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ALL Book Reviews Migration The New York Times Book Review

Perpetual Sorrow

For The New York Times Book Review, I write on Code Switch co-founding editor Kat Chow’s memoir of grief and family, immigration and ancestors. Guided by the work of scholars in Asian American studies who have developed a theory of “racial melancholia,” elaborating on Freud, Chow links her own life and species of grief to their explanation of how identities are formed in immigrant families who try to preserve the memory of the places they left — in a sense to taxidermy the past. Seeing Ghosts gives flesh to this theory, the idea that loss of country and loss of loved ones can hook us with similar perpetual sorrow, through storytelling that brings alive both Chow’s mother and father, drawing their characters tenderly but with unflinching honesty.

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ALL Book Reviews The New York Times Book Review

Telling a taboo history of Vietnam

For The New York Times Book Review, I consider poet Quyen Phan Que Mai’s debut in English, the novel “The Mountains Sing.”

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ALL Book Reviews Migration The New York Times Book Review

Writers Retreat

Imagine an 18th-century London town house, once a fashionable address but recently home to successive huddled masses: Jewish refugees, Irish then Bangladeshi then Somali immigrants. Now fill that house with 30 foreign writers who have fled oppression and violence, all asylum seekers specially chosen for favored treatment. Call them “fellows.” Hang identity cards, with their mug shots petrified in plastic, around their necks. Appoint a chairman whose paranoia and megalomania recall, in madcap picayune, the dictators who tortured and imprisoned many of them. Outfit the house with security cameras that scan the corridors, the surveillance tapes complemented by the human watchfulness of ever-­solicitous volunteers. What you have is the premise for “The House of Journalists,” the former BBC reporter Tim Finch’s clever debut novel.

In an outburst toward the novel’s end, when one fellow disappears along with all traces that he existed, the power-­obsessed chairman name-drops Orwell, an unsubtle clue to Finch’s ambitions as a political satirist and his interest in language as a political tool. But aspects of his novel bear more resemblance to the “Big Brother” of global reality television than to “1984.”

Continue reading my review in The New York Times Book Review.

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Book Reviews The New York Times Book Review

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.

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ALL Book Reviews The New York Times Book Review

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.