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10 Must-Read Novels About Asian American Politics

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In Ryan Wong’s daring and generous debut novel, Which Side Are You On, Columbia University student Reed informs his parents that he’s dropping out of college and dedicating himself to grassroots organizing—for the past few months, he’s been protesting the killing of an unarmed Black man by an Asian American police officer. He’s adamant to learn everything he can about his Korean mother’s involvement in a Black-Korean coalition in the 1980s, so that he may use it to impress his other activist friends and fuel their current work. But the stories recounted by his mother and the discussions they engender—all carefully laid out in electric, and occasionally heartrending, dialogue between mother and son—start to affect Reed’s clear-cut views, revealing to him the many difficulties of organizing across cultures, and hinting at the importance of empathy and humanity in the effort to fully understand one’s community.

You might not know that “Asian American” is a relatively new term, only about fifty years old. You likely don’t know the term was coined by student leftists to join a coalition of Chicano, Black, and American Indian movements on Bay Area campuses in 1968. You might not think of Asian American Pacific Islanders as political as all, and this is largely because that history has largely been ignored or erased in favor of the tame, assimilationist “model minority” narrative.

Today, as we face intense anti-Asian violence, ongoing U.S. militarism in Asia, rapidly shifting migration patterns, and a crisis of American racial identity, it might help us to examine the political nature of Asian America through some of its most compelling narratives. Here’s a selection of ten novels that expand upon, challenge, and imagine futures for this young identity. They’re stories of rebels and revolutionaries, organizers and outsiders taking histories into their own hands.

1. I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

This sprawling, 700+ page epic pays tribute to the Asian American Movement that defined this new identity. It was written decades later, but has all of the humor, bite, hope, and surrealism you might expect from a novel of vignettes set in the Bay Area of the 1960s and ’70s—scenes of Black Panthers and young Asian American radicals in a hotel room in Chinatown, of an Alcatraz Island takeover, of free folk concerts in Golden Gate Park, and, of course, of the demonstrations to save that hotbed of organizing and elder care and arts making, the I Hotel.

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2. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The narrator of this novel talks to you, but the “you” of it is an ambiguous American who is in Lahore, Pakistan, for unknown reasons—to befriend the narrator, to kill him, or both. Like the confessor in Camus’s The Fall, we get a frank and revealing series of tales, but instead of the existential angst of the judge we have the racial existentialism of the man trying to belong in a world that won’t have him. It’s a reminder that often fundamentalists scorn the very systems in which they once came close to belonging.

3. Leche by R. Zamora Linmark

Can a novel about Japanese war atrocities in the Philippines be funny? An early scene has protagonist Vince watching a maudlin drama on the airplane back to the Philippines (which he left for the U.S. 13 years before) about a convent during the Japanese invasion. To speak about the unspeakable, you may need the absurdities that pop culture makes possible, the distance of humor. The Manila of Leche is a hazy hell, but also one full of pathos and heart, and it leads Vince exactly where he needs to go.

4. Guerrillas by V. S. Naipaul

What would the Asian diaspora in the Americas be without Naipaul’s Trinidad, which he left to attend Oxford only to revisit again and again in his writing? Guerrillas takes place on an unnamed island on the eve of revolution. Naipaul is one of the original problematic faves—his sexual politics are horrifying, his view of revolution condescending. Yet he’s one of the greats at showing the extreme bifurcations that colonialism and diaspora perform on the human mind, whether the white liberal’s paternalism or the would-be revolutionary’s deluded egoism.

5. Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

This isn’t an “Asian American” story in the usual sense, but America’s presence is like a long shadow, a bogeyman, an uninvited dinner guest in this kaleidoscopic story of 1950s Manila. In other words, American stories happen anywhere America’s military and political presence rule, and their tacit condoning of the rise of an unnamed dictator and his glamorous first lady form the story’s backdrop. Hagedorn’s sentences bite and her scenes steam with heat as you follow this network of characters asking what they’ll do with their new-found “independence.”

6. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

This novel is often remembered as a portrait of a son and his working immigrant father. But it’s also a novel of politics, where some of the most tender and dynamic moments are between the narrator, Henry Park, and the city councilman John Kwang, who he’s assigned to spy on. John is charismatic and idealistic, a foil to Henry’s mercenary pragmatism. One of the crucial plot points revolves around a Korean money circle, or ggeh, one of the main ways Korean businesses survive, but to the U.S. state looks like money laundering. The novel asks what it means to succeed in a country designed to destroy you, to be loyal to people sent to undo you.

7. America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

Somewhere between novel and autobiography, America Is in the Heart has all the sweep, heroism, and tragedy of the old epics. We follow the narrator, also named Carlos, from his youth in the Philippines to the fields of California to the canneries of Alaska, where, witnessing the brutality against Filipinos by police, bosses, and business owners, he becomes radicalized. He joins socialist and communist groups, organizes with unions, and publishes poetry and essays on his experiences, the culmination of which is this monumental book.

8. The Winged Seed by Li-Young Lee

Lee’s father was jailed under the regime of President Sukarno in Indonesia. That traumatic event shows up in Lee’s poetry and is a central feature of this poem-novel-memoir-myth of his family’s migration story. The book is called a “remembrance” and it reads like a dream, or, often, a nightmare, as the ravages of persecution and exile, of otherness and violence, manifest within and between Lee’s family members. History and displacement haunt this prose, every sentence drops like a stone, and the smallest moment sends you reeling to the past.

9. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Dense yet sprawling, this experimental book traces Korean independence martyr Yu Gwansun through the stories of other mythic women martyrs in history. Cha was a visual artist, writer, and performer—a brilliant polymath who was murdered just as this book was published. Dictee shows what a book can be, that it’s capacious enough to contain photographs, verse, myth, and anything else the writer needs to assemble in order to speak about a fractured history.

10. The Hanging on Union Square by H. T. Hsiang

It’s not hard to see why Hsiang had trouble finding a publisher for this oddball novel that reads something like a screenplay or a novel-in-verse but without the respective plot or lyricism that usually accompanies those forms. But he had the foresight to self-publish it in 1935, and it’s a good thing he did, because he offers a portrait of the vibrant and rough life in Greenwich Village through the eyes of Mr. Nut, who becomes politicized by the grind of the down-and-outs. He seems compelled by some manic force, conveyed through the novel’s prose—a heady mix of bohemianism and radicalism pushing the lines forward.

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Petr Pavel: Polyglot, war hero, and the new Czech president – Euronews

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Ex-general Petr Pavel has won another gritty campaign — this time at the ballot box.

The bearded 61-year-old, a decorated veteran who took part in a high-stakes peacekeeping mission in the Balkans and represented his country as a top-tier NATO general, was voted Czech president on Saturday, beating billionaire ex-prime minister Andrej Babiš.

With the ballots from 97% of almost 15,000 polling stations counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Pavel had 57.8% of the vote compared with 42.2% for Babiš.

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Though Czech presidents wield little day-to-day power, Pavel will have influence over foreign policy and government opinion, as well as the power to appoint prime ministers, constitutional judges and central bankers.

True to his military past, he has vowed to bring “order” to the Czech Republic, a 10 million-strong EU and NATO member, hammered by record inflation and economic turmoil due to the Ukraine war.

“I can’t ignore the fact that people here increasingly feel chaos, disorder and uncertainty. That the state has somehow ceased to function,” Pavel said on his campaign website.

“We need to change this,” he added. “We need to play by the rules, which will be valid for everyone alike. We need a general sweep.”

From Communist to war hero

Following in his father’s footsteps, Pavel underwent a military education in former Czechoslovakia, which was then ruled by Moscow-backed communists.

He joined the Communist Party, like his billionaire rival Babiš, and soon rose through the army ranks, studying to become an intelligence agent for the oppressive regime.

Critics fault him for his communist past, though Pavel has defended himself by saying party membership was “normal” in his family and called it a “mistake”.

When the Iron Curtain crumbled in 1989, Pavel chucked out his party ID but went ahead with the intelligence course.

Amid the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Pavel — trained as an elite paratrooper and holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at the time — helped evacuate French troops stuck in the midst of combat between Croats and ethnic Serb paramilitaries in Croatia, earning him the French Military Cross for bravery.

“We got into several tense situations and he always managed them with deliberation and calm,” said retired Czech general Aleš Opata, who served with Pavel.

He later studied at military training schools in Britain, gaining a master’s from King’s College London.

After his country joined NATO in 1999, Pavel soon climbed through the alliance’s ranks, becoming its top military official in 2015. 

With a chest full of decorations, he retired in 2018.

What are his political views?

Pavel ran as an independent and was the strongest of the three candidates backed by the liberal-conservative coalition SPOLU of now-former President Miloš Zeman.

He has argued for better redistribution of wealth and greater taxation of the rich while also supporting progressive policies on issues such as same-sex marriage and euthanasia.

Positioning himself as a counterweight to populism, Pavel anchors the Czech Republic in NATO and wants to align his country with the European Union.

“The main issue at stake is whether chaos and populism will continue to rein or we return to observing rules… and we will be a reliable country for our allies,” he said after narrowly winning the first election round.

A staunch supporter of Ukraine, Pavel’s political rivals have alleged he would drag the country into a war with Russia.

“I know what war is about and I certainly don’t wish it on anyone,” said Pavel. “The first thing I would do is try to keep the country as far away from war as possible.”

Often sporting jeans and a leather jacket, Pavel is a polyglot, speaking Czech, English, French and Russian, and loves motorcycling.

He holds a concealed weapon licence, allowing him to carry a firearm, and he is married to a fellow soldier, Eva Pavlová.

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Canadian and American Politics

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THIS SURVEY EXPLORES CANADIANS’ AND AMERICANS’ PERSPECTIVES ON CANADIAN AND AMERICAN POLITICS.

Our latest North American Tracker explores Canadians’ and Americans’ perspectives on Canadian and American politics.

It examines Canadians’ federal voting intentions and Americans’ approval of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Download the report for the full results.

This survey was conducted in collaboration with the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) and published in the Canadian Press. This series of surveys is available on Leger’s website.

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CANADIAN POLITICS

  • The Conservatives and Liberals are tied: if a federal election were held today, 34% of Canadian decided voters would vote for Pierre Poilievre’s CPC and the same proportion would vote for Justin Trudeau’s LPC.

AMERICAN POLITICS

  • 42% of Americans approve of the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president.
  • 40% of Americans approve of the way Kamala Harris is handling her job as vice-president.

METHODOLOGY

This web survey was conducted from January 20 to 22, 2023, with 1,554 Canadians and 1,005 Americans, 18 years of age or older, randomly recruited from LEO’s online panel.

A margin of error cannot be associated with a non-probability sample in a panel survey. For comparison, a probability sample of 1,554 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.49%, 19 times out of 20, while a probability sample of 1,005 respondents would have a margin of error of ±3.09%, 19 times out of 20.

THIS REPORT CONTAINS THE RESULTS FOR THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND MORE!

  • If federal elections were held today, for which political party would you be most likely to vote?  Would it be for…?
  • Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president?
  • Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way Kamala Harris is handling her job as vice president?​
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Legault won’t celebrate 25 years in politics

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Premier François Legault does not intend to celebrate his 25-year political career this year.

He became Minister of Industry in Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government on Sept. 23, 1998, but was elected on Nov. 30 of the same year as the representative for L’Assomption, the riding in which he is still a member.

In a news conference on Friday at the end of a caucus meeting of his party’s elected officials in a Laval hotel, the CAQ leader said that neither he nor his party had any intention of celebrating this anniversary.

“I don’t like these things,” he said.

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He pointed out that he is still younger than the former dean of the National Assembly, François Gendron. And smiling, he alluded to the U.S. President.

“I’m quite a bit younger than Mr. Biden, apart from that!” he said.

Legault is 65 years old, while the President is 80.

However, Legault is now the dean of the House. According to recent data, he has served as an elected official for 20 years, 6 months, and 27 days so far.

The premier was quick to add, however, that he has taken a break from politics.

He resigned on June 24, 2009 as a member of the Parti Québécois (PQ), then in opposition. But he was elected as an MNA and leader of the then-new Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) on Sept. 4, 2012.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Jan. 27, 2023.

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