I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection: Modern horror? Literary criticism? Traditional tales of terror? It intrigued me regardless.
What Unquiet Spirits delivers is a combination of all of the above. It is memoir, criticism, history, and ethnography in balanced fusion. Each chapter is written by an Asian female author and in it she discusses both her own writing, the cultural and historical inspiration for her characters, the origins of some feminine demon, ghost, or creepy — a unquiet spirit — which haunts her and the pages she has produced. In some chapters the author draws on a deeper well of literature of the past and ponders the future of the female spirit archetype that is the focus of their chapter.
The books is divided by and devotes its pages equally to feminine spirits across the Asian continent, from East to Southeast to South Asia. I was pleasantly surprised to see such attention given to Southeast Asian spirits and archetypes (my favorite was always the pontianak, the evil spirit of a woman who lurks in the dark under the protection of a banana tree. In my recollection, she can be “pinned” to the tree with a needle or a pin and made to do the pin-holder’s bidding. But, beware to that horrid individual if the offending metal is ever removed!)
While the collection examines different demons and feminine archetypes from across a swath of very diverse cultures, it ultimately makes a singular, united appeal to the reader. Their call to action is unmistakable: Asian women, as a whole, alive or dead, demonic or angelic, monstrous or victimized, are powerful beings. Asian women have been too long overlooked in the literary world and deserve more than the whispered, submissive voice they have been too long assigned by Orientalists; hear them shout, scream, screech!
For that reason alone, Unquiet Spirits is worth reading. But there is more.
The authors reveal facets of the Asian feminine that have rarely been visible, that is to Western audiences. To Asian women, we have always known they were there, even when our patriarchal societies told us to ignore them, to castigate them, to revile these demonic women as ill-influences on ourselves and our communities, yet still, Unquiet Spirits is sure to deliver novelties and new knowledge to Asian/Asian American readers.
This was an incredibly difficult memoir to read, but I am grateful that I did. Part of the hand-to-my-throat factor for me was how close Zachry’s experiences were to my own. Like her I am a Malaysian woman, one who entered the slipstream of migration and has become a transcultural, transnational creature with feet and hands in multiple worlds.
I also recognized the gaslighting and the gendered physical and psychological violence embedded in Malaysian culture. I recognized the gaslighting and gendered violence she experienced embedded in human society everywhere.
This was hard, so hard, to read at so many points. I had to put this book down multiple times. But the discomfort it caused was also what forced me to return to it. The kind of emotional disturbance Zachry’s memoir inflicts is that which can only be excised by pushing through all the way to the end.
I am glad I returned to it, acknowledged her pain my own (caused by reading it) and kept going in spite of all that. There is more than suffering in this memoir. Zachry illuminates a healing path too.
Zachry’s memoir is not a Malaysian one, although this is a cultural aspect of her experience that cannot be brushed aside. In this I recognized Zachry’s heritage as akin to my own; women told to swallow their pride, their pain, their voices. It is a world in which women remain — and are expected to remain — invisible. And this is true across Malaysia’s many cultures, ethnicities, and religious communities. For all the lovely tropical lushness of Malaysia, it is not a paradise for everyone; feminism is throttled by legal manipulations, feminists ostracized as social pariahs (even when Western-style feminism is eschewed in favor of local versions of feminism.)
But, I digress; Enough is not a memoir of a culture. Zachry’s experience is one that is all too familiar and common across cultures and in all societies. It is an extraordinary story of a crime that is horrendously ordinary. Hers was a life lived by many people; that’s what makes Enough so memorable, so relatable, so important to read.
Zachry’s memoir begins at her beginning, with childhood, then takes the reader into her teenage and early adult years. It is then that Zachry’s life is altered by an event that haunts her (even now after she has found ways to manage it). The bulk of this memoir is devoted to Zachry’s struggle with the trauma of this event, her path to a recovery, and it ends with a substantial section on her present life which shifts the focus to the traumas of migration and the development of her transcultural identity. Zachry’s journey to a happy place is not one filled with woo-woo cures or unattainable magic pills. Zachry documents how hard work, emotional work punctuated by slips and backslides is the tried and true path; one accessible to all of us, at least in theory.
This is a memoir for all women because this is a story we all know, first-hand, second-hand, or otherwise.
This memoir strikes hard on multiple levels. It is a reflection of contemporary America and the transnational, transcultural, immigrant experience that many Americans live, whether themselves or vicariously (as Zochada Tat did), as the children of immigrants. Migration is a traumatic event, (sometimes positive, sometimes not, but always) one that reaches across several generations. Oum Ry’s memoir toggles forward and back in time, threading a connection in time between father (Oum Ry) and daughter (Zochada Tat). From this perspective, I Am Oum Ry is an emotional read, a subjective vacuum in which the characters are the primary focus, separate from the context of their world in a way. Tat and Somekh portray Oum Ry, his many lovers, his wife, his children, and the myriad of people who came, left, or stayed in his orbit, in all their flawed perfection; the logics behind his and their behavior as consequences of individualized trauma: parental abandonment, grief of loved ones lost or killed, sexual desire and exploitation.
But people do not exist in vacuum. The individuals in these pages are not ahistorical; they are deeply embedded in histories of patriarchy, Colonialism, the Cold War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, the American/Vietnam War, Cambodian traditions, and collective desires for modernity, belonging, and security.
The memoir takes the reader to Cambodia in the mid-twentieth century, beginning just after WWII. The French stubbornly cling to Indochina. Then ahead to the American War in Vietnam a decade later. It lingers on the five golden years of the 20th century when Cambodia perched on the edge of modernity, part of a larger Southeast Asian moment of revivalism and decolonization and prosperity in the early 1970s. After that the reader follows Oum Ry into the dark age of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the suffering that followed as Oum Ry, like so many thousands of other Cambodians fled to Thailand to seek asylum elsewhere, anywhere. Oum Ry, like many other fortunate refugees makes his way to the United States where he finds both happiness and deep disappointment. The life of a migrant is bittersweet, filled with hope and longing.
The histories I Am Oum Ry excavates are powerful, a fisted punch to the gut. Oum Ry holds nothing back. The currents of forced migration, war, genocide, and racism that underpin Oum Ry’s words and experiences will knock the wind out of readers. This is an important memoir, not because it is unique — it isn’t, there are many Cambodian-American/Cambodian memoirs written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge — but because it neither indicts or glorifies the past or the present. The Khmer Rouge are not the sole villains of the genocide, though they are largely responsible for the horrors Oum Ry and other Cambodians experience; the Vietnamese and ordinary, fellow Cambodians are part of the horrific milieu of that moment too. America is not hailed as the land of milk and honey; it too is a dark land of racism, crime, poverty, and disappointment. But it isn’t all bad either; Oum Ry and his family find a place in California and become new Americans.
It is also significant in that it highlights pradal serey/muay thai, and centers around this sport. It is unique in this aspect. Oum Ry occupies a unique cultural position as a fighter, a sports icon in Cambodian history and 20th century Cambodian culture; his memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a world of sport and celebrity that was exclusive before the war and certainly much more so afterwards as a result of the loss of so many Cambodian stars.
For me, as a Southeast Asian scholar and a historian of Southeast Asian sport, I Am Oum Ry possesses academic significance. Sport is an often overlooked aspect of history and culture, seen as purely recreational. I Am Oum Ry proves how wrong this assumption is; pradal serey deserves attention as a historical artifact of a lost moment and in the present as a vital element of Cambodian-American identity and Cambodian cultural revival.
For almost every reader, I Am Oum Ry will evoke a multitude of emotions ranging from sad to inspired. Oum Ry’s life has been a rollercoaster in and out of the fighter’s ring. It has been dramatic in positive and negative ways. His is a life worth the reading.
I am a sucker for a slow, immersive, multi-generational historical fiction. I love the unwinding of family secrets and histories. Families are spaces of ordinary and extraordinary trauma; intense love also breeds intense regret, jealousies, animosities. Tragedy binds and creates familial bonds stronger than blood. And, of course, as a historian I love getting a glimpse into a past where the reasons and logics behind piety, duty, and love are complex, sometimes contradictory, colored with personal suffering, traditions, and the institutions of humanity-at-large — as in this case, French colonialism and Confucian patriarchy.
That is the hinge around which Daughters of the New Year swivels. This novel is an honest portrait of the brutal historical and cultural complexities that shape familial love.
The reader is given a privileged view into the minds, hearts, and philosophies of several generations of Vietnamese women. It is a novel about why and how mothering, motherhood, and filial duty are never straightforward, why these acts of love are volatile constructions of history and culture. Time and place alter the modes by which we care for one another, show each other love. What is an expression of affection for one generation is manipulation to the next. What is piety to one generation is an empty gesture for another. The reasons why mothers do what they do, why sometimes their love crushes their daughters, are molded by forces beyond their control: war, racism, patriarchy. Yet, for all those differences, there is one motivation behind these acts: the desire to provide the next generation with more than what the previous had. This is the love embedded in families.
The reader is given a privileged view of an excavation of familial love through Vietnamese and American history. Through chapters narrated by a daughter of this family, daughters descended through a matriarchal bloodline, the reader gets an interior view of the characters’ minds. Each of them has a different voice in this novel. EM. Tran’s prose is a beautiful thread throughout, binding their stories together, but each of the characters speak with their own, unique voice. Each chapter reveals its narrator’s logic, their historical context; explains why they did the things they did — even perhaps knowing that those acts would somehow traumatize the next generation.
There is Nhi and her sisters, the American generation. There is their mother, Xuan; their aunt, Xuan’s sister; there is their grandmother; a line of women, as if holding hands, unbroken, their spirits resiliently swaying in the winds of change and time going all the way back to the epic and legendary Trung sisters. Daughters of the New Year is about these women.
Fans of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, or Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko will enjoy Tran’s Daughters of the New Year.
Phong Nguyen beats out a strong, feminist song in Bronze Drum, one that makes my Southeast Asian woman’s heart swell and weep and soar all at the same time. It is a rare moment when a book makes me feel seen. As a historian of Southeast Asian history, I am deeply grateful for this rare and unique novel that so brilliantly and beautifully captures an often overlooked era and people.
Southeast Asia’s ancient history is little known outside of academic circles. Even within that small enclave, many scholars of the region focus on contemporary Southeast Asia or modern Southeast Asia from 1300 onward. Many students, especially American students, see Southeast Asia through the American-centric lens of the Vietnam War (Note that the Vietnamese call it The American War). I, myself, as a scholar focus on the region’s post-colonial period, the peak of the Cold War between 1950 and 1970. Bronze Drum, by highlighting a much earlier colonization of the region by China, both appeals to my decolonizing spirit and makes visible my own historical blindspots.
The world turned its attention to Southeast Asia when its spices and trade with China made it an easy backdoor into that empire’s markets, around the 1300s. But, of course, Southeast Asia existed before then, had a history before then. But excavating that history has always been problematic. For one, in the post colonial world, history has become a contested domain. Its function as a tool of nation building and national identity, coupled with the need to appease various ethnic and national factions for the sake of collective peace has obscured some histories, elevated others. The demonization of the Han Chinese in Bronze Drums would not have gone over well in another time and place, and even today, the influence of China on the region’s economic and political stability cannot be easily dismissed. Southeast Asia has ever been and remains, whether we like it or not, in some condition of thrall to China.
But back to history. Another reason for overlooking ancient history is that nature has not been kind to historians of the region. Much of the region’s ancient histories have been difficult to document. The moist and hot climate of the region does not lend itself to the preservation of wooden or plant-based artifacts, only that which was hewn into stone has survived. Archaeology informs us there were many vibrant ancient civilizations here: the Dong Son, whose drums are those featured in Bronze Drums, the Majapahit in what is now Indonesia, the Sri Vijaya in what is Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. There were Muslim sultanates in the Philippines and the Tai Kings in Thailand, and the ancient origins of the Court of Ava in Burma (today, Myanmar). Stele and monumental building like that at Angkor or Borobodur remind the world of these past eras and peoples.
The sisters in Bronze Drum are the Trung Sisters of Vietnamese mythology and ancient history, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who dared to subvert the Chinese Han invaders. Bronze Drum is a real history, though it is also Nguyen’s fictionalized retelling of it in the form and in the style of a mythic epic. The novel unfolds the fabric of the Dong Son/Lạc Việt world as it weaves through the Trung sisters’ fight for their kingdom and culture’s independence. The strength of Bronze Drum is that it reads as an epic should: it begins with the heroines just before they realize their fates, it recounts their moral turnaround, the moment they knew they had to be the leaders they became. The novel then impresses the reader with their triumphs. The novel then turns to their downfall. (I am giving nothing away here, it is well known the Viet fall to the Han and later, the French. History is the spoiler.) There is a sense of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero/epic narrative structure in Nguyen’s retelling, something that is sure to feel familiar to readers of Greek and Norse mythology.
But Nguyen provides the reader with more than just a myth here. Nguyen gives us insight into the interiority of the Lạc Việt actors, including the sisters who become female kings and warriors atop elephant backs, their courtiers and allies. The highlanders, Degars — also known as người Thượng — are featured too in Bronze Drum and the peasant community is not ignored or invisible as they are in so many heroic epics. They are as much the heroines as the Trung sisters in this novel.
If there was one flaw, I wished for more discourse on the larger political context and history of the Lạc Việt. The neighboring princes and chiefs and villages made appearances in the book, but I wanted more of that political intrigue, real politik dialogue, and sparring between characters. (I will not lie, for all their orientalist bungle, I enjoy James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan and Gai Jin, for that kind of in depth political maneuvering.)
Nonetheless, Bronze Drum is epic. And this is not its only strength.
Its characters were mostly strong women and I deeply, deeply appreciated Nguyen’s feminism, bringing matriarchal lineage and culture to the forefront. The women of Bronze Drum are not frail, delicate flowers. They are not sexualized pussy cats like Richard Mason’s Suzy Wong and the nameless sex worker of Full Metal Jacket fame. The women of Bronze Drum are real Asian women, made of fire and water and air and metal all at once. They are sexy and sexual beings, they have inner strength and outward muscle, they think and speak for themselves. Even as they are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and nieces, they are denizens and creators of their own worlds and desires.
Phong Nguyen’s prose brings these heroines, these mythological warrior women to the center of the Lạc Việt world with ease. The novel flows, riverlike towards rapids, smooth and fast. The reader will want to surrender themselves to the story and let it carry them to the end.
I have so many hundreds of photos of Malaysia and all things Malaysian: people, food, places, sites, random pictures of stray cats. Here I’ve picked some of my favorites from the past three trips there. They’re from all over Malaysia, some from Penang, some from Melaka, one from Pahang when I was in Kuantan. And of course, Kuala Lumpur.
I visited these places in multiple capacities, as a tourist, as a local, as an anthropologist, as a student, as a photographer. Most of the photos are “found”, none of them were posed or premeditated.
Most of these photos were taken using a really cheap-O point and shoot, or my iPhone 4.
Here’s a Chinese “folk religion” temple on the island of Penang, where some people are praying to the deity “housed” here. The temple has an open court yard to allow the incense to waft up and out into the sky.
Bukit Bintang is the center for shopping, nightlife and modern fun in Kuala Lumpur. All the best and worst hotels/motels/B&Bs are here. In the background is the KLCC tower, once the world’s tallest building.
Walking around late one night in Melaka I came across a pig butchering operation. Malaysia is a plural society, so while there are muslims who refrain from porcine products, there are also Chinese and Indians (and many others) who do not live under the same religious or legal restrictions.
While in Pahang I got to visit a keropok lekor factory. Keropok Lekor is a fried fish snack, which I find super, super tasty. It was a small operation, maybe 10 people in all, in a non-airconditioned, sheet metal roofed and walled building. It smelled a bit fishy, as you can imagine, but it was fascinating.
This was one of the heritage styled hotels in Melaka. They’ve kept up the nyonya/Straits Chinese architectural style, here illuminated wonderfully by the modern neon lights. Modern meets traditional is always a favorite theme of mine in Malaysia.
Up on the hill in Melaka, there’s an old Portuguese/Dutch church ruin and through its many windows and doorways you can get a panoramic view of modern, downtown Melaka. Here you can see one of the sprawling shopping centers in the not-so-far-off distance. Modern meets Traditional.
I got my first tattoo in Borneo in 2010, and the following year when I went back I got a 2nd one. Both were done traditionally, using a hammer. Perhaps it was placement, but both of these hurt far less than the machined one I got later. They also healed super quickly, taking about a week to scab.
Here’s a Hindu deity sculpture on the exterior wall of a Hindu kuil in Penang, in the Little India section of Georgetown.
Here’s a Hindu deity sculpture on the exterior wall of a Hindu kuil in Penang, in the Little India section of Georgetown.
Here’s a Hindu deity sculpture on the exterior wall of a Hindu kuil in Penang, in the Little India section of Georgetown.
Around Historic Georgetown in Penang, tourists get around by taking rickshaws, powered by bicycle by these men. When I spoke to them they said they were having a hard time finding young people to start doing this work. At the same time, they were glad that young people had other, better opportunities, as rickshaw driving is very physically strenuous. These guys are taking a break on the sidewalk, playing checkers with bottle caps and one man is having his take-away mixed rice lunch. Hawker stalls here wrap up lunch for you in plastic and brown paper, then rubber-band it.
In the Summer of 2013 I did an anthropology pilot study that resulted in the making of “Children of God”, an ethnographic, observational film about a non-denominational Christian church group in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Every year they go on a retreat, as a way to build fellowship and for members of the church to renew their faith.
Here’s my blurb from my Vimeo site: “For a few days every year, the congregation of the Praise Sanctuary Church retreats from the city of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to the nearby seaside resort town of Port Dickson. It is an event; its purposeful itinerary aims to foster fellowship amongst the church members and to allow each to individually convene with God. This short film is about their 2013 annual retreat and the way in which they experience being “God’s children”.”
And here’s the film. Again, comments and feedback are always welcome.
I got the chance last year to visit one of the most amazing places on Earth: Cambodia and specifically, the ruins of Angkor! I took so many photos in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, my vacation there lasting about 2 weeks, so these photos are only a sampling of the photos I took. I’ve tried to caption them to give some context to the image.
I was at one of the temples at Angkor – I think it was Pre-Rup – just around sunset when the complex closes and tourists have to leave for the day. This girl was trying to make one last sale of the day, offering these post cards and bracelets to me for $1USD.
In Phnom Penh this is the equivalent of a taxi. Here’s a driver taking a nap during the mid-day heat. Often tourists engage a tuk-tuk for the day, agreeing with the driver on a price and the number of and which sites he will drive them to that day.
This was taken at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. These are the photos of many of the Khmer Rouge’s prisoners, those who lived and died at the school-turned-torture house. This was a really rough site to visit.
Within the Angkor complex there are lots of Khmer selling arts and crafts, including this one, an oil painting of a temple.
This is sunrise at Angkor Wat; that is, the main temple site named Angkor Wat. This one site is often mistaken for representing the entire complex, but it is actually just one of MANY temple and building sites. The thing to do for tourists is to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, to get that Super Sunrise Shot. We came at the end of the rainy season so it was cloudy most of our days there. Not such a bad thing considering how hot Cambodia is.
My friend Eve and I rode the bus up north from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and along the highway you could see people’s homes and shops.
PreRup temple has a pretty fantastic view from the top, overlooking the jungle, so tourists climb up and wait for sunset. We came on a cloudy day, so the view wasn’t as spectacular, but anthropologist that I am, I found the tourists just as mesmerizing in their behavior.