Tuesday, July 11, 2017

BOOKS! (Homegoing)

Here goes another book recommendation from a podcast, this time from the hosts of Mostly Lit. After the film adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave made its rounds four years ago, I resolved for my own sanity to not watch another slave movie. I've been hearing and learning about the trials of our ancestors constantly since I was a child, and I just couldn't stomach another movie that would tear my heart to shreds while still allowing white people to feel better about themselves and ultimately learn nothing ("Isn't it so good that the times aren't like that anymore," blahdeblah, etc). Thankfully, I haven't sworn off books about slavery at all. Homegoing is one of my favorites that I've read this year, but I needed some time to sit with me before writing about it.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Loss and fire and motherhood and sisterhood and womanhood and bonds and blackness and blood.

Two women in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) are both victims of British colonialism and the slave trade. Born of the same mother, they are half-sisters but never meet each other or even learn each other's names. From their adolescent years both of their lives are framed by the whims of white men, in a comparable though not equivalent dynamic to house slave and field slave.

Effia, the elder sister born in a Fante family, is married off to the British governor of Cape Castle, becoming the "wench" of the man who controls the export of slaves from Ghana. She can move around without restriction and is even able to visit her home village, though she is no longer welcome there. Effia lives a life of luxury in the castle, underneath which sits the dungeon where hundreds of slaves are crammed, awaiting shipment. Unbeknownst to her, her sister is one such slave. Esi, the younger sister born in an Asante family, is captured as a slave and traded to the British after her father's tribal war exploits backfire on him. She lives in the slave dungeon underneath Cape Castle with no space, no end of tears, and no sunlight. She is scarcely fed, and is brutalized by soldiers who guard the dungeon. She's even molested by Effia's husband before being packed onto a ship bound for the American South.

The rest of the book traces each of these two women's branches of their family tree, down to their respective 4th-great grandchildren in current times. Each chapter focuses on a specific descendant during a specific period of Ghanaian colonial/post-colonial history (Effia's descendants) or Black American history (Esi's descendants). Even after having finished this novel weeks ago, the chapter that sticks with me most is that of Willie, Esi's great-great granddaughter. Willie moves with her mixed husband and their son from Alabama to Harlem during the Great Migration. Due to racism (yes, even in The Big Apple!) and insecurities about his manhood, her husband is so focused on passing for white so that he can earn a better living for them, that he passes right out of Willie's life. Out of their home and out of Harlem, letting his white employers make a sexual spectacle out of Willie before leaving her and eventually starting a new family with a white woman. I don't know why this story bothers me so, but it does. Infuriating and tragic. I knew passing was (still is!) real, but I hadn't imagined that it was THAT real, and especially in New York City of all places.

Props are due to Yaa Gyasi for acknowledging Africans' culpability in the slave trade while also not shifting the onus away from the white people to whom the trade catered. Notions of the diaspora or Pan-Africanism hardly existed at that time, and so local warriors and slave traders saw capturing and selling other Africans as a way to get rich while subjugating rival tribes (Asante vs. Fante, for example), rather than as a means to send their own off to indescribable hell as non-human property in the New World. Furthermore, chattel slavery was a practice particular to the Americas that didn't have a cut-and-dry equivalent in Africa (at the very least, slaves in African hands were still considered human beings). This is all a lengthy discussion for another day, but Gyasi thankfully doesn't shy away from it.

To be completely honest, once I read the last line and closed the book, I came this close to crying. Thiiiis close. I've written before about how like most descendants of enslaved people in this country, I'm disconnected from my exact roots and don't know who my ancestors were or where they came from past a certain point. Not to project my experience onto Yaa Gyasi's, but in reading Homegoing I felt like I was also able to pay tribute to my own ancestors. To feel for them, mourn for them, take pride in them in a way that I hadn't before. The novel left me with a sense of despair, but also immense gratitude toward the people who survived and made my existence possible.

Favorite quotes:
"'You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood'... They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind... The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well" (93).
"There is evil in our lineage. There are people who have done wrong because they could not see the result of the wrong. They did not have these burned hands as a warning... it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free" (242). 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Blackest Weekend (Family Reunion)

Friday I thought I wanted to bowl, when really I just wanted to eat.

Saturday I thought I wanted to eat, when really I just wanted to swim. To play kickball. To hug my relatives and laugh myself sore with them. To go to a bar and drink, snack on good junk food, and laugh some more with my cousins.

Sunday our family's church had service outside under a huge white tent. Old-fashioned, country style. My cousin preached. Much food followed.

And today, with Ma and another cousin as my witnesses, I had lines etched into my skin before leaving The Ville for The Mitten.

I've been a Grace my whole life, by my dad and his father. By my mom, her father, and my great-grandfather, I'm a Conwell. But apparently, all of us on my mom's paternal side fall under a much larger branch by the name of Payne. There are so many surnames you can claim, depending on which part of the tree you choose.

I'm so full. This weekend was beyond wonderful. Thank y'all.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

BOOKS! (Diary of a Bad Year + Silence)

Sometimes you just need a book to pass the time, something you can get through relatively quickly, and these two are such books. I wasn't head-over-heels with either of them, but their authors are well-respected (a Nobel Prize winner and an Akutagawa Prize winner, respectively) and they each make interesting points about serious topics, namely religion and politics. I found the first book at a used book sale, and I ordered the second one online when its film adaptation was released earlier this year.

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

I was assigned to read Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, as part of my senior seminar in college and I LOVED it. It disturbed me greatly and brought to my attention how post-colonial (post-apartheid) eras manifest still newer forms of racial and political violence. Coetzee gives us something comparatively lighter in Diary of a Bad Year, but it's still somewhat serious.

Señor C is a character loosely based on Coetzee himself (renowned yet reclusive South African novelist who has relocated to Australia to spend the latter half of his life). He's been commissioned to contribute essays to a German anthology of high-minded ideas, so to speak, and hires his upstairs neighbor named Anya to be his typist. His initial intentions are neither pure nor selfless (he basically hires her because she's hot, and will hopefully inject some beauty and companionship into his solitary life; be his aide and his muse), but he never acts on his longings. The half-Filipino daughter of a former diplomat, Anya's incredibly intelligent but has chosen to skate by on the art of playing dumb, letting wealthy know-it-all dudes entertain her and buy her things because, why not? Her current wealthy know-it-all partner is Alan, an economist who left his wife for Anya and is in the midst of a midlife crisis. He's simultaneously proud and jealous of any male attention  that Anya gets, and plans to use his skills to steal all of Señor C's money simply because he can.

Set in 2005, part one of the book contains Señor C's "Strong Opinions", his commissioned essays on various political concepts and current events. Part two contains his "softer opinions", more personal topics which Anya has encouraged him to write about. What's most interesting about Diary of a Bad Year, though, is how it's organized. Each page is divided into 2 or 3 voices, with Senior C's writing on top, his personal thoughts or dialogue in the middle, and either Anya or Alan's (mostly Anya's) thoughts or dialogue at the bottom. Sentences seldom carry over to the next page, so the sections can be read straight across or from top to bottom. I probably wouldn't read this book again, but it's organized in a very unique way that allows the story to contain action and subplots rather than just a collection of one man's opinions. If you enjoy reading essays and care to revisit what the Western/Australian/South African political climate was like in 2005, read this novel.

Favorite quotes:
"As long as there is not one of us who has the faintest idea of how to go about constructing a housefly from scratch, how can we disparage as intellectually naïve the conclusion that the housefly must have been put together by an intelligence of a higher order than our own?" (83). 

"Barriers are simply overrun, obstacles shoved aside. The nature of water, as the pre-Socratics might have said, is to flow. For water to be puzzled, to hesitate even for an instant, would be against its nature... fire is never satiated. The more a fire devours, the bigger it gets; the bigger it gets, the more its appetite grows; the more its appetite grows, the more it devours. All that refuses to be devoured by fire is water. If water could burn, all of the world would have been consumed by fire long ago" (215).

Silence by Shusaku Endo

At a time when Christianity has been deemed a political threat and forbidden in Japan, officials in Nagasaki are notoriously zealous about rooting out and torturing hidden Japanese Christians and foreign priests. In the 1640s, the Catholic church in Rome learns that the venerated priest Cristóvão Ferreira (based on the real-life Portuguese missionary of the same name) has renounced the faith after being tortured in Japan. Three other Portuguese priests, former students of Ferreira, go to Japan to investigate what happened. Two of them actually make it, and are sheltered by peasant villagers on Kyuushuu island before eventually being captured. One of them, Sebastian Rodrigues, is the main character in the story (based on the real-life Italian missionary, Giuseppe Chiara). 

 I guess I'm supposed to feel sorry for Rodrigues, but his white savior-ism gets in the way even despite his noble intentions. He seems to care more about the glory of being a missionary and a martyr than the work; often comparing his persecution to the time when missionaries to Japan were supposedly treated as honored guests. He naively underestimates how difficult his task will be and how many locals will be implicated, putting locals at risk even by his mere presence and not being careful enough not to incriminate them. He's also notably obsessed with his imagining of the (erroneously blue-eyed, very European-looking) face of Christ, and has an inflated sense of self-importance as if Christianity will be doomed in Japan if he himself isn't successful. 

However, Rodrigues' humbling struggle with his faith is what redeems him as a character. The Nagasaki officials' goal is to make him apostatize by stepping on an image of Jesus or Mary (fumie), even if he doesn't mean it. Japanese Christians are punished more severely the more that he resists. As he's imprisoned, interrogated, paraded for public humiliation, and forced to witness Japanese Christians die because of him, he repeatedly questions why God doesn't intervene, which transcends into questioning his own purpose as a missionary, and questioning his belief in God as a whole. The  Japanese title of this novel (沈黙, Chinmoku) means not only silence, but inaction, emphasizing the sense that God not only is saying nothing, but also sits by watching, doing nothing. As the symbolic Jesus character in Silence, Rodrigues grapples with an internal crisis and contends with what acting in love really means. By doing the unthinkable, his act of sacrifice would imitate Christ (protecting others from suffering) but would also scandalize the Church (renouncing the faith).

Silence is actually quite thought-provoking, especially with its arguments about the role of Judas and how his betrayal (and by extension, all human weakness) is essential to the story of salvation. That said, I probably wouldn't be in a rush to read it again soon. It's just... a lot. Plus it dries out a little at the end. Read it because it's a classic, that's all I can say.

Favorite quote:
"But I have my cause to plead! One who has trod on the sacred image has his say too. Do you think I trampled on it willingly? My feet ached with the pain. God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak. Isn't this unreasonable?" (122).

Monday, June 26, 2017

Scripture & Lyrics

"So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." -James 4:7 (NLT)

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." -1 Peter 5:6 (NIV)

"B*tch, be humble. Sit down." -Kendrick Lamar

Sunday, June 25, 2017

BOOKS! (Le bonze et la femme transie)

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that this is the first French-language book I've read since I graduated two years ago.

I was a French major, so I used to read French plays, books, and other texts all the time. Over the past three years I've even acquired some books of my own to read for leisure thanks to one of my old professors, a lost and found in one of my university's academic buildings, the Alliance Française of New Orleans, my host "dad" back in Paris, a couple of bookstores I visited while in Paris. My three months of unemployment last year even brought me more French books! I volunteered at a used book sale at the local Alliance Française and bought a handful of them for cheap. Just last month I bought another used one at my local library. So I've been collecting French books all this time, just haven't been reading them. And I follow French news and media entities everyday online, I read and write French correspondence for work... so it's not like I can't read the books I've been collecting. Just haven't put forth the effort. Until now!

If I recall, I actually started reading this book while helping at that French used book sale last year, but I didn't push myself to finish it until this year. The author is a South Korean woman who's dedicated her academic career to French language and literature, and over a decade ago she put out this novel, using French to write a story set in her home country during the 1960s. It took me longer than it should've to get through it, but I'm glad I finally did because it's quite the story! (All following translations are done by me.)

Le bonze et la femme transie by Eun-ja Kang
(The Buddhist Monk and the Transfixed Woman)

For most of his life, Tae-Mann was a spoiled official's son with an appetite for spending, sex, and doing whatevertheheck he wanted. Not long after marrying his wife, Fal-Ja, his mother died and his father gambled away the family fortune, leaving Tae-Mann and Fal-Ja to live in a shack as peasants. Having never been prepared for real life, Tae-Mann's too proud to work for a living, and he leaves Fal-Ja to go find his fortune.... as a monk! Le temple de la Prosperité (the Temple of Prosperity) is a buddhist temple on a mountain that's frequented by crowds of believers who leave offerings there throughout the year. Tae-Mann believes the temple is loaded with riches, and decides to enter its monastery as a novitiate so he can steal its money after becoming a monk. Upon arriving he meets a fellow hopeful, a widower whose motivation for joining the monastery are pure as can be. They both receive new names once accepted as novitiates; Tae-Mann becomes Bong, and his friend becomes Yong.

Predictably, Bong's plan faces a number of setbacks. He learns that Fal-Ja is pregnant, but conveniently assumes it's another man's child and never goes to see her again. Both Yong and Bong are inducted as monks, but the order is destablilized as rival factions fight over who will succeed the current head monk. Then, one of the monks repeatedly distracts Bong with a hideout were alcohol and prostitutes are abundant. And then, Bong falls in love with one of he parishioners. A woman comes to pray at the temple during winter, but almost freezes to death on her trek down the mountain. Bong is tasked with using his body to warm her back to life, and from then on he's convinced that he and this woman, named Jin, are supposed to be together. Jin is a faithful Buddhist who works in a brothel in order to put her little brother through university. Desperate for love, and to a lesser extent for redemption, Bong's plan to steal the temple's money becomes less about personal riches and more about building a better life with Jin. But again, things don't go quite as planned.

In all honesty I wasn't expecting to enjoy this novel as much as I did. I was so focused on how hard I anticipated reading it would be, that I didn't give myself over to the story until I was about a third of the way through. Who knew that drama among monks could be so interesting? Le bonze et la femme transie is about self-discovery, the struggles of committing to one's beliefs, friendship, love, inevitable human weakness. But it's also about how life can change in ways and at a speed that you can't imagine. Bong is committed to his selfishness for a really long time, and it's surprising to see how much his character still changes.

However, if I had to pick a favorite character, it would be Yong. Yong's trainee period is the shortest of any monk who's ever entered the temple, and his purity of heart and dedication to the monastic life make him a prime candidate to succeed the head monk. He's aware of Bong's scheme from the beginning, and despite being well-esteemed he never scolds his friend or rats him out to their superiors. Yong himself tried and failed to commit to the faith previously, and he believes that sometimes the most wayward people have the greatest potential. So he keeps a respectful distance and tries to guide Bong in the least invasive way that he can. Aware of Bong's faults and yet unfailingly compassionate. What a great friend.

This book was published in 2003, but as far as I know no English translation has been published. If you're a French speaker or learner interested in non-European contributions to Francophone literature, definitely give this book a shot!

Favorite quotes:

«Je vends mon corps, mais ce péché n'est pas irréparable. Après ma mort, mon corps sera brûlé, et ces jours peu honorables partiront aux quatre vents avec ses cendres. Ce qui m'importe, c'est de toujours rester maîtresse de mon âme. Qui sait? elle recevera peut-être une autre vie, beaucoup plus heureuse»  (119).

I sell my body, but this sin isn't unforgivable. After my death, my body will be burned, and these dishonorable days will fly to the four winds along with its ashes. What matters to me is that I always remain in control of my soul. Who knows? Maybe it will receive a new life, a much happier one (119). 

«En fin de compte, tous les pas que j'ai fait pour échapper au temple m'en ont, au contraire, rapproché. Où que j'ai pu aller, je ne me suis pas éloigné plus que mon destin ne me l'a permis. Quoi que j'aie fait, j'ai toujours agi sous son œil. J'ai tiré en vain la corde qu'il tenait attachée à moi. Plus j'essayais de m'enfuir, plus la corde me serrait» (196).

At the end of the day, all the steps I took to escape the temple brought me, on the contrary, closer to it. No matter where I go, I can never go further than my destiny permits. No matter what I do, I've always acted under its eye. In vain I pulled the cord that destiny kept attached to me. The more I tried to flee, the more the cord restrained me (196).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

BOOKS! (Cry, the Beloved Country + Rich People Problems)

Today I've got a pair of books that I've been wanting to read for a while, for one reason or another. The first book I contemplated buying at the end of my last day working at a  certain bookstore, but opted for a James Baldwin novel and The Handmaid's Tale instead. Over a year later, I snatched it up for $5  at a different location. The second book is the final part of a trilogy that I've been waiting on for two years!

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Johannesburg is attracting people in droves, as urbanization coincides with the mining industry taking men from families and dismantling tribal culture. During this time it's often said that people who go to the city never come back, and black people are gradually flooding into the city in search of opportunity, or in search of the loved ones who've arrived before them. Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu pastor in the countryside, has already "lost" his only sister and only son to the city, and after being summoned by a letter claiming that his sister is ill, he travels to Johannesburg to retrieve them both. Unfortunately, both relatives have succumbed to the precariousness of survival for poor black people in the city. Kumalo manages to pull his sister Gertrude away from prostituting and making booze in the slums, but is too late to save his son Absalom, who's been jailed after a failed home robbery attempt with his friends ended with a white man shot dead. But this wasn't just any white man. The victim, Arthur, was one of the most vocal advocates for black people's rights and access to opportunities in South Africa, a "white ally" as he might be called today. And on top of that, Arthur was from the same part of the countryside that Absalom is from; his father and Stephen Kumalo are actually neighbors.

Cry, the Beloved Country was first published three months before the Afrikaner-backed Nationalist Party gained control of parliament and instituted apartheid in 1948. A third edition was published in 1987, when apartheid was still the law of the land and would be so for the next seven years. So as a pre-apartheid novel the book is mostly foresight, but it's also very much in the midst of the mess since segregation laws and other racially-discriminatory policies and practices were in place long before apartheid was established. There's a sense that South Africa is on the verge of something both magnificent and terrible, and both black and white are consumed with desperate self-preservation and crippling fear, but for different reasons. For black people ("natives") the fear stems from a lack of means and resources, and the awareness that if there's any power to be had, white people already have it. White people (English and Afrikaans-speaking "Europeans") on the other hand, have been outnumbered from the beginning and cling to whiteness and the sense of superiority and security that it affords them. They might support educational, recreational, or vocational programs that help black people become more learned and avoid crime, but only so far as black people continue to be uninformed enough to accept mine life, shanty towns, and the destruction of tribes without fighting back.

Reading this reminded me very much of Richard Wright's Native Son and Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, where execution awaits young black men convicted of the murders of white people, and the characters and the reader have no choice but to reckon with it. It also reminded me of Richard Kim's The Martyred, where the notion of faith is questioned during a time of violent conflict. If you appreciate any of those books, enjoy reading about racism or the consequences of colonialism, or are intrigued by the use of biblical references in literature, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed" (33).
"And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, or own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement... We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them... Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment" (187).

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

After introducing us to the lifestyles of the absurdly rich in Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China in the previous two novels, Kevin Kwan brings us back to Singapore for some serious family business. Rachel and Nick are the proverbial poor-girl-rich-guy couple whose relationship ushered us into this universe in Crazy Rich Asians. They took a measured half-step into the background in China Rich Girlfriend,  and here they continue to share the spotlight as most of the action focuses on Nick's family. Nick's grandmother Su Yi, the matriarch of the Young/T'sien/Shang clan, is dying, and the entire family is flocking to the family mansion like vultures to try to get a substantial cut from her will. Who will get Tyersall Park, the family mansion? Who will get the most money? Who will be in charge now? Who will get the fancy pet swans?

Su Yi, Nick's cousin Astrid, and rags-to-riches social climber Kitty Pong lead us through most of the story. In fact, Astrid and her on-again boyfriend Charlie are the main romantic couple this time around (they each have their own kids and are still officially married to other people, it's complicated). In addition to the typical snobbery, connivery and obscene displays of wealth (cosmetic surgery for fish! $250,000 paper offerings to the dead!), the novel also addresses Japanese colonial exploits in Singapore during World War II, which is a historical aspect that I certainly did not anticipate coming from this book. There's also a HUGE family secret that's somewhat tragic but also puts Su Yi's past actions in perspective.

The novel is set mostly in Singapore, with other important scenes in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Jodhpur, Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur, Surrey, Paris, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. I wish I would have taken the time to re-read the first two books so that I could give a more thorough assessment of Rich People Problems in relation to the others. It's certainly a very solid end to a much-beloved series. And the Crazy Rich Asians movie is being filmed as I type! This series came to me during a particular period in my life, so perhaps I am biased in its favor. But it truly is a wonderful distraction, and the film is poised to be a milestone for Asian actors in Hollywood. Ease your troubled mind and read the whole series if you haven't yet! And thanks a million, Kevin Kwan!

Favorite quotes:
"It wasn't very significant to me. Why would I care what the Queen of England thinks? The British abandoned us during World War II. Instead of sending more troops to defend the colony that helped to make them rich, they retreated like cowards and wouldn't even leave us with real weapons. So many young men—my cousins, my half brothers—died trying to hold back the Japanese" (170-71).
"I think he looks down on people like your father—people who are self-made—because at the heart of it he is a deeply insecure individual. He knows he did absolutely nothing to deserve his fortune, and so the only thing he can do is disparage others who have the audacity to make their own money. His friends are all the same—they are frightened of the new money that's rolling in, and that's why they cluster in their little enclaves" (344-45).

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Memories, Movement

(Or, "More Unnecessary Things That I Remember While Driving, Walking, or Trying to Fall Asleep")

That one time in 2nd grade when we were discussing the Gore-Bush presidential race in class, and the teaching assistant/Kids Club lady named Geri (Jeri? Jerri? Gerrie?) told me I'd probably be a Republican. Oh, if only I'd understood what she meant and knew how to use my eyeroll to its fullest potential at that age...

That one time I was waiting to checkout at Rite Aid and ran into the Kids Club lady from when I was in 5th and 6th grade. Ms. Linda. She asked me what I was up to now and seemed to approve, "I always knew you were one of the good ones." (This happened just last week.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

BOOKS! (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks + One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter)

Today I've got two books that focus on women of color (what else is new!). The first is a used book sale find which was also a mainstay on the school reading displays at the bookstore where I used to work. The other is a funny book of essays that was highly recommended by Tracy from the Another Round podcast. Let's get to it!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Born in rural Virginia and living in Baltimore, in 1951 Henrietta Lacks went for treatment at Johns Hopkins where she learned that she had cervical cancer and a handful of other previously-untreated conditions. She eventually died of the cancer that same year. During her treatment and after her death, cancerous cells were taken from her body by a small team of Johns Hopkins researchers who found that her cells multiplied more quickly and for a longer period of time than any other cells they'd studied in their lab. They were, in fact, immortal (still multiplying as I write). The team bottled away collection upon collection of her cells, which were shared with other researchers and used to understand DNA, study disease, and even develop treatments for various illnesses. After her cells were commodified, a handful of research groups and biomedical companies even made fortunes off of them. But here's the problem: Henrietta and her family never consented to have her cells taken and used for such purposes, they never knew that any such research was going on, and they never received a single cent in exchange for what has since been euphemized as her "cell donation". Having first heard about Henrietta Lacks as a high school student in a community college, scientist and journalist Rebecca Skloot reached out to the family in 1999 and eventually gained their trust, working closely with Henrietta's daughter Deborah to research and write this book.

I'd originally expected this to be a scathing exposé that would stick it to all the people who benefited from Henrietta's body without consulting her or her family. But it's not that kind of book. Skloot does reveal a lot about the norms of scientific research, the progress of informed consent and patients' rights laws, and America's history of using black bodies to conduct research often without consent or sufficient compensation. But rather than a concerted effort to go after the bad guys (so to speak), it's more of a well-rounded approach to informing people about Henrietta Lacks' contribution to modern medicine and explaining all the players and issues involved.

I'm still trying to not be incensed by the sense of entitlement that medical professionals were quoted as having, especially in relation to Johns Hopkins which was built to serve the city's poor, orphaned, and similarly disadvantaged. Their sentiment basically boiled down to, We (conveniently white) doctors treat these (conveniently black) patience for free anyway, so what's a few cells from them? They practically owe us. There was also the sentiment that, We're using these cells to advance science which benefits everyone, and asking people for consent for every single thing will just ruin everything. Business is being made of our bodies whether we're aware of it or not, and patients or "donors" can't really do anything about it. (Granted, sometimes we do give our bodily materials away, à la ancestry-related DNA testing and whatnot.... Whoops.) It's obvious that Rebecca Skloot wanted to make this story accessible to as many different readers as possible, so despite usually avoiding science books, I was able to get through this book fairly quickly while still learning a lot. For the sake of being better-informed patients, everyone should read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"But those patients had one thing going for them that Henrietta didn't: They were alive. And the dead have no right to privacy—even if part of them is still alive" (211). 

"She appears to be screaming. Her head is twisted unnaturally to the left, chin raised and held in place by a large pair of white hands... No one spoke. We all just stood there, staring at those big white hands wrapped around Elsie's neck. They were well manicured and feminine, pinky slightly raised—hands you'd see in a commercial for nail polish, not wrapped around the throat of a crying child" (273).

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul 

I'd never heard of Scaachi Koul before Tracy from Another Round mentioned this book of personal essays (I can't remember if she mentioned it on Twitter or on the podcast). And then I was in the book store after work, looking for something fun and light to read, and O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M. was on display. The last book I recall reading by a Canadian author is Kim Thúy's novel Mãn, and I know next to nothing about Indian-Canadian experiences, so why not give this one a go?

Speaking in generalized terms, the American perception of Canadians is that they're nicer, more considerate, and overall just better than us at being good people. It follows that many of us assume that there's no racism in Canada. After all, for decades (centuries?) enslaved people who looked like me regularly fled the "land of the free" to actually BE FREE in Canada. But alas! According to Koul, racism does indeed exist in Canada. She spends some time on colorism (or "shadism" as she calls it) and Indian/South Asian aspirations to whiteness, and I would've loved to know more about Canadian racism from her perspective. But while her identity as a brown woman plays some role in every one of her essays, she doesn't aim to write solely about race. The subjects covered run the gamut of social issues that are currently trendy to talk about, and in that sense this book of essays is not so unique. Yet, something about Koul's voice was so appealing to me that I couldn't stop reading! I actually chuckled, and quite frequently. Her snark is disarmingly entertaining.

The title comes from a conversation that Koul has with her cousin after a particularly painful and strenuous moment during said cousin's week-long Indian wedding festivities. It was Koul's way of consoling her, assuring her that this thing that sucks won't last forever, and probably won't matter much anyway. The book's content isn't nearly as depressing as the title might lead you to believe (the cover's even got bright pink and yellow colors to reassure you!). The essays I enjoyed the most are "Inheritance Tax", "Aus-piss-ee-ous", "Mister Beast Man to You, Randor", and "Tawi River, Elbow River".

Favorite quotes:
"He has a cute butt. Ann agrees, saying she like his surly yet romantic silence, and posits what her husband or Hamhock might say if we brought this boy home with us. We crack a few jokes about turning him into a respectable man, My Fair Lady-ing him, getting him a suit, teaching him English. This is funny until I remember colonialism" (70).

"I just want to rub coconut oil in her hair and tell her that she is in my bones, no matter where she ends up" (109).

"I was editing at the time, and the whitest, malest landscape in the country is long-form writing. This is boring, like offering the same selection of toothpaste-flavoured ice cream for a century and then wondering why your business is failing" (123).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

BOOKS! (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love + Bound Feet and Western Dress)

Today's review features two used books! The first I got from a local library book sale (was intrigued by the fact that it won a Pulitzer). The other one I found in my local Little Free Library (was simply curious).

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

This would be a fantastic novel to pair with the animated film Chico & Rita on, say, a university syllabus for a course about pre-Castro Cuban music and migration to the United States. Coincidentally I caught the film on TV not too long before spotting this novel, which was fitting since they are both stories focused on Cuban musicians set during the same era. Originally from Las Piñas (in a province once known as Oriente), the Castillo brothers develop as artists in Havana before joining a wave of Cuban musicians who have been immigrating to New York since the 1920s.They arrive in 1945 and are young men living it up, but not without their troubles.

Younger brother Nestor (trumpet, vocals) has carried melancholy and anxiety with him since childhood, always feeling like something is missing especially after his first love dumped him back in Cuba. Older brother Cesar (band leader, vocals) is a restless macho man with daddy issues who let his pride ruin his marriage back in Cuba, and in NYC is only concerned with playing music and having a good time (copious amounts of sex, food, and alcohol). They lead an orchestra called The Mambo Kings, whose modest renown eventually scores them an appearance on 'I Love Lucy' and a nationwide tour. But Cesar loses the will to play music after Nestor's untimely death, and he doesn't take the inevitable loss of youth and virility well either. So after living in New York for three decades and watching the high life and his brother slip through his fingers with seemingly nothing to show for it, Cesar holes up in a hotel room to die, drinking alcohol, playing his old records, and reflecting on the past. The novel is mostly Cesar's memory of the past, as we revisit his life as a musician. You have ample (and I mean, ample) reasons to dislike the guy, but since he's all you've got to take you through the story, you want to sympathize with him despite yourself.

Mambo Kings is looong and I certainly wouldn't be in a rush to read it again soon, but it is incredibly thorough. If you're interested in Cuban culture, New York and its club scene after WW2, jazz and Latin music styles of the time, or simply enjoy reading emotive prose about love, passion (lots of sex scenes!), and loss, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"What did he seek to accomplish? To write a song communicating such pure love and desire that María, far away, would magically reinstate him into the center of her heart. He though that she would 'hear' these melodies in her dreams and that something would possess her... and he would hear a knocking at the door [and] find María of his soul standing there, this woman who had somehow become the lost key to his happiness" (46). 

"The guys who had it rough were the black musicians, who were treated in some places like lepers. No violence against them, just a bad silence when they'd go walking into a store, a disenchantment when they'd walk into a  lodge for the hungers' special breakfast, plates slapped down on the table, drinks poured quickly, eyes averted... Spirits were dampened, especially when the weather was bad, because in their travels through the heartland of America these fellows sometimes felt an Arctic coldness of spirit that made New York seem like Miami Beach" (180-81).

Bound Feet and Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang 

While giving attention to Chang's experiences growing up and fitting in (or not) as a Chinese-American girl in New England, this biography mostly focuses on her grandfather's sister Yu-i, whom Chang first read about in a book while studying Chinese history at Harvard. (Yu-i and her legendary poet first husband, Hsü Chih-mo, were often known as the first couple in China to get a modern divorce.) Inspired to learn more, Chang spent the next five years interviewing her great-aunt and writing this book. Born in 1900, Yu-i was married at 15 to the then-young scholar who saw her as little more than a filial obligation and country bumpkin. She ended up moving around from China to England, Paris, Berlin, back to China, and then to Hong Kong before emigrating to New York City in the 1970s.

The book's title refers to a conversation between Yu-i and Chih-mo in which he demanded a divorce because they weren't suited for each other ("bound feet and Western dress do not go together"). It also refers to how Yu-i's personal inclinations often went against tradition, as she refused to have her feet bound as a child, repeatedly endeavored to become educated even though girls' education wasn't prioritized, lived as a single mom in Europe, and eventually became a teacher, bank vice president, property owner, and businesswoman back in China all by 1928. And yet, as remarkable as Yu-i was, she neither reveled in her own accomplishments nor lambasted her ex-husband in this book. She learned to support herself because she had to, and as the mother of her ex's children she acted as daughter-in-law to his family even after he remarried and later died.

Aside from learning about Yu-i, I learned a lot more than I'd expected to about Chinese traditional values, especially in regard to women's duties as daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law. It's very similar to the information you might get from The Joy Luck Club, for example, but it includes more detailed explanations of customs, spiritual beliefs, Chinese family structures, and where these tenets come from.

Favorite quotes:
"Rice was the food of the country, to be respected in all its phases: the ripe grain in the husk, the paddy, glutinous rice, rice in the straw, hulled rice and cooked rice. To honor the farmers who planted, tilled, harvested and husked the rice, one was not supposed to leave even one kernel at the bottom of one's ricebowl" (177).  

"No matter how Western or progressive his thoughts, I believed Hsü Chi-mo to be Chinese, for the Western love that he sought did not save him in the end" (199).

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Memories, Movement

(Or, "More Unnecessary Things That I Remember While Driving, Walking, or Trying to Fall Asleep")

That one time during my summer in Paris when I went to go get my Carte Navigo, and when I presented my photo the attendant looked at it and told me I was beautiful. Or, in her words, "Byew-tee-fuhl!"

That one time when I visited a church and got to the sanctuary too early before service. Sat in on a Sunday school class lead by a black auntie who claimed that Kim Davis was a hero whose actions aligned with God's Word. Never went back.

That one time I had to explain black hair, perms, going natural, transitioning, and the "big chop" to a former high school classmate who'd asked me how her friend could "get her daughter's beautiful curls back". Said former classmate was white. Her friend was white with a half-black child, and had apparently chemically straightened her daughter's hair without doing the necessary research.

That one time in church when the pastor had all of us stand and hold hands in prayer, and while holding the hand of the guy next to me his girlfriend inserted herself in between us, so the dude and I were awkwardly holding hands behind her back (literally!).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Flat Stanley (Office Edition)

In this case I guess it'd be more fitting to call it "Flat Uni" or something.

I told y'all my team at work was corny, right? Well someone had the idea to buy this little LEGO person wearing a unicorn costume (unicorns have been an inside joke on this team since before I got there, don't ask), and have everyone take pictures with it and then send it on to the next person, be they on a different coast or an entirely different continent. It's supposed to boost camaraderie and make our jobs more interesting ('tis telling that one has to go to such lengths, no?). I did this exact same activity with a human-shaped paper cutout named Stanley in kindergarten. It was cute then, but now... no comment.

When they passed it to me on Friday I was really annoyed that I had to be concerned with work-related things outside of work hours. But then I liked the way the pictures turned out, so I've decided to post them here before turning them in and sending Uni off to the UK. We each get two weeks, but I wanted to get it over with so I  knocked it out in a day. Here's how I spent my Saturday:
Took my dog for a walk and passed by the spot where they discovered mastodon bones some years ago. There's a sign...

...And a sitting area with an information placard.

On the way home I stopped by the local Little Free Library, which was specially decorated for Easter/the arrival of spring.
Later in the afternoon I spent a few hours at my favorite cafe.

They sell bubble tea and Taiwanese food, and the staff is super nice. 

Then I went home and sat behind my house until it got dark. My dog guarded the backyard while I read.

And back to work on Monday (didn't do much on Sunday).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

BOOKS! (Life Is Short but Wide + The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto)

Today I've got a library book sale find, and a book that I bought over a year ago back when I worked at a bookstore. I bought the first book out of pure curiosity. The second book I bought mostly for the hype, as its author is kind of a local celebrity here, and the store I worked at hosted a signing event that attracted an almost obscene amount of people.

Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper

The premise on the back cover is purposely vague, so at first I didn't have a strong inclination to buy this book. But I knew that it was written by a black woman, that it was about black people in a small Oklahoma town (and I know nothing about Oklahoma), and that it was cheap. So I bought it. The first half is about a fictional town called Wideland and the black/brown community that comprises part of it. The Strong family are the focus, buying their own land and house, and going through the regular ups and downs of life along with their neighbors. The second half is largely about Myine (pronounced "mine") , the only granddaughter of the family who also ends up being the last Strong.

At first her story is a Black American country version of Cinderella. A tale in which Myine gets sold by her dad's mistress for $100 to be ordered around and molested by white people for five years, only to be brought back to her home as her stepmom's servant. This subplot has a good ending, but I'll leave you to find out what happens. As an adult, Myine falls in love with her longtime friend and neighbor Herman, but it takes a while. Life Is Short but Wide is supposed to be a sweet tale of old love in a small town, a rare treat to counter our obsession with youth and youth-related things (beauty, wild adventures, young love, etc). But it inadvertently reads as a cautionary tale, or it did for me at least. Spend most of your adult life scorning how lonely you are, when you see the person you love (and who you know loves you) nearly every day? But you're too scared to say anything, so you wait until your 70s or 80s to finally open up and start the relationship? Naw. No ma'am.

It really is a wonderful story though. A "Y-shaped" story of how Myine and Herman are brought together, and  a reminder of how tumultuous the 20th century was. Multiple characters observe or even lament that time is flying by, with too many things happening and the world changing too fast. Most of the action takes place between the 1920s and 1990s, less than a century, only two or three generations. And yet within that time frame are almost too many advancements, tragedies, wars, movements, trends, achievements, and controversies to count. My grandpa often tells me, "Just keep living," and this novel is an embodiment of that.

Favorite quotes:
"But if you are counting ages, you ain't paying enough attention to the story no way" (3). 

"They lived, they loved, and her being crippled did not bother them. Their faith in their God, and the adventure of their life, made them ready when love had come. Their love, and passions, made them indestructible, so far, in the life they had chosen to live. Together" (263).

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

The are two things you need to remember when reading Mitch Albom novels: 1) Everyone and everything is connected, and 2) Albom stays doing too much. I read two of his books when I was younger and don't remember anything about them, but reading this one reminded me, Ohhh, yep, Mitch Albom definitely wrote this.This time we get to see Albom flex his music head muscle along with his storytelling muscle. The titular character, Francicsco de Asis Pascual Presto, or Francisco Rubio, or Frankie Presto, is a fictional musician who was born Villarreal, Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Having learned classical guitar in his hometown, he gets shipped to England as a preteen and a chance meeting with Django Reinhardt takes him to the US, where he's immersed in jazz, soul, and country music styles in Detroit and the South. Accumulating more musical skills and acquaintances along the way, playing in various bands eventually leads him to rock n' roll stardom in the 1960s. But fame is fickle, and pivotal tragedies and personal flaws lead him to a quiet and solitary life, almost abandoning music for good. He dies in front of an audience back in Villarreal, a spectacular moment witnessed by many but understand by none. And throughout this journey he has the same guitar, each of whose six strings turns blue whenever his playing ends up saving a life. Hence, Magic Strings.

The story alternates between the end of his life (famous artists and industry people gathering at his funeral to recall him as they knew him), and the beginning of his life (as narrated by music personified, who fills in all the parts of Frankie's story that no one, sometimes not even Frankie, knows). So you get Frankie's story told backward and forward, and eventually both trajectories meet to give you a whole picture of his life. I'd expected not to like it because I'd only purchased it based on hype that went stale a year and a half ago. But I actually thoroughly enjoyed it!

My only criticism is that Music's characterization is awkward in parts. It's supposed to be one of many talents that are out there working, often imperceptibly, in human lives. And while I believe in the power of music, Music the narrator has too much power (all seeing, all knowing, intervening when it sees fit) and too much space to pontificate for it to just be one of many. Maybe Albom really, really wanted Music to be God, but using "God" probably would have led to the novel being miscategorized and not selling as much, so he made God "Music" instead. Most of the time it worked, but not consistently enough for me not to feel like something was off. Other than that, as homage to musical genres and prophets, as a glance at the various paths that a musician's life can take, Magic Strings is certainly a worthwhile read. Even what it means to be a musician, what music as an art form is and how musicians employ it, such notions vary in innumerable ways. If you like legends, love stories, pop culture or modern music history, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"Did you ever notice how music sounds different played outdoors?...That's because I was born in the open air, in the breaks of ocean waves and the whistling of sandstorms, the hoots of owls and the cackles of tui birds. I travel in echoes. I ride the breeze. I was forged in nature, rugged and raw. Only man shapes my edges to make me beautiful. Which you have done. Granted. But along the way, you have made assumptions, like the more silent the enviornment, the purer I am. Nonsense" (15-16).

"Could you imagine a bird imprisoning another bird? A horse jailing another horse? As a free from of expression, I will never understand it. I can only say that some of my saddest sounds have been heard in such places. A song inside a cage is never a song. It is a plea" (114).

Friday, April 21, 2017

Memories, Movement

(Or, "Unnecessary Things That I Remember While Driving, Walking, or Trying to Fall Asleep")

That one time in college when I was at self-checkout at the grocery store with my hair wrapped in a scarf, and a white teenybopper tried to pay me to run her items with mine so she wouldn't have to wait in line.

That one time I went to the pediatrician, but randomly a different doctor was there this time, and she warned me to take my adrenal medication regularly, otherwise I might not be able to have children later on.

That one time in elementary school when I was a huge Destiny's Child fan, and I asked the roller rink DJ to play "Apple Pie a la Mode" and he said he'd see what he could do. Stayed until the rink closed that day, and he never played the song.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 17

As usual, the spring broadcast season is starting in Japan, meanwhile I'm stateside and just now finishing my selections for winter. I watched the first show with English subtitles on KissAsian (here), the second with and without subs on DramaCool (here), and the third without subs on DramaCool (here).

突然ですが、明日結婚します (Totsuzen desu ga, ashita kekkon shimasu/It's Sudden, But Tomorrow We're Getting Married/Everyones Getting Married) - Fuji TV/2017

The only reason I gave this show a try was because it seemed like a manga-based romantic drama that would hold my attention, something like 'Shitsuren Chocolatier'. I was vaguely aware that the leads are both musicians/actors (Flumpool guitarist and lead vocalist Yamamura Ryuta, model/singer Nishiuchi Mariya), but I don't know them well enough to call myself a fan. The gist is that a popular TV announcer named Ryu (Yamamura), who refuses to get married, ends up in a relationship with a bank employee named Asuka (Nishiuchi), who dreams of getting married and becoming a housewife. The thing is, they get along extremely well and have excellent chemistry except for when the topic of marriage comes up. But even then, as stubborn as they are about their preferences, they respect each other's opinions. If only Asuka's rich finance colleague and Ryu's former lover weren't each trying to keep them apart. Between the main couple, obviously one side "wins" out in the end, and I'm sure you can guess which one. But the progression toward that change of heart isn't heavy handed. The show has only 9 episodes instead of 10, and the last episode is not very good (I've yet to see a good rushed ending!), but overall the show is a fun look at the motivations people have for getting into relationships. Watching Nakamura Anne ('From 5 to 9') play the "I don't need a man" best friend and Takaoka Saki ('Chijin no Ai') get her mature-but-conniving seductress thing on are also huge pluses.

Quartet (カルテット/Karutetto) - TBS/2017

The show's premise, the fact that Shiina Ringo wrote the theme song, and the fact that Mitsushima Hikari ('Woman') stars in it sold me on this show. Four musicians who did the grown-up thing and relegated their musical talent to mere hobbies meet coincidentally at a Tokyo karaoke spot (use karaoke  for practice rooms, who woulda thunk?), and decide to form a string quartet. This quartet, called Quartet Donuts Hole, is based at the second violinist's family cottage in Karuizawa. They each have less-than-stellar pasts, but lead violinist Maki is the most mysterious, speaking the softest and saying the least about herself. She becomes the anchor of the quartet and the four-way friendship, but little does she know that cellist Suzume (Mitsushima Hikari) has been paid by Maki's mother-in-law to investigate Maki's involvment in the disappearance of her husband. The humor is dry, the adult awkwardness is so satisfying, and the secrets revealed about each member emphasize their humanity rather than casting them as bad people. They've each endured their share of disappointment, but they also have a rare opportunity to re-engage in their musical passions with a new group of friends, long after what's often called the youthful "prime" of one's life. 'Quartet' is a slow burn, but it was my favorite of the season!

奪い愛、冬 (Ubai Ai, Fuyu/Stolen Love, Winter) - TV Asahi/2017

 'Totsuzen desu ga' gave this show a shout-out (and it turns out that 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu' reciprocated), and since I'm still waiting on info about all the spring 2017 dramas to come out I decided to watch it. I actually just finished it a few hours ago. What's great about this show is that it's only 7 episodes, and not a minute is wasted. What I also really like about this show is that it has not one, not two, but four good n' crazy heifers (GCH). And not all of them are women, either! When talking about 2016's adultery-focused drama 'Seiseisuru hodo, Aishiteru', I expressed my profound appreciation for the scorned wife character in that show, the determined and violently spiteful woman who cuts through the mushiness and will stop at nothing to hold onto what's hers. 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu' is basically a lower-budget, more interesting version of 'Seiseisuru hodo' except the adulterous couple isn't as naive, and the GCHs move the story along more than the main leads do. Graphic designers Hikari (Kurashina Kana, 'FIRST CLASS 2') and Shin (Otani Ryouhei, 'Nigehaji') were madly in love until Shin abruptly dumped her and left her heart in shambles. Eventually Hikari  found new love with Kouta, her current fiance and fellow designer. But when work reunites Hikari and her now-married ex for the first time in years, chaos ensues. There's Hikari and Kouta's co-worker Shuko, who thrives on mess and tries to break the couple up for the fun of it. Kouta's elitist mom hates Hikari and uses her nice-nasty ways to humiliate Hikari at every chance. Kouta (Miura Shouhei, 'Suki na Hito ga Iru Koto') becomes so insecure and jealous about Shin's re-entry into Hikari's life that he has a breakdown and becomes mentally and emotionally abusive. But Shin's wife Ran (Mizuno Miki, '37.5°C no Namida' and 'I'M HOME') takes the cake! I don't want to reveal too much because you have to witness Ran's madness yourself, but she's determined to ruin Hikari. Ruin her. In every sense of he word. If you love intense draaaamaaa, then this show is for you.

All of these shows were great in their own way, but like I said, 'Quartet' was my favorite! Now, onward to spring! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

BOOKS! (Joe Turner's Come and Gone + Pachinko)

Lately I've been reading so much but not writing! Sometimes it takes me a while to get started on reviews because while reading I think about all the things I could say about a book. Usually I respect what I read enough to let it marinate rather than rushing to write about it. But I never want to give it all away, and there's no point in spending hours agonizing over something that's supposed be fun! So without further delay, here are a book that I found at a bargain book warehouse and another that I found at Costco.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson

This is the fourth of August Wilson's Century Cycle plays that I've read, and the last one that I have in my possession (need to find the other ones!). This is undoubtedly my favorite. Set in the 1910s, it's late enough for the Great Migration to begin, but still early enough for people who were born into slavery to remember not being free. Seth and Bertha Holly run a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh that Black people of various backgrounds pass through. One such person is Herald Loomis, formerly a deacon and sharecropper, and one of countless free men captured by Joe Turner and forced to work in a prison chain gang for seven years, beginning  in 1901. Arriving in Pittsburgh with his young daughter, he's been searching for his wife for the past three years. Born free, he was made a slave, long after emancipation, by a white man who had the connections to get away with it. Loomis is the most crucial character in this play, opening wounds and asking questions that are echoed in many Black people's experiences. Questions of movement and loss, new beginnings, agency, crossed paths, missed opportunities, identity dismantled and reframed. We can't be that worthless if they won't leave us alone...but why us? Why won't they leave us alone? Loomis believes that reuniting with his wife will set things back to the way they were and make it right. But only he can claim the belonging and happiness, the freedom, that he seeks. 

I've noticed in Wilson's plays that there's always a character who's more connected to the spirit world (be it God or the ancestors) than the others. These are unlikely prophets who have obvious disabilities or setbacks. In Fences, it's Uncle Gabriel, chasing hellhounds away and guarding the gates of Heaven, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in WW2. In The Piano Lesson it's Wining Boy, the down-on-his-luck uncle who speaks to the spirits of his lynched ancestors. In Seven Guitars, it's Hedley, whose development was impaired when his father kicked him in the head as a child. His manifestos about the kingdom of God and the holiness of Black people are dripping with righteousness and madness. And in Joe Turner, it's Bynum ("bind 'em", Bynum, get it?), the longtime boardinghouse resident who uses voodoo to solve people's problems and bind them together. If you recognize Jordan Peele's film Get Out as a modern day slavery movie and understand that Black people's bodies have yet to stop being snatched since 1865, read this play.

Favorite quotes:
"That's why I don't trust nobody but the good Lord above, and I don't love nobody but my mama" (63).

"Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn't want to accept that song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn't his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me... And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn't bite back at me" (71).

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I happened upon a Japan Times headline about this book, vaguely skimmed through the article and forgot all about it. Until I found the book during a rare trip to Costco! I've read and studied much about Korean people's experiences under Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea, and have read some about Korean people's experience in Japan post-WWII, but I've thought very little about the lives of Korean people who moved to Japan during the colonial period and remained there. Pachinko is a mix of immigrant story, family history, and historical fiction that focuses on this very specific population from 1910-1989. Sunja is born and raised in Yeongdo, Korea, running a boardinghouse alongside her mother. As a pregnant teenager, she marries one of the tenants, a young minister named Isak, who decides to take care of her after her wealthy lover (and the father of her child) Hansu reveals that he already has a wife and family. In 1933 Isak and Sunja move to Osaka, where they share a house with his brother and sister-in-law and eventually have two children, Noa and Mozasu. Everyone works themselves to the bone to keep the family afloat, not being able to trust anyone despite living in a community of fellow poor Koreans. They are second-class subjects in the Japanese empire, and every major development of the time affects the family directly. And despite thinking that she's cut all ties with him, Sunja can't escape Noa's father, Hansu, who's become  the most powerful yakuza in the Kansai region and has a hand in Sunja's family's survival in ways that don't remain secret for long.

The duality between colonized people's resentment and admiration toward their oppressors is fascinating in this novel. At the time, Japan was branded as the homeland for imperial subjects, a sort of promised land. In typical imperialist fashion, Koreans were told that if they did everything right and shed their undesirable Korean nature to be just like Japanese people, they could one day be accepted as equals and help reform their own people. But of course, no amount of assimilation or code-switching is enough. Numerous Korean characters in this novel contend with immensely wretched self-hatred due directly to Japanese imperial ideology, and later due to to policies and social attitudes that derive from said ideology. In this way, the book's namesake, a popular arcade game called "pachinko", is a metaphor for life: a gamble that seems or often is rigged, but which you keep playing in hopes that you'll eventually win something better. Something worthwhile. It also refers to the gambling industry that many Koreans get involved in after the war, including both Noa and Mozasu, transporting their family from the Korean ghetto in Osaka to the wealthy and cultured circles of Yokohama. If you enjoy reading family dramas and colonial history written from the perspective of the colonized, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor" (178).

"But all those able-bodied middle-class people who are scared of their shadows, well, they pay the mediocre tax in regular quarterly installments with compounding interest. When you play it safe, that's what happens, my friend. So if I were you, I wouldn't throw any games. I'd use every fucking advantage... It's a heavier tax than you'd think... There's nothing fucking worse than knowing that you're just like everybody else. What a messed-up, lousy experience. And in this great country... everyone wants to be like everyone else" (448-49).

Friday, April 7, 2017

Things People Give Me #29-31 (Office Edition)

I haven't done one of these in over six months, so I'm sure I've received plenty of things in the meantime that I neglected to appreciate fully. But recently I've received a few gifts from co-workers in particular, so I wanted to take time to acknowledge them. The names mentioned are not real ones, though the do refer to very real, and kind, people.

First up, two of my co-workers went to the Pacific Northwest on a business trip a couple weeks ago, and one of them bought this keychain just for me. It certainly doesn't hurt when a city's major colors also happen to be your first and second favorite colors ever! Thanks, Anita!

Back in December, my boss's boss had everyone participate in Secret Santa by giving compliments instead of gifts. Each of us had to write something nice about every member of the team, and then send them to my boss's boss. Everyone then received their own list, compiled by her, of all the nice things that were written about them. That was December. Last week a package of mouse pads arrived at the office, each customized with each person's list of compliments from the Secret Santa activity.  To be honest, I'd thought the activity was corny and unnecessary from the beginning, but it was representative of the team's character which I've gotten used to by now (excessive compliments to compensate for non-excessive duckets). Plus, my boss's boss likes to put a lot of though and care into her presents, so I corny or not, I couldn't not appreciate it. Thanks, Renn!

Speaking of last week, a new employee joined the team, filling the in-office team roster for the first time in many months. Lovely woman, talkative, young but especially young at heart. I'm not sure if she's still trying to ingratiate herself with us or if she's just this type of person, but at the end of her first week she gave everyone a card and a piece of Brazilian candy to express her gratitude for the warm welcome. Thanks, Drew!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

BOOKS! (The Vegetarian)

I read this book in two days. I finished it last week but it continues to trouble me. I haven't felt this compelled to sit with the implications of a book, carry all its meanings with me and turn them over in my mind, since The Round House. Devastated and yet mesmerized. Spellbound. That's where I am right now with this novel.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This is a novel, much like Herman Koch's The Dinner, that starts readers off in one place and leaves you somewhere else that seems disparate and extreme. You really have no idea what you're reading and why you're reading it until the end. The gist is that a woman named Yeong-hye, an ordinary housewife in Seoul, has a dream about acts of violence and human cruelty that disturbs her so intensely that she decides to quit eating meat the very next day. No one in her circle takes this well, and as a result her marriage and her family falls apart. But Yeong-hye's vegetarianism (technically veganism) is a symptom for something much more profound.

Her seemingly innocuous lifestyle choice has an unexpectedly disastrous domino effect. Yeong-hye's family tries to force her to eat meat again, which pushes her to the brink and leads her to attempt suicide. After recovering in a hospital, her husband divorces her but then her sister's husband's empathy toward Yeong-hye forces him to confront his long-standing attraction to her. He is then emboldened to create the video art piece that's been haunting his imagination, making Yeong-hye his muse. But after her sister In-hye catches them together, the brother-in-law skips town, the rest of the family severs ties, and Yeong-hye is institutionalized again, leaving only In-hye to take care of her.

The Vegetarian contains three parts, all of which concern Yeong-hye but none of which consult her: the first from her husband's perspective, the second from her brother-in-law's, and the last from her sister's. We only hear directly from Yeong-hye in her husband's section, where she occasionally recollects her dreams or wearily confronts her condition. Everything else we learn about Yeong-hye is essentially hearsay. And of course, each person views her differently based on their relationship with her. Her husband (Mr. Cheong, we never learn his first name), who views his wife as merely a caretaker and accessory, cares more about his reputation and how he's inconvenienced than for Yeong-hye's wellbeing. Her brother-in-law thinks he means well but his benevolence toward her is only a vehicle for his own sexual, emotional and artistic fulfillment. Her sister thinks that she's always been protecting Yeong-hye but keeps her sister conveniently distanced from her day-to-day life, as both her forgiveness and endurance have limits.

What we don't learn until later is that Yeong-hye's behavior is a response to the mistreatment that she's endured throughout her life, some of which is specific to her own experiences, some of which is common to many women who also happen to be daughters, wives, and little sisters. The bloody, animalistic nightmares cause her to reject all aspects of consumption and preying upon others that seem to be innately human; she's a hurt person who's had enough, and is desperate to avoid causing harm to any creatures. Eventually this transforms into her trying to un-become human, believing that if she denies herself enough things (eating meat, wearing clothes, talking, eating or drinking anything at all) she can transcend her human nature and eventually become a tree. Though she wastes away and treatment ceases to be effective, in her mind the death she's heading toward is not failure, but freedom. Yeong-hye has been victimized her whole life, but In-hye doesn't notice the toll it has taken on her sister until eventually Yeong-hye draws so far inside herself that no one can reach her.

Though Yeong-hye's gradual physical and psychological breakdown is the conduit for this story, her husband, her sister, and her sister's husband all feel something within themselves that's liable to break out or take control of them. Consequently, the themes of the three sections apply not just to Yeong-hye, but all of them. Part one deals with internal rage and the potential for violence, bubbling just under the service. Part two deals with the acting out and circumstances of breaking with convention, of indulging in unrestrained passion. And part three deals with the necessity to reckon with (perhaps even submit to) one's despair and pain, which brings a distorted sense of peace. Yeong-hye goes from a repressed beast, to a blooming flower, to a withering tree, and none of the people close to her are left untouched.

Favorite quotes:
"Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I'm okay. Still okay. So why do they keep shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpeningwhat am I going to gouge?" (41).

"Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body that said so much and yet was no more than itself" (95).