The other week my son and daughter in law (who have been living in my daughter in law’s home town of Hat Yai in southern Thailand) went shopping at the local mall. My son stocked up on his favorite goodies – newly released videos games, some extra memory for his computer, and a lens for his new camera. They had some sushi for dinner, and then enjoyed a movie at the 20 screen cineplex next door to the mall.
The following day, they boarded a rickety bus and traveled for several hours to the province of Chachoengsao to visit Luang Paw Sowthorn, a renowned monk/fortune teller, stopping first at the small hut outside the temple to purchase the monk’s favorite gift of appreciation – hard boiled eggs.
This kind of cultural juxtaposition is just one of many reasons I loved reading Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales, a collection of linked stories by Eleanor Bluestein. As Eleanor told us yesterday in her guest post, Ayama Na is an imaginary country, an amalgamation of characteristics derived from her own experiences in southeast Asia. It’s a country in flux, torn apart by political and environmental changes while wrestling with culture shock as western manufacturing and tourism invade the land and threaten the last vestiges of its history. The people of Ayama Na struggle to maintain a balance between their personal values, based on centuries of wisdom and experience, while reconciling themselves to the modern world exploding all around them. Their experiences mirror so many of the things my son has told me about his travels in Thailand and the ways eastern and western cultures are mixing.
Each of the ten stories in this collection was enlightening, a gem-like eye opener into another world. Bluestein’s characters range from children and teenagers to elderly parents, from factory workers and fry cooks to one-legged whores, fortune tellers, and elderly cafe owners who dispense wisdom along with cups of tea. There are tales of parents and children, defining their relationships in the face of new cultural opportunities and expectations – a father who wants to choose his daughter’s husband, while the 17 year old girl is determined to create her own destiny, a son who takes his aging father’s life (and death) into his own hands. There are stories of workers – men and women who once earned a living from the land, now making t-shirts and robot toys to be sold in western discount stores. Permeating each story is a strand of affection and respect for the people of this nation and their system of beliefs, no matter what their circumstance, people who are legitimately trying to “live their best life” in often trying and difficult circumstances.
Listen to the voice of Kenchoreeve Pranaranasam, a tour guide, saddled with the quintessential pair of “ugly American” tourists:
For the past two years, however, since the birth of his twins, Kenchoreeve Pranaranasam had been working on himself, endeavoring to cultivate wisdom and compassion, cleaning up his degenrate life, and struggling to perform his work with honor and integrity. No longer did he leave Ayama Na In Depth’s clients in the lurch, but rather tried to see the good in them and give them a vision of his lovely, gentle country – a nation so much older, wiser, and sadder than theirs – that would lodge in their hearts and change them for the better. Moreover, when he couldn’t offer a genuine smile to the tourists he served he didn’t smile at all. He was done being a whore for tips.
And Mahala, a 16 year old fry cook in the country’s first McDonald’s restaurant:
…Mahala knew a few things about perfection. She knew that if you spent your life chasing it, instead of accepting its limits, you’d lose the ability to function and your failures would shrivel your spirit. Besides, you should put your energy to more doable tasks, such as saving money to get into medical school, architecture school, or city planning so you could be a credit to your family and a benefit to your country, which was struggling so hard to rebuild itself.
While Ayama Na might not exist on any map, it’s clearly alive and well in the heart of its creator. As Bluestein told us in her guest post yesterday, she became completely immersed in the details of this imaginary country, and in it’s language and people. Her extended travels in actual South East Asian countries obviously left a very strong impression, one she has put to good use in giving birth to Ayama Na.
Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales was the well deserved recipient of the G.S.Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. In her forward to the book, Marly Swick, Final Judge, writes that Bluestein displays a “brilliant sense of craft as well as cultural ventriloquism, writing equally convincingly from the point of view of both Westerners and Easterners. This is a writer who illuminates our cultural differences while exploring the intricacies of the human condition.”
Reading Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales reminded me how culture-centric we westerner’s really are. We thrust our big, fast, furious lifestyle on people of other nations, forgetting that the eastern cultures have stood the test of eons rather than just centuries. These stories have the quality of fables, offering ageless wisdom through realistic, believable, lovable characters. They are not only entertaining, but important, reminding us that we are all citizens of the world, and share the same basic human needs, no matter what our cultural framework for attaining them.
Giveaway: A copy of Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales can be yours, courtesy of BkMkPress, publishers. Simply leave a comment here to be entered for the giveaway. Post about the book on your site, with a link to this review, for an additional entry. The recipient will be chosen by random selection on April 13, 2009.
Creating Imaginary Countries, Eleanor Bluestein’s Guest Post, is here
Blog Tour Stops:
Wednesday, April 1st: The Bluestocking Society
Monday, April 6th: Bookstack
Wednesday, April 8th: Nerd’s Eye View
Friday, April 10th: Lotus Reads
Monday, April 13th: 8Asians
Wednesday, April 15th: 1979 Semi-finalist…
Friday, April 17th: Ramya’s Bookshelf
Monday, April 20th: Feminist Review
Thursday, April 23rd: Trish’s Reading Nook
Tuesday, April 28th: Medieval Bookworm
Wednesday, April 29th: Savvy Verse and Wit
For more reviews of this, and other fine books, visit TLC Book Tours