Loving the Stranger Beside You (Ploughshares Blog)

My article “Loving the Stranger Beside You: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been posted on the Ploughshares blog! I -loved- this eerie, beautiful book. Here’s a snippet of what I had to say about it:

In The Vegetarian, a collection of three linked novellas, author Han Kang creates and then protects an open moral space between Yeong-hye’s sudden conversion to vegetarianism and her family’s perception of it. Is Yeong-hye wrong to become such an extreme vegetarian that she eventually tries to subsist on nothing but sunlight and water? Is she crazy? Is she selfish? Are her family members wrong to respond as they do to her radical decision?

Each novella is told from a different point of view: Yeong-hye’s husband Mr. Cheong, then her brother-in-law, then her sister In-hye. What can be known of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is pieced together little by little, from narrator to narrator: She has a recurring, violent dream of eating raw meat. She and her sister sometimes have flashbacks to violent moments in their childhood, such as the time her family killed and consumed a dog that bit Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye is diagnosed with schizophrenia, but the doctors don’t understand why she refuses to eat. Yeong-hye wants to turn into a tree. Yeong-hye doesn’t want to sleep with her husband because he smells like meat, but she will sleep with her sister’s husband when he paints flowers on her body. She believes trees hug the earth with roots like arms, so she, too, balances in a handstand for as long as possible, saying, “All the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.” Continue reading…

Han Kang is a South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for this book. I am looking forward to reading her latest book Human Acts, which continues to explore how societal violence is expressed in a single person’s life (in this case, the death of a student during a student uprising).

From the Ghosts’ Point of View (Ploughshares blog)

My essay, “From the Ghosts’ Point of View: A Brief History of Seven Killings” is now available on the Ploughshares blog. Thanks for reading! Related: the featured image on this blog post comes from David Burnett’s gorgeous photo essay found here, from the same era during which the events in A Brief History of Seven Killings take place.

In a book that promises by its very title and opening lines that many characters will be expected to die, the author has to do some coaxing to convince readers that they can invest emotionally in the story. Marlon James achieves this in A Brief History of Seven Killings by breaking the sound barrier of the grave. Readers often don’t know whether a character is still alive or dead until after the character has already been talking for a while. That very open-endedness makes it possible to empathize with these characters even after the (more than) seven promised killings take place.

Marlon James is unafraid to confront death from the first page onward and then invite readers to care anyway. Clues to practically every death in the 686-page book appear in those first few pages: “fifty-six bullets,” “a burned cockroach,” a scream that “stops right at the gate of his teeth.” In sharing this, I’m giving away nothing that James himself doesn’t already give away. Reader, you’ve been warned. But, reader, don’t shy away. This is a story with heart.

From the moment the first narrator, Sir Arthur Jennings, announces in his opening lines that ghosts “never stop talking” and that “when you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours,” readers cannot be certain they are listening to someone alive or dead. The readers figuratively take the role of the living who “sometimes hear” the dead speaking when they are half-awake or near death themselves. Continue reading…

Since reading A Brief History of Seven Killings earlier this year, this book shot up to my “top 5” favorites list. It is an incredible accomplishment, driven almost entirely by voice rather than by a traditional plot. Needless to say, I am now dying to read his forthcoming African fantasy trilogy, which also let’s the cat out of the bag about a death, while still inviting readers to care:

“The very, very basic plot is [that] this slave trader hires a bunch of mercenaries to track down a kid who may have been kidnapped,” he told the US magazine in an interview. “But finding him takes nine years, and at the end of it, the kid is dead. And the whole novel is trying to figure out: ‘How did this happen?’”

True Love as Curse: The Uncrossing

What if true love was a curse in a bad contract that forced you to live with the most dangerous mafia family in New York? That is the premise behind off-the-wall Rapunzel retelling The Uncrossing by Lambda Literary Fellow Melissa Eastlake — and I loved it.

I spend a lot of time championing adult literary fiction, but young adult fiction (YA) is a rich and exciting genre in its own right. As a side effect of drafting two young adult novels over the past year and half, I’ve found myself reading a lot more YA, especially fairy-tale retellings. There are phenomenal books in this genre, especially for readers looking for more diversity, and The Uncrossing joins books like We Are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson that handle both mental illness and the real struggles of gay teens with sensitivity, insight, and a light magical touch.

The Uncrossing by Melissa EastlakeJeremy Kovrov is the Rapunzel in this alt-New York shaped by the turf wars of magic-wielding mafia. His adoptive brothers Sergei and Alexei love him and have done their best to raise him under the circumstances, but nothing can help the fact that Jeremy is trapped with the Kovrovs until true love’s first kiss releases him.

The problem? True love is “fairy-tale logic” — an impossible clause that closes off every other possible means of escape. And it’s getting in the way of Jeremy’s real romance with Luke Melnyk, a local Ukrainian-Creole twin who has the unique power to “uncross” curses. Can Luke untangle this particularly nasty curse? And does Jeremy really want him to play the role of rescuing prince?

In my last blog post, “Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You,” I talked about how the narrator’s father cruelly associates foulness and disgust with his own son through pointed body language. The Uncrossing could be read as a healing antidote to this sort of treatment. Jeremy and Luke’s families are not perfect — racism and homophobia rear their ugly heads at certain moments in the plot — but they fiercely love their boys and are rooting for them to find a way around this curse. In fact, without both families’ involvement, they wouldn’t have a chance.

As an adoptive parent, I really appreciated that this novel treats Jeremy’s adoptive brothers as his real, loving family without in the end feeling the need to rediscover his lost birth family. At the same time, the novel respects the importance of Jeremy’s birth family in shaping who he is (hint: it has a lot to do with his magical abilities!). This is different from most Rapunzel retellings, and I was more grateful than I can say.

TheUncrossingTour

Thank you to Entangled Teen and the Chapter by Chapter blog tour for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for honest feedback.