Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
From the far corners; Fiction;Books
BOLD WORDS. Rajini Srikanth and Esther Y. Iwanaga, editors. A century of Asian American writing. 440pp. Rutgers University Press; distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £49.50 (paperback, £20.95). 0 8135 2966 2.
Introducing the drama section of Bold Words, Robert Uno points out that by 2050, "Caucasians will become a minority in the United States, outnumbered by people of colour, a monolithic category, which while affirming unity, obscures the complexity of difference". This projection includes several defining implications. The Asian-American communities are growing at different rates and their experience is as diverse as America itself, defined by how long they have been there, what jobs they do, how quickly they intermarry or adapt, and how often they go home. The Chinese miner in the desert, the Indian taxi driver in Manhattan, the Korean student on the West Coast encounter different worlds.
Yet there is an undeniable unity of experience in a foreign country, and, in the end, the common perceptions of nostalgia, longing for home, dual loyalties, a yearning for acceptance and a conflict of traditions, provide the fuel for the literature of immigration. Bold Words is an ambitious attempt to sweep together, into an elegant volume, examples of the literature produced by Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, South Asian and South-east Asian Americans. The book's reach extends beyond ethnic boundaries; it consciously erases the boundaries of gender and genre often observed by anthologies. The result is a richly varied, somewhat uneven, collection of stories, poems, drama and memoir, the multilingual voices echoing different corners of the world, each struggling against the temptation to forget, aware of smells, spices, cadences, visions, memories that can be touched off by a whistled tune or the sight of an aerogramme envelope. Not to forget but to remember and retell, in any form one can, is an act of courage, and for that alone, the writers in this anthology and the editors deserve a salute.
When memory -one's own or that of parents or grandparents who landed on foreign shores -forms the seminal impetus for writing, it is natural that the memoir should be the strongest genre here. Chang-Rae Lee's powerful piece on her dying mother, in the presence of loved ones and hearing the soft sounds of her own language, brings forth the stark finality of those last moments that no prayer or conversation or love can lengthen, or for that matter, shorten.
Abraham Varghese exposes the unexpected barriers that an outsider can encounter as he recalls how difficult issues related to HIV and confidentiality made him aware that he was, after all, a "foreign doctor" in Tennessee. Equally powerful is Loung Ung's last recollection of her father being taken away across Cambodian fields by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The fiction section follows in an exuberant rush: stories about Japanese laundry truck drivers, Bangladeshi cabbies, a Japanese wife who begins to write Haiku and arouses the ire of her simple-minded husband, whimsical outpourings of an immigrant chef, the guilt of Japanese Americans who did not, or could not, go to fight for America, Japanese-Korean antipathy leaving its mark on innocent childhoods in America. The test, in the words of Gary Pak, who introduces this section, is to transcend "your typical Asian American mother/daughter sweet stories, your cross-generational stuff, your intercultural relationship jive".
Despite some self-conscious, pretentious and experimental writing, many stories here are truly stories that belong not to one community or the other, but "to everyone in that valley beautiful beyond any telling of it". Carlos Bulosan's "The Story of a Letter" epitomizes all that has brought generations of Asian immigrants to America, drawn by missives they have received from those who have gone before them. The short letter is sufficient to enchant and tempt, yet it is redolent of loss:
America is a great country. Tall buildings. Wide good land. The people walking. But I feel sad. I am writing you this hour of my sentimental.
Frank Chin's "Railroad Standard Time" has a Kerouac touch to it, as its Chinese-American protagonist drives home, criss-crossing between metaphorical Chinatown and American downtown, "riding a mass of spasms and death throes, warm and screechy inside, itchy, full of gossips", and holding on to the ancient memory of his people in his grandfather's nineteen jewel railroad watch: "Ride with me, Grandfather, this is your grandson the ragmouth, called Tampax, the burned scarred boy, called Barbeque, going to San Francisco to bury my mother, your daughter, and spend Chinese New Years at home." In "The Foreign Student", Susan Choi paints a sensitive portrait of a Korean boy showing slides of Korea to a church group who have gathered on a slow afternoon in a small Southern American town, and Andrew Lam, in "Show and Tell", produces a powerful tale of a Vietnamese boy making his place in a tough American classroom. "Mrs. Sen", by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, is marked by quiet masterly characterization but whimpers off to a somewhat tame end.
Eileen Tabios in her invigorating introduction to the poetry section argues that the "best poems resonate, leave behind a simmering feeling in response to their words". A good poem should conjure an image, smell, taste or feel linked to an earlier moment. Poems by Asian Americans can be read for pleasure, for the sake of shared humanity without the baggage of context. Some of the poems work that way, leaving behind a particular image: of a boy watching his father taking out a metal splinter from his hand, say, or of Punjabi farmers settling in Yuba city, their eyes on faraway Punjab, their minds with their distant families. Alfredo Navarro Salanga draws the bottom line: "The only problem is / they don't think much/ about us / in America."
Unfortunately, for some in the immigrant communities in America, this bottom line is very real, as they nurse their loneliness in suburban splendour, nibble at mainstream American life, resist the tug of home, and swirl in hopeless time warps. For them, the gnawing questions remains: when, if at all, will all the foreigners belong? How many generations does it take to achieve the seamless, and then, is it worth it?