The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

On a winter day nearly two years ago, my creative writing professor passed around two things to our class: one, a crudely printed short story and two, tickets to see a guest speaker at the university. The short story was one structured as a set of instructions: the dos and don’ts of the old world Shanghai courtesan trade, as told by a high-class madame to her apprentice. I then looked at my ticket. Amy Tan. Now, if you were a fan of Tan, you would have easily surmised that the short story was the kernel that would form Tan’s latest novel The Valley of Amazement. You would be right.

On the non-writing front, Tan was funny, compelling, and interesting as a public speaker. Especially when she told stories about her family hijinks. Most of which were centered on her mother, her trove of inspiration. After the talk, there was a book signing. Because I had found her personal stories so interesting I bought The Opposite of Fate and had it signed by Tan.

The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life

The Opposite of Fate is a collection of memoir-like essays; subheaded by the words “Memories of a Writing Life.” Now that I’ve read it, I found The Opposite of Fate to be a mixed bag. Tan’s forte has always been the mother-daughter relationship. For this reason, it is no surprise that most of the chapters having to do with her mother are compelling. Yet even then some of the shorter chapters about her mom can be edited out; they just aren’t strong enough.

There’s an unforgettable chapter about the brutal murder of one of Tan’s dear friends and its great aftermath upon her life; which included dream visitations and a change of career for Tan. There’s an amusing long bit on Tan’s dominatrix-costumed shenanigans with a rock band that included Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver. But other chapters I could do without: squirrel watching at Lake Tahoe and interludes into skiing and interior decorating. As a rule, I found the short chapters forgettable, the long sections worthwhile.

I also thought some bits in the book were repetitive. Repetitive twofold: first, because some of the stuff in The Opposite of Fate I already knew from hearing her speak, including several anecdotes about her mother and her admiration for Vladimir Nabokov. Second, because Tan repeats herself throughout the book too. She talked extensively about a portion of her teenage years spent in Switzerland with her mother and brother in the beginning chapter “The CliffNotes Version of My Life.”  But then she would talk about her Switzerland sojourn again and again in bits throughout the book when there’s really nothing fresh to talk about.

The Opposite of Fate includes the now frequently anthologized “Mother Tongue,” which was good, but to me, the essay “Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects” alone is worth the price of admission into this book. In it, Tan wrote about the responsibility of the writer and the swerve towards political correctness in academia. Tan is dismayed at attitudes where descriptions must provide lessons on culture, plots must be socially relevant, and characters must serve as positive role models. This attitude, she claimed, has permeated academic thinking so much, a student walked up to her

and said in a loud voice: “Don’t you think you have the responsibility to write about Chinese men as positive role models?”

I [Tan] told him, “I think you have the responsibility as a reader to think to yourself.”

There’s anger, there’s humor, and there’s food for thought in this essay. What more could you ask for? While I still think the trend towards social justice in literary criticism can’t be all that bad, “Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects” has made me rethink my stance; the hallmark of a great essay.

“The Best Stories,” Tan’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1999 is my runner-up to best essay in The Opposite of Fate. “The Best Stories” is more than Tan’s justification for the short stories included in The Best American Short Stories 1999, it is also a memoir on her reading history and an exhortation for us simply to enjoy fiction. Here, Tan comes across as someone you’d love to talk about books with. Sure, she’s got standards but she’s not pretentious about them. She readily admits that some stories leaves her with a “huh?” and worries that it is her own incompetence that drives her to confusion. Something any student can relate to.

Overall, I give The Opposite of Fate three out of five stars. It’s a quick, easy read with more than a few memorable moments. But it would have been a much stronger book had some of the repetitive parts been trimmed and some of the extra weight edited out. The Opposite of Fate would be much better had it been three hundred pages instead of four hundred.

Ultimately, I wish I had purchased a novel by Tan instead of The Opposite of Fate. Perhaps The Kitchen God’s Wife, which I gleaned from The Opposite of Fate to be the story most based on Tan’s mother. Or perhaps The Valley of Amazement, to see how far the short story I read in the writing workshop has changed. Or perhaps it’s time to curl up in my quilt, make myself a hot cup of green tea, and reread The Joy Luck Club, which is waiting patiently on my bookshelf.

9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira) by Leila S. Chudori – Part 2

I debated whether or not I should write another post for Leila S. Chudori’s 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira). After reading my initial review for it, I felt like I really should. I didn’t do Chudori’s writing the justice it deserves. I still stand by my three star (out of five) rating and I don’t think I was being too harsh in giving the book that rating. But what I had failed to capture in my review was just how outstanding Chudori is when she gets it right.

There is one scene I don’t think I will ever forget in the short story “Ciuman Terpanjang” (“The Longest Kiss”). The scene is exceedingly simple yet takes five pages in a twenty-four page story. Chudori seemed to have committed the ultimate sin in the short story genre: she has wasted words.

Not a single word in the scene is wasted.

This is because Chudori has recreated a long, drawn-out joke in literary form. Slowly, Chudori unspooled the scene little by little until the waiting becomes unbearable. Just when we can’t take it anymore, Chudori delivered a beautiful, succinct punchline.

Nadira, protagonist of this connected short story collection, is sorting out the things she will bring to the new home she will share with the man she will soon marry. Her brother Arya watches in astonishment as Nadira plunks books by Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath into the discarded list. Arya protests the decision, claiming those were their mother’s favorite books. In answer, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky is plunked. Arya protests again. Browning plunked. Keats plunked. Austen plunked. Dickens plunked. Arya protests again and again.

Part of what makes this scene so effective is Nadira’s multiple justifications for dumping these books; Woolf and her ilk are too depressing, the Russians too long-winded, and the Victorians too sensationalist. Chudori made it obvious that Nadira’s arguments only thinly cover the fact that her future husband simply doesn’t like the books. As Nadira’s babbling grows more pretentious and her praise for her groom-to-be more lovestruck, Arya cuts in with the four-word acerbic punchline. It’s been a while since I found a book so funny.

While “Ciuman Terpanjang” (“The Longest Kiss”) boasts the most memorable scene, for me “Melukis Langit” (“Painting the Sky”) is the most perfect short story in the collection from beginning to end; everything was consistent. “Melukis Langit” is about Nadira’s relationship with her father. A formidable journalist back in the day, he now derives pleasure by repeating stories of the glory days, whining for food from his old office cafeteria, and dispensing journalistic advice to Nadira, who is also a reporter. Dutiful Nadira indulges her father until one day she snaps and describes to her father a film she would love to make.

The scene of Nadira describing her film is creepy and fraught with tension. I could feel both how disturbed Nadira’s father was and Nadira’s frustration. I also loved how consistent Nadira’s retaliation is with her passive-aggressive character. She won’t directly say what’s wrong, she’ll just tell you her disturbing visions.

Overall, I think Chidori gets it right in “Melukis Langit.” The description of a retired father reliving his glory days on a daily basis rings true to me. Details of his orneriness, his helplessness got to me as well. “Melukis Langit” is really a melancholy portrait of aging. And the ending of the story is just right.

A much more uneven yet still memorable story would be “Tasbih” (“Prayer Beads”). The great middle chunk of the story I didn’t much care for but the descriptions and metaphors regarding a big house in the very beginning of the story was some breathtaking writing. The ending was also good; it wouldn’t be decent Indonesian literature if it didn’t reference our rampant corruption. We are, at the final pages of the story, introduced to Tito Putranto, owner of the big house mentioned in the beginning of the story. He is truly terrifying. Unfazed by Nadira’s journalist status, he freely admits to his life of crimes, knowing the system would do nothing to punish him. Putranto is truly an inspired character and I wonder if Chudori herself had encountered a man like Putranto during her investigative journalist days.

The point I want to make is that 9 dari Nadira is in no way a bad book. There’s some beautiful writing in there. It’s just that I wanted this beautiful writing to be more consistent throughout the whole collection. Some stories like “Nina dan Nadira” (“Nina and Nadira”) passed by without a memorable scene or even paragraph that I wanted to read aloud. I still recommend 9 dari Nadira, I just acknowledge that it is an uneven collection.

Again, for those interested there is an English-translated compilation of Leila S. Chudori’s short stories. Happily, “Ciuman Terpanjang,” “Melukis Langit,” and “Tasbih” are all there. Unfortunately, so is “Nina dan Nadira.” The link is down below:

9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira) by Leila S. Chudori

Six blog posts in and I’ve finally put up something to do with Indonesian literature.

Leila S. Chudori has been a figure in Indonesia’s literary landscape for almost forty years now. She became a published author at the tender age of twelve (!!!), having written children’s shorts for Indonesian magazines. Her output gravitated to literary fiction as she grew older. She has published two short story collections: Malam Terakhir (The Final Night) and 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira), along with a full-length novel: Pulang (Going Home). Chudori is something of a generalist when it comes to writing; fiction is not her only forte. A prominent journalist who has interviewed Cory Aquino, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, and Robert Mugabe, she has also written scripts for a television drama and a film.

9 dari Nadira opens with the suicide of Kemala Yunus, matriarch of the Suwandi family. Her youngest child Nadira serves as the narrative’s center as the book chronicles her grief and how she and her family trudge on with life. The stories themselves move in a chronological order, but within the stories are flashbacks that date to when Kemala met future husband Bramantyo. 9 dari Nadira is both family saga and historical fiction. It touches upon various historical events such as the Malari Incident up to the World Trade Center collapse. But the book presents these moments in a naturalistic fashion; it’s more of how an ordinary family reacts to historical movements rather than a close-up of the movers and shakers of history.

I want to be patriotic and give 9 dari Nadira four out of five stars, but I have to be objective and give it three stars. There is indeed some great writing in 9 dari Nadira. But I am a literary glutton and I wanted more more more of that great writing, of which there wasn’t enough. Chudori experiments a lot in 9 dari Nadira; with different styles and different observers. Sometimes the experiments pay off, often they fall flat to me. I preferred when Chudori worked with the traditional third person point of view. My favorite stories in the collection: “Melukis Langit” (“Painting the Sky”) and “Ciuman Terpanjang” (“The Longest Kiss”) are simple in style and execution. But simple is effective. Chudori’s diction in these stories are strong and her wit is sharp. I wanted more of that throughout the collection.

In no way 9 dari Nadira is a bad book, however. It is a quick, absorbing read. Once I picked it up and started reading, I found it difficult to put down. Even the lesser stories were a breeze to get through; cumbersome 9 dari Nadira is not. I suppose I am simply very picky when it comes to giving four or five star ratings.

9 dari Nadira is a portrait of modern city living. If you’re thinking of approaching this book to give you an insight into traditional Indonesian culture, you shouldn’t bother. The Suwandis are intellectuals and Nadira is a successful journalist. They are well-traveled and well-read. In fact, the final story in this collection, “At Pedder Bay,” is set in Canada. Downtrodden third world countryfolk are not to be found here.

An English translation of Leila S. Chudori’s short stories is available. It is a mash-up of the stories from 9 dari Nadira and Malam Terakhir entitled The Longest Kiss, a translation of one of 9 dari Nadira’s short stories. An amazon link is provided below if you’re interested:

“The Kiss” by Kate Chopin

Instant fix was something I craved last night. Although the collection of short stories I was in the middle of was good, the stories averaged thirty pages. Sometimes what you want is a short short story. Enter Kate Chopin. I had recently told a friend that The Awakening was due for a reread, and last night I sifted through my Bantam Classics edition to find that I never got around to reading the short stories at the back.

“The Kiss” is such a tiny little thing. In my edition, it is little more than three pages. And Bantam books are so small to begin with. By the time I’m done with this blog post, it might be longer than the actual story.

I expected “The Kiss,” because of its length and title, to be like Gustav Klimt’s painting. I expected prose poetry. Lyrical writing. Sensuous descriptions of an ardent kiss and nothing else. What else could you fit in such a minuscule frame? But I couldn’t be more wrong. “The Kiss” is plot-heavy and the style matter-of-fact. It was so different from what I expected that I wondered if I was half-asleep reading The Awakening the first time around.

“The Kiss” opens with the wealthy but unattractive Brantain quietly courting Nathalie. Brantain loves Nathalie and she knows it. She is going to accept his proposal; not out of requited affection but because of his money. Things are progressing smoothly until Harvy, Nathalie’s apparent lover, barges in and kisses her, unaware of Brantain’s presence. Awkwardly, Braintain walks out and a furious Nathalie plots to get him back.

Because of the story’s length, characters only emerge as sketches rather than fully-realized people. Two-dimensional, as it were. Brantain is sweet and well-meaning but rather doltish. We know even less about Harvy. Clearly he is the more daring and intelligent of the two, but that’s the extent of it. Nathalie is the character we spend time with most. She is not likable, but she is almost admirable. She is both passionate and pragmatic, an odd but effective combination.

I wish I could spend more time with Nathalie. I feel like she has the seeds to make an excellent character in an epic fantasy complete with strategists and tacticians, something like A Song of Ice and Fire. From “The Kiss,” we can deduce that she is charming and manipulative, but even-tempered enough not to rage when things don’t go her way. She can make do with the cards she is given. She is clever enough to win often but has the good grace to concede defeat when losing. As Nathalie herself muses: “she had Brantain and his million left. A person can’t have everything in this world; and it was a little unreasonable of her to expect it.”

I thought about the concept of “having it all” after reading “The Kiss.” Nathalie clearly wants to “have it all”: a comfortable life with Brantain and an affair with Harvy. She almost succeeds until Harvy reveals that he will not be a pawn in her game. “Having it all” for a woman is really only achievable in modern times. So I couldn’t help but think of how Nathalie would fare in our world. I imagine she would do fine: she’s clever and charming, after all. And with the money she would have certainly made, she would be free to help herself to Harvy. In a way, “The Kiss” does show the restraints of the period: the courtship, the idleness of women. Considering the time it was written in, I wondered if Nathalie accepted Brantain more because of the security than personal materialism. Is the purpose of “The Kiss” to show how despite how formidable a woman is, she is still bound to social constraints around her? Hmm, I wonder.