Tag Archives: Identity

L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan, photographs by Bobby Fisher

L.A. SonCheck out this toothsome battle-cry: “The kimchi revolution: How Korean-American chefs are changing food culture” by Paula Young Lee for Salon.com. The article’s first paragraph introduces a bi-coastal feast: Momofuku‘s NYC bad-boy David Chang (his signature cookbook is posted here) and L.A.-based Roy Choi. [The second paragraph judiciously adds southern Master Chef Edward Lee and his temptingly Koreanized Smoke and Pickles]. In case Choi’s name isn’t part of your household culinary vocabulary, he’s “best known as the L.A. Korean taco truck guy.” Now you’re nodding, I’m sure.

“I had to write this book,” Choi explains in the “Introduction” to his memoir-in-recipes (seemingly a growing genre for 21st-century celebrity chefs). “To tell the story of my journey from immigrant to latchkey kid to lowrider to misfit to gambler to a chef answering his calling.” He invites you to join him “through the crooked journeys of my life,” and along the way, “Let me cook for you.” How can you resist an invite like that??!!

Born in Korea to parents who originally met in L.A., Choi was destined to return to the City of Angels. By age 2, he was a southern Californian. By 5, he was a latchkey kid wandering the city streets “until I put holes in my soles” while his parents worked whatever jobs they could find. By 8, he was helping out in his family’s Anaheim restaurant where for the “first time I picked up on the feeling that food was important and not just a meal to fuel yourself to do something else.”

By the 1980s, his parents were millionaires, re-introduced to the jewelry business by Uncle Edward (as in the legendary Swodoba – “it really was like having Indiana Jones for an uncle”) who married Choi’s maternal aunt. The family moved into Major League Baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan‘s old house in an Orange County enclave – “I didn’t see another Asian, Latino, black, or Indian kid. For days. Literally.” In his new middle school, the 13-year-old Choi joined “all the Asian kids in school. All three of them” in honors classes. Then came high school with the Grove Street Mob, violently losing a buddy, commuter college, and a broken heart that led him to NYC and crack. From that low point (with worse to follow), Choi re-invents himself again and again … until he has plenty to fill this nourishing memoir. [If I tell you any more, you won't buy the book!]

The food, of course, need few words. Everything from “Perfect Instant Ramen” and “Ghetto Pillsbury Fried Doughnuts,” to “Seared Beef Medallions with Sauce Robert” ["This just sounded fancy, so I decided to make it for y'all"] and “Seared Scallops with Chive Beurre Blanc” ["If you can pull this off, then you can start to understand the first step to becoming a French chef"], to how to have a “kinky” spiritual moment washing rice, is included here. As skilled as he is with pots and pans, Choi proves he knows how to wield pen and keyboard, too – his words are as well-seasoned as his cooking. So make sure to grab napkins before you begin: you’ll need them for laughing and crying, not to mention the salivating!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Korean American

Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who's MorphingEach of Tom Cho‘s 18 stories in his just-over 100-page-debut is a surprise waiting to happen to you. Already lauded and awarded in Cho’s native Australia, his Stateside arrival is sure to elicit gasps, guffaws, and more.

Welcome to half a century of pop culture icons – before you ask ‘how can pop culture be that old?’ allow me to point out that ‘the hills came alive’ 49 years ago on a screen near you back in 1965. That said, Cho’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t who you might expect. In fact, morphing proves to be the occupational hazard of choice throughout.

“Suitmation” has a different identity available to anyone and everyone, from Godzilla to Olivia Newton-John, while two siblings admit in “Dinner with My Brother” they might choose “Marlon Brando” and “Indiana Jones” over their own Chinese monikers, given the chance. “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” becomes a computer adventure, and “Learning English” means hiring Bruce Willis to talk instead. Inner rage goes out of control in “Today on Dr. Phil,” while “The Bodyguard” chivalrously deals with a bionic stalker to save Whitney Houston. Mother and son get transformative makeovers in “I, Robot,” and the girlfriend dismisses a Muppets adventure in “Pinocchio.”

As the stories unfold in surreal glimpses, a blurred outline of the unnamed narrator emerges: a Chinese Australian young man with extended relatives on multiple continents, including parents and a brother Hank, who has a sometime girlfriend Tara among many, many lovers, who is driven by a fertile imagination without boundaries – not to mention quite the multi-platform command of TV, film, music, and games. In his many morphing guises, Cho explores a myriad of unexpected identities and impossible situations. This is fluid fiction, he seems to insist on every page: forget any expectations about culture, race, gender, sexuality, and more … embrace the pure, fantastical stories found here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Australian

The Year of the Baby and The Year of the Fortune Cookie by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Year of the Baby and Year of the Fortune Cookie

When I read Andrea Cheng‘s The Year of the Book almost two years ago, I had no clue it would turn out to be a series! Such staying power bodes well that later printings of Book have been fully corrected; click on The Year of the Book post for details. And although original illustrator Abigail Halpin is missing from these subsequent two titles, Patrice Barton‘s similar style is just as whimsically entrancing.

In the second of the series, The Year of the Baby (2013) – the paperback edition pubs today! – Anna Wang is a year older and in the fifth grade. Her best friends are still Laura and Camille. She continues with her Chinese school, but Laura is now taking classes, too, even though “[s]he’s the only one in the whole school who’s not at least half Chinese.”

The biggest change in Anna’s life is the eponymous ‘baby’: Kaylee is Anna’s new sister, recently adopted from China. As adorable as she is, Kaylee is also stubborn – and getting her to eat is especially difficult. Even the doctors are worried that she’s not thriving, so Grandma arrives from San Francisco to help. Anna “[s]eems to have the magic” and, with Camille’s help, she figures out how to combine science and song to get Kaylee to open wide.

Next hitting shelves – in May – is The Year of the Fortune Cookie, in which Anna starts middle school (already!) as a sixth-grader. Laura’s moved to a nearby private school, leaving Anna convinced that Camille is her “only friend.” While Anna adjusts to the new year, her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sylvester – who was so thrilled and inspired to meet Kaylee in Baby – calls to say that she and her husband have been approved to pick up their new daughter in China. Although Anna and her mother had initially planned to join the Sylvesters together, Mrs. Wang’s schedule and finances don’t allow for the trip; instead the Sylvesters arrange to take just Anna as their cultural and conversational helper.

Anna arrives in Beijing with a “perfect” empty journal to fill from Camille, and 12 paper fortune cookies – to be opened each day she’s away from home – from her new buddy Andee. Between exploring Beijing with the Sylvesters, Anna makes a new Chinese friend and at visit’s end, miraculously visits the orphanage where Kaylee once lived. She also experiences defining moments in better understanding and appreciating her hybrid identity. Like the fortune cookie, she might be considered Chinese, but she’s actually an all-American multicultural creation.

Although all three Anna Wang titles thus far celebrate girl-powered fun, Fortune Cookie presents some challenges with basic plausibility: that the Sylvesters would choose an 11-year-old with limited Chinese proficiency to be their cultural emissary seems far-fetched (fluent Camille would have been the better choice); that Anna – herself a first-time visitor to China – seems to have so much freedom to roam the hotel, visit her brand-new, older friend’s family alone, not to mention to wander the streets without any supervision, feels fictional at best, downright irresponsible in reality. That Cheng’s younger readers might choose to emulate such adventures in any new city seems a reckless and dangerous possibility.

Potential overreactions aside, Anna has plenty of tween insight to share about friendships, siblings, school, and negotiating new experiences, both far away and closer to home. She – and the series – have plenty of room to grow. We’ll definitely keep watching … and reading!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013, 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Drama/Theater, Chinese American

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

With or Without YouAh, well … who needs enemies when you have relatives like debut author Domenica Ruta? ‘Dysfunctional’ sounds nearly sane after meeting Ruta’s family on the page or stuck in the ears – choosing the latter is especially recommended as Ruta herself narrates with chilling, detached efficiency.

Her father – who abandoned her mother during a Hawai’i vacation when he found out she was pregnant – was mostly absent. Her “Uncle Vic” – apparently known by many of the extended family to be a pedophile – sexually abused her as a child.

No one, however, compared to Ruta’s mother Kathi: “Spell [her name] with a Y or, God forbid, a C, and she’d lacerate your face with her scowl.” Drug addicted (“a narcotic omnivore”), neglectful (“Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not”; “There were several occasions on which my mother let Uncle Vic sleep in my bed when Auntie Lucy threw him out”), abusive (“‘You miserable c***. You don’t love me. You never loved me. I knew it’”), Kathi is surely one of the most monstrous mothers memorialized between the pages.

Occasionally, surprisingly, Kathi’s maternal instincts kicked in – albeit in roundabout ways – especially when Ruta’s education was at stake: she helped sell a “brick of cocaine” to pay for parochial school, she dressed Ruta “like a prep-school fetish out of Playboy magazine” for her interviews at the “ten most expensive boarding schools in New England” believing she was gaining Ruta admission, then “was envious, heartbroken, and scared, but, more than that, more than anything, she was proud” when Ruta entered 10th grade at Phillips Academy Andover.

In order to live to tell all, Ruta survived a teenage suicide attempt, her own addictions (alcohol is her drug of choice), and decades of mother/daughter toxicity, until she finally exorcises her past in print. Amazingly, in a telephone call with a New York Times writer, Kathi affirms Ruta’s memories: “‘She lied about nothing. She told the painful, honest truth.’” No chance of a James Frey-style exposé here! 

Ruta is a visceral writer, arranging her words with blunt clarity. She miraculously avoids any self-pity. Through the bleary and brutal, she even manages surprising moments of pithy humor – laughing through drowning eyes and clenched teeth.

Reading (or listening) with dropped jaw will surely fulfill any Schadenfreude fantasies, while reaching book’s end should inspire respect and admiration, perhaps even some fear: the next line of that U2 song that I assume inspired the title continues with “And you give yourself away …” and then multiple repeats of “I can’t live / With or without you …” Now that Ruta’s given herself to legions of readers, let’s hope her survival instincts remain stronger than ever.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific

World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom by J.C. Elkin

World ClassComprised of just 27 pages which hold 14 poems, this collection feels more like a pamphlet than an actual book. That said, the spare verses by J.C. Elkin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated ESL teacher at a Maryland community college, are not without complexity and depth, inspired by her actual students’ lives: “Their names, nationalities, and some occupations have been changed, but their circumstances in these narratives are real. The quotations are as exact as memory permits,” Elkin explains in her introduction.

“My students arrive in dust storms of change,” Elkin’s first poem opens in “Foreign Soil.” She empathizes with their struggles in “World Class,” herself once an ex-pat abroad who “know[s] how it feels to be the alien.”  The “‘Tribal’, ‘slanty-eyed’, / Slavic, ‘rag-head’ strangers” in her class are her “heroes and friends / who put their lives on hold for twelve long hours a week, / asking probing questions, aiming for the A.”

She writes of Hala, who was once a superintendent of girls’ schools in Pakistan, where nine million girls are denied an education. She bids “Vaya con Dios” to Fernan who returns south of the border to bury his mother. She regrets not letting JoySong keep the textbook that wasn’t hers, especially when she returns the next day with bruised signs of spousal abuse. She commiserates with Verdad whose son’s English is not expanding with quite the right vocabulary. She’s left speechless by Young who can’t connect words into comprehensible sentences, but knows exactly how to show his appreciation towards her.

“I’m proud to say I help,” Elkin writes. “Ashamed I don’t do more.” Yet, what she accomplishes here is perhaps that most important ‘more’: giving voice to the newest generation of Americans-in-the-making. Her ‘help’ is never blind, as she knows when to be firm with chronic latecomers, because “[t]he wait list is full of contenders.” She is uncompromisingly honest, ready to expose her own insensitivities; she admits to her own ‘them/us’-mindset as she, too, once thought “‘[t]hey should speak our language or just go back home.’” She confesses without guilt that when she sees one of her students bearing the suffocating weight of her hijab while Ramadan-fasting in steamy August heat, she realizes”… watching her melt in submission, I hate her religion today.”

As brief as Elkin’s Class may be, her universal lessons are many … and each a learning experience ready to share.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Nonethnic-specific

How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Anthology edited by the Hmong American Writers’ Circle

How Do I Begin“For any serious artist, it is a terrible feeling of surrender when you realize there is no place in the world for your voice, when all that you express seems marginalized or in vain … But this isn’t a story about defeat. This is about survival.” So begins Burlee Vang‘s compelling introduction to this dynamic anthology of Hmong American prose, poetry, and art.

Founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) which, since 2004,”has served as a forum to discover and foster creative writing within the Hmong community,” Vang explains that artists of Hmong descent are “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” In spite of a substantial cultural history, “there are no novels, plays, or collections of poems, essays, or short stories. There is no account of Hmong life preserved in writing by a Hmong hand and passed down through the centuries.” As newer Asian Pacific Americans whose initial immigration wave happened in the late 1970s into the 1990s, Hmong Americans used English to begin the shift from oral to written literary traditions. “It is exciting to be Hmong these days,” Vang celebrates, “and to finally write. But as pioneers, these are challenging times.”

Vang and 16 other HAWC members explore their Hmong American heritage, each defining his or her own identity as artist, Hmong American, both, neither, other – embracing and eschewing labels and expectations. One writer, Anthony Cody, stands out as the lone non-Hmong (at least not ethnically); a self-defined Mexican American, Cody “attempts to echo the tragedies, routines, and reality of the life I share” among the Hmong American community in their co-hometown of Fresno, California.

Of the 13 prose and poetry writers, Vang – as the leading ‘pioneer’ – has the indisputable standout piece: his short story, “Mrs. Saichue,” about a childless woman who helps her husband find a younger, fertile second wife, elicits comparisons to Ha Jin’s Waiting, in its sharp, spare evocations of small details amidst a difficult situation that create poignant depth and understanding.

Other notable prose pieces include Ka Vang‘s “Pao Dreams of Bodyslams, André the Giant, and Hulk Hogan” about a filial son with untraditional ambitions, and Ying Thao’s “The Art of Fishing,” about the distant relationship between two brothers, one of whom is gay.

Among the poets, Soul Choj Vang‘s works open the collection, giving it its title from “Here I Am,” about a new generation of American poets: “Now, here I am, adopted citizen, / not rooted in this land … How do I begin my song / Where do I enter the chorus / when my part is not yet written …” While many here ponder leaving and belonging, explore history and identity, May Lee-Yang plays with language, as she writes for “Hmong Americans who are bilingual”; her poem, “Endings,” warns of the importance of endings in Hmong words, how a single last letter can turn “Fish … into salt / Horse into human / Sour into penis.”

In addition to text, two fine artists (including Seexeng Lee whose “Hmong Woman Sewing a Paj Ntaub” graces the cover) and a photographer take center page in full color.

As is often the verdict in diverse collections, How Do I Begin is important more as significant literary history than for the quality of its uneven contents. Not surprisingly, the accomplished contributions are mingled with as many amateur pieces. But as the title implies, this is still a beginning, as Hmong American voices continue to develop, intensify, and multiply into this new century.

“There are no infrangible boundaries here. We have persevered through war, persecution, and exile. Through ethnical, cultural, and language barriers,” Vang bears witness. “We have survived the elements, the invisible. We have overcome ourselves. Our writing attests to this. Legitimizes us. After all these centuries, we are still standing.” Dreaming, producing, thriving, too.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, .Short Stories, Hmong American

Author Interview: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanAlmost two years after  Vaddey Ratner made her New York Times bestselling debut with In the Shadow of the Banyan – her fictionalized account of her survival, as a young child, of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took most of her family along with some two million others – her bookish peregrinations continue. I caught up with Ratner during a few days in her suburban Washington, DC, home – just back from her Norwegian book launch in Oslo and heading out to another speaking engagement in Arizona. In between the frenzy of family duties and repacking her suitcase, she graciously answered questions with acuity and alacrity … and alas, not without tears from us both.

Although you arrived in the United States at age 11 not speaking English, you graduated high school as valedictorian and then summa cum laude from Cornell. What was your career after college? In other words, what did you do before you published your first book after age 40?
I never had what you’d call a “career” before the publication of In the Shadow of the Banyan, before I became an author. I was always writing, albeit in anonymity, and in that sense, I guess I’ve always been a writer. In the years right after Cornell, probably the only job worth mentioning was a short stint at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, where I answered the phone and membership inquiries. So in short, I went from being an over-achiever to lying low, under the radar, wanting desperately to write and yet fearing what that meant – a leap back into my traumatic past, the nightmare and complicated history.

Where did that inspiration and drive to be “always writing” originate?
Language itself, that alchemy of illusion and allusion. My ineradicable fascination with storytelling, its magical power to transform and elucidate and even mystify.

I suppose it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer as soon as I became aware of the written language, aware of the existence of books and the universes they contain – in other words, as soon as I learned to read and write, when I was around four or five years old. This was in Khmer, my native tongue. As a small child, I lived and breathed stories, searched for meanings in new words, in the tales I was told and the ones I overheard.

How and when did you decide to write Banyan? And after decades of experience far-removed from Cambodia, was the process of recovering your memories difficult? How did you prepare yourself to relive such horrors in order to write this book?
When I was living in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009, the realization came to me that the story I wanted to tell was larger than me, than my own life. With Banyan, I wanted to pay homage to our humanity that part of us that not only survives but triumphs. I saw this everywhere in Cambodia. I still see it every time I return. Despite living in the shadow of genocide, people there possess a lightness of spirit that’s absolutely inspiring.

There is no way to really prepare oneself to write this kind of book. The tragedy and atrocity were not imagined nightmares but real ordeals I lived through. So to write it, I had to relive it. Every loss I endured as a child, I endured again and again each time I sat down to write. It was a heartbreaking story to tell because I not only had to invoke the past – a country’s violent history – but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeals—our private tragedies. I mourned every memory I exhumed.

From the perspective of writing as a craft, it was an excruciating first project to take on. I had no formal training as a writer and had not published a single line to be able to confidently call myself a writer by virtue of experience. Still, I knew this was the story I had to write before I could even think about another. No matter how long it would take me, I thought, I would discipline myself to this one endeavor. After all, I’d survived those horrific events, when many in my family had not, so it was the least I could do – devote my life to remembering them. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Vaddey Ratner,” Bloom, March 5, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

I'll Be Right There*STARRED REVIEW
“I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea’s political situation,” writes Kyung-sook Shin, recipient of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, in the ending of her latest spectacular novel in English translation. Ironically, those missing details make this story urgently universal: in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and too many other countries in tumult, young people will continue to form life-changing bonds and fall hopelessly in love.

While people vanish without a trace and others die senselessly, Jung Yoon matures into young adulthood as she loses her beloved mother, meets a once-in-a-lifetime mentor professor, forms and renews intimate friendships, and creates “forever” memories with her first love. Her self-preservation in the midst of brutal turmoil comes at an impossibly high price. Years later, in spite of what she survives (and others do not), the title becomes an anthem to hope: “‘I hope you never hesitate to say, I’ll be right there.’” Shin’s searing, immediate prose will remind readers of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, and their stories of ordinary lives trapped in extraordinary sociopolitical circumstances.

Verdict: The well-earned lauds for Shin’s two titles currently available in English translation should ensure that more of her thus far 17 novels will arrive Stateside.

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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Korean

Author Profile: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan“To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan

While the Vietnam War ended for the United States with the April 1975 military withdrawal, death and destruction continued, moving into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. With the evacuation of U.S. troops, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants to remote areas. In an attempt to create a more equitable society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of those who were perceived to have power, particularly the wealthy and educated. To destabilize any remaining social structures, they fractured family units. Those who managed to survive were sent to labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his heinous regime claimed almost two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Vaddey Ratner and her mother survived. No one else in their immediately family lived. Ratner was just five in 1975. Six years later, in 1981, mother and daughter arrived in the U.S. as refugees. Just over three decades later, in August 2012, Vaddey would publish In the Shadow of the Banyan, her fictionalized account of her young life, her missing family, and how she miraculously stayed alive while too many others did not.

In the transcript of a speech that Ratner’s Simon & Schuster editor, Trish Todd, gave at BEA’s 2012 “Editors Buzz Panel” [to watch fast forward to 28:36 for Todd/Banyan], she confesses to initially believing that Banyan “was not a natural fit for me” when Ratner’s agent first pitched Todd the novel. Intending to “honor [the agent’s] submission with a nice rejection and begin my vacation,” Todd – a 30-year veteran of publishing – finished the manuscript without pause (barely moving!) and realized that she “had just read what could be the most important book [she] would ever publish.” She cancelled her vacation and planned how to win the “very big auction” to buy this first novel of a new, untested writer. The rest, as they say…

The laudatory responses quickly followed. Readers made Banyan a New York Times bestseller. Critics agreed. Banyan was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and appeared on eight 2012 best books lists, including Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews. The populist bibles O Magazine and People raved and recommended. The highbrows too applauded and nominated, naming it a 2013 PEN/Hemingway finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award. Ratner made the media rounds: NPR’s “Morning Edition,” USA Today, and The Washington Post, to name a few. She spoke around the world, at the PEN/Faulkner gala, the United Nations Association, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and more.

Unlike Todd, I took over two years to finally reach the last page of Banyan. Not even the prospect of meeting Ratner in livetime, thanks to a mutual writer friend who insisted I join them for dinner, could get me to finish reading Banyan! Thankfully, the mutual friend’s new book took precedence as dinner conservation. Not until this Bloom deadline loomed could I force myself to actually reach book’s end. Why the frozen hesitation? Because I simply couldn’t let the book go: holding on to the promise of unread chapters was more comforting than racing to the conclusion. I needed only a fraction of the 300 pages to realize that as wrenching and terrifying as the story is, Banyan would surely be one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I would read in years. I wasn’t wrong. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “‘To transform suffering into art’: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan,” Bloom, March 3, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky

Hidden Girl Hall“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”

In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.

At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.

In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.

As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Egyptian American