Growing up in the 90s was hard enough but imagine coming of age in a new country that you didn’t want to move to in the first place, with a language you don’t understand…
4/5 stars. ebook, 228 pages. Read on January 21, 2021.
Recommended by a friend, this was a comforting read to have amidst another wave of COVID.
Robin Ha was born in Seoul, South Korea as an only child. While her father was briefly in the picture for part of her early childhood, Robin’s mother soon finds herself as a single parent, which, with the conservative views of 1990s Korea, didn’t bode well for either of them. Almost America Girl is a memoir that begins with Robin’s early life in Korea, the difficulties socially and financially that she and her mother faced. Then when Robin’s mother remarries they take a vacation trip to the United States to visit her new extended family, however, this trip abruptly becomes permanent. Robin feels immensely betrayed by her mother with this sudden and intrusive change of home that she had no say in. She is cut off from her former home and is not even able to get to say goodbye to her friends. Barely knowing a word of English, Robin details the struggles and triumphs she experienced as a youth in a new country, with a new language, a new family, and the reflection and rebuilding of relationships and trust that comes with time.
Robin’s artwork is clean, visually appealing, and easy to read while also capturing the moods and feelings of each scene and emotion the author was looking to create. The audacity of the move that Robin had to live with is one that is hard to sit with. While her mother did what she had to for her daughter, I can’t fathom how difficult it must have been to have your whole life turned upside down in that way. One of the redeeming factors of this story is that her mother does enrol her in a drawing class and it is the first place she finds some belonging in her new surroundings which ultimately leads to Robin’s art career and creation of this book. Robin is also able to reflect on the differences between the two cultures she grew up in as she revisits Korea as a young adult.
While Robin’s story of change is not unique in that many people are forced to sometimes make dramatic moves and face similar issues of culture and language, Robin’s story details the difficulties of such an isolating experience for those that have never had to face such an ordeal, and places the reader within her shoes, highlighting why stories like Robin’s need to be told. It also highlights the resilience that it creates in overcoming such challenges.
I would highly recommend this book to teens, anyone struggling with feeling different, or for any graphic novelist enthusiast. Further, I feel that this book would be a perfect read to have within a high school curriculum as it helps to build empathy and understanding for anyone that has ever been perceived as different.
“I mutter and mutter and no one to listen. I speak my words in Japanese and my daughter will not hear them. The words that come from our ears, our mouths, they collide in the space between us.”
Paperback, 268 pages.
Read from December 9, 2019 to December 12, 2019.
A Chorus of Mushrooms is what I would describe as “my kind of book”. It’s the type of book that details lives and scenarios that I know nothing about, with poetic, imaginative, and dream-like writing, and with words that are in partial or full in translation. There must be something about this ‘poetical otherness’ that I’m completely obsessed with. Another draw for me in this book is that the town the majority of the book is set in, Nanton, is a town I visited as a kid over many summers. The book also spends time in Calgary, a city I lived in for many years.
A Chorus of Mushrooms details the lives of three different generations of Japanese-Canadians on the matriarchal side and was first published in 1993. The family lives on a mushroom farm in Nanton, Alberta, Canada. The grandmother, Naoe, is very old and requires the care of her daughter, Keiko, and granddaughter, Muriel or Murasaki, as Naoe calls her. The first person narrative switches between Naoe and Murasaki and drifts between different points of time. Naoe knows English but refuses to speak it as her Keiko has abandoned her heritage and culture in order to try and assimilate into their home in Canada. Naoe may no longer be close to Keiko but they still care for each other in their own way. Naoe had a very different life in Japan and thing have not always been easy for her and she is frustrated because she feels she has no one to communicate with that deeply understands her. Despite her age, Naoe decides one day to leave her home in Nanton and in the middle of winter. From there, the story takes a different turn with Naoe making the reader wonder what’s real or the wishful imaginings of the author. Murasaki was always extremely fond of her grandmother and recounts her childhood and all the Japanese myths her grandmother used to tell her. After Naoe leaves, Murasaki attempts to fill the emptiness of her grandmother’s presence as well as a piece of her identity that has been kept from her by Keiko by attempting to reconnect with her heritage.
This beautiful book won numerous awards when it was first published and it’s easy to see why. The book will always continue to relevant as it speaks to anyone looking for their own identities or to anyone who has ever had to establish themselves in another country. Further, A Chorus of Mushrooms is partially autobiographical as Hiromi Goto moved to a mushroom farm in Nanton when she was a toddler and her grandmother used to tell her stories growing up too which I’m sure contributed to the intimate and personal feel of this story. The story itself is simple, elegant, and delicately told with sentences of untranslated Japanese, along with being fiercely feminine and sexually empowering.
I loved this book. Really loved it, as I read most of it in one sitting. It’s the kind of book that feels like a comfortable blanket that I’d want to crawl back into again. I would highly recommend this book to literary-fiction lovers, Murakami-lovers, or for those who are looking for something a little different but not too challenging that will still keep you engaged and captivated.
“Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”
ebook, 132 pages.
Read on February 7, 2019.
This is the only full-fiction selection from the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist though its story is likely all too real for many. This is an intricate story of a set of first-generation Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, and their upbringing in the rough neighbourhood of Scarborough, Ontario in the 90s.
The story has a weaving timeline that begins in the present day in which Michael is welcoming an old school friend, Aisha, into the home he still shares with his ailing mother after Aisha’s father has passed away. The two of them allude to a tragic event involving Francis and from there Michael ruminates on the details of his childhood opening the whole story up to the reader as well as the events that brought about the death of his brother, Francis.
Michael and Francis’ mother is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and with their father absent, she is the sole provider for her boys. She works hard, too hard, in order to keep food on the table for them. It is her character I find the most tragic. After Francis dies, she is never herself again. She tried so hard to bring her boys the best yet they were never able to overcome the impossible circumstances that poverty and race trapped them in.
Francis was the cool kid in the neighbourhood. Popular and into his fair share of trouble and with a dream of being involved in hip hop and music but was constantly fighting the barrage of prejudice against him. Kids from this neighbourhood were made up of a variety of immigrant families struggling to get by. Crime, poverty, and gangs became prevalent and not much was expected of kids like Michael and Francis, and like many of the kids in the neighbourhood, they got smothered in this trapt environment. Aisha was the exception. Aisha did well very well in school and managed to escape the neighbourhood with a scholarship. Aisha and Michael used to spend lots of time at the local library as a way to get out of the house and because Michael was never quite cool enough to hang out with Francis and his friends at a local barbershop.
The story is an encompassing story that touches on immigration, race, poverty and the Black Lives Matter movement, yet the approach of these difficult ideas is broached in such a delicate manner. It’s written in a very matter-of-fact way in that it emphasises that this is just another ordinary family and that their situation isn’t all that unique, making the impact of the story that much more poignant. It’s a very politically and timely piece that is uniquely Canadian in terms of the setting but all-encompassing with its ideas.
The ideas alone are enough to move you but the way Michael and his mother’s life end up, without Francis and without hope of a better life, are what truly make this novel.