Reviews

Panther by Chhimi Tenduf-La

Tenduf-La, Chhimi. Panther. India: Harper, 2015. Print.

The young adult novel Panther portrays Sri Lanka's rich multicultural history and tragic civil war. It will particularly appeal to Sri Lankan teenagers and this is to be welcomed because, after all, one day they will be responsible for maintaining their country's fragile 2002 ceasefire agreement.

How does one write about political conflicts in a way which attracts today's Asian children? Increasingly, writers based in Asia but writing in English do not parachute a Western character into the plot. In Panther, for example, Tenduf-La, a half-English, half-Tibetan Sri Lankan resident, has Prabu, a Tamil child soldier with an outstanding talent for cricket as his main protagonist. The title Panther refers to a fictional group of rebels who train Prabu to win a sports scholarship and blow up his Sinhalese classmates at a school dance. But Prabu is a sensitive, impressionable, lustful boy who squirms at even squashing a cockroach.

Tenduf-La transports readers to Prabu's life in both the military camp and the elite secondary school in Colombo. Rather than focus on Prabu's psychological state and emotional arc, he provides readers with accounts of Prabu's dramatic encounters with a colorful panoply of people, from the chilling Supreme Leader; a psychotic trainer; and a sinister schoolmaster; to the good guys: a pair ofTamil sisters who are brutally assassinated; a Sinhalese classmate called Indika who takes Prabu under his wing; and Indikar's father, a sympathizer to the Tamil cause. It is a surprise late encounter with his long-lost father that finally dissuades Prabu from the terrorist act for which he has been prepared.

This book follows hot on the heels of Tenduf-La's first published novel, The Amazing Racist, an interracial romance set in Sri Lanka between an English expatriate and a Sri Lankan beauty. In Panther, the author is more adventurous with his use of narrative structure. The opening chapters are told using alternating narrative strands. Unusually, the narrative present is told in the past tense, and Prabu's past namely, his experiences in the military camp is told in the present. This literary device risks leaving readers occasionally chronologically confused.

Once the plot settles into Prabu's life at school, the storyline is driven by his desire to acculturate. Cozying up to The Papadum King a Sinhalese classmate and captain of the cricket team accentuates Prabu's poor command of English, his clumsiness with girls, and his lack of education. Humorous accounts of teenage antics inebriation, gang fights and snogging become the throughline of the plot.

Much of the humor is created by misunderstandings between characters who have to use English as a common language.

"Pizza hut, sir," driver Ranjith said.

"Why here?" Indika asked. "Are we lost?"

"No, sir, you tell to me to bring you to Pizza Hut."

"No, no, no." Indika looked at his watch. "I asked you to take us to P.Sara. As in P.Sara Stadium."

As a consequence, Indika and Prabu are late for an important cricket match.

Prabu's poor command of English is a constant feature of his reported speech and the reason for numerous disputations:

"What time you pick me?" (Prabu)

"What for, dude?" Indika asked.

"The wonk."

"The wonk?"

"Dinner tonight at the wonk for the anniversary of your mother and also your father."

"The Wok, machan, not the wonk. I think it's just a family dinner, dude."

"Oh, but I thought ..."

At the dinner, rather surprisingly given no previous hint of his innate musicality, Prabu composes a rap and moonwalks to it, which Indika films on his mobile phone. Tenduf-La may well have added these Western activities to endear local readers to his characters.

Interestingly for a contemporary young adult novel, the narrative present sections of the story are told using an omniscient third point of view with an occasionally-prying adult authorial voice. Maybe more focus on the inner workings of Prabu's mind would have provided readers with a deeper insight into his dilemmas and motivations. But a novel which adds to the corpus of Asian children's literature is to be commended. Like the story of the young Sri Lankan protagonist Triton in Romesh Gunesekera's novel Reef, Prabu's antics will add value to this burgeoning fictional genre.

This review was published in the Asian Review of Books in June, 2015.

Mambo in Chinatown

Written by Jean Kwok.

The fact that a book with a young female Chinese protagonist has received such positive responses says something about arguably positive social and literary developments in the US. Similar to books by writers such as Lisa See and Cara Chow, Jean Kwok's Mambo in Chinatown is a polished work of fiction that seems destined to join the commercial mainstream.

The plot centers on a 22-year-old, second-generation American-Chinese girl who accidentally discovers that she possesses remarkable dancing skills. At the outset, Charlie is the "clumsiest girl ever" and works Cinderella-like as a dishwasher in her father's noodle shop in Chinatown, New York. But shortly after becoming a receptionist at a premier dancing studio, a "world class" choreographer recognizes her dancing potential, and within a matter of months, Charlie has transformed herself into a stunning-looking professional teacher and performer.

Charlie also discovers that her feelings for Westerners are stronger than the ones she has for the Chinese man her father would like her to marry. She falls in love, not only with her dancing partner, but possibly with the choreographer too, becoming "torn between" her dancing career and family commitments.

Meanwhile, her 11-year-old "extraordinarily intellectually gifted", incredibly precocious sister Lisa falls ill with alarming symptoms which their father, penniless from paying for Western medicine for their mother, insists on treating with remedies dispensed by a Chinese medical practitioner and an old woman who conducts ancient Chinese rituals to eliminate "evil spirits".

When their father finds out where Charlie is working, he threatens to disown Charlie and take Lisa back to China. Fortunately, the real reason for Lisa's malaise is revealed just in time: It is a result of sexual abuse by a trusted member of their family clan, rather than the hereditary disease that their mother died from. The story closes with their father attending a dancing competition and endorsing Charlie's chosen career and boyfriend after all.

The commercial thinking behind this 370-page story seems clear. The publisher, Riverhead Books, is a division of the Penguin Group which promotes "exciting new voices, stories and ideas", including Junot Diaz and Chang Rae Lee. Kwok herself is a second-generation Chinese-American, with a successful first novel, Girl in Translation, under her belt. Mambo itself fits squarely into what has come to be known as the "crossover" or "new adult" genre, that is, books equally suitable for older teens and adults in, say, their 20s. Its characters and settings embrace diversity. And its publication has been accompanied by a dizzying variety of social media marketing strategies.

"The mambo was beautiful: romantic, sexy and very difficult. But the lifts ... were a struggle". I think it can be assumed that Kwok's upbringing and personal experience as a dancer has informed her latest novel, which may partly explain why the descriptions of the settings and the actions of the characters feel somewhat retro, and the language veers toward the matter-of-fact. As a result, Charlie's learning to dance occasionally can read more like a dancing manual than a depiction of the lively rhythms, sensual melodic lines and physical pleasure of coordinated movement.

Similarly, when it comes to the emotions in the novel, Charlie longs "to let go", to allow herself "to feel and be honest". But that is pretty much all we are told. The motivations and machinations of most of the secondary characters are also largely unexplained. So when Charlie eventually reveals the truth about her personal life to her father, we wonder why he accepts her choices so readily.

The literary world remains open to authors who give authentic voices to contemporary multicultural characters. Throughout Mambo, there are tantalizing examples of the exoticism of Chinese culture and cuisine—from the medicinal power of snakes' penises, to the consumption of caterpillar soup and the umbilical cords of donkeys; from psychics and witches, to tai chi and qi gong. Such details will undoubtedly fascinate readers unfamiliar with these features of traditional Chinese culture, but unless they are linked more to Charlie's own belief systems, they seem included merely to astonish and titillate Western readers.

This was published in the "Asian Review of Books" in August 2014.

Three Years and Eight Months

Written by Icy Smith.

In spite of a long and varied history, to say nothing of being a city of seven-million, Hong Kong has relatively few children's books set there; even fewer deal with the dark days of the Second World War or feature the local, as opposed to expat, population. The multicultural storybook Three Years and Eight Months can't fill this gap on its own, but it helps. Written by award-winning Chinese-American author Icy Smith, her heart-warming story is loosely based on the true life experiences of her father and an uncle between 1942 to 1945.

The main character is a ten-year old Eurasian boy called Choi who, at the beginning of the story, hears loud sirens and sees smoke "in the distance." Then, after his mother is dragged away by Japanese soldiers, he has to hide away with an uncle. The situation improves when Choi meets another Chinese-American boy and they are befriended by a Japanese soldier called Watanabe-san who teaches them Japanese and finds them chores working as slave boys in a military station. While delivering a package, Choi discovers that his mother is working as a washerwoman nearby. Then, after reuniting with his uncle who "sees many dying and injured people every day", the boys start pilfering medical supplies from the military station. They eventually discover that they indirectly helped save "hundreds of lives" because Choi's uncle was working for an underground anti-Japanese resistance group called the East River Column.

The only remotely similar books that come to mind are Martin Booth's novel Music on the Bamboo Radio, in which an eleven-year old English boy disguises himself as a Chinese youngster and helps the Communist faction of the East River Column blow up Japanese infrastructure and, somewhat farther afield, J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, in which an English boy finds himself in a camp in Shanghai; both have found their way on to school curricula.

Whereas both Booth's and Ballard's books are novelistic in scope and style, Three Years and Eight Months is written more for educational purpose. For example, it includes detailed historical notes and original photographs at the back of the book. Covering four years of personal history in first person present tense gives rise to occasional technical problems in the narrative, and Smith's style is somewhat factual and telling, but Kindert's copious illustrations will surely draw young readers into the story. Her dramatic watercolors highlight interesting local details, from trams and local buildings, local artefacts to Chinese cuisine. Japanese details abound to—-a portrait of Hirohito, uniforms, flags, aircraft, warships, currency.

The explicit details of abuse and cruelty are delicately avoided in the story. For example, we learn that the Chinese women who felt shame for "socializing" with Japanese soldiers became Buddhist nuns. Similarly, Watanabe-san is portrayed with empathy—we discover that he knew the boys were stealing, and fearful of his personal safety when returning to Japan. These soft touches, plus the positive themes of friendship, bravery and sacrifice are well-suited for a Middle Grade audience.

This was published in the "Asian Review of Books" in June 2014.

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