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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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#IRHalfK 2017 Twitter Contest Winner!

Indiana Review is proud to announce the winner of our 2017 #IRHalfK Twitter Contest! We received some great ‘e’-less tweets and after careful deliberation we chose one winner who will receive an IR prize pack and free entry to our 2017 Half K Prize.

Join us in congratulating the winner, Eileen Tomarchio!

Runners-up Carrie Jenkins and S.E. Carson will receive an IR Prize Pack and Twitter love.

Thank you to everyone who participated! Make sure to submit your poetry and flash prose to our 2017 1/2 K Prize by August 1st, 2017!

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Futures Folio: Special Call for Submissions!

In addition to accepting works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for General Submissions starting September 1, Indiana Review is calling for submissions to our FUTURES FOLIO.

As we celebrate the pieces that have shaped the journal over the past forty years, we don’t want to lose sight of where we—or our readers—are headed. For a special folio in our Summer 2018 issue, we’re calling for short stories, poems, and essays that invoke the questions of our varied futures. Send us your characters who daydream and doubt, your chronicles of advancement and collapse. Guide us through landscapes that are wholly strange, or uncannily familiar. Though post-apocalyptic narratives are welcome, ultimately we seek the keenest, freshest interpretations of the theme in whatever form or genre they might take.


General and Special Folio Submissions are open from SEPTEMBER 1 until OCTOBER 31 (MIDNIGHT EST). We will only accept submissions during this submission window.

There is a $3.00 reading fee for all non-subscribing submitters.

To be considered for publication in our Special Folio, please be sure to select “FUTURES Folio – appropriate genre” when submitting.

You may only submit to ONE of the following: General Submissions or the Special Folio. 

Stories & Nonfiction: We consider prose of up to 8,000 words in length, and we prefer manuscripts that are double-spaced in 12-point font with numbered pages. Submissions should be formatted as .doc files.

Poems: Send only 3-6 poems per submission. Do not send more than 4 poems if longer than 3 pages each.

Translations: We welcome translations across genres. Please ensure you have the rights to the translated piece prior to submitting.

If you have been published in IR, please wait two years before submitting again.

All submitted work must be previously unpublished, which includes works posted to personal blogs, online journals or magazines, or any part of a thesis or dissertation that has been published electronically.

IR cannot consider work (other than book reviews, author interviews, or blog posts) from anyone currently or recently affiliated with Indiana University, which includes those who have studied at or worked for Indiana University within the past 4 years.

We look forward to reading your work! For complete guidelines, or to submit, please click here for our Submissions page.