Wednesday, May 7, 2014
"Review" if you can call it that: How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?
Of course I'm bringing up the book again because, hey, my story's in it. So obviously I'm going to do that.
And I always intended to write a review, although of course you know the review will be positive. So think of it more as "nice things I want to say about this anthology my story is in".
So, here are some nice things.
When I received my advance copy of the anthology, of course I began reading it immediately (OK, honestly, I flipped right to my own story, "Gods Rushing In", and read that first, then I went back to the beginning to read the others. I think more people do that than would admit it).
And I have a lot of great things to say for the collection overall:
First, that it includes a range of voices and experiences. One issue I have with writing by and for women is that, probably unwittingly, a lot of it tends to cover the same ground: romance, marriage, children, family, "finding yourself", "happiness", maybe travel (if it involves romance, marriage or "finding yourself"), and works directed at female expats - as not very many works are actually by female expats - tend to focus on the same kind of expat: do they think we're all just trailing spouses, going to coffee mornings and planning Christmas bazaars, while our husbands work? (Not that there is anything wrong with being a trailing spouse who goes to coffee mornings, not at all - just that that's what people, even people who market to female expats, seem to think we all are.) That was probably the one critical flaw of one of the few other books I've reviewed on this blog. How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? avoids this nicely, and includes experiences of all sorts of women on all sorts of adventures: older, younger, married, single, settled expat, wanderer, hippie, careerist, trailing spouse, equal breadwinner.
Second, that that range of voices is also diverse. One thing I actually don't like about travel writing (or expat or backpacker communities in general) is this feeling that a lot of travelers unwittingly view the world as the playground of white people. I don't think anyone does this intentionally, but somehow the feeling is still there. Including diverse women's voices helps the anthology easily avoid that fate.
Finally, I appreciated that the pieces chosen all carefully avoided the "I came to Exotic, Mystical Asia to find myself" cliche. That's perfect - because that tired trope plays far too well into the idea too many people subconsciously have that the world is their proving grounds, the colorful backdrop full of ethnics and tribals all set up nicely to make travelers look cool, enlightened and worldly. For myself, although I wrote about a colorful Taiwanese festival, I took great pains not to make it all "I had this mystical experience", because I didn't. And honestly, Asia for me is a lot less of the "dignified man in a white Chinese cotton suit doing tai chi looking out over a gorgeous view studded with mountains and bamboo" (cue gong music) and a lot more of, say, Hsinchu Science Park. It's not mystical, it's a continent where several billion people live. I stay because I enjoy language immersion, the food's amazing, the city is convenient (After living in Taipei I feel that if you have to walk for more than one minute to get breakfast, your city sucks). And, okay, I like the festivals, but not because I feel like I need something "exotic" to "find myself", but just because I like them. Compare a folk Daoist temple parade to, say, some Veteran's Day Parade in East Surburbia, and I'm sorry but the folk Daoist parade wins.
As for the pieces I liked best, well, I liked all of them, but a few stood out. The Weight of Beauty, because it absolutely hits the mark when one looks at the intersection of beauty ideals and cultural ideals. (Although when Dorcas expressed surprise that the company would send a sexy sales rep, thinking she would be a man, I did smile...of course they did. Using female sex appeal to sell things is even more notorious in Asia than the West, and we're certainly not innocent of it in the West.) Bread and Knives, because it so beautifully uses a small experience, a moment in time, to capture so many uneasy feelings about both expat life and new parenthood. Finding Yuanfen on a Chinese Bus because it was well-written and perfectly descriptive, and conjures a type of expat a lot of people don't imagine exists: a fierce young solitary woman who has, and is not embarrassed by, a sex drive. Huangshan Honeymoon for taking a situation that most expat women and people in an intercultural marriage would balk at, and turning it into something beautiful, that made perfect sense (my only quibble is that good old Dad-in-law doesn't get off scot-free - not for thinking all foreign women are easy, although that's no good, but for thinking that it is wrong to be "easy". Some people are inclined to a libertine lifestyle and it's not OK to judge them - not me, really, Old Married Jenna is surprisingly stodgy. That said, it's not like my opinion has any impact on the Laobas of the world...so okay). The Truth About Crickets because it was both balanced and jarring, jejune in its storytelling just as something told from a child's perspective should be, with a well-constructed narrative. Waiting for Inspiration because it captures every fear I've ever had about what it would be like to be a "trailing spouse", and Charting Koenji because it perfectly captured the blend of loneliness and curiosity that mark my first few months in any new place.
...and more, I actually have like five more that I want to mention, but at that point I may as well just say something nice about every single work, so suffice it to say that even the ones not mentioned here were fantastic to read, and not mentioning them doesn't mean I didn't enjoy them just as much, for different reasons.
And obviously "Gods Rushing In" was fantastic, amazing, life-changing...the feel-good short personal narrative of the year! Hehe.
So, this is to say that you should buy the book and read it. :)