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The Most Unhelpful Book Review You’ll Ever Read: A Review of What Lies Between Us

Have you ever read a book that you knew would completely mess you up? Like, you’ve gone in knowing that the journey through the pages would be worth it, but your soul might not make it through to the final destination? Friends, I’ve read two of those books in recent times. One was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it on my honeymoon, and let me tell you, nothing puts a damper on marital bliss like a dystopian horror story that strips women down to their biological functions and wipes away their humanity. Probably not the best idea of mine, in hindsight, considering the very real implications of a Gilead-like future for the U.S., but oh well. A girl’s gotta read.

And the other book that destroyed me for a good few days? What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan-American writer who also wrote Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I inhaled this gloriously horrific and anxiety-inducing novel in all of three hours, and then spent the next few hours being considerably stressed out. Tainted visions of my future children and my relationship with my husband all swirled around me in a storm of blue, as I lay in bed, petrified, at 2 a.m. Again, another poor life choice that I will hopefully not be repeating any time soon.

munaweera

Let me tell you what this extraordinary novel is about before I turn you off of reading in general. Munaweera’s tale is a tragedy that begins in her protagonist’s white prison cell. The woman tells us that she’s been imprisoned for committing the most monstrous of crimes, and that this story is her attempt to reveal why she did what she did. Instead of outlining a confession, the unnamed protagonist unravels her life’s story in a series of memories and images, beginning as a young girl in Sri Lanka to an immigrant’s journey in America. Love, loss, and grief ensue in the pages that follow.

If that summary was too vague, I’m sorry, but as a reader who believes deeply in the experience of reading and unspooling the nuances of a story for herself, that’s literally the best, un-spoilerly paragraph about this novel that I can give you. But, what I can attempt to do is tell you why this novel had such a huge impact on me, and why I’m still feeling that impact a week later.

Munaweera unwraps the experience of being a young, non-white immigrant in this country with exquisite precision. Upon entering the hallowed hallways of school in the 1980’s, our nameless protagonist lives on the outskirts of American life, and feels more like an exotic animal at the zoo that no boy wants to date. When she grows into adulthood, and happens upon a great guy who happens to be white, she confesses to feeling a little bit lucky just to be “chosen by one of them.”

As someone who can relate deeply to both of those experiences, I can tell you that for many non-white immigrants or children of immigrants, the fact that you’re non-white and therefore other is an insistent part of your life, even if you’re not fully aware of it. Munaweera captures that slight feeling of ostracism so well, and What Lies Between Us managed to remind me about a lot of the racial and ethnic anxieties I endured and still endure to this day.

Another incredible thing about this novel is that even if you’re not an immigrant or a child of one, you’re still able to fully empathize with Munaweera’s protagonist because of how she tells the story. Munaweera breaks the story into vivid and palpable images of life, which teem with lust on one page and fear on the next. She roots her story in the experience of being human, and through this, What Lies Between Us becomes the best type of evidence against the wall-loving, divisive voices in our country right now. It reminds us that people are people, no matter where they’re from or how they’ve grown up. All people share the same fears and anxieties, and all people just want to love and be loved in return.

But the most incisive and, for me, gut-wrenching highlight of this book is its discussion of motherhood. What Lies Between Us is, at its core, a story about motherhood, and how being a mother changes and defines a woman’s life. In the first few pages of the novel, when the protagonist begins to tell her story in her cell, Munaweera unleashes an absolutely lethal description of being a mother in the United States. She writes that there is absolutely no way to be a good mother in this country, because to be a good mother, you have to be perfect. For the protagonist, even the smallest of failures or mistakes as a mother will indict you. She continues by reminding the reader that being a mother is essentially giving yourself entirely in the pursuit of a higher, more important end goal. And she lands the final punch by telling you that she is essentially in prison because she refused to do just that.

Like, damn girl, get out of my head! Somehow, Munaweera reached her hand right into my body and pulled out exactly what I fear about motherhood. And the fact that she is able to do that is incredible. The power of this novel is that it reveals the anxieties and implications of motherhood in such a real way. From beginning to end, Munaweera details everything that is glorious AND terrifying about being a mother. And for someone who is a bit tired of hearing that I’ll figure it out and that I don’t need to worry so much, I am so grateful to see my anxieties in print. Munaweera’s words remind me that my feelings, true or not, are valid and acceptable, and that is the hallmark of a really important book.

My verdict:

I have told you very little about what happens plot-wise in this book, but I am telling you that What Lies Between Us is SO worth the read on so many levels. One, you get to glimpse what it means to be a young immigrant in this country. Two, Munaweera immerses you in gorgeous images that burst with humanity. And three, if you have concerns about what it means to be a parent, then What Lies Between Us will assuage your fears by giving them an important voice.

Go read this book, because my review does not do it justice.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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#ThursdayThoughts: The Burden of Diversity

When I decided to blog my venture into reading literature written by women of color, I did so for many reasons:

  • To expand my own reading past a library dominated by white men,
  • To understand myself better and to contextualize my position as a woman of color living in the U.S., and
  • To actually understand intersectionality and the experiences of women who don’t share my ethnicity.

All of these reasons are valid and well-intentioned, in my opinion. So, feeling proud of myself and my own growth as a human being, I began Googling and assembling my Avengers-esque lineup of WOC authors. Side note: who would YOU rather have at your side in battle – the Hulk or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri?

My pile of books grew, and I threw myself into learning and reading with abandon. I lived a day in the life of a soon-to-be-deported Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. I learned what it means for a Nigerian woman to become black upon arriving to the United States in Americanah. I was pumped about my learning and sharing that learning with the world. And then, I read Wintersong.

After finishing S. Jae-Jones’ first novel and reveling in the wonderful story that she told, I found myself asking, “Why did she choose to write about a German girl and her encounters with the underworld?” S. Jae-Jones is Korean-American, so for some reason, I had assumed that her novel would be somehow related to that experience. The real question I was asking was, “Why didn’t she incorporate her ethnicity into this book?” And with that assumption, I unintentionally placed an all-too familiar burden on this author and her writing.

The literary world and society at large expects people of color, and especially women of color, to enlighten them about what it means to be marginalized or oppressed. To share some insight about their “ethnic” or “cultural” experience as someone who is NOT a white man. So if you’re brown or black, it somehow becomes your job to teach white people about your life and your experiences.

This is an egregiously unfair and completely unrealistic burden. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a person choosing to write about those experiences. We need more diversity in literature – diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, experience, etc. But we cannot box POC or WOC into a corner and expect that all they have to offer the world perfectly aligns with their marginalization. People are much too complex and interesting to be suffocated in this way.

I only realized that I too was adding to this systemic burden when I read this article on Fantasy Cafe, written by the author of Wintersong herself. Jae-Jones perfectly articulates the expectations we place on artists who happen to be non-white and non-male. She discusses the different cultural and literary influences that led her to write Wintersong.  And she also writes about how despite the fact that this story was hers in the sense that it was a beautiful amalgamation of so many stories and aesthetics she had grown to love, readers still questioned her authenticity, and ultimately her adequacy as a Korean-American woman. Somehow, she became less in the eyes of some of her readers, because she wasn’t writing a Korean-American story.

S. Jae-Jones is allowed to write a story about a German girl falling into the clutches of the Goblin King, because that is the story she wanted to write. That’s all that matters. She is more than just a Korean-American – she is a human being who has been deeply shaped by all of the books, movies, relationships, and experiences in her life. Who hasn’t? She shouldn’t have to justify what she writes about to anyone. And that includes me!

I am grateful for her story and the time that she took to eloquently educate me and the literary community about the burden of being a female writer of color, which she calls an “albatross about [her] neck.” And I also thank her for reminding me of my own complexity, and of the many varied and seemingly paradoxical influences in my life.

Just like S. Jae-Jones was shaped by Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I can name W.B. Yeats and Joy Harjo as some of my biggest literary inspirations. I’ve also been equally molded by my love of romantic dramas and time travel. Maybe my first novel will be some great fusion of all of the above, or maybe it’ll be about an Indian-American girl growing up in Virginia Beach. Who knows?

All I do know is that it’s time for us to relieve people of color of this enormous weight. Artist or not, people of color are not responsible for educating or enlightening anyone about their marginalized experiences. We need that education, for sure, but we CANNOT demand it.

What do you think about this issue? Leave your comments below, and happy Thursday!

 

Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash

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Making Reading Magical Again: A Review of Wintersong

There is nothing more magical than diving into another world when you’re a child, whether it’s through a good movie, a video game, or for me, a really great book. In his book Why Write?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the particulars of reading as a child. He writes that reading when you’re young is a completely immersive experience, one in which the mundane norms of real life fall away in their entirety and you’re fully transported to another time, place, or body.

The slightly depressing thing, Edmundson continues, is that this complete immersion doesn’t continue into adulthood, especially for writers.  We have to shed books as a form of true escapism when we grow older, because when we turn to books as writers, we read to analyze HOW our contemporaries or literary heroes are writing, not just what. Of course we still enjoy reading, but it becomes a rare thing for people who decide to devote their lives or parts of their lives to the written word to truly fall into a story, free of criticism or analysis, like we did while we were young.

And I’m sorry to say that Edmundson is completely right. When I pick up a book, any book, these days, it takes all of five minutes for my inner English major to rear her annoying head and start pulling apart the text in front of me. But sometimes, if I’m really lucky, a certain book comes along and completely knocks me back to my childhood, to days spent curled around stories that pulled me out of the bunny-covered walls of my bedroom and into other worlds. And the first book that’s done that for me in recent times? Wintersong by Korean-American author S. Jae-Jones.

Wintersong is a triumph of storytelling. Set in the German state of Bavaria, the events of the Wintersong spin into motion when Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is captured by Der Erlkönig, the legendary and mythical Goblin King. Desperate to retrieve her sister from his clutches, Liesl becomes swept up in a Romantic quest that turns out to be about more than just physically rescuing her sister from the underworld. Her ambitions, family relationships, and desire to live an unrestrained life all come to a head as she pursues the Goblin King underground.

First, Jae-Jones crafts incredibly human characters that you immediately identify with. She does what writers like George R.R. Martin are getting lauded for these days – she builds a fantastical world full of real, flawed human beings, all of whom have their own motives and agendas and wishes for their lives. There are no outright heroes or villains in Wintersong, not even the trickster Goblin King, who becomes an incredibly alluring love interest for Liesl. You end up sympathizing with every single character in the novel at some point, except maybe the goblins. And for a first time novelist like Jae-Jones, that is freaking masterful.

Not only does Jae-Jones create a brilliant cast of characters, she writes a lead character that has a creative agency that I haven’t really ever encountered before in YA literature. Liesl may be young and figuring her life out, but one thing she is sure of is her passion for creating and composing music. This passion, along with truly mesmerizing passages detailing Liesl’s composing, drives the novel and, of course many of Liesl’s missteps. But seeing this young woman so completely certain of her passion and her desire to freely create music is one of my favorite things about Wintersong.

The best thing by far about this novel is the mental landscape Jae-Jones draws for the reader. The Goblin King is first and foremost a trickster, and under his influence, the characters literally get caught in a haze of belief versus disbelief, real versus imagined. Liesl remembers something important and true on one page, but she forgets it by the next. She questions her reality, and somehow you find yourself trying to remind Liesl of what’s really happening. Jae-Jones’s interplay between a captivated narrator and a truly invested reader constructs a world of whispered magic that you can’t easily get home from. As Liesl falls prey to the magic of Der Erlkönig and his kingdom, you too fall under Jae-Jones’ spell.

My verdict:

If there’s any book that completely subverts the stigma about YA novels being somehow less complex and captivating than novels written for adults, it’s Wintersong. From a group of gorgeous, multifaceted characters to an inspiring lead protagonist who convinces you to live a more creative life, to a spellbinding landscape of questioning what’s real and what’s not, Wintersong unapologetically throws you into a deeply immersive and mesmerizing world that you’ll never want to leave.

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Brown People Can Have Sex Too! A Review of The Bollywood Bride

I adore romance. And when I say adore, I really mean “I unabashedly live for all romantic storylines and romantic chemistry and romantic everything.” This obsession is not surprising. I grew up on a healthy diet of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, both classic and new, and a bombardment of Bollywood melodrama from the 90’s. From Tom Hanks’ heart-eyes at Meg Ryan at the airport in Sleepless in Seattle, to Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s sultry waltz in that rain-drenched gazebo in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I go absolutely gaga for all kinds of love stories. Believe me when I say that from a very young age up until I met my husband, I had always imagined myself meeting the love of my life against a gorgeous backdrop and a soundtrack sung either by Savage Garden or Sonu Nigam.

So just imagine my pure rapture when I stumbled onto The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev. A Persuasion-esque love affair for the ages, The Bollywood Bride contains absolutely everything an avid reader AND a romance fanatic could want. The story follows Ria Parkar, a Bollywood film starlet who, after years away from her family, gets sucked back into the pain of her non-public life when her cousin Nikhil decides to get married in Chicago. And the great source of this epic pain? Among other things, a slighted, long-lost lover by the name of Vikram.

The best novels about love aren’t just about love – they’re about the messy, heartbreaking, and often painful lives of the people who happen to fall in love. And from the first page of The Bollywood Bride, Dev’s alluring, vibrant language coupled with her ability to construct such authentic and complex characters seduced me out of my own world and into Ria’s.

Dev channels Jane Austen with her uncanny skill to adapt the Indian immigrant community in America in an authentic and consumable way. She immediately thrusts Ria back into a world of wedding prep and preening, yet loving, Indian aunties who all color-coordinate their saris. And as someone who has grown up surrounded by uncles and aunties who have somehow become family through our shared Indian-American experience, I can tell you that I have never seen my community described in such a real and hilarious way.

You also get a happy yet completely unexpected taste of Charlotte Bronte in this novel as Dev deftly unwraps the secrets of Ria’s past, and how those secrets caused her to break Vikram’s heart prior to the events of this novel. The story is steeped in secrets and secret-keeping, which only heightens the tension between Ria and Vikram, as they simultaneously explore and avoid the nostalgia of their childhood together and the realization that their love for one another hasn’t disappeared, but evolved.

But the most tantalizing aspect of this novel was one that I did not see coming at all. I was drawn to The Bollywood Bride mainly because it was a romance novel written by an Indian woman about two Indian/Indian-American characters. Yay. And I expected there to be sex, because it was a romance novel, and that’s what the genre usually entails. But as I approached the final consummation of Ria and Vikram’s physical and emotional journey, i.e. their first round of really enjoyable and completely worth-the-wait sex, I realized that I had never before encountered such a raw and uninhibited depiction of Indian intimacy in fiction. And in that moment I realized: BROWN PEOPLE CAN HAVE SEX TOO.

One fact about Bollywood movies that you might not know is that they never ever show two characters having sex. Like, in a bed together. They rarely show two characters entering into a bedroom, or even making out on screen. The best you get is like a really seductive dance in the rain with extremely suggestive song lyrics. I could get into the traditionalism and conservative values and why there’s no onscreen lovemaking, but the point I’m trying to make is that realistic Indian intimacy is all but invisible in Bollywood cinema. And since #HollywoodSoWhite, there’s no Indian intimacy in films over here either.

So the fact that Dev gifts us with two unmarried Indian/Indian-Americans having delicious, well-deserved, tantalizing but not gratuitous sex is freaking groundbreaking. Instead of shying away from human sexuality, or neutering it by cutting away to a more G-rated scene, Dev revels in it, and gives her characters a sexual agency that I have only ever seen given to non-Indian characters. And for that, I am eternally grateful to Ms. Dev, and to her beautiful novel.

My verdict:

Sonali Dev’s The Bollywood Bride is an unadulterated delight. She crafts a narrative that whispers secrets on every page. She details a deeply authentic depiction of the Indian immigrant experience. And best of all, Dev opens up readers to the sexual side of Indian romance. Go read this book, and be prepared to frantically fan yourself on every single page.

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Seeing Myself: A Review of The Star-Touched Queen

Growing up in the nineties and early 2000’s, I didn’t encounter many young characters of color in the novels I perused. The majority of my favorite books had white male protagonists. I reread books like Tangerine by Edward Bloor, and Holes by Louis Sachar, because they featured outcasts trying to find a home for themselves, and despite the friends and relationships I had, I always felt a little on the outside growing up as well. The closest I got to really loving a heroine for everything she was and stood for was Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women trilogy. She was passionate, obsessive, and didn’t embody the ideals of womanhood typically on show in 19th century New England.

As a child of Indian immigrants, I often felt torn between celebrating my Indian culture at home and on the weekend, and embracing my American-ness at school during the week. No one person or group is to blame for this inner divide – I attribute this now to a complete lack of representation of Asian kids in the media I consumed, and in the reluctance of our society to discuss diversity in an open and frank manner while I was growing up. Despite my voracious love of literature, I never once encountered a novel with a complex and non-white girl whose culture is embraced and explored. I never once read a story about an Indian girl whose culture reflected mine.

For this reason, I am so excited to share my review of The Star-Touched Queen, a YA novel written by Roshani Chokshi. Chokshi comes from an Indian and Filipino household, and she chooses to focus on her Indian heritage, and its vast mythology, in this fantasy novel. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, princess of a fictional kingdom called Bharata, which happens to be the original Sanskrit name for India. Maya grows up on the outskirts of royal life, since her horoscope indicates that all her future holds is a dangerous marriage that will bind her with destruction and death. Her family does not willingly embrace her, either emotionally or physically, and the only real relationship she has is with her half-sister Gauri.

Maya’s real story begins when a sexy but aloof stranger named Amar whisks her away from the destruction of Bharata and makes her the queen of Akaran, the underworld. For the rest of the novel, Maya learns to navigate this new world while still struggling to understand what she really wants. For the third act of the novel, an unforeseen villain forces Maya out of Akaran, and Maya ultimately makes the choice to return, save her love, and resume the throne.

Chokshi’s writing is beautiful and intoxicating. She creates a world that is kinesthetic and touchable, and so weaves a visceral experience for her reader. You feel a part of the destiny tapestry that becomes so essential to Maya and Amar’s story. As the reader, you are not a witness to these proceedings – Chokshi’s vibrant storytelling pulls you into the narrative and makes you a silent character holding on to Maya’s hand throughout the whole story. I loved the physical experience of this novel, so gorgeously crafted by Chokshi.

The Star-Touched Queen highlights the time-old struggle between fate and personal choice as its primary theme. Maya struggles to break free from the foreboding narrative written by her astrological charts, and she is often pulled between accepting her destiny as queen of the underworld and questioning why Amar really brought her there. As a feminist, it would be easy for me to dismiss this book as yet another YA novel which inexplicably and inextricably ties the fate of a female character to that of a male character. But, I have to remind myself – The Star-Touched Queen does this deliberately and with purpose. This is a novel rooted in ideas of astrology and reincarnation, and to Chokshi’s immense credit, her character Maya fights these ideas on every step of her journey. Furthermore, the “star-crossed lovers” relationship isn’t perfect and free of conflict – Maya and Amar are vulnerable and immensely flawed characters, which ultimately makes their romance more palatable and interesting. Chokshi navigates the parameters of the fantasy romance genre with incisive choices about the strength of Maya’s character. Maya is determined to think for herself and question her situation, and her choices allow her to explore her own identity as well as save Amar from evil. Empowering? Check. Still romantic and fun to read? Double check.

But writing and thematic elements aside, the real beauty of this novel is that it gifts younger readers a completely new mythology that is accessible and fascinating. We have plenty of novels that are rooted in Greek mythology and Norse mythology – Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson universe are a prime example of the lasting power of those mythologies in the Western psyche. And I happen to love those novels. But Chokshi gives life to a world of bhuts and rakshsas, words that don’t have Wikipedia pages like centaur and minotaur but are just as interesting. She exposes this beautiful Indian mythology to a Western audience, and the fact that she is now a New York Times bestselling author means that Western audiences are ready for a new mythology.

All in all, I had a grand old time reading The Star-Touched Queen and whole-heartedly recommend it to any reader. If you’re looking for an intriguing romance, then Maya and Amar’s will sweep you off your feet. If you love the old tales of Apollo and Odin and all of their antics, this narrative teems with fantastic Indian mythology and will give those gods a run for their money. And, if you’re a young Indian girl looking for a story of a powerful heroine who makes her own choices and who just so happens to share your cultural roots and skin color, then The Star-Touched Queen is absolutely the book for you, and for me as well. Maya is the heroine I wish I’d had when I was younger and trying to feel that my brown skin was just as relevant as white skin. I am so grateful that she exists for readers now.

 

 

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Resistance

Today is a scary day for me, and for many Americans. I am full of fear, and I honestly can’t say that I am being buoyed by hope and love and friendship. Because I’m not. I’m not comforted by people, including my own husband, telling me that “everything is going to be okay.” I know that these words are full of love and the best of intentions, but they have no impact on me right now. I am terrified. I was legitimately afraid to take my dog on a walk this morning, because I didn’t want to face the outside world and the horrors it holds. I went to bed in tears last night, and I woke up with them as well. I am terrified.

I don’t know what our country’s future is. I don’t know if our President-elect will actually follow through with his hateful rhetoric. I don’t know if the policies and Supreme Court decisions and laws that preserve my choices as a woman and a person of color will be upheld or tossed aside. Hell, I don’t know if I can go to yoga anymore because it’s full of strangers who might have voted for hatred yesterday instead of hope, and I don’t know if I can handle that.

But, even as I give a voice to my very real fears and my lack of knowledge of what is to come, I do know one thing. I MUST RESIST. And I must give my resistance, and myself, a voice.

Yesterday, many white Americans voted for Donald Trump. Not because they are evil, not because they support authoritarian regimes, not because they want to watch the world burn. The majority of white Americans who voted for Trump voted for him because they literally have NO idea about what marginalized people go through every day. They have no idea. They don’t understand that everyday racism and sexism aren’t as explicit as “Grab them by the pussy” or dummies being hung by a noose on Halloween. Racism and sexism in America are implicit. They are ingrained within our language and our behavior, when we use words like “thugs” to refer to unruly black children or when we whistle at women in the street like they are dogs. We have learned these behaviors over time, internalized them, and have deemed them appropriate and normal. Trump’s white voters don’t see these behaviors as social constructs, they see them as objective, biological truths. And for me, right now, that is our biggest problem.

So my resistance today is finally starting a blog dedicated to reading and analyzing books written by women of color. I’ve been putting this off for months, because I didn’t think anyone would care about my words or read them. But today, I realize that my voice is important. I realize that I have to work even harder now to shatter all of the implicit biases we hold inside of ourselves. I want white Americans to understand that women and people of color are so much more than the stereotypes that we have assigned them. I want to help dismantle the ways we think about color and gender in this country, because last night proved that many of our citizens need this. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to work to find them. This is the best way I know how.

I am scared, I am worried, I am repulsed. But I have a voice, and I’m going to use it to resist. You have a voice too, and despite all of the horror and fear I am feeling right now, I hope you join me in using it to fight the fight of our lives.