Issue 3: February 2017 - compilations and dissertations
by Alex Laughlin
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.
If you like this newsletter and you value diverse media, please subscribe, and tell your friends to do so as well!
February has been an incredibly scattered month for my reading. I've passed over continuous narratives in favor of à la carte options. It's been a nice way to dance around different voices without committing too strongly to a single one, and it fits the flighty state my brain has been in this month.
But there is something I feel I need to come clean about here. Let me paint you a picture. I stood in the women & gender section of Politics & Prose looking at the spines, and my eyes landed on "Women in Clothes," a beautiful collection of smart women's thoughts on how they adorn their bodies. And this is what I'm ashamed to admit, but I'll do it anyway: I looked at the book's editors, hoping just one of them might end up being not...totally white? Cut to me sweatily Googling any various combination of this editor's name and "asian," "race," and "background," hoping that I would find something to confirm my hopes. Reader, I did.
Let me be clear: THIS IS NOT WHY I'M DOING THIS PROJECT. This was a backwards and counterproductive process where I chose the book I wanted to read and then reverse engineered a way to call it "Asian." I'm so glad I got this book and I've enjoyed reading it this month, but this can't be a thing that happens. That is not the spirit of this project.
Let me start off by saying I know very little about Iranian politics and culture. The only other books about Iran I've read are Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran(both wonderful, for the record). But this is all to say that my literacy with Iranian culture is definitely a blind spot, which is why I was drawn to this book. Also, the cover is beautiful, isn't it?
Mandanipour was clearly writing for a Western audience, which, gazey Orientalist issues about that aside, was helpful for me because he broke down a lot of basic facts about Iranian history and culture that I just wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
I often think about how every culture has a handful of foundational myths, and you can arguably trace any piece of art created in that culture back to them, if you look hard enough. I've hoped that this project would bring me closer to understanding those foundational myths on a cellular level for other Asian countries, and this novel definitely brought me closer to that.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story was a novel within a novel, and as you read on, those lines between fictional fiction and fictional reality begin to seriously blur. I was especially delighted at points when the protagonist literally interacts with the characters he creates. This blurring illuminates the close ties between art and life (and politics), and between truth imagined and the everyday realities we face.
Finally, reading this book at this current political moment made me hyper aware of what happens when a group governs from a place of fear rather than of love and bravery. It's a reminder to be brave and strong, and not weak.
Here's why. We need space for mixed people to own their Asianness, if that's what they want. We also need space for voices of color exploring topics that ignite their curiosity and passion and have absolutely nothing to do with race. </soapbox>
Now about the book. Women in Clothes is a collection of survey responses from nearly 700 women about the clothes they wear, and how, and why. It's a book about fashion with very few photos of the fashion itself. The result is a thoughtful meditation on bodies, physicality, and the versions of ourselves we present to the world. Every single page is a delicious treat and reading it, I felt almost the way I did when I first discovered Rookie, which is pretty magical.
I found this one Saturday morning while killing time at Second Story Books before a much-needed massage that ended up being deeply uncomfortable. But I'm glad I ended up getting this out of it, and for $8, too!
I wouldn't necessarily call this a fun read. It's extremely academic and is less of a collection of classical literature and more of a collection of essays about said literature. Which is fine. But don't pick it up expecting fairy tales.
I came away from this book in awe of how long a civilization can stay continuous. In the U.S., I think we take for granted that our nation's history is less than 500 years old. We have our own versions of nation-founding myths, but no myths about how our people came to be. No specific myths about how a god decided one day to create your people and that is why we're all here and that is that. I can't help but feel we're missing out in some way. But oh well.
Another fun thing I learned: For years and years and years, Koreans' writing system was an adaptation of the Chinese character system, imperfectly tweaked to fit Korean speaking patterns. Obviously, people spent their lives learning how to read and write that language. Then, in 1446, King Sejong created a 28-letter phonetic alphabet that was intuitive and accessible. The learned classes didn't take to the new, ~common~ alphabet because they had obviously spent years learning this hacked up Chinese system. So for years, this Korean writing system, now called hangul, was used predominantly by women. GO FIGURE.
Anyway, now there's debate among scholars who study Korean literature about whether "Korean literature" as a genre begins in 1446, when hangul was created, or before. I really appreciated where Kichung Kim lands on this: A piece of literature can be considered Korean if it possesses "the spirit of Korean thoughts and sentiments." As someone who is actively grasping for what my Korean identity is, I really like that.
This one wasn't a book, it was a dissertation. But I printed it out and had it bound up like a book! And it was as long as a book! So I'm counting it.
This was a fascinating investigation into what it means to be an Asian American person making art in what are frequently considered multicultural and liberal spaces. My mind was blown multiple times, but namely:
Hsu's analysis of the inherent whiteness of indie rock (of the head/mind, versus pop music's body-ness).
The term "musical miscegenation."
THE DISCOVERY THAT KAREN O IS HALF KOREAN.
Over all, I look forward to diving more deeply into narrative in March. I've enjoyed ~learning things~ and being a generally flighty and noncommittal person, but I'm excited to go steady with a book or two.