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I’ll Be Right There, by Kung-Sook Shin.

September 30, 2014

I’ll Be Right There, by Kung-Sook Shin.  Other Press (2014), Paperback, 336 pages.

A haunting book by an award-winning Korean woman about young people being available to each other and the painful guilt of having failed to be there when needed.

The best summary of this excellent book is perhaps that of its author in an afterword for her novel.

I’ll be Right There is a story of young people living in tragic times. It is also the story of people who find themselves separated, despite their love for each other, because they carry wounds too deep to overcome, and who struggle to come back together.

The novel is set in turmoil of dictatorship and resistance in Korea during the 1980s, but Kung-Sook deliberately focuses on seeing her characters not as unique but universal. “No matter how rough the world becomes, there will always be teachers and students learning from each other, and …there will always be earnest and heartfelt first loves and friendships born.” Her book honors these moments because “We may be protagonists of tragedy, but we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and most thrilling experiences.”

Central to the novel are the memories of Yung Joon as she looks back on a time eight years earlier when she was attending college in Seoul. Alone and devastated by her mother’s death, she spent, her time exploring the city and visiting its historical palaces and shrines.

Walking made me think more and focus on the world around me. Moving forward putting one foot in front of the other, reminded me of reading a book. I came across wooded paths and narrow market alleys where people who were strangers to me shared conversations, asked one another for help, and called out to each other.

She meets a young man and woman who had grown up together. The three of them become fast friends despite the emotional burdens each carries.

We fixated on silly, pointless things sometime to fight off our anxiety and loneliness.

A professor inspires them with his stories and a childhood friend of Yoon’s joins them before his army service begins. All of the characters carry their own scars from the past, but for a time they find joy in each other’s company. Yoon and Myungsuh form bond as a couple, but pain and uncertainty continue to intrude on their lives.

The prose in this book has a crisp, bell-like clarity, and yet we are often left unsure of what is happening or why. A sense of urgency drives the novel as we only slowly discover the stories behind character’s actions. Death and loss are present, but joy is also present sustaining the characters as they embrace it and later in their memories. Repeated phrases and sentiments punctuate the story; “Let’s always remember this day” and “I’ll be right there.”

Kung-Sook Shin is a very talented writer who continues to live and write in Korea. She has published seventeen novels in Korean and has a reputation as a leading author there. Two years ago, her novel Please Look After Mom, was published in English and was awarded literary prizes. (See my review.) I’ll Be Right There was written in Korean and translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell.

I highly recommend this novel to readers looking for something beyond a typical “coming of age” story or romance.  A book about holding on to joy in the face or pain and reaching out to others.

Pleasantville, by Attica Locke.

September 26, 2014

Pleasantville, by Attica Locke.   Harper, Hardcover, 432 pages. AVAILABLE 2015.

I read this book as an ebook courtesy of Eidelweiss.   They have asked me to take down my review until closer to its actual publication and I have complied.  Contact me if you need to see it before then.


In the meantime, you might read Locke’s other two excellent books.


Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan.

September 24, 2014

Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan.  Random House Trade Paperbacks (2008), Paperback, 302 pages.



An exquisite novel by a Sri Lankan American woman about families and war, about loss and a past which can never be escaped, about what we chose and what is chosen for us.

Often the narratives of immigrants and their children are about their adaptation to their new country. Love Marriage is the opposite. Despite having left their homeland, Yalini and her family must face their pasts, personal and national. This book explores of the stories of family members back on the island of Sri Lanka where riots and killing were becoming increasingly violent.  Like the author, Yalini, who narrates the novel, is the daughter of parents who left Sri Lanka before her birth. Now in her twenties, Yalini has grown up in the United States protected by her parents from the violence of their homeland. The arrival of her dying uncle, Kumaran, in Canada, opens her to stories of relatives. He had joined the Tamil Tigers and separated himself from his family, but he wanted to die with his sister, Yalini’s mother, at his side. As she helps to nurse him, Yalini faces her family’s conflict-filled past.

Love Marriage is V.V. Ganeshananthan’s first novel, but her short stories and articles have been published widely and are well regarded. She actually began to write this novel as her senior thesis at Harvard where she studied under Jamaica Kincaid. The prose in the novel is slightly formal, as befits a book about a family’s past. The text is broken into short sections, sometimes only a page or two, each focusing on a person or incident.   The book is less driven by an external plot than the tension Yalini experiences between her Tamil legacy and her American upbringing.  She grew up conscious of being a Tamil.

I was raised in a house that could not forget it.  A house where I was taught a language and a code that told me about an unofficial war. As a child I read about Tamils murdered, and a Tamil library burned…I heard stories about Tamils disappearing.  Tamils tortured, Tamils killing other Tamils.  I learned a certain vocabulary.  I learned to believe that a government could kill its own and drive them to commit unspeakable crimes.  That no one would be right, but that some could be more wrong.

And yet she was an American and had to make choices.

We live by our own wits, our own hearts, and our own histories; there is no other way to survive here, and so we have learned to love people who do not worship our gods, eat our food, or share our blood.

The novel opens with a discussion of the different types of marriage; Arranged Marriages and Love Marriages, Proper Marriages and Improper Marriages, and all the variations in between. Discussion of marriage continues throughout the book, often symbolizing other choices between self-definition and being defined by others. Murali, Yalini’s young Not Yet Father, and Vani, her young Not Yet Mother, had made their choices to leave Sri Lanka separately and met only after they were in New York. Far from families to arrange marriages for them, they chose each other. Both were Tamils, but not from groups that traditionally married each other. Already part of a Tamil community in the United States, they had a traditional Hindu wedding. Despite having a Love Marriage, they later tried to make it seem to be an Arranged Marriage. Vani’s brother, Kumaran, was irate and wrote Murali threatening his life for marrying his sister. But years later, he needs Murali’s help so that he could return to Vani as he was dying.

On one level the novel is about events surrounding Kumaran’s dying and death and about the upcoming marriage of his daughter, Janani, to a man with connections to the Tamil Tigers. Hers is a marriage that has been arranged, but Yalini has trouble understanding why Janani agrees to it, especially when her groom’s continued involvement in violence becomes clear.

While Yalini helps to nurse Kumaran, she thinks back to the stories of her parents, her grandparents and the aunts and uncles who were once part of her parent’s lives. Each person’s narrative is a gem, a short story complete unto itself. These are people who knew violence and tragedy long before the Tamil Tigers appeared on their horizon. Sri Lanka was always “A place where anything could fail, and any illness illuminated a failure to foresee.” Both sides of the family were tough and resilient. Yalini sees herself in them and tells their stories to show her love for them, even when she chooses to be different from them.


The personal family stories are told in the context of the public history of Sir Lanka and the ongoing violence in Sri Lanka, something other authors I have read from there have bypassed. We see the conflict through Yalini’s eyes, but she is clear that hers is only one version of events. “None of the stories will be absolutely complete, but their tellers will be absolutely certain. That is how we make a war.” Yalini describes how the Sinhalese had discriminated and harassed the Tamils ever since the country was granted its independence in 1947. In 1958, a major riot against the Tamils erupted.  Still a young child, Yalini’s mother took shelter in the home of a Sinhalese neighbor. Then in July 1983, the month that Yalini was born in the United States, Sri Lanka was torn apart by more anti-Tamil violence. The Tamil Tigers emerged to fight for survival and power. They not only attacked the Sinhalese but also Tamils who did not support their movement. “They would be called terrorists. They would enter into a world in which no one was right.” Both sides committed atrocities. Many Tamils became “aware that they could not be alive for much longer in this country, so they left.”  Yalini, and presumably Ganeshananthan, is critical of how the rest of world ignored the massive killings in Sri Lanka because there was no oil and it was “A country full of people Of Color.”

In addition to learning the political narrative, I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of Hinduism. Yalini is not devout, but she knows the details and rituals of her family’s religious traditions. I was moved by her descriptions of the Hindu funeral and wedding and the symbolism behind each act. She explains that Hindu weddings are so long because of all the rituals to protect the couple and keep evil at bay.

Love Marriage is an excellent book, a multifaceted and insightful one that I recommend highly. From it I learned about Sri Lanka and Hinduism, and I was moved by the characters and their struggle to deal with the love and pain they carry from their past.  I highly recommend it.

Secret Son, by Laila Lalami.

September 22, 2014

Secret Son, by Laila Lalami. Algonquin Books (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 320 pages.


A touching novel by a Moroccan woman about the dreams and betrayals among the poor and the rich in Casablanca.

Laila Lalami is a writer able to convey how a variety of people make choices among the limited options available to them. Here, as in her Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, she brings to life a cluster of people living in a Moroccan slum, all seeking ways to escape its dire conditions but choosing to try different paths. While some are drawn into the community formed by an Islamic group, Josephus follows his mother’s advice to get an education. An adolescent growing up alone with his mother in a tiny shack, he bemoans his lack of a father and dreams of a better future. When he learns his father is not dead, as he had been told, he searches him out and finds a wealthy man longing for a son. For a time his father provides Josephus with a comfortable life that was in stark contrast to his that of his childhood.  His father, however, faces problems of his own.  Josephus finds himself back in the slums.  Like other young men he has no hope of finding a job.  More hopeless and desperate than ever, he grasps at anything that might give his life meaning.

The plot summary does not do justice to this excellent book.  Lalami has the ability to make her characters real and to engage us in their lives. I know of no author better able to show what it means to live in a time and place where there are no viable options for a moderately fulfilling life.   Unusually, also she writes convincingly about her wealthier characters, who never become symbols of what is wrong with society.  Yet Lalami is not a depressing author to read, perhaps because here and there a person finds a meaningful way to live and has the courage to grab it. Or perhaps she believes that by writing she can make a difference in the life’s of people like her characters or reveal the heart of her characters to her readers.

I strongly recommend this book to readers interested in Morocco, poverty in third world cities or in why any of us make desperate choices. This is an excellent book, but the author’s The Moor’s Account is even better. It is an account of the Spanish conquest of North America told through the voice of an enslaved Moroccan Muslim.

Bibliodiversity, by Susan Hawthorne.

September 20, 2014

Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing, by Susan Hawthorne.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2014.


A manifesto proclaiming the importance of small presses and the diversity of their books in resisting the homogeneous publishing industry.

Susan Hawthorne is the Director of the Australian feminist press, Spinifex, a press committed to publishing the variety of books, authors, and kinds of writing that she advocates in this book. Before founding Spinifex, she held a variety of positions related to publishing. Bibliodiversity brings together what she has observed and understood about our globalizing publishing world. In it, she assembles both familiar and new ideas into a coherent framework.

Biodiversity is frequently discussed today as we see more and more biological species facing extinction. Hawthorne expands the concept to the publishing world using a term first coined in Chile in the 1990s, bibliodiversity. Just as biodiversity means a healthy and diverse biological condition, bibliodiversity indicates a world community where storytelling, writing and publishing all contribute to a vital and diverse social ecology.  With globalization, big international corporations, intent only on profit, are destroying that diversity. They homogenize what we hear and read, creating “monocultures of the mind.” Small independent publishers are needed to insure that the diverse voices from the margins of our societies are available.

In her advocacy of independent publishing, Hawthorne points out the need for books and stories that are written out of people’s lived experiences, not simply by alleged experts with grand theories. Too often that local understanding has been dismissed rather than valued. Healthy bibliodiversity requires that multiple sources of knowledge be honored. In particular, voices silenced by racism and sexism need to be published and heard.

According to Hawthorne, the recent rise in digitalization brings new opportunities and new challenges for books and publishers. On one hand, new technology allows megapublishers to flood the world with their products. On the other hand, digitalization can be crucial to expanding the reach of small, private presses. Digitalization has made it possible to read a wide variety of authors from all over the world. I personally have benefited from this technology. The internet and epublishing have helped me find the best of the voices from the margins to read and given me a way to tell others about them. Many of these are local stories that megapublishers often ignore.

Hawthorne also describes how the small women’s publishers and bookstores of the 1970s and 1980s were a critical part of the feminist movement in those years. I know that story firsthand. I was in Lawrence, Kansas, at the time working on my Ph.D. We had a women’s bookstore, Spinsters, run by a group of lesbian separatists. Their books prodded me to question much that I had previously assumed to be valid and to consider ideas far more radical than I was learning at the university. Reading authors like Mary Daly and Audre Lorde, I felt that I was in conversation with them. Those books put me on the front lines where we were all explorers and creators far from the world of mainstream feminism. As well as exposing me to feminism, the books I found at Spinsters made clear that women were racially and culturally diverse, a truly radical idea at the time. When the first study of women in American slavery was published, I found it at Spinsters, not at the university. If we care about social change, we need books and publishers willing to share our stories as feminist publishers and booksellers did then.

Much of what Hawthorne writes in her manifesto is for and about the publishing world but her book is a strong statement to all of us about the need to insure that our own reading and thinking includes bibliodiversity. When I retired, I deliberately expanded my reading beyond the boundaries of my country. Many of the books I have read have been from small presses. I have learned much about women whose books I have read. More deeply, I feel like I have expanded my own life by being able to enter their lives in a partial, imaginary way. Encountering diverse authors and their characters has helped me in understanding why they make choices that would never be my own. Maybe literature, and the other arts, has a unique ability to help us bridge our differences that information alone cannot. If we are ever to live together in relative peace, we need bibliodiversity to get to know each other as friends rather than stereotypical enemies.

Hawthorne’s bibliography at the end of the book provides an enticing mix of relevant books; some of my long-time favorites alongside some new titles to check out.

I recommend Bibliodiversity to people involved in publishing and selling books, of course, but also to those who appreciate books and the whole process of storytelling.

Thanks to Spinifex for sending me a review copy of this book and to Hawthorne for noting in it that my blog “bristles” with diversity.



A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

September 17, 2014

A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.  London, Heinemann, 1967.



 A brilliant novel set in rural Kenya as the country formally achieves its independence from British rule and people remember the complexity of their struggle.  A novel which challenges conventional narratives about war.

For centuries stories about war have followed a predicable pattern.  They are adventure stories played out with the highest stakes of life and death.  They are about the sharply defined struggle between good and evil, us and them. Honor and sacrifice for those we love are the supreme values.  Belief in such stories undergirds our willingness to go to war.  Ngugi Wa Thiong’o subverts such narratives with their neat dichotomies.  In his hands, the line between homefront and battlefront blurs.  We go inside the minds of hero and traitor alike.  Women as well as men are changed by the war.  Even the British who have treated the Kenyans with extreme cruelty are depicted sympathetically.  Ngugi leaves us wondering if victory will be enough to heal the wounds left by the violence.

In A Grain of Wheat, the bloody fight for Kenyan freedom from British colonial control has been won, and a village near the Great Rift prepares to enjoy of self-rule. Celebration of “Uhuru” or “Freedom” from the British is complicated by the remembrance of the violence and pain people have known within themselves and at the hands of each other.   Mugo is a hermit-like man, viewed as a hero by others but he is a man riddled by guilt and shame over what he has done.  Gikonyo and Mumbi were a loving couple until he is taken into detention. When he returns, he has to face that she is not the vision which sustained him in captivity.   She is woman with needs of her own struggling to survive in a hopeless situation.  Karanja, Gikonyo’s rival for Mumbi, allied himself with the British during the war and gained power over the other villagers.  He believed that each person had to survive alone rather than by uniting to struggle against oppression.  Acting aggressively against other Africans has earned him their hatred.  John Thompson came to Kenya as a British official with dreams of forcing order and progress on the Africans. He was willing to use the utmost cruelty to achieve those dreams, but now he was reluctantly returning to England along with his wife, Margery, whom he has alienated.  All of these and a variety of others are struggling to reconcile themselves to what had happened to them and how they had acted under the duress of war. As they interact with each other, they are reaching toward new beginnings. Their struggles make the book guardedly positive rather than depressing.

Growing up under British rule in Kenya, Ngugi lived through the Mau Mau wars that led to Kenya’s independence in 1963.  A Grain of Wheat and his other early writings center on the events surrounding his nation’s creation. As Kenya moved into dictatorship in the 1970s, Ngugi changed both his writing and politics. He strongly opposed the dictatorship and was imprisoned for his stance. After threats on his life, he was forced into exile. While teaching in the United States, he has continued to write. Ngugi has been a strong advocate for African writing and African languages. His later novels and plays are originally written in his own native language, Gikuyu. 

A superb writer, Ngugi is capable of taking readers inside characters whose experiences are radically unlike that of most western readers.  Most of the major characters are male, but he shows real empathy for the women. The scope of the novel is only a few days, but people remember and discuss what happened during the years of fighting.  Ngugi tells people’s individual stories while blending them into a larger narrative.   As the novel ends, he shifts his writing from third person to a communal “we,” turning the individuals’ stories into the communal stories of the village and nation.

Often when I read books by Indigenous writers I wonder how people can turn their own painful experiences into meaningful literature.  Perhaps creating fine book like A Grain of Sand is a means of dealing with the pain.  Perhaps reading such works can help us all understand that pain and empathize with others rather than blindly condemning them. Perhaps we can learn from books like this that victories present their own new sets of problems.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its insight, its excellent writing, and its depiction of war that fits the violence of the post-colonial world.

The meaning of the title and the cover of this book are unclear to me. Anyone out there who can explain them for me?

A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs.

September 14, 2014

A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs.  University of Nebraska Press (2014), Hardcover, 400 pages.

An important history of Indigenous children removed from their families in the settler nations of the United States, Canada and Australia after World War II, when governments turned their responsibility for Indigenous children over to private adoptive parents. Jacob‘s new book contributes to our understanding of each of these societies and of shifting conceptions of diversity and government responsibility.

Margaret Jacobs’ White Mothers to a Darker Race, is a fine history of programs in both Australia and the United Stats countries used to weaken Indigenous hold on land and power by removing children from their families and placing them in special schools. (See review) That program was designed to weaken tribal cultures and peaked around 1900. Until I read her new book, however, I had no idea that a similar program after World War II caused the removal and adoption by private families of large numbers of additional Indigenous children in several nations.  A Generation Removed brings that story down into the 1970s, filling an important gap in the narrative of Indigenous history.

The initial reasoning behind the removal of Indigenous children from their families was to isolate them in boarding schools where they would be assimilated into the cultures of the settlers who had taken over their lands. Forbidding children to be raised in their own traditions would speed the destruction of their people, a destruction that many believed was “inevitable.” After 1900, however, the wide-spread failure of the boarding schools was all too evident in the United States. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, some schools closed while others continued as native people voluntarily enrolled their children in the hope they would have food and shelter. Conditions in the schools did not merit such trust.

After World War II, the US government decided to end its support of Native Americans on reservations and in schools. The federal government was seeking to save money by rejecting their traditional responsibility for Native Americans. Many groups had their tribal certification removed. For a time in the 1950s, a core of women in the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to strengthen Native American families with programs directed at helping them keep their children, but that idea was quickly pushed aside. The national government told the states that they were responsible for taking care of any Indians in need. Few states had the money or desire to do so. The national social programs supporting families, initiated in the New Deal for whites, were seldom available tor Indians.

In this context, American government officials instituted a new “solution” to the “Indian problem”: the fostering and adoption of Native American children into non-Indian families. Preferably, adoptive homes would be located far from their original families. In an early attempt at “privatization,” adoptive parents would conveniently absorb the cost of providing for Indian children instead of the government. Widespread propaganda encouraged white families to take in the children by demonizing traditional Indigenous patterns of child rearing. In a time of glorification of the nuclear family, horror stories were circulated about Indian mothers who were considered unfit because they had children out of wedlock. Even worse, children were frequently kidnapped and put out for adoption without any legal procedures.

Jacobs describes how the promotion of adopting Indian children in the 1950s and 1960s was embraced by many liberal Christian churches and families. People of good will heard the stories of the problems faced by Native Americans and wanted to help. The prevailing ideology stressed that America was a “melting pot,” into which all but African Americans could be absorbed. There was no thought that Indigenous traditions and communities were worth preserving, just that children could be “saved” by assimilation. Adoptive white parents honestly believed that the children would never face racial discrimination and were unprepared for the problems that emerged with their adolescence.

Starting at the local level, Native Americans fought back to regain control over what was happening to their children. Indigenous woman often lead attempts to end the permanent loss of children without their mothers’ informed consent. They also advocated that children who needed to be removed from birth parents be brought up by their extended family or others in their own communities. Their drive for “self-determination” allied them with more militant Native Americans. Because their communities had been weakened and excluded from federal assistance, they also sought help for tribes seeking to correct the economic and medical problems which were given as reasons to remove children. In the mid-1970s, Congress held extensive investigations of the abuse of power by police and social workers. Federal legislation was passed ensuring that tribes had some control over the fate of their children.

In addition to telling a critical piece of Indigenous history, Jacobs presents a devastating picture of American conformity in the 1950s and 1960s, and of a determination to eliminate deviation from the nuclear family ideal. I was growing up in a small southern town in those years and know all too well the accuracy of Jacobs’ observations. I was part of the “liberal Protestant community” that Jacobs describes. Like most Americans, if I thought about Indians at all, I assumed they were to be pitied and assimilated. None of us were capable of imaging anything more radical than assimilation for Native or African Americans.

Long chapters about Canada and Australia reveal similar stories of the removal of Indigenous children and their forced adoption.  Jacobs  includes extensive stories about what Indigenous people in all three countries suffered. She chides Americans for never acknowledging what they had done to Indian families, as both Canada and Australia have done. Between her more scholarly chapters, Jacobs tells stories about her own experiences deciding on and researching this topic and about those who contributed to her understanding of it. In doing so, she has found a successful way of balancing her personal account with the demands of academia.

The conceptual framework which Jacobs uses is the pattern of “settler societies.” Those seeking to settle follow the same basic pattern.  Because they wanted land from Indigenous people, they developed practices to get rid of those who owned that land by killing them, destroying their tribal communities, or assimilating them. I see the similarities she describes, but I have continued to have questions about the differences between what happened to Indigenous people in Australia and the United States.  Reading about Australian Indigenous people has also left me wondering about the differences between the treatment of Native Americans and Africa Americans in my own country.

Jacob’s focus on settler societies has given me insight into possible answers to my questions.  Almost two hundred years before they came to Australia, British settlers and other Europeans sought land from Native Americans.  The destruction or removal of those of who owned the land made sense to them.  As they began to grow profitable plants, however, like tobacco, rice, and later cotton, they also needed labor, more labor than was available from Native Americans.  Right from the first they brought in people indigenous to another part of the world.  Absolute control over the imported Africans, not their extinction, was what they needed.   Intense prejudice and mistreatment existed toward both groups of people of color, but what the Europeans wanted from each shaped their histories differently.  That attitude remains today. Through the 1950s and 1960s there were efforts by all sides for assimilation, but there was never any talk of resolving the African American problem by adoption.

I would like to explore these questions in more depth.  Does anyone have suggestions of authors or books that deal with these differences?

A Generation Removed is a significant book in the history of Indigenous treatment throughout settler societies in the recent past.  I hope it is widely read everywhere.


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