Book Review: WAR TRASH, the “memoir” of a Chinese veteran who fought in the Korean War

Jin, Ha - War TrashWar Trash
Ha Jin

War Trash recounts the travails of Yu Yuan, a Chinese veteran of the Korean War. Yu, who had been a student in a military academy when the Communists took over the Chinese government, was viewed with some suspicion by his superiors since he might harbor Nationalist sympathies. Still, he was valuable because he could speak English so well.

Once in Korea, Yu’s division was ordered to march south. Against the superior firepower of the Americans, the Chinese division got separated. Yu and a handful of others survived, nearly starving, in the wilderness for weeks until they were captured as POWs.

First at a collection center then at a series of camps, Yu struggles to survive as the Communists and Nationalists viciously clash with the captors doing little to maintain order until it reaches a boiling point, and the U.S. military arrives with force if not skill and strategy.

Although Yu is repelled by the extremism demanded by both factions of the Chinese, he is at turns required to prove his loyalty to both for survival, and when the war ends, Yu’s struggles are far from over.

Ha Jin has written War Trash in the form of a memoir drafted by Yu Yuan. As a result the prose is, as Yu might describe it, “documentary-like,” richly descriptive and detailed but not elegant or beautiful. Slang words and phrases like “meanie,” “saving his own skin,” “popped off,” and “roped me in,” are jarring and seem out of place – yet, maybe they aren’t because Yu learned English in part through reading the Stars and Stripes and through conversing with guards. In short, the book is not what I’d call well-written, but I cannot conclude if that is deliberate to reflect Yu’s voice or if it is because Jin didn’t rise up to his usual standards. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The story itself makes War Trash worth reading. Personally, I know little about the Korean War, and until reading War Trash, I knew nothing about the American-run POW camps. Jin outlines the inventiveness and determination of the prisoners but also the toll it took, as some slipped into depression or committed suicide. American men for the most part are represented as buffoons, saved by the strength of the military’s weaponry and equipment.

Chinese politics at the time serve as the backdrop. Only two years since the Communists seized power, the Nationalists, formerly in power and backed by the Americans, now ensconced in Taiwan, still believe they can triumph to win back the country. The Chinese POWs are pulled between these groups, fearing them both yet needing to form an alliance with one or the other. In the peace talks, the POWs became a bargaining chip. The Nationalists wanted to claim them to increase their ranks while the Communists wanted them to return to the mainland voluntarily to save face. Of course, Yu concludes that not just he and his fellow POWs but also many others affected and abandoned by the war effort are discarded and treated as war trash.

Book Review: WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE, a richly symbolic tale of WWII internment camps

Otsuka, Julie - When the Emperor Was Divine (3)When the Emperor Was Divine
Julie Otsuka

Immediately following Pearl Harbor, men of Japanese descent were arrested and detained indefinitely. The young boy of When the Emperor Was Divine remembers the humiliation of his father being led off in his robe and house shoes. The next fall, the mother sees signs announcing Evacuation Order No. 19 instructing all residents of Japanese ancestry to report for “evacuation.” Calmly and without objection, the mother readies her home and her children for departure. Asians not of Japanese descent erected signs proclaiming they were Chinese in the hopes they would be protected from the racism that accompanied the fear and anger associated with the war.

The family first are housed in a stall at a racetrack and then are sent via train to a camp in Topaz, Utah, where they stay over three years. Regardless of their status outside the camp, they are equalized inside, though the hierarchies are difficult to forget. When mother sees her old housekeeper, the housekeeper slips into a helping role despite the mother’s objections. They quickly learn the rules of the camp: stay away from the fence and don’t admit to worshiping the emperor. The boy can’t help whispering the Hirohito when he walks past a guard tower. Another man is shot ostensibly trying to escape. Those who know him said that was impossible. He was only approaching the fence to gaze at a beautiful flower on the other side.

Unlike most Japanese who were detained, they were able to return to their house, but they realize they’d been betrayed by their neighbors. Former bonds were dissolved. The children had grieved that no one wrote them in the camp; they learned that the local postman had said writing to anyone in the camps was aiding the enemy. The family was at once joyous and sorrowful when their father arrived home, alive but diminished, a shadow of his former self.

When the Emperor Was Divine, a brief novel, is so well-written and economical in its prose, it’s easy to overlook the rich symbolism, though nearly every page transmits more than one meaning, showing not just the events in the train, or at the camp, or in the neighborhood after the war. That the characters remain nameless reflects how much the Japanese were required to jettison their identities and renunciate their heritage to prove their loyalty.

“We would join their clubs, after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!”

Although white “Americans” occupy only the periphery of the story, they are indicted as silent co-conspirators of the atrocity. Sadly, this situation is little changed today, though instead of Japanese being incarcerated, it is undocumented immigrants who are people of color. As When the Emperor Was Divine illustrates, only when we strip other groups of their humanity can we allow them to be treated in such a manner.

One way to advocate for undocumented immigrants is to support the work of the International Rescue Committee and the Immigration Advocates Network. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is also committed to migrant justice.

Book Review: A WWII Comfort Woman Endures

How We Disappeared
Jing-Jing Lee

In the early 1940s, Wang Di, a teenager from the village of Hougang in Singapore, worries about her family’s poverty and their inability to send her, a girl, to school, though her two younger brothers receive the benefit of an education. She is busy with helping her mother and selling vegetables and eggs in the local market. Neither she nor anyone else is concerned about the war; they are certain that the British will repel the Japanese forces.

When the British surrender and the Japanese begin their occupation of Singapore, renamed Syonan-to, the people of the island learn deference to the soldiers, hoping to remain invisible through their deep bows, though this doesn’t keep them from looting their homes and kidnapping their people. One day, a group of soldiers arrives in Hougang and takes Wang Di and other women from the village, including the mother of a newborn baby and a girl a year younger than Wang Di, to serve as comfort women for the Japanese troops. Kept captive for over two years, the women are subjected to unspeakable horrors. Once the war is over, Wang Di vows never to speak of her time there.

Nearly sixty years later, twelve-year-old Kevin Lim, bullied and isolated by his classmates, is pulled out of school when his grandmother, already in the hospital, has a third stroke. Sitting by her bedside, she mistakes him for his father and gives a garbled confession, asking for forgiveness. Kevin is compelled to untangle the mystery behind his grandmother’s secret.

Kevin and Wang Di’s stories entwine in unexpected and poignant ways, showing how the past ripples into the present and demonstrating that silence is not a shield but a self-inflicted wound.

Although How We Disappeared got off to a slow start for me, I ended up very appreciative for having read it. I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and this story offers a window into the tragedy, especially as experienced by the Chinese population. Also, I was not aware of the daily lives of the comfort women, and as horrible as it was to read about what they endured, I was glad to know what happened to them during the war.

As is obvious from the title, the book deals with the theme of disappearance, and seeing the myriad ways not just how characters make themselves disappear but how others can also make one invisible was engrossing and almost overwhelming. Each character must come to terms with how they have disappeared and have varying degrees of success reanimating themselves.

Emotionally, the section that resonated with me most was when Wang Di returned to her family after the war and had to reintegrate with regular life after being a captive comfort woman. The twin faces of shame and shunning spiral around Wang Di.

While I found very little at fault with How to Disappear, I wondered if Kevin was represented as too mature for his age. When he was first introduced, in fact, I read him as rather naive, so I was surprised to find him so enterprising and sensitive as he pursued his investigation. Kevin’s father was a key figure in his life and had bouts of depression, or going to the “Dark Place.” These were tantalizing hints of his character, but I wish they had been more developed.

In terms of style, for the most part, I found the writing lovely, and clear, though I noticed two patterns that I thought detracted from the narrative. First, Lee frequently introduced things in what to me was a strange order. For example, she often gave a summary statement of an event, went back to describe how the event came about, and then repeated the summary. It had the effect of jumbling the timeline a bit in my mind. Secondly, she would include a sentence and then instead of including modifying phrases, those phrases would follow in incomplete sentences. This is a common technique among fiction writers; in this case, I just thought it was a bit overused, in such a way that it drew attention to itself.

Overall, though, How to Disappear is an excellent and worthy novel that should be on the reading list of those who enjoy literary fiction, historical fiction, and reading about women’s perseverance. I definitely recommend it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hanover Square Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WOMEN TALKING, Mennonite Women Empowered after Tragedy

Women Talking
Miriam Toews

Women Talking might be the most literal title of a novel I’ve read in years. Miriam Toews based the book on events that happened in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia from around 2005 to 2009. Women and girls woke up with evidence they’d been raped, but it was explained that the sexual assaults were made by demons as a result of the women’s sins–until one of the perpetrators, a member of the community, was caught and admitted he and a group of men had been anesthetizing families with drugs meant for farm animals and raping women for years.

In Toews’ version of events, the colony had planned to discipline the men itself, as it did for other offenses, but one of the women, mother to a three-year-old who was raped and contracted an infection, attacked the men in their temporary cell with a scythe. For the men’s protection, the bishop and elders of the community turned them over to the local police (though local in this case is hours away). However, the leaders of the colony decided to raise bail for the rapists and bring them home so that the women could forgive them and everyone go to heaven.

The men’s effort to raise bail required a lengthy trip to the city and auctioning off the community’s animals, so the women were left with only the children, the infirm, and August Epps, the schoolteacher, only half a man since he didn’t know how to farm.

While the men were away, the women voted on what they could do: nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The women of two families, the Friesen women, representing the stay and fight contingent, and the Loewen women, who wanted to leave the colony, met in a hay loft to debate these two options with August taking minutes since the women are illiterate.

Women Talking is without a doubt interesting. Through the women’s conversations, their individual natures emerge, including vices like smoking and cursing, belying the homogeneity that many people might assign to women in such communities. Until this point, the bible and religious doctrine had been interpreted by the bishop and the men in the community, but as the women debated, they articulated the tenets of their faith and how their actions would reflect those beliefs. During the discussions, the absolutely horrific details of only some of the attacks emerged showing the various ways the women coped with the assaults.

Because the rapists were all members of the community, the women knew them, and, if they left the colony, they would be leaving men they loved. The women wrestled with difficult issues of faith regarding forgiveness and mercy as well as the feelings of anger towards the attackers and the men who allowed the attacks when their religion preached pacifism. I don’t think my own awareness of religious theology is advanced enough to have caught all the nuances present.

That the women’s voices and their moment of empowerment is captured by a man, by August, is an irony, but he barely merits the title given his past, and his role in the women’s convention is pivotal for his own growth. Since the women weren’t taught to read or write, the compassionate, sympathetic, and thoughtful August was a good choice for a secretary for the meetings, and I suppose it also kept all the women as participants, none as observers. Still, I’m sure there is more to unpack regarding these gender issues.

The themes and issues discussed definitely felt weighty and intellectually engaging, but in terms of prose, I found the narrative a bit dull. The women often repeated ideas, such as comparing themselves to the animals of the colony, and while I know this reflected the process of their self-awakening, I found it wearisome. However, this was punctuated with close calls with men of the colony learning about the unsanctioned council, and this underlying fear created a tension that lasted throughout the book until the conclusion which I did find incredibly satisfying.

While there are many, many good reasons to read Women Talking, particularly learning about the Mennonite colony and engaging with the themes discussed by the women, it’s not a book that I would categorize as an “enjoyable read.”

Book Review: THE PENELOPIAD – Ithaca during Odysseus’s absence

Atwood, Margaret - The Penelopiad PMThe Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood

While Odysseus was gone twenty years fighting the Trojan War and then trying to get home to Ithaca, his faithful wife Penelope deflected her many rowdy suitors by endlessly weaving and secretly unweaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Upon his triumphant return, he slays the suitors and hangs twelve handmaids who disrespected him by slandering him and sleeping with the suitors.

Little is said in The Odyssey about Penelope and the maids beyond their use as symbols demonstrating the virtues of womanly patience and modesty while condemning women and/or servants for demonstrating autonomy.

Wondering about the story of Penelope and the maids, Atwood has written The Penelopiad, a tale narrated by Penelope from Hades with a chorus provided by the maids. Penelope traces her life from childhood, when her father tried to kill her by throwing her into the sea, to Odysseus’s return, killing of suitors, condemnation of the maids, and to her dealings in the afterlife. The interactions she has with individuals from Ithaca in Hades are quite funny as are the rare comments she makes on today’s society.

The maids, functioning as a traditional Greek chorus, comment on Penelope’s narrative, and through their stories and poems present a different version of events leading to their execution.

Margaret Atwood is among my top five favorite authors, if not my very favorite, and here it’s taken me almost fifteen years to read The Penelopiad. I might have been avoiding it because I’m not that interested in Greek and Roman mythology. That attitude was unwarranted. Like all of Atwood’s novels, it’s a romp. I tore through the book, completely enjoying the reading experience, finding Penelope interesting, the writing exquisite, and the chorus constructions quite fascinating.

Given the two different accounts leading to the hanging of the maids–and the vivid image of their twitching feet–not to mention the separate account told by Homer in The Odyssey, the book opens a window on how inaccurate ostensibly authoritative accounts can be and casts doubt on the reliability of narrators. It also indicts class systems, showing the depravities the maids endured just because they were not born to wealthy or noble families. I wish there had been more about Penelope’s decision to remain faithful to Odysseus who was described as charismatic but not particularly trustworthy.

I would recommend not having the same attitude I did toward The Penelopiad; it’s a fun and quick read with intriguing themes. I should have known that Margaret Atwood wouldn’t have let me down!