Tag Archives: Identity

Migrant by José Manuel Mateo, illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro, translated by Emmy Smith Ready

Migrant.MateoImagine a long scroll, that unfolds like a fan or an accordion. Each panel, when finally open, reveals a single, elongated picture, with sparse text to illuminate the densely populated illustration filled with mountains, animals, plants, people, that give way to trains, police cars, fences, highways, and a concrete jungle. On one side, the story flows in English. Gently flip it over, and you’ll find the same story in Spanish. More than a flat ‘book,’ Migrant is a uniquely unexpected, spectacularly composed art piece.

In a Mexican village that sits somewhere between the mountains and sea, a young boy plays hide-and-seek with his sister and dog. On the large farm where his father grows watermelons and papaya trees, the work is quickly disappearing. First Señor Augusto leaves, and then “the rest of the men who were farming did the same, because there was not enough money to continue planting.” The father ventures out, until “no one remained in town but the women and us children.” In desperation, the left-behind threesome take a dangerous journey north to Los Angeles in search of work and any news of the father’s whereabouts.

As familiar as the immigration story might be, the presentation here is unforgettable. [Click here for a stunning preview.] The ending “Author’s and Artist’s Note” explains that Migrant was inspired by the ancient Mesoamerican art of making paper from tree bark, called amate, on which stories were created in drawings or hieroglyphs. The long-ago Mesoamericans used a continuous sheet of amate that was gathered in folds rather than bound together as separate pages: “It’s called a codex,” the note explains.

Beyond the artistic context is a difficult overview of children who migrate north, sometimes without parents, in official numbers of about 50,000 a year. “They leave because of poverty, mistreatment, or violence,” but then must survive, all too often, even more difficult challenges getting to and living safely the other side of the border. “We seek not only to raise awareness but, above all, to safeguard [the children's] memory. We wish to tell and to question this collective story that makes children defenseless and almost nonexistent to their own country and to the new one where they hope to find work.” Artist Javier Martínez Pedro, according to his bio, is especially aware of the plight of these forgotten children, because “he himself at one point illegally migrated to the Unites States.”

“[W]e have created this book: to demand these children’s right to exist.” The resonating amate speaks volumes, bearing witness to young migrants risking all to seek hope-filled new lives.

Readers: Children

Published: 2011 (Mexico), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, .Translation, Latin American, Latino/a

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

Moon at NineAt 15, Farrin is the privileged only child in a tense, unhappy, albeit very wealthy family. Her father runs a construction company that takes advantage of illegal, desperate Afghan workers to make big profits. As successful as he might be, Farrin’s mother continuously laments that she has married beneath her aristocratic standing. Portraits of the Shah have been replaced for 10 years with that of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Guard have eyes and ears everywhere.

In this restrictive environment, Farrin is lucky to still be able to go to school at all – especially one for gifted girls. But she has no friends there, and is often bullied by the head girl, Pargol. And then new student Sadira arrives: for the first time, Farrin has an ally and companion. Their affection soon grows into something more … but their joy and devotion morph into ammunition for Pargol to torment the girls. The consequences for falling in love escalate far beyond their school and their families, until each is abandoned to fight for their very lives.

In 1988 Tehran, homosexuality is punishable by execution. In her ending “Author’s Note,” mega award-winning Canadian author Deborah Ellis best known for her Breadwinner tetralogy – who has built a renowned international reputation for giving voice to children in the most challenging circumstances around the world – explains how her latest novel is true. “At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I met a woman who told me about her early years in Iran … Some of the details have been changed, but this story is essentially hers.”

Adding a succinct historical overview of Iran’s history, Ellis is careful to balance details of Ayatollah Khomeini’s destructive regime with the rich diversity – especially artistically – of the country’s past. But neither does she shy away from the shocking numbers of tragic victims as they relate to this novel: “According to the Iranian gay human rights group Homan, over 4,000 lesbian and gay Iranians have been executed since 1979.” Iran is not alone in its punishment – Ellis names six countries that execute their homosexual citizens as of the end of 2013, and more than 70 countries that deem homosexuality illegal. In light of such horrific restrictions, her final paragraph is both declaration and hope: “As a proud, gay woman, I am honored to have been entrusted with the story of Farrin and Sadira, and I hope that the real-life Farrin will be able to spend the rest of her life with whatever peace and happiness she is able to find.”

As more and more states strike down anti-gay marriage laws, Moon at Nine is a chilling reminder of the suffering of too many others deprived not only of love, but their very lives. As difficult as it is to read – the ending is especially piercing – its importance is hard to deny.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Canadian, Iranian

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