29 Jan / Five More to Go: Paul Yoon’s Run Me to Earth [in The Booklist Reader]
Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon
Traversing countries and continents during a half-century, Paul Yoon’s (The Mountain, 2017) second novel unfolds decades of unrelenting loss and meaningless brutality, balanced – somehow – by exquisite kindness and unbreakable bonds. In war-torn Laos, a country brutalized by more powerful nations, including the U.S., three children stay alive by working in a makeshift hospital doing whatever is necessary. For a while, Alisak and siblings Noi and Prany have the pretense of safety, barely enough food to keep living, and the protection of an idealistic doctor, Vang. Surrounded as they are by fields of unexploded cluster bombs, the threat of annihilation remains constant. When evacuation is inevitably initiated, the trio and Vang are scattered in the chaos, setting in motion sundered journeys across oceans, with survival motivated by a searing yearning for, if not reunion, then at least some semblance of understanding.
In war – in any violent conflict – collateral damage is tragically unavoidable, but perhaps most concerning are the children who survive with their lives, yet are often irreparably damaged. Here you’ll find five more novels each featuring young people forced to bear witness, to attempt escape, to somehow carry on during and after the devastations wrought by senseless bloodshed. And yet, they thrive.
The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi and translated by Luke Leafgren
The lives of two girls born during the Iran-Iraq War are continuously delineated by conflict. As young children, they meet in a Baghdad air-raid shelter under siege in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm and become best friends. Their growing up is marked by years of sanctions and the second Gulf War. Despite deprivation and terror, life continues: the girls go to school; they pass exams; they experience first love; they go to college. In an act of preservation, as “memory was at risk of passing away,” the girls compose The Baghdad Clock: The Record of a Neighbourhood. Al Rawi’s debut presents the so-called enemy imbued with childhood whimsy and human longing, their quotidian stories embellished with touches of magic realism. Rendered into English by Harvard professor Luke Leafgren, who was inspired by 9/11 to learn Arabic, this international best-seller is both condemnation against politics and war and testimony to resilient humanity.
Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and translated by Janet Hong
Few historical tragedies compare to the hell-on-earth endured by the Japanese military’s so-called “comfort women,” a grossly abused term for mostly young girls who were kidnapped during WWII and forced into sexual slavery. For Lee Ok-sun, one of Korea’s few remaining survivors, her “service” included 30–40 men daily in a remote Japanese brothel in China, where she spent three inhumane years. Born in Busan during Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea, she dreamed of school as a young girl but stayed home to raise three younger siblings. Constantly hungry, her parents convinced themselves she could at least eat if she was “adopted” by strangers. Abused and overworked, she was abducted at 14 while returning from an errand. When Korean graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim met Lee, the nonagenarian was living in the House of Sharing, a nursing home caring for comfort women in Gwangju, Korea. “As I got to know her, I witnessed her incredible will to survive and her love of life,” she writes in her affecting afterword. Hauntingly translated by Janet Hong, Grass proves to be significant, paramount testimony.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In his prose debut, T.S. Eliot-prized, Whiting-awarded poet Vuong mines his memories, his traumas, and his triumphs to create an epistolary masterpiece addressed to his mother – who can’t read. Whispered a name at birth meaning “Patriotic Leader of the Nation,” the narrator is instead called “Little Dog,” because “to love something . . . is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched – and alive.” Escaping Vietnam, Little Dog grows up with his grandmother’s stories of survival, of what she did to feed one daughter, then another. In a house full of damaged women, he replays his mother’s monstrous abuses and her unrelenting sacrifices: “parents suffering from PTSD are more likely to hit their children.” And yet, “perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war.” In his precarious journey to manhood, race, poverty, mental illness, isolation, sexuality, first love, and death prove to be perilous challenges. Writing will save his life.
Small Country by Gaël Faye, translated by Sarah Ardizzone
French singer/rapper Gaël Faye transforms his own background into an impressive, searing coming-of-age first novel about a Burundian family’s implosion during the 1990s. What seemed like an idyllic, privileged childhood for 10-year-old Gabriel – made memorable by mischievous adventures with close friends – begins to unravel with the harsh discord that cleaves his French father from his Rwandan mother. His parents’ personal disintegration mirrors Burundi’s political chaos, the terror and tragedy exacerbated by the Tutsi/Hutu genocide exploding next door in Rwanda. Alliances, loyalties, even passports become moot: the massacres leave few unscathed. Gaby bears witness, his distress growing over his unreliable parents, confusion about his own mixed-race identity, and shock at the unrelenting casual violence occurring even among his tween companions. He finds temporary respite in books offered by a neighbor, but little can assuage the horrors around him. Escape comes at an exorbitantly high price.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
“Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises,” 14-year-old Nathaniel, aka Stitch, reveals early in Ondaatje’s latest novel. World War II is barely over when Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents, left in the care of strangers. Bewildered but determined, Nathaniel tenaciously pieces together his family’s mysteriously pixilated history. In postwar 1945, reinvention is both opportunity and necessity, and the siblings survive by watching and learning from the unexpected squatters in their home. By the time they discover their parents’ deception – their mother, at least, is not where, or even whom, she’s supposed to be – Nathaniel and Rachel are no longer safe; their mother proves to be both provoker and protector.