A Review of Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim (Groundwood Books).

A Review of Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim (Groundwood Books).

My graphic novel training continues in yet another delightful reading selection entitled Skim, which was illustrated by Jillian Tamaki and written by Mariko Tamaki. Jillian is based in New York City, while Mariko is based in Toronto, making Skim truly an example of a transnational Asian North American literature. Jillian and Mariko are cousins and worked together to produce an absolutely fascinating and spot-on graphic novel about teen angst and rebellion. The main character, Kimberly Keiko Cameron, is a goth teenager, interested in wicca, and on the outer fringes of the social life at school. Kimberly is known though by her titular nickname, Skim. Her best friend, the more sociable, Lisa, is also interested in wicca. The novel essentially tracks their friendship as it waxes and wanes. The novel is also structured around the suicide of a semi-popular student and the corresponding chaos that engulfs the school. The work is really poignant and again, although the novel is marketed toward the young adult crowd, it is something that could be taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well. The themes are quite weighty. Beyond high school suicide, there are issues of race, queer sexuality, divorce, cross-generational romance, student-teacher romance, among other such tropes that would make this book a treasure trove for discussions. Race is presented quite elliptically at a couple of different points in the narrative. Although we do get a sense of physical difference in the way that Jillian draws Skim, there is only one scene that definitively locates her as mixed race besides the fact that we are given an ethnic middle name of Keiko. In this scene, she is booted out with another girl and social outcast named Hien, from a sleepover party. While Skim hangs out much longer on the porch waiting to be let back in, Hien leaves and walks home by herself long before Skim does. Skim theorizes that Hien must have thought that all Asians were supposed to leave parties early, thereby indirectly referencing her own racial background.

The other element I found completely fascinating about Jillian and Mariko’s graphic novel is the way they chose to storyboard the narrative. There are occasionally full pages that act as panels with panel inserts within that larger panel. This gives the effect of leaving the panel inserts without having any actual gutters. Scott McCloud has written about the lack of gutters in much of literary criticism concerning graphic narrative and it has been proposed that gutters actually enclose and provide space for the reader, often enabling chronology to and narrative ordering and meaning to become more transparent. Jillian and Mariko employ certain key scenes to frame all the panel inserts, so that we get a definite sense of geography and environment, often of temporal framing as well. In one scene that occurs in the diner, the large page panel frames the inserts with the 24 hour sign just outside the diner with the entire “gutter” areas in black. The gutters therefore serve to be their own panel in a sense and draw readings into a larger general “theme” heading for a group of inserts. This style was very different than some of the other graphic novelists I’ve been reading, who typically adhere to pretty strict differences and boundaries between gutters and panels (a la Tomine). It will be interesting to see what other trends and oddities I see as I continue to read further into the subfield and subgenre of the graphic narrative. Again, this graphic novel is entirely recommended reading and I will also definitely teach this one for a future course. I have no doubts at this point that I will teach a graphic novelist course populated by Asian American and Asian Anglophone writers and artists: Derek Kirk Kim, Lynda Barry, Belle Yang, Adrian Tomine, Mine Okubo, Shaun Tan, and now Jillian and Mariko Tamaki!

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A Review of Weyman Chan's Noise from the Laundry

I recently had the chance to read a superb edited critical collection, entitled Asian Canadian Writing: Beyond Autoethnography. The group of essays looks at the intertwinement of politics and form, history and identity, aesthetics and racial formation, among other such intersectionalities. While the essays themselves were illuminating, especially the attention paid to Asian Canadian Francophonic writers, the collection offers much to those who would like to more broadly conceive of the term “America” in Asian American writing to further include North America. I am still working to move beyond the domestic in certain cases and I will make a concerted effort to move many of my reviews to Anglophonic writers of Asian descent despite national origin, citizenship, or residence. In the quest for more ideological inclusiveness, I think it interesting to consider this possibility. Had I more fluent linguistic skills, I could perhaps explore other conceptions of “Asian-ness,” but English is pretty much where my limits lie at this time. Asian Canadian Writing also offers much needed emphasis on a group of authors and artists who need more attention; this list includes Larissa Lai, Fred Wah, Hiromi Goto, among numerous others. While I’ve had some opportunity to read these writers here and there, much work still needs to be done on my level. Here is the link to purchase the critical collection:






One of the impulses then today for that rather long introduction and plug for the edited essay collection is that I’m reviewing Weyman Chan’s poetry collection, Noise from the Laundry (Talon Books, 2008). This work is quite astonishing for the diversity of ways in which it can be read. In terms of form, Chan plays with both indentation and spacing; at times, some of the poems are much more narratively inflected, verging on prose poetry. The collection immediately establishes a transnational sentiment and temporal basis as it references the Tiananmen Square massacre. In “one billion love,” the lyric speaker finds himself alongside a tour guide: “I pay him, this tour guide who’s a student at Beijing university. It’s August, 1989. 2 months after Tiananmen. We walk the stones along Shanghai’s Bund. Freighters and ships, slow passage, scurfing rumour about the sweeping up of remains to hide the true number of bodies killed and torched in the square of that one-mind system. Meanwhile, a cook shuffles past us balancing 2 baskets on a shoulder pole: a brown hunk of moose nose, and a black bear’s paw. Over the coo of such delicate meats, a red-luck couple will be joined in marriage dipped in one billion love.   (5) The intriguing element in this prose poetry block extends from the complicated ways in which historical events can become overwritten and re-contextualized. As the speaker walks through the square, there is the uncanny effect of not knowing what happened here and that such a narrative stands in contrast to the pedestrian optimisms of the marriage. Indeed, the felicitous union is depicted in quite a grotesque manner, as the “delicate meats,” call attention not only to the “black bear’s paw” and the “brown hunk of moose nose,” but the very delicate emergence of a democratic sentiment that does not find “one billion love.” The massacre will arc out as a bookend; towards the conclusion of the collection, in “Histology,” the lyric speaker finds himself contemplating the act of another: 


In Calgary, as in Jinan,

I’m pissing away the half month

that coincides with plague. Everyone’s piss

expects this: Rabbit has gone fishing.

I forgot how autumn ruled the neurotic,

bureaucratic crap of larkspur and meadow rue,

twigs kicking, a bamboo sea inside my breath,

this lab tech at work who, four months after Tiananmen,

drove to Vancouver, shipped out and joined the students’ Movement.

She wanted to fight for something,

rise up against (this

before iPods and nano-links)

secretaries of interior fiddlers— (83). 


If one is consider the lyric speaker from “one billion love” to be the same one in “Histology,” the sequencing serves to tell us that this figure has returned from his trip in China and yet there is yet another leavetaking; in this case, the lab tech who seeks a more “revolutionary” lifestyle. There is certainly a hint of sarcasm here as if the desire to overthrow ultimately faces an incredible challenge not only in the form of governance, but also through the emergence of a global economy in which China becomes a major nodal point not only of outsourcing, but also of the shift in economic power more broadly. This critique moves both ways as government officials are denoted as “secretaries of interior fiddlers.” Indeed, capitalism’s ability to move into and adapt to the Chinese economic system is the subject of numerous Chinese transnational writers ranging from Xiaolu Guo, Ha Jin, and Geling Yan, who show the ways in which China struggles from the opposing forces of modernization and traditional cultures. Much of the poetry collection is also concerned with the lyric speaker’s presentation of his immediately family, especially his father. In one particularly poignant poem, “b&w photo of Dad, 1954,” locates a different perspective granted on paternity as it is put into a larger temporal context:


2-toned spats, linked arm in arm gangster-style

with silver tie clips, blurred pant cuffs and


he’s sneaking up the stairs to catch me dancing with myself

to my brother’s 45 of Draggin’ the Line by Tommy James (48).


Here, the representation of the father as a stylized individual, replete with a kind of rebellious image, serves to problematize any reductive immigrant subjectivity that might focus on this figure as infantilized or even impotent in the movement to a different country. 

Certainly, many of his poems evoke a medical background, one evocative of what I earlier called “medicinal poetics” in my readings of C. Dale Young. One poem that crystallizes Chan’s medicinal poetics appears in “At Work,” where I reprint a portion from part 4:


Next day at work, I close myself into darkness. Press the button that flows 75 thousand volts into a tungsten filament, stripping electrons from its surface. At ten thousand magnifications, I look for Herpes virus. Cytomegalovirus. Rule out Candida. 


[. . . ]


The real world is smaller than we are. A Chinese lantern emanates my thoughts and form outwards, until I catch myself blurred and magnified, as diffuse as consciousness bending myths around a it life.


“Home sweet home,” she whispers, wheeled into Palliative Care, her chart binder tucked behind her knees. In her voice, cold dead leverage of pneumonia. (75)


Although I cannot claim to possess a vast amount of medical knowledge, what is interesting in terms of the litany of diseases he mentions is that they can be related to late-stage complications related to the HIV virus. Indeed, when the woman wheels into “Palliative Care,” with “pneumonia” in “her voice,” one wonders exactly what she might be surffering from and why she would have to be placed in a ward where there is no “cure” per se, but that she can only be attended to through certain comforting techniques. We know she’s been there before because of what she says and then the notion of “home sweet home,” as Toni Morrison famously reminded us, is never so sweet. 

In “the terrorist at O’Hare airport,” Chan’s lyric speaker explores the problematics of interethnic racism in the post-9/11 era. Of course, what is interesting about this moment is that it problematizes the notion of a panethnic rubric undergirding conceptions of Asian American and/or Asian Canadian identity groupings:


The towers never fell for just one person.

At Gate 11, an East Indian woman woke me,

Asked if I need anything at Starbucks, she needed coffee now.

I blurted out, “No thanks; I’ll watch your luggage.”

Right away June said, “You can’t watch other peoples’ luggage!” 

“Smart girl!” the woman answered back. (58)


The conclusion of the poem sees the lyric speaker realizing his mistake in assuming the potential terrorist activity of the East Indian woman who ends up taking a long time going to Starbucks. This sequence more generally provides us a window into the insidious ways racism takes shape, not necessarily about the acts of violence one can see so brazenly. 

            Chan’s work is just one of numerous Asian Canadian poets that I hope to review in the coming days and suggests a continual movement outward from any “center” accorded to what might be called Asian American literature. In these investments, we can take stock in a politic that E. San Juan, Jr. might have called the “emergent literature.” 


Buy Weyman Chan’s Noise from the Laundry here:





A Brief Review of Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire

Some Brief Thoughts on David Mura’s first novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire

What would have happened if Ichiro Yamada from No-No Boy went and married a nice sansei Japanese woman without telling her the status of his “no-no” boy background?  The resulting story might have been what David Mura investigates in his Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire in, what I understand to be, Mura’s first novelistic foray.  I read this on the plane ride back home from Seoul.  Mura is probably most well-known for his pair of refreshingly and unflinchingly honest memoirs, Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory.  Mura is also the author of a number of poetry collections, including The Colors of Desire, Angels for the Burning, and After We Lost Our Way.  Clearly as master of the creative non-fictional form, it is perhaps not surprising that the story is narrated from a historian researching the titular suicides and the culture that seemingly celebrates the self-obliterative act.  Like the memoirs, the novel delves into problematics related to masculinity as the main character, Ben Ohara, and his younger brother grow up in the shadow of his father’s status as a no-no boy.  When his father commits suicide, Ben turns increasingly rebellious, whereas his little brother cultivates his desire for knowledge, sciences, and the scientific occult.  Somewhere along the way, Ben eventually straightens himself out whereas his brother turns more and more to drugs.  The mystery that first catalyzes the novel remains the younger brother’s mysterious disappearance, having presumably died somewhere in the Mojave Desert after having consumed a large amount of narcotics.  The novel is much involved in the recovery of the past, the attempt made by Ben to make sense of what happened to himself, his father, his mother, and his younger brother.  Mura establishes another point along the rich trajectory that is Japanese American post-internment camp literatures and stands to delve into the psychologically complex phenomena related to trauma as it moves across generations.

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A Review of Jennifer Chang's A History of Anonymity

A Review of Jennifer Chang's The History of Anonymity

A Review of Jennifer Chang’s A History of Anonymity

If there is one word to describe Jennifer Chang’s A History of Anonymity, it is “atmospheric.”   A collection steeped in allegories, children’s fairy tales, the coastal sublime, and religious imagery, it doesn’t quite fall into an easy framework for one who might try to approach the work through an ethnic studies vantage point.  This is to say that the work is more experimental and conceptual on a certain level, but it is not simply abstracted.  Indeed, the work is highly imagistic, even if it is disorienting.  One always gets the sense of moving through a darkened landscape where the next turn is not quite clear.  Animals, nightfall, and children loom large in this collection as if one is traveling through a landscape somewhere in between dreams and nightmare.  The beginning is reminiscent of the coastal scenes that might appear in a Virginia Woolf novel had she decided to shift her work into poetic form.  One excerpt reads

I traveled to a shore

where I knew tide pools would form.
I loved the sea anemones, loose flowers

or creatures of all mouth,     moving more as water

        than as live things.  Their mouths on my ankles,
        on my fingers, I wanted to be devoured  (4).

It is difficult to correctly format the excerpt, but there is a clear sense that the way the lyrics are arranged on the page is central to the meaning and the flow of the collection as a whole.  The reader is immediately disoriented because of the random portions that are left unscripted.  A line will appear suggesting that a word has been censured and then one begins to confront this “history of anonymity” that is at play.  The reader will move from various natural landscapes, turning away from the coast and the shore and moving inward into a dark forest location:  “The forest, vocal/ even in its somber tread, rages. / A slope ends in a pit of foxes/ drunk on rotten brambles of berries/ and the raccoons ransack/ a rabbit’s unmasked hole/ What do they find but a winter’s heap/ of droppings? A stolen nest, the cracked shell/ of another creature’s child” (27).  The key word here is “rages,” a sense that the forest is not merely some location from which to find a pastoral beauty or fertile growth.  Instead, it is full of creatures that have are engaged in the conquest of other organisms whether it be berry plants or rabbit holes.  In this respect, the first half of the book continually evokes such scenarios of unfamiliarity and menace. 
    The second section, entitled “A Move to Unction,” clearly riffs off the Christian sacrament for the benefit of a sickly individual in which words and script often take a central part in the healing of the soul and body.  The first poem from this portion provides a useful template for many of the lyric conflicts which will follow.  I reprint, “The sign reads:” here:

    a sanctuary for the solitudes.
    Yes, I am one

too.  A solitude gone
blank, the husk of my life

into a blade.  I have no
neighbors here and my neighbors
have none too.  I will pour

last night’s storm
over my skin,
        catch it all

in every pore.
The rain is grief-thick.
I used to wake in my childhood home

and want my family to burn, with me
as the flame’s blue dart.
They are embers now. 

    or could have been.
Sister pooling on the kitchen tile,
        her formless anger

forming my current burden.      Don’t I lie
each time I promise
I did not leave her behind? (55).

The poems that follow will literally give shape to a town called Unction, an interesting way to literalize a kind of space of ailment that the lyric speaker seems to exist in, a kind of guilt over this Sister figure, who will appear again and again.  The figure of the Mother is also a clear antagonist to this sisterly bond as she presents herself as a despotic authoritarian.  The following poems thus figure the various conflicts that arise both between the sisters as they attempt to maintain their bonds against their Mother.  This concluding section is filled with images of water and drowning, dissolving and the ocean.  The Mother clearly invokes Freud’s theories of melancholia as she possesses a kind of wound and attachment to that wounding that cannot be healed over.  The Father is caught up in it and so is the lyric speaker’s Sister.  The last poem seems to intimate that the speaker is so caught up in the guilt of having left her Sister within the grasp of that melancholia that she commits suicide.  In this strange space, the collection ends with the lyric speaker jumping off a cliff, hoping to find some sort of absolution, to be healed perhaps from her own psychic wounds, but who is to perform the sacrament?  Her death seems to resonate against the opening where we are reminded of the “history of anonymity.”  Who are these figures and are they allegories?  Without answers, the collection leaves us adrift, in mid-air, in suspension.