Review | Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, Ann Y. K. Choi

29218113Korean-Canadian teenager Mary is tired of having to manage her family’s convenience store. Part of her wants nothing more than to be modern and Canadian, but another part of her is unable to fully leave behind the expectations of her traditional Korean family. This dilemma plays out in different ways: she uses the name Mary but can’t help that her parents sometimes call her by her Korean birth name Yu-Rhee. She is in love with her English teacher, but her parents want her to set her up with a Korean boy named Joon-Ho. There’s also the unspoken family secret about her mother’s estranged sister, and how that may tie in to Mary’s own struggle.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety had its weaknesses — in particular, a scene of sexual assault felt tacked on, a tired coming of age trope that was added unnecessarily and then not fully explored. Mary’s crush on her older English teacher also felt cliche, and its outcome inevitable. That being said, I think these two things bugged me mostly because the rest of the book was so strong that any weakness really stood out.

I love how Choi writes about the immigrant experience. I love the sharp observations about feeling the need to represent an entire culture, simply because you are still a minority within the community. One character says of a fellow Korean: “He makes the rest of us look bad. Like we’re all a bunch of idiots who can’t make it here. Don’t you get it? People like him make them suspicious of all of us.” (page 198) Joon-Ho and his family do some really questionable, sometimes villainous things, but their struggle is also a really smart depiction of the pressure around immigration. I love how Choi portrayed Joon-Ho’s need to be as close to perfect as possible in order to achieve residency in Canada, and the additional stress of having your family’s hopes of immigrating lie on your shoulders.

I also love how Choi highlights the rarity of Asian representation in Canadian literature. When Mary’s mother asks her why she never reads books about Korean or Chinese characters, Mary responds that there aren’t any, or at least none that she’s aware of. This story was set in the 1980s, and thankfully today, there are a lot more options available for CanLit books featuring Asian characters. Still, Mary’s mother’s response resonated with me: “You want to know about feeling invisible? It’s always black and white in Canada. The Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, anyone from Asia are the true invisibles. Do you think anyone really sees us when they throw pennies at us for a newspaper?”

Overall, I really like how Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety portrayed the experiences of Mary, her mother and their family. I especially love how Mary realizes she can be Korean even without ascribing to traditions that don’t quite fit her: “I could claim my name myself. I could have everyone call me Yu-Rhee.” It’s a fantastic owning of identity, and realizing that one has the power to claim both sides of a dual identity for themselves, even with something as simple as a name.


Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | In the Country: Stories, Mia Alvar

Here’s a confession: I’ve always dreamed of writing a Filipino-American novel. I have no clue what it will be about, or even what genre it would be in, but I knew I wanted the protagonist to be Filipino, and I wanted it to resonate somewhat with readers beyond other Filipinos.

Here’s the reason: As a Filipino-Canadian bookworm and aspiring novelist, I’m dismayed by the apparent lack of books with Filipino characters or Filipino content in the mainstream literary world. With the notable exception of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (published over a decade ago – in 1991), there aren’t a lot of contemporary examples of fiction written by Filipinos and published or read outside the Philippines. Some of the others I know of are either about the country under Martial Law (relevant history, but still far from contemporary), or written by non-Filipinos (still notable, as in the case of Angie Abdou’s recent novel Between, but not quite the same). I should add here that it’s entirely possible I just don’t know of these examples, and I would love, dearly love, to be proven wrong about this.

IntheCountrySo when fellow blogger Lynne from Words of Mystery offered me her copy of Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country, I was thrilled to discover this title. Here was a recently published book (2015!) by a major publisher (Penguin Random House!) written by a Filipino American whose stories, according to the book blurb “vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora.”

Here’s another confession: Alvar’s stories could have been just okay, and I still would have been liked the book, because as I mentioned, I’m starved for contemporary Filipino American literature. So imagine my thrill when I read the first story and realized Alvar’s writing is so much more than just okay — it was brilliant!

Her stories indeed “vividly give voice” to her characters, transporting the reader to locales such as Dubai or New York and describing events such that you can actually feel like you’re there. Her characters range from household helpers and young professionals in the 80s and 90s to activists in 1970s Martial Law. Filipino-ness is intrinsic and integral to her characters, without necessarily determining their stories, and references to Filipino cultural nodes like sari sari stores and telenovelas are sprinkled throughout, again intrinsic and integral to the stories without quite being the driving force. I guess that by that I mean that Alvar’s writing doesn’t quite set out to push Filipinos to the forefront, but rather takes the stories that are there and simply shares them with the world.

Given how many Filipino-American stories seem fixated on Martial Law, I found myself more drawn to her tales of Filipinos working in other countries. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) form a significant part of the Philippine economy and population, and Alvar’s stories do a great job of presenting the balancing act between being away from home and forming a new home wherever you are.

I particularly love this passage from her story “Shadow Family,” about a community of Filipinas in Bahrain whose lives get upended when a flirtatious young household helper joins their group:

We too had landed vowing to stick to English — to impress others, to practice, to avoid embarrassing our children. Although the teens still found plenty to ridicule in our accents, nuns in convent school had at least taught us to pronounce our f‘s and v‘s correctly, to know our verb tenses and distinguish genders, to translate naman differently depending on the context. But at these parties we spoke Tagalog even to the babies, who barely understood it, for the same reason we served pancit and not shawarma. Between Arab bosses and Indian subordinates, British traffic laws and American television, we craved familiar flavors and the sound of a language we knew well. (p. 97)

I love the simplicity of that notion, that stubborn clinging to a language because it’s the one bit of home that you can keep, no matter what. I love it mostly because I understand it, because I understand the sense of home that can come just from hearing the sharper cadence of your language.

It’s this sense of home that I felt while reading Alvar’s stories, the sense that while the experiences she recounts are not quite my own, there are touchpoints and trademarks that resonate with familiarity. I read this collection on a train out of town one weekend, and for once, I actually wanted the journey to last longer so I could keep reading.

One question I have every time I read a book that resonates with me because of something in my background (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians), I wonder if non-Asians or non-Filipinos would respond in the same way. Is the book great just because I found familiarity within it, or would other readers also find something within it that will resonate with them? And part of me always hopes so, because that would mean that something in Filipino culture, or Asian culture in general, something far beyond the stereotypes that unfortunately are all too prevalent in books and movies, touched a chord in a broader readership. So far, I’ve lent In the Country to one non-Filipino friend, who also loved it and thought the writing was really good. Call me silly, but that response actually made my day.

In case you couldn’t tell, I absolutely loved Mia Alvar’s In the Country. Here, finally, is the book I’ve long wanted to read and, to be honest, also wanted to write. I still dream of someday joining Alvar and Hagedorn and a hopefully growing list of Filipino fictionists who have carved a space of our own in the Western literary world. In the meantime, I’m beyond glad that Alvar has written this book, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.


A note that at the beginning of this year, I made a pledge to read more Asian American Women Writers. I will likely do a brief recap list nearer the end of the year rather than individual reviews for all of them, but it’s thanks to this pledge that Lynne from Words of Mystery passed this book on to me.

If you’re interested in reading more works by Asian American women, here’s the shelf I created on Goodreads, based off of Celeste Ng’s original article.

And if you have any recommendations to add to this list, in particular of Filipino writers, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more.

Review | (You) Set Me on Fire, Mariko Tamaki

20622284Remember being seventeen and in love with someone you knew was bad for you? In (You) Set Me on Fire, when seventeen year old Allison Lee enters college, she has been in love once (disastrously), burned twice (literally), and appears headed for yet another romantic disaster. She finds herself drawn to beautiful classmate Shar, who soon becomes the centre of Allison’s universe.

As an adult, I immediately found Shar pretentious (the “too cool” outsider who looks down upon other students), and later emotionally manipulative and utterly messed up. I honestly didn’t understand the appeal, when there were perfectly nice classmates like former cheerleader Carly who were inviting Allison to join them in various activities. However, thinking back to myself as a teenager, I have to admit Allison’s decisions may not have been so far-fetched as I’d like to think.

Tamaki is fantastic at capturing the teenage voice. Allison sounds like a teenager without the usual Clueless/Valley girl trappings of authors trying too hard to sound young. Allison sounds smart, and more than that, funny. Here is a story about a girl heading into a toxic relationship, who’s had some problems with fire, and who feels she doesn’t quite fit in with others her age — and it’s funny! This is not to diminish everything Allison is going through — at times, her encounters with Shar and her flashbacks to her previous romantic disaster (high school classmate Anne), are almost painful to read because the emotions are so raw. But the narrative as a whole is laced with sardonic humour, and that, combined with an ever-present undercurrent of raw vulnerability, makes Allison’s story so powerful.

Take a look at this passage for example, shortly after Allison enters college and realizes her classmates there know nothing about her or her past:

So for a brief moment in time I was in the freshman threshold of opportunity: the people around me knew only what I’d told them about myself, Nothing more. They’d had almost no time to formulate an opinion for themselves and no one was around to inform them of anything different from what I said or what I did. If I smiled and giggled at their jokes, I could be a happy-go-lucky person. If I slept with the first boy I laid eyes on, I could be a slut. I could even get in a fight and be a loose cannon or a bully.

The world was my oyster. [p. 38]

I remember that moment of opportunity, that moment when I could completely reinvent myself, redefine who I’ve become. It happens every now and then, with a new school or a new job or even a new city. It’s exhilarating, and a great part of figuring out who you want to become. That moment of hope, so early in Allison’s story, is particularly poignant as we read on, and realize she’s falling into an old pattern, and that this too is a familiar experience for anyone trying to reinvent themselves.

The brilliance of Tamaki’s writing is evident even in the title, which is possibly one of my favourite book titles ever. The parenthesis create a dual layer of meaning, with both layers somewhat at odds with each other. The declarative, almost accusatory romantic statement “You set me on fire” is in tension with the directive “Set me on fire,” which could be either a demand or a plea. This subtlety is carried through with her use of fire as a metaphor, a somewhat overused symbol for passion, yet in Tamaki’s hands it feels fresh. From Allison’s scar to escalating incidents with fire in the story to the striking allusions to history and mythology, fire is woven through the narrative in a masterful way that is overt without, to my mind, ever being over the top.


I made a pledge in 2015 to read books by Asian American women writers, based on a list compiled by Celeste Ng. Mariko Tamaki isn’t on the list, but this book happened to catch my eye in a shop, and I’m glad it did. If you happen to be joining me on this pledge, I highly recommend you add this to your list as well.