The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee *****

native speakerNative Speaker has been praised by the most prestigious periodicals, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and yet, though it has won a number of awards, I had not heard of it until I found it in a special award-winners area of Powell’s City of Books, when I made my annual pilgrimage to my old hometown and my old bookstore this summer. Perhaps I first found him there because he teaches at the U of Oregon; or perhaps it is because Powell’s is the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I frequent anymore. At any rate, this book was a real find.
Our protagonist is Henry Park, who works as a spy of sorts for a private firm:
“Our clients were multinational corporations, bureaus of foreign governments, individuals of resource and connection.”
Henry is having problems with his work. He is supposed to insinuate himself into the lives of individuals who may be working against the interests of one client or another, find out all he can about them, develop a psychological profile. To do this, he has to pretend to become emotionally attached to them, and in some cases make them dependent upon him; then he files his final report on them and disappears from their lives.
His most recent subject was a psychologist named Luzan. He saw Luzan regularly, began telling him things he had never told anyone. What with his problematic relationship with his father, now deceased, and the accidental death of his beloved son, his only child, and his marital problems…the man actually needs a psychologist, and in the end the firm has to muscle their way into the shrink’s office and physically remove Henry from his subject in order to break the connection.
Now they have thrown him a really easy job to get him back into shape. He is supposed to cover and report on a politician, John Kwang. There is the Korean connection, which makes him a shoo-in; he begins by posing as a freelance journalist, but becomes more and more involved as a member of the campaign staff. His reports become scantier and fewer as he adopts Kwang as the father he never really had.
Beautifully interwoven throughout Lee’s narrative are the cultural understandings between those of Korean ancestry; the conflicts that arise between first and second generations in the US; the racist assumptions, stereotypes, and miscommunications between Koreans and Caucasians, whom he pointedly refers to as “Americans”. Black people are just Black, but white folks are “Americans”. Park is still in love with his “American” wife, but she recently figured out what he does for a living, and she isn’t sure she can live with it. His plan is to finish this assignment, he tells her, and then he’ll get out, go do something else.
There is such grace and care in Lee’s story-telling, both in what is said, and in what is not. I’ve never read anything like it. And one thing I really appreciate is that without overtly saying so, he lets us know that there is no such thing as an Asian-American. A certain skin tone, a fold at the outside of the eyelid, these are superficial things that don’t speak to culture, to language, to expectations. I also really appreciated the way he dealt with the hostility between Korean small shop owners and their African-American neighbors and customers, and the historical reality to which he deftly traces back, without ever stepping away from the central storyline.
Native Speaker is unlike anything else I have ever read. It doesn’t even have a genre, unless we drop it into the “Asian studies” category that his story demonstrates is artificial in any case. It’s a thoughtful, deep story, yet it is not hyperliterate or particularly lengthy. It’s there for anyone who will take the time to read it. A worthy and thought-provoking journey.