Label Me This: Review of “Interior Chinatown”

Label Me This: Interior Chinatown tackles stereotypes, racial typecasting, & what it means to be American

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Pantheon Books, January 2020 | $25.95 | 4 stars
Review by Kelsey May

Compelling, bold, and cleverly written, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown reads as a novelized television show script. The plot? Willis Wu’s life as an actor being offered parts as “Generic Asian Man” in the same old Golden Palace restaurant. His dream of becoming Hollywood’s go-to “Kung Fu Guy.” His life in the Chinatown SRO. His complicated relationships with his parents and neighbors and the dreams his parents had before they found out what America really had in store for folks who looked like them:

“[His mother had] once dreamed of being more. When she first started out, as Young Asian Woman. She imagined a life for herself, full of romance, glamour. One of the few American stories that had made its way to the silver screen of Taipei in the ‘50s, an afternoon at the cinema with her father and nine sisters and brothers, sharing one Coke. Being the eighth of ten, she might get one good sip before it got taken back by siblings further up the chain, but that one sip was enough to savor, sitting up on her heels to get a better view, holding her father’s hand, and watching the perfect faces, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, their luminous whiteness shimmering in the cool, darkened theater.”

Then he falls in love with Karen, another actress on set, and things start to change. They both have dreams of stardom, but hers are more attainable. Her ambiguous ethnicity makes her more castable, and she rises through the ranks quicker than Willis. When she gets pregnant, Willis must make some tough decisions: what kind of life does he want to give his child? Is a room in the Chinatown SRO gonna cut it? What’s more important: his dream career as Kung Fu Guy or his family?

Interior Chinatown is action-packed, dialogue-heavy, and above all, honest about how Asian Americans are treated as other and how, all too often, Asian Americans (in showbiz and elsewhere) internalize this otherness and toe the line between reinforcing the stereotype or rejecting the outdated, racially-problematic “one-size-fits-all” identities. Interior Chinatown stands out for its unique genre-bending style and stuck with me long after reading for its cultural relevance, set of characters, and satisfying, powerful ending. (Yu literally puts racism and the American Dream on trial. Brilliant!) Four stars and a wholehearted recommendation to voracious and curious readers and progressive thinkers everywhere.

Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books) is available for $26 in hardcover from your local independent bookstore or from your local library for free.

Thank you to the publishers at Pantheon for the review copy!

P.S. My grandma made that coaster in the photo. <3


Wide-ranging, knowledge-packed: “Life Finds a Way”

Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity by Andreas Wagner
Basic Books, 2019 | $25.98 | 5 stars
Review by Kelsey May

This year, I’ve been diving into nonfiction and science books more than ever, thanks, in part, to my husband’s interest in reading about animals and trees, which hooked me. So when I walked past a display of science books at Grand Rapids Public Library, I couldn’t help but snag one. Dr. Andreas Wagner’s Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity has a stunning cover — a mosaic of brilliantly-colored moths. I sat down in a chair and was engulfed in the profound insights Dr. Wagner offers. If you don’t get any farther than this first paragraph, let me say that I highly recommend reading this book.

At first, I thought this book was a “how-to” book — how to be creative, how to tap into creativity, how to use ideas from evolution to be more creatively productive. Instead, this book delves into how everything living has evolved in a time-old ballet of creativity, innovation, and trial-and-error. I learned so much about biology, genetics, atoms, and how our minds work, and I finished the entire book (over 200 pages of heavily scientific text) in five days.

“On the tiny Galápagos Islands, a single founding colony of finches diversified into fourteen different species, some of which Charles Darwin discovered when he visited on the HMS Beagle in 1835. On Hawaii, at least thirty species of nectar-feeding dn26954-1_800honeycreepers evolved, and on the Canary Islands off the African west coast, twenty-three new plant species appeared in the genus Echium — relatives of the blueweed, a modest flowering plant with an eye-catching blue inflorescence. More than 90 percent of one thousand species of flowering plants and more than 98 percent of five thousand species of insects found today on Hawaii have emerged there.

Even more remarkable than these numbers is the explosive speed at which evolution created them. The oldest islands in both the Galápagos and Hawaii have been around for barely five million years, about the same time that separates humans from chimpanzees — a brief moment in evolutionary time that sufficed to create thousands of new island species. But nature’s creativity is not just about speed and the number of species. Many new island species also have new lifestyles. The first finches on Galápagos fed on soft insects, but some of today’s species have evolved oversized nutcracker-like beaks to crush the hardest seeds to be found. On the Canary Islands, some relatives of the modest blueweed have evolved into eighteen-foot-high wooden giants supported by a drought-resistant root system and crowned by a gaudy cylindrical infloresence beloved by gardeners.”


Dr. Wagner does a fantastic job of explaining complicated scholarly ideas, and in the last section, he applies the principles and thinking he’s detailed to education, immigration, technological advancement, and play, asserting that, more or less, we’re doing it all wrong. Rather than rewarding competition, conformity, and practicality, Dr. Wagner insists that we’ll be a more innovative, kinder world by encouraging mistakes, collaboration, and geographic mobility. His well-argued ideas remind me of Ms. Frizzle’s wise adage: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

Life Finds a Way has not gotten entirely positive reviews, and I suspect it’s because it’s an intellectually-challenging book and might be off-putting to those who lack scientific experience. I frequently found myself re-reading sections on mutations of ACGTs or atomic bonding forming bucky-balls, trying to reach back across the years to my high school science classes. Even though my efforts were not always successful and I sometimes missed nuggets of information, my overall takeaways from this book were powerful, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in physics, biology, scientific discovery, and history.

Thank you to Tia and Liz at Basic Books for the review copy! Images courtesy of the Galápagos Conservation Trust.

A must-add for your bookshelf: “Library of Small Catastrophes”

The poems in Alison C. Rollins’ Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) are vast and precise, covering topics from grief and personal loss to generational abuse and systemic discrimination. I read this collection in one sitting, so compelling was Alison’s incredible attention to detail and lyricism. Take these lines from “The Librarian”:

She thinks linguists build houses they can’t afford
to finish… //
She believes every throat is a call number.

Much as librarians can be trusted to assist with problems in any category, the reader can turn to these poems for wisdom in any of life’s difficulties. In these pages, the definition of “American” is broken down. The word mercy is given no mercy in dissection. A “dead mother’s house” is catalogued according to each item it contains. Rape and violation are placed in plain text and lamented.

One of my favorite moments in this collection is this small section from “Object Permanence”:

Only a god can take and give
time, but the one in front of
the gun lasts forever

How poetic, and how sad; how ending another’s life reshapes reality, ending another’s existence forever.

Another powerful piece is “Oral Fixation”, a poem that unfurls a very personal history fraught with familial dysfunction and the troubled relationship the speaker has with their father, who is not faithful: “He washed his dirty work down with / nice cologne. All husbands acquire / expensive taste.” The remaining stanzas muse at the ways we’re shaped by what we don’t or can’t have.

To summarize my praise of Library of Small Catastrophes, I’ll use a line from another of my favorite poems, “All the World Began with a Yes”: “truth sets out to penetrate mysteries…” Alison’s work penetrates mysteries, unveiling understanding, experience, and advice for readers of all backgrounds and cultural identities. This collection demonstrates her mastery of content, creativity, and purpose; I highly and wholeheartedly recommend it.

Library of Small Catastrophes is available for $16 from Copper Canyon Press or your local bookseller or for free from your local library.

“There is Always Tomorrow”: art & poetry

I know (and appreciate the humor of!) Thomas Fucaloro from the slam poetry scene in the U.S. When I found out he was releasing a collaborative chapbook of poetry and art, I was very excited to snag a copy! The design and illustrations in this lil book are so well done. I particularly love the Ralph Steadman-esque illustration accompanying the fourth poem (right). 20180819_011405.jpg

My favorite poem is the profound, personal “List of Secrets I Keep From Myself”, which reminds readers of the importance of healthy self-esteem and confidence.

This chapbook seems particularly well-suited for art book collectors or quirky people. I plan to use two or three of the collaborations in my poetry workshops for middle and high school students, as the content, formatting, and “doodle” vibes are approachable and fresh. I would love to see more illustrated poetry collections like this one!

There is Always Tomorrow is available from Mad Gleam Press for $10.

Jennifer Givhan’s soul-nourishing “Lifeline”

Kelsey May | October 15th, 2017

Published this year by Glass Poetry PressLifeline slices into emotional and cultural landscapes to bare both juices and rot. As good poetry does, Givhan’s pieces bring life to barren moments and resurrect the ancestral traditions of Mexican, Latinx, and indigenous lifestyles to teach modern readers of important lessons and insights.

Givhan’s style marries unusual syntax with careful attention to detail; she notes such instants as plucking “mosquitoes… from calves” and the way Lake Tahoe “pools its light”. I reveled in such beautiful lines as “I’ve asked for your lungs so I can breathe.” and “In vain I have opened mirrors & edges of mirrors.”

Several poems stuck with me long after finishing Lifeline: “O Shake It Sister”, which quite literally sings the female body electric in its praise and love for all the scars, tattoos, weight, sex, and words our bodies hold. “O Shake It Sister” is the poem I’ve been wanting to read for years and nearly cried to have found. The other poem that stuck with me is “Girl with Death Mask”, an ode to and celebration of Frida Kahlo.

After finishing Lifeline, I asked Jennifer if she’d be willing to do a brief interview about writing, self-esteem, and this chapbook.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Girl with Death Mask”. It’s so inventive! What inspired you to write about her?

Frida is my spirit guide. I light a Saint Frida candle often when I write. I have at least nine paintings of hers around my writing room. The poem is based on a true event with a Frida painting and my daughter’s response. lifeline.png

Another piece that really hit me is “O Shake It Sister”. What advice would you give to women and girls having a hard time with confidence and self-esteem?

You are a badass powerhouse. The voices that tell you otherwise are liars. I know it’s hard. I struggle every day, no matter the accolades, no matter the praise. Power comes from within. You gotta keep pulling it up every damn day. Every damn day, you gotta throw that darkness out with the garbage and hang on so tightly to your strength. I believe in you.

Who are you inspired by?

The women who’ve come before me and the women who’ll come after. I am a verse in the never-ending song. A break in the chain toward freedom. I’m inspired by contemporaries Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Ada Limón, Irena Praitis, Lisa Chavez, Joy Harjo, Toni Morison, and the song goes on. Most especially, by my mother and my daughter.

These lines:

“He didn’t save me.

I only pretend, like Mrs. Sheets, //

that saints can redeem us.”

are powerful. Could you talk briefly about your views on what happens when you die and how you reconcile that difficult topic in your poetry?

Oh, this would take another lifetime. I haven’t reconciled it. I am a split cactus. Spindles on the outside, life-sustaining water on the inside, though it often feels the other way around. If heaven is what we make of it, then I am grateful for love. If heaven is the imagination, then I am grateful it’s so powerful.

What’s your advice for other creative people wanting to tackle a big project?

Light your figurative or literal candles, and write. Quiet the voices that ask you for anything more than whatever truths you have to lay bare on that page.

Lifeline is available for purchase through Glass Poetry Press.

Thank you to Jennifer for the interview and headshot and to Glass Poetry Press for a reviewer copy of Lifeline.

Swept away by the lyricism of Jen Hyde’s “Hua Shi Hua”

At first, I had a tough time getting into Hyde’s collection, certain that I was in for a boring book of nature poems (I know, I know, look at me, judging books). I skipped several sections and began perusing poems in the middle of the collection and suddenly, I was struck by the elegance of Hyde’s phrasing and images:

“When a mirror faces another //
mirror I think
a new room opens…”

“I / find no blue shoes.  I am in a market with my loneliness.”

“a crane lifting steel
raises my heart”

I quickly turned the pages back until I arrived at the fifth page again, where I resumed reading with a new interest and attention, and I was rewarded with moments of deep appreciation for how Hyde describes her discoveries in China. She gently prods at the edges of what I, the reader, knows about places she only recently discovered. [In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Hyde explains how she began to create a relationship with her heritage through the Asian American Writer’s Workshop at NYU Shanghai.]

hua shi hua.jpg

In “Her Shoulder is a Shelter”, the speaker mentions their mother’s perfect cleanliness, how she daily washes walls, how she carries burdens placed there by others.

In “Self-Portrait”, we learn that the speaker / Hyde defines herself in the first person, claiming dislikes and habits and even hopes: “I look back and say I will walk into the next day.” This is contrasted with the speaker’s mother, “who never / says I”.

My favorite lines in the book are in “Yak”:

“Last year my heart
ventured above the sea
and still beats…”

I was headed
nowhere which
I imagine is the
act of moving
toward heaven.”

Perhaps no review is complete without mentioning the recurrent theme of cranes, both those elegant birds that populate China and most of the world, as well as the more common (at least in Shanghai) construction cranes, boasting progress [“tiny progresses”] even as the other crane disappears from the ever-and-ever encroached-upon wilderness. In “A Catalogue of Things I Know, A Jian”, Hyde also employs the word “crane” in other ways, in craning necks, in discussing the intersection between person and machine, between machine and bird, in wishing upon a mountain and an ocean.

The final poem in the collection, “The River of Yellow Flowers”, touches on Hyde’s self-disclosed bodily identity: “you have been – all along – / the milky light who sings me into another body.” She explains in her Author’s Note that she has a heart defect that has required two major surgeries and a “bioprosthetic heart valve” made from cow tissue. This animalistic addition, as well as her exploration into heritage and diaspora, have resulted in a fervored assertion that she is, and is proudly, an Asian American woman. Writing on the brink of self-discovery and an ever-changing Chinese urban landscape, Hyde’s collection is a beautiful testament to the beauty and hauntingly imperfect act of becoming.

Thoughts on “Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths” by Elizabeth Acevedo

This 32-page edition from YesYes Books‘ Vinyl 45 Series is a quick read but demands an almost-immediate re-read, with many lingering tales of superstitions and personal anecdotes. I was left hungering for a thicker collection to sink my teeth into. I drowned in some of the poems here: “La Santa Maria”, which explored the terrible history of conquest and peoples born out of the remains of “an ocean of ghosts / … hundreds of thousands.”

Liz Acevedo.jpg

Many pieces paint a beautiful homage to Acevedo’s Dominican ancestry and cultural traditions, with a little imagination sprinkled in. Poems that explore Trujillo, La Ciguapa, and brujeria mingle with pieces that take on a more personal note, from her family’s immigration to her own body.

Acevedo has been vocal about body positivity and love of self for years, and her poem “Pressing” continues this platform:

“I close my eyes & hold a couch cushion on top of my lap / press thumb to self fervently, moan… / press & pray…”

The honesty, too, in Acevedo’s poetry is necessary. She writes, in “Liminalities”, about a childhood betrayal when she might have given over the “hardened…egg” of another girl’s name to “some older gang members” who proceeded to attack her. She writes also of a time, fictional or not, when she witnessed a young teenage girl being fondled by a European tourist and, after continuing to sip her Presidente, called for help. Justice is twisted up in personal fears, desires, and uncertainties in this chapbook.

One of my favorite themes of Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths was that of her family, who appear in political poems, mythological poems, and personal musings. Her mother, especially, shows up numerous times, whether to tell a bedtime story or show the poet how handwashing one’s delicates results in a superior cleaning.

acevedo mic

My favorite poem is “It Almost Curdles my Womb Dry.” This piece is a promise from Acevedo to her daughter that she will “not smile polite as men make war on her” but that she will be strong enough to resist shame, sexism, violence, and silencing. If we can’t all have Acevedo for a mother, perhaps we can be satisfied with her as a role model and teacher instead.

Photo credit (black and white image): Bethany Thomas