Of all the waves of Chinese emigration that have taken place throughout history, it is arguably the Cantonese diaspora that has left an indelible mark wherever they have settled around the globe. The footprints of early migrants—mainly from Hong Kong or southern mainland China—can be tracked by the opening of Chinese takeaways, through which a (Westernized) taste of home was introduced to foreign lands.
In Larissa Lai’s new novel, The Lost Century, elderly Violet Mah wonders, “Why is it that the grandchild most distant from the history is the one most interested in it?” It is this question that frames Lai’s story set in Hong Kong just before and during the Japanese occupation. This question is also the basis of another new novel, Nancy Lam’s debut, The Loyal Daughter, which takes place in southern China, Hong Kong, and Ontario.
Sati Mookherjee’s grandfather was arrested 17 years before India gained independence and went into exile in the UK. He returned to India in 1939 when England entered World War II. Mookherjee’s debut, Eye, based on her grandfather’s memoirs, is not a traditional collection of poetry, but rather a series of just three poems that give a vivid sense of his experiences during this historic era.
All families have their stories, and for families scattered around the world, as Teresa Lim’s is, the stories often have a central pivot decades or generations back. Lim’s family story gets going, if not starts, with her maternal great-great grandfather who emigrated to Singapore from Southern China at the end of the 19th-century. Draught and famine caused many able-bodied men to leave for more prosperous shores; the Chinese Exclusion Act had closed off the US, and Singapore was, in any event, closer.
“To satisfy Divine Justice, perfect victims were necessary, but the Law of Love has succeeded to the law of fear, and Love has chosen me as a holocaust, me, a weak and imperfect creature” wrote Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in her 1982 debut novel Dictee. Only two months after its publication, Cha was raped and murdered on her way to meet her husband and friends for dinner in New York City. She was 31 years old. Cha’s novel is haunting, tragic, and defiant. Written in multiple languages and in a style both enigmatic and experimental, its accessibility is comparable to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Dictee is widely recognized today as a critically important text of postmodern, postcolonial, Asian-American literature and has enthralled scholars of Asian American literature since its publication. Forty years later, University of California Press has produced a restored version of Dictee. With the original cover and high-quality interior layout as Cha had designed them, this book is the most aesthetically appealing edition of the five that have been produced.
Alison Hồng Nguyễn Lihalakha was just a small child when her family fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. From a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, Alison’s family settled in Panama City, Florida, where her father worked as a fisherman until his sudden death. Left to raise seven kids on her own, Alison’s mother moved the family to Kansas to be near relatives. There, Alison found herself torn between her dual identities as both an immigrant and an American kid.
Jessica Au’s novella Cold Enough For Snow won the inaugural “Novel Prize” in 2020 while still in manuscript; it’s easy to understand what the judges saw in it. Compact and terse yet flowing, both concrete and ambiguous, intimate but distant, modest yet knowing, the book manages to find universality in the careful observation of detail.