Books I Read This Summer

After four years of book overload in college, this summer was my first opportunity to read whatever I wanted (!), as much as I wanted. Although I generally loved the books my professors chose, the freedom to jump randomly from reading about MTV’s The Real World to a fictional Jewish settlement in Alaska to 19th century Russia and back to California highways in the 1960s was wonderful. In the past, I’ve written up lists of books I hope/plan to read during a season, but inevitably I get sidetracked and end up down a rabbit hole of related reading far from what I originally intended–so, this season, I decided to put together a retrospective list of texts I enjoyed.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls / David Sedaris
This one sparked a lot of conversations about the widespread addiction to Fitbit buzzing my friends are currently experiencing. I’m also looking forward to attending his reading in DC this Thursday!

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius / Dave Eggers
What is real, and what is imagined? Is there any real benefit to drawing strict lines between our imagined and experienced lives, or are both necessary for survival?

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon
Gritty, suspenseful, made me crave latkes.

Anna Karenina / Leo Tolstoy
Kind of a cheat, as I only had about 300 pages left. Luckily, that last hunk of prose ended up unfolding in a series of rapid, devastating turns.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? / Maria Semple
Took me out of my mind during a particularly difficult few weeks, and actually managed to make me laugh. Wildly creative and surprising.

Swann’s Way / Marcel Proust
Another cheat–I only had the last 50 pages to go. Wistful and made me crave madeleines.

Consider The Lobster / David Foster Wallace
“Host” made SO much more sense when I discovered that it had originally been published online by The Atlantic. “Up, Simba” was a terrific read as the presidential debate season kicks off. Just full of curious ideas and creative phrases.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga / Hunter S Thompson
I was shocked by how quickly I devoured this one–two plane rides, and that was that. Uneasy, ambivalent look at a group of unusual people, with an appearance by Ginsberg and some great commentary on 1960s politics that still feels fresh and relevant.

I’ve started my fall reading with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, which is as excellent as I knew it would be from following his work in The Atlantic. I have a feeling that this will send me back to Angela Davis’s first autobiography, which I partially read for class during my last semester of college, and from there, who knows? I’ll write up another list in December.

Asians Americans: The New Jews?

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It’s 1968. The North Vietnamese army launches the Tet offensive, injecting 70,000 troops into the weary war. Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson declares that he will not run for a second term in office. Andy Warhol is shot (and lives). Robert Kennedy is shot (and dies). The Prague Spring challenges Soviet Communism in Czechoslovakia. Richard Nixon declares his intention to enter the presidential race. NASA launches Apollo 7 and Apollo 8. And in fictional Scarshill, New York, Mona Chang is coming of age.

Mona Chang might better be known as Mona Change. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Mona converts to Judaism and is subsequently (and fondly) dubbed Changowitz by her classmates. Surrounded by diverse friends and acquaintances, Mona’s bildungsroman unfolds as she navigates tough questions of how various ethnic minorities are perceived, and how these perceptions shape the opportunities available to them in the “promised land.” In reviews by The New York TimesKirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s WeeklyMona in the Promised Land is described with words such as “droll,” “rebellious,” and “melting pot.” Unfortunately, other than these few scattered book reviews, there’s a near-silence in Internet chatter regarding Mona in the Promised Land, and the few commentaries I read were riddled with errors regarding the plot. This quiet is part of the reason I’m writing my thesis project on one of Gish Jen’s other novels, The Love Wife. In both novels, Jen’s manipulation of postmodern convention is masterful, and her storytelling is an entertaining vehicle for her ability to unpack the endless complexity of race in America.

Jen has a knack for nailing a wide range of ethnic voices, and Mona in the Promised Land showcases this talent. There’s Mona’s best friend Barbara Gugelstein, whose mother dupes her into a nose job financed by her father’s Wall Street salary. There’s Alfred, an African American cook at the Changs’ pancake house who is at the center of a so-called mod squad espousing Black Power rhetoric. There’s Mona’s parents, Ralph and Helen, who live by the Chinese mantra of “make sure.” There’s Naomi, Mona’s sister’s African American roommate, who teaches Mona and her sister “how to be Chinese.” There’s Seth Mandel, Mona’s pseudo-intellectual Jewish boyfriend (and later common law husband) who lives in a teepee in his backyard (lest Native Americans be excluded from this complex look at minorities in America). Finally, there’s the enigmatic Sherman Matsumoto, a Japanese ex-pat who uses Judo to flip Mona in the garden after their first kiss and later decides to become Hawaiian – or so it seems, until this later iteration of Sherman is revealed to be a hoax conducted by Seth and a boy named Andy Kaplan. Though Sherman’s reappearances are sporadic, they serve as a measure of Mona’s belief in one’s ability to “switch,” which evolves as her idealism is gradually molded by experience.

As all of these characters meet and mingle, they exchange pieces of their performances, adopting mannerisms and opinions that push them in new directions. The permutations of race, class, gender, and ethnicity are seemingly limitless, but the wall this kaleidoscopic postmodern reverie repeated bumps up against is the inevitable question: But what will you do? As much as Jen’s characters talk, her larger point is that while laudable, open-minded idealism cannot make up for the sometimes sad, sometimes practical reality that circumstantial actions form the core of race relations.

The novel opens as the Changs search for a new house in Scarshill, New York. Their white relator shows them a predominantly Jewish neighborhood:

“Moneyed! Many delis!” In other words, rich and Jewish, she! for one! would rather live elsewhere!

This is such a nice thing to say, even the Changs know to be offended, they think, on behalf of all three Jewish people they know, even if one of them they’re not sure about. Still, someone has sent the parents a list of the top ten schools nationwide, and so many-deli or not, they settle into a Dutch colonial on the Bronx River Parkway. For they’re the New Jews, after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.

Having grown up in northern Virginia, where the booming population of Hispanic immigrants tend to be described as “Mexican” in a tone that transforms national identity into a shorthand slur for “unassimilated,” I realize now that I have internalized a compulsion to resist racial labels, even ones that are accurate to the demographic in question. I was startled by Jen’s freedom, even playfulness, in drawing parallels between the stereotypes applied Jewish and Asian Americans alike. To explore her comparison further, I turned to the Pew Research Center, where statisticians attempt to illuminate characterizations of anything from race to age through national phone surveys.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center released an updated edition of their study of Asian Americans. Though I plan to reread the study as my research develops, my first reading uncovered several details that resonate with Mona in the Promised Land. For example, Jen’s decision to set Mona’s story in the 1960s makes a lot more sense given that U.S. lifted a quota that limited the number of eligible Asian immigrants in 1965, after which the percentage of Asian Americans jumped from 1% to today’s roughly 6%. Mona also fits within a larger pattern of interracial/-ethnic marriage; the study reports that Asian Americans “are the most likely of any major racial or ethnic group in America to live in mixed neighborhoods and to marry across racial lines,” citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent marriage to Priscilla Chan as a high-profile example of the “37% of all recent Asian- American brides who wed a non-Asian groom.”

In a similar study of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center found that American Jews are increasingly identifying with Judaism on the basis of religion rather than on the basis of ethnicity, while the population of Jews who regularly observe religious rituals is in decline. Mona’s conversion to Judaism includes her observance of rituals which her ethnically Jewish partner, Seth, ironically ignores.

Additionally, this disclaimer in the study on Asian Americans grabbed my attention: “Unless otherwise noted, whites include only non-Hispanic whites. Blacks include only non- Hispanic blacks. Hispanics are of any race. Asians can also be Hispanic.”

What? I had to reread this several times, and I’m still not certain that I grasp what they’re saying. The point I took away from this is that ethnic heredity is rarely pure, groups overlap, and broad labels can mask significant historical distinctions between groups. Take, for example, the friction between Japanese and Chinese Americans, both of whom are contained within the broad “Asian American” label:

“Atomic bomb dropped on only one people,” Sherman says. “The Japanese do not forget.” On the back of an old mimeograph sheet, he draws another Japanese flag, a bigger one, which he puts on the icebox door with daisy magnets. “In school, in ceremony, we dis way,” he explains, and bows to the picture.

When Helen [Mona’s mother] comes in, her face is so red that with the white wall behind her, she looks a bit like the Japanese flag herself. Yet Mona gets the feeling she’d better not say so. First her mother doesn’t move. Then she snatches the flag off the icebox, so fast the daisy magnets go flying. Two of them land on the stove. She crumples up the paper. She hisses at Sherman, “This is the U.S. of A., do you hear me!

This scene captures three distinct experiences of assimilation. Unlike American-born Mona, Helen and Sherman have experienced life both within and outside of America, and both characters bring a non-Western perspective on history that has not been planted within Mona. The tensions in this scene are interethnic, intergenerational, and international, combining to offer a glimpse of the difficult terrain Mona must navigate in the process of claiming her own identity. Unable to fully relate to her parents or even other Asian Americans, Mona’s conversion to Judaism helps her to stake a claim to an identity that is uniquely her own. In life and in Jen’s novel, distinctions between religious and ethnic groups only become blurrier and more fraught with complexity under closer examination.

One blogger who read Mona commented that “an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read.” While I agree that the novel embraces complications (perhaps to an excessive degree), I do think that it’s important to keep in mind that Jen writes in a postmodern style that’s what I think of as “highly fictional realism.” Her characters possess an impossible range of cultural references and viewpoints, and the novel contains many moments that have the distinct feel of a thought exercise, albeit a hilariously funny one. (For example, Mona quotes James Joyce during the act of losing her virginity: “Yes,” says Mona. “Yes I said yes. Yes.” “Shut up,” says Seth.) In a paper from National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, Fu-Jen Chen concisely explains that “postmodern theories of subjectivity highlight a subject’s inability to remain either stabilized or unified, thereby featuring a liberating proliferation of multiple forms of subjectivity.” Jen allows Mona and her friends to exemplify the reality that identity is a performative act by writing them in a heightened style that’s supersaturated with detail. So, if this is your beach read, just be sure not to take Jen too literally.

This week, I’ll be switching from Jen’s tongue-in-cheek scrutiny of our American melting pot to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel described on its own back cover as “perhaps the most American of American classics.” Without any ill-feeling toward Steinbeck, I challenge the publisher’s notion – after all, is a white man writing in 1939 more quintessentially American than the story of a Chinese American woman growing up in a Jewish suburb during the 1960s? Who gets to decide what is “quintessentially American”? I suspect that the phrase has an expiration date that’s quickly approaching if it hasn’t already passed. In the postmodern age, the only quality that seems to be “quintessentially American” is hybridity.