The fourth month of the year has just wrapped up. With 120 days done, we’re already a third into the year. Wow, time does fly fast. COVID 19 is still as virulent as ever, spreading its tentacles to various parts of the world. Just when everyone thought it started signs of slowing down, suddenly it bites back harder than before. The only thing that has changed is the people’s attitude, especially where I am right now. During the infancy of the emergency, most of us were afraid but as the days pass by, everyone started getting a little complacent, which resulted to an inevitable surge during the past few weeks. Thankfully, work-from-home is still in place in my company but I can’t help but feel for those who have to brave Manila’s heat, traffic, and the threats of the virus just to earn money. I hope they are doing well and I hope you all are, too.
Despite April being a tedious month, with the statutory deadline and all, it was nevertheless a productive reading month. From immersing in African Literature in March, I traveled next to Asia to indulge in works of Asian literature. This is a yearly tradition that I have started in 2018, which was instrumental in my renewed interest in the various cultures in the Asian sphere. Through these literary works, I was able to appreciate and understand some facets of Asian culture. It is because of this that I always dedicate a reading month to Asian works. Without further ado, here is my April 2021 reading list.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
I kicked off my annual Asian literature month with Korean-American Chang-Rae Lee’s latest work, My Year Abroad. When I learned earlier this year that Chang-Rae Lee was releasing a new work, I was really excited for it has been some time since I last read any of his works; 2016 to be exact. My radar went up for a copy of the book. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long and just as I was about to embark on another Asian literature month, I received my copy of the book. What better way to start my journey than with a familiar author? My Year Abroad relates the story of Tiller, a 20-year-old student living in suburban New Jersey. He was in the Hong Kong airport where he encountered Val. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, both of them are from New Jersey, are only children, and are one-eighth Asian! They decided to move in together but as the story of Tiller and Val escalated, Tiller suddenly digressed and started relating his experiences before meeting Val. His “year abroad” all begun with an unlikely encounter with Pong, a chemist and the owner of a fro-yo shop. Their chance encounter led to an implied business partnership. My Year Abroad, for its length, wasn’t as compelling as Lee’s other works. It was looser, in writing, voice and plot, but also lacked the nuances of his earlier works. The experience reminded me of my experience with Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.
Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa
My second book for the month transported me to the Indian subcontinent, with Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada. Originally published in 1899, Umrao Jan Ada is regarded by many as the first Urdu novel. Taking the form of a memoir, the novel is the story of a 19th century courtesan and poet in Lucknow, India. The readers meet Umrao Jan Ada as she recounts her life story to the novelist during one mushaira, or poetry gathering. Her story begun when in Faizabad where she was born as Amiran to a family of modest upbringing. When she was barely a teenager, she was kidnapped by the newly released criminal Dilawar Khan. At Lucknow, she was sold to Khanum Jan and was renamed Umrao. Jan was added later on when she eventually gained her first client. The novel is an insightful and deep glimpse into the world of courtesans, from their training to their liaisons. What Umrao Jan Ada’s story was a commentary on the patriarchal society that was prevalent during the period, of the social dynamics of the period, and of women “bringing shame to their family” because of their way of life. Accentuating Umrao Jan Ada’s story are poems that made the novel more compelling.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
It has been four years since Japanese-born novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was declared the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. However, he hasn’t released any major literary work since then; his last work was The Buried Giant, published in 2015. Both readers and literary pundits were delighted with the welcome announcement of a new to be published in 2021, Klara and the Sun. I admit, I was one of those who got excited with this announcement. Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to purchase my own copy of the book. The titular Klara is an artificial friend of the older generation. With the newer generations taking over, it seems like Klara’s solar-powered generation will soon become irrelevant. Her fortune changed one day when a young girl named Josie promised that she will return and bring Klara home to be her friend and companion. I surmised that Ishiguro is playing to his strengths after his critically acclaimed Never Let Me Go made waves nearly two decades ago. However, Klara and the Sun is a far cry from the Booker Prize shortlisted work. I find the writing cursory and the characters just bland. The story was all over the place, with cringe-inducing scenes in between.
Soledad’s Sister by Jose Dalisay
My next stop is closer to home. Actually, it is home. Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister was my first Filipino work in over a year. No Asian literature month is complete without at least one from my nation of birth, Philippines. It was also a pledge I made with myself, to read at least one Filipino work every year, starting in 2018. So far, I have fulfilled my promise. Soledad’s Sister commences with the story of a death, that of an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) working in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, the circumstances surrounding her death were sketchy. As her body was erroneously shipped to the Philippines, what unfolds is the story that has become familiar for what the Philippines deemed as the “modern heroes”. Prior to moving the KSA, this young woman named Soledad worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper. But circumstances led her to abruptly return home and ironically, it was this very same circumstances that led her to pack her bags up again in search of the proverbial greener pasture. Dalisay’s prose was lyrical and at times sardonic, both tones underscoring the plight of the common Filipinos whilst soaking in the Filipino values. It was too short a read, but still brimming with social commentary and honesty.
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
I purchased Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul in early 2019, even though I barely had any iota on who she was nor have a encountered any of her works. However, the title captured my attention, hence, the random purchase. Later in the year, her latest work, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It, unfortunately, didn’t win but it made me curious about Shafak, who I learned is the bestselling female writer in her native Turkey. The Bastard of Istanbul, I have also learned, was controversial in Turkey as nationalists ran after Shafak. Anyway, after almost two years, I finally got the chance to read this controversial work. It is the story of two young women on the cusp of entering their twenties: Asya Kazancı, the daughter of a Turkish woman in Istanbul; and Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, the daughter of an Armenian immigrant in the USA. As their paths converge, history and the weight of memory starts a tango, with nationalistic sentiments at the forefront. The story of the 1915 Armenian genocide, upon which most of the historical discourses revolve, became more interesting recently after US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the said genocide. However, I found the novel’s impact ephemeral and the conclusion was a little rushed.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
This year’s Asian literature quest is somehow a reflection of the previous year as I managed to read two works of Filipino writers. Gina Apostol is a name that I kept encountering in the local bookstore but, as I always do apropos Filipino writers, I held back. A couple of months later, when I had to rethink my choices, I finally decided to purchase a copy of the book. It helped that I was in the midst of an Asian Literature Month. Insurrecto commenced when an American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi, approached Magsalin, a Filipina translator (Magsalin is literally the Filipino term for “to translate”). Chiara was haunted by her father’s experience in the Philippines, leading her to retrace his steps and decide to complete a film that depicts one of the darkest phases of the Philippine-American War, the Balangiga Massacre. In a way, Insurrecto shares the same literary spirit as The Bastard of Istanbul – the unreliability of memory, the pains of the past, and how the victors almost always tell history from their point of view. Insurrecto is a kaleidoscopic novel, insightful in its intent and unconventional in its execution. It is a novel about history but it is also the story of a group of women.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
2021 is, I guess, the comeback year for many of the Asian writers I love. After Chang-Rae Lee and Kazuo Ishiguro, Viet Thanh Nguyen was the third comeback-ing writer who I was looking forward to in 2021. I was very excited when I learned that Nguyen was publishing his first novel ever since winning the Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer. Thankfully (again), I didn’t have to wait long to earn myself a copy of the book. In The Committed, the readers are reintroduced to Vo Danh, aka, the Sympathizer. After living for a couple of years in the United States, he and his friend, Bon, decided to move to the French capital. The Sympathizer’s father, after all, was French. In Paris, Bon and Vo Danh got involved with the Parisian underground, selling drugs, a sort o paradox for the Sympathizer and his political ideologies. The novel grappled with universal themes of colonialization (as shared by the Vietnamese and the Algerians), the drug and black market trade, criminality, to more personal subjects such as existentialism and one’s skewed sense of loyalty. The Sympathizer’s voice was clearer this time around. It was still a good book, only undone by its tendencies for repetition; readers will repeatedly encounter Sartre, Fanon and Césaire and their teachings and philosophies in the story.
Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur
From France, my literary journey next brought me to a land I have always longed to visit. When I first encountered Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men through an online bookseller, I knew immediately that it was a book I wanted to read. The subtitle, “A Novel of Modern Iran” has stirred my imagination. This was despite the fact that Ineither have an inkling on who Parsipur was nor have I encountered her works before. I would, later on, learn that the novel was a “controversial” work in Parsipur’s native Iran. What does this novel hold to incite such reaction from the Iranian government? In Women Without Men, the readers are introduced to five female characters – Mahdokht, Faizeh, Munis, Mrs. Farrookhlaqa Sadraldivan Golchehreh, and Zarrinkolah – whose individual journeys have led them to converge in a garden in Karaj. The novel underscored the realities women in general experience in a society that is highly patriarchal. Rather than just a blunt attack on the patriarchy, Women Without Men gave a balanced view about the relationships between men, women, and society. However, before I could really take the narrative in, it was already heading towards a conclusion. The substantial background information in the afterword, honestly, aided in my understanding of the story.
Almond by Sohn Won-Pyung
Wrapping up my venture into Asian literature is a novel from East Asia. Up and coming Korean writer Sohn Won-Pyung’s Almond shot to fame (on the universal scale that is) after BTS’ Suga was seen reading a copy of the book in one of their reality shows. It was also because of this that I initially avoided the novel; I can be averse to books that are hyped up, especially if it was by an author I am unfamiliar with. Long story short, I changed my mind (just like the Cancer that I am) and I decided to give the book a chance; I was, after all, in the midst of an Asian Literature Month. Almond is a young adult fiction and relates the story of Yunjae. Everything about him looked normal, at least on the surface. What his stoic, or poker face, belie is the reality that he is suffering from alexithymia. He was born with an amygdala that was smaller than normal. The amygdala being the “emotion center of the brain”, Yunjae found it a challenge processing emotional responses. I was intrigued by the subject but it was weighed down by Sohn’s repeated use of trauma to underscore Yunjae’s disability. It felt like it was born out of the absence of more concrete depictions to elucidate on alexithymia. Sohn redeemed herself with the heartwarming bromance budding between Yunjae and his fellow “monster”, Gon.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 7/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 3/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 0/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 33/60
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 7/20
Book Reviews Published in April
- Book Review # 247: The Silmarillion
- Book Review # 248: Suite Française
- Book Review # 249: Klara and the Sun
- Book Review # 250: Like Water for Chocolate
- Book Review # 251: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Despite April being a tedious month because of the statutory filing deadlines, I managed to cap my Asian Literature Month with flying colors. It is always a pleasure reading the diverse work from this vast part of the world. These books helped me appreciate better the various cultures existing in this wide sphere. This is just a scratch on the surface. I am cognizant that there is still quite a lot of literary works out there waiting to be explored. I will bide my time and just take the process in stride.
In terms of writing book reviews, April was even worse than March. HAHA. I again failed to live up to my promise to write at least eight book reviews per month. On a brighter side, I am slowly reducing my backlogs from 2020. With May looking to be a slower month, at least in terms of my job, I am hoping to make up for the lost time. I still have a double digit backlog from the previous year. On another positive note, the momentum I have gained earlier this year was carried over in April. 2021 is indeed my strongest start since I started reading. I am hoping that I can carry over my momentum in May and read more books but write even more book reviews. (Fingers crossed).
Just like the previous two months, I have planned May to be a themed month. From Africa in March to Asia in April, I have now begun a pivot towards Latin American and Caribbean Literature. My reading journey has already commenced with a writer and a book that I have long been curious about. Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño is a ubiquitous name but unfortunately, I have never read any of his works before. It is with utter excitement that I am delving into his corpus. Apart from Bolaño, I am also looking at indulging in familiar names such as Nobel Laureates in Literature and literary powerhouses Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. I am also looking forward to exploring newer worlds with writers such as Augusto Roa Bastos, Julia Alvarez, and Maryse Condé. There is quite a lot to look forward to and I am already giddy in excitement! I hope you all are too!
For now, keep safe, and happy reading everyone!