On Ocean-Crossing

On Moving, Touching, and Connecting

In the summer of 2020, I made my first all-American road trip with my all-American partner. The roughest car ride of my life: 10 days cross-continental drive from Boston, Massachusetts to Somers, Montana. The sun was blazing throughout Interstate 90 as the opened windows rattled the old van because the A/C broke down. The same hummus toast and Subway tuna sandwich punctuated a driving day that seemed eternal. My foreign body could take a 20-hour flight with multiple layovers, but not a 20-day drive.

We made a random stop at a spot called the Beartooth Pass near the Montana-Wyoming border. Except for the rugged rocks and alpine plants, the place was practically empty with no shade and no toilets. And it was freezing. My naturalist partner: “Isn’t this just incredible? I think this is the most beautiful place on earth.” He was standing on top of a pointy rock, taking in the mountain wind. He was totally at ease, as if at home.

“The most beautiful place on earth.”

The mountain peak seemed proudly lonesome as if the rest of the earth didn’t exist, the less beautiful parts.

I was thinking about the rest of the earth. And how close they felt.

Two years earlier during the 19-hour flight from Seoul to Boston, I fidgeted. It was my first one-way flight. I shoved the novel, marked on page 7, back into my lilac-color backpack. The flight simulation screen said I had ten more hours to go. A long time to register where my body was, what it was doing—it had been following one end of the Pacific toward the other end at over 800 kilometers per hour. And it barely traced half of the ocean body.

The Pacific, the largest ocean on Earth, covers one-third of the Earth’s surface. It is one of the few things that can command such monumental a description, “-est on Earth.” It is the largest separator of continents and lives. Watching the plane icon hovering over the white line across the Pacific, I imagined lining my body up from the East Sea in Korea to the US West Coast to measure its size.

Then I imagined, the same Pacific water touching the East Sea and circling back to hug the West Coast. I realized that I was counting my memories in Seoul one by one. The ocean was gathering and polishing my dusty memories and carrying them to Boston. The Pacific is the largest separator on Earth. It is also the most potent connector of memories on Earth.

The Pacific is the largest separator on Earth. It is also the most potent connector of memories on Earth.

On the “most beautiful” mountain peak, I thought of the largest water on earth. How it separates but connects, my two lives and the multiple lives of numerous others’.

This is my small attempt to record the web of memories threaded with the act of ocean-crossing, mine and those of others in fiction. While the stories collected here may appear to have nothing in common, they share an impulse—they connect places and lives distant in time and far apart in the ocean. While they traverse expansive space, they don’t try to tell an epic narrative. Instead, they tell apparently small stories, mundane and trivial, like the crisp alpine air chilling the nostril or the blue hue of the sunlight in one’s home city.

Are these stories, then, about places? Or are they about big migratory movements?

Novels of Place

“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth,” says one of the narrators Szu, a teenage girl in Singapore in the novel Ponti. Szu and her likewise dejected girls’ school friend Circe sleepwalk around their “hot, horrible” island, endlessly dapping their noses with blue oil papers. Following their half-drowsy voice feels like breathing through a sweaty, oily film. But besides that, nothing much happens. The only thing that lingers after the last page is the languid heat, hazy with particles from “slash and burn” farming in the nearby countries.

The author Sharlene Teo, who has been an expat in England since her early twenties, said Ponti was a “lover letter” to the country she remembers as a child. On how well Teo portrayed her beloved country, the responses are mixed. One review praised her book as the next winner of the “Ondaatje Prize” awarded by the Royal Society of Literature, which is given to novels evoking “the spirit of a place.” Another reviewer complained that Ponti “pointlessly chugs along,” because one can’t get any sense of what contemporary Singaporean society actually looks like and how it moves.

The issue is not just about how deep Teo dives into the fabric of Singapore. It’s also about what goes into a novel of place and who may read it. Should it be the region’s physical environment or historical and social dynamics? Are the two in conflict with each other? Does each one appeal to different readerships? These are thornier questions than they seem, especially when the place in question is a non-English-speaking region in a novel written in English.

Climate can be an easy shorthand for an “other” place—unfamiliar humidity, the thick smell of the air heavy with moisture. Climate is one of the first things one would register when stepping on a foreign place. Imagine that hot, humid air hitting your face as you step out of the plane, way before you even go through customs. And because climate hits the visitors’ senses so quickly and dramatically, seeing it in a novel of place sometimes invites concerns. 

Climate can be an easy shorthand for an “other” place.

The concern is that the descriptions of climate triggers such immediate and stirring sensations that they discourage the effort to learn things that are not immediately legible about the place. Understandably, tropical climate is usually on the front of a travel ad about a Southeast Asian country.

Asian tropical paradise has a long line of visitors whose motives have changed from empirical curiosity to colonial ambition, and to spiritual elevation. These motives have different faces, but they share an attraction to that “other” place whose tropical sunlight encapsulates its “spirit.” This “spirit” could mean a slower pace of life and serenity, moral depravation and laziness, or anything in between. Now, I don’t want to assume that the Royal Society of Literature running the Ondaatje Prize is driven by such touristy impulse. Still, I can’t help noticing that collecting non-English places with their “spirits” is the effort of this prestigious British cultural organization at being transnational. The gesture seems unnervingly proximate to the country’s historical desire for and attraction toward exotic places.

The colonial history entangled with tourist impulse puts many writers from postcolonial countries in a conundrum when writing about their physical experiences of place, particularly their home countries. How does one represent one’s sweaty memories in the equatorial nation without making them sensually delicious to the people on the other side of the world? It is awfully tricky and has been historically discouraging. This could be one reason why the annoyed reviewer of Ponti prefers novels that turn to socio-historical interrogation than place observation. We need to make our history legible as much as our climate in the fabric of world history, the reviewer would say. To do so, writers must expand the scope of their novel from the place in question to Western Europe and Southeast Asia, from the present moment to a longer period. The breadth of historical fiction or epic narrative serves well this literary concern, allowing temporal and spatial room to, for instance, trace the contemporary issue of glitzy urbanization back to colonial extraction.

As a postcolonial writer, how do you represent the sweaty memories in your home country without making them delicious to touristy impulse? It’s awfully tricky.

In postcolonial historical fiction of transnational scale, the place’s physical traits tend to become a secondary concern. Physical environment becomes a stage where important historical struggles take place. Or, it becomes a medium to create a certain mood for characters to muse on abstract history. Picture a second-generation immigrant son in the eastern US, watching his refugee grandmother from a Southeast Asian country bundling herself up with excess layers in late March. There are bits of snow, but he’s fine with a hoody. The long and stormy eastern winter is a backdrop for their “generational conflicts” and “the remnants of colonialism” which, according to the Ponti reviewer, are the real “points” of novels. And such “points” would be present in novels of migration.

Novels of Migration

Novels of migration have many names—“novels of migration,” “diaspora novels,” or “immigrant novels.” They refer to the narratives of migratory history and socio-political lives of ethnic and racial minorities, particularly in the North American literary scene. The life story of an individual is embedded in that of one’s ethnic and racial group, whose trajectory is vaster in scale and longer in time as this map suggests:

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

In Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, for instance, to be or not to be a “good” Asian is not just Henry Park’s dilemma but extends to the Korean American community in New York. In Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, the narrative voice itself is collective. The echoes of many Japanese mail-order brides combine to formulate one tortured testimony of the nauseating months on the Pacific and the speechless days on foreign soil.

Novels of migration consciously departed from novels of place that are exotically savory. However, there is a new bind. Juhea Kim, the author of the “historical fiction” Beasts of a Little Land, says, “To Asian writers, the pressure to provide an educational (but also sensuous!) Asian Historical Fiction book for the Western reader is as frustrating as the invitation to meet all the Asian wives and girlfriends of white men.”

The “frustrating” bind is that novels set in the life spaces of minorities (mostly written by minority writers) are supposed to offer sober history lessons to non-minorities, when the same readership’s demand for leisurely world tours has been barely dodged. Now these historical novels are expected to be a beacon of social diversity. They empower minorities and enlighten non-minorities. And because of this undeniably moral function, novels of migration are endorsed often quickly and with vague wholeheartedness in a liberal atmosphere.

This quick acceptance can pose as serious a problem as it is a welcoming change in the formerly white-dominant literary scene. Because it is an acceptance based heavily on the novels’ political significance than aesthetic merits, there is an implicit demand on novels of migration to be politically legible. Such demand, as Juhea Kim also suggests, puts at stake the status of these novels as works of art. Art can be volatile, obsessed with apparently trivial things, and simply refuse to tell what it’s about. Educational material is either appropriate or inappropriate, timely or untimely—can we afford an unidentifiable testimony when we have just started populating the market with minority narratives? When testimonies are scarce, each one counts and each one must be legible. To be legible, the subject matter and plot must be clearly recognizable, for instance as “Asian American history” or “AAPI heritage.”  Novels by minority writers that are not easily recognizable, tend to confound the literary market. For novels of migration, whose market foothold is only just expanding, this might not be a risk worth taking.

Novels by minority writers that are not labelable as “Asian American” or “AAPI,” tend to confound the literary market.

I am not dismissing the educational or political value of novels of migration. Rather, I want to augment such values with artistic ones found in “unlabelable” novels that fall through the cracks of the literary market. It is one thing to be conscious of the historical and political contexts of which novels of migration are borne. It is another to bind them in those contexts. This is why I return to the idea of novels of place with a different tenor, as works of art with unexpected imagination. I call a new group of novels that surfaces through this perspective, “novels of ocean-crossing.”

Novels of Ocean-Crossing

Two things are distinctive about novels of ocean-crossing. One, they evoke the sense of place in many ways from the detailed, sensory descriptions of physical surroundings to abstract, generic summaries. Two, they talk about history by apparently not talking about history. For the first, consider the following passages:  

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

[…] That yolky light was one of the things Ash had missed without knowing it. His emails to friends around the world said, ‘I spent too many years in places where the light was blue.’

Michelle de Kretser, The Life to Come
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

The berries that filled our hungry stomachs could turn poisonous sometimes. Once, when we were seven, after eating too many of those crimson fruits, we had become certain that we would die by the end of the day—the prospect, rather than frightening us, had thrilled us, and we had gone to the cemetery […]

Yiyun Li, The Book of Goose

From his study window in snowy Rhode Island, Sri Lankan Australian Ash reminisces about his beloved Sydney. Ash remembers the coastal city with its “yolky light” that feels “blue” with its oceanic brilliance. While The Life to Come traverses Australia, France, the US, and Sri Lanka, what fills most of its pages are minute observations such as the quality of sunlight, the placement of a dining table against a sofa bed, or the smell of the new room that one just moved in. You’re almost tempted to touch these passages with your fingers. But Colombo in The Life is nothing like a luscious tropical paradise. It is the Colombo that Ash experienced and remembers, marked by the dusty heat which contrasts with Sydney’s watery sunlight. That coarse texture of the heat, which may seem unremarkable to others, is how Colombo lives in Ash’s tactile memory.

Compare de Kretser’s sensuous description with a sparse and abstract passage by Yiyun Li. The setting is Saint Rémy in the post-WWII France, but there are no detailed observations of the place besides “berries,” “field,” and “cows and goats.” “Agnes and Fabienne would never think of themselves as living in the post-WWII French countryside,” said Li, when asked about doing “historical research” for the novel. The boring sunlight of Saint Rémy and the same smell of manure are already weaved into Agnes and Fabienne’s yearning for an invigorating life and affection for each other. For Agnes, her relationship with Fabienne is Saint Rémy. Years later in the ocean across in Pennsylvania, Agnes thinks of Fabienne’s body-wrenching howl on their last day as companions. A howl brewed by enclosure and predictability. A howl brewed by Saint Rémy where cows and goats graze, fields get plowed, and people die. Remembering Fabienne’s scream means retracing every corner of Saint Rémy.

While de Kretser and Li’s novels appear to be the opposite in terms of saturated details, both refuse to make the grand flow of time and events the central driving force of their stories. De Kretser and Li’s characters don’t interrogate or deliberate on history, at least not explicitly. Rather, history visits them momentarily and unexpectedly, as fleeting sensations in ordinary days. The “cold” apartments typical of Sydney transport Ash back to Colombo’s seething neighborhood from whose equatorial dizziness and political unrest Ash migrated away. The gray barrenness of the war-trodden French countryside is made visible against the vivid color of an orange from an American GI, its intensity a shock to the country girls who have never seen anything of such hue.

In novels of ocean-crossing, history visits people momentarily and unexpectedly, as fleeting sensations in ordinary days.

Novels of ocean-crossing don’t walk readers through the history of Southeast Asian migration or political, economic, and racial dynamics of immigrant lives in the US. One can glean, at best, the fragments of migratory movements that are not always dramatic or epic. Nor are these novels particularly interested in projecting the physical appeals of places. The tactile vignettes in novels of ocean-crossing may not seem necessarily representative or unique to the places, since these vignettes are someone’s summoned memories of the places they’ve touched in the past.

In the Country by Mia Alvar

Private desires and anxieties color the place memories etched on one’s body, as it is conjured up with retrospective imagination. “The Manila and the Bahrain and the New York that are in the book feel as foreign to me as any science-fiction world you’re trying to build […] When you’re writing fiction, it has to become an imaginary place,” novelist Mia Alvar said of the places in her ocean-crossing novel In the Country. As in Ash’s Colombo, the sense of what it is like to be in Manila in Alvar’s novel is most vivid to that person telling the story, not the readers. That person’s own past and sensory encounters with the corners of Manila become the pigments of one’s memoryscape. To those outside of these memories, such pigments would look random or nondescript. And this apparent lack of coherence and drama demands a more active engagement from the readers. The readers must imagine harder to make sense of the apparently messy stories, to recognize the common, vibrant sensation that connects distant places.

Four years later from the first one-way flight, I made another one in the opposite direction. I take a daily walk through a small mountain trail behind our apartment. Its humble, narrow hill sometimes brings me back to the alpine peak in Montana, where everything was bolder, rougher, and sharper. Yesterday, my ocean-crossing came back in green hues. The hill’s winter brown started turning into spring sage. It will turn to generous forest green in mid-June. Generous yet subdued, unlike that piercing emerald of the Beartooth Pass.

In the novels collected in this project, I find the same, unexpected connections and instant transports to places scattered in the past, present, and future. They are connections of such magnitude, crossing the oceans and time periods. It is marvelous that they start from something so small and tangible like a leaf brushing someone’s fingertip on a daily walk. Whether that forest trail actually exists is not important. It may not show up on the Google Map, but the memories it stirs are no less real than the map’s dropped pin. It is this clashing mixture of scales, sensations and imagination, drama and mundanity that makes the novels collected here serenely fascinating.

I’m heading out for my walk in two hours around sunset. And who knows what chance encounter with a faraway place awaits?  

Work Cited

de Kretser, Michelle. The Life to Come. Allen & Unwin, 2017.

Kim, Juhea. “Why You Shouldn’t Read Historical Fiction to Learn History.” Lit Hub, 20 Dec 2021, https://lithub.com/why-you-shouldnt-read-historical-fiction-to-learn-history/.

Jones, Malcolm. “Two Peasant Girls in Rural France Make a Plan to Fool the World.” Electric Literature, 23 Nov 2022, https://electricliterature.com/yiyun-li-novel-the-book-of-goose/.

Lau, Lisa. “Tropical Disappointment.” Turning the Pages, 13 May 2019, https://turningthepages.org/2019/05/13/tropical-disappointment/.

Lee, Chang-rae. Native Speaker. Riverhead, 1995.

Li, Yiyun. The Book of Goose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.

Milne, Rosie. “Ponti is a great Singaporean novel – compelling, evocative coming-of-age tale and portrait of a nation.” South China Morning Post, 9 Apr 2018, https://www.scmp.com/culture/books/article/2140522/ponti-great-singaporean-novel-compelling-evocative-coming-age-tale-and/.

Ortile, Matt. “A Conversation with Sonora Jha on How To Be of the Country.” BuzzFeed, 11 Jul 2021, https://www.buzzfeed.com/mattortile/how-to-be-of-the-country.

Otsuka, Julie. The Buddha in the Attic. Knopf, 2011.

Piper, Nicola, and Yves Charbit. “Editorial: Migration in Asia and the Pacific.” Revue Européenne de Migrations Internationales [Online], vol. 36, no. 1, 2020, pp. 7-13. https://journals.openedition.org/remi/12439. Accessed 9 Sep 2022.

Royal Society of Literature. “RSL Ondaatje Prize.” Royal Society of Literature, https://rsliterature.org/rsl-ondaatje-prize/.

Sophie Roell, “Best Books on Singapore by Singaporean Authors: recommended by Sharlene Teo.” Five Books, https://fivebooks.com/best-books/singapore-sharlene-teo/.

Teo, Sharlene, Ponti, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Cover image: the tattoo on my back, a map of the Pacific Ocean

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