Review: The Bells of Old Tokyo

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.

Review: Beyond Guilt Trips

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.

A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

We Mark Your Memory

Hey everyone! 2018’s already proving an exciting year!

I’m happy to announce that I have a short story called “Homecoming” published in We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture.

“Homecoming” depicts a young Indo-Trinidadian couple visiting Kolkata in India, the motherland, for the first time and experiencing confusion, bewilderment, and displacement there.

The anthology is edited by David Dabydeen (Guyanese-born poet, novelist, and academic), Maria del Pilar Kaladeen (associate fellow of the School of Advanced Study, University of London), and Tina K. Ramnarine (author and professor at Royal Holloway).

It chronicles the experiences of the indentured Indian labor diaspora across the globe, from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean to Fiji in the Pacific. It also features other Caribbean writers: Gaiutra Bahadur, Kevin Jared Hosein, and Gabrielle Hosein to name a few.

Here’s a blurb from the publishers:

“To mark the centenary of the abolition of the system in the British Empire (2017–20), the volume brings together, for the first time, new writing from across the Commonwealth. It is a unique attempt to explore, through the medium of poetry and prose, the Indian indentured heritage of the twenty-first century.”

Customers in North America can pre-order from the University of London or their local bookstores. Customers everywhere else can pre-order from The School of Advanced Study (SAS). It will also be available on Amazon worldwide from April 30th.

#WeMarkYourMemory

Are you excited to read We Mark Your Memory? Share in the comments below!

Review: Oh Happy Day

Self-published in 2017, Oh Happy Day is a debut collection of short stories written by Trinidadian author, Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali.

Oh Happy Day features many popular Trinidadian traditions, customs, and language and spans the length and breadth of the island, from Sea Lots to Siparia, Mayaro to Talparo.

In general, the stories deal with the struggles and adventures of young Trinidadians from working-class families. Their themes range from young love, yearnings for parental care and affection, rising above social circumstances, getting lost or stranded, and making moral choices.

In the preface, Ragoonanan-Ali mentions being inspired by Ways of Sunlight, a well-known collection of short stories by Trinidadian author, Sam Selvon.

This inspiration is clearly reflected in the close-knit communities featured in her work as well as the author’s use of dialogue peppered with Trinidadian Creole English rather than Standard English. This is a joy for native speakers to read but may take some adjusting on the part of international readers not accustomed to the Trini tongue.

If you’re an expat Trini and haven’t been home in a while, these stories may provoke an intense sense of nostalgia for the birthplace you remembered.  Many of the stories also have neat endings so you’re bound to feel a sense of completion at the end.

Have you read Oh Happy Day? What did you think?

Photo courtesy Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, written by Dominican American author Junot Diaz, is set in the DR (Dominican Republic) and New Jersey, United States. It starts off telling the story of uber-nerd/Dominican with no game Oscar but soon delves into his entire family history.

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What I liked

I get why this novel got the Pulitzer: a mix of high and low brow culture, a history lesson on the Trujillo regime told with Marquez style magic realism and a heavy dose of Caribbean folklore, with overarching themes of escape, migration, and diaspora. I appreciated the stories of the women in Oscar’s family, especially Lola’s and Beli’s. I also fell in love with La Inca, the grandmother/great aunt who really tried her best to rein in every errant remaining member of the Cabral clan. I also loved the idea of the Mongoose (don’t want to give everything away!).

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What I didn’t like

I found the gaming/comic book/anime/LOTR/D&D/Spanglish/Dominican Spanish references inscrutable and frustrating because I had to interrupt my reading to translate them. I did not appreciate reading most of the narrative’s historical context in the tiny print of footnotes. Most importantly, I thoroughly disliked Oscar and found it hard to empathize with him. I also found the male narrator irritating at times, especially because his voice is riddled with machismo and sexual references: chulo, cono, culo, cuero, popóla, puta, ripio, toto etc.

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Final analysis

It’s an engaging family saga story that becomes a lot more comprehensible if you have Google and Urban Dictionary next to you.

Have you ever read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Yay or nay?

7 books set in India

Even before I traveled to India a couple years ago, I loved reading fiction written by Indian authors. I admired their writing style, often so magical or lyrical that it totally transported me to a country I initially never really cared to visit. If you’re thinking of taking a meaningful trip to the subcontinent or just trying to expand your reading list, here are 7 books about India I really enjoyed reading. Only one (An Area of Darkness) is written by a non-Indian author but I think his insights about the country, its people, and its culture are still worthwhile.

1. An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul

This is a travelogue written by Trinidadian author, Naipaul, on his first visit to India in the 1960s. It captures his contradictory feelings about the homeland of his ancestors. In fact, it’s part of a trilogy of books Naipaul wrote about the subcontinent.

“It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain? It is better to retreat into fantasy and fatalism, to trust to the stars in which the fortunes of all are written.” 

2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This Booker Prize winner was written in 1980 and details the transition of India from British colonialism to independence and partition. It’s told with a heavy dose of magic realism, similar to the craft of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, everyone of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”

3. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Published in 2006, this is the second novel of Kiran Desai (also the daughter of another famous Indian author on this list). It explores the immigrant’s experience from India to the US as well as the realities of those left behind.

“This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. How wonderful it was going to be to have things otherwise.”

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This was the author’s first and highly acclaimed novel that reveals the dark secrets of a Christian family in Kerala. It’s highly descriptive and sometimes controversial.

“Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question.

Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.” 

5. Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

This is a fantastic introduction to the heart-rending consequences of the partition of India in 1947, as seen through the eyes of a Parsee girl.

“There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is?
I ask Cousin.
‘Rubbish,’ he says, ‘no one’s going to break India. It’s not made of glass!”

6. Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

This novel is set in Old Delhi and demonstrates the tension between members who left and who stayed behind in the family home.

“It seemed to her that the dullness and the boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty red rugs, in the bloated brassware, amongst the dried grasses in the swollen vases, behind the yellowed photographs in the oval frames-everything, everything that she had so hated as a child and that was still preserved here as if this were the storeroom of some dull, uninviting provincial museum.” 

7. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan

This is a collection of sharp and often hilarious short stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi written by one of India’s most influential 20th-century authors. VS Naipaul has also shared his early admiration for Narayan.

“Half of the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting.”

How many have you read? What did I miss? Share in the comments below!