Though I Get Home: Interconnected Short Stories From Malaysia

Though I Get Home by YZ Chin.

Though I Get Home is YZ Chin’s debut book, a collection of interconnected short stories that illustrate the Malaysian post-colonial experience and modern-day political dissidence. I picked it up because as a writer, I am interested in post-colonialism, diaspora communities, and activism.  Furthermore, I would like to experiment with Chin’s use of interconnected narrative with my current project, In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom.

The book centers around Isabella Sin, known as Isa, an aspiring writer-activist who was imprisoned for writing obscene poetry. The government arrested her he along with others who participated in a protest in Kuala Lumpur. Her grandfather, Gong Gong, had worked as a butler and a nanny for a British family during colonial times, had told her stories that ignited Isa’s fascination with England. After his death, Isa spent a year in London, which led her mother to blame her lack of marital prospects on her Anglophone speech and attitude. There is also the story about her friend K, who at the opening of Starbucks in Taiping, pondered whether or not to leave her ex-boyfriend who had already broken up with her.

There are other characters in the book who aren’t directly related to her, like Howie Ho, a Chinese Malaysian studying in New York, who dated an American girl who was sympathetic to Malaysian activists and had a penchant for writing poetry. There’s also Ibrahim, a member of the RD, who acted as the moral police. His job was to make sure that their fellow Malays, who are all technically Muslims, are preserving their purity and not engaging in sexually deviant behaviors, such as sex before marriage and cross-dressing. They knocked on the windows of parked cars and broke into hotels to make sure that everybody was behaving themselves.

Initially, I didn’t care for the book. I didn’t connect with the storytelling and felt that the book was messy overall. I didn’t always understand how each story related to one another. There was a story about a concubine that seemed out of place. Furthermore, while reading  “A Malaysian Man in Mayor Bloomberg’s Silicon Alley,” I was frustrated reading about this Howie Ho, a seemingly unrelated character who went away to the US for college, dated an American girl, and went back to Malaysia to vote for an election. It is the longest story in the book, and at first, I didn’t understand why he even mattered. Chin does reveal the relevance of this character at the end, but I wish there was some foreshadowing in the earlier stories. Also, there is a thread in the story where Howie Ho witnessed an incident of abuse and violence in his college dorm room but chose to do nothing. That annoyed me—not only because I thought he was a coward, but I also didn’t understand how the incident added to his character.  I just felt appalled and disliked him.

Having said that, I enjoyed some of the stories, such as “The Butler Opens the Door.” After the daughter of the British family he was working for had gone missing, Gong Gong staged a funeral to help his employer grieve properly. The British people who attended the funeral were appalled and fascinated at the same time, which reminded me of my own grandfather’s funeral that I attended as an eight-year-old. It was an open casket funeral, and Mama had led me to see him, despite my unwillingness. I saw him through a glass sheet over a fridge-like thing— I jolted at how cold it felt when I touched the surface. He looked like he was sleeping, but he also seemed strangely hollow and weird. I didn’t like it. On the same day, I also got yelled at for playing with the joss papers, the money for the dead, by folding them into cranes and other origami animals before feeding them to the fire. There is a lot of burning at a Chinese funeral: I watched in awe as flames engulfed an entire paper home that looked like a dollhouse and a paper car. All these memories came rolling through my mind as I read about this funeral with no corpse.

Initially, I didn’t like the book. However, after reading parts of it a few times to write this review, I grew to appreciate it. It’s like a bottle of good, vintage wine that takes time and patience to enjoy. I learned a great deal about Malaysian history, politics, and how similar Chinese folk religion is wherever people practice it.

 

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Heating & Cooling: A Delicious Bite-size Memoir

 

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs is an absolute delight. They are delicious bite-sized stories, filled with the wisdom and humor of Fennelly’s life as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a feminist, and a writer. The book deals with the whole spectrum of the human condition: joy, love, jealousy, loss. They read like flash fiction, except they are non-fiction pieces. Each piece is about a few pages to a few sentences long; there isn’t a single wasted word.

Some of my favorites pieces are short:

“Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy. Evening: added thawed peas to our carbonara.”

This little gem is number four of the “Married Love” series, and it gives the reader a snippet of Fennelly’s marriage and of course, cooking.

When I was watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, I’d cringe when the high school boys would call each other pussies. In “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for Weak,” Fennelly described the thoughts going through her head while giving birth to one of her children. She ended the piece with:

“The pain was such that I made peace with that. I did not fear death. Fear was an emotion, and pain had scalded away all emotions. I chose. In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root. Understand, I did this without the aid of my hands.”

I wish every time a boy (or a man) call each other a “pussy”, he remembers that his mother tore him out of her body without using her hands. Pussies are strong and badass.

The book also deals with the challenges we all face, such as a quiet feud with a neighbor,  raising stubborn children, and the death of a loved one. I don’t want to say too much more about this book without giving it all away. All I can say is, when I finished reading the 52nd piece, I was sad. I wish there was a 53rd piece. Fennelly’s warm and humorous micro-memoirs are like little brain candies. I gobbled them up pretty fast. When you pick up your copy, I suggest you savor them while you can.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation: A Vapid, Spoiled Brat Took Pills to Sleep for the Whole Year

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. The premise of the book is pretty far-fetched— a thin, pretty, and rich young woman, our unnamed narrator, decided to check out from life for a year by sedating herself with an array of pills. This was made possible with the assistance of the world’s most unethical psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle.  She was the impersonation of the pharmaceutical industry who touts that there is a pill for every illness and cure for every ail. If only life was that easy.

When not in a drug-induced sleep, our unnamed narrator watched movies on VHS, ate animals crackers while taking Ambien and Nembutal, and eventually drifting off into a deep somber on the couch. Instead of having her laundry picked up and dropped off like a civilized person, she opted to throw away her dirty underwear and orders tacky lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. The only time she left the house was to get coffee and cigarettes from the bodega at odd hours of the night. Meet our spoiled, vapid, and entitled narrator—who despite all that she had, went into “hibernation” in June 2000, when she was 24-years-old. At this time, she had been fired from her cushy job at an upscale art gallery for sleeping in the supply closet. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor treated her like a disposable piece of trash. Her only friend, Reva, was a whiney, insecure woman who was jealous of the narrator’s beauty, wealth, and her size 2 wardrobe.

This is the starting point of the book, and needless to say, none of the characters seemed likable. Yet, I couldn’t put down the book. In some ways, reading the book is like witnessing a trainwreck— it is horrifying, yet fascinating in a morbid way—how will this unnamed narrator destroy or redeem herself?

I’d like to be clear: the trainwreck metaphor only applies to the characters in the book. The book itself is flawlessly written— it is engaging and funny in a despondent way:

“You’re so needy,” I said. “Sounds frustrating.”

“And there’s Ken. I just can’t stand it. I rather kill myself than be all alone,” she said.

“At least you have options.”

In some ways, whether I like to admit it or not, I can relate to Reva, or even the narrator herself, living in a world consumed by vanity. As women, we are always told to strive for the size 2 body, the rewarding career, and give all that up when we meet the perfect man. When we don’t achieve what is expected of us, we are made to feel bad about it. Ironically, the unnamed narrator seemed to have it all, and instead of living it, she chose to sleep her life away. What does this say about ourselves and the values we hold dear?

This book took place in the year 2000, right before the boom of smartphones and around-the-clock tweets.  And yet, little has changed since then. Like 18 years ago, women are still subjected to ridiculous expectations, and we continue to allow men to treat us badly (in the book, the narrator’s boyfriend Trevor would come over to have sex with her like it was a favor for her, and Reva was involved with a middle-aged married man who just “loves” her on the side.) Many of us are still afraid to die alone and would do anything to avoid this fate. The #MeToo movement brought some awareness to women’s plight, but, has it achieved a lasting impact on how women view our worth?

Through My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh is holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It’s an intriguing and refreshing read, perfect summer book for the beach.

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