Chariot of the Sun, disingenuously subtitled “An Informal History of a Siamese Family”, stands out from the recent plethora of run-of-the-mill or self-serving memoirs and biographies by very much being neither. Here we can meet an utterly fascinating variety of people, a number of whom occupied positions of power, but also some who didn’t, and they’re all revealed through what Nic Dunlop tells us on the back cover, “storytelling that revels in the fragmentary and the anecdotal.” This is a different kind of memoir; the main “character” isn’t so much the writer himself, but a selection of family members evocatively presented through stories and photographs that are linked by a narrative about an ancient prophecy (no spoiling here!). Bunnag begins with the 2011 earthquake and ends with a tree (the name Bunnag means “tree”) and a placenta, hopping backwards and forwards in time as he goes, employing full use of his skills as a documentary film-maker.
In Burmese Haze (a reference to George Orwell’s classic novel), former US official Erin Murphy gives a personalized history of the past fifteen years of Myanmar history, with particular focus on, if not always from the perspective of, US policy towards this often opaque Southeast Asian country. Murphy was herself in the thick of it, either supporting US policymakers or, for the last decade, in the private sector working to assist US-Myanmar trade and investment relations.
Hong Kong is almost impossible to explain to those not from the city. Too often, the city has had to struggle with shorthand used by those writing about the city from afar—for audiences with little understanding of what the place is actually like.
Laura Gao was born in Wuhan and spent her first four years with grandparents in China while her mother and father studied in the US. When she reunites with her parents, she finds herself in the strange land of Texas where teachers and new classmates can not pronounce her Chinese name, the only name she knows. Gao writes about culture shock and identity in her engaging new book, Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American, a story nicely accompanied by vivid drawings.
Karen Cheung’s new book, The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, about growing up and coming of age in a city she feels is like no other, is characterized by a narrative style both intimate and candid. It’s hard to avoid being swept up by her story from the beginning as she describes the day of the Handover in 1997 when she was four years old.
As a counterpoint to the rich literature of Europeans discovering Asia, readers have access to many accounts by Asians about Europe. These writings hold up a mirror in front of their authors, who, unconsciously, reveal much about their own societies. Mehmed Effendi, the first Turkish ambassador to the court of Louis XV wrote in his Paradise of the Infidels that France was ruled by women, revealing an Ottoman anxiety about the power of the harem. In The Narrative of the Residence of the Persian Princes, visitors from Iran remarked on the sobriety of Britain’s King William IV, compared to the glamor of the Peacock Throne. The Qajar princes wondered how long Iran could maintain its great power status vis-a-vis William’s nation of parsimonious shop keepers.
In his new (but posthumous) memoir, Shanghai Jewish refugee Paul Hoffmann writes about his three most tumultuous experiences. One was enduring six months of Nazi Vienna, the other the terror inflicted by Sargent Kano Ghoya in the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto, and the third life under the new Chinese regime from 1949-1952. Much has been written about the first two, but Witness to History sheds light on the lives of the Jews that stayed behind in Shanghai after 1949.