In 2019, that watershed year just before the onset of Covid-19, a protest movement erupted on the Indian subcontinent in response to two new laws introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The first, a revision to the Citizenship Act of 1955, with changes to conditions for asylum conditions designed to specifically exclude Muslims; the second law required Indians to provide proof of ancestry, if and when asked by local state authorities, essentially enabling and encouraging discrimination against minority and oppressed groups. The passage of these laws was interpreted by those on the left as only one part of the Modi regime’s ongoing efforts at erasing the Muslim history of the Indian subcontinent.
In the opening scene of Liu Zhenyun’s 2017 novel, recently translated into English as Strange Bedfellows by the widely acclaimed translators Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin (some critics have gone so far as to assert that Goldblatt’s translations of Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan are better than the originals), we witness the negotiation of a poor young woman from an unnamed province in southwestern China being sold into marriage. The woman handling the negotiation on the groom’s behalf is Niu Xiaoli, sister of the prospective groom and the focus of much of the narrative that follows. Song Caixia, the new bride, winds up running off five days into the marriage. Together with the matchmaker who introduced them, Niu Xiaoli embarks upon a road trip in an effort to track down her brother’s bride—and winds up losing herself in the process.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” begins the narrator on the first page of Kim Thúy’s latest, Em, “but only partially, incompletely, more or less.” To put an even finer emphasis on the point, she tells us a couple pages later, that “truth “is fragmented”—as indeed it must be when dealing with a topic as vast as the troubled history of Vietnam. Departing from its brutal colonial entrapment as a rubber producing outlet for the French, cascading through the desolation of the Vietnam War, finally culminating in the strain of exile that became the sole reality available to those who managed to survive, Em accomplishes in some 160 pages what has taken many historians volumes to tell.
With its opening scene of a hard-boiled interrogation of murder suspect Han Manu, Lemon seems to be setting the reader up for yet another rote exercise in crime fiction. And the reader follows the cues, according to convention: skeptically receiving the detective’s attributions of guilt to a clearly confused Manu, suspecting that the murder of the teenage girl that has taken place will prove to be anything but a clear-cut case—and, still, satiated with the requisite hunger to plunge onward, with the promise of more clues to be unveiled shortly in the course of what is, after all, a refreshingly thin novel.
The unnamed narrator of Yan Ge’s novel Strange Beasts of China, a former zoology student-turned-fiction writer, resides in the fictional city of Yong’an, somewhere in southern China, described as “a huge, filthy, ungovernable city, full of all sorts of beasts of unknown origin, and secrets, likewise.” Yong’an perhaps resembles the concrete jungles of nearly every provincial Chinese capital, save for the fact that it is also home to a number of exotic creatures, each species of which resembles homo sapiens, save for certain afflictions and anomalies.