Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han

Front cover image of Swimming Hong Kong Take a deep breath before you dive into Stephanie Han’s Swimming in Hong Kong, because this brilliant collection will pull you in from the very first story and hold you there until the end. Han’s collection was a 2015 finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, an award coveted by just about every short-story writer, and is forthcoming from Willow Springs Books, a lovely literary press housed at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, right up the street from my old stamping grounds at Lewis-Clark State College.

Han teaches in Hawai’i and graduated from City University of Hong Kong and resides in both places, and the stories reflect the outlook of narrators who are cosmopolitan, internationally informed, and sometimes a touch travel-weary in their outlook. They cross boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, gender, and age, from Koreans in America to Americans in Korea, with locales moving from Seoul to Hong Kong to the Grand Canyon to Nantucket. For all that, the stories adhere to what I think of as a uniquely American (or at least uniquely Western) model of the short story: they are subtle, they are evenly paced, the conflict resonates across multiple levels, the stories ripple with metaphor and symbol, and the language is luminously attentive, rigorously controlled, and delicately precise.

For all the varieties in their situations, the early stories all feel as if they share a narrator, so similar are they in conflict, and in situation: an intelligent, sensitive young woman confronts a culture that doesn’t quite feel like home, whether in Asia or the Americas, and quite acutely observes the particular prejudices aimed at her for her Asian face and Western access. In the first story, “Invisible,” a faithful exercise in the obligatory early-MFA-workshop second-person narrator story, a young woman sits at an ex-pat bar in Hong Kong and experiences the peculiar vanishing trick that has become all too familiar to her as the Asian wife of a white husband. He’s looking right at her, even talking to her, but her husband’s co-worker and friend clearly doesn’t see her, and certainly doesn’t catch the barbed hints she sends his way.

Asianness is likewise the mask that the radical young college student in the second story, “The Body Politic, 1982,” is trying to throw off, or emerge from behind, but she doesn’t know to what extent people are interacting with her or their stereotypes about how a young Asian woman should look and act. Exposed to the feminist movement on a liberal campus, we see her in the opening scene chanting “I am not your servile Oriental sex object! Capitalism equals colonialism and sexism!” and debating how far she is willing to be the poster girl for this or that Asian campus club. And yet she falls prey, as so many young college women do, to a man who coerces her into sex, and gains her compliance because she wants to be “nice,” even though the encounter is painful on all levels. Han shines a light on the difficulties not just of being female, and therefore already Othered, but being doubly or triply removed from the charmed hegemonic circle—by ethnicity, by nation of birth, by the ability to cross over and see beyond boundaries, but at the same time never feel that sense of belonging anywhere.

Home is what the young narrator of “Canyon” is searching for, particularly a home identified by the comfortable materiality of Western culture, a Christian boyfriend who loves her, and a familiarity with the great U.S. landmarks, like the Grand Canyon. But in this, my favorite story in the collection, a hike with her lover becomes a confrontation with all the ways she is disconnected from him, including the painful secret  about what she left behind in Korea. Her Asianess likewise seems the thing that bars the sweet young summer worker in “Nantucket’s Laundry, 1985” from her desired love interest, Ted—the seeming epitome of the charmed and privileged white boy, who goes on to have a terrible life.

Her Asianess, however, is the very thing that attracts the painfully loutish, culturally tone-deaf Dan in “The Ki Difference” to this story’s narrator, but even so she is gentle with him, patiently trying to correct his demeaning manner toward the locals and improve his knowledge about the culture that is an economic opportunity for him, but home to her. Han doesn’t descend to caricature or stereotype, but she doesn’t need to do so to get her point across; the reader gets the sense that she is accurately, patiently, and sometimes with outraged grace reporting on the many, many things she has observed or experienced from her unique point of view about the several cultures she can call home.

Later stories in the collection depart from the love interest/Orientalism theme and explore challenges that seem less place-specific and more universal, while introducing new and fresh voices. A young girl in “Hong Kong Rebound” watches the subtle way her father is excluded from a sport he enjoys. In “Languages” the challenges of the schoolteacher narrator feel more relatable despite her Korean context, for many women have mothers who fear they will never find husbands, and many women have experienced being attracted to someone who is not suitable husband material at all. In “My Friend Faith, 1977” it’s the Asian girl who gets to go home to America, where she learns that her brief summer friendship in Seoul with the white missionary, Faith, has less of real connection to it than even she knew.

The last story in the collection, the title story, feels the most mature, controlled, and accomplished, and yet at the same time the most incomplete. The narrator, an older man nicknamed Froggy, takes an interest in a young woman learning to swim at his local pool. An excellent swimmer himself, Froggy distracts himself from fretting about the life path of his eldest son by watching this woman tackle her new skill, and gently coaching her. The story also incorporates the viewpoint of the woman, Ruth, a Jamaican-American who is truly a global citizen and ready to move from Hong Kong to anywhere. She conquers the breaststroke, but it’s not entirely clear what else changes for Ruth, or causes her to move to India—when you have no home, your home is anywhere? And the resolution of Froggy’s relationship with his son with a simple invitation to swim also seems a little too pat for the sophistication the rest of these stories have demonstrated.

Still, the collection delights for its extraordinary range, the subtle clarity of its vision, and the painful truths it honestly confronts about how white culture treats the Asian Other. As always, fiction can deliver the message more meaningfully than even the best political satire. And yet Han’s faith in her readers to see and grow beyond such limited thinking is generous and persistent, even through to the end. If Froggy can learn that the seemingly hard-headed younger generation can still share some of the values cherished by their elders, even the most culturally bound readers of Han’s memorable and masterful collection can take a broader, birds’-eye view of the world and go swimming, however briefly, in new and explored worlds.

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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Leigh Michaels

Ruining the Rake by Leigh Michaels

The last non-contemporary romance I read had this guy named Darcy in it. Could any author ever rise to challenge Jane Austen? I certainly didn’t think so. Until I read Ruining the Rake, a book I closed only when my late-night eyes blurred, opened the pages again for too few minutes the next morning before work, and rushed home to finish in time for dinner.

Leigh Michaels wrote the book on the craft of romance writing and continues to lead by masterful storytelling example in this delightful romp through the flirtations of 19th century London high society. Elinor Holcombe’s desperate plan of escape from an arranged marriage to an aging wine merchant who reeks of onions amuses Augustus “Gus” Rackham, aka Lord Rake, a nickname earned by his notorious flirtations and reputation for seduction. His anticipated single day diversion with the outwardly inexperienced Elinor becomes an unpredictable adventure with more physical and emotional twists than the rain-rutted roads the couple travel on through the English countryside.

Bets, bargains, and misunderstood false flirtations all come into play before the truth is revealed and the rake is ruined! The plot, character development and style of dialogue are simply perfection 101. Writers—study and learn. Readers—enjoy! I’m both so I plan to read it again.

Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The story continued in Heartland published in 2015 and concludes with Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, published in October of this year. Teresa will appear alongside romance writers Leigh Michaels and Amy Manneman at the Book Bums Workshop in West Liberty, Iowa, on Saturday, November 5. A freelance writer and consultant, Teresa serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwest Writing Center. The Davenport native resides in her hometown with her husband John and three rescued Husky kids.

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Monsters: A Love Story by Liz Kay

Monsters: A Love Story, by Liz Kay

Monsters: A Love Story, by Liz Kay

I study monstrous women (exhibit A: my dissertation on Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance), so a book called Monsters: A Love Story shoots to the top of my must-read list. I had the initial impression that this would be an update of the Frankenstein story; such, at least, is the subject matter of Monsters in the Afterlife, the novel-in-verse that protagonist Stacey Lane is about to sell the film rights to. But when the buyer is Hollywood’s sexiest A-list actor Tommy Demarco, and she flies to his home on the Turks and Caicos Islands to get drunk on expensive scotch with him, I realized this story was going to be a fantasy. Specifically, the fantasy about the seemingly unassuming Midwest girl (Stacey lives in Omaha, Nebraska) capturing the heart of the World’s Sexiest Man, on the pattern of Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s The Royal We, and of course the Julie Stiles film The Prince & Me. All my intentions about giving the book some serious feminist analysis got derailed as I stopped thinking about Mary Shelley’s wonderful postpartum I’ve-made-a-monster horror tale and started thinking about my (and our entire culture’s) enduring love of the Cinderella fable.

reality-of-love-movie(For the record, my favorite of the unassuming-girl-snags-sexiest-man-alive genre is the movie Reality of Love, a made-for-TV movie originally called I Want to Marry Ryan Banks. She’s from Boston, not the Midwest, but her name is Charlie, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Emma Caulfield, and since Charlie is sassy and smart and does crosswords and stuff, the movie star of course immediately falls for her, but so does the movie star’s best friend, played by Bradley Cooper, and just shut up no Bradley Cooper is not my Hollywood crush. Though he might be an interesting casting choice for Tommy Demarco – I imagine he would have a lot of fun with the movie-star-playing-a-movie-star riff, like Julia Roberts did in Notting Hill, and now that I’ve revealed my taste in movies, we understand why I enjoyed Monsters so hugely.)

ella-enchanted-bookSo, Cinderella. The outlines are familiar: girl, hopelessly stuck in her own life, gets chosen by powerful, charismatic man for her a) sweetness of heart, b) purity of mind, or c) naive sexual allure, and gets whisked away to a life of wealth, privilege, and comfort in which no one will oppress her ever again or make her sweep out the fireplace goddammit because now she has a powerful protector. There have been several interesting takes on Cinderella’s allure in recent incarnations that I quite like. In Ella Enchanted, the prince likes Ella for her intelligence and spirit, but instead of saving her, he merely helps her break the spell of obedience put upon her. In The Princess Diaries, Mia ascends to wealth and power through inheritance and gets to choose her own prince. Drew Barrymore’s character in Ever After teaches the prince about statecraft and humility, and in Disney’s latest Cinderella, as imagined by Kenneth Branagh, she teaches him to enjoy life.

But Monsters is perhaps the most interesting Cinderella remake I’ve read yet, for this heroine needs to do absolutely nothing that is winning, wise, or self-sacrificing. In fact she’s allowed to be an emotional wreck, prickly, cold, floundering, unable to take care of herself or her kids, blind to the feelings of others, promiscuous, desperate for male approval, craving nurturance and a male protector to shield her from all the bad stuff in life so she can just mill around and write poetry—and she still gets her prince.

YES! Take that, cultural stereotypes about women!

frankensteinI’ve painted Stacey as if she’s unlikeable. She’s not a monster. You can see where she’s coming from. She’s mired in grief, for one thing. She tells us right away, first page, that her husband died and she’s still not doing okay. This is a story about a woman who is not doing okay. She is not a princess. She is attractive, definitely, but also acerbic, foul-mouthed, able to hold her liquor (for the most part), and cold, distant, and sometimes mean to the people who most love her (including, sometimes, her kids). But she still manages to get the guy to gallop in, take her away from her sad Midwestern town, sweep her off to a life of ease and wealth and privilege, where she has help to do the housekeeping and watch her kids and she need do nothing but write all day and have mutually satisfying, enthusiastic sex with her prince whenever he or she wants it.

SOLD. I will take that fantasy, thank you very much.

everafterposterI was interested by so many qualities of this book. First and foremost, the very lean, minimalist prose. It sweeps you in and carries you along. I suspect that’s because Kay is trained as a poet. Poets make great novelists, when they want to write something that long. They make the line carry no more than it has to, and every once in a while they toss in the perfect metaphor. Kay’s prose has the kind of pull to it that keeps you turning pages—just what every author wants. But there’s also the question that keeps the reader tuned in: is Stacey ever going to realize what a basket case she is and pick herself up and pull herself together, or is she just going to keep wallowing, manipulating, lying, withholding, controlling every bit her kids eat (this was the weirdest thing for me) and blaming everyone else for her misery? (That last part wasn’t weird at all; I understand grief.)

royal-weSome books give the lie to the advice given aspiring writers that you have to have likeable characters. I hear it’s more the thing to have unlikeable, irredeemable characters; Gone Girl and Girl on a Train are frequently pointed out to me as examples. It’s a gamble for the rom-com format, and I admire how Monsters pulls it off. I was to page 220 before I realized, I don’t think Stacey is going to have a character arc. I think she is going to keep going on like this: drinking a lot, lying to men, communicating mostly through swear words, not knowing what she wants, feeling sorry for herself, and trying to find others to take care of her, which works first because she has a lovely family (I loved her sister, Jenny) and second because she is sexy to men.

That’s really the only thing in Stacey’s positive column for much of the book. We’re told she’s very smart, but we don’t see this wisdom applied to either herself or the people in her life, and it would probably drag down the plot if it were. Fortunately, being sexy works. The prince is obsessed with her because she wears sexy footwear and swears a lot and drinks with him and is good in bed and because she is emotionally closed off and unavailable, she’s not like all the other too-available women throwing themselves at him, so of course she is thereby interesting and he must have no one but her.

i-take-you-coverI like the breaking of the formula, that the girl doesn’t have to be good or special to get the guy; she can be completely screwed up and broken and grieving and lost and still find love and a happy ever after and a man to take care of her. It worked in Eliza Kennedy’s I Take You, but there our heroine, Lily has a kind of self-deprecating humor and a cheerful lack of self-knowledge that made her a lovable tramp. Stacey is more or less a prickly bitch, most of all to Tommy, but he just keeps coming back for more. I LOVE that wrench in the formula; she doesn’t have to be the good girl.

I think we’re supposed to see Tommy as a monster, too: promiscuous, drunk, arrogant, wicked temper, self-absorbed and expecting everyone to give him what he wants. But there’s some sense that Tommy is a coherent character. Stacey, as a character, feels oddly empty, perhaps because her motives are intentionally hidden from us. She’s always searching for things to pull her together (like boots) or hold her up (like wine); the images primarily associated with her are curling up tight, tucking in, seeking space, trying to breathe. She spends the whole novel suffocating, and she never does come to any self-knowledge or epiphany or awareness; she just, suddenly, gets handed an oxygen tank and a free ticket out of Omaha to an enchanted life on a tropical island (spoiler alert!) because she is a wealthy man’s sexual preference. Tommy is perhaps a more relatable character because he has very specific goals, motivations, and desires, and acts on them in direct ways. Stacey just spends most of the novel trying to find some air.

prince_and_me_posterIt’s a big gamble to do this with a character, to abandon the usual goals-motivation-desire formula, especially when Stacey is already broken and grieving to begin with. At least Sadie, the broken movie-star’s daughter, is honest that she’s needy and wants love (don’t we all?). Stacey can’t admit that she does, perhaps because it seems like weakness. One wonders what love feels like for her. It’s never clear that she actually loved her husband; most of what she remembers are the petty wounds and betrayals of marriage. I think Kay gets away with creating such a damaged character because the prose is so strong, the dialogue is whip-smart, and the other characters are hilarious, compelling, and just the right balance of sweet.

And, deep down at the core of it all where the archetypes rumble and the fairy tales speak, we crave the resolution we know is coming. We have to know that Stacey will get her prince—the doctor or the movie star, whichever she decides she wants—because otherwise there is the danger that if she shuts herself off entirely, her sad fate will await all of us and we, the reader, will be trapped forever in our own monstrous skin, with our desperation and our brokenness, mired in grief, unable to see part our own misery to take the simplest care of another person, crushed with the weight of our denied dreams, hemmed in and gasping for air.

So, prince. As opposed to the hard road to self-realization and pulling yourself together for real. Because that is a lot less fun, though I see more and more of it in the rom-com/chick-lit genre lately, and I’m all in favor of that. (Lily of I Take You, on the other hand, gets slapped with a dose of her own medicine, and has to figure out if she really wants to embrace the sexual double standard, or the old tried-and-true hetero monogamy, or what.) I’m all for the prince (I have one in my own life), but I do have a soft spot for the women who fix themselves and their own lives and then allow the prince in as a gift, rather than standing at the side of the road, feet aching in the come-do-me shoes, waiting for the white horse.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the Turks and Caicos Islands . . .

Meanwhile, somewhere on the Turks and Caicos Islands . . .

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File under shameless self-promotion

A Lesson in Manners by Misty Urban

Since Femmeliterate is all about promoting work by, about, for, and otherwise woman-friendly, it only seems fair to tell you that the electronic version of Misty’s short-story collection, A Lesson in Manners, will be FREE on Amazon.com between September 6 and September 10. That’s right, it’s a free giveaway, and you’re invited. Get your copy here, and if you have something to say about the book,  leave a review on Amazon, post a review on Goodreads, contact Misty at femmeliterate, or leave a comment on this post. She’d love to know what you think. Happy reading!

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Fall Reading Roundup

It’s that time of year: the new semester is upon us. Here are some books to add to your syllabi, that stack on your nightstand, or recommend to friends.

Feminism, Culture, and How to Live in the World

Memoir and Creative Nonfiction

Biographies of Impressive Women


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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Tessa Bailey

Up in Smoke by Tessa Bailey - Crossing the Line #2

Up in Smoke by Tessa Bailey – Crossing the Line #2

Connor Bannon, a control freak with major anger management issues, connects with Erin O’Dea, self-professed arsonist with extreme claustrophobia. Throw in a supporting cast of mostly ex-cons forced to work as a team under the command of a demanding Chicago PD captain or risk long-term incarceration, and the stage is set for a page-turning thriller/steamy manual on the how-to of no-hands sex.

Connor and Erin dominate the story of Tessa Bailey’s Up in Smoke. Their demons and road to recovery in the heat of mutual passion, jealousy, and eventual trust consume most of the romance novel’s 287 pages. The mission that brought them together with seasoned police officer Sera and her over-protective former mob boss husband, Bowen, Polly the convicted computer hacker, and con-artist Austin serves mainly as a means to help Erin slay her demons. Erin’s evil stepfather’s relentless and destructive pursuit of her and the trust fund he seeks to control also detracts from the team assignment to take down a corrupt politician.

In fairness, this is the first novel I’ve read by Tessa Bailey, whose storytelling ability I envy as a romance writer. The author sets up Crossing the Line #3 in the final pages of Up in Smoke with back story foreshadowing Austin’s angst as a parent of a daughter he apparently does not know. I’m intrigued to discover more about how Sera and Bowen came to be, likely revealed in Book #1.

That’s the very definition of trilogy writing success. I’m hooked and I want more.

Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in December 2013 and Heartland in February 2015. Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, will be ready for readers in 2016. A freelance writer and consultant, Teresa serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwest Writing Center. The Davenport native resides in her hometown with her husband John and three adopted Husky kids.


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