Friday, October 29, 2010

Book 30, Dominican Republic: "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez

You know what? I'm just not that impressed by this book. I know it's a best-seller and is included in loads of high school syllabi (something that's not too likely to happen to myself), but after reading truly fresh, epic voices like Janet Frame and Albert Wendt and even Alvarez's fellow refugee-American Carlos Eire, I can't get excited by the writing here.

True, it's structurally interesting: it's divided into three sections, tracing the lives of the four daughters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia, from 1989-1972 (adult life), then 1970-1960 (adolescence in America), then 1960-1956 (childhood in Santo Domingo). Each section's further divided into stories focussing on episodes in the girls' (or an individual girl's) life/ves. We creep back further and further into history, through the immigrant experience and the trouble with the dictator Rafael Trujillo, kinda like psychoanalytic regression, or the movie Memento, though there are no grand dénouements, as I'd hoped.

And some of the stories are good - the world seen through the eyes of a child (or a psycho lady) is generally pretty interesting. I liked Yoyo's tale of the WASP college boy named Rudy Elmenhurst III, and Sandi's perspective on going to a floor show in a Spanish restaurant in NYC, one year after fleeing the regime.

But the whole doesn't cohere. So what? Yes, Latin America is a bizarre place, and ethnic assimilation is hard. I get it. Was this really not talked about very much when the book made its splash in 1999?

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It's good, but I'm generally spoiled for quality on this tour. You could read better. I'm sure as hell gonna.

Representative quote:
Probably, if she had thought a moment about it, she would not have done what she did next. She would have realized her father had lost brothers and friends to the dictator Trujillo. For the rest of his life, he would be haunted by blood in the streets and late night disappearances. Even after all these years, he cringed if a black Volkswagen passed him on the street. He feared anyone in uniform: the meter maid giving out parking tickets, a museum guard approaching to tell him not to get too close to his favourite Goya.
On her knees, Yoyo thought of the worst thing she could say to her father. She gathered a handful of scraps, stood up, and hurled them in his face. In a low, ugly whisper, she pronounced Trujillo's hated nickname: "Chapita! You're just another Chapita!"

Next book:
Daniel Putkowski's An Island Away, from Aruba.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book 29, Haiti: “Heading South” by Dany Laferrière

Whoo! Another chance to clear out my stash of not-yet-read books!

I received Heading South from Laferrière last year, when we were both guests at the Ubud Writers and Readers’ Festival - he arrived late and jetlagged at a party in a white raja's mansion where no-one recognised him, including me, but I was feeling lonely and was eager to practise my bad French with someone else who wasn't fitting into the whole partay groove. (As I recall, Fatima Bhutto, Marco Calvani and Hari Kunzru were really cuttin' a rug on the dance floor.)

Hélas, mon ami Jean-François, this book doesn't have as provocative a title as Comment faire amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. But not to worry: it's just as pornographic.

It's another one of those lovely short story collections that add up to a novel: all these disperse characters living their own lives around Port-au-Prince who end up intersecting, often sexually. You see, one of the big themes of the book is the strange powers of attraction that (usually younger) black Haitian men have on (usually older) white women from France or the United States or Canada, married WASPs and intellectual Jewish harridans who end up having their worlds turned upside-down when they enter the sultry climes of Hispaniola and discover the core of their womanhood, erupting in desire at the sight of a beautiful black lad of seventeen.

Oh yes, it's ridiculous, and probably misogynist and reversely racist, definitely perversely so, shades of Mustafa wanting to colonise Europe with his penis in Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. But it's bloody good reading; thrilling erotica; strangely affirming in the light of all our knowledge of restavek child slavery and post-earthquake anarchy; and to think all these expatriate ladies in the country for sex tourism or to live with their one true ebony loves are there during the '70s, during the regime of the murderous Papa Doc Duvalier: there are throwaway lines by the young men noting how they're not scared of the tyrant's tonton-macoute squads, amidst all the miscegenous revels at the Bellevue Circle and the jazz clubs and the bedroom.

It's not just black boys and white women, though. It's black girls with older white men, including the American consul; and black girls doing it with black boys, and black girls doing it with each other. Laferrière does not run out of imagination when it comes to the libido. (And it's harder than you'd think to write a sex scene without feeling clichéd. Try it!)

Really, this book went by in a flash. A joy to read. Not sure if you'd enjoy it as much if you were a white man or a black woman, though.

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Representative quote: Charlie dips his tongue into the juiciest bit of fruit in Port-au-Prince. Missie never tires of this exotic but exquisitely executed caress. Especially towards the end of the afternoon. She is always the one who insists on it. Missie's sweet, pulpy body.. Her sex exhales an odour of ripened fruit. She may be European on the outside, but inside she is pure Caribbean. Her slit smells of guava; her stomach tightens and lifts at the same time, inviting Charlie's tongue to resume its exploratory probe.

Next book: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Álvarez, from the Dominican Republic.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book 28, Jamaica: “Two Can Play” and “School’s Out” by Trevor Rhone

I’m just back from Kuala Lumpur, and man, I should tell you about the harvest of books I got from Silverfish Bookstore. Plays, essays, and fiction, translated and untranslated from our neighbour/separated sibling up north: A. Samad Said, Amir Muhammad, Zakaria Ariffin, Ouyang Wenfeng, Charlene Rajendran, Farish Noor…

But instead, I’m going to babble a bit about the old book of Jamaican drama I managed to get out of the National Library Repostiory when I got back. No worries: it’s good stuff too.

These two plays are early pieces by Rhone, who was educated in drama in the UK but came back and started his own theatre company, playing with the vernacular, commenting on politics while capturing the real human side of Jamaican life at the same time.

School’s Out (first perf 1976) is ostensibly about a dysfunctional church school where the teachers bicker all the time about the disorder of things, their mutual incompetence and the absence of the headmaster and the impossibility of getting the stinking staff toilet fixed – only to rise against the new teacher, Russ Dacre, who has the moral willpower and chutzpah to try and fix things. It’s terribly specific and believable (triggering mental echoes of Haresh Sharma’s Those Who Can’t Teach, but it also functions as an allegory for the failed state, where the oligarchs rebel against the real reformers. (Weirdly enough, Russ’s pushy, Messianic character has a few things in common with Singapore’s own reformist autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew.)

Two Can Play, (first perf 1982) is less heavy-handed - in fact, it's quite amazing how Rhone manages to blend the stories of the personal and the political here, all within the framework of a realist, mobile production of only two actors. A middle-aged couple, Jim and Gloria, have sent their kids away to the US as illegal immigrants, convinced that Jamaica is no place for them to earn a living. When Jim's father dies, there's nothing to keep them from going after their kids anymore - and this is when chauvinist, cowardly Jim ends up pushing Gloria to get papers to fly to the States, becoming a citizen through a fake marriage, only to discover that this process has pushed her into selfhood, so she now refuses to put up with his crap any longer. Just like Ibsen's A Doll's House, only with a happy ending: they reconcile, Jim's ready to change, and they're ready to believe in Jamaica again.

I have a lot to learn from this guy. If only it was a little easier to find Caribbean drama in this country. And it's a little tricky even to find a known writer from Jamaica who actually stayed in Jamaica: Claude McKay was an émigré, and Marlon James didn't even live in the country...

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Representative Quote:
ROSCO: Discipline! [Hiss.] You see all the boy mi run out of the class, is only one way to deal with that sort of discipline problem. I wish they would make me Headmaster. I know exactly what I would do do. I would construct a Gun Court in the middle of the play field; and come Monday morning, right after Chapel, I would make the whole school gather right round the wire fence, then I would catch the boy and let the parson administer the last rites. Then I would tie up the boy and call the cadets with the long guns and - bang, bang, bang! Then you would see a little discipline in the school. Boy, I wish they would make me the Headmaster!

Next Book: Dany Laferrière’s Heading South, from Haiti.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Oh noes! Shelbi's catching up!

To be precise, the author of a much more readable blog with the same name as mine has just covered Singapore. She did Hwee Hwee Tan's Foreign Bodies, at my suggestion. (Yes, I also suggested Isa Kamari, but that hasn't made it to her library yet. I'm amazed that Foreign Bodies did.)

She reads faster than me and she doesn't have the same rule about reading adjacent countries. Plus, she's actually on a real deadline to cover the world by the end of the year. So she'll probably be in South America and the Caribbean in no time flat.

Pretty soon we'll be neck in neck, and I'll be reading the same things she's been...

(Yes, I know this isn't a contest. But I have weird automatic impulses. And I'm male; I think we're automatically competitive.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book 27, Cuba: “Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire

What a joy to be reading English again!

Waiting for Snow in Havana was actually written in English, you see: the author was airlifted out of Cuba at the age of eleven in 1962 in the wake of Castro’s revolution. Thirty-eight years later, as a professor of history and religion at Yale (where my sister picked up this copy), he suddenly began writing down his memories of those years and the family history behind them.

And boy oh boy, I wish had a memory like Mr Eire. The stuff he can recall: the dirty pranks they used to play on the neighbours, the infernal threats of the Dominican monk schoolmasters, the chimpanzee in lederhosen who was kept as a pet next door, the rich kid who had his own working miniature sports car, the Chinatown man who sold them deadly firecrackers, and his family’s incredible antique collection, amassed due to his father’s conviction that he was the reincarnation of Louis XVI and his wife was Marie Antoinette.

And of course the post-revolutionary days: the parade where he saw Yuri Gagarin and Castro himself, and his own shock when exiled as a child to America: reduced to being a poor penniless spic washing dishes at night after school, after all those years of privilege in the Cuban aristocracy.

I’d heard the stories before in the abstract, which made me utterly unsympathetic to the plight of the Cuban-Americans, upholding the ancient blockade because their moneyed families were expelled during Communism, boohoo. But I’d never grasped till now the profound shame of this downfall, how these kids who grew up knowing they’d be multimillionaires ended up as good-for-nothing problem minority layabouts in the land they once worshipped for its Hollywood movies and cowboys and Coca Cola, soon banned by Castro of course.

And Eire writes so well: with irony, understanding the poetic justice of his being reduced to the state of those black kids he used to get to dive for pennies in shark-infested waters; and with mad eccentricity, jumping from year to year in his life based on free associations, returning to the same moments based on weird leitmotifs in his head: lizards, swimming pools, cases of molest, the icons of Jesus and the Empress Maria Theresa that used to haunt his dreams, and the philosopher he loathes most of all on this earth, Immanuel Kant.

It gives me faith in the potential richness of creative non-fiction. But such a memory, and such a voice! Such things are not provided to most of us mortals.

I do feel a little bad for not reading Alejo Carpentier’s Conversation in a Cathedral or the diaries of Che for this segment, but I’ve definitely had a great time – sped through this 387-page tome in no time at all, and felt culturally richer for it. You should try it too.

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Representative quote: In the past thirty-eight years I’ve seen eight thousand nine hundred and seventeen clouds in shape of the island of Cuba. I know this because I keep count, and the number is always etched accurately in my brain and in my heart. When I die, feel free to saw open my skull and paw through my brain. I bet you’ll find a spot that looks like a cloud in the shape of Cuba. Feel free to open my chest, too. I bet you’ll also find a scar on my heart that looks like a Cuba cloud.

Next book: Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play and School's Out, from Jamaica.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book 26, Mexico: "El laberinto de la soledad" by Octavio Paz

Gracias a Dios! After half a month, I’ve finally finished this damned book – Paz’s essay El laberinto de la soledad, his postscript including the beautiful Crítica de la pirámide, and his interview with Calude Fell, Vuelta a “El laberinto de la soledad”. (I spared myself the lengthy intro and the essays on Mexico and the United States that had been added on, though. Not quite part of the same set of documents.)

I’ve read Paz’s poems before – didn’t find them too memorable – but I chose him because I feel like I’ve read a number of canonical Mexican texts and authors already: Sor Juana, Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel and Carmen Boullosa – plus I had this volume lying around in my library, bought during my student days when I was sure I was going to carry on with Latin American studies in a private capacity.

(As you can see, my copy has suffered under my care.)

But really, this is an odd book. It was tough going for me, with my rusty Spanish: Paz psychoanalyses the whole of Mexican culture and history, pre-Colombian, colonial and revolutionary, specifically outlining why he feels the intelligentsia has been inadequate, why the ideology of positivism was oppressive and the Zapatista movement was revolutionary by dint of its return to the roots of pre-Hispanic culture, and why there needs to be more international cooperation between the countries of the third world.

Jésucristo. And all I’d heard about the text before was its identification of La Malinche (Cortés’s translator-cum-lover) as La Chingada, the “fucked” or “raped” one, as well as the affirmation of Mexican identity as based in Euro-indigenous syncretism.

Y’know, it starts out very comprehensibly, and with a whole lotta poetry: a contrast between Mexicans (including Mexican-Americans) with white North Americans, settling on the image of the brutish pachuco as their iconic representative; then a dwelling on the nature of the unending festivals of the land and the notion of the ever-present Mexican mask (who knew that Mexicans were inscrutable?). A little heavy-handed with its constant reiterations of the condition of solitude, and kinda Mexicentric (seriously, women all over the world are oppressed by the virgin-whore binary, not just mexicanas), but still very beautifully written.

It’s when Paz starts tackling the subject formally through a chronological survey that things get wearisome. Still, it’s fascinating the little insights and stories you get even here: his clear respect for the Baroque writing of the 17th century nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the last of the Spanish Golden Age writers, superior even to the poet Luís de Góngora because she plainly found it joyous to seek for knowledge. Also his concern for the naming of Mexico after the capital of the Aztec empire, México-Tenochtitlán – for the Aztecs were cruel and oppressive towards all the other indigenous cultures; they didn’t even represent Mesoamerican civilization at its peak (that was the 10th century theocracies, e.g. the Maya) – yet they’re now venerated as victims and evidence of the glory of pre-European Mexico. And also his insight that each of the dictators of Mexican history seem to be incarnations of the triumphant conqueror Tezcatlipoca, from Cortés to Porfirio Diáz…

It occurs to me that this will mean nothing to the vast majority of my readers, since they’re mostly from Singapore. Beg pardon. Still, I recommend this book: just read it in your own mother tongue, so you’ll have an easier time than I did. Paz calls it an “exercise of the critical imagination” rather than a philosophical essay, noting that criticism is a compromise for him between poetry and activism. Pretty trenchant thought there.

And then there’s the universality of it: the intellectuals of all the developing world are usually lost in a similar labyrinth of solitude, searching for communion. From what I understand, the remedy is either a revolution or a street festival. Singapore government, please take note: we need more parties.

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Representative quote: El mexicano se esconde bajo muchas máscaras, que luego arroja un día de fiesta o de duelo, del mismo modo que la nación ha desgarrado todas las formas que la asfixiaban. Pero no hemos encontrado aún esa que reconcilie nuestra libertad con el orden, la palabra con el acto y ambos con una evidencia que ya no será sobrenatural, sino humana: la de nuestros mismos.

Next book: Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana! Yep, I'm finally venturing forth into the Caribbean!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hey! Mario Vargas Llosa just won the Nobel Prize for Literature!

First time Peru's won it, too. Click here for the news, and here for my reaction to his first novel,The Time of the Hero.

Still slogging away at fellow Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz... and at the layouts of my latest book, GASPP!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pimp My Library

As suspected, I haven't been able to finish El laberinto de la soledad on time. Even gave myself a 25-page a day quota. Utterly disrupted by: a) my friend Don's all-night 30th birthday, b) theft of my iPhone under really bizarre circumstances, c) fact that I had to finish reading a book about Steve Jobs to write an article about him for ten year-olds.

So, I'm killing time by considering a certain bit of news my friend has imparted. Basically, the National Library has no idea what books to buy! There's a lady whose job it is to spend X number of dollars per month on new books, and she has no idea what the reading public wants, so she's eager for people to make suggestions.

And given my reliance on the National Library for this project, I've got a small list of books I wouldn't mind them adding to their collection. (This isn't even counting the ones banned or semi-banned in Singapore.)

1. Janet Frame’s “Owls Do Cry” (New Zealand)
2. Tayeb Salih’s “The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories” (the Sudan)
3. Tao Lin’s "Shoplifting from American Apparel" (USA)
4. "Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna" (Iraq)*
5. Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks" (Martinique) **
6. Tiffany Murray's "Happy Accidents" (Wales)

* This is especially cool, since Enheduanna (2285 BC - 2250 BC) is the first named author on historical record.

** NLB actually has Fanon, but only in its reference section. What gives? They're scared it's going to trigger an anti-neocolonialist revolt?

If you're so inclined, do leave a comment about what other books you think we need stocks of.