She Who Became the Sun

Cover image for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

by Shelley Parker-Chan

ISBN 9781250621801

“They were two things of the same substance, their qi ringing in harmony like twin strings, interconnected by action and reaction so that they were forever pushing and pulling each other along the path of their lives and towards their individual fates.”

China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother after bandits steal the last of their food, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery when Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place.

She Who Became the Sun is a loose historical fantasy set in the transition from the Yuan dynasty to the Ming, in the mid-1300s. After nearly a century of foreign rule, the Mongol grasp on China is slipping, with famine and peasant revolts fueling the belief that the Khans have lost the right to rule, known as the Mandate of Heaven. The subtle fantastical elements are drawn from Chinese mythology and folk belief, including Zhu’s ability to see the hungry ghosts that linger in the human world after death.

Zhu Chongba’s chief antagonist, General Ouyang, has something of the stereotype of the devious, scheming eunuch who is preoccupied with what has been stolen from him. For many years he has bided his time as the most capable general of the Prince of Henan, serving the very Mongol overlords who executed his family to the ninth degree, and ended his family line by castrating him. He has fought alongside the Prince’s eldest son as his brother in arms, and his accolades surpass those of the younger son, an embittered scholar who prefers to serve as the province’s chief accountant and administrator. Despite my initial reservations, I found Ouyang to be a complex and fascinating character even in his villainy, particularly when set alongside Esen and Lord Wang to show the different facets of (toxic) masculinity in this world.

Both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are grappling with the tension between what they believe to be their immutable fates, and the evidence that they might have agency over their own destinies. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. Yet Zhu struggles to accept those strengths, worrying that to draw upon them is to attract the attention of the heavens, and have the gods realize that an imposter has slipped into Zhu Chongba’s shoes. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.

General Ouyang, on the other hand, believes that his is a fate that has always been waiting for him, from the day that the Mongols killed his family. It was a slumbering but inevitable giant, waiting to be roused, and it is Zhu Chongba who has awoken it. For Ouyang—who is more than a little in love with Esen, eldest son of the Prince of Henan—this is an unforgivable catalyst that will harm the only person he cares about. What he fails to realize is that it is his own shame and self-hatred that is the true root of this destruction. His love for Esen is both humanizing and tragic, poisoned as it is by his preoccupation with fate and vengeance.

I was drawn to this novel expecting a Chinese historical fantasy, but in the end the aspect of the story that grabbed me and would not let go was juxtaposition between Zhu and Ouyang, two gender nonconforming characters who recognize one another as being “of the same substance.” They can each see things that the people around them miss with their binary view of the world, but still differ in their ability to accept the ways in which they themselves do not fit in. She Who Became the Sun has a satisfying arc for a single novel, following both characters to pivotal moments in their narrative, but I am also tremendously looking forward to the planned sequel. In addition to following Zhu and Ouyang to their fates, I am particularly hoping to see further development of Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a disgraced Red Turban warlord who marries Zhu after her fiancé also falls from grace. Unfortunately, the sequel currently has no confirmed title or release date.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Asian YA Fantasy and Romance Mini Reviews

This month my book club is reading books by Asian or Asian American authors. I predominantly picked up YA romances and fantasy that fit this theme, and I’ve gathered a few picks together here, with a focus on East Asian stories.

A Pho Love Story

Cover image for A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

by Loan Le

ISBN 9781534441958

“In different circumstances, this could happen. This is possible in an alternate reality.”

Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families are sworn rivals. For the last six years, their families have operated competing pho restaurants across the street from one another in La Qinta, California’s Little Saigon neighbourhood. But despite the deep enmity, Linh and Bao are curious about one another, and it doesn’t take much to push them together. When open-hearted Bao does a favour for Linh and her family without their parents’ knowledge, it becomes the beginning of a secret friendship, and maybe something more. Soon Bao and Linh are working together on the school newspaper, with Bao writing restaurant reviews that Linh illustrates. Bao has always felt directionless, but through this project he begins to find himself as a writer, while Linh struggles with the knowledge that her parents will never support her choosing a career as an artist, despite her obvious talent. A Pho Love Story is told in alternating chapters, switching between Linh and Bao’s perspectives. Unfortunately I didn’t find that the two had distinct voices, and it was easy to forget whose chapter I was reading. However, I was invested in the family mystery, and learning more about the complicated history that tied Linh and Bao’s families together long before the competing restaurants, sparking a bitter rivalry. Loan Le also excels at food descriptions, and this book made me positively hungry.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

XOXO

Cover image for XOXO by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9780063025011

“You agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”

Jenny has her future clearly planned out: graduate high school at the top of her class and be admitted into one of America’s best music conservatories before pursuing a career as a cellist. Boys and dating don’t figure into this plan, until Jenny meets Jaewoo at her part-time job at her uncle’s karaoke bar. Jenny spends one whirlwind evening with Jaewoo before he disappears back to Korea and she expects she’ll never see him again. But then Jenny’s grandmother needs surgery, and Jenny and her mother will be traveling to Seoul to help her halmoni through the recovery. Jenny enrolls at a prestigious arts academy, only to discover that among her classmates are the members of the K-pop boy band XOXO—and Bae Jaewoo is the most popular member. Jenny should be focused on her future, and as an idol, Jaewoo is absolutely forbidden to date. In fact, XOXO barely survived a recent scandal when one of Jaewoo’s bandmates was photographed with a girl. Both Jenny and Jaewoo are confined by expectations in their own way, trying to figure out how a music career fits into their future. XOXO was a cute, fast paced romance. However, the effort to keep the pacing brisk did mean that many scenes ended abruptly, with some rough transitions. Events that perhaps should have taken place on page are also passed over with a sentence or two, and the overall effect was somewhat jarring.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover image for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9781250780874

“You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don’t think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”

When Mina sacrifices herself to save her brother and the girl he loves, she finds herself in a palace beneath the sea, home of the Sea God. Every year, Mina’s kingdom has sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, searching for respite from the storms that have plagued the coast for the past hundred years, but every year the storms return. Perhaps Mina can finally be the true bride who breaks the Sea God’s curse, and saves her kingdom. But caught in the realm between life and death, Mina instead finds herself a ward of Shin, the Sea God’s right hand man and most trusted protector. Still determined to find a way to help her people before her limited time in the spirit realm runs out, Mina must contend an implacable man who blocks her at every turn. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on a Korean folk tale, however that story is about Shim Cheong, the dutiful daughter. Oh’s retelling is told in the first person by Mina, who makes the rebellious choice to save Cheong, who she regards as a sister, and give her a future with Joon, Mina’s older brother. Mina becomes the heart of this new story, rising to the unexpected challenge she faces, and using her voice a storyteller, which also allows Oh to weave in other Korean myths.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale, Romance

An Arrow to the Moon

Cover image for An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan

by Emily X.R. Pan

ISBN 9780316464055

“Her parents’ expectations had become a paperweight, and she was meant to hold still, nearly flattened.”

Emily X.R. Pan’s second novel is Romeo and Juliet meets the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e and the hunter Houyi. Pan blends the two tales together, along with nods to the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film. Luna Chang and Hunter Yee have grown up in Fairbridge, where their fathers are academic rivals at the local university. However, the enmity between the two families seems to run deeper than mere professional rivalry can explain. Both the Changs and the Yees come from Taiwan, but have differing stances on Taiwanese independence. An Arrow to the Moon is set in 1991, seventeen years after the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in Shaanxi, an event with magical significance for Luna and Hunter, who were born on the day the tomb was opened. When Hunter and Luna accidentally meet at a party, the world shifts beneath their feet—literally. Things begin changing in Fairbridge, first manifesting as mysterious cracks in the ground. Hunter’s tense relationship with his parents grow more fraught, while Luna learns that her mother has committed an unforgivable betrayal. As their relationship grows, it threatens to unearth family secrets, call in old debts, and unleash a magic that was never of this world.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Cover image for The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

by Nghi Vo

ISBN 9781250750303

“History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true. She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.”

This last title isn’t YA but I read it as the same time as the others and it fits thematically! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series that will follow the cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who chose to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: Fiction, Novella, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7)

Cover image for Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7) by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213624

“She did not look back and she did not cry. For the first time in her life, she was leaving a place she loved because she had chosen to do so, and there was power in that.”

Many children who come back through their doorways seek to find them again. They struggle to fit into a mundane world that does not believe the doors are real at all, that any memories they might have of other worlds are simply fantasies built to repress unspeakable trauma. These misfit children find a home at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, among those who also hope to find their way home once more. But there are other children who really do want nothing more than to forget what they saw on the other side of their doors, to reintegrate into their home world and forget their travels ever happened. These children belong to the Whitethorn Institute, where the headmaster promises his wards that he can help them forget, so that they can become useful members of society once more.

The seventh book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series opens on Cora Miller, who is back at Eleanor West’s school after her adventures with Kade and company in Come Tumbling Down. The Drowned Gods continue whispering to her, threatening to pull her back to the Moors. And worse, Cora is that afraid that even if her own door ever comes back for her, she would pollute the beautiful world of the Trenches by letting the Drowned Gods follow her there. After months of nightmares, Cora decides that she needs to try something different. In desperation, she requests a transfer to the Whitethorn Institute, which Eleanor reluctantly grants. When Cora departs like a thief in the night, she never expects to see any of her traveling companions again.

At the Whitethorn Institute, Cora hopes to find a way to weaken the Drowned Gods hold on her. And while she does find that, the methods are extreme, and she also discovers a sinister institution that is crushing the spirits of its inmates. Here we encounter Regan Lewis, the protagonist of Across the Grass Green Fields, who is now an inmate of Whitethorn. On the verge of graduation, Regan breaks down, causing Cora to question the Whitethorn method, and what is really happening at the Institute. But to unravel the mystery she will need allies, something extremely hard to come by in an authoritarian school that enlists students to police one another. Fortunately for Cora, one of her former classmates has followed her to Whitethorn, determined to extract Cora from its clutches and bring her home. Their investigation hints at a possible larger conflict between the schools that may have profound implications for the rest of the Wayward Children series.

New to the Wayward Children series? Start here with Every Heart a Doorway.

Canada Reads Along 2022: Five Little Indians

Cover image for Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

by Michelle Good

ISBN 9781443459198

“There are no English words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge, and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs. Back to who she was before Sister Mary, before the school, before they tried to beat her into a little brown white girl.”

Five Little Indians follows five former residential school students as they try to make new lives for themselves in 1960s Vancouver, while being haunted by the demons of their past. Maisie, Clara, Lucy, Kenny, and Howie are all survivors of the Arrowhead Bay Indian School. Except they don’t always feel like survivors; sometimes they feel like the walking dead. Something in them was taken at Arrowhead Bay that can never be replaced, something broken that can never be repaired. It takes a different form for each of them, but the scars are always there, long after they’ve escaped or aged out of the school. “We were children, me and Lily, and neither of us survived, even though I’m still walking,” Clara explains, reflecting on a friend who died at the school.

Five Little Indians is told from alternating perspectives, usually in the third person, but occasionally in first. I felt this first person POV particularly viscerally in Maisie’s story. We meet Maisie through Lucy, who ages out of the system with nowhere to go and lands on Maisie’s doorstep on the Downtown Eastside. Maisie has been out of the school system for a year, and from Lucy’s perspective, she seems world-wise, and like she has her life together. She has a job, her own apartment, and a kind boyfriend who adores her. But when we get inside Maisie’s head, we are quickly confronted with the pain she is hiding, the cracks in her façade that she is trying so hard to plaster over so that neither her boyfriend nor Lucy will see her messy pain. This is by no means an easy book in any respect, but Maisie’s chapter was one of the hardest, grappling with the fallout of sexual abuse, sexual self-harm, and addiction.

Although she is not a POV character, Mariah’s name heads several chapters in Five Little Indians, and she plays an important role. Clara first meets her when she is run back across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to get involved with American Indian Movement. Mariah takes Clara in and, over the course of a winter, helps heal her, not just in body, but in spirit. Through Mariah, Clara finds a way to reconnect with the traditions of her people without the fear and self-hatred that the nuns drove deep into her bones. Although Mariah is not a residential school survivor herself, she represents an important connection back to the heritage the schools tried to brutally sever. She is the unbroken link to which Clara and her generation can reach back and reconnect, but only if they can see past their own pain to take her hand.

Throughout the book there are also other Indigenous secondary characters who did not attend the mission schools for various reasons, sometimes because their families hid them, or because they were Metis and therefore were not required to attend. The bond that grows up among the survivors is of a different sort from those who did not share that terrible experience, and many of them struggle to understand the long shadow it casts. Early in the book, Maisie has a very nice boyfriend, but she cannot accept his love for fear that allowing him close will let him see how broken and soiled she considers herself. Also poignant is Kendra, the daughter of two survivors. Her father was an escapee of the residential school system, but his trauma never allowed him to stop running, so he lives on the move, frequently leaving his family behind. Kendra struggles against the pain this absenteeism causes her and her mother, grappling with what it means to love her father despite his flaws. In many ways, the reader is invited to face these same challenges, to stretch beyond themselves and their own experiences, to understand, in as far as art makes it possible, the terrible pain the residential school system caused, and is still causing the Indigenous community in Canada.

Five Little Indians was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Christian Allaire, an Ojibway author and fashion writer from Nipissing. The book has been particularly topical this week, as Indigenous activists head to the Vatican in pursuit of an apology from Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed in the residential school system. Allaire’s defense of the book spoke to the fact that residential schools are often discussed only in a historical context, even though the bodies of lost children are still being exhumed. The echoes of the intergenerational trauma are still being felt and the last residential school did not close until 1996. Allaire’s defense also highlighted the fact that the book is largely set in the aftermath, and therefore focuses not on the trauma itself but on the messy, non-linear attempt to heal.

As the last challenger standing, Malia Baker had a difficult challenge to face against themes as important as truth and reconciliation, something she briefly acknowledged in her opening statement on the final day before pivoting to discuss her own book’s strengths. While there were a few moments this year where defenders spoke about reading as escapism, or the need for hopeful endings, overall this was a panel that really respected the legitimacy of difficult reads. This is also the first year I can recall that the CBC offered a content warning regarding the themes of all the books, and provided accompanying support resources.

Five Little Indians moved quietly through the first half of the week, the only book not to have any votes against it on the first two days, where we saw Life in the City of Dirty Water and What Strange Paradise eliminated. Meanwhile, Christian Allaire consistently cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Both books feature a cast of characters from disenfranchised communities, and employ alternating perspectives including both first and third person narration. The structural and thematic similarities led me to suspect this was strategic voting on Allaire’s part, something he confirmed when he appeared for a post-victory interview on Jael Richardson’s Instagram channel. When targeting Scarborough, Allaire narrowed in on the fact that the even larger cast of POV characters made it harder to get to know them compared to the core cast in Five Little Indians. He also spoke to the character of Sylvie and the Beaudoin family, saying that as the only Indigenous characters in the book he found their development lacking, and that Sylvie primarily existed to in the narrative to serve other characters’ stories. Malia Baker attempted to counter this line of argument by highlighting Sylvie’s role a storyteller who is still coming into her own voice during the main events of the book.

It was clear by the third day of debate that both Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury viewed Five Little Indians as the book to beat if they wanted to head into the finale. They both voted against it, while free agents Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black. Due to the tiebreaking rules this left Christian Allaire, who had voted against Scarborough, to have to move his vote to one of the two books up for elimination. Since one of them was his own, naturally he voted to eliminate Washington Black, taking Five Little Indians to the finale against Scarborough. In his final defense, Allaire called on readers to accept a little bit of discomfort in order to empathize with the truths of residential school survivors and enable healing. In an unusually unified final vote, all of the panelists except for Scarborough defender Malia Baker voted to make Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2022! Thanks for joining me and don’t forget to check out some of the past winners like We Have Always Been Here (2020) and By Chance Alone (2019).

If you liked Five Little Indians you might also enjoy:

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

The Break by Katherena Vermette

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Canada Reads Along 2022: Scarborough

Cover image for Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

by Catherine Hernandez

ISBN 9781551526782

“He opens his arms and asks if I would like a hug. I walk to him. I’m so scared. But then he holds me. He smells like food. He smells like flowers. And smiles. And sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames. I’ve never been hugged like that before, and that hug feels so good, so I hug him back. It feels so good to hug someone who will never hit you.”

When Miss Hina takes a position working for a government literacy program in Scarborough, east of Toronto, she finds herself embedded in a community full of people struggling to get by. Cory has just taken in his seven-year-old daughter Laura after his ex-wife abandoned her at a bowling alley. Marie is beginning to suspect that her young son Johnny may have a disability, but much of her time an energy is preoccupied by the fact that they’re currently living in a shelter with no prospect for stable housing. Edna sees that her young son Bing is queer, and loves him unconditionally, but has to figure out the best ways to support him in a community where his differences will not be appreciated. Fighting against a system that has specific ideas about what services she should be providing to the community without reference to what its people actually needs, Miss Hina sets out to make a small difference in the lives of these children and their families.

Set in 2011, Scarborough follows the cycle of a school year as Miss Hina begins her work in the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the Rouge Hill Public School. Catherine Hernandez employs shifting perspectives in first and third person narration that reveal the poverty and racial tensions that simmer through the neighbourhood. Marie’s family is homeless, living in a local shelter while she also tries desperately to access the services to get her son assessed for developmental disabilities. Cory relies on some of the resources Miss Hina can provide, but he mistrusts her hijab and the colour of her skin. He does not want her touching his daughter, and his past as neo-Nazi is ever-present in the background. Every family is facing its own challenges and fighting an faceless, inhumane system that does not see them as people.

In addition to first and third person narrative, Hernandez also employs attendance reports filed by Miss Hina, and emails between her and her distant supervisor, who is unfamiliar with the situation in Scarborough. Miss Hina faces pressure to ensure families aren’t treating the snacks she provides as a free breakfast program, even though lack of access to dependable meals is a major learning barrier for the children in her community. A larger story of systemic failure plays out through these interactions, highlighting the precarious funding of the literacy program at the whims of the sitting government, and the particular agendas of the administrators who control the program budget. All this takes place as a backdrop to the day-to-day struggles of the characters who are simply looking for their next meal or more stable housing.

The stories in Scarborough are interconnected and overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways, and from multiple directions. The neighbourhood is at once large, and so very small. Michelle, the shelter worker, sees two men arguing in the street when she steps out for her smoke break. When we get to Clive’s chapter, we experience this encounter firsthand, and realize that the drunk man is Cory, stumbling through the nearly deserted streets, trying to figure out how he will provide Christmas dinner for his daughter. Things have a way of looping back on one another in a multiplicity of perspectives that add up to form the story of a community that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Scarborough was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by actor and activist Malia Baker, who at fifteen is also Canada Reads’ youngest ever panelist. Baker is from Vancouver, and in her opening statement she highlighted the fact that Scarborough is such a microcosm of Canada as a whole that it spoke to her despite the fact that she had no personal connection to the setting. She also argued that the book’s depiction of community and multiplicity of perspectives is what made it the One Book to Connect Us, which is the Canada Reads 2022 theme. Throughout the week of debates, Baker more than held her own against the much older panelists, successfully championing Scarborough to the finale against Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, which was defended by fashion writer Christian Allaire.

Throughout the week of debates, Christian Allaire was also the only panelist consistently casting his vote against Scarborough, perhaps sensing that thematically and structurally it was his closest competition. Before the finale, no other panelist had cast a vote against it, though that doesn’t mean that it did not come in for criticism. Christian Alliare repeatedly called out the fact that he wanted more from the character of Sylvie, particularly since her family constitutes Scarborough’s Indigenous representation. Indeed, the development of character came up from many of the panelists over the course of the week. Because of the structure of the book and the large cast of characters, we do not spend much time in any one point of view. Many of the characters are barely more than a glimpse, flitting in and out of the story before we get a chance to really know them. However, some of these snapshots are highly effective, and many of the panelists called out the character of Cory who is memorably human while also being thoroughly despicable in his racism.

During the final day of the debates, host Ali Hassan raised questions about how the two remaining books took readers inside the hearts and minds of the characters, revealed our shared humanity, and changed how the panelists moved through the world. The conversation moved quickly, and all too soon it was time for the final round of ballots to be cast. Unanimous votes are rare on Canada Reads in any circumstance, but this may be the first time since I began following the program that such a unified vote took place during the finale. Defender Malia Baker voted against Five Little Indians (only one panelist has ever voted against their own book). However, all four of the other panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Scarborough, making Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2022! Need to catch up? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

You might also like:

Brother by David Chariandy

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Canada Reads Along 2022: Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

“How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those did the saving.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

I first came to love the work of Esi Edugyan with Half-Blood Blues, which was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey on the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. In Washington Black, Edugyan brings her trademark exquisite prose to the story of a slave who gains his freedom under complicated circumstances. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, he discovers he is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s careless actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though Titch does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was resisting in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take Wash to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Olympian Mark Tewksbury. Tewksbury emerged early as a strong debater on this year’s panel, with powerful, well-articulated opening statements, and the ability to find the strengths of the other books in the title he was championing. He emphasized the strong writing in his selection, and the way Edugyan’s descriptions transport the reader to a different time and place. On Day Three, host Ali Hassan asked the remaining champions to open with a statement about why they chose their books. Mark Tewksbury spoke to the relationship he felt to the character of Washington Black, drawing parallels between accepting his own gay identity and Wash’s struggles as a to find his place in the world as a freed slave with visible facial scars.

Throughout the week, Washington Black was often called out alongside What Strange Paradise as the book on this year’s table with the most beautiful writing. Suzanne Simard described it as cinematic, and as a fellow writer Christian Allaire praised its craft. The debates thus far however have focused more on theme and character than on prose or craft. This very much echoed the fate Edugyan’s first book Half-Blood Blues faced when Cameron Bailey defended it on Canada Reads 2014. However, Washington Black also came up against criticism, particularly regarding the ending, and the centrality of Titch’s character to Wash’s journey. Wash’s quest for closure comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, because it is not ultimately something he can find in an external source.

After a day of rapid-fire debate, when the time came to vote both Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black, while Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against Five Little Indians. The outlying vote belonged to Christian Allaire, who voted against Scarborough for the third day in a row. Per the Canada Reads rules, in the event of a tie the panelist who did not vote against one of the two books up for elimination is required to cast the tiebreaking voting. Since Christian Allaire was defending Five Little Indians, which also had two strikes, he naturally voted against Washington Black, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.  

Just tuning in to Canada Reads 2022? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

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Canada Reads Along 2022: What Strange Paradise

Cover image for What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

by Omar El Akkad

ISBN 9780525657910

“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”

When Syria is torn apart by civil war, Amir and his family flee to Egypt. But while his mother tries to rebuild their life, his uncle is still looking for a way out, a promise of better things. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.

What Strange Paradise is broken into alternating Before chapters, which tell of Amir’s life prior to the events on the island, and After chapters, which follow his adventures with Vanna on the island. One final chapter is entitled Now. In the Before chapters, we learn about how Amir’s family lost their home in Syria, took refuge in Egypt, and then tried to escape across the sea. In the After chapters, Vanna tries to conceal Amir from the authorities and—with the help of the local refugee camp coordinator who does not want to see the little boy dragged into that system—tries to get him to an old dock on the far side of the island where a ferryman will smuggle him across the water. 

What Strange Paradise is short but powerful. I read it quickly, and then wished I had spent more time absorbing it as I sat with the ending. The book is open-ended and invites a wide range of possible interpretations. The opening image of a boy’s body washing up on the beach has clear echoes of the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015. But this little boy, Amir Utu, opens his eyes, and the story continues. How that continuation is interpreted is in the hands of the reader, but it is a haunting ending that more than one reader has found frustrating.

The villain of the piece is Colonel Kethros, a broken man who used to be a peacekeeper, only to realize that “peace keeping” meant watching a genocide and being able to do nothing to stop it. He lost not just his leg, but a piece of his humanity on that mission. The same man who will save a small girl from drowning will also throw a little boy into a refugee camp that lacks fresh water without a moment’s hesitation. His duality embodies the limitations and fickleness of human empathy, and the lines that we draw between “us” and “them.”

What Strange Paradise was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by entrepreneur Tareq Hadhad, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2015 with his family. Hadhad drew on that history in his pitch for why it is the one book that all of Canada should read this year. With millions of people just like Amir on the news every day, Hadhad argued that What Strange Paradise is the timely book Canada needs right now to foster empathy and compassion for refugees. Many of his fellow panelists seemed to agree that the book was effective at fostering this empathy, and several called out particular scenes from the Before chapters on the boat that spoke to them and highlighted the humanity of all the passengers, even that of Mohammed the smuggler.

The ending of What Strange Paradise repeatedly came under fire from Canada Reads panelists, an angle of attack which the book’s champion Tareq Hadhad indicated that he had expected. Mark Tewksbury in particular called it out several times, and even Malia Baker, who said that she likes a subjective ending, felt this one might go too far. Hadhad argued that the open conclusion is part of the power of the book, and pointed out that this is a feature it shares with Washington Black, the book Tewksbury is defending. The alternating chapters were also unpopular with some of the panelists, including Malia Baker and Christian Allaire. Baker noted that the character of the antagonist, Colonel Kethros, is much better developed than either Vanna or Amir, and we have much better insight into his motivations than anyone else’s.

The hopefulness of the book was also a point of contention that came up for discussion on the second day of the debates. Tareq Hadhad described What Strange Paradise as hopeful in his argument, and certainly it is a book about the hopes and dreams of immigrants and refugees, but none of the panelists seemed to agree that the book’s ending was hopeful. Some of the panelists, including Mark Tewksbury and Christian Allaire, questioned Vanna’s motivations and believability in her decision to aid Amir despite the serious potential consequences to herself and her family. In response, Hadhad noted that he had found his own Vanna in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and argued that kindness does not need a reason.

When the ballots were cast at the end of Day Two, Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against What Strange Paradise, while Christian Allaire cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez and defender Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In the after show, free agent Suzanne Simard noted that she struggled with her vote but felt that while the book had a Canadian face in many ways, it was the only book that did not have a Canadian setting. Her deciding ballot made What Strange Paradise the second book eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

Catch up on Day One of Canada Reads 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

Cover image for Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller

by Clayton Thomas-Müller

ISBN 9780735240070

“One of the mysteries of creation is how closely saving yourself and saving the world are linked. If you don’t take care of the world, you will only end up harming yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t do the world any good. We’re all part of the world. It is an illusion to think any of us can be separate.”

Growing up as a young Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Clayton Thomas-Müller faced a rough childhood marked by intergenerational trauma, racism, and abuse. After the death of his great-grandparents, his family became disconnected from their traditional practices on their tribal lands in Jetait in northern Manitoba. His itinerant youth took Thomas-Müller from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, with a detour through juvenile detention before landing back on the streets of Winnipeg on the cusp of adulthood. Life in the City of Dirty Water is the story of how, after all this suffering, Thomas-Müller reconnected with his heritage and became an environmental activist who has worked with organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org.

Thomas-Müller is the biological son of two residential school survivors, though the men who he called father, who helped raise him, whose names he took, were not all one and the same. It is very much a history of intergenerational trauma, and his mother’s story is that of a very young woman from northern Manitoba who became pregnant as a teenager, and had to leave home to go to the city to access the services she would need to support herself and her child as she tried to complete her education. Their journey is not one of smooth sailing, but “he has my full support and permission to share his story; as his mother, that is the gift I can give him at this junction in his life,” Gail Pelletier writes in her forward to the book. Family remains an important theme throughout, both in how families support one another, and how they are fragmented by trauma.

Life in the City of Dirty Water describes Thomas-Müller’s non-linear path into the world of environmental activism, even as he remained tangled with the gangs his family was involved with, and continued to occasionally sell drugs to meet his obligations or help support his family. The latter part of the book turns frequently to Thomas-Müller’s anger at the world, and the way that anger both fueled his activism and also threatened to burn him up from the inside. Anger “consumes you even as it nourishes you” he warns, as he recounts a brutal schedule travelling across Turtle Island and around the world to fight for Indigenous rights in order to protect the environment. In these sections, he recounts both his work with environmental NGOs, and also how the Indigenous practice of the Sundance helped him heal and reconnect with his heritage despite growing up in the city.

Life in the City of Dirty Water employs a chatty and discursive style. Thomas-Müller’s narration is conversational, and his memoir has the feel of an oral tale that has been written down. I read this as an e-book but would be very curious to hear the author’s audio narration, as I have a feeling it might do the tale better service. The story is semi-chronological, but also ranges widely. He will make passing mention of an interesting fact or detail that sounds as if it could be a story in its own right, and then never return to it. There can also be a sort of whiplash to his blandly matter-of-fact narration of some extremely traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, mixed in with descriptions of much more quotidian occurrences. It speaks to the extent that violence of all kinds was normal in Thomas-Müller’s early life, but also conceals a deep hurt that will not bear more interiority or closer examination.

Life in the City of Dirty Water was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by author and ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. Simard argued that Canada faces an uncertain future grappling with the dual consequences of climate change and intergenerational trauma, two key themes of this memoir. She presented Life in the City of Dirty Water as a book that shows how we can turn anger into action at this crucial crossroads, and care for the earth by first healing ourselves. She felt that it was unique among the Canada Reads 2022 books in offering readers that path forward.

This first day of debates always moves quickly, with good portion of the time taken up by panelist introductions, book trailers, and a pep talk by the authors for their defenders. This year was no different. Often the book that is voted off first is the one that takes a few hits or draws attention and the best strategy on the first day can be to simply fly under the radar. This year’s theme is One Book to Connect Us, and host Ali Hassan’s questions focused on how the books on the table bridge the divides between us. Life in the City of Dirty Water did not come in for particular criticism, however Clayton Thomas-Müller’s memoir did stand out in that it was the only non-fiction book on the table this year, a fact that was called out by panelist Tareq Hadhad.

When the time came to vote, Malia Baker cast the first vote against Life in the City of Dirty Water. In the post-show Q&A with Ali Hassan, she pointed to the book’s multiplicity of stories and that she felt the meat of the activism narrative didn’t come until the second half. Three other books received one vote each, with Suzanne Simard voting against Washington Black, Christian Allaire voting against Scarborough, and Mark Tewksbury voting against What Strange Paradise. Citing the way the book sometimes read like a narrative resume, Tareq Hadhad cast the second vote against Life in the City of the Dirty Water, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

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