The Cooked Seed

The Cooked Seed traces Anchee Min’s evolution from a woman with shattered self-esteem to one with brass enough to have a child when she wanted, although her Chinese-immigrant partner didn’t, and then to divorce him and find love with an American, a Vietnam veteran. Like him, Min suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her prose bears the marks. Her book reads like the testimony of a woman who, in coping with haunting memories she’d rather suppress, swings between remembering too much and too little. Therefore, she simply tells it as it happened, in the order it happened, all of it. See my full review of the book in Ms. Magazine’s Spring issue.

Tale of a Puerto Rican Plantation Mistress

The New York Times Book Review, July 17, 2011 – Conquistadora‘s strength is its Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers are so perplexing, they kept me riveted. Ana isn’t much of a mother, but she takes in a humpbacked baby girl abandoned on her doorstep the same day she trades her own son away in order to keep running the plantation. She’s a liberal mistress, expressing interest in the African songs her maid sings and allowing the slaves’ midwife to deliver her son. (“We all look and function pretty much the same down there,” she declares.) Yet she achieves freedom by exploiting those who, starkly, lack it. Noting that none of her slaves have challenged her, Ana reflects: “But of course, they could. . . . She would, if she were one of them.”

Is Ana believable? Esmeralda Santiago, the author who created her, herself has asked that question. “I worried that I was creating a character who would have been impossible in that time and that place,” she said in an interview on her publisher’s Web site. In fact, a small percentage of women did own or control plantations in the Caribbean. Whether the obstacles they faced in a world dominated by white men sensitized them to the oppression of slaves is another question entirely. White women in the 19th-century Caribbean were largely silent on the subject of slavery. Most who spoke publicly, defended it. With her tough portrait of a female planter, Santiago speculates, charitably but unromantically, about those who didn’t speak.

Continue reading my review of the novel here.

Homeland Revisited

The New York Times Book Review – In the middle of his accomplished book, “India Calling,” Anand Giridharadas tells of meeting a Maoist revolutionary in Hyderabad. The city, nicknamed Cyberabad, serves as a base for both the globalized Indian economy and an armed insurgency at war against the country’s inequalities, rooted and new. India’s Maoist — or Naxalite — movement began as a rural struggle against exploitative landlords in a caste-conscious, socialist nation but has now arrayed itself against the forces of global capitalism reshaping India. When Giridharadas pushes the Naxalite — What does one fight have to do with the other? — the man answers with a striking notion: globalization is reducing people to their specific economic task, stripping them of their humanity, just as caste had done. And software engineers in gated communities have become the new Brahmins. Giridharadas follows the curve of this argument, allowing it to seduce us. Then, he reveals that this rebel, although waging revolution by night, reports by day for a newspaper he himself describes as a shill for the multinational transformation of India. “I have to earn my lunch,” the man explains. “I’m not a whole-timer for revolution.”

The scene accentuates Giridharadas’s appeal as a writer. “India Calling” has what Hanif Kureishi once described as “the sex of a syllogism.” Full-figured ideas animate every turn. So, simultaneously, does Giridharadas’s eye for contradiction. The combination both pleases us and makes us wary — distrustful of shapely ideas, including the author’s own.

Continue reading my piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times.

 

Years of Red Dust

The Washington Post – It just so happened that Qiu Xiaolong was in St. Louis when the Chinese government massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A T.S. Eliot translator, Qiu had won a grant to conduct research at Washington University, founded by Eliot’s grandfather. Because of that chance timing, his life diverted dramatically. Publicly sympathetic to the protesters, Qiu never made it back to China, except as a visitor. Instead, he became a U.S. citizen and a novelist in English, the author of a popular mystery series about a Shanghai police detective named Inspector Chen.

Outcomes like his own, the accidental kind, befall many of the characters in “Years of Red Dust,” Qiu’s witty, evocative book of interrelated short stories just published in English. Read my review of the book for The Washington Post.

 

When London Was Capital of America

The Observer – The decade before America’s declaration of independence in 1776 saw more Americans visiting England than ever before. This engaging social history, written with a novelist’s eye for character and plot, tells their tale – one author Julie Flavell calls “a missing chapter in the social and cultural history of Americans abroad.” Read my review in The Observer.