Minor Feelings, a collection of essays written by Cathy Park Hong, actively tries to pick apart and critically understand the systematic and cultural racism that exists in the US. She draws on her childhood in Los Angeles and college days to create a tapestry of examples, both internal and societal that make her question her lived experiences. She dissects the way her white colleagues manage to deflect and redirect pain back onto her. This book, as explained by its subtitle, tries to both explain and note the way Americans have treated its Asian citizens. But the book itself is not so much a piece of understanding the self, and more so a beginning to broader conversations of how Asian Americans fit in it.
In the essay, A Portrait of An Artist, a possible reference to James Joyce, she analyzes the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Most notably, Hong focuses in on Cha’s novel Dictee in that it has two unique factors. The first being that it doesn’t look to explain the art within its pages, thus forcing the reader to search for the answers themselves. The work is then transferred to the reader which acts as a parallel to how Hong thinks Asian Americans don’t need to cater themselves to a white audience. And the second is that silence in both Cha’s work and life act as examples of how Asian Americans desire to not discuss tragic events. The idea that silence is good or bad is left for the reader to decide.
There are difficulties a white audience has to confront to be on the same pages that Asian American writers and artists like Hong are on. Though, it is in the use of her tempered silence and examples that push the reader to confront their own biases. The book is bigger than itself in that it challenges a conversation and is unabashed about it. The true question—the reckoning that Hong is asking—is: will the conversation of racism stay within the Asian American communities, or will her white audiences do the work needed to understand the Asian American experience?
Final Rating: 4/5
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a story about a double agent working for his communist comrades in the United States after the fall of Saigon. The novel details the inner workings of a man with a shallow attachment to the United States, and a hidden one to the communist party. From first leaving Viet Nam, to then hiding out in Southern California, the protagonist secretly communicates with a childhood friend, Man, with all the intel he can recover from the American veterans after they left.
To try and not be discovered by his American counterparts, the protagonist has to go to great lengths of concealing who he actually is. These acts range from subtle things to more devastating event, like killing a mis-identified communist. While in America, the protagonist notes that many of the veterans come home without a purpose; they have become janitors, and shopkeepers and nothing what they believe themselves to be.
Then, to try and represent the Vietnamese people as best as possible, the protagonist agrees to help with the filming of a movie that occurs in the Philippines. Soon, the protagonist is caught up in both trying to portray his countrymen accurately and realizes the brutality of the film itself. Though, because of the duality of his identity, many of these contradictions are tossed away, as he believes that he is solely of communist blood.
The final act of the novel brings both the American veterans and the protagonist back to Viet Nam for one final and intense stand. The mentality of the veterans going felt that their dignity had been stripped of them and would much rather die on enemy soil than half-exist in America. However, this does not bode well for them as after a mine explosion, presumed to be set by the Americans years before, and a fire fight, the protagonist is captured.
After revealing his communist status to the prison camp, he is placed in isolation and forced to write a confession. The protagonist is utterly willing to give them as much as they want, but it is not enough for the commandant. Eventually, he is brought to the final stages of his torture, sleep deprivation, to elicit the true confession the prison camp leaders are looking for. It is also revealed that it is Man, his childhood friend, that is the protagonist’s torturer. And while at face value it seems like a betrayal, Man explains he is saving the protagonist. The torture, after an unexplainable amount of time, soon uncovers what the protagonist is unable to remember: a rape he witnessed. The protagonist, in his madman state soon understands the contradictory phrase: “while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom!” Upon his reeducation, the protagonist leaves the prison camp with one of the other survivors, Bon.
The novel is packed so heavily with imagery and metaphor that it is no surprise how intricate and meaningful each passage feels. Instances such as when the woman is being raped, her name is “Viet Nam”, which acts as metaphor for the Americans coming into Viet Nam and destroying and raping the land and people. Or the imagery of the protagonist tied to a mattress during his torture, plays right into the parallel of the image of his birth from his mother—essentially signifying his rebirth. The amount of complexities and issues the story manages to explain and intuit is both astonishing and commendable.
Death is a huge factor in The Sympathizer as well as the effects of war. The novel shows that first, no man can play both sides of a war and come out unscathed. The second is the question if someone is fighting another for independence and freedom, then certainly someone’s freedom is removed, in which case, that contradicts itself. And maybe, Nguyen was trying to hint at the unabashed contradictions of the fighting Americans. In doing so, Nguyen has brought a critical eye to the actions and events of the Americans during the Viet Nam war.
Final Rating: 5/5
In John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, Green reviews things from Teddy Bears to the song “Auld Lang Syne”. And I find it fitting that now, I am reviewing a book that contains only a life catalogued in a five-star system. When asked what the book is about, Green mentions that he’s never quite sure, that maybe it’s about growing up, maybe about the effect of time, and maybe as broad reaching as about the human condition. And to that end, it does mean all those things to him, and most likely more.
My personal favorite essay, as I’m sure with the other 100,000 people who have watched the video essay on Youtube, is that of “Auld Lang Syne”. There is an honest earnestness in the way Green weaves his own life experiences with the convoluted and sometimes melancholy history of the song. And I’ve noticed, as mentioned in the bits of his introduction, that without the personal flourishes of each review, they would feel detached and nearly sterile. Because of this, the reviews that have strong personal connections are the essays that stand out.
Though, there are moments where it seems Green only has a loose personal connection to the topic, and thus the narrative relies on history rather than a deeply intricate understanding of him, as an individual. And while I understand that yes, it is a book of reviews, so what else is it supposed to be about other than the exact thing being reviewed. Though, the detached essay of “Yips” contrasts so heavily with the essay following it “Auld Lang Syne” that I feel as though its significance is nearly lost.
I’ve learned that the reviews say more about the reviewer than the things they are reviewing. Such as: what things does the person value, or what things did they not include, or how is the thing personally relevant.
Final Rating: 4/5
(As a side note, there are 44 reviews (45 if you include the half-title page review) with three 1 star, two 1 ½ stars, five 2 stars, three 2 ½ stars, three 3 stars, four 3 ½ stars, eleven 4 stars, six 4 ½ stars, and eight 5 stars. This is plotted below.)
There are only a few books in my life that I can say have impacted me to a great extent, and Night by Elie Wiesel is one of them. Simply put, he forces the reader to confront a battered history that had befallen the Jewish people in Europe during World War II. I can only say that it has brought me a greater understanding of the horrible actions that were taken in this shameful era of human history. But to greater extent, it puts a personal and vulnerable touch to what the Holocaust was. When I was younger, I had learned about the Holocaust with an almost separation from the events. I knew that 6 million Jews had been murdered by Hitler, but on that grand of a scale, I couldn’t truly comprehend each of those lives in all their complexities and tragedies. I have found myself digging for information on tragedies such as the Holocaust as it shows the raw and unfiltered humanness of life, oppression, emotion, and death. We rarely like to bring up things so painful that a word seventy-five years later still causes hushed whispers. But as time moves its metal hands, we can only spend that time understanding and progressing from what we had been before. Night is that much needed reminder of the atrocities that humans have the ability to do to each other. I would like to reflect on a passage Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. “…I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices…And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim… Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must-at that moment-become the center of the universe"(Elie Wiesel, 1986). I wish that things like this never happened, but seeing as we cannot alter history, we can only hope to prevent anything tragic in the future. We can only force ourselves never to forget, to inform our children of how horrible actions had caused endless suffering. And to never deny these concrete facts. To learn and read from survivors like Elie Wiesel gives us invaluable insight and personal accounts of a history that should never be repeated. I continuously am filled with a simple yet pressing question that doesn’t seem to be answered, which is: How could humans do this to one another? How could so much baseless hatred be directed towards a certain type of people? It brings me great sadness to have to reflect on something that should have never happened. And so, as Elie, I will advocate, stand up, and do everything in my ability to stop the suffering that befalls individuals and groups of people. Because if we don’t help one another, then it will only perpetuate more suffering that the world shouldn’t endure.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a historical fiction novel that follows a Japanese-American family during World War 2 as they are displaced from their home in Berkley, CA to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. There are three distinct stages that the novel follows: travel to Topaz, life at the internment camp, and the reverberating effect afterward.
The novel begins by following the mother, keeping the story grounded and practical as she must deal with the logistical problems of being uprooted. These activities range from burning items that tie them to Japan, packing or discarding their stuff, and killing their dog. Otsuka provides the characters distance from their own actions by supplying the narrative in third person while keeping the family members nameless. In effect, Otsuka is implying that it could be anyone that takes the place of these characters. Though that doesn’t mean that the characters are dimensionless. The son at first pass has an optimistic attitude towards the whole ordeal, but Otsuka may have used this as a thin veil to describe his obliviousness. This is because the son is young, while his sister is old enough to understand what is going on. She is more reactionary, which the mother interprets as rebellion throughout the train ride and their subsequent life in the camp.
Otsuka’s characters are painfully asked to wait: at an old horse race track, on a train to Topaz, at Topaz for the war to end, and for their father to come back. It is in these moments of waiting where Otsuka fleshes out the characters into whole beings with hope of their return, anxiety of the state of their home, and contempt for their living state. Otsuka forces the reader to realize how the immediate pause—or in some cases total destruction—of American lives should not have been justified by the government. But even so, these characters and those actually interned at the camps had to find a way to continue living. The mother in one scene after trying to be the stable foundation for her children breaks down by refusing to eat. While the sister separates herself from the family by being with other friends in the camp, and the son tries to act as the stable earth.
When the family is allowed to go back home, the experience then switches to the point of view of the son. And in this way, it reaffirms the idea that the characters tried to separate and distance themselves from their own experiences.
The backbone of the novel is the relationship between the family and the father. Otsuka provides flashbacks, letters, and stories of the father to build this idea of a strong, loving, and caring person. And throughout most of the novel, the father is experienced indirectly through memories of a rosier time. And without that hope to meet again, the characters would’ve broken down with no motivation to continue. Otsuka builds the father as one thing, but once reunited, the reader experiences the massive disconnect between reality and the idea of the father. This disconnect is also felt through the rejection of their friends, neighbors, and society as a whole when the mother tries getting a job.
The novel finishes with the payoff that Otsuka builds up to. The father, who had been taken in by the US government to be questioned about his allegiance and suspected of being a spy, is the focus of the final chapter. In the point of view of the father, who is innocent of all accusations, instead admits responsibility of the accused actions. And while the reader knows that he has done nothing of what he admits, the father’s willingness to take the fault shows his deep loyalty to America. It is a noble act to say sorry for something that one has never done, and Otsuka knows that making this the final sticking point makes an explicit comparison to the actions of the US government.
Final Rating: 4/5
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee takes a harrowing life experience as a child and uses it as fuel for an autobiographical novel. Those experiences documented damaging effects child sexual abuse can have on a victim. Told from the viewpoint of a child, Chee manages to weave the culture of his Korean descent into a sweeping narrative that contextualizes the abuse through metaphors and Korean fairy tales.
The story begins with a tale about the Fox-demon in Korean culture known to bring bad luck and creates the framing for the way the main character, Fee, interprets his eventual abuser. This use of the Fox-demon is one of the main metaphors drifting in and out of the narrative with imagery of foxes splintering the moments of greatest turmoil. Fee, being a member of a boys’ choir in a catholic church, also interprets life events through a layer of music in its movement and meaning. In the case of Fee, he uses singing as a way to cope with the choir director, Big Eric, who abuses him and the other members of the choir. The music itself is a point of contention where Fee both appreciates its beauty but dislikes its connotations of Big Eric. It is a double-edged sword that Fee battles with because it is difficult for him to give up the one thing holding him together.
Throughout the novel, Fee sees the way the abuse affected the rest of his choir with two of his best friends killing themselves. This aftermath forces Fee to truly interpret the way his abuser had always been the Fox-demon that he was warned about. Even still, Fee’s feelings are nuanced due to his realization that he is gay and that those feelings had been defiled by his abuser. Though once Fee ages, he finds himself becoming the person his abuser had been.
Edinburgh has strengths that go beyond its telling of the story and shines once the metaphors and form are fully taken into account. Edinburgh is written as if it were a poem in novel form in its use of fragment sentences and concise imagery. This attribution only strengthens how the book is supposed to be interpreted through the eyes of a child still learning to understand the world. The fragment sentences are invitations for the reader to finish the thought in a way that they are pulled deeper into the story itself. The problem is that those sentences are never usually finished with the desired punchline, but rather the needed one. In contextualizing the abuse with Korean culture, the reader takes a greater understanding of pain and trauma endured.
Edinburgh is a novel that acts as a canary in the coal mine for the abuse within the catholic church. While it wasn’t the first novel or allegation of sexual abuse within the catholic church, it acts as one of the first to take the endured abuse and provides a culturally framed lived experience. Many times, events of abuse are documented in a sterile way in which it is only written what happened rather than what was felt. This novel humanizes the victim and forces the reader to reckon with the fact that what happened was both experienced and felt. And in framing the experience through an Asian American lens, Chee works to create a context far beyond the abuse written about in his novel.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Obasan by Joy Kogawa is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the displacement and removal of Japanese Canadians during World War 2 and the years following. Obasan takes place within two time frames: the early 70’s after the death of the main character’s uncle, and when the main character is a child in the 40’s.
The first of these time frames has the main character, Naomi, traveling from her teaching position back to her aunt’s home. It is presumed that she will be helping her aunt, also known as Obasan, with the arrangements. This timeline acts as a way for Naomi to process and understand the relocation of her childhood. In these moments of waiting for the other family members, it is where Naomi reads through her other aunt’s journal. However, Naomi’s attitude towards the relocation is one of disdain and desires that it be kept in the past. Her feelings are contrasted with her other aunt, Aunt Emily, who strives for justice in rectifying the wrong doings of the Canadian government. Aunt Emily acts as the natural moral compass in Obasan, but again doesn’t align with Naomi’s motives.
The second timeframe follows a young Naomi as her family soon becomes displaced. Young Naomi observes her family breaking apart when her mother leaves Canada to go back to Japan after the government begins to strip the Japanese Canadian’s away from their possessions and homes. Naomi with the rest of her family is then shipped farther inland where a sense of childlike innocence persists. Then at the end of the war, she is again shipped to a farm where her family is forced to harvest sugar beets.
Throughout the novel, there is a light metaphor that acts to thread the experiences of young Naomi together. It is the idea that Japanese Canadians are chickens that are under the exact control of the Canadian government. Scenes such as Naomi watching a chicken being killed by another chicken and seeing a schoolboy try to kill a chicken by snapping its neck highlights this metaphor.
And while the story deeply explores what it means to be a Japanese Canadian, I felt some of the techniques fell short of what it was trying to achieve. In one instance, Naomi reads Aunt Emily’s journal entries without processing or guiding the internal dialogue along for 40 pages. Aunt Emily herself comes off as a not enjoyable character simply because her one focus is getting justice which is conveyed through some information dumping.
Overall however, Kogawa’s style of writing can at times be entrancing with distinct descriptions and poetic sentences. This moment in history must be told and retold so that it is not forgotten from the public consciousness and Kogawa has a unique enough voice to do so. At times Obasan can seem clunky, but in the end manages to land the leaps it attempts to make.
Final Rating: 3.5/5