The Tea Girl from Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See. Scribner, 320 pages. FORTHCOMING March 2017
Another story by a prolific Chinese American author linking a Chinese mother and the daughter she is forced to give up to a couple from California.
Lisa See is herself the descendant of several generations of Chinese Americans. She has researched and written about her own family history as well as novels often linking the two countries. Her works include fiction set in and around Shanghai, mysteries, and adaptations of Chinese literature. Her knowledge of China and its people is deep and insightful. While interesting and informative, I did not find her latest novel to be among her best.
The novel begins in Yunnan Province in far southwestern China, an area with mountains and extensive tea cultivation. Li-yan and her family belong to the Akha tribe, a small, tight-knit, tea-growing clan in China in the 1980s. When she becomes pregnant before her marriage, she gives up her daughter to an American couple. As Li-yan slowly becomes a successful tea merchant, she continues to pine for her daughter. The daughter finds a loving home with her wealthy adoptive parents, but also continues to yearn for her birth mother. The novel follows both women as they seek for each other.
In the course of telling her story, Lee provides abundant information about tea growing, processing, and selling, as well the lives and beliefs of a little known tribe of Chinese. The novel, however, seems contrived and overly sentimental. The rags to riches and happiness plot seemed artificial, and not up to the storytelling expertise that I have enjoyed in See’s earlier books.
The Pearl that Broke its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi. William Morrow Paperbacks (2015), Edition: Reprint, 480 pages.
A touching novel about Afghani women, including two women, a century apart, who used their country’s tradition of posing as boys and men to survive, written by an Afghan American author.
Nadia Hashimi’s parents left Afghanistan in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion. She herself was born and raised in New York and New Jersey and didn’t visit the country until 2002. Her extended family, however, kept the Afghan culture alive for her, regaling her with stories and characters which have made their way into her books. She graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology and then earned a medical degree. Now she lives in Maryland with her husband and four children and practices pediatric medicine.
In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, Hashimi tells two interwoven stories. One is the story of Rahimi, a girl in Kabul in the early twenty-first century of the Taliban and American occupation. Her mother instructs her to dress and act as a boy in order to help the family cope with their difficulties. It is a lifestyle she enjoys, but then she is forced to marry a warlord and live in a very restricted world with his three other wives. Rahimi’s aunt tells her the story of Shekiba, her great great grandmother who had lived a century earlier. Scared by a fire, Shekiba had few options and worked for a time as a woman/man guarding the king’s harem and getting involved in dangerous events.
Although Hashimi focuses on women following the Afghan tradition of bacha posh, of girls and woman acting as males, I thought the book’s best feature was its depiction of the subtle and ambiguous worlds of Afghan women, sometimes being supportive of each other and others betraying them, especially as multiple wives. At times Hashimi seems almost too strident in showing us their pain and their surprising strength. While I enjoyed the book, I thought it was less well-written than Hashimi’s later book, The House with No Windows.
I gladly recommend this book and Hashimi’s other one to a variety of readers, especially those interested in women’s relationships in a variety of cultures.
The Color of Our Sky, by Amita Trasi. Bloomhill Books (2015), Edition: First edition, 424 pages.
A moving novel by a woman from India about two girls from different castes who are close as children but are separated as teenagers. In a tale of love and betrayals, one of them returns to Mumbai as an adult to find the other and to learn about herself.
Amiti Trasi was born and raised in Mumbai. She earned a degree in Human Resource Management which has enabled her to travel the world for international businesses. She now lives in Houston. In writing her first novel, Trasi has turned back to her childhood in India. With talent and skill, she creates a haunting novel that explores two patterns of life in her native country while revealing how betrayal and forgiveness play out in women’s lives.
In The Color of Our Sky, Trasi tells the stories of Tara, the daughter of a comfortable urban family and Mukta, a village girl recused from her destiny as a temple prostitute in her village and fostered in Tara’s family. The girls bond closely, with Tara teaching Mukta about modern city life and Mukta sharing her own sensitivity and depth. As teenagers, however, Mukta is kidnapped, and Tara feels responsible for her disappearance. Over a decade later, Tara returns from the United States to look for the person she had once loved like a sister. As she follows clues looking for Mukta, she discovers secrets in her own life and that of her family and friends. Meanwhile, Mukta has been caught by sexual traffickers and placed in a brothel where she pines for rescue.
In dealing with a complicated story, Trasi has constructed dual plot lines. One follows Tara in a her search for Mukta in the near present. The other starts with Mukta as a ten-year-old facing initiation to be a temple prostitute and moves forward as she joins Tara’s family and later after her kidnapping. With flashbacks and memories, the two plots move toward a final reconciliation. What is most impressive about the novel’s structure is how smoothly Trasi deals with its complexity, never leaving her readers behind.
Despite its obvious themes of pain and loss, The Color of Our Sky is not a grim or depressing book. While unflinching about the horrors of prostitution and sex trafficking, Trasi deliberately writes about Mukta’s experiences in the brothels with distance rather than explicit descriptions. Compassion for those who are suffering pervades the novel. The characters are real and compelling, as are the gradual revelations they, and readers, experience.
In addition, Trasi writes with grace and charm. Her descriptions of people and places are rich and evocative. The first lines of the novel describe Tara’s arrival at her former home in Mumbai and offer an example of what is to come.
The memory of that moment hit me like a surging ocean wave—drawing me into it—the sour smell of darkness, those sobs erupting like an echo from a bottomless pit.
I enthusiastically recommend this novel to other readers who are looking for rich, human stories in which people learn and grow.
My Sister Chaos, by Lara Fergus. Spinifex Press (2011), 204 pages. Reprint.
MY FAVORITE BOOK FOR 2016
A brilliant, imaginative novel about a traumatized woman in exile who obsessively maps her own house and her sister who brings chaos into the dwelling.
Lara Fergus is an Australian writer with long and varied experiences writing, dancing, and working for human rights organizations as a researcher and writer. She now is involved in projects to prevent violence against women. Her novel reveals just how deeply she understands the impact of trauma on women. Her writing has a fluid and universal quality that pulls readers into her character’s struggle to find order and safety.
Neither the characters nor the countries involved are named in this novel. The story centers on and is sometimes narrated by a woman who is a mapmaker, frantically seeking to pin down and map her own home and its contents. She and her twin sister are refugees, fleeing a war that has destroyed their homeland and their lives. Both have been raped and abused, and the sister has lost the woman she loves. Chapters describing what had happened to them during the war parallel the narratives of what is happening in the book’s present. The two have been separated and her sister’s arrival deeply affects the mapmaker by introducing uncertainties into her carefully mapped house. Fergus exposes us to the sense of danger the sister brings to the mapmaker while making clear that the danger is not an objective reality. Yet the discovery that the house has a hidden, unmapped basement is enough to nudge the mapmaker into extreme action.
As Fergus makes clear, the story is more than an account of refugees. Her book focuses on the particular situation of women harmed and caught in their own need for order, an all too common reality today. By drawing us into their story she taps into the struggle between order and chaos within each of us. Fergus succeeds in bringing her character’s thoughts and feelings into the open without sacrificing clarity and order in the narrative. The story she tells is horrid, but she tells it with a light hand, allowing us distance from the mapmaker and from our own despair. We can see humor as well as the pain. With all the trauma in the world today, a writer like Fergus can help us all understand the experiences of refugees and others caught in PTSD. By witnessing them, perhaps we all can find a path forward.
Not all readers will respond well to My Sister Chaos, but that does not detract from the power it can display. I believe it is a book to be widely read and discussed. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
This is another example of the wonderfully radical publications from Spinifex Press. Check out their other books.
Grace, by Elizabeth Nunez.
Another early novel by a favorite Caribbean American novelist about a college professor from Trinidad and his African American wife, which raises questions about what responsibility we have for each other and where that responsibility ends.
Akashic Books has published Elizabeth Nunez’s recent books and now they are going back and reissuing her earlier ones, such as Grace, first published in 2003. Raised in Trinidad and now teaching in the USA, Nunez has often raised issues of the differences between blacks from the Caribbean and African Americans, as she does in this book. As always she also takes us inside her characters to tease out their thoughts and feelings. This time, she ponders the thin line between taking too much responsibility for the happiness of others and refusing to admit that we hurt them.
Justin is the narrator and main character of Grace. Originally from Trinidad, he is a well-intentioned and loving man who cares for his African American wife and their daughter and for the students he teaches. He is also unaware of his casual arrogance and gets defensive when his wife feels she needs “space” to explore who she is. Tension erupts when she decides to take her daughter and move in with a friend. Justin refuses to let her go because of their child, but events at his college gradually help him to see the situation in a new light.
Nunez has done a good job at portraying a man and wife struggling with the issues of feminism. We all know men like Justin, unaware of the pain they cause others by their behavior. I was troubled, however, by Nunez’s decision to make a lesbian feminist the villain of the novel, as if feminism was nothing more than greedy and self-serving women. Yes, I have known feminists like this, but I believe it is unfair to label us all with such behavior. In addition, Justin has to deal with his choice to teach traditional classic works rather than works by more diverse authors. In his actual comparison of Greek plays and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, he shows what can be gained by doing both. Again, however, the Afrocentric professor who debates with him is a rather negative character. In some ways, the specific issues being raised seemed a bit dated to me, but the deeper questions of what we owe each other continues to be very relevant. Grace reminds us of the need to be sensitive to our own arrogance while simultaneously cautioning us to remember that we are not responsible for the decisions of others.
I gladly recommend another of Elizabeth Nunez’s novel to a wide range of readers. I liked this book, but her more recent ones are even better. Check out my reviews of them.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow.
An important autobiographical and theological conversation by two women who were in the forefront of the challenges which feminism brought to religion in the 1970’s.
Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow have both devoted their lives to the development of a theology which includes women’s experiences and addresses their needs. Christ was raised in Jewish traditions, and Plaskow is Jewish. They met as graduate students in Yale’s religious studies department around 1970, but found themselves isolated as women and distant from the theology being taught. Feminism was emerging around them and provided them a conceptual language to analyze and understand what they were encountering. They quickly became part of a small group of American women asking similar questions. In 1979? they edited Womanspirit Rising, one of the first collections of significant articles about issues which feminists were raising. I remember my initial excitement over that book and I used it successfully with my students when I taught Women’s Studies.In the years since then, each has gone on to research and write about theological questions from an “embodied” women’s perspective. While they have remained friends and shared their ideas with each other, each differs with the other on key points. In their new book, each tells something of her autobiography and how it has affected her understanding of theology. They also explore some of the issues on which they agree and disagree. This book is a record of their ongoing conversation.
Both Christ and Plaskow believe that there is no one path or theology. Their tolerance allows them to have the conversations in this book and to recommend that the rest of us engage in similar conversations. They also believe that divinity is present on earth, not totally transcendent. Taking seriously the existence of evil, they claim that the divine is not all-powerful. Here they draw on other women and men who describe themselves as process theologians. Sharing these positions, they continue to disagree on others. Carol Christ has left established religion and her faith centers on a personal relationship with a divine source she sees as the Goddess. Judith Plaskow has remained with traditional Judaism and finds its worship meaningful. She advocates using god language that not only includes male and female imagery, but other variations as well. For her, the divine is a ground of being rather than a force of personal relationship. In their new book, Christ and Plaskow debate the merits of their respective conclusions. At times, I found their debates somewhat repetitive, but I liked seeing the details of what the authors viewed as important. I really did have a sense of being in the middle of vibrant minds are work.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book both because it took me back to my theological quests of the 1970’s and because I found the issues debated still very relevant and alive today. I recommend it to all who care how and why it matters what we believe about religion.