhabit.

Halfway through, I stopped, and didn’t pick it up until last week. While much of the “rah rah feminism” sentiment still resonated, I couldn’t help but feel like her essay was structured in a very black-and-white manner. What I mean is that it was written to preach to the choir, and anyone reading it would likely already consider themselves a feminist. What’s more, the feminism that she explores is so basic, somewhat akin to how a student might approach addition and subtraction before being able to move on to physics.

Blame my niggling unease on the post-Weinstein consciousness that we are now seeped in. Now that the media is talking about the nuanced ways in which being a female can be considered dangerous in the workplace – whether if its due to sexual or gendered discrimination – simply stating “I am a feminist” doesn’t feel quite enough. In fact, in some cases, it might even feel fake and performative, like how certain men in Hollywood are saying that they had no idea about Weinstein (or Brett Ratner, or Charlie Rose, or [insert-prominent-male-figure-here) even though it should be clear by the coverage that the level of sexual harassment and abuse happening was an open industry secret.

Reading this now, what particularly strikes me is how little room for nuance Adichie has for how one should express their strength or feminism – an odd revelation considering that Americanah was one of the most nuanced depictions of race and societal’s perception of it that I’ve read.

For example, I find a lot of her notions of masculinity and femininity to be troubling. She said that when she gave a lecture once, she wish she had dressed more feminine instead of opting for a more masculine suit, because she felt that by wearing the suit, it was a way for her to try and be taken more seriously instead of being true to herself. I found that anecdote to be revealing of what she thinks of women who dress in “masculine” ways, or who engage in “masculine” acts. Does she mean that a women dressed in a feminine manner should be taken more seriously as she is being true to her feminine self – whatever that word means nowadays – and that we as women should adhere to a feminine way of dressing?

If I may be stuck on the fashion choices bit for a while, I also just find it troubling to ascribe fashion under definitions of masculine and feminine, especially in a world where Rihanna exists (She can wear a “masculine” or “feminine” garbage bag, and it would just be amazing because she’s Riri.) And tack on the troubling things she has said in the past (after this essay was published) about trans people and their experiences as women, I now also get the sense that she thinks the “feminine” experience is something that has qualities that *she * deems feminine.

In short, I find her description of strength and asserting your “feminine” self to be told in as binary a way as… say perhaps how chauvinists might see women’s role in society. Her point of view of the female experience – at least as I read it in this essay – appears to be as stringent and culture-based as the very society she accuses of engaging in gender discrimination.

It also really bothered me at the end when she said that her brother was the best feminist. It rubs me the wrong way, because it reminds me of how men nowadays would have performative feminist declarations (Obvious: “Women should have the right to choose what to do with their bodies.”), yet still engage in subtle acts that show their gender bias (Not so obvious: “She is always bitching about how the boss doesn’t like her because she’s a woman; she’s just being overly sensitive.”).

All of us have been raised in a patriarchy, so of course our point of view might be skewed, even women. But to say that the best feminist she knows is her brother feels odd – like she’s discounting any possible feminist role models she might have. She’s so eager to prove that her brother is one of the good ones, that men could – gasp! – be feminists that she somehow has forgotten to mention the female figures in her life and her education that might have shaped her feminist point of views. Some guy who’s supportive of his sister is the best feminist, whereas all the other women in her life don’t get nary a mention. It’s like propping him up for doing the bare minimum, being a not shitty brother. If that’s feminism, then it sounds an awful lot still like subscribing to the patriarchy. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

CBR9 #8: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

To say that this has been a difficult year would be an understatement. For Americans, no matter what one's political affiliation is, it is clear to see that the rampant gas-lighting the current administration is putting us through is not normal. The word "fact" seems to have completely undergone a change in meaning, so much so that statements from politicians are view with the default setting of "definitely a lie."

Putting aside that I wake up every morning with a sense of impending dread that I'm sure has something to do with having my iPhone so close to my head (every Politico news alert I get seems to give me heart palpitations), my personal life has been in the trash. I upended my life for a man this year, only to have it completely tossed in the air again six months later when he walked out of my life. I'm still waiting to see how it looks when things fall in place.

And yet, it's hard for me to vocalize how bad I feel because I have a sense he's doing worse; I have a sense that I've been lucky because of all the work I've put in on myself, because of all the friends and loved ones who've come to my rescue, and because of the daily reminders that I am not alone.

I bring all this up in my review of Tell Me How It Ends, because it came as an absolute surprise to me, at a strange intersection of feelings – of immense disappointment in US politics, immense sadness at the apparent downward slide of Cambodia's (facade of a) democracy towards outright tyranny, and of immense happiness for my friends and their journey.

I certainly didn't know what I was getting myself into when I opened this book after I ordered it from Amazon – no, I'm not kidding, I had put it in my Amazon basket months ago and had forgotten why I did that, so I just clicked "buy" when I was in the US in August. Tell Me How It Ends... this must be a romance novella, yes? This must be a slow burn of a friendship, yes? A strange existential novel about young love, yes?

Well, friends, it is not. Valeria Luiselli is a Mexican writer living in the US, waiting for her green card for her and her family to come through in the summer of 2014 when she hears of the news of tens of thousands of child refugees coming into the US from Mexico and Central America. She then begins working as a Spanish interpreter for the New York City immigration court, where she asks the children 40 questions drawn up by immigration lawyers to "process" their way through the American legal system. Depending on how the children answer, the lawyers are able to draw up a defense to the immigration court, to persuade the judges to rule that these children may have sanctuary.

Two days after I started reading this book, an old friend of mine finally got notification that she will be sworn in for citizenship in less than a week. A day after she received the letter, the White House announced that they will be rescinding DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy that enable people who had entered the country as minors be allowed a postponement of deportation.

To say that my friend's naturalization ceremony notice came at a bittersweet moment in history would be an understatement. She was wracked with guilt and relief – after years of being called an "illegal," of being unable to go to preferred colleges or obtain jobs in journalism because of her status, she would be able to be pronounced a citizen under one of the most polarized administration in history.

Like my friend, Luiselli was herself questioning her desire to be in the US, guilting herself on her and her husband's fortune to be professors and writers at a time when people – children, essentially – who looked and spoke like her were being villainized on talk radio. The very system in which she was trying to gain access to is broken and morally wrong in its treatment of young children. But she continues waiting out her green card while working at the immigration court, making her way through the 40 questions that seem so innocent but can reveal so much about the scars a child has obtained on his/her way to the land of the free... where the moment they arrive, they are kept in cold, locked rooms, shuttled from untrusting adult to untrusting adult until they get her, someone who can act as their voice.

I found myself tearing up several times during this. Yes, it's about children, and yes, it's a bare-bones look at our immigration system. But the words on these pages reflect a raging culture war that is happening in the US now. My privilege, the distance I have as an expat, my general upper middle-class Asian upbringing leaves me untouched, but I am touched as well.

There is a part in the book when she describes how police officers stopped their car during their road trip out west for vacation. She and her husband keeps it simply -- "We are writing a Western, sir... We came to Arizona for the open skies and the silent and the emptiness," she writes. It is untrue, but that's what they say.

Handing back our passports, one official says sardonically:  
So you come all the way down here for the inspiration.  
We know better than to contradict anyone who carries a badge and a gun, so we just say: 
Yes sir.  
Because –how do you explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity? How do you say: No, we do not find inspiration here, but we find a country that is as beautiful as it is broken, and we are somehow now part of it, so we are also broken with it, and feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and are trying to figure out how to do something about all that.  
We roll the windows up and keep driving. 

On September 7, my beautiful friend – the brightest, most hard-hitting and hardworking journalist in New York, I believe – was sworn in as a citizen. Her friends and I were sequestered into a separate waiting room where all we had to see them by was an inadequately sized TV. We were surrounded by bored relatives and petulant children.

We were there until 11 am, when Judge Ann Donnelly entered the court and issued a perfunctory swearing-in. She was the same federal judge who ordered a stay on Trump's refugee ban, allowing refugees detained in airports across the US not to be sent back to their home countries – but we didn't know that then, when we were standing in New York Eastern District Court listening to her begin a speech. Halting and filled with emotion, Judge Donnelly quoted President Barack Obama's press statement on DACA released the day before.

"What makes us American is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray. What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals – that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation," she quoted, her voice crescendoing. She urged the new citizens to vote in all elections – "even in your local ones" – and to use their voice and speak out on issues that are important to them. She ended it by informing them that they are all Americans, that they are wanted in this country. The people in the waiting room, who previously had the energy of stale bread, burst into applause and tears, and then ran down to congratulate their loved ones.

My old newspaper was shut down by the government just two days before– a sign of Cambodia's increasing lean towards dictatorship – leaving many of my Cambodian colleagues jobless; the current administration had chosen to deport 800,000 young people who were brought to America by their parents; and I had just seen my friend sworn in as a citizen. In that moment, I chose to go with hope and happiness for my friend's future. I chose to see the strange serendipity that fate engineered to get her an eloquent, passionate female judge as a sign for better things.

Tell Me How It Ends takes its title from Luiseilli's daughter, who asked her mother often about the young refugees' stories when she was interpreting at the court. "Tell me how it ends, Mamma," she would say, inquiring into these children's outcomes. I suppose, in a way, it is a strange existential book about young love. But it is no novel, and we still don't know how it ends.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

CBR9 #6 and #7: Birth of an Empire and Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden

In late February, as I was preparing for a work trip to Mongolia, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about the country. I knew nothing about the history or its culture, nothing about its customs or its icons. The only thing I knew was Genghis Khan, and... yea, just his name. That's it.

Luckily, a Pajiban mentioned the Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden, recommending it as a historical fiction alternative to trawling Wikipedia (which is honestly what I would have done.) I downloaded the series in bulk, and got through the first two books during my month-long trip in Mongolia.

CBR9 #6: Birth of an Empire

First off, I should say that my photographer colleague who traveled with me on this work trip totally made fun of me for reading historical fiction. "Why don't you just actually read a history book?" he said. "Because it's not as fun," I answered. Honestly, I have such a hard time getting through non-fiction books on current events, I can only imagine my stamina flagging on history books written in a dry, academic way. Why not imbue history with some narrative voice and personal motives? I can totally get with that!

Iggulden's books actually hew pretty close to historical records on the life of Genghis Khan, the fierce founder of the Mongol empire born Temujin. In fact, at the end of each book, Iggulden would go through the events of the book, pointing out what really happened and what he embellished, and it's really amazing to just marvel at some of the incredible conditions that Temujin and his family went through early in his life.

Birth of an Empire introduces the early life of Temujin and his brothers living as part of the Wolves tribe in Mongolia. Always vying for their father's attention, Temujin and his eldest brother, Bekter, grow up competing with each other. Bekter is shown to be the more serious, humorless brother no one really loves, while charismatic Temujin commands respect and friendship quickly and effortlessly. The other younger brothers worth mentioning are Kachiun and Khasar, both easy-going and natural leaders, while the youngest is Temuge -- a chubby boy considered the most weak-willed.

Their father, Yesugei, passes away from an infected wound (that he got from a Tartan tribe seeking revenge) when the boys are just pre-teens, and his first-in-command, Eeluk, takes over the Wolves. Hungry for power after serving Yesugei for a lifetime, Eeluk does not want Yesugei's family to grow up to seek revenge, so he and the tribe leaves them in the harsh grasslands as winter is about to set in.

The period where Temujin and his brothers and mother were trying to survive in the cold were some of the hardest to read because you really got the sense that hunger was just slowly breaking their family apart. Temujin, who was never close to Bekter to begin with, started to hate him deeply as he realized that his eldest brother was hiding food from the rest of the family after their daily hunts. Together with Kachiun, Temujin killed Bekter – a move which breaks his mother's heart, and it drives a splinter in the already suffering family.

When I got to this part, I was already in northern Mongolia freezing my ass off. While I found it difficult to fully understand Temujin and Bekter's hatred for each other, Iggulden's description – along with my experience of Mongolia's winter – made it possible for me comprehend why Temujin and Kachiun would feel like they were driven to commit murder. Bekter was stealing from the family as his mother, who had to nurse a newborn baby girl, and brothers were starving. Mongolia's tough conditions made desperate people angry.

A big part of Birth of an Empire is letting us understand Genghis Khan's origin, of how someone as likable and easy-going as him could grow up to become an ambitious warrior who united all the warring Mongolian tribes, rallying them on to become one of the most feared army in the world. Obviously it will be impossible to really understand Genghis Khan's actual personality, but Iggulden really manages to set up the building blocks of what made him a conqueror.

CBR9 #7: Lords of the Bow

The second book picks up after Genghis Khan has united all the tribes, and is looking southward towards the Chin empire. Genghis Khan understands – from his dealings with the Chin – that the different tribes and the Tartan in the north have been pitted against each other for generations by the Chin so that they will be divided and weak.

Along the way, his coalition had gained a shaman, named Kokchu, a manipulative and clever flatterer who used magic tricks and chemistry to keep an aura of mystery around himself. While Genghis Khan did not really want much to do with Kokchu, he decided to keep him around due to superstition of killing a shaman, and Temuge, the timid youngest brother, went under Kokchu's tutelage.

As Genghis Khan's army moves further south, much of his time is taken up by governing the warring tribes and strategizing on how to bring down the Chin's walled defenses. His two eldest sons, Jochi and Chagatai, have a relationship that seems similar to his earlier relationship with the elder brother he murdered, Bekter. Both vie for Genghis Khan's affections, though he so clearly prefers Chagatai because he believes that Jochi is the illegitimate bastard son that his wife Borte bore after she was kidnapped and raped by Tartans (which happened in the first book).

There are some amazing battles in this book, like at Badger's Mouth, where Chin General Zhi Zhong was convinced the Mongols would never be able to pass. But Genghis sent his brothers to climb the mountains flanking Badger's pass so that when the Chin army was attacking Genghis army at the pass, his brothers' armies also attacked the back. I really felt like whooping when I was reading about the Mongol riders who were able to shoot their arrows with true aim while they were upon galloping horses. Iggulden's books (and I guess history as well) showed that their prowess at archery while riding cavalry was surely the Mongols greatest strength, hence Book Two's apt title.

Once they got to Yenking – which is modern-day Bejing – the city's inhabitants and the royal family were walled in to prevent the Mongols from entering. This lasted for four years before General Zhi Zhong and the young child emperor were willing to negotiate with Genghis Khan. For four years, the Chin had no access to food or crops, and the millions of people within the city started to starve. This made for some truly horrific reading as you could feel the despair of the Chin as they started to cannabalize their neighbors. The young women of the city, knowing that they were going to be the ones who suffered the most once the walls were breached, dressed themselves in mourning white and threw themselves off the walls of Yenking. It's awful to imagine while reading; it's more incredible to learn through Iggulden's notes at the end that this really, actually happened. "Up to sixty thousand young girls threw themselves from the walls of Yenking rather than see it fall to the invader," he said.

The second book kind of threw a curveball at me. I went from rooting for Temujin's survival, to marveling at Genghis' military strategy and prowess, to being just truly horrified at the lengths he would go to propagate the Mongol race as being the most powerful. There are times when Temujin from the first book is recognizable in Genghis of the second book – but those times get fewer and fewer as we near the end of Lords of the Bow.