Tag Archives: Immigration

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

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 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

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow FrostHere’s what a fairly recent (pubbed September 2013) bestseller looks like. It hasn’t gotten any major nominations or awards (perhaps I should add ‘yet,’ as author Jamie Ford‘s debut, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, garnered a few nods); nevertheless, it’s certainly sold plenty of copies in the few months since it hit shelves.

In 1934, 12-year-old William Eng is the “only Chinese boy left” at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage. Although he has only vague memories of his mother, he remembers enough to recognize her on the silver screen during a rare outing to the theater. With the help of his closest friend – a motherless blind girl named Charlotte – William goes in search of the Chinese American movie star, Willow Frost, who was once Liu Song, his beloved ah-ma. A double narrative unfolds, weaving William’s maternal quest, with Liu Song’s difficult experiences during the Depression and her eventual transformation into Willow Frost. What William eventually learns about his mother, his own past, and their short time together, prove difficult truths to face.

Although the writing is smooth enough to keep you reading, the story tends toward melodramatic and predictable. Based on the success of Hotel, however, to assume Songs will find similar support is not unreasonable. Yet what makes this novel stand out is not particularly its literary merit, but for its relentless victimization of women. Yes, historically, women suffered purely because of gender, and for minority women, the challenges were exponentially greater – but the women in Songs never rise above their victimization.

[Possible spoiler alert!] The two women closest to William are both victims of incest. Willow is raped by her stepfather, and eventually succumbs to his lurid whims to feed their child. Even when she falls in love, she is little more than a helpless vessel for empty promises. In contrast, William’s young friend Charlotte refuses to continue a life controlled by fear and abuse and commits suicide to escape.

None of the minor female characters fare better: Willow’s mother is a sacrificial shadow whose desperate submission to her evil second husband leaves her young daughter at his mercy; that cruel stepfather’s first wife abuses as she has been abused, manipulated, abandoned; the young woman chosen to marry Willow’s would-be lover never rises above heir-bearer and household manager.

Each of Song‘s women remain trapped in generalizations, stereotypes, and male fantasies. Regardless of the possibility of a better ending, after 350 pages (or almost 13 hours stuck in the ears – Ryan Gesell is more assured as young William but gratingly over-emotes as Willow), disappointment and regret are really all that remain.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese American

Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by AG Ford

Under the Same SonAn 85-year-old grandmother makes a special birthday trip from the U.S. to Tanzania where three generations celebrate with a surprise safari through Serengeti National Park. The story is special enough … but this one is far more layered …

Grandmother Bibi is Rachel Robinson, the widow of the legendary Jackie Robinson who broke the race barrier in 1947 to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball. The author (and co-traveler) is daughter Sharon Robinson and the family’s birthday adventure is hosted by her brother, David Robinson, who “… in 1984, gave up all that was familiar to him – and started a new life in East Africa.”

Artist AG Ford captures all the important moments with brilliant hues and rich vibrancy, from Bibi and Sharon’s arrival in Dar Es Salaam, to their few days in David’s home “exchanging gifts, telling stories, and filling in the gaps from their years apart,” to the unforgettable safari which ends on a historical beach on the Indian Ocean.

The final day of Bibi’s birthday trip takes the family to Bagamoyo, which “‘… was once home to a slave-trading post,’” David explains. “‘People were captured and brought here with their legs chained together to keep them from running away. ‘Bagamoyo’ comes from a Swahili phrase that means ‘to let go of one’s heart.””

The somber moment becomes both a historical lesson as well as a celebration of the deep bonds of family: “‘Your great-great-grandparents were captured on the west coast of Africa and shipped to America, to the state of Georgia,’” David tells his children. As an adult, David made the voyage back: “‘I wanted to return to my ancestral past. And I made my home here with you.’” In the detailed “Author’s Note,” at book’s end, Sharon further explicates: “As the founder of a coffeegrowers’ cooperative, David has committed his life to partnering with the people of this region to fight poverty and foster economic development.”

While continents and time zones might separate families all over the world, heroes like Jackie Robinson and his descendents who continue a legacy of social activism, ensure today’s”‘freedom to travel back and forth.’” And, as Bibi reminds us all, “‘We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, African American

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

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude*STARRED REVIEW
In her first title since she received a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Yiyun Li again explores the far-reaching repercussions of a single person’s death. While her mesmerizing The Vagrants (2009) revolved around the execution of a young political victim, here, three childhood friends take the spotlight when a fourth dies after a protracted illness.

Ruyu, an orphan raised by elderly “grandaunts,” is sent to live with Aunt, Uncle, and their acerbic daughter, Shaoai, in Beijing. There, she meets Boyang and Moran, who live in the same residential compound. Just four months later, the three children are implicated in Shaoai’s mysterious collapse. Shaoai’s long-expected death after 20 years prompts Boyang – now a wealthy divorcé – to contact Moran, a Massachusetts pharmaceutical tester with a PhD determined to care for her ill Midwestern ex-husband, and Ruyu, who sells chocolates and keeps house for wealthy Californians.

Verdict: Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place – between minutes or decades and across continents – always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy. Discerning readers who appreciated the well-traveled, multicultural virtuosity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone will find rewarding satiety in Solitude.

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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American