The Year of the Runaways- book review

In this time of masses of refugees fleeing to Europe and the sad news of the dozens of Vietnamese who died inside a lorry trying to enter the UK late last year, The Year of the Runaways is a very apt novel. While not as tragic as the Vietnamese lorry disaster, the story contains more than its fair share of unfortunate events.

The “runaways” are four young Indians who find themselves in the northern English city of Sheffield for different reasons whose lives become tangled up. Narinder is a British-Indian Sikh whose “husband” Randeep comes from a middle-class family in India. Randeep works with Avtar, his friend from India who is also secretly dating Randeep’s sister. Their new housemate and coworker is Tochi, a brooding Indian who is hiding something related to his past. Randeep, Avtar and Tochi are all working illegally, hoping for either British citizenship or simply to make lots of money.

Admittedly, the story starts off somewhat bleak as we get introduced to the characters’ existence working as illegals while eluding the police. In between, the back stories of all four are revealed. As we find out more about each character, the story opens up and things become clearer. Tochi is a dalit or a member of the “untouchable” castes back in his home state Bihar. Bad enough as it is in India, Tochi also receives shocking treatment in England from fellow Indians, especially when he is “outed” as a dalit in what is one of the book’s most shocking and cruel moments. It’s probably one of the cruelest scenes I’ve read in a book.

I’d have preferred if the story had focused more on Tochi, whose background is the most moving and tragic. Instead, the main focus is on Randeep and Narinder, both of whom I found it hard to sympathize much with, though at least Avtar’s resolve was admirable.

The Year of the Runaways is a poignant novel that really brings to the fore the despair and desperation of the characters. It’s also a good indicator of life. Sometimes life is not fair, but we always need to make of it as much as we can.

Who needs April Fools Day anymore?

April 1 is tomorrow and I’m sure most of us know what that means. But the thing is who needs April Fools’ Day now, when it seems like idiocy and absurdity are around us all the time in the world? Paraphrasing a comment I saw on an online forum about a Southeast Asian country, I can extend it to the world and say it’s almost as if every day is April Fools.

The most obvious example might be the UK and its ongoing Brexit mess. Despite the original deadline actually having just passed (April 29), the British parliament are still unable to decide what they want to do. Every day there is some kind of vote, which always fails, and the prime minister even promised to resign if MPs would support her bill, but even then she failed. The British parliamentarians can’t agree on whether to support Brexit, whether to hold an election, whether to have a full or a partial Brexit. It’s a little frustrating to me so one can imagine what lots of British people must be thinking.

In the US, you’ve still got a joker in power but at least he’s not a Russian stooge, or at least there wasn’t enough proof. It hasn’t stopped Donald Trump from feeling even more confident and giving his enemies verbal jabs in bombastic speeches and tweets.

In Hong Kong, the government has decided to solve the problem of inadequate public housing and supposed lack of land by building thousands of homes on new man-made islands in the sea. And it will only cost at least US$80 billion (HK$624 billion). Keep in mind this is Hong Kong, which boasts one of the world’s most pro-big business, pro-tycoons governments, and one would have to be dreaming to think that US$80 billion will be spent on affordable housing.

With all this nonsense happening in real life, it’s going to be tough to come up with convincing April Fools’ stories. Talking to colleagues last week, maybe only something uncontroversial and banal would do like “UK leaders decide what they want for Brexit” or “Donald Trump says [something sensible]”.

Joseph Anton- book review

Salman Rushdie is one of the world’s most famous living writers who has written many good books, one of which he almost paid the ultimate price for. After Rushdie put out The Satanic Verses in 1988, the ruling mullahs of Iran were so angered at the book for supposedly insulting Islam, they issued an official ruling or fatwa in 1989 calling for Muslims to kill him. Joseph Anton is a memoir by Rushdie about the 10 years he spent in hiding, living under 24-hour state protection, while the fatwa was in effect.

Written in third-person form, Joseph Anton is an interesting and unnerving memoir that doesn’t draw back from showing the frustration, anger and helplessness that Rushdie lived under. This included having to withdraw from public life and move constantly, accept 24-hour protection from the British state, and even using a false name, Joseph Anton, drawn from two of his favorite writers Conrad and Chekhov, hence the name of the book.

The fatwa to kill Rushdie led to numerous threats to his life that was staggering in how vehement and blatant they were, such as public rallies and threats in not just Iran, but in the UK by local radical Muslims. Iran also did try to send out assassins, which shows just how deranged their rulers were. Having been forced to hide from public life almost suddenly in 1989, Rushdie and his protectors initially thought the whole controversy would die down soon, never imagining that it would drag on for so many years.

While Rushdie and his lover, who he eventually marries, are forced to live under circumstances that would reduce most of us to nervous wrecks, they are helped by generous and understanding friends, many of them Rushdie’s contemporaries and important figures in the literary and arts world. People do get shot, like one of Rushdie’s publishers, or die such as the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses who was stabbed to death in 1991 by a Bangladeshi in Japan.

Rushdie fights back, giving interviews and writing columns defending himself and condemning the fatwa, whilst trying to persuade Western governments and media outlets to argue his case. He also tries to regain his freedom little by little, such as flying overseas to the US or France to make short appearances at forums and meet with dignitaries. Even then, he is generally banned from flying on most airlines and visiting a lot of countries, such as his own birthplace India, which refused to let him visit until after the fatwa is lifted. Rushdie must also contend with criticisms from people in the West, such as from spy novelist John le Carre, that he brought on the trouble for himself. Rushdie is dismissive of this, saying that if this were the case, then writers should never write about anything significant or speak up for values such as free speech.

Just as important is Rushdie’s determination not to bend to the Iranian mullahs and apologize or censor his book. The core issue is freedom of speech, whether literature can be censored or silenced merely due to supposedly offending people or even religion. In these times, this debate is even more apt and at times threatened, but the importance is undiminished.

For me, personally, I read The Satanic Verses and whilst I didn’t like the book too much, I didn’t think Rushdie wrote anything hateful about Islam. It is really shameful that the Iranian leaders would use religious authority to compel the Muslim world to threaten a writer like this and make him lose 10 years of his life.

Through all this, Rushdie is frustrated, depressed, and enraged, but he never loses hope. Of course, this is helped by the fact he had state protection, a faithful lover, his son, and numerous friends and allies who secretly hosted him in dinners or let him use their homes as temporary or holiday accommodations. The whole affair really demonstrates the best and the worst of people.

Joseph Anton is a monster of a book, being over 600 pages, but it is a fine account of a valiant struggle that puts not just the life of a writer, but the sanctity of freedom of expression at the fore.


Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.

Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?

England travel- Cambridge

Besides London, the only other place in England I’ve been to is Cambridge. Done as a daytrip from London, visiting Cambridge (as opposed to say, Oxford) was actually my mother’s decision, since a famous 20th-century Chinese poet had gone to Cambridge and written a memorable poem, which has since attracted many Chinese and Taiwanese to visit there. Anyways, we took the train to Cambridge, passing through some beautiful English countryside. At the town, we headed to the university, took a boat (punt) ride on the river Cam, toured King’s College Chapel, a neat and exquisite church, and strolled through an open-air market. The university is large, open, with university buildings spread among the town, and boasts a lot of impressive stone buildings, as expected from such a great university founded in 1209. We spent several hours there but still weren’t able to see all the main buildings.

The punt (flat bottom boat steered with a pole in front) ride was quite pleasant. During the ride, we passed a lot of attractive buildings on the riverside while treated to commentary by the boatman about the university college buildings, and self-deprecating anecdotes about his personal life. At the end as he drew up to the pier, he warned us not to get up yet, but he correctly predicted that the father of a mainland Chinese family on our boat would do exactly that.