Book Review: Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

I don’t know where to start. This book is fascinating, perverse, gritty and realistic, though it  probably falls more into the magical realism genre. I don’t really know how to classify it or describe it other than ‘strange’ but in a good way.

The book is essentially a short memoir of Ma Jian’s travels through Tibet, with a fictional twist. He dives into the stories of the locals he meets on the way, infusing his charismatic writing style with a stunning insight into human nature.

The Tibet he introduces us to is a dark place, a region ravaged by conflict and the Chinese government’s brutal campaign against it’s unique way of life. He completely destroys the fantasy that Tibet is a spiritual haven, free of corruption and sin. In his short stories men sleep with their mothers and daughters, a woman who died in childbirth is hacked to pieces and fed to vultures in a sky burial, and a young girl dies in a frozen river during a Buddhist initiation rite.

His stories are not pleasant to read, nor do they end happily. There is no satisfying conclusion at the end of them; they’re just a mosaic of different lives, all connected by the physical and cultural setting of Tibet. Ma Jian is a brave writer. He’s unafraid of shying away from the truth, no matter how gruesome and horrid it may be. Through his vivid descriptions he recreates his own authentic experience of Tibet as a region being suffocated by the tight grip of religion, corruption and political upheaval.

As he explains in the afterward, “westerners idealise Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and as brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny their humanity.” Perhaps that is the most important lesson of this book. To romanticise another culture and its people is a form of self-delusion, one that leads to stereotyping and wrong assumptions.

Another interesting fact about this book is that it was actually banned in China, which of course led to it becoming incredibly popular on the black market as it had the appeal of the forbidden! Ma Jian later moved to the U.K and currently lives in London with his wife who is also the translator of his books.

I would highly recommend this book, and Ma Jian’s other travel memoir ‘Red Dust’. He writes about China with a chilling honesty that makes him, in my opinion at least, one of the most interesting Chinese writers alive today.

Who’s your favourite Chinese writer? Comment below!

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Review: ‘Wonder’ by R.J Palacio (guest post)

Anyone who’s filled with as much self-doubt as I am will surely understand what I mean when I say that every now and then, you come across a book that makes you resolve to be a better person. Wonder by R. J. Palacio is absolutely one of those books. Touching, engaging and uplifting, it offered everything I wanted from a story and then some: a whole host of characters; conflict that felt only too realistic; a conclusion so poignant I’m still drying my eyes and an abundance of youthful, untamed delight.

Trying to summarise a book that’s comparable in style only to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not easy, but I’ll give it a go. The premise is simple: August Pullman has a genetic condition that makes him look different to other ten-year-olds. Not just a bit different, like a cleft lip or a weird birthmark, but really, truly, stop-in-the-street-and-stare, makes-small-children-run-away-screaming different. Up until the point where the story starts, he has led a sheltered life. If you can call undergoing surgery every few months, wearing a space helmet every time he goes outside and being home schooled by understandably overprotective parents sheltered, that is. But things are about to change, because Auggie is starting middle school. (Whatever that is. Damn these Americans and their confusing educational systems.) Here, he – and the reader – will meet a variety of his peers and undertake a Bildungsroman-esque journey towards all kinds of acceptance.

I could gush about all the things that are great about Wonder for at least thirty pages. Auggie’s emotions, his dark humour, all the ups and downs…it all feels so real, and that’s what makes the story so gripping. I was rooting for him right from the first page, and I found it surprisingly easy to put myself in his shoes thanks to Palacio’s honest, conversational style. What was even more surprising is that I actually engaged more with Auggie, a ten-year-old boy whose life is dominated by a physical distortion, than I did with, for example, his older sister Olivia.

Via is closer to my age than her brother; her typical-teenage-girl problems are certainly more familiar to me than the issues our protagonist faces. Yet, during Via’s sections of the book, I found myself skimming the text, wondering when it was time to get back to the proper story. Yes, I cared about her, and about Jack, and Summer, and Miranda, and even Justin, but these characters’ musings felt like mere interruptions. It’s only now, on reflection, that I am beginning to question whether the asides about Jack’s poverty, Miranda’s home life and so on had some deeper meaning. Yes, these children look completely normal from the outside, but as the saying goes, everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Auggie’s classmates might not carry their burdens on their faces like he does, but they are all equally scarred in one way or another: by their past; by their family; by their friends. If the multiple narratives aren’t there to move the plot along, then perhaps they are intended to remind us that Mr. Browne’s precepts apply to everyone, whether their problems are visible or not. “When given the choice between being right and being kind,” Palacio is telling us, “always choose kind”.

I’ve seen some reviews that use words like ‘ableist’ in relation to the story’s tear-jerking happy ending. Some readers suggest that Auggie is awarded the Henry Ward Beecher medal simply for being deformed, and is therefore subject to positive discrimination. I disagree. Auggie earns his standing ovation for showing empathy, wisdom and kindness in the face of adversity, just like Via and Justin do when they face their demons in order to play the leads in their high school production. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a physical condition, a broken family, the death of a loved one…we are wonderful not in spite of but because of our struggles, and this deserves recognition. Who knows what these characters would be like had they led seemingly idyllic lives like Julian? Who’s to say that they wouldn’t be the ones putting mean notes in other pupils’ lockers? I think Palacio is telling us to embrace our differences, even the ones that make people point and laugh. Even the ones that provoke attacks from the uninformed. Even the ones that, as in my case, make strangers stop in the street and say, “Gosh, you’re tall!”.

These are the things that shape us into the remarkable human beings that we are.

 

This guest post was written by a good friend of mine, Rosie, who runs her own book blog ‘an improbable truth‘. Check it out for more excellent book reviews!