When Trish emailed me about reading Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales for TLC Book Tours, I immediately jumped at the chance to read this book. I love world literature and discovering new places, and I was so intrigued at the thought of Eleanor’s fictional country of Ayama Na. I’m always apprehensive about receiving books, especially short story collections, but I couldn’t have been more pleased with this book. Well, there is one way I could have been more pleased, but it is a catch-22 type thing. I’ll explain in a bit.
Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales is a collection of 10 interconnected short stories about the people of Ayama Na, a fiction country in Southeast Asia. Although the book got off to a slow start for me with “Pineapple Wars” and “Hamburger School,” the former a story about a man struggling to cope with his dying father and the latter a story about the continual abuse of a young girl at her father’s hand, soon I was entrenched in the Ayama Nan culture and couldn’t get enough. Bluestein has created such a rich and realized country and culture, and she tackles heavy themes of a struggling country amongst capitalist giants, old traditions juxtaposed with modern desires, the tourist’s perception of an antiquated and often destitute culture, and tribal living in a world that is rapidly changing.
As I mentioned above, the book started slow for me, but the more I read the more I began to think about Ayama Na and its people. The events that happen in this book are oftentimes heartbreaking, there were things that made me angry, I sometimes laughed at the biting humor and the ironic turns of events. This is the type of book that made me think and the stories will continue to stick with me for a long time to come. While the culture might be unfamiliar, with any world literature novel, the shreds of humanity are familiar. There are bits and pieces of each of these characters that we can relate to or sympathize with.
One of my favorite stories is “Skin Deep” about a beauty queen contestant whose talent act is ventriloquism. Her dummy gains a voice of her own and chastises Song Li, the contestant, for partaking in such a meaningless event when she could be doing much more good in other ventures. As Song’s mother says, “Did you work for your beauty?…Did you study for it? Did you earn it? It cost you nothing–this beauty. And nothing is what it’s worth!” (77).
In another story, “North of the Faro,” a young palm reader, Rianna, finds that the advice she gave a young man led to his unfortunate death. Wracked with guilt at the harm she has done, she finds the boy’s family. The mother attacks Rianna, and in an attempt at atonement she allows her face to remain scared: “…they passed a small round mirror forward to Rianna who held it up to look at herself. Sleek, smooth, raised, and red, the fresh scar that crossed her cheek from the outer edge of her eye to the joint of her lips had yet to attain its full topographical dimension or develop the iron-rich earth tone it would acquire as it matured, but this face she’d intentionally altered matched the roughness she felt inside and seemed to her as if it were the face she’d been destined to for all her life” (200).
This review is get a little lengthy, but there is so much in this relatively short book. The stories in their own ways are quiet and it is certainly a character-driven book as Bluestein writes the most intimate thoughts of the characters. If you like books about other cultures, this one is for you. If you like short stories, this one is for you (there is never a feeling of incompleteness that I often find with these collections). Character-drive stories? Yup, for you too. Of course there were stories that didn’t speak to me as much as some of the others, for example “Cut the Crap Machine” and “AIBO or Love at First Sight,” but as a whole this collection really swept me away. So how could I have possibly been more pleased? I wanted more of these characters. I wanted their full stories. I wanted a novel about each character. But on the other hand, the short stories gives such vast and varied glimpses of the entire Ayama Nan culture. I’ll definitely be looking for more by Bluestein in the future.
INTERVIEW WITH ELEANOR BLUESTEIN
I had the pleasure of asking Eleanor a few questions about her writing process for Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales. She was gracious to answer my questions, and I hope you’ll find her answers as fascinating as I did.
Trish: On your website you mention your educational background as being science based (an undergraduate degree in Biology). Have you always been a writer or is this a new exploration for you? How/why did you make that first leap?
Eleanor: After college I taught science to 7th and 8th graders and then took some years off to be a full-time mom. At that time, a younger sister in college passed along books from her literature courses, and I saw what I’d missed as a bio major. I took a writing class at a university extension program and started writing fiction. When I returned to work as a science textbook editor, I kept writing fiction. I have a few unpublished novels under my belt, so writing was not a new venture for me when I began these stories.
Trish: Ayama Na is a fictional country in South East Asia. Can you explain your process of creating such an intricate and in many ways fully realized country and culture? As readers we can see many many truths, however fictionalized, in the small country trying to come to terms with the past and present, Westernized ideals and Ayama Na traditions. What was your inspiration in creating Ayama Na?
Eleanor: I’d traveled to Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam, but it was Cambodia, with its tragic recent history, young population, and rapid modernization, that captured me. In the stories, I tried to imagine the psychological and emotional feel of life under these very challenging circumstances, but I found myself combining sights and sounds of the various countries I’d visited without being faithful to any one of them. A fictional country solved that problem for me. Then I threaded fictitious street names, bits of invented language, a currency, a political system, and a common history through the stories. Ayama Na keeps the feel of Cambodia, though, in the characters’ back stories, the graft and corruption, the war-torn landscape, and the dizzying westernization. I read and did research for specific details as I needed them.
Trish: As a former student of post-colonial literature, I recognized many post-colonial themes in Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales, including the use of the native language interspersed within the English writing. Is the Ayama Nan language based on any others? Why did you chose to include these phrases, sometimes with definitions, sometimes without?
The sounds of other languages must have influenced me, but it wasn’t conscious. In the case of idioms, I mostly translated. In the case of expletives or exclamations of woe, I mostly figured the reader would get it. But this analysis is after the fact—when I wrote the stories, I just proceeded intuitively. I realize that using bits and pieces of the Ayama Nan language makes no sense, actually, but it sounded right to me, probably because the English I hear is peppered with words from other languages—ay caramba, mamma mia, oy vey, for example—and these additions seemed to make character’s voices earthier and more vivid. My son read this book and was confounded by the Ayama Nan words. It wasn’t logical to him, period. And he’s right—it isn’t logical. It’s an illusion that I don’t think it pays to examine too carefully.
Trish: I love how we see different aspects of the varied culture through the (short story) format, but I’m curious if you had thought about any of these stories in a longer context? Do you have any plans to revisit Ayama Na in future writings?
Eleanor: I never had a longer form in mind, although I have imagined the lives of some characters beyond the stories. I foresee regrets for Song Li, the beauty pageant contestant in “Skin Deep,” and maybe for Pania, the teenager in the title story, “Tea.” I tried various endings for both of those tales. Ultimately, the endings I settled on satisfied me because I think it takes a few generations to break away from family or cultural tradition—the first generations are just too conflicted. Again, I’m analyzing after the fact; as I wrote I just aimed for something that felt true. I’m at work on a novel right now and have no plans to revisit Ayama Na, but you never know.
Trish: Ok–one more. If you could chose one thing, what would you hope your readers would take away from a reading of Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales?
Eleanor: I hope readers will close the book with a feeling of the sadness and tenderness of this world. Something like that—a sense that life is hard and we have to be kind to one another. OK—that’s more than one thing.
Thank you, Trish, for the opportunity to answer these questions for your readers.
I have an extra copy of Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales that I would love to giveaway. If you are interested, please leave me your email address and why you are interested in reading this book in the comments. Yes, silly goose, you must do both to be eligible. I’ll draw a winner on Saturday April 25.
And the winner is…BETHANY! Thanks guys for coming by.