Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Readings: Dislocations of Culture and Gender

As I survey the list of my favorite readings in the prior year, I note that there are quite a few set in Asia, not an unusual topic in my reading. I grew up reading books by Pearl S. Buck and have often wondered at my affinity for Asian-related literature. Perhaps our early reading leaves its fingerprints. My last post discussed books that explored the experiences of immigrants to the United States. Both of the following books touch on dislocation in a different way, through the intersection between different Asian cultures, particularly when one enters the other’s culture. 

This year I went back to an author who I have written about in the past, Tan Twan Eng.  A few years I read his book The Gift of Rain and was awed by the sheer beauty of his writing. Eng writes of Malaysia where he grew up, and what little I know of Malaysian history came from his prior book. I find that reading historical fiction often fills in the gaps in my knowledge of history. In The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), Eng introduces the reader to the many layers that make up Malaysian history; British rule, Japanese occupation and Communist insurgents. He explores the relationship between a Japanese garden designer and a female judge of Chinese descent who was held captive during the war. As the story unfolds, so does the wartime experience, raising more questions than it answers. There is a puzzle at the heart of this, but it is not a story where all the loose ends are wrapped up. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Along the way we are also introduced to Japanese garden design and the tattoo art of horimono.

Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee is an epic novel that traces four generations of a Korean family over a span of eighty years. Beginning in 1910 when Japan ruled Korea, it follows the family as they move to Japan.  In Japan, Koreans are considered outsiders and their choices are often limited. Even if born in Japan, they are required to register as an alien every three years.  As they are closed out of many occupations, pachinko parlors become one of the paths to employment. This is a book composed of many individual stories set within this broader history and the constraints placed upon ethnic Koreans.

There is another theme that recurs in my reading, that is the presence of women in unexpected capacities. Women are often in the role of “the other” even within their own culture. We need not go to another country to experience a sense of dislocation.

We returned from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier this year and I was especially struck by the beauty and unusual visual sites of Yellowstone. I was a receptive reader when I stumbled across the book Letters from Yellowstone (2000) by Diane Smith. This book is set in 1898 and is the story of a young woman who joins a field study in Yellowstone. The study leader assumes she is a man and goes through a bit of an adjustment when he learns that his expectations are incorrect. I found it fascinating to step back to an earlier time in Yellowstone, especially because fresh from our visit I could picture many of the places they described. The story is told solely through the letters of the team to colleagues and family. I was a bit skeptical about that approach initially, but felt that ultimately it worked well, especially in expressing the voice of Miss Bartram as she carefully weaves herself into the team and proves her value.

In The Weight of Ink (2017) by Rachel Kadish, another young woman pursues an unexpected path when she relocates to London from Amsterdam to serve as a scribe to a blind rabbi. This gives her the opportunity to study and develop her intellectual gifts while she navigates a world that would easily squelch those abilities. This story is told in two periods, the London of the 1660s and the early twenty-first century.  It involves the discovery of a cache of documents from the earlier period that led the present-day historians on a search for the story of the scribe.  While the search of the scholars was necessary to create what proves to be a fascinating exploration, I was most intrigued with the early story.  The author does wrap up the loose ends in a way that is both clever and believable.

There are a few other books that I especially enjoyed noted below:

Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard 2016- an excellent story of Churchill's formative years during the Boer War, reads like a novel.

We are Called to Rise by Laura McBride 2014 – four stories come together in one event, and yes there is an immigration story within this as well.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger 2013- based in 1960s Minnesota with the hindsight of forty years, a coming of age story with life-altering events.

Stolen Beauty by Laura Lico Albanese 2017 – the story of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Klimt’s well-known portrait and her niece Maria Altmann, who successfully reclaims her painting from the Austrian government.

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