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Five More to Go: Yoko Ogawa’s THE MEMORY POLICE

Five More to Go-Yoko Ogawa's THE MEMORY POLICE

This regular feature gives Booklist contributing reviewer Terry Hong the opportunity to shout about a recently published book she adored. She’ll tell us why we should read it, then provide five read-alikes for the title.

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa and translated by Stephen Snyder

Without names, these people, this island, could be anyone, anywhere. As fantastical as the premise of her latest anglophoned novel seems, Yoko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor, 2009) intends exactly that universality. Initially, small things disappeared—“Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp.” What didn’t just vanish was destroyed. And then people disappeared—those able to remember were removed by the Memory Police to ensure community uniformity.

A novelist, whose mother was a sculptor with secret-filled drawers, her father an ornithologist, lives alone while writing her latest book about a voiceless woman. When her editor reveals that his memories remain intact, the novelist immediately recognizes the danger. The novelist works with her trusted childhood nurse’s husband, now a daring duo, to build a hidden refuge in the novelist’s house. Then books disappear, the rest are burned; the single library, too. And still, the disappearing doesn’t stop. Ogawa’s anointed translator, Stephen Snyder, adroitly captures the quiet control with which Ogawa gently unfurls her ominously surreal and Orwellian narrative.

Dystopic literature is hardly new, but given the barrage of anxiety-inducing headlines, threatening predictions, and unsure future politics, perhaps that sense of unsettling fear is finding increased literary outlets around the world. In addition to Ogawa’s latest, you’ll find five more titles (linked to their Booklist reviews when available) from authors of Asian backgrounds who have chimerically, unforgettably captured global discontent on the page.

The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani

The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani

Japanese-born, Germany-based Tawada writes facilely in both languages and creates incomparable award-winning fiction that defies easy labels. Her latest literary, linguistic mélange—smoothly rendered in English by Margaret Mitsutani—blends fairy tale, dystopian warning, peculiar mystery, cultural critique, and multigenerational family saga. Yoshiro and Mumei are a symbiotically bonded duo who are a century apart in age. At almost 108, Yoshiro’s reason for (still) living is Mumei, his daughter’s son’s son—to get him up, dressed, mandarin-juiced, out the door to school. In this alternate future, everything—soil, sky, oceans—is potentially poisoned, most animals have disappeared, and even the children face extinction. And yet despite his seemingly truncated prognosis, Mumei’s outlook remains full of insight and charm.

An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim

In 1981, Frank is about to fall victim to a deadly worldwide flu pandemic. In exchange for Frank’s recovery, girlfriend Polly time travels 12 years into the future and commits to 32 months of bonded servitude. Their 1993 reunion plan goes awry when Polly lands in 1998 with no means of contacting Frank. The United States of America is now the United States and America; in this surreal fin de siècle, Polly is trapped in a Kafkaesque labyrinth still plagued with socioeconomic inequity, racism, and violence. Despite such a dismal future, will some semblance of love survive?

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

Once revealed in context, this book’s title alone is an astonishing feat of encapsulated genius. Control, individuality, nature, perfection, reality, society—all that and more fill this dystopic treatise about a not-so-futuristic, ruined America. At the beginning, 16-year-old Fan simply walks out of her contained labor colony in search of her vanished lover. Her epic quest takes her through the renegade “counties” and into a privileged “Charter” community and beyond. “New Chinese” descendants trade gated protection by providing halcyon Charter cities with their necessities; beyond the walls lies a lawless free-for-all. Lee’s use of a never-named “we” to tell the tale proves to be a brilliant maneuver that allows him to be an observant bystander, discretionary judge, and at times, even an admittedly unreliable narrator.


Severance, by Ling Ma

Candace Chen arrives in New York City postcollege because “it seemed like the inevitable, default place to go.” She eventually settles into a Brooklyn apartment, finds a free-spirited boyfriend, and five years pass. Then Shen Fever hits, rapidly spreading gruesome death across the globe. Candace inexplicably remains immune while the city empties. On the final day of her work contract, she commandeers a yellow cab as far as Pennsylvania, where she becomes the ninth—and last—member of a motley crew who might be the only survivors. Their destination: “the Facility.” The end looms but Candace is, well, just beginning. Ma’s debut is a smart, searing exposé on the perils of consumerism, Google overload, and millennial malaise.

United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

In Tieryas’s disturbing new world, the Japanese didn’t just invade Pearl Harbor, they attacked the mainland, too—and won. After releasing the imprisoned Japanese Americans from War Relocation Authority Centers, the Japanese victors take control of the western half of the continent. In 1948, Ruth Ishimura and Ezekiel Song are expecting a baby when they return to an unrecognizable, bombed-out Los Angeles. Four decades later, their son, Beniko, has nearly failed out of Berkeley Military Academy for Game Studies. He’s best known—lauded, but feared—for turning in his own parents for betraying the omnipotent Emperor. And then Agent Akiko Tsukino shows up with news about serious threats to the USJ, involving a new video game called the United States of America. A rebel group called the George Washingtons—complete with oversized white wigs—just might be plotting a new quest for freedom. Let the games play on!'

About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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