A small group of P40 staff have gotten together to bring our Looseleaf family (that’s you, readers) a series of micro-reviews of favourite works by POC writers that have resonated with us and our lived experiences as part of the pan-Asian diaspora. Well known or not, it is important to highlight voices that are more often than not ignored and trivialized in mainstream literature.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
by Aliya Ghare
In anticipation of reading Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I’m reminded of my first foray into Indian literature with Arundhati Roy’s first—and until recently only—novel The God of Small Things and the bittersweet journey that soon followed. The story details the childhood experiences of fraternal twins Rahel and Estha whose lives are ruined by the “Love Laws” that dictate “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Along with exploring a post-colonial India and the inherent class struggles of women and the “Untouchables” caste, the book consistently reveals how small misunderstandings, actions, and trauma can accumulate into an overarching sense of loss and tragedy. While The God of Small Things offers acute insight into India’s Syrian Christian community, communism in the region, Anglophilia and the importation of Western culture, the subject that sticks out most is its examination of social castes. For the non-Indian and NRI (non-resident Indian), the latter such as myself, who’s never lived in India except for short visits and on occasion watches Hindi films, Roy’s novel lifts the humble and euphoric mask of a country often described as “colourful.” Revealed are the ravages of a caste system embedded within Indian communities well after the end of British Raj and implementation of a constitutional law in 1950 that criminalized caste-based discrimination.
The novel addresses “untouchability” in two ways: first, there are the literal untouchables, or Paravans, who occupy the lowest class of a hereditary caste system based on “Hindu ritual purity,” and therefore lack basic human rights. Secondly, there are symbolic untouchables in higher castes where prejudice manifests itself in the marginalization of women. Every attempt at happiness and normalcy is squashed by the existing social order determined to enforce its established code of rules. The disillusionment felt by the characters within the novel mimics one’s own; post-colonial India continues to uphold caste division and subjugation, and perpetuates the stigma attached to “untouchables” so that positive change becomes impossible to achieve. The varied aspects of this novel serve to emphasize the diversity of India in terms of religion, beliefs, ethnicity, practices, and social classes, but also punctuate how these differences can create division and conflict. This takeaway poses a complex and vital question that hangs over Indian society: how does one reconcile different cultural, religious, and political associations in order to establish a fairer society? And, in a more pessimistic tone to which I’m accustomed, is that even possible?
Poetics of Relation by Édouard Glissant
by Elliott Jun
In a world where we continue to reproduce the ruptures that continue to fracture our humanity from each other, what keeps us from relating to each other? This is the question within Poetics of Relation that Martinique writer, the late Édouard Glissant, meditates on as he sifts through the wreckages of colonial violence that have led us to our present moment. While there is mourning about the Middle Passage and the ongoing struggle for the emancipation of black life that haunts Glissant’s writing, this grief does arrest us with paralysis. Rather, Glissant asks us to imagine the possibility of new ways of relating to each other that might end our uneven cycles of genocide and ecocide. The questions of who we are as humanity and how we are different from each other have defined the continued destruction of our planet through the violence and exploitation of oppressed peoples across the world as the cost for the freedom and well-being for some populations groups over others.
As I continue to fight for and write about Pan-Asian collectivities across diasporas, Glissant’s writing leads me to wonder about the limitations of our political possibilities when we forget about relation. The politics of identity and recognition have shaped the terrains of our political engagement in North America in ways that elliptically continue to place the well-being of one population group at the expense of others. Poetics of Relation reminds me about the fraught balance in remembering the histories of Asian North American identification as always a political one and the complicated complicity of our communities within reproducing indigenous dispossession and anti-blackness. If there are no comfortable returns to nostalgic homelands and pristine pasts, how do we survive together on this island known as Turtle Island that we’ve all found ourselves upon or passing through? Glissant makes me believe that there are more humane ways to belong to each other and to the lands that we are all on.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
by Victoria Liao
Nominated in 2006 for the National Book Award for Young People and awarded both a Printz and Eisner Award, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese has become a veritable classic of graphic fiction. Comprised of three seemingly separate storylines that intertwine in the end, the story deals with Jin Wang, a young second generation Chinese American boy who grows up while struggling with his racial identity and the racism he experiences in a predominantly white school. With the help of Lark Pien’s bright colour work, Yang’s art invokes the well-known myth of Sun WuKong—the monkey king—as a speculative element that functions as a parable alongside a deliberately racist sitcom-esque show of Yang’s own invention called “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”.
The story’s poignant ending is what resonates the most for me, as a Chinese Canadian woman who has grappled with the same kinds of shame and internalized racism that Jin has to painfully work through in the process of maturing. As a writer, I have found that wrestling with such questions of identity through myth and storytelling allow me the space and nuances of imagination to confront the hard questions and to make something beautiful—or more importantly, relatable and healing—out of guilt and shame. It stands to reason that, though many moments in Jin’s tale are captured in arresting and emotional frames, what I appreciated most was Yang’s deft weaving of a classic myth and its speculative elements into the realist aspects of the story. It was incredibly moving to see Jin—a character who would have had a fraught relationship with the myth—face his truth reflected in an undeniably Chinese tale, while moving away from the world of internalized racist caricature. That caricature itself was viscerally upsetting to read, but I clearly experienced the intended effect and came to admire Yang’s ability to tackle such uncomfortable subjects head-on. As a creator, that double ability to both engage with the vulnerable, painfully complex aspects of a lived experience while incorporating the speculative and all its expansive potential is something I strive for in my own art, and Yang’s book performs that balancing act perfectly.
Just as Jin and his friend Wei-Chen reconcile over pearl milk tea, I am reminded of the many conversations I have had with fellow Asian Canadians—especially Chinese Canadian peers and mentors—about the very subjects depicted in Yang’s novel, fueled by a bubble tea or three. That community first recommended this book to me, and rather than setting the scene for the ending as in American Born Chinese, we formed the beginnings of friendships without which I never would have had the courage and language to explore such experiences in my own art.
Heat: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology by Fixi
by Jasmine Gui
Part of trilogy series (Trash, Flesh) published by Malaysian publisher Fixi, Heat is a spectacular collection of short stories from writers all over the southeast Asian region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore). Ranging from speculative fiction to short slice of life stories, these stories are themed around different representations and motifs of heat - not just the sensual kind but also the spicy palatable kind; the sweltering environmental kind; the bodily unhealthy kind; the magical supernatural kind. Yes I’m cheating by introducing a lot of writers all at once 😀
Certain memorable names show up as contributors in the anthology, and the central motif is superbly refreshing to me, as someone from the tropical island of Singapore. The urban sprawl of these stories is distinctly and familiarly not North American, and yet, not filtered through a lens of nostalgia or distance. The characters and the writers of these stories write in proximity to the worlds they create, even as they manipulate, modify and augment the rules and characteristics of these worlds.
What does the excruciating pain of a chilli burn in your throat feel like and why is the character is coming to terms with his sexuality through a chilli eating contest? What about the little girl who spontaneously combusts when physically touched by a Catholic priest? As I make my way through the collection, I come across familiar landscapes completely unfamiliar in literature. The regional tones, inflections, and moods of place, language and characters saturate the text without feeling forced or constructed, while these complex short narratives unfold and pulsate.
In a globalized culture that continues to fix North American cultural production at the centre and disseminate to the “margins”, reading literature that is regional, and geographically specific is a radical affirmation of “marginal identities”. This anthology is just one act in my ongoing desire to decentre North American cultural production in my own engagement with culture. If Heat is an indication of what texts are out there, then I’m humbled and excited to read.
Featured Image by Aliya Ghare