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Dave Wood's Book Report, April 25, 2007

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Sitting in for Dave Wood today is his wife, Dr. Ruth Wood, an English teacher at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

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I'm a teacher of international and multicultural literature, so when Coffee House Press sent three intriguing new books by Asian-American writers, I asked to be a guest columnist. This is a great array: A novel by Japanese-born Yuko Taniguchi, a short story collection by Chinese-born Wang Ping, and a poetry collection by Sun Yung Shin, a Korean adoptee.

My favorite of the three is Wang Ping's story collection, "The Last Communist Virgin" ($14.95). The title story features a 26-year-old virgin émigré working three waitress jobs to afford full-time student status in New York City. A charming, handsome man, Pang Cheng, declares love at first sight. Wan Li mistrusts his claims, since his myriad female conquests are stylish and attractive, while she is peasant-like and neglectful of her appearance and clothing.

So innocent is Li of men's sexual interests that she agrees to share an apartment with a middle-aged Japanese chef, Gunji. Grieving the loss of his fiancée, Gunji lavishes attention on Li, which causes Cheng to withdraw from her. What Cheng found so captivating about Wan Li is her "virginity" -- not just her sexual innocence, but also her devotion to the moral principles of "pure communism."

The story "The Homecoming of an Old Beijing Man" develops a similar point. After living for ten years with his youngest daughter in Minnesota, "Uncle Wu" returns to Beijing to help his older daughter deal with a husband who cheats on her and struck her in public. For several months, Wu enjoys lavish attention from his son and daughter, reunions with old friends, and the fatty Chinese food his Minnesota daughter won't cook for him.

But, in the end, he has to confront his son-in-law, whom he adopted at age sixteen, after the newly orphaned boy dug him out of the rubble of the July, 1976 earthquake. Wu remembers that he had been a good "big brother and a role model. He was the best worker, the straightest person I'd ever encountered."

But his biological son insists that this "filthy pig" must be punished. By this time, Wu has developed such a distaste for the moral decay he sees in China, that he attacks the adopted son, kicking and punching until "the ground shook violently around (him)." As he attacks, Wu laments, "Who would give me back my son? Who would give me back my old Beijing, my old country?"

Like the "communist virgin" who dislikes Americans' tendencies toward self-indulgence, false feeling, and dishonest dealings, Wu hungers for a time when no one dreamed of "pocketing a penny or glancing at a girl who was not his wife. That's how we were, the dyed-in-the-wool Communists. Our only dream was to build a paradise where everything was just and everyone was equal and happy." This collection affirms that reading good multi-ethnic literature equips us to take a broader look at how people around the globe develop the beliefs they hold.

One of those precepts might be our patriotic belief that every immigrant is elated to reach American shores. I was surprised at the high incidence of twin characters in these books, until I wondered whether émigré writers feel that immigrants are often split into two selves. One self longs for home and tradition, and the other struggles to adopt new clothing, food, language, and culture. Taniguichi's "Ocean in the Closet" ($14.95) reveals the doubled selves of a married couple who turn into different people because of war's effects.

The wife, Anna, had been born in Japan, the "mixed blood" offspring of a woman forced to be a "comfort woman" for American soldiers there to rebuild after the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombing. Rejected by her first adoptive parents, she becomes an unstable child, despite the tender care of her second parents. She finds her self-confidence when a handsome, lively man loves and marries her.

But then he is sent to Vietnam. He comes back withdrawn and morose, and the two spiral down together. The story of their difficult journey back to "oneness" is narrated by their 9-year-old daughter, a prescient child who can see the solid self in each of her parents, regardless of what their shadow selves do. The story is realistic and wrenching, based on true accounts.

Sun Yung Shin, who came to America at age 5, writes of "a sister cold inside me, still 5 years old" in the poem, "Tin Bullets : Tiny Bulls : Bulletins." She says of this child: "You are a horse being broken for the first time by a gentle master: an iron/bit for the first time."

The collection, "Skirt Full of Black" ($15), not only poignantly explores the "Korean diasporic experience," but also celebrates language as an exhilarating tool which provides the troubled spirit a means to heal and be heard.

"The Ocean in the Closet: A Novel," by Yuko Taniguchi (Coffee House Press, $14.95 paper)

"The Last Communist Virgin," by Wang Ping (Coffee House Press, $14.95 paper)

"Skirt Full of Black," by Sun Yung Shin (Coffee House Press, $15)

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