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.

CBR9 #5: China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Fine, fine, fine. I'll review some books. I'm really terrible at keeping up with it. 

China Rich Girlfriend is Kevin Kwan's sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Even though the first book was imperfect in many ways, I really loved it because it was sort of the first time I've seen Asians portrayed in an atypical fashion in English-language fiction. I also recognized a lot of my Singapore family in the first book, so I think that helped as well.

That being said, I'm really not as keen about the sequel. Rachel Chu and Nick Young is back, as is Nick's mother, Eleanor. There are a whole host of new characters introduced, while some old faces make appearances as well. The plot is a bit all over the place, and I feel like the book can be divided into two sections. The first section focuses on Nick's estranged relationship with his mother. This was made such a big deal, but all is forgiven once his mother was able to locate Rachel Chu's real father... and then Eleanor Young kind of disappears for the entire rest of the book.

The second half of the book is about Rachel making the acquaintance of her real father, and her step-family. Her father is now a politician, high up in China's politburo, while his wife is distraught at losing her husband to this new mystery daughter. Rachel also tries to get closer to her half-sibling, Carlton, who is very much like one of the "crazy rich Asians".

Meanwhile, there is a sub-plot concerning Kitty Pong, the former soap actress who used to date Nick's cousin. Kitty is virtually unrecognizable in this book, as she has re-made herself, and is determined to make an impression on Hong Kong's high society. But, as she soon learns, it's not as easy as appearing on the society pages. I think the funnest part of China Rich Girlfriend might be when Corinna, a woman born into an old money family who makes a living teaching people what to do to become "high-class," tries to educate her.

All in all, I found the second book to be harder to get through than the first. I honestly don't care much about Rachel or Nick – Kwan writes these two main characters in such a bland way that they are basically like Bella from the Twilight series. In a way, anyone can identify with Rachel's bewilderment when she encounters all kinds of gaudiness and overt wealth because Kwan has written her as a bit of a cipher. In fact, the best characters in his books are the ones who are actually "terrible" people, doing "terrible" things. I feel like I can see more human-ness in their actions and insecurities than in Rachel, who is just bland as hell.

That being said, I will definitely watch the hell out of the Crazy Rich Asians movie when it's out. I really hope they cast more Singaporean actors in it. So far, all the major roles are like Asian-British, Asian-American... which really annoys me, but is certainly interesting in terms of dissecting the racial politics involved when it comes to a major Hollywood movie that is groundbreaking in a way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

CBR9 #4: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

This is my first book of poetry, ever. Or rather, pamphlet, because it is so thin. I bought it because of the Beyonce hype behind Warsan's words, because I'd heard her name over and over, because her name is now tangibly linked to words like "refugee" and "woman", because a Pajiba friend posted an excerpt from her poem on Facebook, because they actually (actually!) had it in a Bangkok bookstore, a thin sleeve of paperback tucked amidst hundred-page hardcovers.

I read it at home, and I read it while waiting for the train. I read it while seated during my commute, and also when standing packed among others. I soon felt a particular hotness reading it in public, so I did the bulk of my reading in bed, when I was about to fall asleep. Sometimes, I read it outloud to my empty room, just to see if the words would taste different in my mouth.

Poetry is a funny medium for me. It has always felt slightly out of my reach. I hoped for Shire's words to bring me closer, but sometimes it came too close for comfort. I never related wholly to a single poem, only to the sentiment conveyed – Shire ensconces the people in actions and images that are really feelings – but sometimes that sentiment hinged so accurately (and vulgarly) to my own that it felt almost intrusive.

This is not a book you should read on the train. At one point, I was trapped in my mind, with images of men and women kissing, and then the train jolted to a stop and I looked up, and caught the eye of a young woman heading home from work. What a strange experience.

In Love and In WarTo my daughter I will say,
'when the men come, set yourself on fire'.

There is also sadness and yearning and so much brutality running through her words. I know nothing about Shire's background, only that she is a black female, but a quick google search tells me she is a London-based Somali poet and only 28. Perhaps it was because I just got done with Drown, but the feeling I get from her writing is similar to what I got from Junot Diaz' – the quiet violence comes through in moments of tranquility.

I can hear you in our spare room with her.
What is she hungry for?
What can you fill her up with?
What can you do, that you would not do for me?
I count my ribs before I go to sleep.
(excerpt from "Bone")

You grandparents often found themselves
in dark rooms, mapping out
each other's bodies,
claiming whole countries
with their mouths
(excerpt from "Grandfather's Hands")

Perhaps her most well-known poem is "Home," which seeped into my consciousness some time last year or two years ago during the refugee crisis. I read Shire's words before I knew her name, before I knew she was a "serious" poet and not some activist getting her feelings out. (But really, how is one different from the other if the impact is the same?) I'm not sure when she finished "Home" but the beginnings of it were revealed in this pamphlet, called "Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)". In this piece, written in short paragraphs spanning four pages, you see that familiar phrase – "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." – over and over again, like a resounding punch that doesn't quite land, not until you see refugees crowded on dingy lifeboats off the coast of Greece.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

CBR9 #3: Drown by Junot Diaz

Getting through Drown, a collection of short stories by Junot Diaz, took me close to a month. This delay was due to my very bad, no-good month of January, which included some emotional fall-out after the inauguration and the first two weeks of this administration.

I can thus say that the stories in the book can be divided like so: Read pre-Trump vs. read post-Trump. Obviously this wasn't Diaz's intent – after all, it was published in 1996 – but personally, for me, the short stories in the beginning of the collection were more tied to heartbreak and youthful malice, while the stories at the end resonated deeply with me as a tale of code-switching in an America that is fixated with race and of the immigrant's heartache of never belonging. His epigraph, a passage by Gustavo Perez Firmat, is incredibly fitting:

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else

Similar to two other books that I've read before by him – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and another short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her  – the sense of being an immigrant's child, or an immigrant, is prevalent in every single piece. From the way Yunior and his brother Rafa feel out of place when they are visiting the Dominican Republic to a chance encounter with a fellow immigrant while working a job putting together pool tables for rich families, there is always longing in Diaz's words. As always, Yunior, his alter-ego, appears frequently in the stories, tied up in various forms of heartbreak or childhood mischief, and the posturing masculinity – whatever that means for a growing adult male in America, or for an immigrant with a displaced sense of self and an absent father – seems to anchor much of his interactions.

The final third of the book really hit me hard. How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie made me so sad. It's written as a dating guide of how a young, brown boy should act around a girl and his mother when she drops her off at his house. The things he has to hide around the apartment, the places he chooses to bring her for dinner and how to act during dinner ("If the girl's from around the way, take her to El Cibao for dinner. Order everything in your busted-up Spanish. Let her correct you if she's Latina and amaze her if she's black. If she's not from around the way, Wendy's will do."), even how far they might go when they are sitting on the couch at the end of the night. At the end of the night, the "halfie" girl will likely not want him to touch her. "You're the only kind of guy who asks me out, she will say.... You and the blackboys." That paragraph shot like an arrow straight through my heart, and I can only imagine how it must feel to have that said to someone like Diaz, like being counted as second best because you are an immigrant, a non-white; never the gleaming white knight in white armor.

The last story, Negocios, felt almost like a relief as most of the stories in the book deals with Yunior and Rafa's absent father peripherally. While it is narrated by Yunior, it is mostly written from the point of view of his father, Ramon, about his journey as a new immigrant to America, and all the hardship he had to endure. The roommates who stole his money, the difficulty getting a well-paying job without a solid grasp of English, having to always worry about getting busted for not having a green card – it really drives home how grueling this experience is and how little knowledge and sympathy we, as US citizens, have for that. Ramon isn't even particularly a good person – he cheated on Yunior's mom and stopped sending her money, he hits his second wife, he never reaches out to his children when he went back to Dominican Republic for a visit – and even as I say this, I really did feel for him a bit. That's always been the genius of Diaz's writing. This Is How You Lose Her was full of stories of cheating cads and asshole men, but he is able make the reader understand, a little bit, how a human being being a massive dick could be due to all the hurt inside. Or sometimes, people are just dicks. And Diaz did the same with Ramon's dad. Perhaps I was also feeling a bit vulnerable to empathizing with him, after the month that I've had.

Friday, January 27, 2017

CBR9 #2: Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday afternoon, I read Frank Bruni's opinion piece, titled "The Wrong Way to Take On Trump." Bruni – former political reporter turned restaurant critic turned opinion columnist for the New York Times – decided to school the American public on how we should "go high" when talking, protesting,  and generally reacting to Trump. Except he didn't really give specifics on what to do, nor did he interview any activists on their advice. Bruni spent the majority of this column telling us how we failed in our liberal-ness (listing obvious examples such as the tweet sent out about Barron Trump and Madonna's provocative stage antics) and his last two paragraphs basically can be summed up to this: "to rant less and organise more. To resist taunts and stick with facts. to answer invective with intelligence."

Thanks, man. I didn't know that at all. How helpful.

And that piece just reminded me of all the column inches devoted to how the Black Lives Matters protesters were doing it wrong, how they should have done it this other way instead; how they need to be peaceful. And it just made me even madder.

Which is what compelled me to revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I haven't read it since... maybe high school? I'm not sure, truly. But I wanted my anger to be justified, to be sated in some way, to stop feeling like I'm guilty when my white, male friends tell me that I am "attacking" them when all I am simply doing is talking and stating facts about race, sexism, and civil rights.

It will be no shocker to anybody when I say that so much of what King wrote in 1963 is still relevant today. From the description of having to hear the word "wait" over and over again for your civil liberties, to the line on police brutality ("hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalise, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity") to the descriptions of economic desolation for minorities ("air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society") – yes, it is still so relevant today.

What I did miss as a teenager though was how much of a burn master King was. He really got some choice jabs in! From his use of sarcasm ("I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticism are sincerely set forth") to his blunt statement of emotion ("I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.") to his subtle digs to the ministers who wrote the statement criticising King's demonstrations ("History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged grips seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.") King was totally all about setting them on fire.

But the real reason I wanted to reread it was for his admonition of the white moderate. Here is the beginning:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 

Oh, he goes on, all right. King is merciless in his descriptions of the white moderate – and he is even nuanced enough to include middle-class blacks who have profited in that society and now has economic security (like The Invisible Man in the beginning of the book) – and it's astounding to me how direct parallels can be drawn in regards to the Black Lives Matters movement, and to the way certain (white, privileged) liberals have taken to reprimanding those with more vocal anxieties post-inauguration.

Seriously, there's even a #notallmen #notallwhitepeople section in the letter! King criticises the Southern church leaders (though he commended a single revered for welcoming black people to the worship service and Catholic leaders for integrating Springhill College) for preaching to follow the laws of integration, not because it is morally right, but because it is now a law. "I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour," he said. This was basically his #yesallchurches moment.

Another interesting thing that stood out to me was his purposeful use of indecisive language during key moments of the letter. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom..." or "I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realised that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed."

These "guess" "hope" and "maybe"s, read in an earnest way, take on a disappointed tone. It makes the reader feel that King truly had hope for the church leaders to do better, and he is greatly saddened by their lack of action. But read in a modern tone – which is how it started to sound in my head once I realised what an OG he was – it takes on an ironic tone, and then the piece shifts to anger. I don't know why I never saw it before, but now that I'm reading it in this current political climate, I can't help but feel like the moderates never showed up to begin with.

One final thing to mention: A friend of mine who reminded me of the letter when I was speaking with him also said that I am angry at these moderates because "that's really just aiming at someone you can hit." In a way, it's probably true.