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If you see this post appear on your flist, it's because you signed up to watch api_recs last year. Want to see it again? Have time to help out? I'm going to be out of town and perhaps not online for the duration of the recs week this year, and I'd love to find someone to take the helm for 2010.

* What this would involve: publicizing the recs week (books! movies! all media dealing with the experiences of Asians outside Asia!), posting a sign-up form, assigning days to reccers, and creating master list at the end of the week, not much more.

* How else can you help? Boost the signal on your own journal, or contact someone you think might be interested in organizing!

Thanks, all!

api_recs master list, May 2009

Thanks so much for participating in this year's api_recs, everyone! It was so much fun to hear about things you've enjoyed reading/watching/listening to!

Master list, May 2009

Alec Mapa in Wisecrack (stand-up comedy)
Recced by magnetic_pole

Monkeypuzzle by Rita Wong (poetry)
Recced by woldy

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang (non-fiction)
Recced by sophinisba

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (non-fiction)
Recced by onehundredmoons

A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki (non-fiction)
Recced by magnetic_pole

Various British Asian musicians
Recced by buckle_berry

Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (fiction)
Recced by lyras

Delhi 2 Dublin (music)
Recced by woldy

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee (fiction)
Recced by liseuse

The Grace Lee Project (documentary)
Recced by magnetic_pole

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (children's book)
Recced by magnetic_pole

Nina's Heavenly Delights (movie)
Recced by woldy

And the master list for 2008's Asian American Recs WeekCollapse )

Day 7: Nina’s Heavenly Delights (film)

Nina’s Heavenly Delights is a bit like Bend It Like Beckham (I mean this as a compliment, since Bend It Like Beckham is a fantastic film) but it’s set in Glasgow, there is curry instead of football and in this case the female-bonding develops into a lesbian romance. This is the first feature film by the Indian British Director Pratibha Parmar, who is known for her writing and documentaries about issues of diversity.

The plotline is that Nina returns to the family restaurant in Glasgow after her father’s death and decides to solve their financial problems by winning a curry competition. The story traces Nina’s difficult relationship with her family, the awkwardness between herself and Sanjay (whom Nina was supposed to marry several years ago) and the developing romance between Nina and her childhood friend & co-chef Lisa. Although the film is probably best known as a lesbian romance, it has a wonderful cast of supporting characters including Nina's extended family, her competitors in the Best of the West Curry Competition and the fabulously flamboyant Bobbi.

The ending is a little predictable, but the film is fun and light-hearted with a clear Bollywood influence. One of my favourite things about this movie was the food, which looks incredible in all the scenes and prompted the friend I watched the film with to describe it as ‘cooking porn’! For added inspiration there is a recipe for one of Nina’s signature curry dishes, Chicken Shakuti, on the film’s website.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee
Probably intended for children ages 9-12, but enjoyable by all

How can you not love a children's book that begins with a one-page resume for Millicent Min, 11-year-old prodigy and a rising high school senior, impatient for college and "real life" and tired of the childish exploits of fellow pre-teens who just want to hang out and play with their friends? A resume that includes both her "short term objectives" ("to become JFK High School valedictorian...and earn a scholarship to an Ivy League university of my choice") and the long-term ("To be awarded the Fields Medal, a MacArthur Grant, and other prestigious honors, and embark on several careers, including psychometrician, journalist, judge, and acclaimed pastry chef"), as well as a section for television appearances (appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno at the age of two, she was asked to recite the presidents of the United States. "In what order would you like to hear them" she asked. "Alphabetical or by year in office?").

But despite the fact that Millicent is smarter than her parents, her beloved grandmother Maddie, and that stupid jerk Stanford Wong--a family friend, budding jock, and failure in sixth grade English she's been hired to tutor over the summer--she hasn't yet learned how to make friends her own age. Her classmates hate her for her effortless academic success, Maddie's about to depart on a trip, and Millie's been bitterly disappointed to discover that her fellow students in her first college class, a summer poetry course, aren't that much more intellectually stimulating than Stanford himself. Enter Emily, an enthusiastic new 11-year-old arrival in town who hasn't yet heard that Millicent is a genius. Millicent hatches an clever plan: befriend Emily on Emily's terms, with no talk of her early departure for college, her IQ scores, or her multiple appearances on television talk shows. You can probably imagine where this plot goes--or, if you're like me and a bit slow at plot, I'm not going to ruin it for you. Suffice it to say that the book is a 250-page romp--pre-teen fluff, with a happy, educational ending in which even the genius Millicent learns something.

What I adore about this book is the way is completely casts aside stereotypes about Asian Americans: Millicent is an academic wunderkind, but Stanford certainly isn't, and Millie herself is third generation, with quirky parents and a grandmother who's considering learning Chinese to better promote her new-age fung shui business. Even more importantly, it reverses some of the things we think we know about academic achievers: Millicent's academic victories are almost effortless (she is a genius, after all), and all the older Asians in her life are telling her to slow down and enjoy herself, rather than pushing her to go further. The better half and I have discussed this book at length, trying to figure out just how calculated is it--did the author realize she was fighting stereotypes by exaggerating and embracing them, at least in Millicent's character? Or was this just a happy coincidence? In the end we decided it didn't really matter--it's a fun book, and we love a spunky, hard-working, know-it-all heroine who fits some of the expectations we have for her but not others.

You can take a peek at the book on Amazon and buy it at your local bookstore or borrow it from the library, where you can probably also find sequels Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time and So Totally Emily Ebers.

Day 6: The Grace Lee Project (documentary)

Don't scroll past when you see the word documentary! This is an engaging and highly personal documentary by a Korean American women who is fascinated by the fact that so many people share her name. Raised in the American midwest, she'd never thought much about being an Asian American women, but as an adult she keeps running into people who knew another Grace Lee. Who are all those other Grace Lees, she wonders, and why are they so often described as "quiet" or "smart" or "nice?" This film documents her attempt to find out.

It's a wonderful concept for a documentary, very straightforward and concrete on one level--it's organized as a series of profiles of the various Grace Lees she encounters--but there's more to it than meets the eye. Lee herself is young enough that she's still trying to formulate her response to the various ways society stereotypes the "model minority" and Asian women in particular--were all Grace Lees successful in school? Were they all good daughters? Did they all play the piano? Along the way she encounters an arsonist and a long-time activist in the African American community, as well as a television reporter, a Korean adoptee now caring for a family of her own, a pastor's wife, and, yes, an overachieving high school student. A more mature filmmaker might have pulled these vignettes together more adeptly and would have had more to say about gender roles, class, and immigration histories, but I enjoyed the slightly undercooked quality this documentary had--Lee allows all these women to speak for themselves, and there's something wonderful about seeing ordinary Asian American women on screen, talking about their lives.

I loved the fact that Lee confronts the issue of evangelical Christianity head-on--it plays such an important role in the Asian American community, and yet we rarely seem to discuss it. (A bias, perhaps, of intellectual culture?) Several women talk about the ways in which their faith shapes their life, and Lee respects that. She also talks with a lesbian activist who ultimately decides she can't allow her name or face to appear in this documentary--a reminder of the difficulty many queer Asians have had expressing their sexuality with family and community. And Asian activists! You should watch this documentary for a glimpse of the fiery 88-year-old Grace Lee Boggs alone.

I had a difficult time finding this movie--I got my copy through interlibrary loan--but apparently it can be purchased on iTunes. Lee has also set up a website for the film, www.gracelee.net, that includes a quick, fun trailer. (1:20)

Day 6: Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker is one of those wonderful hybrid novels. It's a detective story, a love story and an exploration of what it means to be Korean-American. The Guardian reviewed it with these words:

"As in a Saul Bellow, only about three things happen (or a thousand, depending on how you look at it). And, like a Bellow novels, it is also very, very good."

Now, I've never read anything by Saul Bellow so I can't comment upon the comparison, but the review does hit the nail on the head with regards to how the novel works. Nothing really happens. Not on a major scale, anyway, until the last few pages, and even then it's understated and only important and shattering where the past events of the novel are considered. But that is part of the point. Henry Park, our protagonist, works hard at being unnoticeable. Both because he is visibly 'un-American' and knows what that means, and also because his job demands it. His wife is WASPness personified, but her job is teaching people to speak English. And her students are mostly immigrants, who want to learn how to sound American, to become American.

I can't really go into any more detail about how this all plays out because I'll ruin the larger narrative of the novel, but all the personal political problems and quarrels that Henry is part of become exemplified and exaggerated by a larger political narrative that he then has to play a part in.

This novel is a quiet one. Nothing, as I've said above, really happens, but at the same time everything happens. It's concerned with sound and noise and visibility and being part of something. And it succeeds because it is a very hard novel to stop thinking about. This novel stuck in my head for days and days and days. I spent them rolling the events around and trying to make sense of them for myself. I hope it does the same for you.

Day Five: Delhi 2 Dublin (music)

My rec for today relates to buckle_berry’s post yesterday about British-Asian musicians, because it’s for the Canadian group Delhi 2 Dublin.

This is a five piece band from Vancouver, BC, whose combine bhangra, dub and celtic influences by weaving together dhol, tabla, electric sitar, fiddle and bass. The energy of their music makes Delhi 2 Dublin one of my favourite live bands and their songs are what I play for an instant uplift. The vocals are mostly in Punjabi (which I don’t speak) so I’m afraid that I can’t provide a commentary about the lyrics, but the popularity of the band amongst non-Punjabi speakers in Vancouver testifies to the fact that one can love the music without understanding all the words.

Their whole album is available with live streaming from their website, so I recommend having a listen to see if it’s your sort of thing. I was addicted from the first time I heard them, & I’ll be surprised if you don’t find yourself bouncing and dancing along :-)

Day 5: Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

I'm terrible at summarising books, so this first paragraph/summary is borrowed from Publishers Weekly via Amazon.com:

"14-year-old Rumika Vasi struggles to fulfill her mathematical gifts and her family's demands on them, while also finding friendship and romance. Rumi, labeled gifted in kindergarten, becomes subject to the grim home teaching of her father, Mahesh, a professor of mathematics at the University of Swansea in Wales. The goal: to be accepted to Oxford by age 14. Shreene, Rumi's mother, resentfully accepts the household dominance of Rumi's studies while worrying about how to raise her to be a proper young Indian woman. Rumi longs to be in India, where lots of girls are good at math and where she feels at home among her extended family. The pull of romance is also soon part of Rumi's equation."

I was unsurprised to discover that Nikita Lalwani is my age, because in Gifted she captures how it felt to grow up in small-town 1980s Britain in excruciating detail. However, Rumi has more on her plate than the average teenager: not only is she the child of Indian immigrants in an almost entirely white school*, but her "gift" for mathematics has become the subject of her parents' fierce ambitions for success, thus pushing her even farther out of the mainstream.

It's very clear that Rumi's parents are living their own thwarted ambitions (ambitions that are thwarted both by British racism and their own refusal/inability to integrate with British society) through their daughter, and the pressure on her is often heartbreaking. While other kids are playing out on the street, she goes to the library to work until her father collects her - at least, until she works out a way around this. Her rebellions are both novel and moving.

I don't want to spoil things, so I'll just say that Lalwani inexorably builds up the pressure well past the point where you think that the characters can't take any more.

The book is at times poignant, at times hilarious; sometimes both at the same time. Lalwani's light touch ensures that characters are often frustrating but never wholly unlikeable.

*Not entirely random aside: I remember how excited we all were as fourteen-year-olds when a Sikh girl joined our year. One non-white child out of a hundred and forty in the year - and she was the only person of colour in the entire school at that time. *sigh* I point this out just to emphasise the fact that Rumi's situation is perfectly likely for the time, and as an indication of just how "exotic" people of colour were seen as in many parts of the UK until very recently.
I must preface these recs by saying that the British Asian music scene is huge and sprawling, and I am no expert in any part of it! The recs are nothing but a jump off point really for anyone who might want to explore a bit further.

To generalise hugely, when the term British Asian music is used, what you might expect to hear is a fusion of traditional bhangra/desi sounds with western music, mostly dance, rap and hip hop although there are folkier influences out there too. The scene is dominated by first and second generation Southern Asian immigrants (primarily Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi) with lyrics in a mixture of languages including English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

British Asian music is in a really vibrant period currently, especially in London where huge events like the Notting Hill Carnival and the London Mela offer a natural home for bands and artists. The BBC offers pretty good coverage of the scene overall through the Asian Network. I find it sometimes frustrating that Asian music is such a niche category in the UK: you hear a huge amount of music of black origin on mainstream radio here - soul, hip hop, the category they weirdly define as "urban" - but very rarely do you hear anything with that British Asian sound. That's presumably because soul, hip hop etc are popular in the States, whereas bhangra/desi is as much of a niche concern there as here, but USians should correct me if I'm wrong with that assumption!

On to the recs! Under the cut are intros and some links for 5 bands/artists: Asian Dub Foundation, MIA, Tigerstyle, Niraj Chag and Future Pilot AKACollapse )

I've tried to include a mixture of stuff so hopefully there might be something in there everyone can enjoy. There's so much more music out there - if you find anything that you love, please do rec it to me!
An unanticipated rec this evening: the scholarship of Ronald Takaki, longtime UC Berkeley professor and scholar of a multicultural US, who died yesterday at the age of 70.

Takaki was a charismatic teacher and a prolific and persuasive writer who helped shape multicultural and Asian American history in the US. Using graceful language and a storyteller's voice, he made a case for a US that has been multicultural since its origin and shaped profoundly by racism in A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, which has become a standard textbook for history and ethnic studies in the fifteen years since its publication. (It was my first introduction to multi-cultural history back when I was in college--a history I encountered while shelving in a bookstore, not sitting in a classroom--and all I could think as I read it was "why didn't I learn this when I was in school?") The chapters on Asian American have introduced thousands of students to paper sons and picture brides and inserted Asian Americans into the history of the centuries-long struggle for civil rights and social justice that too often we see in black and white. He also wrote Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans...which I have to admit is still sitting on the shelf, unread. But he's a wonderful social historian with a talent for making the past come alive, and someone who helped me think about the world differently.

If nonfiction isn't high on your summer reading list--fair enough!--you can watch Takaki talk about his experiences as a rising first-generation college student in this charming Youtube clip (roughly 6:00 min.) and see him discuss the central role that African American soldiers played in the Civil War here (scroll down until you reach "One Fact You Should Know About American History," roughly 3:00 min). I hope you're as taken with him as I am! Back tomorrow with the rec I'd originally intended to write.