Tuesday, December 17, 2019

CBR11 #9: Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

From the very first pages describing Bangkok's early evening crowd of school children, food vendors and no-shits-given receptionist that a character encounters as she walks into a condo building, I knew I was in for the real thing. Literally, Pitchaya Sudbanthad could have been describing my walk home after work.

It's even the details in the condo's lobby that he gets right, like the random coffee venture that pops up to please management or the "pre-fabricated panels of exposed brick" and the trendy Scandi-but-really-Thai-imitation furniture that comes with it. A glossy sheen of modernity -- really, more an idea of modernity than actual -- that envelopes me the minute I step off the streets.

Even the elevator bank had gotten a makeover, with footlights installed along the walls and the nicked beige doors refashioned with a few coats of auspicious firecracker red for the Chinese renters. 

Seriously. My office building just got a new shiny elevator, and I kid you not, it is this.

Look, as I get older, I understand that I need to be more open lest I get stuck in my own tiny world, and I read and choose the variety of books that I do to get a sense of different perceptions/different situations/different histories portrayed in an empathetic manner. But sometimes, I just want to read a book in which I recognize things -- the way I sometimes watch a really crap movie only because it's set in New York and I miss a particular street.

And Bangkok Wakes to Rain had so many recognizable real-life descriptions of the city and its people that I was just delighted the entire time I consumed its pages. It definitely helps that it was definitely not crap; it was really well-done.

Amazingly, Sudbanthad has managed to blend the history, pain and trauma that Bangkok has undergone together with its uncertain future as the clock races towards the uncomfortable knowledge that the city is literally sinking. I'm not even sure quite how to describe the plot, but it felt a little bit like a less fantastical version of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas -- where all the characters are intertwined in some way, and the one consistent character is Bangkok, which is slowly being renovated and refabbed and redressed and relived.

If I must highlight a plotline, I think Nee's stuck in my mind the longest. She is introduced as a girlfriend to university student Siripohng, the two having met during the protests in 1973. Thailand watchers might be aware of what Sudbanthad is barreling towards -- three years later is the Thammasat University massacre.

Here is what we can officially say: On October 6, 1976, the military, paramilitary and police opened fire on pro-democracy protesters who've been camping out at the campus for weeks. Although students begged for a ceasefire, the government refused to let them out, and they dove into the Chao Phraya river to escape the gunfire. Students were also lynched on trees.

(Understand that I'm ruthlessly summarizing and if you're interested, it is worth a trawl through the Wiki page.)

The massacre is a blight on Thailand's history, and it remains a tough topic to discuss openly. It's one of those things that everyone knows about and no one knows anything for sure. The real death toll is still unclear, and activists who choose to hold events on October 6 are subjected to surveillance lest their activities be considered controversial.

But agitations in society still persist, as can be seen by this video done by a rap group call Rap Against Dictatorship that drew a lot of attention because it was put out after four years of Thailand being under a junta regime.

As a working journalist in Thailand, it can be frustrating sometimes to report here because interviews can be a strange affair once we approach taboo topics -- like hearing someone speak out from one side of their mouth and resurface with a vague platitude.

But here's how Sudbanthad handles the subject of the massacre: he doesn't really focus too much on the event itself -- though yes, it is shocking to read -- but more on the aftermath. On how Nee shuts herself off and focuses on the things she enjoys, like teaching swimming in a fancy condominium apartment. How she's aware that her powerful breast strokes were what saved her from getting pulled under on the strong currents of the Chao Phraya river, after she jumped into it to escape the gunfire.

Sudbanthad also tackles the trauma of complacency, and the costs of choosing not to care about politics. Nee's sister Nok had lived in Japan for years before the massacre, running a Thai restaurant and remained far removed from the political turmoil. But years after the fact, Nok realized that one of her loyal customers is the colonel responsible for training the paramilitaries that opened fire on the protesters.

Nee was alive though wasn't she? Was there any reason to be personally upset at Khun Chahtchai now? Yet Nok also knew that Nee had escaped a horrific fate only by luck, or destiny, or karmic currents like the one that eventually brought the colonel to savor meals in Japan at a restaurant owned by her sister, of all people, of all places. 

When Nee learns of this ("Do you think because you're over there I wouldn't find out?") she stops talking to her sister.

This exchange highlights two things that everyone in this region knows. The first is easy to understand -- that Thailand is a village and everyone will talk to their friends and their friends' friends, always, especially if it's something highly sensitive.

The second, which I've learned over my very brief time here, is that there are the same names churning over and over again when it comes to power, politics and big business. Two groups who claim to be deadly enemies will a year later come together for a military-backed political party... or a lucrative infrastructure deal. In the US, lots of these "strange bedfellows"-type alliance draw attention because it's rare; in Thailand, no one is very surprised.

But what does this short-term memory/long-term trauma do for entire generations? I don't know if Sudbanthad was trying to answer this question, but I found myself coming back to it over and over again as I got closer to the end -- the idea that a city or moment persists in one's memory with such pristine clarity, even after in reality it's been stripped bare of its old character and citizens.

A corner in the Ari neighborhood has a new trendy restaurant opening every eight months; my friends living there call it the "Ari life cycle", but how do we fully grasp a city's "essence" (sorry for the hokey word) if it's constantly undergoing change? And that's not even counting a government/establishment that appears so willing to play god, drafting and passing new laws to present a mirage of stability. 

Thailand has had 20 charters, yet last week, the entire country got a day off for Constitution Day. Which one? many joked on Twitter, but seriously... which one should the civil workers getting their day out of a stuffy office be thankful for?

I don't think I've done faith to Bangkok Wakes to Rain in my review -- there's barely a plot synopsis! -- but please understand that it's definitely a book worth getting your hands on. Even if you've never been to Thailand, it could give you a peek, beyond the usual headlines, into this country that has undergone more than a dozen coups since 1932.

I must add one more thing that made my heart so full. Maybe there is more diversity in the book world, but all I know is that when I read a "Most anticipated books of 2019" list in the beginning of the year, Pitchaya Sudbanthad's name jumped out at me.

The thrill I got from recognizing a fellow Southeast Asian name on an American/Anglo-centric English language fiction book list shows how much further we've gotta go in making sure diverse names, cultures and faces are highlighted in pop culture.

Monday, December 16, 2019

CBR11 #6-8: Saga Volumes 2 to 4 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Let me be clear -- I read these ages ago. And I'm writing a review for them months after the fact. So this will not be the best/clearest/most coherent reviews for a truly awesome series, but I'll do the best I can.

Sage Volume Two introduces Marko's parents, who drop into the fleeing couple's ship unannounced. Marko and his mother immediately take off to a different planet to retrieve their "babysitter", the ghoul Isabel, while Alana is left with his dad -- her now-father-in-law.

It also introduces Gwendolyn, Marko's ex-fiance who gifted him with the translation engagement rings that Marko and Alana use to communicate. She drops in on The Will, a freelance bounty hunter/contract killer who is despondent now that his ex was killed by the Prince. She is eager for him to finish the job he started -- hunting down Marko and Alana, but first The Will insists on rescuing Slave Girl, a young child he saw on a sex planet.

There are many things to love about Saga -- the art, the humor, the absurdity of some of the space creatures -- but the plotting is really amazing. Weaved in between the present narrative is how Marko's parents raised him, and how he and Alana met and fell in love. The authors use an omniscient voice -- Hazel, the daughter -- to set the stage, and her wry voice is used to set the tone. It is also ominous at times, piquing our worries on what's to befall our heroes and their accidental family.

There are also great moments of reality snuck in. Like how The Will wants to return Slave Girl to her planet after she's rescued, but Gwendolyn hits back at him with some common sense. "Home? To the same people that handed her over to those assholes?"

"Then to a shelter or something," he says lamely.

"Those are just recruitment centers for the other side's cannon fodder," she says, before urging him to think about counseling for Slave Girl's abuse.

That's what I like -- a world where not everything is definitely good or definitely bad, and where the supposed heroes are as befuddled as we are about what steps we should take next. All we can hope for is to do the "best" thing, and that completely depends on whose point of views we're aligned with.

And whooooo boy, things really fucking take off in Volume Three. 

The fugitive couple arrive in Quietus, the home of the author Oswald who wrote a subversive book that enabled them to fall in love.

There's honestly so much to love about this issue -- the introduction of the writer and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge meta content about creatives, the hiatus the runaway family gets before Prince IV drops in on the planet, and the introduction of journalists chasing down the truth of the story.

But I think perhaps the single best page in the entire issue is when Slave Girl -- now renamed by The Will as Sophie -- chats with Lying Cat (who is one of my favorites).

She also calls him "Honest Cat" which is just perfect.

The journalists -- who are like teal-coloured water creatures -- are getting closer to the truth that Marko and Alana might have fallen in love, but the Power that Be don't want this coming out, so a contract is put out to kill them. But the freelancer sent after them is The Brand, The Will's sister it turns out, and she decides not to kill the journalists because she felt they were "pretty fair to the union during our last strike".

Instead, she poisons them with a spell that kills them if they tell a single soul about the story.

"That makes no sense," said one of them "We've covered way worse crap done by both sides."

"Exactly," she says. "It's the stories with no sides that worry them."

This volume ends in tragedy -- and it's quietly foretold in the deepening relationship between Oswald and Klara, Marko's mother. Why can't these people ever have anything nice?

Side note: I wish I could pull of Gwendolyn's all-white tube top/shorts/blazer look in real life. I mean, look at it.

Volume Four drops us in Gardenia, a planet where the family has decided to stay for a while so that Alana can join the Circuit, which is a little bit like an acting troupe that everyone in the galaxy can plug into. This might have been one of my least favorite issues, probably because there are less interactions between Marko and Alana, who's slowly getting warped by the long hours of her job.

She also starts taking drugs to get by, and it's sort of strangely the most "normal" part about the series so far. Woman has shitty job she needs to keep, woman takes uppers to make it bearable.

It also shows Hazel becoming a super cute toddler, and Marko being a full-time stay-at-home dad who's slowly getting enamoured by a fellow parent.

See what I mean about "normal"? Spouse misses partner, spouse decides to emotionally cheat.

Meanwhile on the Robot planet, there's turmoil afoot. So far, we've only encountered the royalty robots, but there is also a "commoner" class, and one of them is itching for a revolution. His young son who cannot be treated because he has no insurance dies from diarrhea, so he kidnaps the son of the Prince Robot IV, kills the wife, and makes off with the baby TV screen. His aim is to broadcast a message of the plight of the commoner to all the galaxies, so he heads to Gardenia to jump on the Circuit's broadcast.

Sophie and Gwendolyn are still trying to track down a cure for The Will, and they run into his sister, The Brand, who's intrigued by their "quest".

And there you have it! Three reviews in one! I can't wait to read the rest of Saga -- just gotta get my hands on the issues.

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.