May is Asian Pacific American History Month — an umbrella that encompasses way too many people, cultures and amazing books for a one-to-three-books-a-month book club to adequately cover.
This month, I chose three books that deal with the relationship between the East and the West. These books deal with cultures clashing, adjusting and changing. They offer insight into how many of us perceive Asian cultures and the problems with those perceptions.
As always, you’re required to read every book. I’ll know if you haven’t.
“M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang
This one is a play, but honestly, I know you read Shakespeare in high school. Set up a Zoom call and act this one out if you have to, but we should all read more plays anyway.
French officer Rene Gallimard is stationed in China and falls in love with an opera singer. Fast forward twenty years and he’s in prison for treason. Throughout the course of this play Gallimard tells what led to this, how he should’ve seen it coming and why he didn’t.
It’s hard to talk about “M. Butterfly” without giving away spoilers. This play has a lot to say about the relationship between the West and Asia but again, it’s very hard to be specific without giving away the plot. I’ll just say that the relationship between Gallimard and Song Liling (the singer) has much more to it than you’d expect. Trust me.
“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I’m cheating with this one because I did a whole review on this book already, so I won’t repeat myself too much.
“The Sympathizer “is a thriller/spy/action/romance/war novel about a half-Vietnamese half-French officer for North Vietnam who’s working inside the South Vietnamese army as a spy. After Saigon falls to North Vietnam and South Vietnamese officers have to leave, he goes with them to Los Angeles and continues to spy while adjusting to America during the Vietnam War.
Like “M. Butterfly,” this book starts with the narrator in prison (the novel is about what led to that) and it also deals a lot with western perceptions of Asia. What I think “The Sympathizer” does best is it portrays the experience of coming to America and discusses the question of how well cultures actually blend in the melting pot, or if something has to give.
“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lairi
All the stories in “Interpreter of Maladies” focus on, or heavily involve, the lives of Indians in both India and America. One story features a couple trying to rekindle their love by telling each other their deepest secrets; another features a tour guide who was sick of his life and fell in love with a tourist who he believes feels the same way.
Lairi excels at giving depth to characters, making them feel real and human and then making you completely invested in everything about their life. Most of the stories don’t end well, and while it is depressing at times, it’s also realistic. This book is just all peak-short stories, and I cannot recommend it enough.