Book Review: Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 6, Edited by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and Gerald Maa

Reviewed by Jenna Lê


Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 6
Edited by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and Gerald Maa, with Guest Editors Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Sylvia Shin Huey Chong
Asian American Literary Review, 2015

As a child growing up in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1980s, I was struck by the apparent fact that all English-language media about the Vietnam War—history textbooks, novels, movies, documentaries, television programs, newspaper and magazine articles, and poems—were exclusively concerned with portraying the war from a U.S. military perspective. Both of my parents were South Vietnamese immigrants who—in the liminal, unnaturally-lit hour just windward of my 9 PM bedtime—would sometimes fall to regaling me with spellbinding oral accounts of their perilous maritime escape from a war-fractured Saigon in 1975, and therefore I was faintly aware that other perspectives on the war besides the U.S. military perspective enshrined in the history textbooks must exist. However, until fairly recently, I never had the validating experience of seeing such alternate perspectives on the war reflected on the printed page. Certainly, I never saw the full range of such perspectives explored via essays, poems, and visual art until I read the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, a special issue subtitled “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War.”

“(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” ought to be required reading for anybody with an interest in the Vietnam War, and especially for any American writers writing about the Vietnam War. Yes, the issue gathers prose and poetry from many of the first-generation and second-generation Vietnamese American writers who have made a splash on the U.S. literary scene in the past couple decades: Monkey Bridge novelist Lan Cao, The Book of Salt raconteur Monique Truong, laureled author of The Sympathizer Viet Thanh Nguyen, bard of Burnings Ocean Vuong, phoenix-like poet of trauma Cathy Linh Che (Split), and spoken word phenom Bao Phi (Sông I Sing). Given the obscurity in which such voices once languished, this encyclopedic marshaling of Vietnamese American voices, in and of itself, is a worthy achievement.

However, the accomplishments of “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” go far beyond this. The issue is also noteworthy for highlighting many writers and artists from mixed racial backgrounds. The issue includes Korean American artist Yong Soon Min’s photographic documentations of the unjustly-sometimes-forgotten role that Republic of Korea soldiers played in the war. The issue gives ample room to writers and artists with Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, Khmer, and Thai roots (many of whom, like myself, hail from the snowy climes of Minnesota: e.g., poets Soul Vang and Bryan Thao Worra). The issue gives consideration to the impact the war had on Guam and other far-flung territories. The issue features Muslim voices and Buddhist voices, exclusively English-speaking voices and bilingual voices, gay voices, transnational voices, environmentalist voices, veteran voices and refugee voices. Some pieces in the issue, such as poet Bao Phi’s, persuasively argue that Vietnamese Americans do not live in a vacuum but are linked by various affinities to other Asian American communities as well as to Native American communities and Black communities, that the circle is unending. As Yến Lê Espiritu writes in her prose piece on the Vietnam War’s “collateral damage” in Guam and elsewhere: “When I started my research…I was intent on documenting the war’s costs borne by the Vietnamese because I wanted to accord Vietnamese bodies the same humanity and dignity given to American bodies. I conceptualized the Vietnam War as a dyadic war between the United States and Vietnam — an asymmetric dyad to be sure, but a dyad nevertheless. What I came to realize was that the war…involved a constellation of U.S. former and current colonial territories…”

This issue of the Asian American Literary Review achieves a constellation-like complexity worthy of its subject not only via a thoughtfully curated polyphony of voices but via other means as well. The issue seriously explores and questions the significance of ethnic identity for displaced persons and families today (in a prose piece, scholar Mariam B. Lam astutely describes her lengthy response to the vexingly omnipresent question “Where are you from?” as “an old familiar story… that now feels like a requirement, a license, and a justification of some sort”). The issue directly engages with problematic representations of Southeast Asia in movies that once almost exclusively defined how Americans think of Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians (Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Gran Torino, The King and I, and others). It is worth noting that this issue is reading material for adults only (one piece, combining prose and very explicit visuals, considers the legacy of the pornographic movie Brothers), but what reading material for adults it is! Virginia Woolf once described the classic novel Middlemarch as “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” I wonder: would Woolf call “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” one of the few English books written for grown-up people about the Vietnam War? Maybe. In any case, it sets a new bar for Vietnam War scholarship and literature.

Jenna_Le-Jenna_Le_-_author_photo Jenna Lê is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor and Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

Book Review: The Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani

reviewed by Safia Moore


The Perception of Meaning
Hisham Bustani
Syracuse University Press, 2015

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
– George Orwell

Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani labels the epigraphs for his bi-lingual publication, The Perception of Meaning, as “entrypoints,” and the quotes from Al-Hallaj and Tagore contain two words that define this challenging collection of prose poems: see and vision. But the doorkeeper of these often brutal, occasionally terrifying pieces (the publisher classifies them as short stories) does not welcome so much as grab the reader, forcing him/her to witness the colossal mess mankind has produced. Nightmarish imagery is rife although not all twelve pieces are surreal, and whilst Bustani often refers to particular places, people, and incidents in the Middle East, his outlook is unflinchingly global.

Recurring tropes such as evaporation, disappearance, people and objects dissolving like mirages, are in keeping with the book’s title: meaning itself can only be perceived, and as Descartes observed, perception has its limits. Most pieces do not so much warn in the prophetic sense, as blame: humankind is hastening its own demise and hope is invariably absent. In “The Book of Meaning,” man is portrayed as an actor with no shadow, on a stage with no audience: “It’s pointless,” he thought to himself, deciding to step down. Three poets “hurling poems at the opposite wall” demonstrate Art is no solution: “the poets have died, taking with them the similes and metaphors.” The intellectuals, the couple posting selfies online, the rich man, the beggar, all are alone, the world a mere backdrop to their pointlessness which is magnified by technology.

Comparisons with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land are inevitable, but Bustani’s work is born of the online generation, portrayed here as victims rather than masters of technology. Humour creeps into an otherwise pessimistic (some might say depressing) volume of work via Bustani’s take on social media and the effects of computer technology. In “Laila and the Wolf” (the Arabic version of Little Red Riding Hood) the legend is subverted with the grandmother sexually abusing the wolf and the voyeuristic hunter posting a video on Youtube. The killer line is, “a child threw his story book in the trash, and walked out of the library into the street.” I was reminded of W. B. Yeats’s “All changed, changed utterly.” Similarly, “A Game of the Senses” with its reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, suggests that technology and man’s devotion to it, have forced the five senses to “commit mass suicide,” the imagination destroyed, the mind “penned in by tall fences made of wires and high-speed microprocessors.”

I felt the most successful of these anti-tech pieces was “This Deluge of Emotion is Going to Make Me Vomit,” perhaps because I sensed a more honest poetic voice at play as opposed to the one in weightier poems requiring multiple footnotes. A series of confused questions, simply put, reveal the insincerity of online versus real relationships – the edges are blurred, do we know what is real and what is fake anymore? Human interaction, love, “has become a passing line that quickly disappears behind the top frame of the chat screen” and meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire, saying, “I have to defile you.” Technology caters to man’s base desires and clouds his ability to discern what is valuable and what is mere trivia.

The first piece, “Apocalypse Now,” directly references the Coppola film and sets the scene for the whole collection with effective images spawned by modern warfare and commercial greed. The focus here is on victims: human, animal and vegetable. While Nature cries, man responds with, “I will bottle your sorrow and sell it” and feeds more dead trees into photocopying machines. Environmental concerns are more specifically addressed in “Requiem for the Aral Sea” which also rues the catastrophic results of man playing god. But is there any hope in Bustani’s perception of the modern world? The title of the final piece in the book, “Salvation,” is apparently ironic with its reference to Jesus’s last words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The most arresting image in “Salvation” is the “small blue bead” (Earth) that “knows it roams in a wide, wide, wide space without purpose, without much consequence.” Optimism is an illness, cured by current affairs: “He swallowed the news broadcast twice a day, and wrapped himself up in newspaper before going to sleep.” “Salvation” ends by addressing the reader in the second person, describing post-apocalyptic man’s suffering as “endless,” a repeated word which fades away. It is a powerful, melancholic signing-off.

The translator of The Perception of Meaning, Thoraya El-Rayyes, has produced a work which comfortably embraces the English idiom and never sounds like a cover version of the original. This is fitting for a book with international influences and universal vision. Clearly, Bustani is not mired by roots or attachment to the Middle East; his world is your world too. The often surreal imagery can be shocking but the more realistic pieces stayed with me longer, perhaps because they felt more emotionally true. For example, “History Will Not Be Made On This Couch” depicts a man torn between holding on to his perception of normality (symbolised by his television remote control) or risking his life to join the Egyptian uprising in 2011. In this piece, the context is clear and the message unadulterated by metaphor or esoteric references.

Bustani tackles the “big issues” of modern life with imagination and originality. He is duly recognised as an important voice in Arab literature and his work is starting to appear on academic reading lists. However, to reach the general reader, perhaps Richard Price’s advice, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write,” is salient. There is evidence here that Bustani does this very well, but personally, I would have liked more of it. Having spent some time with this collection however, I am sure Bustani will find a niche readership that appreciates the magnitude of what he sets out to achieve in The Perception of Meaning. It will be interesting to see what he produces next.



Safia_Moore-Safia_Moore_BnW_PhotoSafia Moore is a writer and editor from Northern Ireland with a PhD in Irish poetry in English. Safia has published fiction, reviews, interviews, and criticism in various journals including The Incubator, Haverthorn Magazine, Severine, and The Honest Ulsterman. She is the 2015 winner of the Bath Short Story Award.

Monday Links

AWP is next week. Running from March 30-April 2 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, it’s a huge gathering of writers, small presses, MFA programs and those who support all of the above, and Zoetic Press is going to be there, at table 1636 with books and shot glasses and love for the whole scene.

Here is everything you need to know about AWP.

Today (March 21) is World Poetry Day. If you live in continental Europe, there are shops that will let you pay for your coffee with a poem! Drink up, then write more poetry.

And while you’re sipping your coffee paid for with poetry, you can read Huffington Post’s article on 14 brilliant women poets.

In other news: The Daily Beast let Samuel Delaney talk about his art.

The Cut talked about how women writers are patronized.

The Rumpus published Sarah Blake’s article about men explaining submissions to her.

Great Big Story showcased a newspaper in Colorado that still uses linotype to print the news.

If you’re at AWP next week, we would love for you to come by our table, say hello, talk to us about your writing hopes and dreams, have a drink with us. We’d just love to hang out with you. In the meantime, we’ll be spending this week packing, planning, and anticipating.

Monday Links

Happy Pi Day! What’s your favorite? Pumpkin? Cherry? Apple? I’m partial to spinach, myself. I wish we could give you some delicious pie over the internet, but in the absence of that, how about we acquaint you with what we’ve been reading over the last week? As always, emotionally challenging content, as well as possible spoilers. Reader, proceed with caution.

Good Housekeeping brought us some phenomenal Pinterest fails.

Kenyon Review published a response to Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering” essay – On Poverty.

Gender Detective put out an interesting notion – that strong, capable women of history were actually men.

Ozy has a fascinating article by Katie Crouch (no, not that one) about her name twin’s eerie mirror life.

Huffpost Style has a great video where 8-year-olds dissect fashion ads and point out some alarming truths.

Lastly, Brain Pickings has an oldie but goodie – a talk by Neil Gaiman where he explores how stories last.

Go forth and be victorious this week! And, to help you celebrate – here’s a great pie crust recipe.

Monday Links

Last week was a blur of work for us, and here it is Monday. We’re gearing up for AWP, which is a short 3 weeks away. In the meantime, rather than our usual links, here’s what we’ve been up to  – putting all of NonBinary Review online. We’d love it if you checked it out.

Issue #1 – Grimm’s Fairy Tales 

Issue #2 – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Issue #3 – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Issue #4 – Bulfinch’s Mythology

Issue #5 – The King in Yellow

In the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you the rest of our issues online. We hope that you love what you read!

Go forth and have a great week.

Lise and Allie, your Zoetic editors
Lise and Allie, your Zoetic editors

Monday Links

Today is called “bissextus.” It’s the word for the extra day added to the calendar every four years. And while we’re on the subject of making you smarter, here are some links you might have missed last week. As always, challenging content and spoilers ahead – readers beware.

Book Riot brought us a list of fabulous, literary-inspired roller derby names.

Stylist ran Lucy Kalanithi‘s moving story about her husband’s death and her struggles through grief.

Heather Plett gave us a moving and important lesson on how to “hold space” for people in your life.

Huffington Post published an open letter to people who feel that they’re falling behind.

Thought Catalog excerpted Mate: Become the Man Women Want by Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller, with “Guys, Here’s What It’s Actually Like to Be a Woman.

The Washington Post let us know that Americans can study in Germany for free, and many are taking advantage.

The Emily Program Foundation talked about how stigmatizing fat prevents people from recovering from eating disorders.

The Establishment talked about using people with disabilities as “inspiration porn.”

And finally, Kate Maltby asks why Elizabeth I is always depicted as ugly and diseased, and what that reveals about our notions of women and power.

Go forth and have a great week, everyone!

Lise and Allie, your Zoetic editors
Lise and Allie, your Zoetic editors

Monday Links

There are 52 Mondays in a year, and this is one of them. Here’s the best stuff we found last week, while we weren’t celebrating the fact that we’ve put Issue #1 of NonBinary Review online, and that our first two poetry books are currently for sale. As always, there is emotionally challenging content, and perhaps spoilers, so read at your own risk.

Munchies brings us Kimi Werner – the woman who kills octopi with her bare teeth.

Bored Panda showed us unpublished photographs from National Geographic archives.

A St. Thomas Aquinas University student shares his experience of the friend zone.

The Daddy Coping in Style blog recounts the first time a young boy goes to the playground in his pink dress.

The Globe and Mail exposes how changes to Canada’s rape laws hurt victims.

There was some incredible comedy on Tumblr.

Teen Vogue talks about Obama killing funding for abstinence-only sex education.

The Atlantic exposes the problem the police have with domestic violence.

The New York Times wants to know why we teach girls to be scared.

Style.mic reveals the sexist history of pockets.

That’s it. Go to Lithomobilus and buy some great poetry, and then have a great week, everyone!

Lise and Allie, your Zoetic editors
Lise and Allie, your Zoetic editors

The Fallacy of the “Serious Writer”

Reading fees are straight up classist bullshit. And this idea that they weed out writers who are not serious enough is heartbreaking bullshit. All of the things that are marks of a “serious writer” are, conveniently, also things that tend to cost money. Go figure.

–Margaret Bashaar, Author of Stationed by the Gateway, Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel and Rungs (with Lauren Eggert-Crowe), editor and founder of Hyacinth Girl Press, and contributor to NonBinary Review


I keep hearing the “serious writers” argument for charging fees and I believe that this is an argument born of a broken system steeped in privilege. In my lifetime, I have been so poor that at times I didn’t even have $5 to put gas in my car, much less use it to use it to submit to a contest. During those times in my life, not entering a contest with a $10 fee had nothing to do with my level of seriousness or talent, but more to do with the fact that I was poor and living paycheck to paycheck, with nothing left over.

Using myself as an example it’s safe to say that a writer’s level of financial solvency and their “seriousness” as a writer are not commensurate states. The “serious writer” argument is an example of cognitive bias leading to a fallacy, and it is the bias borne of the literary class system that allows this fallacy to remain the “go-to” argument when discussing contest fees. The flawed logic is this: if a writer is “serious” about their work, they will follow a certain set of behaviors, systems, and a predetermined path—and that these steps will result in success. Ergo, deviation from this path means first, that the writer is not “serious” about their work, and second, deviation will result in failure.

This fallacy of the “serious writer” is not only a classist invention, but also a double-bind: conflicting messages which ultimately negate each other. The fallacy of the “serious writer” includes the argument that “serious writers” will invest money in seeing their work succeed—it makes no distinction between an investment of $5 or $75; it simply assumes that the “serious writer” has disposable income, and that disposable income should be spent on one’s work to prove “seriousness” of craft.

Other things the “serious writer” does? Spends X amount of time per day working on their craft—but there is no mention of when/how this should happen, how one arranges their writing time around “real world” responsibilities, such as full-time jobs, family responsibilities, school, etc. School is another element of the “serious writer”—they will go to school (which costs money, meaning more work or more debt), as well as a time commitment.

The “serious writer” fallacy includes more assumptions, of course, but the core of each assumption is the same: the things required of the “serious writer” are things that require disposable income, and/or leisure time. Working writers, who are often economically challenged at best, have very little of either. And yet, the fallacy of the “serious writer” burdens writers with the idea that taking on more debt to go to school, then never being able to pay off that debt as an adjunct professor with little time to then invest in your own work and even less disposable cash to do so is the hallmark of the “serious writer”, though it’s a circular argument that negates itself and manipulates the writer into believing that their “failure to launch” is their own fault, for not being “serious” enough about their work. So the idea that contest fees “weed out” writers who aren’t “serious” about their work is a line that we have been fed in order to perpetuate a system of gatekeepers (who, surprise surprise, uphold the patriarchal values of privilege and positionality).

When literary publishing was primarily physical publishing (for which writers were paid enough to earn a living), the gatekeepers were agents, editors, and publishers. You had to build a resume, or know someone to break in. The shift to online publishing made for a more egalitarian literary scene: you didn’t really need an agent upfront anymore, you could break in more easily, even if you didn’t “know someone.” There were fewer gatekeepers. Which is where high contest fees and the argument of the “serious writer” started to take root. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that 25 years ago there weren’t any fee-based contests—I assure you, there were. My first few disastrous years of submitting were only to contests advertised in the Classifieds section of Poets and Writers magazine (the purchase of which, was itself, a luxury; many times I simply wrote down addresses and fees while browsing in the bookstore). Why? Because resources were fewer, harder to find, and my peers/mentors, I found, were less generous in sharing their information. Rarely does a broken system ever admit to its brokenness. It’s not like anyone running the contests with the highest fees are ever going to say, “Yeah, we keep the fees high to keep out the riffraff, you know, those SJW poets, the women, the writers of color, we like to keep this contest the Talented White Guy Show.”

Bias exists in grey areas, liminal spaces, the cracks of plausible deniability. An editor can argue, “It’s not that we don’t want to publish writers of color, it’s just that they don’t send their work, and we read blind to let the work speak for itself,” and believe that they’re not upholding patriarchial values, because they never said, “We only like to publish this one demographic that has historically been the ones running the show.”

The refusal to take on the burden of balancing the scale in a system that has long been unbalanced is like a lie of omission vs. a lie of commission. When do we, collectively, hold ourselves accountable for the broken system and how we keep using it, instead of fixing it or scrapping it altogether? Let’s look between the lines: When we argue “It’s not that we don’t want to publish writers of color, it’s just that they don’t send their work,” we are saying, It’s not my job to make writers who have felt unwelcome in this publication feel welcome, it is their job to knock on a door that has historically not just been shut to them, but slammed in their face. We are asking marginalized writers to be both the lesson and the teacher, instead of educating ourselves and actively seeking these voices in order to bring balance. When we say “We read blind to let the work speak for itself,” we are saying, “quality of work” has been defined by white patriarchy in academia. Deviations from what is considered to be “serious writing” will be written off as poor writing, rather than considered on their own merits. Here is an easier way to look at this: A burrito is a terrible example of sushi. But a burrito is a great example of a Tex-Mex dish, just as sushi is an excellent example of a Japanese dish. Academia has told us that sushi is the only food, and that anything that isn’t sushi isn’t good to eat. We know that this isn’t true, and yet, these contests are skewed to only pick out the best pieces of sushi, and to disregard burritos, gyros, pizza, eggrolls and whatever other food metaphor you want to insert here.

The fallacy of the “serious writer” is a glass ceiling, invented to create a need for gatekeepers who keep some writers out, while rewarding other writers simply for showing up. The tragedy of this fallacy is that it blames the writer for being unable to shatter a glass ceiling that was designed specifically to exclude them from rising higher. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t game this system—like any system, there’s a way to game it. In the next installment of this series, I’m going to be talking to you about the odds, solutions, gambles and end-runs around these contests. They want to see a “serious writer”? How about a sneaky one?


alliebattsAllie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems;  And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern WildThis Is How It EndsPictures From The Center Of The Universewingless, scorched & beautifulBefore Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless

Monday Links

Happy Half Price Candy Day! We’re over here celebrating in true Zoetic Press style, which includes dark chocolates, milk chocolates…well, any chocolates, really. Let’s get to the best stuff from last week. As always, there are some emotionally challenging posts here, and some spoilers, so proceed with caution.

First, some genius mashed up Mr. Bean with 50 Shades of Grey to make a movie we’d love to see.

The Guardian covers a report on how romantic comedies show women how to tolerate stalking behavior from men.

The Calgary Herald brought us a thought-provoking article about how being a gifted child can be harder than people realize.

Gawker ran an interview with Jason Reynolds about grief in YA literature.

The Big Smoke ran a fascinating article from Sarah Xerta about parents who gaslight their children.

The Art Institute of Chicago has re-created an iconic Van Gogh painting as an actual room, available on Airbnb.

The Establishment ran an open letter to Gloria Steinem on intersectional feminism.

The Wall Street Journal talks about how Google stole millions of books out from under their authors.

Go forth and be victorious, everyone!

Monday Links

Welcome to Monday! Did you catch the Superbowl? I’m not a big sports fan, so I entirely missed the game, the commercials, the performances – everything. Meanwhile, here are some great articles you might have missed last week. As always, there will be emotionally challenging content, and perhaps some spoilers – reader beware.

Author Zadie Smith puts to rest the myth that motherhood is a threat to creativity in this article in The Telegraph.

In the wake of the whole Roosh V. debacle, the Reductress tells us how to see your harasser in a whole new light.

NBC surveys college students to find that most prefer paper books.

The Superbowl may be over, but The Nerdist’s Settlers of Catan nachos can be enjoyed anytime!

The Big Smoke tells us to get over our prejudice against curly hair.

France becomes the first country to mandate an end to food waste.

Go forth and have a great week, everyone!