diaCRITICS will periodically have guest blogs. Here’s one from Paul Lai, a master’s student of library science at St. Catherine University, as he reviews Andrew Lam’s East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.
The original post appeared at Asian American Literature Fans.
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As the collection title suggests, a central argument in Lam’s writing is that as much as globalization has brought the West out to the East and other parts of the world (the McDonaldsization of the world), the East has similarly made incursions into the West and transformed the quotidian quality of life for all. Taking California as the exemplary setting for this kind of transformation (and where Lam grew up and currently resides), he explores how Vietnamese cuisine, Japanese manga and anime, and other cultural traditions and products from the East have become part of the fabric of the West.
The essays range in length, from longer personal essays that are much more meditative, drawing out meanings from recounted memories, to short, journalistic pieces of about two pages in length that offer a brief observation and a lesson to be learned.
What I find most interesting about Lam’s essays is that they connect personal experience to larger historical forces, often centering on the Vietnam War and the resulting diaspora of Vietnamese in America and beyond. I also am trying to think about how the genre of the personal essay differs from that of memoir. There are clearly overlaps, and surely some people might want to use the two terms interchangeably. But after reading Lam’s book, I am reminded that I haven’t read many books of personal essays of this sort in awhile. In part, one thing that differs for me is that the personal essays themselves are much more discrete, and though there is an overarching theme to the essays as a whole, they do not necessarily make a larger narrative. Memoirs, by contrast, seem to carve out a more unified narrative of life and memories. Lam’s essays are also much more journalistic in general, a quality I would describe as reporting on observations and the larger implications of those observations in a way that differs slightly from the more internally reflective memoir form (even if that memoir reflection is importantly connected to critique of larger social structures like Kenji Yoshino’s excellent Covering).
Buy East Eats West here.
Paul Lai has taught English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and the University of St. Thomas. His research interests include Asian American sounds, extraterritorial American literary formations, radical librarianship, and dog parking. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in library science at St.
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