Category Archives: Hapa

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are WaterOver the past couple weeks, I’ve been a bit of an ethnic voyeur, picking up bestselling ‘mainstream’ titles in search of their APAness. I confess I picked up Wally Lamb‘s latest purely because I somehow learned the protagonist is named Annie Oh – Oh usually being a Korean last name. ‘Oh’ turns out to be Annie’s moniker only by (first) marriage, that Annie was born Anna O’Day. Her husband Orion is the official Oh, an Italian Chinese hapa whose only inheritance from his Chinese American father is his last name.

At almost 600 pages or over 23 hours stuck in the ears (the eight-member cast is superb, and includes Lamb himself reading Orion’s chapters), Water is not a light commitment. Here’s the skeletal overview: Annie’s second marriage is imminent, this time to a woman. To get to the wedding on time, over half a century of exposition must be revealed; Water then concludes with what happens three years after the blessed event.

The novel is sprawling, with complicated overlapping narratives that revolve around (essentially) little orphan Annie who survives a horrific past, is rescued by Orion, raises three children together, discovers her violently angry artist soul, falls in love with her gallery owner, and must finally face her demons on her wedding day. Intertwined stories include an African American artist who is murdered by a KKK member, the aging artist who first discovered Annie’s work whose son then gives Annie’s youngest daughter her major break, a monstrously abusive cousin who was both victim and victimizer, a manipulative student who ruins her professor’s career, and so much more – all compounded with issues of class, gender, politics, religion, and race, oh my.

While the novel occasionally felt overly detailed and therefore long (did I really need to know that the pantry had grape jelly to put on the muffins?), I admit that actively connecting the APA dots throughout proved to be a fascinating process. From the “effeminate Korean cashier” who is also the “hostile Korean boy” at the corner grocery where Annie gets her cigarettes, to the fact that the 1882 Exclusion Act can be so casually mentioned, to wondering if I’ve read the Chinese American history texts Orion orders from Amazon, added quite a different layer to my usual ‘let-it-just-sink-in-and-then-react’ usual intended approach.

By book’s end, this experimental literary engagement proved so engrossing, I’m in the middle of doing it again: stay tuned for the Moonies and an HIV-positive Japanese American lawyer in Meg Wolitzer’s much-lauded The Interestings.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Nonethnic-specific

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Undertaking of Lily ChenBefore Danica Novgorodoff‘s story even begins, her dedication page offers crucial tidbits: in paying homage to her grandparents, she reveals both her Chinese heritage and inspiration ["To my grandparents, Eugene and Ellen Chen Novgorodoff"]; in quoting a July 2007 article from The Economist (we’re talking pretty much now!), she prepares readers with an introduction to “a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called ‘ghost marriages,’” in which parents of unmarried dead sons hold posthumous ‘weddings’ to prevent their progeny entering the next world alone. [Might I suggest Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride as a most ingenious companion text?]

Wei Li, the favored older son of the Li family, is dead. Accident though it was, his younger brother Deshi remains responsible. Following a tradition that possibly began in 208 AD when a powerful warlord demanded “the body of a woman” to “lie with [his dead young son] in the dark eternal bedroom,” the Li brothers’ parents give Deshi a bag of cash, a beast of burden, and demand he return in exactly a week with a wife for Wei.

Following advice from a dwarfish matchmaker who sends him to skeezy Mr. Song, Deshi searches for a suitable spouse, even if that means digging six feet under. When a love match doesn’t turn up, Deshi goes in search of a fresher candidate. He meets Lily, the obstinate, feisty daughter of a remote villager mired in financial woes; Lily impulsively steals Deshi’s ride forcing him to give chase. Their unexpected journey together begins – Deshi trying to get to that wedding on time with the perfect guest, Lily intending to escape her provincial life for a new beginning in the big city. Sunday’s deadline (couldn’t resist) looms … and somehow Deshi must fulfill his filial duties, even if that means, uh … dying for love.

Corpses and ghosts aside – not to mention that not-so-subtle skull on the book’s cover – Undertaking is quite the heartstrings-pulling story for this Valentine’s Day. No, really! Novgorodoff’s original narrative and her can’t-turn-away-from-the-action-packed-art definitely trump chocolate and flowers any day.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese, Chinese American, Hapa

A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated by Kevin Wiliarty

Well-Tempered HeartEvery once in a while, only the very best schmaltz will do. Earnest and endearing, this just-arriving-in-translation sequel to the international mega-bestseller, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, is a through-the-night read that will leave you sighing and swooning.

Okay, so we’re not talking Nobel-quality: “‘I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind.’” We’re not particularly surprised by the cold shrink who thinks mind-altering drugs are the only cure, or the wise sage that has no use for colorful pills. We’re so sure that true love is going to happen that we’ll guess the ending long before the final page. But that’s all okay, because whatever their not-quite flaws, German journalist Jan-Philipp Sendker‘s novels somehow manage to provide a rare, cleansing catharsis. Besides, what’s a little loss of sleep when you can float through the rest of the day?

When Julia left her older brother U Ba in their father’s small village in Burma, she promised she would see him again “within a few months.” But almost a decades passes, and suddenly Julia finds herself unable to give an important presentation at her law office: an insistent voice in her head sends her running out of the meeting, the building, and soon enough, her high-powered city life. Her ties to Manhattan are virtually none: her engagement is broken, she’s estranged from her mother and brother, and her single best friend is not enough to tether her.

She arrives unannounced in Kalaw, where U Ba is ready with open arms. Only he fully understands about the voice, the black boots, the terror, the warnings. And together they begin a journey of discovery that will lead them to a woman and her two sons, and eventually towards forgiveness and redemption.

Julia’s first journey to Burma revealed her father’s left-behind past and bonded her to a half-brother she never knew she had. Just as her father followed his heart home, Julia is called back by a desperate stranger with impossible questions from the other side of the world. “Who are you? … Why do you live alone?  … What are you afraid of?” the disconnected voice relentlessly probes. But before Julia can answer, she must learn in her own heart “what is important” … might I add, surely a life lesson for us all.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Burmese, Burmese American, European, Hapa, Southeast Asian

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Frangipani Hotel*STARRED REVIEW
What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.

In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.

Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Hapa, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm

Yokohama Yankee‘Sprawling’ barely begins to describe journalist/editor Leslie Helm‘s ambitious family history that spans nearly a century-and-a-half, three continents, and the titular five generations of a German Japanese American family with current branches spread throughout the rest of the world. Prompted by the death of his difficult father in 1991, and further spurred by the imminent adoption of two children soon thereafter, Leslie embarks on a personal quest to discover the complicated layers of his mixed-race heritage.

In 1868, Julius Helm, then 28, left his father’s 400-acre farm in Rosow, Germany, for a new American life only to find his options were limited to being a common laborer in Minnesota. One year later, the transcontinental railroad took him to San Francisco, where he narrowly missed his intended ship to China and landed instead in Yokohama in 1869.

Barely a decade earlier, Japan had been opened to foreign trade, and Yokohama was a primary entry point into the still-insular country. Julius’ arrival was fortuitously-timed: after moving from various minor jobs and apprenticeships, working for the German consul, and training Japanese soldiers, Julius eventually established himself – and his future generations – as an important merchant presence in Yokohama. Five of his nine siblings followed him to Japan. And his Japanese wife and their four hapa children insured the Helm family’s lasting Japanese ties.

Japanese ancestors, Japanese spouses, Japanese births left most of the Helm generations conflicted over the next 140 years: ‘The Helm relatives I knew were people caught between cultures,” Leslie observes. “… Most had lived on three continents and spoke four languages, yet they never felt at home in any one country.” Caught between a belief of superiority over the Japanese and too often a shameful insecurity over mixed blood, each generation of Helms battled doubts about their identity. Four generations removed from Julius, Leslie is the first to explore, explicate, and accept his challenging relationship with the country of his birth. Ironically, the fifth and latest Helm generation returns the family (at least Leslie’s branch) to Japanese ethnic ‘purity’ as both Leslie and his older brother adopted Japanese children; the children’s American upbringing, however, guarantees the Helms’ cultural hybridity.

Working with unpublished memoirs and diaries (including Julius’ biography “[r]e-written from his personal notes, by his brother Karl”), aging photographs, letters, articles, public records and registries, interviews, and memories, Leslie admirably attempts to corral an unwieldy cast of characters into a single historical narrative. His presentation is not always smooth: sections lag, skip, overlap (Leslie’s father Don’s life story, interwoven throughout, is often jarring to the story’s flow), while certain repetitions are unrelenting (too many of the Helms’ self-loathing doubts and denials). That said, the pages continue turning and fascinating details keep the narrative moving; the book’s latter chapters about the rediscovery of a distant, elderly Japanese cousin and the newly established bond with extended Japanese relatives of Julius’ Japanese wife’s family are particularly memorable.

Whatever its narrative pitfalls, this memoir is an undeniable visual success, exquisitely designed with fascinating photographs, historic documents, maps, handwritten notes and passages, travel stamps, and family crests. The mementos add a vibrant intimacy that overshadows any literary missteps. The family that emerges from these pages, with deep roots in Japan yet constantly in flux between wars, migrations and returns, economic opportunities – not to mention languages and cultures – proves to be a resilient force of inspiration, tenacity, and discovery.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, European, Hapa, Japanese, Japanese American

Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash | Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual by Monica Brown, illustrated by Sara Palacios, Spanish translation by Adriana Domínguez

Marison McDonald and the Clash BashIn case you need an introduction to the “unique, different, and one of a kind” Marisol McDonald, check out her 2011 debut here: Marisol McDonald Doesn’t MatchNow that she’s starring in her second book, I hope that means Marisol’s got her own series going, so we can look forward to more of her irrepressible, energetic adventures from award-winning author Monica Brown and her co-conspirator illustrator Sara Palacios.

Marisol is turning 8 – “which rhymes with ‘great,’ no less! – and she “just know[s] [her] birthday will be fabulous, marvelous, and divine.” Marisol’s only birthday wish, though, has nothing to do with princesses, unicorns, or even pirates. Marisol just wants to see her grandmother who lives far away in Peru. Two long years is too long to be separated from “Abuelita’s smiling face.” Alas, not only is the plane ticket expensive, but as Marisol’s mother explains, a visit entails getting the right papeles – visas. “I don’t understand,” Marisol wonders. “Why does Abuelita need papers to see her own family who miss her so much?” Why indeed?!

As her birthday quickly approaches, Marisol prepares for her celebration by making “a unique, different, one-of-a-kind invitation” for each of her friends. She welcomes them with delighted glee when they arrive in mismatched costumes. “Welcome to my Clash Bash birthday party,” she tells her friends as she “show[s] off [her] soccer-player-pirate-princess-unicorn self.”

As she’s about to enjoy her birthday cake, her parents pull her into the study … where they’ve prepared a most unexpected surprise. Abuelita might not have been able to deliver birthday hugs in person, but technology gifts Marisol the next best alternative. Certainly can’t call Abuelita a Luddite!

Brown, who is herself “the bilingual daughter of a North American father and a South American mother” – hence the dual English/Spanish text on these pages – draws on her own experiences: “Like Marisol, my family was spread across two continents, and like Marisol, I missed my family dearly,” she writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” Brown shares how her mother surprised the family by using her first real estate commission to fly her Abuelito from Peru to the U.S. for a longed-for reunion. “This book celebrates a family’s love, all that is unique about each of us, and all that is still left to discover.” Here’s hoping Marisol’s unique series continues to offer many more gleeful discoveries indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Hapa, Latino/a, South American

Splash, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Splash, Anna Hibiscus!As gorgeous as the large snowflakes are where I am, just to be contrary, I’m wishing for sun and surf! I can’t remember the last time I went splish-splashing, so clearly I’m overdue! For now, I’ll just have to join Anna Hibiscus on her beckoning blue beach …

“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa,” introduces British Nigerian storyteller Atinuke. In her latest adventure, Anna is “at the beach with her whole family”; although the “laughing waves” are calling, everyone around her seems too busy to test the waters. Her grandparents are reading, her father and uncle are talking to friends, her mother and aunties are busy braiding their hair, even her cousins – with such fabulous names as Benz, Wonderful, Clarity, and Common Sense! – are doing anything but getting wet.

The waves will wait for no one, so Anna decides to go to “Splash!” and “Jump!” and “Hee-hee!” with such glee that her entire family finally realizes it’s high time to share some wavy delights. Anna’s playful joy brings everyone together, because “Anna Hibiscus is amazing too.”

Atinuke, who describes herself as “a traditional oral Nigerian storyteller,” draws on her own bicultural experience of growing up in Africa and England as the child of a Nigerian father and an English mother. She wrote her Anna Hibiscus series, she explains on her website, because “as a story teller … it was clear from children’s questions how little they still knew about the Africa that I am from.” Working together with illustrator Lauren Tobia – whose winsome art is as adept at capturing landscapes of sea, surf, and city, as she is at imbuing each character with charmingly nuanced expressions – Atinuke’s “Amazing Africa” becomes a vibrant celebration of family and home with “amazing” Anna Hibiscus as an adorable multicultural guide.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, African, British, Hapa

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Color of Water McBrideWhat writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”

Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.

She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”

Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.

As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African American, Hapa