3 novels by Asian authors + Waking Up White

My church planned a Lenten book study, and then our books came in late, so I’ve spent the Easter season reading Waking Up White in parallel with the fiction that looked interesting at the library, which coincidentally was all by Asian authors.  Sometimes I make an effort to seek out diverse authors/characters in my reading, but in this case it just happened that non-white, non-American authors’ books had more appealing plot summaries than other books I considered . . . and, as a grammar stickler, I have to point out that a group of people who are all from the same continent is not a “diverse” group just because the person speaking about it is not from that continent; “diverse” means there’s variety!  These three novels are diverse in that each story takes place in a different country and culture, and one of those is not in Asia.

Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee

Anjali is an intelligent girl from a traditional, economically struggling family in a small town in the Indian state of Bihar.  She’s going to college to enhance her prospects of arranged marriage.  Peter, a scholar from the United States teaching at Anjali’s school, sees her potential and encourages her to move to the big city of Bangalore, where her English skills could help her land a telephone customer-service job and lead a freer, more modern life.  After a disastrous date with her father’s choice of prospective husband, Anjali takes Peter’s money and his friends’ phone numbers and hops on a bus to Bangalore.

I read the whole book because I was interested in the different experience of life on Earth it presented–but it was hard to get through because the main character didn’t seem to make sense as a person.  It’s not just that Anjali is struggling with conflicts and constantly changing; many of her decisions don’t make sense even within the framework that’s set up (often with lengthy narration) for her present moment.

The book’s exploration of the conflicts between new and old customs, the diversity of people in India, and the surprising variety of scams people come up with, all were very interesting.  The part of the story where Things Just Kept Going Wrong was well-paced and believable.  Unfortunately, Anjali’s incomprehensible personality and moral decision-making were so confusing that I couldn’t really enjoy the story.

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

A science-fiction alternate reality serves as the framework for this murder mystery.  It sounded so promising–but the sci-fi isn’t thought through well enough to be believable, just a gimmick to explain the plot.  Also, the victim is so evil, and gets so many pages to complain, that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her.

In this version of Earth, adults are divided into two classes determined by the kind of memory they have.  If you’re a Mono, beginning on your 18th birthday, you suddenly can’t remember anything that happened before yesterday.  If you’re a Duo, beginning on your 23rd birthday, you can’t remember anything that happened before the day before yesterday.  However, you can record each day’s events in your diary and use your diary to “learn facts” which you’ll then retain.  How does any of this work??  Never mind, on with the plot…

Sophia is dead.  She left behind an extremely detailed, nasty, egocentric, ranting diary in which she claims that she has full memory–in which case, why did she bother writing this?–and that’s why she carries this horrible grudge.  Meanwhile, Mark is a Duo eager to avoid any association with Sophia’s murder as he’s running for office.  Claire is his wife, a Mono who’s just discovered that days are missing from one of her old diaries.  Hans is the homicide detective pretending he’s a Duo when he’s really a Mono, so he’s got to solve this case today before he forgets everything.  And it all turns out basically the way you’d expect.

Although the author is a native of Kuala Lumpur, all the characters are white people living in England.

If you’d like to read a mystery that hinges on flawed memory, I highly recommend Elizabeth Is Missing (reviewed here) instead of Yesterday.

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, translated from Japanese by Alison Watts

Sentaro works all alone in a little dorayaki shop, mixing the batter, grilling the pancakes, spreading them with made-in-China sweet bean paste that comes in a plastic bucket, and selling them to the public.  He’s lucky to have gotten this job, after he got mixed up in some drug-dealing and spent two years in prison.  But he feels gloomy and drinks too much.

One day, an old lady named Yozue complains about the bean paste: “I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.”  She has fifty years’ experience making sweet bean paste, and she offers to work in the shop for one-third the standard wage.  Sentaro brushes off this crazy idea, but this slightly deformed old lady persists in convincing him that making their own bean paste, listening to the adzuki beans, will result in better dorayaki and improved sales.  Sentaro takes her on without consulting the owner.

The newly delicious dorayaki do indeed attract more customers, including a teenager who needs a new home for her beloved canary . . . and then someone recognizes Yozue’s deformity and alerts the owner, and Sentaro is in trouble.

This story of people and their feelings and relationships and the things we can learn from each other is both very Japanese and sweetly universal.  I liked it a lot.

Waking Up White by Debby Irving

Although I related to some of the “white-people attitudes” explained by this book, and I certainly appreciate its message that white people need to be aware that ours is not the only valid viewpoint and that other people may have difficulty feeling heard by the white-dominated American culture . . . my main reaction was that the author led an absurdly sheltered and biased life until her “awakening” in middle age, and I’m so glad my life has not been like that!

Debby Irving was born in 1960 into an affluent, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant family in suburban Boston and grew up hearing that various dark-skinned peoples had wandered astray, but in America anyone who works hard can get ahead.  She was almost completely unaware of the civil rights movement, except for a sense that non-white people ought to be welcomed at all levels of society and that those of us who are doing well are supposed to “help” the less fortunate to be more like us, so that’s what she tried to do in her career in arts management, busing inner-city black kids to fine-arts performances and so forth.  She was shocked when she finally learned how structural racism has limited the options of people of color.  Now she is a “racial justice educator” trying to get white people to adjust our attitudes and behaviors to create a truly inclusive society.

If you do not know how the Federal Housing Administration and the G.I. Bill gave white people enormous advantages over all other Americans in the middle twentieth century with effects that persist into the present, read this book for a good explanation.  (For an unaffiliated clear explanation of ongoing effects of FHA policy, watch this video.)  If you think racism only means individuals “not liking” or “being mean to” people of other races, read this book to understand why that’s only part of the problem and why white racism has more harmful power than other colors’ anti-white racism.

If you’re already “woke” and advocating for racial justice, read this book anyway, because it’ll give you a lot of interesting things to think about: Which of the author’s experiences and attitudes really are “white mainstream,” and which are more related to her specific shade of white?  When one of the ideas makes you angry because you’re a white person and you’re not like that at all, think about where you learned your different idea and how you feel about people who hold this “white” idea.  If you’re not white, this book may help you understand why white people act so weird!  It also lists some traits that are associated with “whiteness” and dominant American culture, and Americans of all colors should think about to what extent these traits are helpful or harmful to our culture and how we can be inclusive without giving up on having standards.  The book inspired a lot of interesting discussions for my partner Daniel and me, as well as among people in my mostly-white church.

I probably would have noticed this anyway, but reading Waking Up White in parallel with Asian-authored fiction made me very aware of how infrequently Irving mentions Asian, Hispanic, or Arab people.  Although she begins the book by explaining how her mother shaped her understanding of American Indians, and she later mentions her family’s attitude toward the Indians still living near their vacation home in Maine, she does not otherwise address the history or ongoing existence of Indians in our country.  The book is mostly about white racism against African-Americans.  While that’s a plenty big topic and I think the book is well-done overall, I did have a nagging feeling that Irving still has more waking up to do!

Read more book reviews at Quick Lit!

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