Reading Asian Women Writers: Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe

Cover of Sky Lee's novel, Disappearing Moon Cafeby Emily Yakashiro. For Emily’s previous review, of Hiromi Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms, click here. Next, Emily is planning to read and review The Bird by Oh Jung-Hee.

Reading Disappearing Moon Cafe by Vancouver author Sky Lee kind of drove me crazy…but then I realized that might be the point. Reading Lee’s bio (she identifies as a feminist) and the description of the story on the back cover (which refers to, amongst other interesting plots, “the passionate loves of the women of the Wong family through four generations”) had me sold on the spot.

The book seemed easy enough – it’s divided into seven chapters with a few characters featured in each. As I went through it, however, I realized it wasn’t going to be a simple tale of three or four characters; the voices, stories, ghosts, and desires of Kae Ying Woo, Hermia Chow, Lee Mui Lan, Fong Mei, Choy Fuk, Ting An, Beatrice Li Ying Wong, Keeman, Morgan, Suzanne Bo Syang Wong, and many others, crowd the pages. It’s rather dizzying to keep track of so many people who have so many different things (such as incestuous longings that would make the Lannisters blush) happening in their lives.

Despite all the seemingly disparate narratives and characters, I want to focus on the theme of community, even though the novel seems to question whether that very concept may just be a lofty dream.

The novel is based in our very own Vancouver Chinatown and other areas around British Columbia, making it super-local. Vancouverites will know how big our Chinatown is (that is, not very big at all), and Lee’s novel shows with heartbreaking poignancy how very lonely things can be even when you’re supposed to be “home” or are assigned by the status quo ruling class to stay within the confines of your community of Others. Read more

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Contributors Pick the Best of 2013

photo of pink and white fireworksEach year I ask the Gender Focus contributors about some of their highlights from the past year. Here’s what they came up with for 2013:

Favourite Movie:

Chanel Dubofsky: I never go to the movies, but I did see American Promise in the theatres. It’s about two middle class black families who send their sons to an elite school in Manhattan. It was spectacular and troubling and all of the good things.

Jarrah Hodge: I saw a lot of good movies this year and I’d have to say it’s a tie between two amazing movies by and about women. The first is Wadjda, a movie about a 10-year-old Saudi girl who pushes the boundaries of her society with humour and joy, directed by Haifa Al Mansour. The second was a fabulous documentary that showed at DOXA: Anne Braden, Southern Patriot. Gender Focus was a community partner for the screening of this inspiring film, which uses one woman’s remarkable life to teach us about interconnections between racial, gender and class equality.

Jessica Critcher: The Heat had a few hang-ups with intersectionality, similar to my critique of Catching Fire (which I also loved). But seeing a female buddy cop movie was a rare treat. I want more of that, with a woman behind the camera as well. Baby steps, I guess. Did anyone else pretend it was a sequel to Miss Congeniality? I want more Sandra Bullock FBI agent movies. I’ll write them myself if I have to.

Roxanna Bennett: 12 Years a SlaveHarrowing but crucial film, based on the real life account of  Solomon Northrup, a free-born Black man in pre-Civil war America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Directed by the inimitable Steve McQueen.

Cover of Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonFavourite Book Read in 2013:

Jenni Podolski: I love Morrissey, so I devoured Morrissey’s Autobiography in a weekend. It’s exactly what I expected; witty, smart, and so eloquent. The first 100 pages or so where he describes his upbringing in Manchester were incredibly evocative and real.

Roxanna: Life after Life by Kate AtkinsonCaptivating. The premise of the book, “what if you could live your life over and over again, until becoming conscious of the smallest events that change your destiny” at the outset seemed as though it would make for tiresome prose but instead is riveting. I mulled this book over in my mind for weeks after reading.

Chanel: Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden. It’s very slim- about 100 pages, I think? It’s gorgeous and reminds me why I write fiction.

Favourite Band/Song:

Jessica Mason McFadden: Annie Lennox wins for this year; she is a politically and humanistically-conscious musician whose work evolves in surprising ways. She’s truly both an artist, a model of compassion and authenticity, and a mentor for civilization.

Chanel:  Lucy Wainwright Roche made a new record called “There’s A Last Time For Everything,” and I’ve been listening to it day after day after every day since it came out.

Jessica Critcher: Kings of Spade are my favorite local band from Oahu, and this year they released their highly anticipated second album with help from Kickstarter backers (like me). They’re urban funk mixed with rock and roll. Their lead singer has a flourescent pink mohawk and ovaries of steel. I can’t wait until they come my way again on tour. Read more

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Reading Asian Women Writers: Chorus of Mushrooms

cover of Hiromi Goto's book Chorus of Mushroomsby Emily Yakashiro

The inspiration for this series came from a perfect storm of realizations. First, I spent my summer obsessing over Anaïs Nin (I read 8 of her diaries in this time). In these diaries, Nin writes at length about the various female writers she admires. Curious, I looked all these women up and wound up reading a lot of their work, too. As fantastic as all these books are, I could feel a dissonance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I realized, of course, that none of these works were by women of colour. I could hear Chimamanda Adichie’s voice from her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” in my mind reminding me, well, of the danger that can come of only ever engaging with stories written by people representing the status quo.

Then I spied the necessary, informative article by Roxanne Gay on The Nation, which pointed out that we need, “broader, better literary conversations.” In 2011, Gay, “did a rough count of how many books by writers of color were reviewed in The New York Times in 2011. The numbers were grim but unsurprising. White writers wrote nearly 90% of the books covered by the paper of record.” From all this, it seemed my mission was clear: I need to be reading books written by women whose identity is similar to my own, and then start talking about them. I need another story to contemplate, because these voices and experiences are important, just like my own. Join me for a new review every time I finish a new book by an Asian woman about Asian women right here on Gender Focus.

Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms

Calgary fans and citizens rejoice, because this one’s for you: Crowchild and Macleod Trail are only a couple of the many places mentioned in [Insert series name here]’s first stop, Chorus of Mushrooms.

Entirely based in this prairie metropolis, Chorus of Mushrooms, author Hiromi Goto’s very first novel, is pretty great, having won the feminist-friendly James Tiptree Jr. award in 2001 (amongst other honours). The snow-laden and windblown landscapes so familiar to the Northwest and Southeast alike serve as the merciless background to where we find our lustful protagonists making their way–suffice to say that the weather can’t stop them.

A theme from this novel that I would like to focus on for this first review is the poignant discussion of sexuality, which happens with a frankness Hannah Horvath would certainly appreciate.

Indeed, Goto’s book, though 20 years old, is not at all out of place in the current Girls-landscape of no-holds-barred approach to discussion on a relatively taboo topic. Except, of course, with Goto’s writing, she is discussing the sexuality of women of colour, specifically Japanese-Canadian women of three different generations. Read more

Posted on by Emily Yakashiro in Books, Can-Con, Feminism 2 Comments

Book Review: Iris Has Free Time

irissmylesby Roxanna Bennett

“I prefer to call them pink-outs, because I’m a girl,” the narrator, a charming young alcoholic states. Less a coherent memoir and more a strung-together series of short, sometimes repetitive anecdotes, Iris Has Free Time is the story of a twenty-something woman living in Manhattan, drifting through jobs, parties and relationships.

Both witty and melancholy, the book recounts the brief period in the narrator’s life between graduation and adulthood. Frustratingly indifferent to her job as an intern at The New Yorker, the reader quickly learns that Smyle’s commitment to success seems to have ended at graduation, or leads her only as far as a punchline.

Smyles’ dedication to a joke is admirable. Her relationships with men often start and end with the phrase “wouldn’t it be funny if…?” She keeps a chemistry ledger in which she charts her ‘experiments’ with men; leaving rambling voice mails outlining the plots of various TV shows, sending random vulgar text messages and nonsensical emails, all to gauge and record the reactions of her “subjects”. Her “lab assistant” is her roommate who aids and abets the experiments by helping to concoct the joke.

Smyles’  relationship with her roommate is the emotional hinge of the story, what starts as an inseparable twosome slowly disintegrates as men and adulthood encroach upon the friendship. Smyles’ sad and puzzled reaction to the changing friendship is one of the few authentic moments in the book.

Iris Has Free Time is like being dragged across a landscape of karaoke parties and under furnished apartments by a charismatic, aimless friend. Smyle’s dauntless enthusiasm for new projects she will never finish like selling hundreds of home made T-shirts on eBay or publishing a literary magazine that she loses all the submissions for in a cross-city drinking escapade, is entertainingly honest.

From entrepreneur to teacher to sex columnist, Smyles tries on jobs the way she tries on outfits, riffling through experiences without being much affected by them. Smyles might be the friend you wish would sometimes give a little less information in her stories, like the time, during a pink-out, that she thought her boyfriend’s lap was a toilet and well, you get the idea. But without the frank exposure of her misadventures the story would lack its hilarious appeal.

Uneven in pacing, seemingly without plot, Iris Has Free Time is a book that might appeal to anyone nostalgic for or in the midst of bidding farewell to their twenties.

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Spring 2013 Book List

sistercitizenby Jarrah Hodge

In between work and feminist blogging and keeping up with geek culture, I’m a huge bookworm. Here’s the latest in my series of posts of short feminist book reviews (the reviews are feminist, not necessarily the books).



Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen is a book that covers a wide ground: black American women’s misrecognition by society and how that misrecognition affects their subjectivity and participation as citizens. Luckily, Harris-Perry’s framework is really helpful and she does a great job weaving together analysis of literature, poetry and film with findings from academic and census research with actual black women’s voices, stories, and experiences.

She carefully balances discussing problematic aspects of how some black women buy in (to varying degrees) to the popular stereotypes of the “Mammy”, “Sapphire”/”Angry Black Woman”, or the “Jezebel” without denying women agency. This particularly comes out in the nuanced way she talks about how Michelle Obama has been stereotyped and has both resisted and embraced certain stereotypical traits. What I most appreciated was how broadly Harris-Perry defines “politics”


and citizenship – showing the many ways in which black women practice politics in their personal lives simply through trying to navigate in an environment Harris-Perry likens to a “crooked room”.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow

Another MSNBC host book on a very different topic. Rachel Maddow does a good job putting together an accessible and interesting look at how US military policy has changed since the country’s founding: from a situation where war was meant to be rare and difficult to declare to now, where it’s almost constant and its political fallout is lessened through the use of contractors and extreme interpretations of the President’s executive power. Read more

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Gender Focus Reads: Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power


by Jarrah Hodge

Every once in a while I’m asked to recommend books or other resources for men who are new to feminism and want to learn more. I usually start with bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody and follow up with Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel’s more recent and more specific book, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. Now I have a new one to add to the list – one that really explores the diversity of issues and identities of male feminists and pro-feminists: Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power.


The 2nd edition of Shira Tarrant’s edited anthology contains 41 essays (11 new since the first edition) around six themes: Masculinity and Identity, The Politics of Sex and Love, Dealing with Violence and Abuse, Masculinity at Work and Home, Men and Feminism, and Taking Action, Making Change. The insightful, personal pieces cover a range of topics within these themes, including masculinity in hip hop culture, teaching men about violence against women, sexual harassment in the U.S. Military, the problems with the “fathers’ rights” movement, and explorations of sexuality and gender identity.

It’s hard to narrow it down, but if I had to pick my top three highlights of the book, they would be Amit Taneja’s “From Oppressor to Activist: Reflections of a Feminist Journey”, which uses a series of narrative “snapshots” to explore the author’s path to becoming a feminist as a gay, immigrant, person of colour; Jacob Anderson-Minshall on grappling with newfound privilege after transitioning from lesbian to straight white man; and C. Winter Han on fighting racism in the queer community and homophobia in anti-racist groups.

The only quibble I had with the book was Michael S. Kimmel’s intro to his essay, “Abandoning the Barricades: or How I Became a Feminist”. Overall I’m a big fan of Kimmel’s work. I already mentioned The Guy’s Guide to Feminism and Manhood in America is another must-read for anyone interested in the how our current gender roles in the West have been built through pop culture and politics. But I was a tiny bit disappointed reading his contribution to this book because he prefaces it by saying there are things in this older essay that he no longer agrees with, but doesn’t identify specifically what those are other than saying he now identifies as “pro-feminist” rather than “feminist”:

“I’ve left the text as I wrote it in 1975…I do so not because I stand behind every word I wrote more than thirty-five years ago; indeed, I would take a few things back, mute or sharpen various points, or change the language. No, I leave it the way I wrote it not because I stand behind every single word, but because I still stand with the young man who first wrote them.”

I felt like that was kind of a cop-out because it forced me as someone who has a lot of respect for Kimmel to give him the benefit of the doubt on things I disagreed with (it was mostly the overall slightly self-righteous and condescending tone I objected to, such as when he talks about feeling “angry at the men and protective toward the women” watching harassment in his college dorm). I would’ve appreciated more clarity on what he would and wouldn’t stand by so I didn’t just have to assume. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor point.

Back to the big picture: there are big questions about the appropriate roles for men in feminism and Tarrant identifies some of these in her intros to the various sections. For example, in the intro to the part on Men and Feminism, Tarrant writes:

“The puzzle is this: How can we (a) make room in feminism to account for men as “our comrades in struggle,” while (b) retaining a central focus on women, yet (c) avoid reinscribing the gender binaries that feminism-as-female invokes?” Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Books, Feminism 1 Comment

Review: All Men Are Jerks *Until Proven Otherwise by Daylle Deanna Schwartz

menjerksby Roxanna Bennett

All Men are Jerks *Until Proven Otherwise, a self-help dating book by Daylle Deanna Schwartz, sinks victim-blaming to new depths. From the back cover where the author states: “Men really can be jerks* but only if you let them” to this choice quote: “Look at all the abused women who stay! They say it’s okay to abuse them by not leaving”, Schwartz repeatedly attempts to hammer home the idea that women are weak, needy, dependent, and frankly, stupid, while men are manipulative douche-bags…but only because women let them be.

Schwartz’s intention was to create an empowering book for women wanting to take control of their lives. Instead she has shifted the blame from the poor behaviour of others back onto the person who is treated badly. In this case, women. All women, everywhere. In a cultural landscape where women fight desperately for pay equity, respect, bodily autonomy and authority, Schwartz strips away the social constructs that make this fight a necessity and shoves fault back down the throats of women.

Schwartz positions herself as a woman scorned by the father of all douchebags but blames herself for letting Him (her capitalization throughout the book) treat her badly. This is the foundation of her philosophy. Men take advantage of women because women let them. Women need to stop letting men manipulate them by buying them flowers, talking them into having sex without condoms, standing them up on dates, and outright abusing them. Women are needy. We apparently fall to pieces over a few daisies and have no trouble putting out without condoms because we’re so horny we think with our vaginas instead of our brains. Brains, it seems to Schwartz, are lacking in women.

Her suggestions for self-empowerment are pretty standard. Love yourself. This includes a shockingly almost progressive chapter on masturbation – almost progressive because while Schwartz says there’s nothing wrong with promiscuity, you need to wait and let a man earn your trust before you put out for him (a little sprinkling of slut-shaming to go with her victim-blaming). Build your self-esteem through affirmations. Tap into your spirituality. Accept yourself. Then learn to say no to jerks, you hussy.

This ridiculously simplistic idea is insulting to anyone who has ever navigated the complexity of a romantic relationship. The heteronormative stereotype of men and women dating make this book read like a long Cosmpolitan or Men’s Health magazine article. Hello! Schwartz has been quoted in both magazines, and has appeared on both Oprah and the Howard Stern show, peddling her brand of blame shifting disguised as self-empowerment.

Books like this one contribute to a culture that allows shame to fester, releases true abusers from the consequences of their actions by telling women, not only should you have known better, but it’s your fault he treated you badly. Reading this book help a few readers examine their own patterns of behaviour for improvement but it has the very real potential for causing more damage than good by reinforcing what the world already tells us: men are jerks because women want them to be.

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