Month: March 2005
“I would like to recommend Landscapes of a Distant Mother by Said, who, for security reasons, publishes only under his first name,” Treat says. “Landscapes of a Distant Mother is a memoir about exile and loss. A slight 112 pages, the book is spare but also wrenching. It centers on the reunion Said has with his mother whom he has only seen once since birth (he is 43). Exiled from his native Iran for political reasons, living in Germany, Said writes of the terrible anticipation of meeting his mother, the meeting itself, and its aftermath. Beautifully written, honest and at times, painful, Landscapes is written like a letter, addressed to his mother, “Alone with a note in my pocket, on which there is written the name of a stranger who is to lead me to you–to a mother I have never known.” It can be read as a love letter, a love that is full of misgivings.”
Jessica Treat is the author of two books of stories: A Robber in the House and Not a Chance.
If you read the literary news even casually, you’ve no doubt heard the oft-repeated details surrounding the publication of Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut collection: Thai-American writer, 25 years old, six-figure book deal. Unfailingly repeated in every review, they tend to work as signifiers in themselves, overshadowing what matters most: the work.
The stories in Sightseeing, all told in first-person, all set in Thailand, are narrated (mostly) by young men who journey from innocence to realization in convincingly subtle ways. “At the Cafe Lovely” tells the tale of a young boy whose older brother, Anek, takes him to see a prostitute at the tender age of 11. The boy’s admiration, his desire to emulate, lead him to follow in Anek’s footsteps, even when they lead to the abandonment of their mother. In the very touching “Draft Day,” a young man and his best friend, each from disparate social classes, spend the day together, waiting to hear the results of a rigged lottery that will decide whether they are to serve in the army or can go free. The narrator’s guilt over the bribe his parents paid to get him off, and his shame at knowing that his best friend won’t get lucky is nearly palpable.
I found it refreshing that Lapcharoensap navigates what might seem to others as exotic, but doesn’t give in to the titillating detail; his work is vivid without being gratuitously colorful. At times, though, his stylistic choices seem completely odd. The dialogue between characters is rife with American slang, even if one allows for the fact that the text is a rendering in English. And his efforts at observing foreigners (“farangs”) are too one-note, too superficial to have the effect that they were probably intended to have. But when Lapcharoensap allows himself to take the time to invest in his characters, the efforts can result in stunningly beautiful work, like the novella “Cockfighter,” in which a young girl watches as her father, a once proud fighter with the best roosters in town, starts to lose everything to his gambling habit.
“I recommend Gayle Brandeis’s The Book of Dead Birds. The novel won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, an award in support of a literature of social responsibility, and earned praises from Toni Morrison who was one of the judges. This is an evocative and moving story narrated by Ava Sing Lo, the daughter of a Korean mother and African-American serviceman. Ava accidentally kills her mother’s pet birds before she begins to try and save endangered birds along the shores of the Salton Sea. Her story crosses cultures and merges generations. The author’s prose is pristine and I particularly appreciate the way in which she handles every character with dignity. The Book of Dead Birds is such a graceful story, as unusual as its characters.”
Sefi Atta was born in Nigeria, has lived in England and is now based in the United States. She is the author of the novel Everything Good Will Come and has completed her second novel Swallow.
Here’s a special treat for you while I’m away. I have an extra copy of one of my favorite books: Mohammed Choukri’s Le Pain Nu. This is a classic of Moroccan literature with a lot of history–the banning, the translation by Paul Bowles, the alleged fight between the author and the translator over the copyright, etc. But really it comes down to an amazingly honest story, one that will grab you and not let go. This is a French translation, so you’ll actually need to speak Moliere’s language to get it. I’ll give it to the first person who emails me with his/her address.
Update: The winner is Natasha T. Congrats!