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One From the Archive: ‘The Joy Luck Club’ by Amy Tan ****

The Joy Luck Club begins is Amy Tan’s first novel, and was first published in 1989.  The novel begins in 1949, where four women, all recent arrivals in San Francisco, decide to ‘meet weekly to play mah-jong and tell stories of what they left behind in China’.  These women call themselves the Joy Luck Club.  The novel is split into four sections, each of which includes a chapter told by three of the four women in the club – An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying-Ying St. Clair – or their daughters – Waverly, Lena, Rose and Jing-Mei.  Tan has decided to begin the novel with a small cast list featuring her protagonists.

9780749399573The first perspective used in The Joy Luck Club is that of Jing-Mei Woo, who has had no real choice but to join the club: ‘My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club.  I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah-jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.  My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts’.  All of the women within the Joy Luck Club met each other through the First Chinese Baptist Church when first arriving in their new hometown.  Jing-Mei says: ‘My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English’.  The idea for the club had been dreamed up by her mother whilst she was still a resident of her native China, ‘on a summer night that was so hot even the moths fainted to the ground, their wings so heavy with the damp heat’.  Her vision for the club included the following view: ‘We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought…  And each week we could hope to be lucky.  The hope was our only joy’.

As with her other novels, Tan weaves in the vivid past of the Chinese, making it a firm and intrinsic element of her protagonists and, indirectly, of their daughters.  The disparities between both cultures – Chinese and American – is highlighted throughout, particularly so with regard to the generational divide.  The differences between different areas of China is also addressed.  Lindo says: ‘That was how backward families in the country were.  We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs…  You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse’.  Tan outlines the way in which language can be misconstrued in its meaning from one culture to another.  The Joy Luck Club is culturally stable, and uses Chinese vocabulary, customs and a wealth of traditional foodstuffs to ground it in time, place and culture.  The merging of the cultures is fascinating, as is the outlining of Chinese cultural constraints and expectations.  From a cultural perspective, The Joy Luck Club is a most interesting novel.

Tan’s prose, particularly with regard to the speech of her characters, is beautiful.  She excels particularly at descriptions.  The stories of each of the protagonists are woven in throughout.  The way in which different first person perspectives have been used works so well.  The majority deal with the present, and all include details of the past, which have shaped the women.  Throughout, Tan exemplifies the bravery of women in the face of dire adversity. The relationships between the women are believable and translate well to the page.  Each thread of the story works well, and an extremely absorbing novel is created as a result.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Year of the Runaways’ and ‘The Paper Menagerie’

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota **** 9781447241652
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.

The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

 

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu ***
So many reviewers have loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and as I am always keen to discover new short story authors, I borrowed a copy from my local library. I am neither a fan of science fiction nor of fantasy, and so wasn’t sure if I would enjoy these tales as much as a lot of my friends have. I found some of the inclusions to be quirky and inventive, and preferred Liu’s writing when the magical realism was present, and no robots, etc., were. Some of the tales here engaged me far more than others, although I half expected as much when reading the blurb before I began.

The Paper Menagerie is varied in terms of its content, but I found it rather a mixed bag. I adored the rather beautiful title story, but a lot of the others fell short in comparison. However, his voice has a wonderful consistency to it regardless of the perspective used, and each tale is nicely told. Liu clearly has an expansive imagination, and comes up with some fascinating ideas, but a lot of them were too firmly rooted in science fiction for my personal taste. The Asian culture which is dispersed throughout was fascinating, however, and was one of the real strengths of the book for me.

 

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‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli ****

The concept of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions intrigued me.  Luiselli, herself a Mexican living in New York, has aimed to look at immigration into the United States, and its effects on the many children who undergo a gruelling, and often unsuccessful, trafficking process each year.  Tell Me How It Ends was originally written in English as a shorter essay, and lengthened when Luiselli decided to translate it into Spanish.

The book’s blurb states: ‘In this urgent, haunting, exquisitely written book, the questions 9780008271923asked by Valeria Luiselli are her own, her children’s, and those she finds drawn up on the questionnaire drawn up by immigration attorneys for the tens of thousands of Central American children who arrive in the United States each year after being smuggled across Mexico to the US border.’  Luiselli herself worked as a voluntary interpreter in a New York immigration court, and thus has first hand experience of learning what the children whom she speaks to have already been through in their short lives.  Her task is a relatively simple one; she follows what is written on the questionnaire, and translates the children’s stories from Spanish to English, to later present to the court dealing with individual immigration cases.  She writes: ‘The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.  The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.’  In her introductory chapter, Luiselli informs us that ‘there are no answers, only more questions’ with an exploration of this kind.

Interspersed with the stories of those whom she meets, Luiselli tells of her own experiences, as she and her family are deemed ‘non-residential aliens’ in the United States.  They decide to apply for green cards, which, if granted, will make them US citizens.  She discusses the process, which sounds draining by any form-filling standards, and its immediate aftermath: ‘When we finally sent out our applications… we started feeling strange, somewhat out of place, a little circumspect – as if throwing that envelope in the blue mailbox on our street corner had changed something in us.’  They decide to set off on a roadtrip soon afterwards, and their journey soon converges with the refugee crisis reaching its peak: ‘We start hunting down any available information about the undocumented children and the situation at the border, we collect local newspapers, which pile on the floor of our car, in front of my copilot seat.  We do constant, quick online searches and tune in to the radio every time we can catch a signal.’

The structure within Tell Me How It Ends is fitting.  Luiselli has approached her central question – what will happen to immigrant children when they reach the United States? – by focusing on forty separate, but interrelated questions or points.  Each of these questions forms the immigration questionnaire.

Luiselli’s account and exploration is a measured one.  Throughout, she talks of opinions expressed by different groups inside America, some of whom deem the refugee crisis ‘a biblical plague’, going on to mock how ridiculous their view of innocent children as a widespread threat to their way of life is: ‘Beware the locusts!  They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – those menacing, coffee-coloured boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes.  They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays’.  She balances this with those who welcome the children with open arms, going out of their way to help their plight.

Some of the facts which Luiselli presents are shocking; for instance, ‘eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way’, and that during six months of 2010, there were more than 11,000 abductions during the journey.  Between April 2014 and August 2015, she tells us, ‘more than 102,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the border’, which demonstrates starkly how widespread this problem is.  Throughout, Luiselli recognises the individuality of each child, and each case: ‘Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.’

Tell Me How It Ends is topical and important; a really moving and meaningful piece of reportage.  It demonstrates just how widespread the plight of many Central Americans is, and how they are willing to risk almost everything to find what they perceive will be a better life in the United States.  Luiselli’s account is poignant and searching, and as lucid as it is contemplative.  Her position as interpreter gives her voice authority, as does the way in which she approaches the issue of immigration.  She is highly, wholly empathetic to every child whom she meets, and everything which she presents is sensitively wrought.  There is an awful lot of depth within Tell Me How It Ends, and it is both a thought-provoking and unsettling read.

I shall end this review with rather a fitting quote from Luiselli, after many of the cases which she writes about have been explored: ‘In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself.  And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.’

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‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan ****

Let us begin with the wealth of praise for Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival:

  • “Tan’s lovingly laid out and masterfully rendered tale about the immigrant experience is a documentary magically told.” — Art Spiegelman, author of Maus
  • “An absolute wonder.” — Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis
  • “A magical river of strangers and their stories!” — Craig Thompson, author of Blankets
  • “A shockingly imaginative graphic novel that captures the sense of adventure and wonder that surrounds a new arrival on the shores of a shining new city. Wordless, but with perfect narrative flow, Tan gives us a story filled with cityscapes worthy of Winsor McCay.” — Jeff Smith, author of Bone
  • “Shaun Tan’s artwork creates a fantastical, hauntingly familiar atmosphere… Strange, moving, and beautiful.” — Jon J. Muth, Caldecott Medal-winning author of Zen Shorts
  • “Bravo.” — Brian Selznick, Caldecott Medal-winning author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  • “Magnificent.” — David Small, Caldecott Medalist

9780439895293The lovely sepia-toned illustrations in The Arrival are so detailed that they resemble photographs.  One can pore over them for an awfully long time, and still find new elements.  Tan wonderfully evokes the immigrant experience, and does so solely through the use of his artwork – no mean feat. It is a beautiful, strange, and mesmerising book, which shows a bewildering journey to an unknown land, and the importance of family.

The elements of magical realism are enjoyable, and Tan clearly has a great imagination.  It has been quite some time since I last read a book with no words whatsoever, but doing so was rather a lovely experience, it must be said.  The Arrival is not quite a favourite – Brian Selznick has spoilt me, I think – but it is a book which I will certainly be recommending.

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