No No- Boy by John Okada  (1956) was the first novel by a Japanese American dealing with the Japanese internment camps in America after the bombing of Pearl harbour. The book was not well received by the Japanese  American community initially. It dealt with issues like racism and army drafting.

The novel centres around a Japanese American who refused to draft for the second World War by pledging loyalty to the Emperor Hirohito backed by the allied troops and to fight against those that “misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest”.

It was so hard for Okada to find a publisher in America that he published in Japan in 1956 with a Japanese English language publisher. In 1971, CARP ( Combined Asian-American Resources Project) found the book  and republished it. Now a copyright controversy rages between the University of Washington professor Shawn Wong  ,who republished the book in 1976 for CARP and Penguin. Penguin recently republished the book in May 2019 as part of a series featuring Asian American writing. Penguin claims that as the book was never registered in America, it has no copyright protection in USA, where it sells well and is taught as part of university curriculum.

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Physical Map of Asia

When we travel or go on a holiday, we look forward to discovering spaces and cultures new to us. Here is a list of ten books that can vicariously give us a flavour of diverse cultures in the same way. The selection zips across Asia collecting books that have won Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary prize and more.

The books sail from Philippines to China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Vietnam to satisfy the fussiest of palates with fiction from different cultures.

Books by award winning and popular writer Haruki Murakami of Japan; Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu of China; Man Booker prize winning writer Arvind Adiga from India and the last and only female winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Korean writer Shin Kyung-sook , are featured in this listing.

 

“Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold,” said Haruki Murakami, the seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, in an interview with Japan Times. 

The interview introduces his latest novel, Killing Commendatore, where the protagonist, a thirty-six year old artist  goes into his paintings. He weaves the natural and supernatural to explore reality and admits that his protagonist is based partly on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

A popular novelist, Haruki Murakami was the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize  in 2006, given in recognition of  “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times”. He has received many awards at both international and national levels and has three doctorates, including one from Princeton University.

Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee

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Title: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2018

Some book titles are a giveaway. Given the political climate in India today, with so many conversations centred on the subject of meat eating, one might be forgiven for assuming that The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh book, a novella, is a satirical take on contemporary India. In English August(1988), and in The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Chatterjee’s pen is acerbic, and educated-middle-class-privilege tipped, displaying a wit that wafts out of the 1970s generation in mainstream Delhi University. The temptation is to assume that Non-vegetarian presents more of the same. It does not. It is a sombre story, set in a small town (Batia) in early post-Independence India, and told with uncharacteristic restraint.

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian features Agastya Sen’s father (who we met in English, August, writing peremptory letters to his ennui-stricken son), and hearkens back to an older milieu, both in terms of the frame, and in the person of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, sub-divisional magistrate in the small town of Batia. The murder of six people who Sen considers friends, or the murderer that sparks the tale of revenge, present little mystery. The suspense is built by the narrative that unfolds from the edges of the grim event and the role Sen plays in giving shape to it over a period in time with issues swiveling around death penalty. Unlike his spiritually dispirited son from the celebrated debut novel, in this somewhat less ambitious novella, Sen is self-possessed, intellectually restrained, committed to the world in which he enjoys the trappings of state power, and a steadfast friend.

 

Munshi Premchand(1880-1936), born as Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav, was one of the foremost Hindi writers of the early twentieth century. He has to his credit more than three hundred short stories, fourteen novels, many more essays, letters translations and plays and even a film script.

His short story Shatranj ke Khiladi was made into an award winning film by Satyajit Ray as were a number of his other works by noted directors, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

With his reformatory zeal and an ability to create empathetic overtones, Premchand was a prominent writer in Hindi who was appreciated more after his death than before. Writes David Rubin, late translator and scholar, in The World of Premchand (Oxford, 2001): “To Premchand belongs the distinction of creating the genre of the serious short story—and the serious novel as well—in both Hindi and Urdu. Virtually single-handed he lifted fiction in these languages from a quagmire of aimless romantic chronicles to a high level of realistic narrative comparable to European fiction of the time; and in both languages, he has, in addition, remained an unsurpassed master.” Interestingly, Rubin taught for a number of years in Allahabad and Rajasthan Universities in India and is also known to have translated not only Premchand but also another very well-known Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Losing Kei

Title: Losing Kei
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Publisher: Leapfrog Press
Pages: 195

 

Losing Kei, a novel by Suzanne Kamata, an American expatriate living in Japan, highlights the story of a mother who abandons her child, torn by the clash of cultures.  Kei is the child from a marriage sundered by the incompatibility of the parents. The American mother leaves the Japanese father and their six-year-old son. Set in Japan, the focus of the story is on the mother’s struggle and inability to adjust to her marriage with a Japanese man in his own country.

Jill Parker, the mother and the protagonist, states at the very beginning of the story, ‘I came to Japan because a man had broken my heart.’ The author uses the perspective of the protagonist to narrate the story in first person. Jill takes an art scholarship to Japan to get over her boyfriend, Philip. When she meets her well-to-do Japanese spouse, Yusuke, a businessman who owns an art gallery, she is down and out. She has no money to pay her rent and works in a bar in Tokushima City to support herself. Yusuke is the solution to her monetary hardships and heartbreak. Jill marries Yusuke, telling him that she is exploring the world like Blondelle Malone, a nineteenth- early twentieth century impressionist artist who never married. However, unlike Malone, Jill is willing to marry. Jill doesn’t speak of her earlier heartbreak to Yusuke. As she struggles to conform to her Japanese marriage, she grows increasingly resentful of parental interference. The last straw for her is when Yusuke’s father dies and her husband declares that they would have to continue looking after his mother and live in the same house. For Jill, Yusuke’s grief at his father’s death is unattractive as is his clean-shaven face, which makes him seem ‘like a stranger’.

As she leaves him and her young child, one is left gaping at the heartlessness and self-centeredness of an irresponsible mother who is unable to put a child’s needs above her own.