Posts By: Anna Cabe

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Microreview: Stephanie Han’s Swimming in Hong Kong

Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han (Willow Springs Books, 2016)

Stephanie Han’s debut short story collection Swimming in Hong Kong, her protagonists dwell in liminal places, whether because of race, nationality, age, or location. Han’s exploration of these in-between states is distinguished by its complexity and unabashed embrace of the political, most notably what it means to both enact politics in one’s actions and to live in an inherently politicized body, particularly for women of color in the United States or majority-white expatriate circles abroad.

In the first story, “Invisible,” the narrator is a Korean-American woman married to a white Brit in Hong Kong, who grapples with the anonymity of resembling the Han Chinese people around her while struggling with a language she does not share. In “My Friend Faith, 1977,” the young Debbie yearns to be as American as her white neighbors in California until a summer she spends in South Korea when she meets a white missionary’s daughter who has lived there since she was five and is comfortable with the language and culture in ways that Korean-American Debbie is not. In “The Body Politic, 1982,” Sabrina is desperately trying to shake off her Wisconsin deli-owning parents’ expectations and become the sophisticated revolutionary in New York she dreams of being. The protagonists of this collection are mostly women but range in ethnicity, age, and class from an elderly cardboard collector to a twenty-something Korean immigrant on the American West Coast to a black woman training for a triathlon in Hong Kong. All of them, though, grapple with transition, loneliness, an inability or lack of desire to fit in or settle.

I did think there was a story or two in the collection which didn’t handle sociopolitical ideas with the concreteness and subtlety that characterized the best stories of the book. For example, in “The Ki Difference,” which presents two people formerly in an interracial relationship reuniting in Seoul, there is a character who is the very definition of the “Ugly American Tourist” and the “Fetishizing White Guy With Yellow Fever.” He talks more loudly in English to a waitress who can’t understand him, romanticizes the citizens of the Asian countries he visits, and is shamelessly materialistic, making it difficult for me to understand why the Korean-American protagonist would have ever dated him in the first place, much less choosing to meet up with him again.

Still, it’s refreshing to see the book tackle subjects I haven’t seen much in mainstream fiction, such as the complicated relationship between foreign expatriates and the citizens of the countries in which they live. In “Invisible,” the Korean-American protagonist does not belong with either the Han Chinese locals nor the mostly white expatriates; “Hong Kong Rebound” explores how affluent expatriates ignore or mistreat the poorer locals who serve them; and one protagonist in “Swimming in Hong Kong” is navigating living abroad as a black American woman. Furthermore, “The Body Politic, 1982” tackles the complex gender politics of many ethnic solidarity organizations. The more radical Asian-American groups protagonist Sabrina participates in initiate her political awakening but also police how she conducts herself as a woman and in romantic and sexual relationships, particularly when she is assaulted by a white man she was initially attracted to and feels unable to tell anyone, even her new Asian-American boyfriend:  “But I kept my silence after the AMW-Asian Media Watch meeting. Sam spoke of Asian sisters who sold out their people to white men and I could feel Matt squeeze my hand as I disappeared in his palm. I wasn’t a sellout, he was saying to me” (34).

Overall, the collection firmly dedicates itself to the lives of Asian women and other women of color. Too often, women like these characters are peripheral and flat in mainstream English-language fiction, if they show up at all; Han’s women characters are complex and human with secrets, pain, and joy, whether it’s a young woman finally revealing to the man she loves in America that she left a son behind in Korea or a Korean spinster finding love with a younger white American. The title of the story that opens the collection is “Invisible,” but as the stories unfold, these women are rendered anything but: “You listen to the rise of his voice carefully as if to memorize it all, because slowly in front of you he is fading. His words are drowned by the clink of glasses; the haze of tobacco rises and his presence recedes, swallowed by the dim amber light” (19). In Han’s hands, these women are flesh and blood, alive, triumphant.

 

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Online Feature: “Four Proofs” by Richard Siken

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-1906

When she saw herself, finished, she said, It doesn’t look like
me. Picasso said, It will. Perhaps it will look like her
because it is the document and will remain, while she is
just a person who will fade. Now, when we think of her,
we think of this painting. Picasso was planning ahead.
The painting is evidence but not proof. There’s no proof
that she looked like that, even though we have
the document. She existed enough to be painted. She could
have been an idea, but that’s another kind of existing.
The hand is a tool. The brush is a tool. The paint as well.
There is no machine here, but the work gets done.
A hammer is a tool when banging its head but a lever
when pulling up nails. A lever is a machine, has a fulcrum
which can be moved to change the ratio of something
or other, effort for distance. There is a fulcrum in
the mind that can be moved as well. I do not know what
else to say about this.

Raphael, Saint George and the Dragon, 1504-06

It’s hard to talk about what you believe while you are
believing it. Fervor reduces thought to shorthand and
all we get is an icon. Give a man a weapon and you
have a warrior. Put him on a horse and you have
a hero. The weapon is a tool. The horse is a metaphor.
Raphael painted this twice—white horse facing east
against the greens, white horse facing west against the
yellows. The maiden flees or prays, depending. A basic
dragon, the kind you’d expect from the Renaissance.
Evidence of evil but not proof. There’s a companion piece
as well:  Saint Michael. Paint angels, it’s easier:
you don’t need the horse. Michael stands on Satan’s
throat, vanquishing, while everything brown burns red.
All these things happened. Allegedly. When you paint
an evil thing, do you invoke it or take away its power?
This has nothing to do with faith but is still a good
question. Raphael was trying to say something
about spirituality. This could be the definition of painting.
The best part of spirituality is reverence. There are other
parts. Some people like to hear the sound of their own
voice. If you don’t believe in the world it would be
stupid to paint it. If you don’t believe in God, who
are you talking to?

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610

Wanted for murder, a price on his head, Caravaggio
does what he always does—he tries to paint his
way out of it. This bad boy—whose moodiness came to be
called the Baroque, this thug whose soul
was as big as Rome and full of anvils—paints his own
face on Goliath’s severed head and offers himself
up as villain, captured, to escape the hammers of the law.
Allegory, yes. A truth as well. But truth doesn’t count
in law, only proof. He took the gods and made them
human. His Bacchus was a worn-out drunk. An animal
likely to sleep in a pool of its own sick. He raised
the status of the still life, made subjects out of objects,
turned nature into drama—the bloom on the grapes,
the bloom on the boys, leaves as important as
nudes. Exaggerated light, pure theater. Evidence
of a mind he delights in. Evicted from Rome, he wants
back in. They want his head, and he’s prepared to
give it to them. He paints David in yellow pants while
the pope’s nephew arranges his pardon. July 1610—
Caravaggio rolls up his paintings and sets sail
from Naples, heading north. They stop for supplies. No one’s
heard of the pardon. Jail. He pays his way out,
but the boat and his paintings have sailed on without
him. He follows. Malaria. He dies three days before
his pardon arrives and three days after Rembrandt’s
fourth birthday. His painted head arrives in Rome weeks
later. All painting is sent downstream, into the future.

René Magritte, La Clairvoyance, 1936

Odin had ravens. Zeus was a swan. Magritte saw an egg
and painted a bird. Part of heroism is being able to
see the future and still remain standing. If you don’t
believe in God or Fate you still must believe in narrative.
I am waiting for you, here in the trainstation, says the
trainstation. Philosophy is thinking. Prophesy is wishful
thinking. It’s easy to find evidence of the future but
harder to make people believe you. This is only obvious
if you have tried. Odin had proxies. Zeus had disguises.
Magritte saw the back of his head in a mirror. Not
hindsight, not really. A debriefing. He claimed that an
image was treacherous. He was right about that but
he might not have understood directionality. His paintings,
though mysterious, conceal nothing. A possible world
and its incomprehensibilities. A purposeful distortion.
Dreaming in the service of. True in the sense of carpentry.

*

This poem originally appeared as “Three Proofs” in Indiana Review 37.1, Summer 2015, and as “Four Proofs” in the fourth printing of War of the Foxes (Copper Canyon Press). 

Emily Corwin (Poetry Editor):  In this sequence of epistolary poems, Richard Siken pushes me gently into the textures, the layers here—both the sensual and the philosophical embedded in these art objects. In each section, I gather information about the context, the associations, the physicality of the art—each piece like a lesson, an opening outward for the reader. Gorgeous and thoughtful, I always look forward to reading Siken’s work.

*

Richard Siken is the author of Crush (Yale University Press) and War of the Foxes (Copper Canyon Press).

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Online Feature: “Masks” by Yusef Komunyakaa

It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.

— W.B. Yeats, “The Mask”

Upon first glance at Tyagan Miller’s gallery of troubling and troubled faces, you might wish instead for a few classical portraits garnered from the Schomburg Collection. You could even long for a glimpse of the rural poor captured in Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson’s And Their Children After Them. Or, you might squint, hoping to blur these “high risk” faces until they become the sardonic images of Life Smiles Back, LIFE magazine’s compilation of photographs. You may squirm and shift your feet to run; but the faces captured here cannot easily be outdistanced.

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Online Feature: “Conversation with Thorax” by Alissa Nutting

It began as a blind date. I nearly didn’t approach the table when I saw him sitting alone at the table we’d agreed on—the one on the left wall next to the bathrooms. I always insist upon this table for blind dates in case I need to cut the night short by feigning diarrhea.

He was a pale and prominently jointed man, each of his bones exaggerated by thinness. As we chatted, I stared at the huge knuckles on his fingers—they made me think of doorknobs positioned in the middle of long, white socks. He moved them constantly, every digit on his hand, working them across the table’s surface as though he were typing. They were industrious. He made neat, geometric piles of the crumbs left by his soda crackers. Small bits of napkin were grouped to look like a hill of salt.

He was an entomologist. He studied bugs.

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Hoosier Journal Spotlight: Booth and “How to Make a Beginning” by Aubrey Ryan

This spring, Indiana Review conducted interviews with other Indiana journals. We were driven by a few questions:  What does it mean to be a Midwestern or Hoosier journal? What does it mean to be a member of a literary community? What are our Hoosier neighbors up to? What do they seek for their publications?

Robert Stapleton, Founder and Editor of Booth, which is published out of Butler University in Indianapolis, IN, was kind enough to answer a few questions for our final installment for the spring semester. We talked about Booth‘s namesake, the literary community in Butler University and Indianapolis, and enduring advice from William Faulkner. Be sure to check out a gorgeous poem, “How to Make a Beginning” by Aubrey Ryan, at the end!

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