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Book Review: Only a Girl by Lian Gouw

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This is not a book that I would have found on my own but how we come to read a book is often an important element of our understanding and appreciation of the book itself. I will go into that circumstance further on near the end of this review.

As an American, and as I work in the construction industry in New York City where in a single day I encounter one-on-one a wide range of national identities, I am interested in the process of immigrant and cultural assimilation. As a writer I am interested in how an immigrant population that arrives in America, with the isolating aspect of different language, will eventually work its way, often through generations, to a point where individuals begin to contribute to the arts and literary culture of the American experience, in ‘mainstream’ American English, and to describe the history of the process of this ‘coming to America.’ And, though many consider America a destination, the path through America is not always the end of a cultural migration as much as a beginning. This book takes place in Indonesia and ends at the airport in Jakarta as the young protagonist leaves for America.

The author’s native language is Dutch. The book begins when Indonesia was the Dutch colony of the Netherlands East Indies. There is a whole lot to deal with the cultural and real politics of language in this book. In seeking out information online about the author I found a video interview where Lian Gouw describes how she had to learn to write her story in English. It does seem very much to be ‘her’ story; the book feels autobiographical. It is presented as a novel. As an object within a cultural vortex it says a whole lot about family, and feminist structures within the context of a politically volatile geographic place, growing up in Indonesia through WWII, a sort of growing up very modestly presented, with hopes, and fears, love, and pain that eventually necessitate departure.

This is not a prose to inflame the new-literati of the Internet. The technical and stylistic elements of the storytelling are not flashes. It all moves slowly in a relatively safe and traditional manner of telling it fairly plain without gew-gaws. This lack of flair I mean as a solid compliment to the tenacity and strength of the author, the courage to simply get on with it as best as possible. When I first started to read the book I thought it was outright boring. By page six I was captured. Toward the end of the book the young protagonist is essentially raped. At first I was like, “Oh, great, the obligatory sex scene,” the sensational steamy bit that all romantic readers have been waiting for, but it was actually handled quite well and did not advertise itself as a deus ex machina. I would be curious if the author were to venture to explore this volatile element in depth, to provide a more dynamic emotional context to the incident and her feelings about it in a short story form. In fact, for reasons of visibility and access that I will get into further on here, I would suggest that the author move into writing and distributing online shorter, more densely focused texts to explore a whole lot of the panorama of issues and emotions that this novel presents. I very much admire this writer.

Now for the downside.

Immigrants to any other place are at a disadvantage for a number of reasons. Often these disadvantages are never overcome in a single lifetime. Often these disadvantages are taken advantage of by the very community and culture from which the individual derives, but as well from the existing opportunities that are accessible. It is a tough life on this planet and one needs to admire anyone who obtains any level of satisfaction in the accomplishment of their goals. When I thought that I would want to write a review of Lian Gouw’s novel it occurred to me that I should look into where it had been published. The book is fairly expensive, particularly for a paperback. I will let you find that out for yourself (cheapest if you buy direct from the author). And there is the manner in which the book came to me that made the publication of the book more curious.

A younger generation relative of mine is a friend of the author and it was through a status update on Facebook that I was informed of the existence of the author, and of the novel. A book and an author recommended up through the family seemed relevant to me. Usually I find out what is going on with various babies and young children that I do not know, but would like to know, in the family through Facebook. In part I wanted to procure the book in order to share it back through the family (which if you read the book will seem particularly circular and relevant). This share back remains my intent, and it is the main reason that the cost of the book did not dissuade me from the purchase. So I ordered it through the author’s attractive billboard website, paid with PayPal.

Next thing I get an e-mail direct from the author that thanks me and asks how I had come to find the book. I thought, wow, this is nice! I pay for a book and within the day I get a direct communication with the author. How neat is that? I explained the family connection. We shared over that. The book arrived in the mail. There was a note from the author, sort of — it looked like it had been a copied note to again thank me for the purchase, with the PayPal receipt information. It felt sort of like when you buy a used book through Amazon and it shows up in an envelope that has seen a few global excursions and the system wants to know if you were happy with the exchange. I was happy.

So I went to look further online into Publish America (ironic since I have been on about assimilation into America) and what I gather is that they offer to publish nearly any author on the planet… with a royalty (seems to be $1.00 which I suppose qualifies as a royalty) with promises of promotion. The best I can tell, they do a bit of cover artwork, nothing fancy, print up a blurby book marker and a large postcard, and take the author’s e-mail list of friends and relatives then send them all a mass e-mail. The book is POD (publish on demand), meaning that when it is ordered each copy is printed (a friend recently told me he wants to buy one of these machines that does this, they cost like $100,000 and you can set it in your living space and have an instant publication empire) and the author is allowed to purchase up stock at “discount” which they are able to sell, promote, and distribute as they so please. Their book is locked into a multi-year exclusive contract with Publish America. Oh, yes, it is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, those conglomerations of enabling of the moving of books. Meaning that, best as I can tell, when you click on your PayPal at the author’s site it goes to the author who collects a small amount of money, takes the book off the pile in the pantry, and wraps it into an envelope and then off to the post office. But they do get one more copy of a book, in this case a novel that took the author seven years to produce — hard to tell if that time included all of the English language writing workshops, out into the hands of a potential reader… someone most likely in the family or a friend or a relative of a friend who is curious about reading stuff. In short, it is ALL up to the author to give their book legs.

I felt really bad for this as I do believe Lian Gouw deserves a whole lot more exposure. I get the impression that she may feel bad for this as well. But as Lian explains elsewhere on the web, there is an expedient to the need to get a book out into the world as life moves on. Her novel moves on through life and if any of all of what I have said above makes sense to you then I strongly suggest that you pay attention to the work and future appearances of this author. (And check out her traditional Indonesian recipes.)

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