May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in the US and there’s been a lot of discussion about books by Asian authors online, both from the US and Canada and translated works. As the month comes to a close with one week remaining, perhaps you’re considering picking up a new book or are looking for a last minute read for #AsianLitBingo. So this week I’ll be posting a series of blogs featuring some of my favourite books by Asian Canadian and Asian American authors, translated books from Asia, and books I’m looking forward to reading.
- Part Two: Featuring Rupi Kaur, Elisha Lim, Vincent Lam, Vivek Shraya, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- Part One: Featuring Mary Anne Mohanraj, Ken Liu, Ted Chiang, Kim Thúy, and Saleema Nawaz
Translated books and books by authors from outside North America unfortunately tend not to get a lot of attention in Canada and the US. Here’s a list of some translated books by Asian authors (that are not Haruki Murakami). As a note, the majority of these books will have major trigger warnings. I don’t know if this kind of dark subject matter is really common trend in contemporary Asian literature or that this is the type of stuff publishers like to translate, but it strongly needs noting in reviews.
Also feel free to recommend your favourite translated books from Asia in the comments, particularly from countries I didn’t cover, or books written in English by Asian authors. I’m always looking to read more.
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (Translated from Indonesian by Annie Tucker): [TW: Rape, domestic abuse, forced prostitution, death, gruesome details of warfare, suicide, incest, bestiality, murder, forced marriage and possibly others I’ve forgotten about. Tread with care]
I have no idea why I like this book. By all accounts of the gruesome subject material, the badly written female characters and the meandering family saga plotline, this isn’t a book I’d consider a favourite. Something about Kurniawan’s writing grabbed me though, carrying through the book to the point where I couldn’t put it down. Set in Indonesia, Beauty is a Wound is an epic family saga that starts with the return of family matriarchy Dewi Awu from the grave. The book then goes on to tell about the lives of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, through colonial occupation, poverty, marriage, affairs and death. There unfortunately doesn’t appear to be a lot of translated Indonesian literature available in English and Kurniawan appears to be the main big name. I’m hoping that more work will be translated in the future.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (Translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich): [TW: kidnapping, childhood trauma, sexual trauma, cult activity.]
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto is a really interesting introspective love story featuring a young woman who moves to Tokyo after her mother’s death and starts a love affair with a young man in the apartment building across the street after they see each other through their windows. Slowly as their relationship develops, she begins to uncover various hidden pieces of his past. The narrative voice in this book is one of its strongest points. The voice of Yoshimoto’s main character is very strong yet also a bit meandering as she leads the reader through her past and present.
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu (Translated from Chinese by Ken Liu): [TW: None major that I can remember]
I was pretty excited to pick this anthology up and it didn’t disappoint. Invisible Planets is a pretty solid anthology that has a range of sci-fi. From ghosts, mechanical horses, rotating cities, this anthology has a lot of good stuff for a variety of readers. It also contains the novelette, Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang and a few pieces by Liu Cixen. I’m really hoping some of these authors get more of their work translated into English as I really enjoyed a number of the stories. I’m not a fan of The Three Body Problem but fans will be happy to read a short story set in that universe. The anthology also contains a couple essays about the history and current status of Chinese sci-fi that I found really interesting.
Although better known for her novel The Vegetarian which won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, Human Acts is a much stronger novel in my opinion, beautiful and brutal in its impact. This is the story of the 1980 student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, not only the events as they unfold but the reverberation of their impact over time, told from multiple perspectives from 1980 to 2013. What I love about Human Acts is that it isn’t a traditional narrative in how it follows characters through the book. Instead the reader must draw connections as Kang shifts from perspectives and time periods. Through this, Kang is able to demonstrate the impact of the protests over time. An event like this is not something people get over easily. And even years after, characters are still haunted by what they’ve seen, the things they did and didn’t go, the people who died or went missing. This is the story of people and a nation trying to heal but also being unable to let go.
Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang (Translated from Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury): [TW: rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, kidnapping, and possibly others I’ve forgotten about. Tread with care.] (My Review.)
Half a Lifelong Romance takes place in Shanghai during the 1930s. Shen Shijun is a young engineer who has fallen in love with his colleague Gu Manzhen. Shen Shijun is determined to resist his family’s attempt to match him with his wealthy cousin and marry the woman he loves. However this road to love and marriage is not smooth as dark circumstances, family secrets, treachery, betrayal and lust, force the two lovers apart. Separated, Shen Shijun and Gu Manzhen lose track of each other, their lives filled with missed connections, schemes, and tragic misunderstandings, as social expectations prevent their prospects of finding happiness together. I made the mistake of going in and expecting a classic happy ending. Make no mistake that this is a love story, but it’s a dark and tragic tale. Eileen Chang’s writing just pulls you in in a way that’s hard for me to describe, keeping you turning the pages even as terrible things unfold all around the characters.