Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Best Asian Lit

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign really tugged at me when I heard about it seven months ago. Reading books about people who are different from us expands our empathy and understanding of the world while giving every reader stories they relate with. I dove right in, reading books by and about people of color, LGBTQ people, and/or women. I've found solace and I've learned a lot.

My latest library haul focused on the experiences of Asian women. I covered China, Korea, India, and Asian communities in California. The times stretch from 1800s to today.

The cultures are wildly different. They're beautiful and quotidian. They're magical, each in different ways. Some of the authors pass off their spiritual heritage as superstition, while others embrace it to the point of magical realism (fantasy elements in an otherwise mainstream setting; think My Neighbor Totoro).

I learned a lot about female oppression. Ironically, segregation created safety in female-only spaces. I learned that my understanding of daily life in non-European countries was nil. I learned that sex had a universal history of being considered a male-only pleasure. Consequently many women only fell in love with someone they didn't have to sleep with (a friend, a married man, a woman). I also discovered mouth-watering foods.

Here are my top three books from the pile.

Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama
(1930s China)

Pei is tall for a girl, inheriting her father's Hakka features. Worse, she asks too many questions. When hard times hit their fish farm, eight-year-old Pei is sold to the silk factory. It's better than being sold as a bride, but Pei is heartbroken.

Twelve-year-old Lin, another boarder at the Silk Girls' house, takes Pei under her wing. Over the years, Pei buries painful memories of being left wordlessly by her father and learns to love her work. She has some money to herself and occasionally gets a day off, wandering the market with Lin.

Then Lin's mother arranges a marriage for Lin. To avoid it, Lin must enter the sisterhood and work silk the rest of her life. However, living with the sisters she would no longer have Pei.

While Lin decides, war creeps across China. Hours at the silk factory increase and wages drop. When a girl dies of heat exhaustion, Pei and Lin decide to stand up for their rights by leading a strike. The boss has guns and bodyguards. The Silk Girls are mere women. But they're still willing to try.

This book is a new favorite! The writing is beautiful. I raced through it in a matter of days. I fell in love with Lin, felt Pei's angst, and saw how women we perceive as submissive defend themselves in their own unique way.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
(1900s rural China)

Everything impoverished Wang Lung has is in the land. On his wedding day, he retrieves the bride his father arranged for him: an ugly slave named O-lan. She's all they could afford.

O-lan rarely speaks, a virtue in a wife, but she baffles Wang Lung. He wants to communicate his approval, but doesn't know how. Wordlessly, t
hey find joy working the earth side-by-side. O-lan works right up to giving birth to a son. Luck is shining on them! They have a good harvest too. For the first time, Wang Lung has money to buy more land.

Then drought hits. Not even the new rice fields produce. Wang Lung finds himself unwilling to sell his daughter. Days from starvation, they leave the land and arrive in the city as beggars. With O-lan's quiet cleverness, the family survives. But Wang Lung's greatest dream is to get back.

This tale explores whether happiness is found in abundance or poverty. It gives insight into both the hardships and joys of rural life in China. It shows the uneducated person's opinion of changing politics, and what men thought of the suppression of women: how they both aggravated
and relieved it. This book is a poetic balance of positive and negative, showing both sides of every issue it touches.

Queen of Dreams by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

(modern-day Indian family in Berkeley)

Rakhi carries the secret of her ex-husband's infidelity, unable to silence her mother, who wants them back together. Rakhi has found a rhythm running a successful cafe with her best friend. The cafe is what pulled her out of depression after the divorce.

Rakhi's mother is a dream-teller. During the day, she cooks and cleans, avoiding all talk of her native India. At night, she sees others' futures. Then she must go tell them--that their life is in danger, or that they're going to lose the baby. Even if these strangers don't believe her, she's always right.

Rakhi and her mother's relationship is broken. Rakhi's mother never explains the dreams, tells her about India, or lets her into dream-teller life. In response, Rakhi locks her mother out of her heart.

Then Rakhi finds her mother's dream journals. Page by page, she sees into her mother's soul, uncovering the wonders and pains of her Indian heritage. Just as suddenly, September 11 happens. Rakhi faces a dark reality for being Other and looking vaguely like the terrorists that hurt so many. Her mother's journal unlocks the past, but now Rakhi must build an Indian-American future.

I absolutely love Divakaruni's no-BS style, paired with her respect for India even in its foibles. She does an excellent job translating between two cultures. The reality of the dream world was a beautiful way of bringing one woman's spiritual experiences to life.

A note about Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (1940s Shanghai and California).

This shows Chinese city life, more technological and progressive. The female protagonists have some freedom and societal value (having degrees and their own income) but are still hindered by tradition (being sold into marriage for money).

It is expertly written and has deep, moving characters. The only reason it didn't make this list is the explicit violence was too much for me.

During the 30s, Chinese women were commonly raped to death by enemy soldiers. Women of the Silk addresses this in a respectful, roundabout way. Shanghai Girls was far more gruesome with the experiences and the psychological effects. I couldn't take See's particular handling of the topic.

If that doesn't bug you, it's a great book. It shows the strength it takes to stand up under great difficulty in the face of an uncertain future. These kinds of survivors are true heroes.

Word count: 1,080.

This post was originally 1,500 words, yall. I tried my best.