How to Not Be Afraid of Everything
At a reading in 2022, I heard poet Jane Wong describe her obsession with time-lapse videos of rotting fruit. Her poetry collection, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, is full of the physicality of food, informed by Wong’s research into the Great Leap Forward, which was a stage of Mao Zedong’s reforms that led to the starvation of 36 million Chinese people. Wong’s great-grandparents died during the Great Leap Forward, and several poems ring with their voices. In others, the speaker reckons with the contrast between the relative abundance in her life—the apples “rotting on the ground,” an egg thrown onto pavement just to hear the “sumptuous splat”—and the false promises of the American dream for herself and her parents. Lucky for me, and you, Wong has a memoir coming out this month, so you can pick up Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City when you finish her breathtaking book of poetry.
Megha Majumdar’s debut was one of the most important social novels of 2020—highly political, furiously propulsive and ruthlessly unsparing—but if you, like so many readers, spent that year sticking to lighter fare, now is the time to go back and see what you missed, because A Burning still hits hard. In contemporary India, a young woman named Jivan unthinkingly voices criticism of the government in a Facebook post, and she is immediately labeled a terrorist and sent to prison, where she awaits her trial. Two other main characters provide additional perspectives on these events: the luminous wannabe Bollywood star Lovely, a transgender woman who was learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s resentful former gym teacher who gets involved in nationalist politics. Each character is ambitious in their own way, but within this world marked by the tyrannies of rampant corruption, racism, poverty and inequality, their fates are often outside their control, and the few choices available to them are murky at best. This novel is a short shock that leaves a lasting burn.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Author Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho each made their publishing debut in the first week of 2021 with Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, a radiant picture book that became an instant bestseller and launched both creators’ successful careers. To read it is to immediately understand why. Its first-person narrator is a girl who explores, via gorgeous, lyrical prose, how her eyes connect her to her mother, grandmother and little sister and to their shared heritage. Meanwhile, the book’s digital illustrations positively glow as every spread seems suffused with sunshine. Read this aloud to savor similes such as “my lashes curve like the swords of warriors”; then read it again and pay special attention to how the characters in every spread look at one another. You’ll see one of the most moving renderings of love made visible on the page that I’ve ever encountered.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Elizabeth Miki Brina’s form-bending memoir starts with her personal history—contending with her mother’s alcoholism as a child, feeling ashamed of her Japanese heritage in her predominately white hometown, expanding her horizons on the West Coast as a young adult—and spirals out to engulf not only her parents’ story bu also the history of Okinawa, the island in Japan where her mother grew up before meeting Brina’s father, a white American stationed there during the Vietnam War. After years of conflict with her mother, Brina found compassion as an adult for the trauma her mother experienced when she left her homeland for a culturally and linguistically isolated life in a hostile new country. As Brina spells out Okinawa’s past, from an independent land to a pawn in Chinese-Japanese-American relations, readers get a sense of the generational trauma that has shaped her and her mother’s lives as well. It’s a story that encompasses both the broad horrors of colonialism and racism and the deeply personal details of forgiveness and familial love.
—Christy, Associate Editor
Heartfelt and emotional, Samuel Park’s moving debut novel is a must-read for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or the K-drama “Crash Landing on You.” Set in 1960s Korea, This Burns My Heart features a resourceful heroine torn between love and duty in the wake of partition. Soo-Ja meets Yul and immediately feels a connection to him—a confusing development, since she has just decided to marry another man. Unwilling to disgrace her family by going back on her promise, Soo-Ja rejects Yul to marry Min, a decision she will revisit and regret for the next 20 years. Yul and Soo-Ja see each other only periodically and usually by chance, but their fraught encounters are tense with the passion of unconsummated love. Full of poetic observations and memorable lines, This Burns My Heart will leave you pondering the “what ifs” in your own life.