Pachinko, by Min Lin Lee. Grand Central Publishing (2017). 496 pages.
A historical novel about a Korean family who migrates to Japan where they face discrimination even after they succeed financially.
Min Lin Lee was born in South Korea and came to the United States with her parents in 1976 when she was seven. Her family owned a wholesale jewelry store in Queens. She attended Yale and Georgetown Law School, was a corporate lawyer, and lived in Japan as an adult. Her previous novel was Free Food for Millionaires.
Pachinko begins in a coastal village in Korea in 1910 and continues into the post-world-war-II era in Japan. The central character is Sunja, a young woman who refuses to marry the man by whom she becomes pregnant. Instead she marries a Korean man, migrating to Japan with him. He is a missionary to other Koreans there, and she has a second son with him. Their family unites with those of an older brother to struggle with poverty, uncertainty, and discrimination though the world war. Eventually the sons prosper through management positions in the pachinko parlors, which feature a particular Korean-style pinball machines. Although the family becomes wealthy, they are never treated as equal to the Japanese.
I appreciated the book as a story of migration and ill-treatment that features a country other than the United States. The writing of the book weakened its appeal as literature. This is a big book in both pages and characters; there is little sense of unity. Neither the characters or the plot were well-developed, leaving the reader with little sense of why people acted as they did. Subplots were introduced and then left hanging. Family members simply and inexplicably got very rich by being good human beings. Gay and lesbian themes were handled in a stereotypical manner.
I cannot recommend a book this poorly written.
The Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat. Cairo: American University of Cairo, 2001. Translated by Marilyn Booth.
A powerful, multi-layered novel by a Lebanese woman about a man stranded, alone and hallucinating, in war- devastated Beirut.
Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952 and grew up in Lebanon. She now lives and writes in France but has continued her connections to Beirut. Her novels focus on her country’s civil war, recounted in innovative and sophisticated language. Rather than claiming an objective view of the city she both loves and hates, Barakat explains that she writes in order to understand. Her writing has been awarded various literary prizes. The Tiller of Waters received the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
In this novel, Niqula Mitri, a middle-aged cloth merchant, finds himself in Beirut after the city has been bombed and parts of it abandoned. He explores the deserted city and his memories, often at the edges of continuing gunfire. His refuge is an underground room full of beautiful fabrics that he and his father had collected. It becomes his safe place where he can luxuriate in the sensuous natural materials. He feels happy and powerful there where each night he wraps himself in one of the bolts of fabrics. When he ventures out into the larger city, he finds himself attacked by packs of dogs and tries to mark off his safe space with his urine. In long, almost scholarly accounts he recaptures the histories of his parents and the Kurdish woman he loved, laying out as well the history of the fabrics and world from which they came. He reaches out for a past that has disappeared and left him alone and rootless. At the same time he seeks to make a life for himself in a world that is both familiar and unknown.
Barakat does not follow a clear plot, but rambles with Mitri around the city and his thoughts. Her words are beautiful and satisfying, although they left me feeling that they hid as much as they revealed. Perhaps readers with more knowledge of Beirut and the intersecting histories it contains will understand more than I did. For me, the sense of mystery and confusion that pervades the book is just right. Although I know little about the explicit location, I empathize because today we all must live and deal with physical and emotional remnants of a breaking and broken world.
The language in book circles around cloth and its title, The Tiller of the Waters.
Planting and tilling the soil are but the weaving of life, the coming and the going, like the movement of a loom, and like the cycle of day and night coming to us in rotation, and like the linkage between sky and earth, life and death.
I strongly recommend this book for those readers who appreciate books with depth and complexity and a sense of what we may never know again. This is not a book, however, for those who want their stories neat and action-filled.
The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea. Penguin Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, 286 pages. (First published in Arabic in 2005.) Translated by Marilyn Booth.
A controversial, but shallow novel by a young woman from Saudi Arabia about the love lives of small cluster of very privileged women friends.
Rajaa Alsanea was born in Riyadh in 1981 and grew up in a medical family there. When she was 18, she wrote Girls of Riyadh which was first published in Lebanon in 2005. The book is structured as the email account of a young Saudi girl who blogs weekly accounts, read primarily by men, of the romantic adventures of four teenage girls. The book caused an uproar in Saudi Arabia with citizens suing to have it banned in the country because they claimed it did not promote national and religious values and practices. In 2007, the court ruled that the book should not be banned. The following year, it was published in English. Alsanea came to the United States to attend graduate school in dentistry after the book was published.
For non-Arab readers, it is hard to see The Girls of Riyadh as radical. In fact, the girls in the book act in ways typical for young women in other parts of the world. In Saudi Arabia, however, it is illegal and immoral for unmarried women to associate with any men not their relatives, as the girls in this book do consistently. In one instance, a bride even “gives herself” to her groom while they are still in the midst of the lengthy marriage rituals. (He divorces her for doing it.) Leaders in Saudi Arabia expressed fear that the book would inspire other young women to follow the examples described in it. Arab readers also took the author to task for her mixture of classic Arab with internet slang. Perhaps equally damning was the extremely negative portrayal of Saudi men who regularly treat women they claim to love with cruelty. Each of the four girls is heartbroken after putting their trust in a man who ultimately rejects her.
My reasons for disliking the book have a different basis. The friends are all from “the velvet class.” They are extremely wealthy and devoted their time primarily to designer clothes, make-up, lavish parties, and, despite the restriction under which they live, chasing men. Sometime they go to college or take jobs, but such activities are incidental to finding the right man. Their chief guide in this endeavor is a book about the compatibility of couples born under different signs of the zodiac. One woman laments that she doesn’t support a political cause, because that would distract her from her heart-break. None of the women are grounded in traditional culture and religion or in individualistic “western” values. In the style of romance genre, each of them assumes that life fulfillment lies in the hands of a husband. At the book’s end the women come together to create a wedding planning business which imports European chocolates. I found it difficult to identify or even respect these women.
The Girls of Riyadh provides an interesting view of restricted options for women in Saudi Arabia, the most restrictive for women in the Gulf States. Other books tell the same story with more clarity and less celebration of wealth. For example, for Saudi women, see Daring to Drive, Manal al’Sharif, and Excellent Daughters, Katherine Zoepf. For more general discussion of contemporary Islamic women, see The Quiet Revolution, Leila Ahmed.
The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy. Picador USA, 1995. 238 pages.
A poignant novel narrated by a Chinese sister and two brothers growing up in Vancouver in the 1930s and 1940s.
Wayson Choy was born in 1939 and grew up in in the working-class Chinese community in Vancouver that is the setting for this book. He attended the University of British Columbia and has taught for years at Humber College in Toronto. He has published other novels and memoir about being a Chinese child in Canada.
In The Jade Peony, a sister and her two brothers each narrate a section of this account of Chinese family life in Vancouver around the beginning of World War II. Each child brings a different perspective to their shared family experience. They interact with other family members as well as neighbors, their lives enriched by elderly relatives and a young women whose refuses to obey ethnic boundaries. As the stories grow, so do the children, each slowly coming to grasp hard truths about loss and death and the approach of world war.
While The Jade Peony is written as a simple migrant story, the book’s writing raises it above most such accounts. I was struck by its contrast to the book I read just before it, Pachinko, by Min Lin Lee, a story of Koreans in Japan in the same time span. Choy has written about real people whose words and actions make sense. Each child’s story has an integrity and conclusion at the same time they are part of the larger family story. The same cannot be said of Lee’s writing.
I am impressed again by the rich Canadian tradition of diverse writing and I gladly recommend this book to a variety of readers who enjoy becoming acquainted with a wide range of authors and characters.
Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani. Akashic Books (2017), 320 pages.
A novel about the English and the Indians in the building of the railroad in Kenya.
Peter Kimani was born in Kenya and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Houston. He now teaches at a university in Kenya and has published other fiction and poetry.
Colonization of Kenya by the British around 1900 brought in workers from the Indian subcontinent to build a railroad from the coast to the Rift Valley. British administrators interacted with technicians from India as well as African laborers. Racial lines were sharply drawn and hostilities were created. The story of building the railroad is framed with events involving the children and grandchildren of the original builders in the 1960s as Kenya gained its independence.
Dance of the Jakaranda is a man’s book. The male characters and their relationships are central. The men in the book frequently behave in degrading ways with women, as they probably did in that time and place. More troubling, Kimani finds repeated opportunities for describing women as sexual objects. I found this practice very alienating.
While I usually appreciate Akashic books for making available a wide range of authors who are people of color, I do not recommend this book.
Daring to Drive, by Manal al-Sharif. Simon & Schuster (2017), 304 pages.
An autobiographical account of a woman living under the extreme Islamic restrictions of Saudi Arabia, establishing her career in computer science, and attempting to drive an automobile in the country.
Manal al-Sharif was born in 1979, the daughter of a deeply religious working class family. As an adolescent, she embraced extreme Islam, the only life she knew. Unlike other girls, her mother insisted that she and her sister study rather than help with household chores. She graduated from high school and went on to study computer science in college where she continued to be an excellent student. She was hired as a computer scientist by the government-owned oil company, Aramco, and moved to the city they had built for their workers. This city was governed by western customs; women could drive and were not required to be totally covered at all times. While working she married, had a child, and then was divorced in order to continue her employment. Although she was successful in her career, restrictions on women in the nation plagued her. Among the most bothersome was the prohibition of women driving. Her activism on this issue led to her exile.
Al-Sharif tells her story in clear, readable prose. In her acknowledgments, she notes that she had help organizing and writing her book. At times it is not quite clear how or why she became as exceptionally successful as she did. What is clear is that as she was empowered as an individual, she questioned the way women were treated in her country. She never seems to question her faith and practice of Islam, simply the restrictive and legalistic way in which religious and governmental leaders enforced its practice. Her focus is on the practical obstacles that her religion put in her way. Her protest is never an abstract demand for rights, but about the details of her life.
The way in which Al-Sharif tells her story provides readers with unusual insight into what it means to be a woman under Wahhabi, the extremist version of Islam which holds power in Saudi Arabia. Through her eyes we see how women must organize their lives so that a father, husband, brother, or son is present to approve or prohibit every move they make. Everything is structured around a woman being totally in the control of a male relative. Living alone is virtually impossible. At times the rules actually make women’s lives more dangerous, as they must move around town only in a car with a male driver whose company has been approved.
The absurdity of the restrictions and the panic over the possibility of change is particularly clear when Al-Sharif and other women begin to communicate online around the issue of driving. Somewhat naively, Al-Sharif took a video of herself driving and was jailed. The uproar she caused is amazing. She was accused of being an Iranian spy and of inciting all Saudi women to give up their virginity.
Daring to Drive is an important book, although I might wish Al-Sharif had written with more psychological and literary depth. Since I began reading about women and Islam, I have been impressed by how Islamic women have been enriched by their faith, just as Christian woman have, although both religions are patriarchal institutions. In this book, I was able to see the other extreme where Islam, again like Christianity, can be used in destructive ways.
I recommend this book to all who want to understand the wide variety of Islamic women’s lives.