As a fairly new expat living in the land of the rising sun, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of seasoned expats who have called this place home for several years.
Anna Sherman moved to Asia in 2001 and The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations of Time and a City is her first book. In this part-memoir/ part travelogue, Sherman retraces the steps taken by composer Yoshimura Hiroshi in his book, Edo’s Bells of Time, listening for the chime of the old city’s bells in the silent spaces of her loud, 21st century metropolis. Her prose is both lyrical and clipped, as she meditates on seasonal time-keeping in old Edo and contrasts it with digital time-keeping in modern-day Tokyo.
She shows how the traditional Japanese conception of time as non-linear is constantly at odds with Japan’s adoption of progressive, mechanical Western time, a push and pull struggle that mirrors Japan’s juggling between its slick, contemporary image as a postmodern mecca and its ancient Eastern roots. This conflict is also evident in Tokyo’s constant reinvention of itself, forever destroying and rebuilding its spaces so that nothing ever remains permanent, even the author’s beloved coffee shop in the bowels of the enigmatic capital city.
Overall, The Bells of Old Tokyo is a fresh take on a much-admired and much-misunderstood city and highly recommended for anyone who wants to probe into what really makes the Japanese capital tick.
Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.
Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World by Anu Taranath is written largely from the perspective of an individual from the Global North traveling to the Global South. It investigates why these travelers feel guilty and uncomfortable when going overseas because they start to experience how invisible global systems privilege them over others in the lesser developed countries they travel to.
The most interesting parts of the book were the actual scenarios that played out these abstract issues in real time. For me, as a traveler/expat who was born and raised in the Global South and who wrote about meaningful travel for GoAbroad, this book raised serious issues about how privileged travelers should engage with locals in the Global South and how they should deal with the attention, negative or positive, they may receive from them. For me, these are some of the book’s important takeaways:
1. We should pay attention to difference because difference is real and noticing difference is not a bad thing.
2. Some travelers from the Global North crave difference as a product, something to eroticize, commodify, and consume.
3. How far or close we are from the “mythical norm” determines how we perceive ourselves and how other perceive us.
4. We hold many identities and some of these identities are visible while others are invisible. Our identities are never fixed but fluid. We are different in different contexts.
5. Global travel often capitalizes on the legacy of imperialism, where relationships between travelers from the Global North and locals in the Global South still rest on the premise of unequal systems.
6. In the final analysis, the author says that “trips abroad must intersect with our local lives… Otherwise we’re just exoticizing difference abroad while refusing to engage with it at home.”
Overall, it was a good read that asks important questions about travel and privilege and I really hope more Western travelers read this book carefully before they take those “well-intentioned” trips to the Global South.
Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.
“He saw him standing on the shore of the Vistula Spit, scanning the sea with his binoculars – ‘When are they going to come and get us?’ – while behind him the refugee wagons rumbled from the east to west and west to east. Jonathan pounded the armrest with his fist and the words kept hammering in his brain – all for nothing! ALL FOR NOTHING! He didn’t mean the death of his mother or of his father, who’d had to ‘bite the dust,’ or the sofa beds his uncle manufactured, but the suffering of all creatures, the flesh lashed to the stake, the calf he had seen bound and gagged, the torture chamber in the Marienburg, the shuffling procession of mankind beneath the condemning sky.
It’s all for nothing, he thought again and again. And: Who’s to blame?” – Homeland by Walter Kempowski (Granta, 2018)
I’ll be honest. Before I received Homeland from the publishers, I had never heard of Walter Kempowski before. However, the good thing about reading literature in translation is that you discover voices from all over the world, not just from the English-speaking and writing world. The novel was translated from German by Charlotte Collins. In Homeland, the story is set in 1988, pre-Berlin Wall fall. We follow Jonathan Fabrizius, a writer who goes on a press road trip from Hamburg to former East Prussia/Poland and ends up revisiting the homeland he never really knew. A common theme that runs throughout the work is an existential angst associated with the futility of war, violence, suffering, and death. Reading this work, I was also sharply reminded of my short story “Homecoming” in We Mark Your Memory that explores similar themes of identity, homeland, and belonging. He’s definitely a writer I’d like to read more of.
Exterminate All The Brutes is written by Swedish author Sven Linqvist. It was originally published in 1992 and in 2018, it was translated by Joan Tate and published by Granta Books. This collection of essays include travelogue-style entries on the author’s journey through the Sahara while he researches the social, political, and economic context of the world of author Joseph Conrad. It recounts the theories that were the rage around the time he wrote Heart of Darkness.
In particular, this book delves into the European attitude to the “inferior races,” summed up in Kurtz’ horrible but pithy statement, “Exterminate all the brutes.” The author also intersperses his historical research and reflections with snippets from his personal life including childhood memories and dream-like sequences. Although at times his ruminations can appear disjointed and fragmented, overall, the book offers rich historical details regarding European imperialism on the African continent, particularly how they justify their rapacious and cruel behavior with reference to the “white man’s burden” to civilize the uncivilized world. It’s great critical reading, especially in the world we live in today.
Have you ever read it? What did you think?
“She’d photographed the roses in the vase on the table, neighborhood children, the busy florist, and the park, emptied of visitors, all snapshots, all highlighting her loneliness during my absence. I could tell that the camera had failed to expand her horizons. Instead, her lens had actually exposed the narrow confines of our life.”- My Enemy’s Cherry Tree by Wang Ting-Kuo
My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is my first introduction to Wang Ting-Kuo and Taiwanese literature. Wang Ting-Kuo began writing when he was eighteen but stopped momentarily when his father-in-law gave him an ultimatum to give up the writing life or his daughter. He eventually returned to writing after starting his own construction firm.
The award-winning My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is the author’s English language debut. This edition is translated in English by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin and published by Granta Books. It’s the story of a young couple, an unnamed protagonist and Qiuzi, and the trajectory of their relationship. Life seems to be looking up when the protagonist is asked to move to Taipei to oversee a huge construction project, Qiuzi is happy for him but the separation begins to reveal the cracks in the marriage.
A complication occurs when they buy an apple green enamel kettle that leads to Qiuzi winning a camera. The story starts slowly but gradually picks up pace as Ting-Kuo delves into the characters’ internal landscapes against the urban backdrops of Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung and the sleepy beach settlement of Haikou.
The fiction has a dreamy quality and is a perfect rainy day/coffee shop read.