Friday, July 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Lost Names + Things that I Do in the Dark)

Lately I've been trying to pick back up and finish older books that I've set aside at the same time that I make my way through newer purchases. So for this month's review, I'm pairing two books that I've kept waiting for years, both of which were originally published in the 1970s (1970 and 1977, respectively). First up is a semi-autobiographical novel about the final 13 years of Japan's colonization of Korea, from the perspective of a young boy growing up in what's now called North Korea. And then, a collection of 1950s-1970s poems by June Jordan (edited by Toni Morrison) which contemplate selfhood, community, desire, and Black struggle/liberation.

Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood  by Richard E. Kim
 
I ordered Lost Names after reviewing The Martyred (Richard E. Kim's most decorated work), because I was interested in learning more about Korean life under Japanese colonization from the testimony of someone who had actually lived through it. According to my Goodreads account, I initially started reading this novel in March of 2018. Then I set it aside for a reason that escapes me now, but it was probably my usual folly of thinking I can pause one book, finish a handful of other ones quickly during that pause, and then resume that one book again in no time. Somehow three years passed, and last month I finally decided to start Lost Names over from the beginning. 
 
The novel focuses on a boy in a northern Korean town 50 miles south of Pyongyang, where he lives with his parents, younger siblings, and paternal grandparents. The boy's father is greatly-respected for his past involvement in the Korean independence movement (which resulted in years of imprisonment), and for feeding and employing local people through the apple orchard he owns. Because the boy's family is wealthy and well-connected but also community-oriented—all the townspeople know who his daddy is, regardless of status or ethnicity—this allows the boy some wiggle room to evade or even resist certain restrictions and punishments that Japanese authorities enforce at his heavily-militarized school. In seven chapters, Richard E. Kim describes a Korean boyhood that's loosely based on his own, starting with the boy's family getting harassed by military police while briefly relocating to Manchuria in 1933, and ending with the boy and his father leading their town in liberating itself on the day of Japan's WW2 surrender announcement in 1945. Additionally, because it's written from a child's perspective, most of the book describes events connected to the local school, where both Japanese and Korean teachers are employed to mold the boy and his classmates into future soldiers for Imperial Japan.
 
The title Lost Names refers to the townspeople being required to register "new names" (Japanese ones) at the local police station, risking consequences such as their children being banned from school if they refuse. However, the issue of names actually comes up a lot less often in this book than I expected. None of the characters are named, and so even when Kim depicts a specific day during winter 1940 where people line up to register new names, we don't actually learn what those names are. (Except for the Japanese family name that the boy's father has chosen, the meaning of which still manages to reflect the family's commitment to their fellow Koreans.) Without a doubt, the moments when the boy internalizes the fact that his people are having their names taken from them are pivotal and painful. But I'd assumed the book would delve more into what kinds of Japanese names Korean people registered and why, how and when Koreans employed their real names over their Japanese ones (and vice versa), and how those names might have changed or endured after colonization ended. (For instance, would a young Korean person who grew up only studying Japanese language and history in school want to hold onto a Japanese name post-1945?) And my assumption proved incorrect. Lost Names is less about names themselves and more about the constant institutionalized attempts to make Koreans forfeit their identities. The imperial war effort and assumptions of Japanese superiority infiltrate nearly all aspects of daily life in this particular Korean town, and many Koreans find themselves acquiescing in ways that they never would've thought possible.

In an American context, I'm aware of the cynical argument that education systems exist to cultivate a future workforce, masses of young people whose labor can be exploited once they're capable and of age enough to supplement and/or replace the current workforce. But Lost Names is probably the starkest example I've read of a school that's unabashed in its campaign to turn children into tools. Furthermore, I had no idea just how militaristic Japanese schools were in Korea. At the boy's school, there's no pretense about nurturing well-rounded people, educating children for the sake of their own personal development, or giving them ample options for the kinds of adults they can grow into. These students are not merely children, they are future bodies to be sent to Japanese front lines abroad. And the institution where these children spend most of their days is not merely a school, it's a soldier factory. Now admittedly, I'm not familiar with how military schools work, and perhaps an American military academy wouldn't be so different from what Kim describes. But my goodness! The boy's schooling escalates from rigid morning assemblies and a field trip to view propaganda films on his first day of second grade, to most of his second year of junior high being spent building an airfield (manual labor all day and two hours of class at night)! "Extreme" simply isn't a severe enough word to describe this education system.
 
Remarkably, even amidst so much oppression, pockets of resistance show up throughout this story. Farmers start producing less (or quit farming altogether) when Japan creates an artificial shortage by sending most of Korea's meat and rice to Japan. The boy's mom teaches her children and the household's young servants to read and write Korean when Japanese authorities prohibit such instruction in schools. The boy's family (among others) delays registering new Japanese names for as long as they can, and the boy's father makes a point of wearing Korean clothing when he goes to the police station to register. On two occasions, Korean staff at the boy's school intercede when the boy is being beaten by Japanese staff. When the boy's Japanese teacher forces him to star in a pro-Empire propaganda play put on by the school, the boy goes onstage and pretends to forget the monologue that the teacher wrote for him. The boy's uncle, a high-ranking military officer in Manchuria, works with Korean and Chinese resistance fighters in secret. And the boy's father consistently has secret meetings and conversations with people who await (or are actively working toward) Korean liberation.
 
Before reading Lost Names, I never considered that Korean people could've felt guilty toward their ancestors and future generations, who might resent them for supposedly letting the Japanese run over them the way they did. Of course, colonialism is layered, methodical, and insidious, and it's never something that the colonized just "let" happen. Plus, Korea is known for having a relentless resistance movement even before the country's status as a Japanese colony became official in 1910. But in Lost Names, Kim's adult characters express such a profound sense of remorse and a shame-tinged hope that past and future generations will forgive them, and it's absolutely heartbreaking to read. Even on the day of Japan's surrender, the boy and his father commiserate over how bitter they feel because it seems like liberation was bestowed upon Koreans by someone else, instead of them fighting for it and seizing it for themselves sooner. And that's another sentiment that I didn't anticipate. 
 
The townspeople's successful and highly-organized efforts to take power back from the Japanese allows this book to close with resounding triumph. This is a brief moment in time, between Japanese colonization and the Korean War, where anything seems possible for the future of an independent, non-partitioned Korea. Which is why I couldn't help but add my own sorrow to the immense hope that radiates from the boy and his father, because they have no idea what troubles are still to come. Even as I write this review, my heart hurts for what could've been. If you're interested in historical fiction, Korean history and Christianity in the early to mid 20th century, children's lived experiences of Japanese imperialism (especially surrounding WW2), or father-son stories, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"I think about it, however. Would the Japanese Emperor know that we children are bowing our heads to him? He may be asleep... he may be eating his breakfast... or he may be in the toilet, for all we know... and I can't help giggling about the picture conjured up by the last image... the Emperor is in the toilet and someone knocks on the door and says, 'Your Majesty, Your Majesty! The children, the children! They are bowing to Your Majesty!'... and the Emperor says, 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I have my pants down!' Ha, ha, ha, I laugh" (30-31).
 
"People are driven into the cold, dank, and gray recesses of their houses with nothing much to do but think about the warm spring... Children are bound, too, into wherever they can find a little warmth, with a monotonous routine and a frustrating and demoralizing suspicion that, somehow, life has come to a stop. But, of course, life has not come to an end; it is, simply, in captivity, in the grips of a very cruel season...." (88).
 
 "No, you don't forget that. No, I won't forget that... I merely reflect, with a quick, sharp ache within me, that that is only one of the many other things that I cannot and will not forget. 'Vengeance is Mine,' says a god. 'Vengeance is Yours,' I say, 'Memories are Mine'" (135).

Things that I Do in the Dark: Selected Poems  by June Jordan
 
Two coincidences led me to read this collection of poetry, even though understanding poetry has never been my forte. I found this first edition copy (so first edition that it has an ISBN but no bar code!) back in college, at a book sale that some student org was running one day in the grassy open area next to my dorm. I was even less skilled at resisting the urge to pounce on a book deal back then, and so June Jordan's Things that I Do in the Dark was one of the works I bought for cheap that day. I wish I could remember why I was drawn to it. I'm certain I didn't know who June Jordan was, and I'm certain I wasn't paying close enough attention to notice Jordan's note of thanks to Toni Morrison (her editor) in the collection's opening pages. Maybe it was Alice Walker's co-sign on the back cover? Maybe I skimmed through the pages and found a phrase that caught my eye? No clue! But I bought the book and kept it stowed away in various places over the years that followed. Cut to May 2021 when, after watching the documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir on Netflix, I went digging for two of her books (as-yet-unread, of course) that I knew I'd put away somewhere in the house. My search was successful, and I also happened to rediscover my copy of Things that I Do in the Dark in the process of digging through multiple book storage bins. I started reading it in June, and finished it this month.
 
This collection contains over 130 poems that were written from 1958 to 1973 by June Jordan, a celebrated and proudly-bisexual Black woman poet, professor, and activist who was raised by Jamaican parents in Brooklyn. Some of these poems are descriptive, some are declarative, and all of them demonstrate Jordan's earnest desire to make sense of the relational and political systems that Black people were situated in at that time. And this is mostly the '60s and '70s we're talking about, so there was a lot to make sense of. The book is divided into four thematic sections, and the following parentheses are the exact descriptions I wrote in the margins for each one: For My Own ("herself/her people"), Directed By Desire ("romantic relationships"), Against The Stillwaters ("politics"), and Towards A Personal Semantics ("abstract?"). Obviously, the last section contains most of the poems that I understood the least. However, up until that point, I felt surprisingly enthusiastic about this book because I was reading June Jordan's poems more smoothly than I've been able to read any other poetry in a long time. Did every poem make sense to me? Of course not! But what made the difference was that I didn't agonize over what I didn't understand. I just kept reading the next line that followed. I would even venture to say that Jordan's poetry seems to make more sense when not read too slowly; there's frequent enjambment, and the rhythm of these poems is faster than I'd expected.
 
I'm not a Kentuckian but my mom is, so my interest is always piqued when I notice Kentucky mentioned in the books I read (here's to you, Marriage of a Thousand Lies and The Portable Promised Land). Hence, despite my efforts to push the horrific details to the back of my mind, the poem that still lingers with me the most from June Jordan's collection is "Poem for My Family: Hazel Griffin and Victor Hernandez Cruz". The first part of this four-part poem details the butchering and burning of a 17-year-old enslaved boy named George, who was murdered in western Kentucky by his two masters in 1811. The masters who murdered him, the Lewis brothers, were also Thomas Jefferson's nephews. And knowing what Thomas Jefferson did to James and Sally Hemings, for me the mention of his name in this poem chillingly underscored how widespread the evil was in that extended slave-owning family. The poem goes on to say that young George lived and died being treated like meat, and argues that Black people's freedom necessitates that Black people reclaim themselves and white people incur "property loss" or "property damage" (because Black people literally stop being "property" when no longer enslaved). Every time I look at my copy of Things that I Do in the Dark, even without touching it or opening it up, I think about what June Jordan wrote about George. 
 
Other favorites of mine include "These poems they are things that I do in the dark" (self-explanatory); "Ah, Momma" (about the revelations Jordan discovers about her mom by observing her habits and exploring her closet); "On a New Year's Eve" (where Jordan lauds the temporary and fleeting aspects of her relationship with her lover over the supposedly rare or magnificent things in life that last forever but are overrated); and "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies" (where Jordan throws down the gauntlet and vows to antagonize rather than appease white people, since they're going to act scared of her anyway). If you're interested in poetry written by Black women, what it feels like to love/be loved, or Black liberation and self-determination, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
 
"To begin is no more agony
Than opening your hand" (from "Who Look at Me", p. 5)
 
"Although the world
forgets me
I will say yes
AND NO" (from "Who Look at Me", p. 10) 
 
"...once, in there you told me, whispering, that once, you had wanted to be an artist: someone, you explained, who could just boldly go and sit near the top of a hill and watch the setting of the sun
Ah, Momma!
You said this had been your wish when you were quite as young as I was then: a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl who heard your confidence with terrified amazement: what had happened to you and your wish? Would it happen to me too?" (from "Ah, Momma", p. 37-38)

"the temporary is the sacred

[...] let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
called
magnificence
so-called
almighty/fathomless and everlasting
treasures/
wealth
(whatever that may be) 
 
it is this time 
that matters

it is this history 
I care about

the one we make together
awkward 
inconsistent

[...] all things are dear
that disappear

all things are dear
that disappear" (from "On a New Year's Eve", p. 74-76)

"I will no longer lightly walk behind 
a one of you who fear me:
Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavement anymore
 
[...] I must become the action of my fate.
 
[...] I must become a menace to my enemies." (from "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies", p. 145-46)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

BOOKS! (If I Dont Have You + If I Had Your Face)

I'm closing out the month of June (and the first half of 2021) with a new book review! First up is a novel about a one night stand that becomes an unlikely long distance relationship between two Black artists, who operate on separate coasts and in separate countries. And then, a novel about five 20 and 30-something Korean women living in the same apartment building in Seoul, weathering the beauty standards and competitive social hierarchies that dictate their survival. My only reasoning for pairing these two books together is that both of their titles start with the conditional "If". 
 
If I Don't Have You by Sareeta Domingo

Who would've thought that reading Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Party back in 2019 would have the impact on me that it's had? Certainly not me! I wouldn't say that I'm a dedicated romance reader now, but I've become more open to giving certain romance novels a chance when they do genuinely interest me (and especially when they focus on Black people in love). Case in point: If I Don't Have You. I believe I discovered this novel through following Kelechi Okafor and/or Bolu Babalola, two Black British writers who are acquainted with this book's author, Sareeta Domingo. I can't remember what exactly sold me on this book in particular, but when March came around this year and I finally decided how I wanted to use the Amazon gift card my stepmom gave me last Christmas, I chose two works of romance written by Black British women and If I Don't Have You is one of them.
 
When Kayla (a writer and multidisciplinary artist from London) interviews Ren (an Afro-Brazilian indie filmmaker from New York City who's pivoted to being a blockbuster director) during the New York press junket for Ren's new film, the two artists feel an immediate and undeniable connection. The pair are mutually stunned by each other's presence, physical beauty, and sense of artistic integrity. They discuss Ren's filmography, Kayla asks him a few extra questions and snaps Polaroids of him for an independent project of hers, and then they part ways, each on their way out of the city; Kayla's temporarily heading home to London, and Ren's heading to Toronto for work. Luckily, they run into each other at the airport, and weather-related flight cancellations lead to them sharing the only available room in the hotel that the film studio had previously booked for Ren's press junket. After wandering around the city together that night, they return to the hotel and have what they think will be a one night stand. But after spending the following morning together and struggling to bid farewell at the airport, Kayla and Ren agree to reunite in New York in three months' time and see how far this new relationship might go.

However, what Ren doesn't know is that Kayla is already engaged. She's spent years building a career as an artist in New York City, and marrying an American citizen has become her only viable option for staying in the States. Her business partner and Columbia art school friend Cole (who fancies her but respects Kayla's boundaries enough to keep their relationship platonic), has agreed to marry her so she can remain. While in London waiting for everything to be arranged so she can return to the States and marry Cole, Kayla receives an unexpected postcard from Ren, who'd taken her up on her challenge to "find" her instead of exchanging contact information when they last parted. What unfolds, through messages and phone calls and video calls and emails, is a long distance relationship that both lovers are deeply invested in, even as much as they're unsure of whether they can maintain it. But Kayla's never been in love before, and a combination of fright and cowardice prevent her from telling Ren the truth about the lengths to which she's going to protect her ambitions. And Ren—who was effectively abandoned by his mom when she moved back to Brazil after divorcing his dad, and who's still hurting after his ex-girlfriend recently cheated on him with his best friend—certainly won't take kindly to being betrayed and possibly rejected again. When Ren unintentionally crashes Kayla's wedding party in New York, he's the one to walk away from the relationship altogether. But can they still find their way back to each other?

This novel is a movie. The whole time I was reading it, I felt like I was reading a movie. Especially during Kayla and Ren's first night together (before the sexcapades), when they're eating at a favorite diner of Ren's, then meandering around the city, even pausing to pull each other close and dance in the street? And the whole time they're vulnerably spilling their guts, while still being somewhat bashful because of how strongly they're attracted to one another? A movie, I tell you! I also appreciate that no matter what's going on in Kayla and Ren's individual lives, the focus always returns to their relationship. While in London, Kayla braces herself to be judged and interrogated before telling her family about her upcoming wedding, but then there's no big ordeal once her family hears the news (her mom and sister, the ones whose reactions she was most worried about, are shockingly accepting of her decision). So then most of her time in London is spent thinking about and communicating with Ren. Special circumstances force Ren to interact with his ex-girlfriend and his ex-best friend again when the hurt and anger is still somewhat raw, but that gets resolved, and Ren's not even remotely interested in trying to get his ex-girlfriend back because he's concentrated on the new possibilities he has with Kayla. While they're broken up, Kayla and Ren each start dating other people, but once those other people aren't a factor anymore, they disappear from the story. Plus, the novel's leads can't resist thinking about each other when they're broken up anyway. The book stays on track, moving gradually toward the obvious goal of bringing the lead couple back together somehow, and I appreciate Sareeta Domingo's steadfastness in writing it that way. Getting to the point while also taking her time.

The conflict between Kayla and Ren boils down to miscommunication and misjudgments, which seem to be the main obstacles in most modern romantic stories. But once they do finally hash out their differences, the way they talk through their fears, confusion, hurt, and insecurities is almost unbelievably honest. People sometimes criticize the dialogue that's in books, films, and TV because the characters don't talk like real human beings would, but the dialogue in If I Don't Have You is the opposite. It actually makes me question if the real-life conversations I'm having are truly as "real" and honest as they could be! (I tend to resist being vulnerable with people, so I already know the answer to that question is no. But I digress.) And the way Domingo writes body language and physical intimacy between this couple is just... Lawdhammercy. I had to take breaks to collect myself! Kayla and Ren make me want to believe in fate and love and second chances again, even though I've never had a relationship to make me disbelieve in any of those things in the first place! That's how much I bought into their love story.

If I Don't Have You is undoubtedly the best romance book I've ever read (so far), and is my favorite thing I've read in 2021 (again, so far). The cover, header, and footer font is loopy and pleasing to the eye. My only gripe about the book is that its cover illustration doesn't make clear that Kayla's devastatingly-long and beautiful hair is in locs. As far as reading romance goes, I wholeheartedly believe in the precedent that If I Don't Have You has set for me and I'm excited to explore more, both in the romance genre and in Sareeta Domingo's bibliography. If you're into Black love, the artist's quandary of succeeding without selling out, top tier sex scenes, self-deprecating humor that's actually adorable and not annoying, or supporting one of the 20 Black British books that Jacaranda Books published last year ("Twenty in 2020") then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Do your dreams feel real? 
What is it you most admire about the person you admire most? 
How often do you look up?
Why is that song your favourite?
When did you last get goose bumps?
Why do we create?" (31-32).
 
"Maybe sometimes you just have to live in the moment, take what life gives you... Like maybe there's a plan... A blueprint for your life that you don't know about—certain things that are meant to happen, people you're supposed to meet. When you think about it, how much do we really need to know about another person to get their essence, anyway? To understand if they're... significant? No time at all, right? I'm only just starting to understand how important it is to not take things like that for granted." (95)

"'Kayla.' He says my name like it's a complete sentence, packed with meaning" (223).

"I think as creative people, you, me, any of us, create because it's inside and needs to come out. Because we're human beings, and making art is what defines us as such. Like making love, without necessarily the intention of making life... But as much as I think creating is a need, I also think sometimes we create for the hell of it. Because we can, you know?" (230).

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

I learned that this novel existed last year through reading an article about Korean feminist literature, but I can't remember which article; it was either this one or this one. And so I added this novel to the book list I keep on my phone, but wasn't in a rush to read it anytime soon. Then at the end of May this year, I went with a friend to Cleveland to visit an independent bookstore she'd been raving about for months: Loganberry Books. Normally when I go book-browsing I will something to "speak" to me, and wait to feel that unmistakable connection that compels me to buy a particular book at that particular time. It's even more the case at independent bookstores, where I'm usually expecting something special and/or conveniently cheap to stand out to me. And as beautiful and full of options as Loganberry is, I just wasn't connecting to anything that day. I spotted If I Had Your Face in the fiction room, remembered I had it on my list, and bought it just to say I didn't leave the store empty-handed. But then I started reading it this month... and I couldn't put it down! I was flying through it! So it turns out I did make the perfect find at Loganberry, I just hadn't realized it yet. Five relatively young women are at the center of this novel, which is narrated by four of them in alternating chapters. They all live in the same apartment building (office-tel) in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, but none of the women are wealthy themselves, and they each initially moved to Seoul from elsewhere. 
 
Ara, a hairstylist from Cheongju, has been mute since her teens and is heavily-involved in the fandom for her favorite male K-pop star. Ara's best friend and roommate Sujin, also from Cheongju, grew up in an orphanage and does nails for a living, but is obsessed with getting plastic surgery so she can use that newly-attained beauty to make a ton of money working in room salons. (Room salons are establishments where men, especially business types, go to private rooms to be entertained by women whose job it is to look pretty, drink alcohol with them, listen to them talk, and perhaps even have sex with them if the women and the establishments permit it. The closest thing I can think to liken room salons to are hostess bars in Japan.) Kyuri, a woman from Jeonju who's had innumerable cosmetic procedures and has worked in room salons all of her adult life, lives across the hall from Sujin and Ara and tries to caution Sujin from joining a world that could lead to degradation and inescapable debt. Miho, Kyuri's roommate who grew up with Sujin in the same orphanage back in Cheongju, is an artist whose previous studies in New York gave her access to wealthy Korean circles, where she made a rich best friend and a rich eventual boyfriend who weren't as well-adjusted as they seemed. And living on the floor beneath this quartet is Wonna, a married woman from Namyangju who was abused by her grandmother as a child and avoids superfluous human interaction, but who also admires her younger upstairs neighbors for how free and independent she thinks they are. None of these women have had happy childhoods, and as they entertain their respective desires and aspirations—Ara wants to meet her K-pop crush, Kyuri wants to maintain her lifestyle while potentially finding a path away from room salons, Sujin wants the perfect face so she can be an "ace" room salon girl like Kyuri, Miho wants to maintain her university funding and finish her art series commemorating a dead loved one, and Wonna wants to finally have a viable pregnancy and give birth to a child—they contend with all the odds that are stacked against them.

I related most to Wonna (I too witnessed/experienced abuse in my childhood) and Miho (I too am an artist, albeit not a professional one), but I definitely learned the most from Kyuri. Kyuri, in word or deed, dispels a lot of the myths I've held onto about plastic surgery and sex work in a way that I sorely needed. As much as I try not to judge people, plastic surgery is one of those things that I've always silently judged people for, dismissing them for being so vain and insecure as to alter their bodies in such drastic ways. I'm one of those people who would look at the prevalence of modified faces in South Korea, a country known as the plastic surgery capital of the world, and react with the oversimplified conclusion, "Why does everybody in Korea hate themselves?". Obviously some people have cosmetic procedures done simply because they want to. But as I delved deeper into this novel and messaged my American friend who lives in Korea about it, I realized, "It's really helping me understand in a new way how status-focused Korea is. Like the plastic surgery thing isn't simply because people hate themselves (even though that probably is part of it for some people). It's really about getting ahead and having an edge over the next person, especially since so much of social mobility for women is tied to how others assess their looks." For example, the stigma associated with sex work makes it nearly impossible for Kyuri to transition to another field, or marry out of having to work at a room salon ever again. But she needed to surgically alter her appearance just to be considered beautiful enough to work at one of the more upscale room salons that pay more and have slightly better working conditions. That's how competitive it can be for Korean people—especially Korean women—to make a living, even in an industry as shady as sex work. 
 
And speaking of supposed shadiness. Kyuri is brutally honest about the negative repercussions of doing sex work, but at the same time she rightfully rebukes people (even if only to herself) who insult her and treat her like she's beneath them. She's not downtrodden, she knows she's being exploited, but she's also making a living and paying for her ailing mother's healthcare with the money she earns from doing the very thing that people look down on her for. And who is anyone to look down on Kyuri anyway, when the room salons are full of "respectable" businessmen lying to their wives and girlfriends about their whereabouts, while said wives and girlfriends pretend not to know what their men are doing? And who is anyone to look down on Kyuri, when there are doctors, pharmacists, plastic surgeons, whole entire "professional" sectors that profit off of the sex workers who patronize their services? Everyone, including and especially men, is full of it as far as Kyuri as concerned, and she sees right through people who try to act like they're morally sound or have no ties to her industry whatsoever.
 
I was reminded of so many other works as I read this book. The 1989 miniseries 'The Women of Brewster Place' came to mind, with its ensemble cast of Black women living in the same apartment building, dealing with their own singular and collective struggles they face due to being women. The 2017 documentary 'Save My Seoul' also came to mind, with its examination of how precariously young some girls can be when they get involved in sex work, and of how sex work was a cornerstone of Korea's postwar economic recovery. Sujin's dogged protectiveness of Ara proves to be motivated by guilt for letting Ara down in a life-altering way in the past, a revelation that immediately reminded me of the character Terry in the British TV series 'I May Destroy You'. And of course, If I Had Your Face has obvious parallels to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, which matter-of-factly lays out the everyday sexism that Korean women are expected to unquestioningly put up with in order to participate in society. I also noticed that there are actually five main characters in If I Had Your Face (not four, as the back cover suggests), but although she plays a significant role in Ara, Kyuri, Miho, and Wonna's lives, Sujin never has a chapter where she shares her own backstory and perspective in first-person like the other women do. She's the common denominator, but she never gets to take the floor. And I figure that that has to mean something. There must be a reason for it, but I don't know what.
 
This book is often blunt about some incredibly tragic events that happen in these characters' lives, but gosh darn it if it isn't also funny. There's so much humor here. Sarcasm, cynicism, playful chiding, messing around, passive aggression, laughing to keep from crying. The humor in this book takes so many forms, often showing up alongside some of the darkest revelations and harshest realities that these women face. And believe it or not, If I Had Your Face ends on a hopeful note. Open-ended, but still hopeful. Ara has gotten rid of her assistant from hell and overcome her K-pop idol obsession. Sujin's face has healed and she's enjoying her new pretty status while working in room salons like she'd been wanting to from the beginning. Kyuri may or may not be doing the impossible (leaving sex work for a "real" job), thanks to Sujin's help. Miho's art career is as promising as ever, she's cut her hair from waist-length to shoulder-length, and she's carefully plotting revenge against a man who recently wronged her. And Wonna, with her overly-caring husband out of the picture and her pregnancy progressing, is finally opening up by inviting the girls over for dinner, showing them an ultrasound, and letting Ara help with baby prep. They've bonded in a way that transcends merely being neighbors. If you're interested in societal taboos, novels with multiple narrators, perspectives on Korean womanhood, the consequences of beauty standards, or stories about friendship between women, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I know it will fade by next week, but for now it makes me happy, as if I have set off a signal to the world. Already, I have noticed how people react with great caution to someone with fuchsia hair, even if that person is mute" (149).
 
"I am sitting on the curb looking up at the cloudless wintry sky and wondering if I am a happier person than I was twenty minutes ago, when I did not know what I know now" (172).

"In a way, I think I am now experiencing true freedom for the first time in my life. That is the way to think of this—that this is karma, and also absolution... But before he sees her in my work, I will suck everything I can from him. I will be wild and unleashed. I will now take from him what I can. I have not heard Kyuri's philosophies on men all this time for nothing... I will build myself up so high in such a short time that when he leaves me, I will become a lightning storm, a nuclear apocalypse. I will not come out of this with nothing." (213-215)

"Whatever it is, I am so grateful that a gush of hope springs deep inside me and it is everything I can do to not break down completely in public. I want to share this with someone—anyone. I want to clutch the lady who is sitting next to me on the subway and tell her. I want her to know a little world is erupting inside of me" (216).

Sunday, June 13, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 25 - pt. 2

Part 1 of this review covered the two J-dramas I watched entirely with English subtitles, and part 2 focuses on the two shows I started out watching with no subtitles at all. (Thankfully, English subs for the latter of the following became available eventually.) Here they are!

銀座黒猫物語 (Ginza Kuroneko Monogatari/Ginza Black Cat Stories) - Kansai TV/Sony Pictures/2020
  • In each episode, a person facing some sort of dilemma winds up in Ginza, a district in Tokyo that's known for being high-end. While each person is in Ginza, a black cat (the titular "kuroneko") suddenly appears and leads them to a local business, then disappears.
  • Each episode features a different business, ranging from restaurants and bars to a custom-made chopstick store, a one-of-a-kind suit tailor, and a printing press specializing in business cards. The main character of each episode learns about the unique quality or history behind the products that these establishments make and sell, which somehow helps said characters solve their personal dilemmas or at least gain greater perspective on them.
  • The show's opening sequence invites viewers to discover "the Ginza you don't know about", encountering sites and stories that people might not expect to exist in this presumably well-known district.

As ritzy as Ginza is known to be, part of this show's charm is that it focuses on pretty regular people (read: people who are not wealthy). And it seems to be targeted at adults 20-something and up (read: working-age people who can go to Ginza and spend money after watching this show), since the themes center on grown-up relational and professional concerns. For the episodes that are about relationships, the moral is basically, "Your parents actually did/do love you, they just didn't know how to show it and they're sorry." Or, "Your parents actually did/do love you, but they showed it in a way that you couldn't understand until now." And for the episodes that are about current or future career concerns, the moral boils down to, "You can do your job better than you think, you just need the right inspiration and support." Or, "You haven't lost your talent, but maybe you need to loosen up and stop being a purist or thinking you're above it all." 

My motivations for watching this show were fairly cut and dry. First, the concept reminded me of 'Blanket Cats', another J-drama that revolves around cats and presents different, relatively unrelated stories in each episode. And second, the obvious tourism angle with a particular emphasis on food recalled other shows that serve as episodic advertisements for the array of cuisines that are available in Japan (such as 'Samurai Gourmet' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'). If I had to say what makes 'Ginza Kuroneko Monogatari' different, it's that this show emphasizes the craft, effort, and years of dedication that the owners and employees of these businesses put into making each dish or item special. If you like cats, jazz music, slice of life J-dramas, or thinly-veiled tourism campaigns, then definitely give this show a try!

共演NG (Kyouen NG/No Co-Starring) - TV Tokyo/2020
  • Hitomi and Eiji are middle-aged, well-established actors who used to be in a relationship. 25 years after their VERY public breakup following the revelation that Eiji cheated on Hitomi, as well as a mutual moratorium on appearing in any projects together, the two actors are tricked by their respective managers into co-starring in a TV show again. And the new show is a love story at that, with title that translates to 'I Love You So Much That I Want to Kill You'.
  • It's not only Hitomi and Eiji who can't stand each other. A pair of female 20-something former idols hate each other's guts, and same goes for their two male 20-something counterparts. And a middle-aged actor who spent years in New York is constantly bickering with an elderly actor who's also an industry legend. In short, this cast is made up of four pairs of actors who refuse to get along, professionalism be darned.
  • As Hitomi and Eiji weather multiple scandals and try to smooth over feuds between the other actors, they reassess their own animosities toward each other. During the three months of their show's production, they manage to form a working partnership that is shaky but promising. That is, if their lingering feelings for each other and Eiji's jealous wife (the woman he previously cheated on Hitomi with) don't get in the way.
NG is an abbreviation of "No good", an English phrase that Japanese people use to refer to misses, bad takes, things that are unacceptable, or something that just won't do. Hence, the title 'Kyouen NG' refers to Hitomi and Eiji's longstanding refusal to work together. The opening song is delightfully groovy, and the resentful dance sequence that accompanies it tickled me every time I watched it. The first part of the song literally goes like this (English translation by yours truly): "With you it's no good, no good / I don't even want to see your face / Kyouen NG, NG / We will never be able to understand each other". So it's made VERY clear that Hitomi and Eiji still got beef, even after two and a half decades!
 
Something I noticed right from the first episode is that this is the first J-drama I've seen so far that mentions "social distance" (literally, that term) and shows COVID-19 film production protocols. And if that wasn't meta enough, the broadcast network within 'Kyouen NG' is called "TV Toyo", sporting a similar name and the exact same logo and font as the show's real-life broadcast network, TV Tokyo. As for the whole cheating thing, I thought it was clever how the show broaches the subject of celebrities having affairs with each other, especially when it's revealed that two of the young actors in the cast (one of whom is married) are in a relationship. Their apology press conference poses multiple questions that warrant further discussion: Yes, they had an affair which isn't a good thing to do, but even as public figures why do they have to make a dramatic show of remorse and self-flagellate for people who aren't even involved? Isn't that played out? Isn't it a private matter, to a certain extent, to be handled between the people who are actually involved? And isn't infidelity super prevalent in Japanese society anyway? So why do these two actors have to perform repentance for masses of people who are likely just as messy as them or more? Cheating scandals have been known to derail Japanese entertainers' careers, and given recent real-life examples (see Kawatani Enon and Becky in 2016, or Anne Watanabe's husband and Karata Erika in 2020), I was impressed that 'Kyouen NG' chose to address the topic in such an honest way. As you might have guessed, the messiness of infidelity is what drew me to the show in the first place. But what's actually left the most lasting impression on me is that 'Kyouen NG' goes out of its way to illustrate how much of a collaborative effort TV and film production are. So much work goes on behind the scenes, even just for 30 minutes to an hour's worth of entertainment that audiences consume like it's nothing.
 
As for actors I recognized, I loved seeing Suzuki Kyoka as the lead actress. Coming from 'Grand Maison Tokyo' where she played a chef with an abundance of talent but a scarcity of self-confidence, it's thrilling to see her be so sleekly-styled, so confidently taking charge of situations, and so expressive with her disdain of anything related to Eiji. She knows when to keep her composure and when to air out her grievances if need be. And every time she glares at Eiji is just perfect. I also recognized Eiji's wife (Yamaguchi Sayaka) as Naomi Watanabe's boss in 'Kanna-san!'. She is scarily-convincing with her "seems caring but is definitely unhinged and playing mind games right now and might kill somebody later" vibe, her fabricated cutesy high-pitched voice, and her aggression disguised as hospitality. Another familiar face was the showrunner within 'Kyouen NG' (who's remote the entire time and never comes to set except for the very last episode), which is played Saito Takumi, a.k.a. the hot nerd in 'Hirugao' and the playboy dentist in 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi". Last but not least, I was surprised to see Lily Franky in this show. I've mostly only seen him in movies, but with this and 'The Naked Director' I guess he feels like doing dramas these days.

If I had to pick a favorite from this quartet of J-dramas that comprise this review, I would say that 'Oh! My Boss!' was the easiest to watch, but my overall favorite would be 'Kyouen NG'. Simply for Suzuki Kyoka's performance as a consummate professional actress, and as a woman over 50 who's still got it!

Saturday, June 12, 2021

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 25 - pt. 1

With summer approaching, I'm happy to finally say that I've finished the remaining three J-dramas from 2020 that I was interested in watching, plus one that aired during the winter 2021 season! Which means it's time for a new J-drama review! I'm writing about all of these shows in the order that I finished them, and the following two were the ones I watched entirely with English subtitles.

オー!マイ・ボス!恋は別冊で (Oh! My Boss! Koi wa Bessatsu de/Oh! My Boss! Love Not Included) - TBS/2021 

  • Nami leaves her hometown in Kumamoto and follows her childhood friend/unrequited crush to Tokyo, having no dreams other than to hopefully be in a relationship with him and lead an ordinary life. 
  • To her surprise, Nami is hired as the assistant to Reiko (Nanao, 'FIRST CLASS'and 'FIRST CLASS 2'), the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine called MIYAVI. Nami is selected by the deputy editor for this role specifically because he believes a person with no fashion sense or lofty industry aspirations will fulfill her duties earnestly, and not look down on the job as mere grunt work or a brief stepping stone toward higher places.
  • Nami discovers that her friend/crush is already engaged to someone else. As she works tirelessly to meet Reiko's near-impossible demands and help make each issue of MIYAVI perfect, Nami also stumbles into a love triangle between MIYAVI's culture writer Ryota and a photographer named Junnosuke (Tamamori Yuta, 'Grand Maison Tokyo'). Junnosuke just so happens to be Reiko's younger brother.

This show is basically The Devil Wears Prada, except the characters are nicer to each other. Reiko seems cold and mean because she cares deeply about the quality of her work and doesn't entertain unnecessary conversations or people wasting her time, but she's nowhere near as cutthroat as movie villain Miranda Priestly. And unlike movie protagonist Andy (who uses her experience as Miranda's assistant to kickstart her journalism career), Nami isn't a very ambitious person at all. Nonetheless, working closely under Reiko exposes Nami to the fashion world and opens her up to the possibility of wanting more, even if she doesn't know what "more" specifically means for her yet. Tangentially, much like Stanley Tucci's character in The Devil Wears Prada, the deputy editor of MIYAVI is very clearly gay, but it feels like overkill when the actor in 'Oh! My Boss!' always holds his pinky up in every scene he's in. I'm not part of the LGBTQ community, so far be it from me to speak out of bounds, but that's the impression I got of his character. Why include such a stereotype with the pinky thing, when his styling and other mannerisms already get the point across? And speaking of the magazine! Of all the possible names to choose for a fictional fashion magazine, I'm so curious as to why the show writers chose "MIYAVI", when a very famous Japanese musician and actor named Miyavi already exists in real life. Are the show writers fans of him? Did Miyavi give some sort of approval for his name to be used in the show? I have no clue.

As for Nami and Junnosuke, their romantic relationship progresses way too quickly to be believable in my opinion, but they're so adorable together that at some point I simply stopped caring! They encourage each other to explore their respective passions, even to the point of breaking up to avoid holding each other back. (Spoiler: They don't stay broken up.) Also, I have to say that I'm really impressed with Nanao's acting in her portrayal of Reiko. As someone who started out as a model, she could very easily stick to roles that wouldn't require her to deviate too much from the model type, but she challenges herself to step up her acting instead. Not to say that she didn't have solid performances in both seasons of 'FIRST CLASS', but she's obviously progressed so far beyond that. She especially sells it during her crying scenes in 'Oh! My Boss', making viewers feel her frustration and distress in those moments. Speaking of quality acting, it was so nice to see my birthday twin Takaoka Saki ('Kenja no Ai', 'Everyone's Getting Married') appear as the nice-nasty kimono expert/fashion exec who almost hires Nami away from Reiko. And props to Kurashina Kana ('Ubai Ai, Fuyu'), who plays Junnosuke's friendly violinist ex-girlfriend.
 
'Oh! My Boss!' is definitely the cutest, brightest, most colorful, and most easygoing show that I watched in this J-drama roster of mine. But the final episode did leave me with a plethora of questions. The episode doesn't feel so much rushed as it feels... random? After spending the entire series antagonizing Reiko and gloating upon finally taking Reiko's job when she's ousted from MIYAVI, all of a sudden Reiko's rival (Takahashi Maryjun, 'Dying Eye') quits because some advertisers have pulled out and now she insists that only Reiko can lead MIYAVI? Junnosuke decides to pursue photography again instead of forcing himself to be his dad's business successor, only to almost immediately tell Nami he's leaving to do public relations for an NGO in Cambodia? When he'd never mentioned being interested in Cambodia or NGOs before? Then he gives Nami an engagement ring and leaves Japan, but doesn't communicate with her at all during the next three years that he's away? And she doesn't even bring it up when he finally does return? The show skips ahead three years in the last eight minutes of the episode? Maybe filming or writing complications due to COVID meant the people behind the scenes had to slap some things together in the 10th episode that might've been developed more if the show had the usual 11 or 12-episode run? So many questions.

In all, 'Oh! My Boss' champions the idea of following one's dreams, but without arguing that being average is inferior or that people settle for less when they choose to have an ordinary life. Rather, the show acknowledges that the ordinary-ness of life will always be there, and that the extraordinary—such as the dream of pursuing a career in fashion/publishing that Nami didn't have at first but discovers later on—can be found and nurtured in the most ordinary of people and places. 
 
恐怖新聞 (Kyoufu Shinbun/Terror Newspaper/Terror Bulletin) - Fuji TV/Tokai TV/2020
  • A Kyoto college student named Shizuru moves into her first apartment, and one of the movers has her sign up for the Kyoufu Shinbun without her realizing what paper she's signing. 
  • People cursed with the Kyoufu Shinbun regularly receive newsletters from a supernatural source, and each newsletter predicts an imminent death (depicting the victim, manner and cause of death, date and time of death, and the perpetrator if one is involved). Each time the holder of the curse receives a newsletter, they get 100 days shaved off of their own life expectancy. The only way to be rid of the curse is to die, or to pass the Kyoufu Shinbun on to someone else by having them sign one of the newsletters. 
  • After her father falls victim to one of the newsletters, Shizuru works with the help of her coworker-turned-boyfriend Yusuke and her best friend Momoka to prevent more deaths from happening. But after her relationships with both of them fall apart, Shizuru continues trying to stop the curse on her own, with eventual assistance from her mom and constant hounding from a suspicious detective.
I wasn't always sure if this show wanted to be taken seriously or not. The death scenes are extremely violent and graphic... but also kind of campy? I'm not sure if the show is comical on purpose for the sake of taking the edge off of its dark tone, but I was tempted to laugh during or after nearly every death scene. Maybe that says something more about me than the show, I don't know. 

One of my favorite parts is when Shizuru discovers Yusuke cheating on her with Momoka, and she confronts both of them immediately! No dilly-dallying! She spots them at a restaurant together, calls Yusuke while looking in the window from directly outside the restaurant, catches him in a lie when he tells her he's at home, makes her presence known, and then confronts the traitors together. And then when Shizuru tells her mom about it, her mom has her back, even going so far as to nonchalantly suggest passing the Kyoufu Shinbun on to Yusuke. Shizuru is tempted to do just that, but ultimately is too compassionate of a person to go through with it. She's apparently compassionate to a fault, because even though Shizuru does resolutely break up with Yusuke and make him wait a while before taking him back, for some reason it takes her until the second to last episode (episode 6) to stop giving Momoka the benefit of the doubt and realize that her bestie truly does hate her.

I thought each episode was going to set up an impending death, show Shizuru's attempts at preventing said death, and reveal all the tricky ways in which she's foiled by fate as the people she tries to save die anyway. And the first three episodes are like that, with all of the rules of the curse not fully revealed until episode 3 (specifically the rule that if the current holder dies, the curse returns to the previous person who had it before them). But from then on? Oh, that's when things really got cooking and I was hooked! Completely sucked in. In particular, I was absolutely not expecting the direction that episode 5 went in. Shizuru's past life is alluded to in the preceding episode, and I thought that was just a throwaway line. But episode 5 takes it literally by portraying Shizuru's former self in feudal Japan, explaining how the Kyoufu Shinbun curse got started, and revealing exactly what Shizuru did in her past life that's causing her to be tormented in the present. And I normally don't enjoy watching historical stuff, but I was captivated by what that episode set up. From one episode to the next I never knew exactly where the overall story was heading, and that made the show that much more thrilling of a ride. Sure, it's kind of a corny horror series in the way that 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna' was. But unlike 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna', 'Kyoufu Shinbun' doesn't drag. It provides twists and turns that build onto each other and pay off in the end for the most part. Even the aspects that are unintentionally comical (especially the supposedly scary but actually silly-looking demon reveal at the very end), demonstrate that there was a lot of thought put into how this show's plot would unfold.

All in all I'd say 'Kyoufu Shinbun' is a fascinating exploration of fate, reincarnation, atonement for past sins (even sins from a past lifetime that you didn't know you'd had), self-preservation, and human greed. Most characters who get the curse want to get rid of it so they can live longer, but two particular characters actually use the curse to profit off of being able to predict future events, which I didn't see coming! I was thoroughly entertained by this show, but I also felt genuinely sorry for the main heroine. Poor Suzuru, just trying to live her 20-somthing life on her own for the first time, only to wind up cursed and have her life put in danger. If there's any moral to be learned from 'Kyoufu Shinbun' at the end of the day, it's this: Be careful what you sign!

I've still got two more shows on this roster to write about, so don't miss part 2 of this J-drama review!

Monday, May 31, 2021

BOOKS! (Silver Sparrow + Heads of the Colored People)

Okay, so I missed April. I've been consistent with writing my monthly book reviews so far this year, so I figure I'm within my rights to miss a month. Actually, I did have one book finished in time to write about on its own for April (and there would've been plenty to write about, since it's another stunning novel from Tayari Jones). But then I thought I had enough time before April's end to squeeze in finishing a much shorter book, and do a two-fer review like I usually do... and I was hilariously mistaken. Now it's the end of May. But hey, I'm still reading, I'm still writing, I'm back on this blog to do a new review, and that's what matters most! Both written by Black women, this month's selections  are a novel about secret second families that was on my 2020 Christmas list (thanks Ma!), and a collection of short stories about Black middle class concerns that's the third of the first three new books I bought this year.
 
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
 
This is a tale of two Atlanta sisters—Dana Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon, born four months apart—who meet each other for the first time as teenagers in the 1980s. But when they meet, only Dana knows that they share a father, a chauffeur named James. In fact, Dana knows all about Chaurisse because Dana's lived her whole life aware that she and her mother Gwen are James' secret second family. And despite his warnings to stay away from his wife and daughter, Dana and Gwen have been spying on Chaurisse and her mother Laverne for years.

How has all of this happened, you ask? James and Laverne meet and marry in 1958, during their teen years in rural Georgia. In 1968, James (now running his own chauffeur business) begins dating and soon impregnates Gwen (a department store gift wrapper and eventual nurse), whom he meets while buying an anniversary present for Laverne. Having no accessible family, knowing how difficult it will be to survive as a single mom with no community support or social standing during this time period, and also unfortunately besotted with James, Gwen clings to him and insists that he marry her too. That way, there will at least be some documentation (however illegal) preventing Dana from being born a complete "bastard". Gwen gives birth to Dana the following year (1969), and four months later while baby Chaurisse is still in the hospital with Laverne, James and Gwen get married at a courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. (I still don't understand what this truly achieves because their marriage is invalid in the state they actually live in, and James' best friend Raleigh puts his own name down as Dana's "father" on her birth certificate. But it seems that Gwen sincerely wants to believe in the merit of "better than nothing". Having null and void marriage documents is better than no documents. Dana, a Black child, having half a father in her life is better than not having a father at all. Or so Gwen hopes.)

Over the course of the sisters' lives, Dana lives in a different part of town and attends different schools from Chaurisse, James has dinner with Gwen and Dana once a week, and Raleigh (known as "Uncle Raleigh" to both daughters) helps James look after both families and keep them separated at all costs. If a situation arises where Dana and Chaurisse's paths might cross, James forces Dana to forfeit that opportunity (a summer science program, a job at Six Flags, etc.) so that Chaurisse and Laverne can be shielded from the truth. Gwen tries to hold James' feetand especially his pockets—to the fire so that Dana still has access to similar opportunities and resources as her sister, but over time Gwen and Dana both sour on James' verbal assurances. This is because his actions consistently demonstrate how much he prioritizes his public family and reputation over all else. "Separate but equal" proves to be an inevitably cruel and impossible concept in this double-family that revolves around James Witherspoon. And a pivotal incident happens that solidifies what has already been known: if it comes down to Dana or Chaurisse, James will choose Chaurisse, and literally leave Dana stranded in the process. During Dana and Chaurisse's senior year of high school, their forbidden friendship, a high-intensity bout of car trouble, and their recently-deceased grandma's brooch combine to force Chaurisse and her mom to confront James' unveiled secrets. This novel is written in two parts of near-equal length, focusing first on Dana/Gwen's side of the story (part I) and then on Chaurisse/Laverne's side (part II). However, given that the novel also closes with an epilogue from adult Dana's perspective, and the title Silver Sparrow refers to secret or outside children, it can be argued that the story is mostly about Dana.

Please believe that I gobbled up this novel, that's how much I enjoyed it. I didn't consume the book, the book consumed me! But the reason I love it is the same reason why I found myself agitated reading it, and why I'm finding it difficult to write about even now. (Just like with Leah Vernon's Unashamed, I was enthralled by a work of art that also made me angry because it hit too close to home. I can't even count how many times I scribbled, "F*ck you James!" or "STFU James!" in the margins of Silver Sparrow. And I don't even cuss in real life, but this fictional man took me there.) I just relate so much to Dana, to an extent that makes me feel both relieved and incredibly uncomfortable! My dad never had a second family or any outside children as far as I know, and compared to James my dad really wasn't that bad. But I know what it's like to have a father who isn't always malicious but invariably puts his own wants first, who dismisses all criticism, who underestimates a child's capacity to recognize harm and form her own opinions about the source of that harm. James only tells Dana he loves her when he's letting her down (telling her she's not allowed to have or do something because he doesn't want to pay for it or risk Chaurisse meeting her), or when he's otherwise trying to control her (having the gall to lecture her on chastity and police the clothes she wears or the boys she dates). So Dana grows up learning to associate James and his supposed affection for her with disappointment, and although our specific contexts are very different, I know what it's like to experience such long-enduring parental disappointment in one's youth.

And as much as I rooted for Gwen, I was frequently bewildered by her as well; I couldn't understand her loyalty to James or her insistence that the "love" she and James have is some fierce and mystical bond. James disrespects her time and time again (even tells his dying mother that Gwen is dead!), yet up until her breaking point she continues to treat him like an honored guest, like the man of the house, whenever he comes over. There's a moment where Gwen and James are grilling Dana and Gwen sides with James instead of believing her own daughter, pressing the girl to prove to James that there aren't drugs in a paper bag that she's holding. Even earlier in Dana's life, Gwen is offered the chance to leave James and move on with someone else. But then she places the decision in nine-year-old Dana's hands, expecting Dana to choose between the two major male figures in her life on the spot, which is such an unfair thing to request of a child. Now, I know that moms get enough judgment for the choices they make as it is. Tayari Jones even says in the interview printed at the end of the book that she hopes readers can spare some grace for people who get stuck and try to make the best out of  "complicated and messy" situations (348), and I respect that. Furthermore, as someone whose own mom has apologized to me in hindsight for choosing a man who wasn't the person she believed him to be, I know that moms like Gwen don't intentionally set their children up to be let down by fathers. All I'm saying is that I wish it wouldn't have taken so many of James' transgressions for Gwen to accept how little he actually cares about her and her daughter. She does eventually blow up James' spot (which is glorious!), but she waits until she has no other choice but to do so, and that still bothers me.

In the midst of my indignation on Dana's behalf, I desperately sought an explanation for why Gwen, Laverne, and Raleigh's are so unfailingly loyal to James. I really tried to make it make sense in my own mind, because the way each of them maintains that James is a "good man" for so long is just... beyond my comprehension. And what I came up with based on the information Jones presents is four-pronged. James is simply too familiar (there's too much history) for them to let go of him. He's provided for each of them financially in one way or another. They feel for him because of how much they respected his mother. And most notably, they're all love-starved. Gwen, Laverne, and Raleigh were each abandoned by their respective parents at young ages, and now they have no other family besides James and the girls. Laverne doesn't even have any friends besides her daughter or perhaps the clients who patronize her home salon. When James' double-life finally gets exposed along with all the lies he told to sustain it, Chaurisse asks Laverne the same exact question I'd been thinking the whole time, "Don't you think he should, I don't know, suffer?". But I suppose James not suffering or atoning is, sadly, the most realistic scenario. He's the kind of man who's used to getting his way, and whatever pain he causes his wives and daughters is of minimal importance, if it even registers at all. If you're interested in Atlanta from the 1950s to 1980s, family secrets, what bigamy might look like, coming-of-age stories that focus on Black girls, or peeking behind the scenes of dysfunctional relationships, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"On that day, my mother would be called upon to do the talking. She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear" (5).
 
"I had no argument, no reasonable cover story, but I wanted her to stand up for me anyway. Isn't love when you defend someone when you know she's wrong? I didn't want her to stand up for what was right, I wanted my mother to stand up for me" (104).

"You can't put the rain back in the sky" (319).

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
 
In twelve stories spanning from the 1990s to the present, Heads of the Colored People presents an array of Black middle class perspectives via characters ranging from cosplayers to writers, visual artists, yogis, professors, childhood nemeses, teenagers learning to be Black, former-hippies-turned-wellness-industry-hostages, influencers, disabled grad students, church ladies with anger issues, and funeral singers. Most of the stories take place in Southern California, thematically related but not all directly linked. Even though the characters come from the same region, they aren't so obviously interconnected as the characters are in, say, Sour Heart or Girl, Woman, Other. Some are brought up in two consecutive stories, only to never to be mentioned again. 
 
The most reoccurring character is a woman named Fatima (loosely based on the author herself, perhaps? Fa-ti-ma, Na-fi-ssa... it's possible). Fatima is mentioned as a 5th grader during an argument her mom is having with another mom ("Belles Lettres"), and appears or is mentioned at different ages in four other stories. There's "The Necessary Changes Have Been Made", where she's mentioned as a former acquaintance or lover of a male professor who hates female authority. There's "The Body's Defenses Against Itself", where Fatima reflects on her body issues in yoga class while being unsettled by the presence of a woman who reminds her of her childhood frenemy. There's "Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story" which recalls teenage Fatima making a new friend who teaches her how to be Black, while at the same time dating a white boy whom she doesn't want her Black friend to know about. And then there's "Suicide, Watch", where a social media-obsessed college student recalls knowing Fatima back when Fatima suffered from bulimia in high school.
 
Something about the cover and the title made me assume that this story collection would be solemn. And sure, just like Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's Friday Black, Heads of the Colored People opens with a story about Black people being murdered in public due to racist assumptions about their innate dangerousness. But also just like Friday Black, as serious as HOTCP can get at certain points, it's also genuinely funny in an "I'm not sure if I should even be laughing at this but I can't help it" sort of way. For instance, the brilliantly-conceived "Belles Lettres" features two Black women academics throwing down via written letters à la private school PTO moms who hate each other and whose daughters don't get along at school, but also both of these PTO moms have doctorates and fight like academics would. That story and the petty battle of wills that takes place between professors who can't agree on the lighting in their shared office ("The Necessary Changes Have Been Made") convinced me that Nafissa Thompson-Spires must be an academic before I confirmed that she actually is a professor in real life. There's a certain way of writing about jobs that people can only pull off when they have intimate knowledge of said jobs, and it shows. It's unmistakable. It's just like how I, as someone who worked retail in the past, immediately knew that Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah had also worked retail by the way he satirized Black Friday shopping in Friday Black.

By the way, I know I keep bringing up Friday Black, and it's not because direct comparisons could or even should be made between the two books. It's just that I only read story collections every now and then, and as another socially-conscious collection that has sly wit and focuses on Black people, Friday Black kept coming to mind the more I read HOTCP. They remind me of each other. Speaking of which, one last connection I'll make between the two (in this review, at least) is that they both end on tragic yet hesitantly hopeful notes. In particular, HOTCP closes with a story about a funeral singer/hospital employee/single mom who despairs of how powerless she feels to prevent suffering and loss, but then resolves to keep living for now ("Wash Clean The Bones").

Seriously though, what a fun read this was! I felt so smart catching certain cultural or literary references that Nafissa-Spires throws in, like using "Smaller Thomas" as an intentional mess-up of the main character's name in Richard Wright's Native Son. Or mentioning how Baratunde Thurston's writing might have helped Fatima learn how to be Black, when his book is literally titled How To Be Black. Or including Drake's character in 'Degrassi' as the kind of fit disabled man that a fetishist sculptor wishes she could have ("My own personal Jimmy Brooks"). Or referring to "the new whiny style" of today's rap music, which... I think is a playful shot at Young Thug? Additionally, thanks to the skillful name-dropping that Thompson-Spires employs, I also got to learn about noteworthy Black figures that I hadn't known existed! Figures such as a contemporary poet Donita Kelly, track and field Olympian Wilma Rudolph, and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. If you're interested in satire, award-winning story collections, reading about Black people just living, chuckling and reflecting at the same time, or media literacy that encompasses anything from 1850s "picture gallery" archives to ASMR videos, then read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"You're afraid of the light... You think you're too good for this school. It's obvious to me. You don't want to be exposed, so you overcorrect in some places, but it all comes out somewhere else... Sometimes the problem is the environment; sometimes you are the environment. In your case, you think you're making changes, but you take the problem with you" (31).
 
"But what then? She wanted to think of college as an opportunity for new freedoms, self-expression, rebellion... But what if college was only thirteenth grade, an escalation of everything in her life now, with older, more taxing versions of the same people, where she'd exchange Carmen and Kevin for new avatarsa controlling sorority sister or an inappropriate professor?" (132-33).

"In addition to Jessica, more than a few former friends had called her volatile. She was tired of that word. She was not a beaker full of combustible chemicals or a volcano looking for an opportunity to expel pent-up heat, leaving ash and damage in her wake. She was a person, just as much as they were, perhaps more complicated, but certainly normal, just as normal as they were" (141).

Friday, May 7, 2021

Scripture & Lyrics

"The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating. The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives." (Proverbs 18:6-7)

"Don't start no stuff, it won't be no stuff!" (YoungBloodZ, Lil Jon)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

BOOKS! (Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 + That Hair)

I made my first book purchases of 2021 earlier this month (stepped foot inside a B&N and everything), and fittingly, those purchases are the focus of this review! In addition to being two of the first three new books I bought this year, today's selections were both translated into English from other languages and published in 2020, and they're also books which I wasn't altogether blown away by but still appreciate for existing. First up is an international bestselling novel about a South Korean woman's debilitating lifelong experiences with sexism and misogyny. Then, a winding novel about an Angolan-Portuguese woman in Lisbon grappling with her curly hair and family history. And coincidentally, both of the protagonists of these novels were born in the year 1982!
 
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo
(Translated from Korean by Jamie Chang)

I can't remember exactly how I found out about this novel. No doubt I noticed the online hype and praise surrounding its release in the States last year, and I know for sure that my friend Irene read it and we briefly chatted about that fact. But I usually like to pin down exactly how or where I initially hear about the books I read so I can remember why I've chosen to read them, and in the case of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, for some reason I simply do not remember. At the very least, this novel was high enough on the to-buy-eventually book list on my phone that when I spotted it while scanning the B&N shelves, I recognized the title right away and grabbed a copy. 

The book opens in 2015 ("Autumn 2015"), when the titular Kim Jiyoung, a 33-year-old marketing professional turned stay-at-home mom in Seoul, starts acting in a way that makes her husband Daehyun fear there's something seriously wrong with her. Jiyoung begins talking to her husband as if she's other peoplewomen like her mom and her deceased college friendtaking on their speech patterns and mannerisms in a way that goes beyond mere impersonation. Daehyun shrugs it off at first, but when Jiyoung's new behavior embarrasses him in front of his family during Chuseok festivities (in American terms, he basically blames her for ruining Thanksgiving dinner), he arranges for Jiyoung to see a psychiatrist. The next four chapters recap Jiyoung's life and the inescapable multitude of ways in which she's observed (or experienced outright) how boys and men are prioritized over girls and women throughout each stage of her development. From her mom's sacrifices to Jiyoung being a middle child and an elementary school student ("Childhood, 1982-1994"), to Jiyoung's middle and high school years ("Adolescence, 1995-2000"),  to her college years and the first and only job she ever has ("Early Adulthood 2001-2011"), to becoming a wife and quitting her job to be a mother ("Marriage, 2012-2015"). After laying out Jiyoung's life story, the novel ends with a sixth and final chapter that's set during the year after Jiyoung begins therapy ("2016"). 
 
Jiyoung's early adulthood is what has resonated with me the most, probably because me being in my 20s makes that chapter the most immediately-relatable of her life phases. But it's also because of how disgusted I was by the rampant sexual harassment and workplace discrimination that Jiyoung and countless working women like her are expected to withstand (or even accommodate), just for the sake of being considered worthy of employment. And that's IF they can even get hired in the first place. Jiyoung's one of the lucky ones who gets a job straight out of college, and has a female boss who's gone out of her way to improve working conditions for women at that particular company, but Jiyoung still ends up dealing with pervy clients and watching her less-qualified male colleagues get a promotion that she deserves. The painful twenty-something disillusionment that overtakes her is something I know all too intimately. Later on after leaving the job to give birth and raise her daughter, Jiyoung hears from a former colleague about an incident involving spy cams that traumatizes all of the female staff, and reading about that made me want to break things.

Jiyoung is done dirty in numerous instances, but the way she's persuaded (weaseled, suckered, brow-beaten, worn down, take your pick) into giving up her career to have a baby really boils my blood. Before having their daughter, she and Daehyun have a serious conversation about whether they want kids or not and it's very clear that Jiyoung has more misgivings about it than anything; motherhood is an idea that's being thrust upon her, not a role that she actively wants at that point in time. And that discussion goes unresolved, but then she's pregnant in the next scene! It's as if the objections she raises during that prior conversation and whatever anticipatory guilt, anxiety, and stress Jiyoung feels about everything she may lose by becoming a mom... none of that matters anyway. None of it was ever going to make a difference. Daehyun's family wants her pregnant, Daehyun himself wants her pregnant (although to his credit, he's just a hair less overzealous and pushy about it than his family is), and so pregnant she becomes. But then being a mom brings her public derision that she's unprepared to handle.
 
Something that kept bothering me is that we never learn why Jiyoung is with Daehyun. At least with her previous two boyfriends before him, we know about the dates they go on and other romantic aspects of Jiyoung's relationships with them, as well as what about each boyfriend makes Jiyoung fancy them. But all we know about her and Daehyun is that they met at her now-deceased friend's wedding reception. We get very scant details of their relationship prior to engagement and marriage. No dates, no romance, no proposal, none of Daehyun's redeeming qualities. He's her husband at the beginning of the novel, and he's already her fiancé when he appears in the "Marriage, 2012-2015" chapter, and that's all there is to it. Which kept making me wonder: Jiyoung, why are you with this man? Something else I'm realizing just now as I write this review, is that sex is not discussed in the novel. There's mention of the pressure to have children, how much periods suck, the trials of pregnancy, sexual harassment/assault, and even an abortion that one of Jiyoung's relatives has, but the act of sexual intercourse and how Jiyoung feels about it aren't discussed at all.
 
When I read in the beginning about Jiyoung's behavior suddenly changing and her husband being perplexed about why it's happening and what to do about it, I immediately thought of Han Kang's The Vegetarian. (A Korean novel in which, rather than pretending to be other people like Jiyoung does, the female protagonist refuses to eat meat and then eventually stops eating altogether.) I wondered if Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 would go in a similar direction as The Vegetarian, revealing Jiyoung's current behavior to be the result of the mental trauma caused not solely by one specific incident, but by a lifetime of being undermined and disregarded in a sexist society. I found no delight and only sorrow in realizing that I was correct. 
 
Then I arrived at the last chapter ("2016"), where's it's revealed that the entire book is actually a collection of therapy notes! The contents are all observations about Jiyoung that her male psychiatrist has recorded based on what Jiyoung and her husband have told him in their sessions. So it's not that the book is oddly written (as I began to suspect due to its tone), but that the narration takes on the somewhat formal style of the psychiatrist, digging deep into his vulnerable patient's personal life and memories while remaining respectfully detached from the patient herself (a detachment that's compounded by his lack of experience living as a Korean woman). Maybe it was obvious to other readers that the book is written from the psychiatrist's perspective, but I was genuinely surprised. It felt like a huge reveal to me. And at first I thought the psychiatrist would be one of the good ones, so to speak; he's a man who gets it, or at least is closer to empathizing with the plight of women than most other Korean men seem to be. I hoped that Jiyoung would be in good hands. But then those last two paragraphs of the novel showed up like a punch in the gut, like salt rubbed into the wound of righteous indignance (dare I say rage?) that this book opened up in me. I won't spoil what exactly he does or says to reveal his true character, but I'll just say that if this is the best Jiyoung has access to as far as mental health support is concerned... she might not ever get truly well.

Now. Given the intense wave of simultaneous praise and outrage that pushed Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 into international bestseller status after its initial 2016 publication in South Korea, I buckled myself in to read some quality man-thrashing! The back cover declares that this is "the global sensation that ignited South Korea's new feminist movement", and I heard that plenty of men were upset about its popularity, so surely there would be some man-thrashing involved? Right? Not exactly. The book does pay careful attention to the daily horrors of living as a girl or woman in a way that frequently made me feel afraid, angry, and disheartened for Jiyoung. But overall, it's fairly tame in the man-thrashing department. Cho Nam-joo matter-of-factly portrays the average Korean woman's experience as she knows it, and if anything she tempers the egregiousness of those daily horrors by using a male narrator to convey them. So I definitely get why the book has been such a huge hit, but I don't get why men have been so offended by it. Maybe it was the timing of the publication, and maybe I'm missing something because I'm not Korean and don't read Korean. In any case, this is certainly a read that I would recommend! If you're interested in understanding Korean women's hopes and disappointments along with the countless nuances of Korean mothers' sacrifices, but you don't necessarily want something that will make you collapse in a puddle on the floor like Please Look After Mom and If You Leave Me almost did to me (which also came to mind as I read this), then read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"Besides, I don't know if I'm going to get married, or if I'm going to have children. Or maybe I'll die before I get to do any of that. Why do I have to deny myself something I want right now to prepare for a future that may or may not come?" (60).
 
"Disappointment collected between them like dust on top of the refrigerator or medicine cabinetspots clearly visible but neglected... Onto the feelings left unsaid for so long that they were desiccated and crackling, a tiny spark of a flame fell and instantly reduced the most shining romance of youth to ashes" (107-8). 

"The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts, and customs had not, which meant the world hadn't actually changed at all" (119).

"Help out? What is it with you and 'helping out'? You're going to 'help out' with chores. 'Help out' with raising our baby. 'Help out' with finding me a new job. Isn't this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don't you spend my pay, too? Why do you keep saying 'help out' like you're volunteering to pitch in on someone else's work?" (131).

That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida
(translated from Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker)
 
Same with Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, I have no recollection of how or when I first heard about this book. I just know that I decided to buy it at some point—probably because I wanted to learn about Angola and Portugal from the perspective of the Black woman who wrote it, plus the only other novel I've read about Portugal is Alentejo Blue—and it was on my book list for many months. Fun fact: This is the first book I've ever read or reviewed whose translator I've actually met! When I was in the running for an editorial fellowship with an international literary magazine last year, Eric M. B. Becker was one of the people who interviewed me. That interaction had absolutely no influence on my desire to read this novel, since I knew about That Hair before I knew that Becker existed, but it's a funny little coincidence that I was looking forward to sharing in this review.

Situated on the west coast of south-central Africa, what's known today as Angola was colonized by Portugal for 400 years until independence in 1975, and the impact of colonization is embedded in main character Mila's family history and physical features. Her most visible and commented-on feature being her naturally curly hair, which sticks out and up rather than flowing downward. She's a biracial woman with an Angolan (Black) mom and a Portuguese (white) dad, who was born in Luanda (the capital of Angola) and then raised in Lisbon (the capital of Portugal) from the age of three. Colonial relations are what makes it conceivable that both of her parents are "from" Africa: her dad was born in Mozambique when it was still a Portuguese colony, was raised by Portuguese parents who considered Africa to be their home, and he met Mila's mom after moving to Luanda as a young adult. Mila moves to Portugal with her dad in 1985, and by the mid-1990s most of her family on both sidesincluding her Angolan grandparents but not including her motherare living in or around Lisbon. Mila mostly grows up with her Portuguese relatives, though she has a tender fondness for both sides, especially all four of her grandparents. She sees her mom during summers when either she visits Angola or her mom visits her in Portugal. (No mention is made regarding the circumstances of her parents' divorce or her mom's decision to remain in Angola.) In this novel that's framed as Mila's attempt at autobiography, her yearning to know more about her Angolan roots and her desire to make sense of her hair journey feed into each other.

It's not that I wanted this to be exactly like, for example, 'Nappily Ever After' (of which I've only seen the Netflix movie adaptation and haven't read the book it's based on). But I suppose I was expecting That Hair to be its own version of that now-quintessential, heartfelt, even humorous story of a Black woman learning to embrace herself through her hair, albeit written in a more sophisticated way and in a Portuguese context. And while Mila does pepper in anecdotes about unsuccessful at-home and in-salon attempts to style her hair, the comments she fields from relatives and strangers alike, and how frustrations with her tresses affect her sense of self... this book doesn't actually center around Mila's hair. It's more about her family and how she memorializes the people in her life (including her ancestors and herself), with frequent mention of her hair as a guiding motif. Reading That Hair actually reminded me a lot of Michael Ondaatje's fictionalized memoir Running in the Family, which also features multiple generations of a mixed family connected to a formerly-colonized country of Brown people (Sri Lanka).
  
I'll just make it plain and say that I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. Something about the writing took me out of it. Though I do appreciate that Becker's translator's note at the beginning of the book provides a heads-up about this, explaining how Portuguese writing "is many times more permissive of and malleable to discursive detours, repeated pivots, and elliptical flights of lyrical fancy, all in the same phrase" (xiii). Knowing what to expect did make the book smoother to get through. And while I was impressed by much of the novel's poetic phrasing, I'd venture to say that That Hair probably wouldn't be a good choice for someone who gets lost when reading heavily-descriptive or winding sentences. It feels like something I would've been assigned to read in one of my James Madison College classes back at MSU, classes in which I still distinctly remember tackling community and identity-related questions like: What is a symbol, what is a sign, and what is the real? What is memory and what is forgetting? What is history, what isn't history but functions as history, and what's the difference? What does everything mean? If you enjoy reading philosophical, theoretical, or even slightly abstract thought processes like these, then you'll probably appreciate this book. Or maybe if you're someone who is fond of and has a solid grasp of comprehending poetry (even though the book is written in prose). But if none of that applies to you, the reflective passages that are interspersed with the more relatable quotidian snapshots within the book might read as slightly dry or confusing. 
 
Personally, past a certain point I felt like I was reading this book primarily because I'd assigned myself to read it. And as insightful as it is about the cultures and geopolitics between Angola and Portugal, I finished it mostly because I'd already committed to the idea of finishing it (and I had a review to write!), not necessarily because I was enthralled by it. In a nutshell, I really wanted to connect with That Hair on an emotional level, but I couldn't. And that's okay. I'm still glad that Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida has gotten some shine for writing it.

Favorite quotes:
"They were part of her, like an elastic band around her wrist meant to remind her of something she'd unwittingly thrown away before its time, forgetting what had brought her there in the first place" (29).
 
"She never got caught up in the mechanics of prayer, the way those who don't know how to pray do. Prayer was, above all, fertile terrain for improvisation, where she didn't trouble herself with vain questions of whether we have a duty to restrain ourselves when we ask something of God" (74).

"Visiting salons has been a way of visiting different countries and learning to distinguish the features and manners of each, giving new fuel to prejudices. Senegal is a pair of moisturized hands; Angola a certain casualness, a brutal grace; Zaire a disaster; Portugal a burn from a hair dryer, the flesh wound left by a brush. I remember Tina, from Guinea-Conakry, a girl who did my hair in Mercês and shared a similar distrust of the Portuguese; but I can color in this map with the angel from another day, Lena, the Angolan girl who saved me one afternoon" (114).

"What is found reconfigures what was sought... A person finds herself only by chance" (133).