Review: A Kitchen in the Corner

I really didn’t know anything about Ambai before I read A Kitchen in the Corner of the House but now, I am truly enlightened. I have read a lot of literature written in English by Indian writers but Ambai’s work was a first for me to read Indian, specifically Tamil literature, in translation.

Ambai’s work translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom can be considered feminist literature as many of her stories examine what’s it’s like to be a woman in India, particularly regarding how the female body is portrayed and treated in Indian society. In one story, adults regard one woman’s body as one that never “blossomed” because she never bore children even though children see her differently. The author also explores the traditionally female space of the kitchen as one where women think they hold power. She also re-examines the story of Sita, Rama’s wife, whose faithfulness to her husband came into question after she was rescued from her kidnapper.

Sometimes, I found Ambai’s stories difficult to follow because they were peppered with local references but overall, her work carries a somber tone and is sure to resonate with female readers.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

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.

Getting nostalgic over Anne of Green Gables

The last time I read Anne of Green Gables, it was 1994. Wet, Wet, Wet’s Love is All Around Me was on heavy rotation and Friends and My So-Called Life debuted on local TV stations in Trinidad and Tobago. You could only imagine my delight when I spotted a battered copy of the exact edition I owned on the library shelf at my local library in Japan. When I spotted the cover, everything just came swimming back to me and I knew that it was due for a reread.

At first, I was amazed that I was able to get through such a dense book. The words were so quaint and tightly packed together on each page. Also, upon rereading I realized that there were a lot of foreign vocabulary words I probably glossed over, particularly when author LM Montgomery described the flora of Prince Edward Island.

But as I continued to read Anne, I chuckled aloud (yes, I really did) at her talkativeness, her flubs, her antics, her hot temper, her predisposition for romanticism, her weakness for puffed sleeves, and her gift for expression in terms like “bosom friend” and “kindred spirit.” She is truly a character, as we like to say in the Caribbean.

Have you ever read Anne of Green Gables? What’s your verdict?

Review: Jokes for the Gunmen

Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator, and journalist Mazen Maarouf has written a strange and unsettling collection of twelve short stories. It’s called Jokes for the Gunmen. Although originally written in Arabic, it’s been translated into English by Jonathan Wright and published by Granta Books this year. Many of the stories show how the human psyche can become twisted and distorted during wartime. “I was known as ‘the grasshopper’ on the grounds that my father was also a grasshopper, since grasshoppers always jump and never attack.”

This quote is taken from the titular story, “Jokes for the Gunmen.” It’s also the longest in the book, divided into ten short chapters. In this story, when the boy notices that his father is constantly being belittled and beaten up by wartime thugs, he embarks on a mission to earn his father some street cred by getting him fitted with a glass eye like the sahlab seller who no one hassles.

“Matador” is another strange concoction about a boy’s uncle who dreams of becoming a matador in Spain but who can’t even get a visa to go there and beats cows (sometimes to death) at the slaughter house instead. The uncle dies three times only to find that his matador suit can no longer fit him, which adds to the story’s sense of the pathos, unpredictability, and absurdity of life.

“Aquarium” is perhaps the most surreal and most heart-rending of all. A young couple name and keep a blood clot (probably a fetus or not) in an aquarium much to the chagrin of everyone around them.

Many of the stories end abruptly and may leave you scratching your head. However, I think it’s the writer’s intention in these stories to underline the absurdity of war and to reveal how civilians adapt to the weirdness of their wartime living situation.

My Goodreads Challenge 2018

Unlike previous years, this year I actually did it. I was able to complete my Goodreads Challenge for 2018 and with time to spare! You got that right – 52/52 books read.

The Complete List

  1. The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
  2. Exterminate all the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist
  3. The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  4. Cantora by Slyvia Lopez-Medina
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami
  7. Botchan by Natsume Soseki
  8. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  9. Twenty Four Eyes by Sakae-Tsuboi
  10. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
  11. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto
  12. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  13. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey
  14. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide
  15. The Second Penguin Book of English Short Stories edited by Christopher Dolley
  16. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
  17. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  18. The Penguin Book of English Short Stories edited by Christopher Dolley
  19. Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  20. The Izu Dancer And Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata and Yasushi Inoue
  21. We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture edited by David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and Tina K. Ramnarine
  22. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
  23. Listen and Learn: 101 Japanese Idioms by Senko K. Maynard
  24. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White
  25. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  26. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  27. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  28. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  29. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  30. Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki
  31. Oh Happy Day by Michelle Ragoonanan-Ali
  32. ‘Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma
  33. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  34. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  35. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  36. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
  37. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  38. Ghana Must Go: A Novel by Taiye Selasi
  39. Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives by Jeremy Seabrook
  40. Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler
  41. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck
  42. The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj
  43. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  44. The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet
  45. Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
  46. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
  47. Tata and the Big Bad Bull by Juleus Ghunta
  48. The Scent of the Past: Stories and Remembrances by Wayne Brown
  49. The Old House and the Dream by Joy Rudder
  50. Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan by Bruce Feiler
  51. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  52. The Writer and the World: Essays by V.S. Naipaul

Highlight: We Mark Your Memory

First and foremost, I read We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture, a first-of-its-kind literary anthology that also features my first ever published-in-a-book short story, “Homecoming.” Not many people know about indentureship which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It involved mass migration of Indians from the subcontinent to far-flung places in the then British Empire to work on the sugarcane plantations.

The collection unites storytellers, poets, and essayists from the Caribbean, Canada, Fiji, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the UK, and the US. This is a collector’s item for anyone who is interested in how diasporic Indians wrestle with questions of identity, nationality, and culture in the contemporary, post-indenture world.

Favorite First-time Reads for 2018

Since I’ve completed the challenge, bookstagrammers have been asking me to pick my favorites. Here are my 8 favorite first-time reads in 2018:

  1. The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  2. Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto
  3. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  4. Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  6. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  7. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  8. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Rereads for 2018

Out of 52 books, I reread 10 books from my childhood, adolescent, and young adult reading experiences:

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  2. The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet
  3. The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj
  4. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  5. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  7. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  8. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey
  9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Favorite reread in 2018: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Are you also taking part in the Goodreads Challenge 2018? Share your progress so far in the comments!

7 novels about the immigrant experience

Immigration is on everybody’s minds these days. Countries are now locking down borders, letting in certain nationalities and keeping out the rest. In a globalized world, this can seem strange but that’s how it is. These books explore the consequences of uprooting yourself from your homeland to put down new roots in a different country.

1. Brick Lane (2003)

This novel by Monica Ali was one of firsts I read in the genre. Nazneen from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) marries an East Pakistani immigrant living in London and deals with the alienation and cultural clashes that occur in her new adopted homeland.

“You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth between your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.”

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2. Unaccustomed Earth (2008) by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of short stories by master storyteller, Jhumpa Lahiri. It follows her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. It deals with more Bengali immigrant/diasporic stories in the US.

 “After Rahul graduated from high school their parents celebrated, having in their opinion now successfully raised two children in America. Rahul was going to Cornell, and Sudha was still in Philadephia, getting a master’s in international relations. Their parents threw a party, inviting nearly two hundred people, and bought Rahul a car, justifying it as a necessity for his life in Ithaca. They bragged about the school, more impressed by it than they’d been with Penn. “Our job is done,” her father declared at the end of the party, posing for pictures with Rahul and Sudha on either side. For years they had been compared to other Bengali children, told about gold medals brought back from science fairs, colleges that offered full scholarships. Sometimes Sudha’s father would clip newspaper articles about unusually gifted adolescents – the boy who finished his Ph.D. at twenty, the girl who went to Stanford at twelve – and tape them on the refrigerator. When Sudha was fourteen, her father had written to Harvard Medical School, requested an application, and placed it on her desk.”

Americanah

3. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book focuses on a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze who both migrate from Nigeria to the US and UK respectively. It also deals with their return to the homeland after living abroad.

 “Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

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4. Open City (2011) by Teju Cole

It focuses on Julius who tries to navigate life and alienation in the Big Apple as a Nigerian immigrant.

 “The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float. Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity. These were the things that had been solidified in my mind by reiteration, that recurred in dreams and daily thoughts: certain faces, certain conversations, which, taken as a group, represented a secure version of the past that I had been constructing since 1992. But there was another, irruptive, sense of things past. The sudden reencounter in the present, of something or someone long forgotten, some part of myself I had relegated to childhood and to Africa.”

Kiran desai

5. The Inheritance of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai

This is the second and critically acclaimed novel of Anita Desai’s daughter. It focuses heavily on how immigrants are forced to straddle two worlds, that of their birthplace and that of their adopted homeland.

“He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey. Ohio was the first place he loved, for there at last he had been able to acquire poise –”

6. The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka

This story is told by a collective narrator representing Japanese picture brides who went to California in the early 20th century. It strongly reminded me of books that detail the Indo-Caribbean indentureship experience.

“Mostly, they were ashamed of us. Our floppy straw hats and threadbare clothes. Our heavy accents. Every sing oh righ? Our cracked, callused palms. Our deeply lined faces black from years of picking peaches and staking grape plants in the sun. They longed for real fathers with briefcases who went to work in a suit and tie and only mowed the grass on Sundays. They wanted different and better mothers who did not look so worn out. Can’t you put on a little lipstick? They dreaded rainy days in the country when we came to pick them up after school in our battered old farm trucks. They never invited over friends to our crowded homes in J-town. We live like beggars. They would not be seen with us at the temple on the Emperor’s birthday. They would not celebrate the annual Freeing of the Insects with us at the end of summer in the park. They refused to join hands and dance with us in the streets on the Festival of the Autumnal Equinox. They laughed at us whenever we insisted that they bow to us first thing in the morning and with each passing day they seemed to slip further and further from our grasp.”

Sea of poppies

7. The Sea of Poppies (2008) by Amitabh Ghosh

This is the first part of the author’s Ibis trilogy. It focuses on the ship’s journey from Calcutta to Mareech (Mauritius), carrying Indian indentured laborers across the Kala Pani (Black Water).

“How had it happened that when choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had stayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”

6 literary quotes about the Caribbean immigrant experience

Immigration is on everyone’s lips these days, especially with tightening national borders and refugee crises. That said, the migration of Caribbean people has always been a tumultuous one. You may not know this but most of the people in the Caribbean migrated to the region from other parts of the world: Africa, India, Europe, China, and the Middle East to name a few. After this first migration, many then left their new “homelands” for developed countries, particularly the US, the UK, and Canada. Want to learn more about their migratory experiences? Here are 6 literary quotes about the Caribbean immigrant experience.

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The Mimic Men (1967) by VS Naipaul

“Shipwreck: I have used this word before. With my island background, it was the word that always came to me. And this was what I felt I had encountered again in the great city: this feeling of being adrift, a cell in preparation, little more, that might be altered, if only fleetingly, by any encounter.”

Lonely londoners

The Lonely Londoners (1956) by Samuel Selvon

“Harris is a fellar who like to play ladeda, and he like English customs and thing, he does be polite and say thank you and he does get up in the bus and the tube to let woman sit down, which is a thing even them Englishmen don’t do. And when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm, with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show, and he walking upright like if is he alone who alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black.”

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‘Til the Well Runs Dry (2014) by Lauren Francis-Sharma

“New York City was like the deepest deepness of Blanchisseuse. A city bush where people, rather than animals, slithered and lurked, where people, rather than trees, smashed and bumped. In the city-bush, like in the bush of Blanchisseuse, there was barely a sky…I could sense, as I watched them, – all of them – behaving repressively wild, with fear and dread built up behind the whites of their eyes, that none of them knew how to get out either.”

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The Amazing Absorbing Boy (2010) by Rabindranath Maharaj

“I remember Uncle Boysie telling me that Canada was so safe the policemen wore nice red outfits and rode on horses but according to Roy the country was like Gotham City with crooks around every corner… I pictured them as shady Frank Miller characters with bulging muscles and machine guns poking out from trench coats but the photograph from the papers was of a group of boys my age. They kind of resembled some of my friends from Mayaro too.”

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The Swinging Bridge (2003) by Ramabai Espinet

“If you happen to be born into an Indian family, an Indian family from the Caribbean, migratory, never certain of the terrain, that’s how life falls down around you. It’s close and thick and sheltering, its ugly and violent secrets locked inside the family walls. The outside encroaches, but the ramparts are strong, and once you leave it you have no shelter and no ready skills for finding a different one. I found that out after years of trying.”

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz

“Once you’ve been fuera, Santo Domingo is the smallest place in the world.”