Saturday, December 31, 2016


Thinking of Basho and Thoreau on this last day of the year.

At the heart
of the American elm
an old pond

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being"

Utterly absorbing. The somewhat annoying voice of Nao Yasutani--an ethnic Japanese teenager raised in California and returned to Japan after her father lost his job in the crash--took a little time to get used to but her horrific experience of bullying at school and her pure love for her great-grandmother Jiko, an anarchist-feminist writer turned Zen nun, soon render her more sympathetic. In contrast, the other narrative about Ruth, closely based on the author, is probing, stubborn, and tender in depicting her dislocation from New York City to a tiny island (Land of the Dead) off the coast of British Columbia and her loss of her mother first to Alzheimer's and then to death. The myriad ways in which the two stories interact to become one tale cast a brilliant light and a wonderful play of shadows on the gift of storytelling.  The invention of Haruki #1, the reluctant kamikaze pilot, shows the noble ideals that the author holds dear.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Writing the South Seas

Brian Bernards' Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature is an exciting study of the archipelagic trope and the activity of creolization in the context of postcolonial literature in Southeast Asia. Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, and Edouard Glissant, Bernards distinguishes the archipelagic imagination from the continental one, as the former prioritizes "contact, exchange, heterogeneity, and creolization instead of racial, ethnic, or linguistic uniformity and singularity." Drawing on Benedict Anderson, Thomas Eriksen, and the Cuban poet Nancy Morejon, Bernards distinguishes creolization from both hybridity and multiculturalism. Creolization "recognizes culture as an ongoing process that cannot be reduced to a singular outcome, offering neither a finished product (hybridity) nor a composite portrait of separate, immutable entities (multiculturalism)."

Chapter 1 looks at "Modern Chinese Impressions of the South Seas Other" through the lives and works of Chinese Sinophone writers Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) and Xi Dishan (1893-1941). It concludes that "The South Seas color of New Literature, representing a quest for enlightenment, follows a discrepant cosmopolitan itinerary that challenges some basic assumptions about modern China's literary history," namely Chinese ethocentrism and the ideal of "national salvation" in New Literature.

Chapter 2 "Transcolonial Challenges to Diasporic Ethno-Nationalism" looks at Lao She's fiction and Yu Dafu (1896-1945)'s editorial and organizing work for a strong critique of the ways "in which diasporic nationalism slipped into an ethnocentrism that reinforced the divide-and-rule strategies that Western colonizers [and national governments] used to legitimize their exploitative presence.

Chapter 3 "Creolizing the Sinophone from Malaysia to Taiwan" follows the influx of Malaysian students to Taiwan after the 1969 Kuala Lumpur ethnic riots and their political consequences. Bernards' exhibit A is Ng Kim Chew (1967- ), whose "creolized aesthetics of Malaysianness and his transnational rewriting of the Nanyang imagination offer insights into how Sinophone Malaysian literature also functions as a Taiwan-based practice." According to Bernards, "Malaysian recuperations of creolization reverberate in analogous post-martial law treatments of Taiwan's complex history of colonialism, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and settler-indigenous politics.

In Chapter 4 "An Ecopoetics of the Borneo Rainforest" Bernards examine the fictions of Pan Yutong and Chang Kuei-hsing. In their ecopoetics, "Malaysia and Taiwan are no longer the margins of China and continental Chineseness, but rather island and peninsular centers of creolized Sinophone cultures formed from interactions with non-Sinophone cultures and native ecologies in a South Sea network."

Chapter 5 "De-Racializing Cultural Legibility in Postcolonial Singapore" looks at Sinophone writer Yeng Pway Ngon and Anglophone writer Christine Suchen Lim for the ways in which they challenge the state-authorized framework of multiculturalism.

Chapter 6 "Popular Sino-Thai Integration Narratives" teases out the tensions in the exemplar of Chinese integration that Thailand is supposed to represent.

In his concluding chapter, Bernards frankly admits that there is more work to be done on the archipelagic imagination in the region's literature, in particular, the Malay-language writers of both Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the writers of the Philippines. His study has focused mainly on fiction, and so has little to say about the region's poetry. After learning so much from this book, I look forward eagerly to his new work on East Asian and Southeast Asian cinema.


December drizzle
nothing beats
eating an orange

Saying good-bye
with a chaste hug
moon behind the cloud

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Neil Mukherjee's "A Life Apart"

Alienated from his new country, the literary immigrant wants to prove that he belongs, how else, but by credibly, and thus, creditably, narrating a story from the point of view of a native informant. In Mukherjee's debut novel, the protagonst Rikwit brings to life the bit character of Miss Gilby, an Englishwoman in Raj India, from the Rabindranath Tagore story "Bimala's autobiography." The story about how Miss Gilby becomes the tutor of Bimala, the wife of an enlightened zamindar, and subsequently falls victim to inter-religious conflict in Bengal is expertly told. The expertise is the point, for Rikwit who is anything but an expert in navigating the life of a queer Indian scholarship student at Oxford and then that of an undocumented immigrant. In fact, his life is a mess. He spends his Oxford career cruising for men in an underground public bathroom and goes down to prostitution in a very dark corner of London. He is most certainly not a model immigrant. I find most interesting the first part of the novel which depicts the growing-up years in Bengal and the last part which brings to the light the life and plight of "floating" workers looking for temporary farming or construction jobs. The middle part about Oxford I find rather tedious since I cannot bring myself to care for any of the students, not even Rikwit himself. Rikwit's realization at Oxford that his mother's harsh discipline is considered child abuse in the new country leads nowhere. It reinforces the motif of violence running through the novel but does not develop into fundamental insight into cultural relativism.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Smaller Is Better

Smaller is Better: Japan's Mastery of the Miniature by O-Young Lee
Japan is too often seen in opposition to the West, and so hides some of its peculiarities. This take on Japanese culture by a Korean writer, critic, and scholar capitalizes on his knowledge of the differences between Japanese and Korean cultures, so that what is truly distinctive about Japan-its penchant for making things smaller-comes thrillingly into focus.

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, translated by Edwin McClellan
In his study Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction, J. Keith Vincent explains very well the different camps of interpretation of Soseki's novel: a patriarchal-imperialist view that focuses mainly on the third section of the novel, Sansei's testament; a subversive view that argues for the narrator's betrayal of his Sansei, to the extent that he may have married Sansei's wife after the teacher died; and a gay affirmative reading that highlights Sansei's undying love for his male companion. Vincent's own interpretation is most nuanced, taking into account the novel's tripartite structure. For him, Kokoro is an exemplar par excellence of the homosocial narrative in modern Japanese fiction. It embeds feudalistic same-sex desire in amber in order to bring modern heteronormativity to light. In doing so, it both cherishes the past while firmly consigning it to the past. Gay love becomes not so much the love that cannot be named, as the love that must be narrated.

Botchan by Natsume Soseki, translated by Glenn Anderson
The protagonist is endearing. The irony is multi-directional, and at many points, I cannot be sure whether the satire is directed at Bochan or his society. It does not help that this edition contains many typographical errors.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Reading Frantz Fanon

The weekend was spent read Frantz Fanon. Yes, I'm late for the party.

Black Skin, White Masks (1952)
A penetrating study of colonized Martinique society and the colonized young man who thought of himself as French, only to go to the metropole of France and realized that he was black. A daring attempt to synthesize psycho- and social analyses.

A Dying Colonialism (1959) or The Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution
Fanon's account of the Algerian War of independence. In the war the women learned to instrumentalize their veils as revolutionary soldiers and agents. Fanon shows why the rural Algerians first rejected the radio because it was perceived as the voice of the enemy, the colonial authorities and culture, and later embraced it when it broadcast the Voice of the revolution. In like manner Fanon argued for why Algerians first rejected and then embraced Western medicine. (After reading this chapter, I understand better now my own position on female circumcision.) In the chapter on the European minority, Fanon welcomed all Europeans who aided the revolutionaries to be part of the new Algeria, which was to be an inclusive society. The chapter included two testimonies from Europeans who found themselves ultimately to be Algerians. Charles Geromini: "It is a year now since I have joined the Algerian Revolution. Remembering the difficult and ambiguous contacts I had had at the outset of the Revolution, I had some fear that I might not be welcomed. My fear was unfounded. I was welcomed like any other Algerian. For the Algerian I am no longer an ally. I am a brother, simply a brother, like the others.

The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

"Decolonization, therefore, implies the urgent need to thoroughly challenge the colonial situation. Its definition can, if we want to describe it accurately, be summed up in the well-known words: "The last shall be first." (2)

"The colonized world is a world divided into two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations." (3)

"If you think you can perfectly govern a country without involving the people, if you think that by their very presence the people confuse the issue, that they are a hindrance or, through their inherent unconsciousness, an undermining factor, then there should be no hesitation: The people must be excluded. Yet when the people are asked to participate in the government, instead of being a hindrance they are a driving force. We Algerians during the course of this war have had the opportunity, the good fortune, of fully grasping the reality of a number of things. (Reality is action, not mere thought.)

"As President Sékou Touréso aptly reminded us in his address to the Second Congress of African Writers: "In the realm of thought, man can claim to be the brain of the world, but in reality, where every action affects spiritual and physical being, the world is still the brain of mankind for it is here that are concentrated the totalization of power and elements of thought, the dynamic forces of development and improvement, and it is here too that energies are merged and the sum total of man's intellectual values is finally inscribed." (140)

"Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity." (145)

"The colonized intellectual, at the very moment when he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism. The colonized intellectual who returns to his people through works of art behaves in fact like a foreigner. Sometimes he will not hesitate to use the local dialects to demonstrate his desire to be as close to the people as possible, but the ideas he expresses, the preoccupations that haunt him are in no way related to the daily lot of the men and women of his country. The culture with which the intellectual is preoccupied is very often nothing but an inventory of particularisms. Seeking to cling close to the people, he clings merely to a visible veneer. This veneer, however, is merely a reflection of a dense, subterranean life in perpetual renewal. This reification, which seems all too obvious and characteristic of the people is in fact but the inert, already invalidated outcome of the many, and not always coherent, adaptations of a more fundamental substance beset with radical changes. Instead of seeking out this substance, the intellectual lets himself be mesmerized by these mummified fragments which, now, consolidated, signify, on the contrary, negation, obsolescence, and fabrication. Culture never has the transparency of custom, which is always a deterioration of culture. Seeking to stick to tradition or reviving neglected tradition is not only going against history, but against one's people. When a people support armed or even political struggle against a merciless colonialism, tradition changes meaning. What was a technique of passive resistance may, in this phase, be radically doomed. Traditions in an underdeveloped country undergoing armed struggle are fundamentally unstable and crisscrossed by centrifugal forces. This is why the intellectual often risks being out of step. The peoples who have waged the struggle are increasingly impermeable to demagoguery, and by seeking to follow them too closely, the intellectual turns out to be nothing better than a vulgar opportunist, even behind the times." (160-161)

"After the assimilation period of rhyming verse, the beat of the poetic drum bursts upon the scene. Poetry of revolt, but which is also analytical and descriptive. The poet must, however, understand that nothing can replace the rational and irreversible commitment on the side of the people in arms. Let us quote Depestre again:

The lady was not alone
She had a husband
A husband who knew everything
But to tell the truth knew nothing
Because culture does not come without making concessions
Without conceding your flesh and blood
Without conceding yourself to others
A concession worth as much as
Classicism or Romanticism
And all that nurtures out soul.

[English translation of "Face a la nuit" by René Depestre, in footnote of book]

The colonized poet who is concerned with creating a work of national significance, who insists on describing his people, misses his mark, because before setting pen to paper he is in no fit state to make that fundamental concession which Depestre mentions." (162)

"When the colonized intellectual writing for his people uses the past he must do so with the intention of opening up the future, of spurring them into action and fostering hope. But in order to secure hope, in order to give it substance, he must take part in the action and commit himself body and soul to the national struggle. You can talk about anything you like, but when it comes to talking about that one thing in a man's life that involves opening up new horizons, enlightening your country, and standing tall alongside your own people, then muscle power is required." (167)

"Far from distancing it from other nations, it is the national liberation that puts the nation on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness establishes itself and thrives. And this dual emergence, in fact, is the unique focus of all culture."

Sunday, December 04, 2016

More an American than Ever

My longest, and last, interview about Steep Tea, with some thoughts on global literature, Singapore Poetry, and the political obligations of a Permanent Resident of the USA. Thanks, Nicholas Wong, for the interview, and Ching-In Chen, for publishing it.