San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
3 debuts tell Asian American immigrant stories
Countless generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders have immigrated to America, enriched its culture and history, and helped make the country what it is today. Their stories are invaluable.
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here are three promising debuts from Asian American writers coming out in May.
By Linda Rui Feng (Simon & Schuster; 272 pages; $26)
A wellknown concept in Chinese culture, describes “an invisible mesh that loosely (binds) people and circumstances.”
In her immersive, gorgeously rendered debut set after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, firstgeneration Chinese immigrant and history Professor Linda Rui Feng uses this idea to frame the tragic yet impassioned tale of a couple torn apart by unrealized love, thwarted dreams and regret on their journey to forge a new life in a new land.
The book opens in 1981 as 5yearold Junie, who was born without lower legs, is sent to live with her doting grandparents in Trout River, a sleepy village in rural China. Her father, Momo, has just moved to rural America to plant roots as an engineer, in anticipation of his wife, Cassia, soon joining him, followed by Junie when she turns 12.
But immediately after arriving in San Francisco, Cassia realizes she wants to go it alone. While reinventing herself in this foreign city, she must reconcile her ambivalence toward her husband with the feelings she still harbors for a longago sweetheart who was killed by revolutionaries.
While some of the sections in America feel underdeveloped (not to mention the copout ending), the story lines set in China — especially the subplot involving a young Momo’s impactful friendship with Dawn, a violin prodigy — vibrate with resonance and beauty.
For a first run out of the gate, this one’s worth cherishing.
By Eric Nguyen Knopf; 304 pages; $25.95)
Set during a similar time period as Feng’s novel, Eric Nguyen’s fittingly titled debut follows a broken family’s migration from their home in then Saigon, Vietnam, to the Versailles Arms, a Vietnameseimmigrant enclave in East New Orleans, to escape the communist regime.
Beginning in 1978 and spanning three decades, the hopscotch narrative unfolds in three strands and zeroes in on the transformation of three major characters — Huong and her two young sons, Tuan and Binh — from bewildered immigrant to fully actualized citizen.
As with many novels set up in this fashion, not all of the threads are created equal.
While still meaningful, Huong’s reads as the most familiar. Amid all the cooking, cleaning and working lowwage jobs, she’s preoccupied with providing for her sons — especially when it becomes clear that her husband won’t be joining them in America. (“We sacrificed everything so you could have a roof over your head in a free country.”)
For sullen Tuan, who is old enough to remember his father — and to resent his dad’s omnipresent influence despite his absence — a camaraderie with Vietnamese American gang the Southern Boyz feels like the most logical (though too briefly sketched) next step.
But it’s Binh’s trajectory from sensitive boy who grows up in his brother’s shadow to collegeeducated gay man who moves to Paris to “spread his wings on his own, to fly,” that stands out. In a book that sometimes gets bogged down by details and drama (including a piledon final section during the worst of Hurricane Katrina), Nguyen’s delicate treatment of Binh’s desires and dreams comes as a touching reprieve in a narrative otherwise dominated by struggle.
By Anjali Enjeti
(Hub City Press; 272 pages; $26)
After 300 years of occupation, the British left India in August 1947. Upon their departure, they divided the subcontinent into two independent nationstates — one majority Hindu and Sikh, which remained as India, and the other majority Muslim, which became Pakistan.
As millions of Hindus and Muslims were forced to migrate in opposite directions during the partition, a surge of sectarian violence broke out, pitting once amicable neighbors against each other in what turned into a mutual genocide.
Set against this tumultuous backdrop is Anjali Enjeti’s cinematic debut novel, a moving, multitendriled saga that begins in New Delhi with a brief consummated romance between 16yearold Deepa (Hindu) and charming Amir (Muslim) and stretches for three generations.
Like the other two books, “The Parted Earth” jumps around in time and dips into the lives of myriad characters, including that of newly pregnant Deepa, who moves to London after Amir’s family leaves for Pakistan and her parents are killed in an attack, and Shan, Deepa’s 41yearold granddaughter in Atlanta who, on the heels of a miscarriage and bitter divorce, starts researching her roots.
The backandforth can be disorienting at times, especially given the breadth of attention Enjeti pays to comparably minor characters such as Amir’s sister, Laila, and Gertrude, the longtime nanny of Deepa’s father.
But when the puzzle pieces come together at the end (including the longawaited reveal about Amir’s fate), it’s both a bittersweet relief and an opportunity for reflection on the complexity of interfaith relationships, the cost of sacrifice and what it means to be home.