January 31, 2017

Issue 2: January 2017 - Chang-Rae Lee and Celeste Ng

Welcome to #aznbooks2017, the monthly journal where I will be tracking my attempt to read only books by Asian authors in 2017. You can read more about the project here and follow updates in real time by following the #aznbooks2017 hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, and following me on Goodreads

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Wow, January has been so much more challenging than I had anticipated it would be. In addition to the weird and unprecedented political climate, I've just been personally going through a lot of change and upheaval in my personal life. The result has been several panic attacks, tense shoulders and a depression darker than I've seen in quite a while. 

In the darkness though, there's also been some light. This project has been a welcome distraction from my everyday stresses and nerves. At the end of each day, I remember I have a small place to escape into, and even if that place isn't much better (like in On Such a Full Sea), at least I get out of my head a tiny bit. I hope that you can find your own respite from the chaos of everyday life, whether that's in books or loved ones, or even The Bachelor. 

Onto the books. 

On Such a Full Sea, Chang-Rae Lee 

So this is a story that takes place in the far future. The United States as we know it is gone and replaced with a regimented new country of immigrants (from "New China") and "natives" (who from what I could tell were the descendants of Black Americans. Our heroine, Fan, leaves her insular community of B-Mor (a futuristic city built on top of, or rather, underneath, today's Baltimore) in search of her lover, Reg, and her older brother.

Let me start with its dystopian premise: There's something about seeing a future version of our country, decimated and overrun into a new social order, that is so deeply haunting. The only thing I can compare it to is watching the West Coast scenes in Man in the High Castle. I can't help but wonder what today's America does to get there. This is certainly resonant in today's political climate; in fact, it seems that what did most of "ancient" American society in was climate change and a terrible disease.

For me, this story was a reminder of how fleeting our quotidian concerns and dramas are. When you read about a future civilization listening to "ancient" country music, you start to see your priorities slightly differently.  

What hasty preparations we make for our future. Think of it: it seems almost tragic, the things we're sure we ought to bring along. We pack too heavy with what we hope we'll use, and too light of what we must. We thus go forth misladen, ill equipped for the future. 

I will say though, this took me a really long time to read because I had a hard time consuming Lee's prose; something about the way he structures his sentences made it difficult for me to really absorb them on the first try. Still, the book was worthwhile, and I'm glad I finally finished it. 

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

Oh my god. Oh my god!! Is it too much to say that this is exactly what I wanted from a book that might, in theory, "speak to me"? 

This was such a beautiful novel full of mirroring and reflections that bounced back from one character to another. My heart hurt when I finished it. I've been thinking a lot lately about the potential energy, hopes, and dreams that are passed down through generations. It compounds. I think about how generations oscillate violently back and forth, each generation rebelling against what their parents wanted for them. This, more than anything else, is the American Story. 

This novel spoke to the distinct pressures daughters often face -- carrying their mothers' hopes on their backs. And sometimes it's too heavy to remain upright. 

The other thing I found fascinating was the 1970s-era anxiety about mixed race people. Having heard these exact words spoken about me, it's not at all surprising that family members could have been so concerned about the potential of half-Chinese grandchildren. But still, it's jarring to see how confident the community in this story is that the mixed race children would inevitably end up confused and broken, confused Frankenstein's monsters that belong nowhere. 

Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn't look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express -- a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers -- Chinese -- Japanese -- look at these-- and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand.

I really appreciate all the people who recommended this book to me; it's kind of a perfect amalgamation of all the things I've been feeling lately. 

Books started: