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Original Essays | September 18, 2014

Lin Enger: IMG Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from... Continue »


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Scot Nakagawa has commented on (7) products.

Open City by Teju Cole
Open City

Scot Nakagawa, October 23, 2014

Teju Cole has created a literary treasure. Open City is a story of migration, globalization, and of life in the post-modern world. It brims with humility, compassion, and the robust, vigorous, broad intellect of a writer with a keen, curious mind and an inspiring love of knowledge. I loved every page, often marking pages to reread. I can't recommend it more strongly.
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Giovanni's Room (Vintage International) by James Baldwin
Giovanni's Room (Vintage International)

Scot Nakagawa, September 3, 2014

I was reminded of Giovanni's Room when it appeared on Powells list of 25 Books to Read Before You Die. I'd read Giovanni's Room years ago, along with just about every word written by James Baldwin to find it's way to publication, and found it to be all that I first loved and more - truly a bucket-list novel if you haven't already read it, and a must re-read if you have.

On the back cover of my current copy (Vintage International Trade Paperback Edition, September 2013), Michael Ondaatje summed up James Baldwin's influence on contemporary culture, writing, "If Van Gogh was our 19th-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our 20th-century one." Indeed, James Baldwin is, in many ways, the 20th-century version of Van Gogh, an artist who changed the way we see art in the western world by offering mind-opening impressions rather than pure representations of his subjects which were, in turn, humble - the people, places, and objects that populated the lives of ordinary people who were regarded, at last, as worthy of a place in the world of high art in the modern, post-feudal world.

Like Van Gogh, Baldwin drew our attentions to lives lived on the margins of the known world in the 20th century as they were just beginning their push toward the center, and all while the center was disintegrating. In Giovanni's Room, he broke new ground, telling a story of queer love and the destructive force of bigotry and internalized self-hatred. Baldwin challenged us to step into the post-modern age, to embrace the specificity of experience beyond class and oppressive gender norms. James Baldwin's voice is prophetic, lyrical, emotional, riveting us to every page, right down to the last word.

In the post-Stonewall era, Giovanni's Room has taken on new meaning. It reads as historical fiction, a reminder of who we once were and how far we have come on a humanizing journey that the whole of Baldwin's oeuvre suggests is never-ending. Instead, to consciously embrace the journey beginning with accepting ourselves as inseparable from the "other" is the first act of humanization, the flip side of which is the process of reducing ourselves to less than we are or could be that results from separating us from them, as though these ideas are, in fact, descriptive of distinct and separable wholes.

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The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Politics and Society in Twentieth Century America) by Ellen D. Wu
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Politics and Society in Twentieth Century America)

Scot Nakagawa, February 12, 2014

The Color of Success just might be the best examination of the roots of the Asian American model minority stereotype in print. It explores a critical period of Asian American history, from WWII through the 1970s, providing a detailed account of how some Japanese and Chinese American leaders helped these communities rise above persecution and deflect "yellow peril" anti-Asian sentiment by engaging in propaganda campaigns that convinced much of the American public that members of these groups were model minorities, less prone to delinquency and promiscuity, and more committed to family, education, and country than others by dint of culture. Japanese Americans were so successful in this effort that by the 1980s, during the U.S.-Japan auto wars, the notion that Japanese culture made adherents better, more industrious workers, especially on mass production lines, that it inspired a craze for all things Japanese, from ancient samurai codes to flower arranging, among those wishing to duplicate Japan's success. But the model minority stereotype had a downside. Rising to popularity as it did during the age of civil rights protest, Black Power, and the early years of tough on crime federal policy and the war on drugs, it painted Asians as decidedly not black in the American mind, inadvertently helping to promote the idea that blacks were Asian Americans' opposites - a "problem minority."

This book is a must-read for all who are interested in race relations in the U.S., Asian American history, black history, and the twisted and often destructive roots of post-Jim Crow race liberalism in America.
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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

Scot Nakagawa, September 24, 2013

The Black Count is one of those biographies that brings together all that is best about the genre - a compelling character more complex and fascinating than most that live only in fiction, a gripping tale told through recounting a life once actually lived, and historical accuracy and detail that teach us something, not just about the person at the center of the story, but about the time and place in which (s)he lived. I truly loved this book. In fact, I found it every bit as enjoyable as my first read of The Count of Monte Cristo, the fictional story inspired by the life of the Black Count written by his son, Alexandre Dumas. If I could have stayed up all night, I would have read it cover to cover in one sitting.
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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic

Scot Nakagawa, January 30, 2013

Otsuka uses historical accounts to tell a story about a group of Japanese women who immigrated to the U.S. as picture brides. Fooled by marriage brokers into believing they were leaving behind hardship in early 20th century Japan for the good life in America, they arrived to find husbands, years older than the men whose pictures they were carrying, who were expecting wives who would join them in the fields as laborers.

Otsuka follows these women through years of farm labor and then to the internment camps during WWII. This is a story I've heard a hundred times or more. In the stories that have been shared with me, the Japanese Americans of this period are very near to be saints in their self-sacrificing devotion to family, America, and the Buddha. In The Buddha in the Attic, Otsuka presents us with real, whole people, remarkably resilient, accessible, diverse and full of flaws. That she is able to do so without dwelling on the stories of any of the women individually is a bit of a miracle that manages to makes her story a remarkably compelling read. I couldn't put it down and carried with me throughout my day, reading it in snippets whenever I could until finally I was able to sit with it, finish it, and immediately order her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine.
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