Kitchen Curse

Review of Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse, translated by Annie Tucker, Benedict Anderson, Maggie Tiojakin, and Tiffany Tsao (Verso Fiction, 2019)

Review

A sentient rock tricked into a familial murder, a toilet wall re-imaged as a stage for revolution, and a lowly maid’s spicy Indonesian dish reworked for terror are just some of the mischievous and engrossing tales recounted in Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse. Translated from the original Indonesian by Annie Tucker, Ben Anderson and others, the collection includes sixteen stories with themes that run from the dark to the mordantly funny.

Some are overtly political and caustic to past and current regimes in Indonesia. Others are mythical and magical. All of them are bold and—as the first collection of short stories by Kurniawan to be translated into English—serve as a memorable introduction to contemporary Indonesian surrealism and Kurniawan’s savage wit.

Of the stories that have a magical twist, “Caronang” is the most haunting. A Javanese farmer finds a dog that walks upright and said to be of ancient origin, having gone extinct on the island long ago. This “Lupus erectus” proves to be more intelligent than a normal canine. The caronang creature befriends the toddler of the family, learns how to fill in coloring books, and even bathes itself, “shampooing its whole body, though with a clumsiness that tickled us.” Soon the caronang is…[click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Indonesian street art via the talented Samantha Lou Howard and her IndonesiaDesignStudio.blog. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands

Review of Joshua Bird’s Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands (Routledge, 2017)

Review

The ban on Arabic script at halaal restaurants in Beijing last month is a somewhat small, yet unnerving reminder of China’s illiberal relationship with its various minority populations. More serious has been the reported detainment of a million-plus Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang over the past couple of years. Similarly, the on-going detention of many Tibetan Buddhists—as well as a near universal ban of foreign travel for individuals living in the Tibetan region—also indicate a tense relationship between the single-party People’s Republic of China (PRC) and many minority populations.

The 55 “minority nationalities”, as defined by the Chinese party-state, only account for around eight percent of China’s 1.3 billion people. Yet, this non-Han population still amounts to a large number at over 100 million. How they do, or do not, interact with the overarching Han identity will continue to have a profound impact on China’s prosperity—particularly the farther one travels inward away from the coastal megalopolises.

Insightful and measured, Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands by Joshua Bird is a fascinating evaluation of the day-to-day lived experience of those non-Han individuals. This is a measured investigation specifically because Bird focuses his study on ordinary people, making an ordinary living in China, including simple businessmen, small-time retailers, provincial-level traders, and local entrepreneurs. This is not a book about extreme cases of minority repression. Rather, the background assumption here is that by concentrating on those individuals, who are materially tied into the system for their livelihood—which is, indeed, most minorities in China—the researcher can better judge the government’s development plans as a whole on these populations. The outlier cases often make for good journalism, but they rarely represent the experience of most minorities, who are simply trying to maintain some sense of ethnic or religious identity that is independent of the juggernaut that is Han culture and society.

The Chinese authorities’ official view has been that if they were to succeed in improving the economic development of minority nationalities, then this would inevitably lead to a diminishing of political identity. As Bird notes, official policies like the “Open Up The West” campaign

have been created in the explicit belief that increased economic growth in minority nationality areas, and improved livelihoods for those who live there, will facilitate greater national cohesion.

In this case, minority local languages and minority status are fine—even encouraged for reasons of tourism—as long as they don’t signal any type of independent political aspiration. The end goal would be… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Joshua Bird’s Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; follow Josh on Twitter; photo image credit of the Dongxiang girl goes to the talented Peter Morgan, where you can also find him on Twitter. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Interpreter of Winds

Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds (Ethos Books, 2019)

Review

A pious canine argues with a camel, a windy night lasts for years, and a Javanese keris blade is wielded to murder a village witch in Fairoz Ahmad’s enchanting short story collection Interpreter of Winds. A quick and charming read, this book includes four magical tales across Islamic communities in the Indonesian and Malay world. Some take place in a stylized colonial past and some in the contemporary world, where current struggles crash against the fantastical.

The main story with the same title of the collection follows the quest of a talking dog, whose master is unconscious of the adventure his canine pet is about to have. The dog wants to be inducted into the Islamic faith as a true Muslim like his master and sets out on journey after meeting a cantankerousness camel named Ghati on the roads. The dog soon endears himself to Ghati as they go in search of the winds of all four points. Upon meeting one of the fabled winds, the wind requests an “appropriate gift” to assist the faithful canine in his search. Another tale is then woven within the first as the dog responds, “The only gift I could offer to you is the gift of stories.”

This becomes… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of for this re-post is via wallup.net. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village

Review of Patcharin Lapanun’s Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village (NUS Press, 2019)

Review

Well-researched and easy to follow, Patcharin Lapanum’s Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village is a powerful reminder of how interconnected the world has become—and how love can emerge between the most disparate of individuals.

Though a work of academic anthropology, based mainly on Patcharin’s PhD research, the book is highly readable. The communities in the Isan region of Thailand, the women who inhabit these spaces, and the western men who end up sharing their lives with them are communicated with a non-judgmental clarity and sincerity. Patcharin’s meticulous examination of the lives of Thais in one village, some of whom have opted for marriage with foreign partners, makes for a fascinating and very contemporary ethnography.

Patcharin’s central argument is refreshing in that she does not want to bend the evidence to fit any narrative that denies women their agency in how they use their sexuality. The researcher is direct in saying that she is less interested in following many of her colleagues, who may be too quick to dismiss these relationships as a “gendered orientalizing project”, and more concerned about allowing the empirical evidence to speak for itself. Focusing on the “victimisation/oppression perspective” exclusively is often detrimental to “our understanding of the complexity of the current transnational phenomenon.”

This book goes against currently popular theories that wish to equate transnational marriage as nothing more than a front for sex trafficking. The research captures numerous moments of this bias, particularly by Western women, who may be inclined to emphasize a material—or even more crudely a transactional—interpretation of these relationships. As one Thai woman, who is married to Dutchman and works in a grocery store in the Netherlands, described in her own words:

Yes, my co-workers sometimes tease me about this. Once I was asked how much my husband paid to marry me. I didn’t take it seriously, but this is the way they think about us.

Patcharin stays true to the complicated nature of… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Patcharin Lapanum’s (พัชรินทร์ ลาภานันท์, ดร.) Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; another version of this review appeared in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Phayakunkak Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์พญาคันคาก or Toad Museum) in Phaya Tan public park in Yasothon, Thailand for this re-post is via the talented icon0com, whose website is also worth checking out here. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Rabbit: Ms. Pat on Hustling and Humor

Review of Patricia Williams’ Rabbit: A Memoir, with Jeannine Amber (Dey St, 2018)

Total Fan Now

I knew as soon as I heard Patricia Williams—aka, Ms. Pat—on The Joe Rogan Experience (episode no. 1312) that I had to get her book. Ms. Pat is devilishly funny. I was a fan by the end of the interview and wanted to support her content.

Listen to her on Rogan’s podcast below to see why I was immediately smitten with her brand of comedy:

Unnerving Childhood

What struck me most about Ms. Pat’s description of her childhood, growing up in Atlanta, was how much of it seemed very familiar to anyone who’s spent some time living abroad in poorer, underdeveloped countries—what academics smarter than I used to call the Third or Fourth World but now the “developing world.” Grueling poverty is simply a fact of life in many of these places. I’m reluctant to place poverty at the foot of all our social ills, but in the case of so much of the developing world it really can explain a lot. However, I’ve never deluded myself into thinking that there were not pockets of this type of misery in America. But for those who may have, Ms. Pat’s memoir is a wonderfully pointed reminder of how completely shitty one’s childhood can be in the United States.

The more unnerving side of Ms. Pat’s childhood for me was her family life. Her mother drank and smoked a lot and was involved in a zillion different petty crimes. As a preteen, Ms. Pat and her sister were molested by her mother’s boyfriend. They often had very little of anything nice to eat. A day-old hotdog bun laced with ketchup was a common dinner. At thirteen, Ms. Pat was pregnant. Her crap boyfriend beat her regularly whenever he wasn’t knocking up some other underaged girl. And throughout her teenage years, Ms. Pat sold crack to the black community of Atlanta to keep food on her own table.

Parts of Ms. Pat’s childhood made me think of many of the characters from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s as if magically they were transported to a metro Atlanta of the 1980s and 90s.

Funny as Hell

In spite of all the mishaps and misadventures, Ms. Pat’s retelling of it all is priceless. There are too many scenes from the book to recount here. But for a quick example, here is one about her mother cooking outdoors in downtown Atlanta:

Mama had a lot of ideas that made sense only to her. Like the time she decided to cook dinner out in the yard. I was ten years old and we’d moved to a run-down duplex at the bottom of a hill in a shitty part of town known as The Bluff. We didn’t have any gas in the house because it got cut off from Mama not paying the bill. So she went out and bought herself a charcoal barbecue grill, which she set up on the screened-in porch, right outside our front door.

The only problem was that grill wasn’t made for frying up a skillet full of catfish, like Mama used it for. One evening while she was cooking dinner, the whole porch filled up with thick black smoke. It was so bad that Mr. Willie, who lived in the other half of the duplex, came outside and started hollering.

“Mildred!” he yelled. “Bitch, you tryna kill me?”

“Mind your gotdamn business, you high-yella muthafucka!” Mama yelled back.

They kept up hollering at each other until Mr. Willie decided there was no reasoning with Mama, and called the fire department instead.

The fire truck pulled up to the house with sirens blaring. Mama stepped out of a cloud of black smoke with a fork in her hand, and asked, real casual, “What the hell going on out here?” like her stupid ass wasn’t the reason for all the commotion. When the fireman told her she had to move her grill off the porch before she burned the whole place down, Mama threw up her hands in exasperation:

“Where I’m supposed to cook then?”

“It’s up to you, ma’am,” said the fireman with a shrug. “As long as you keep the grill outside.” That’s when Mama moved her little cooking operation to the front yard. She’d be out there in her faded housedress and a plastic shower cap pulled over her Jheri curl, like she was in the privacy of her own kitchen, not out on full display. As hungry as I was, I would pray for the middle of the month when Mama would run out of food stamps and was low on food, and stop cooking in the yard. Eating ketchup sandwiches for dinner was better than getting teased all day long by kids in class who passed Mama on their way home from school.

Becoming a Comedian

Ms. Pat ends her memoir with the story of how she got up the courage to start standup comedy. A social worker encouraged her to get into comedy after hearing the way Ms. Pat would talk about how she grew up.

Ms. Pat starts to make the rounds of comedy clubs in the South. She eventually finds her way onto a few popular podcasts, where she ends up reaching a larger audience and getting attention of the journalist Jeannine Amber, who helps her put together this book for publication.

Toward the end of the book, Ms. Pat reflects on her experience and the way she uses her real-life experience for material:

But I don’t know if I want to be the poster child for growing up in the hood. Not everybody had it as bad as I did. Plenty of poor black girls don’t get knocked up by married-man predators, and not every kid has a mama who looks the other way. There are lots of poor folks who work hard and take care of their babies. There are teenage moms who make it out of the hood without ever selling drugs or dropping out of school. I just had the extra bad luck to be born into a family that had been beat down for so long, all that was left to our name was a bunch of hustlers and addicts. I had no one to show me the way.

I could have easily have turned out different, ending up like my sister…or all the other girls who I saw get lost to the streets. Instead, I feel like I was specially blessed.

People ask me all the time how I turned my life around… I wanted to turn my life around, and what got me there was love.

Highly Recommended

Ms. Pat’s book Rabbit: A Memoir makes for a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. Consider following her podcast entitled The Patdown with Ms. Pat, which is also a lot of fun! I’m looking forward to her doing a special sometime soon.

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*Rabbit: A Memoir Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. The image-photo credit for the top of this post goes to the talented Seattle artist Iosefatu Sua. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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We, The Survivors

Review of Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Review

Various degrees of financial precariousness and a vibrant—yet maddeningly hot and humid—Malaysia are the theme and setting of Tash Aw’s newest novel We, The Survivors. Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.

The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living. Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill. A young Ah Hock reflects:

… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.

Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tash Aw’s (歐大旭) We, The Survivors originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of that yummy-looking Malaysian mooncake for this re-post is via the talented مانفی. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Review of Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Riverhead Books, 2019)

Review

Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s story of Bangkok is the most complete and engrossing tale of this megacity of fifteen million souls ever portrayed in a single publication. His debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is as much an ode to the metropolis’s extremes as it is to the wide-ranging and singular characters that animate its streets and sois.

All of the characters of this novel connect with Bangkok, or what Bangkok once was, in a meaningful way. Some of Pitchaya’s uprooted individuals are displaced from a physical locality—others from traditions and histories that defined earlier versions of themselves and their communities. Those rituals they perform, some of them spiritual and some of them diurnal, are a way to connect themselves to a remembered past. Bangkok itself is an apt exemplar, as the town was born as a refuge after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Much of early Bangkok was designed in remembrance of that former international trading port and royal house farther up the Chao Phraya River. Pitchaya artfully intertwines the fate of Bangkok—and what he later imagines as New Bangkok after a terrible flooding—with the main characters’ longing for things past.

The book contains many… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Bangkok Wakes to Rain originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Igor Bilic from Suzanne Nam‘s “The Truth about Thailand’s Rainy Season” in TripSavvy. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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