Saturday, August 22, 2009

Colorful Reading Challenge Review: Joss and Gold

I have to say this book misses the mark, at least for me. I feel bad saying that, because I believe the author did her best to portray and illuminate the often confusing cross-cultural experience of being a female Chinese graduate student studying the canon of English literature in 1960's Malaysia. It's possible that my own limitations are the problem here.

All the big themes are here: colonialism, ethnic identity, religious tolerance and intolerance, gender relations, and the role of education in shaping society. In a way, there are too many themes, all competing for attention. We follow Li An from her days as a young wife and graduate student through her brief encounter with Chester, an American Peace Corps worker. We see Chester, back home, rise to a position of respect in academia. And finally, we see Chester return to Malaysia and attempt to reconnect with Li An (now a well-armoured, successful businesswoman) and their daughter, Suyin, the daughter she never told him about. It sounds fairly simple, but it occurs in a swirl of characters and other plot lines, all competing for attention.

I guess my own prejudices and limitations are showing. One of the questions raised by the book is whether Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and the rest of the big names are relevant to modern Malaysian education. "The canon" is where I come from: my tradition, my standard. It's definitely a weakness that I have a gap in my education when it comes to alternative literary traditions and what we in the West label "oriental" cultures.

I wouldn't wave off anyone who wants to try his or her luck with this novel. It is an interesting window into another part of the world, and it has its compelling moments. The push and pull of the mother-daughter exchanges in the third section are particularly well-realized. I sense that the book is carefully crafted, with each word chosen and placed exactly as the author--who is also a poet--intended. It has a clipped, jumpy style that very successfully communicates the cadences of Chinese speech (at least to my Western ear). I was interested in the outcome, though I didn't identify strongly with the characters. If Li An's experience is not my experience, blame my own ethnocentricity: that's not (necessarily) the book's fault.


Fatigue hovered in front of Li An's eyes, a curtain of hatches and crosses. Godmother, godmother, make me a wish. What was she wishing for? She was too old for wishes, for genies and magic lamps, beliefs in secret gardens; too grown-up even for hope. Her fingers had figured out computers, cropping, montage, paste-ups, layouts, spreadsheets, indices. Lotus was a program, utilities essential. She had adopted a new language of symbols. She wanted to fall asleep. She wanted a different simplicity.

"Don't be stupid. Why do you have to see him? I bet he wants to meet Suyin. These men, they think they can come back any time and claim everything." Ellen always said aloud what Li An was afraid to hear.

Li An let Ellen's voice break against her. "No, no, no!" But she knew she would disobey. She had never listened to Ellen when it came to Chester.


  1. Thanks for the review!

    I love that you tried this book out. Even though it was not everything you hoped it would be, it is good to broaden our horizons and challenge ourselves to read outside of our comfort zone. We learn more about ourselves that way. Your admission of having prejudices and limitations is brave and commendable. That you are stretching yourself is even more commendable.

    I have added your review to the list! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your encouraging words, Rebecca. I am thinking I need to continue broadening my horizons . . .


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