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Mabuhay! I'm an Asian American writer (Back Kicks And Broken Promises, Abbott Press, 2012), martial artist and teacher who was born in The Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and ended up in New Jersey.

29 July, 2012

The Olympic Games

Well, The Olympic Games 2012 - London 2012 - are in full swing and I’m watching as much as I can. It’s putting a cramp in some of the other things I have to get done but, hey, The Olympics only comes around once every four years. With the winter and summer Olympics, the World Cup, the European Championships and the regular English football (soccer) season, it’s amazing that I get anything done at all.

But I digress. Back to The Olympics and my thoughts on this edition so far.

The Opening Ceremony. In a word, fantastic. Danny Boyle and company did a superb job showcasing how the United Kingdom has evolved, never mind the amazing and highly entertaining entrance of ‘the Queen.’ Depicting the country’s evolution from agrarian to industrialised practices, honouring the soldiers and seaman who’ve defended Great Britain as a land and worldwide fundamental freedoms, honouring their National Health Service and highlighting music throughout the ages, I was highly entertained and, even educated. I’m glad it was shown during primetime here in the United States so I could see it but, for me, huge global events such as this should always be shown live. It can always be rebroadcast - as it was – at a later time. There’s a certain excitement and uniqueness with trying to get to your TV on time and not wanting to miss a thing. At least, NBC didn’t try any of that ‘as live’ stuff it did a couple of Olympics back with some of the actual sports events.

Korean Flag Debacle. This is The Olympics, one of the largest and most important events in the world. It’s as much a humanitarian and peacekeeping endeavour as it is a multi-sport athletic contest. Years go into planning each Olympics as do millions (perhaps, billions) of dollars, pounds, euros, whatever. For the South Korean flag to be displayed during the playing of the North Korean anthem at the start of a football match is highly unacceptable. I tell my students, when giving them a test, that when they’re finished they need to check their answers to make sure they’re what they want them to be. When they’ve done that, they should check them again and, after that, check them again. Again, this is The Olympics. It’s in the details that things are remembered, enjoyed and frowned upon.

Anticipating thrills and spills. As with every sports event, there will be thrills and spills. One of the most anticipated contests this year is the Ryan Lochte vs Michael Phelps showdown in the swimming pool. Well, the thrills and spills started on day one with Phelps barely making it to the final of the 400m IM (Individual Medley) and his subsequent fourth place finish in the medal race. Lochte won it. So, right now, it’s Ryan 1 Michael 0. Also, in the pool, China has taken two golds and set new world records in the process. Sun Yang won the 400m men’s freestyle and teenager Ye Shiwen won the women’s 400m IM. Let’s not forget the archery world record set by the South Koreans early on day one, Japan’s surprise 1-0 win over Spain in men’s football, that there are more women participating in these games than there are men and, last, but definitely not least, about Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who is also a double amputee, who uses those blade-like artificial legs that have garnered him the nickname ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘the fastest man on no legs.’ I can’t wait to see him run.

I love The Olympic Games. Since 1984 (when I watched my first opening ceremony on TV) to 1988 (when Taekwondo was added) to 1996 (when I went to Atlanta as a spectator and, in January of the same year, when I tried out for a spot on the USA Men’s Handball Team for the 2000 Olympics) to now I’ve been a believer in the Olympics movement – to compete openly and fairly against others from all over the world; to do one’s best and to better that best, whether a medal is at stake or not; to challenge and to overcome; to extol the power of the human spirit.  It’s about the individual winning over him or her self and if that victory results in having a medal draped over the athlete’s neck, well, that’s just a bonus.

I have to say I’m not a big fan of country medal counts. There isn’t a prize for the country with the most medals, after all. Keeping country counts promotes separation and an elitist “I’m better than you attitude.” The Olympics, as I studied in university and as its founder Baron Pierre Coubertin envisioned it to be, are a celebration of individual achievement. It’s a celebration of individual humanity; that, regardless of their skill and ability differences, the athletes, at the end of the day, are just people like everyone else. That’s also what the Greeks did in the very first Olympics. That very first Olympics also wasn’t a country versus country event. It’s always been about the individual and his or her challenges and how they’re overcome.

If you’re an Olympics fan, like me, I hope they’re enjoyable for you and that the athletes you’re rooting for do well. If you’re new to them, I hope you get something out of them. Watch a sport you wouldn’t normally watch. Learn something about the ethnic culture of one of those athletes and expose your children, as I am, to this summer global classroom.

Enjoy The Games!

08 July, 2012

Book Review: Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron

Book Review: Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron

Naomi Benaron, winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, wrote a book that needed to be written. The war in Rwanda in the 1990s and the resulting genocide was well documented in nightly news coverage, in shows like 60 Minutes, and in an award nominated movie, Hotel Rwanda. The cynical side of me, however, can’t help from feeling that much of what was shown on the news and even presented in the film, starring Don Cheadle, may have been spun in such a way to make us - viewers living in the western world - feel, perhaps, that the efforts of aid groups, the United Nations and various governments was good enough. I’m not an activist nor am I a political scientist and I haven’t spoken to any kind of expert on Rwanda before writing this review but Ms. Benaron’s novel offers a feeling that it was written by someone in the know; like she had seen the atrocities firsthand or lived with Rwandans who had survived them. Running The Rift is as much an historical account of the events of that time and place as it is literary entertainment. I’ll admit that I didn’t follow the news shows’ report for report and I didn’t read every newspaper article that dealt with Rwanda so, in many ways, Running The Rift became my introduction to Rwandan political and civil war history.

Told through the eyes of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi tribesman who is a standout 800-meter runner and Olympics hopeful, Ms. Benaron’s novel deals with issues of identity, honoring one’s family and dealing and coming through tragedy. It is the issues of identity and family that first brought me to Running The Rift. My own novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, deals with both issues so, naturally, I was drawn to the comparisons between the two books. I’m also a track coach and runner so reading about Jean Patrick’s training and competing was sure to be something I’d be into. These cosmetic attractions, however, soon became less important as I read on. I learnt about the RPF, the Interahamwe, the influence of the RTLM radio, the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the political structure of Rwanda at the time.

In spite of the tragedies that surround the story of Running The Rift, Ms. Benaron does a superb job of keeping her story that of a young man making his mark in the world, negotiating love and trying to fulfill a dream of achieving something that would honour him, his family and his country. It is a coming of age story that forces its protagonist to grow up very quickly and Ms. Benaron does this deftly with prose that isn’t heavy-handed, settings that truly pull the reader in and, like I said before, the sensitivity of someone who really knows her story and the place she has put it in and the people she has chosen to tell it. As I progressed from one chapter to the next, I felt like I was being taken on a tour of Rwanda. As a runner, I could see myself running alongside Jean Patrick Nkuba. (Well, probably behind him because I’m nowhere near as fast he is.) In fact, outside of the dangers of the war, I could see myself hanging out and enjoying the Rwandan cuisine with Jean Patrick, his coach, his girlfriend and his teammates.

Running The Rift, a story that is moving, illuminating and told honestly, is a book that will appeal not only to individuals who have a connection to Rwanda or an interest in Africa. In one part of the book, Jean Patrick’s track coach hands him an identity card that states he is Hutu and not Tutsi. Being Hutu would give Jean Patrick privileges and safety. However, even though the card says he’s Hutu, everyone knows he’s really Tutsi. This part of the book reminded me of the Koreans during the Japanese occupation; Koreans who had to give up all aspects of their native Korean culture, including their names, in order to survive in their Japanese controlled homeland. I was also reminded of the Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, born in the United States and who had no affiliation with Japan, that were relocated to internment camps - Americans locking up Americans - after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

Americans locking up Americans and Rwandans killing off Rwandans simply because they’re different kinds of Americans and Rwandans - sadly, this really happened. Let’s not forget, too, of the Bosnian Genocide and the ethnic cleansing campaign of the also (ironically) early 1990s conducted by the Bosnia Serb Army.

Whatever you’re into and whatever you read or watch, as Ms. Benaron’s Jean Patrick Nkuba shows us in Running The Rift, it is the strength of our humanity and recognizing that we are more similar than we are different that keeps us waking up every morning and it’s the power of the human spirit that keeps us going when things are at their bleakest. Read Running The Rift for education and entertainment. It is a fantastic book and a quick read. As you read it, though, take Ms. Benaron’s book as a treatise on and reminder of the dangers and the wrongfulness of bigotry, genocide, racism, sexism and every other inhumane thing that we, as human beings, do to one another everyday.

Book Review: The Forever Girl by Rebecca Hamilton

Book Review: The Forever Girl by Rebecca Hamilton

With the abundance of paranormal plus supernatural plus ghosts plus goblins plus vampires plus romance plus shape-shifters plus witches (is there anything left?) that’s already out there on screen and in literature, it’s hard to create anything that deals with these elements that isn’t hackneyed and ‘been there, done that.’ Well, I’m happy to say that Rebecca Hamilton manages to pull it off. When I bought and downloaded (it’s only available as an ebook) The Forever Girl, I did so to support a fellow indie author and because I’d had some direct contact with Ms. Hamilton. We follow each other on Twitter (her handle is @InkMuse) and had a couple of direct message chats and, in a way, I guess I felt that I was helping out a new friend of sorts.

Actually, when I started reading Ms. Hamilton’s debut novel, I’d posted on Goodreads that The Forever Girl wasn’t really my cup of tea. Based on the cover art (a Goth dressed girl with her head tilted in a pining sort of way with an equally longing facial expression) and with a twenty-something female protagonist, I thought that I was heading down a path of whiny chick lit coated in fantasy. I think, too, at the time, I was overloaded with Twilight and Bella with the first part of the final movie having just come out and my wife reading and recounting the entire series of books for me. I’m sorry Twilight fans - and I haven’t been inspired to read the books - but Bella is not one of my favourite characters (although she has become more interesting since she was turned) and I’d spend time with Sophia Parsons over Bella any day.

The first in a series, The Forever Girl, jumps right into who Sophia is and getting us into the action but there are parts in the first third of the book that are a little redundant and dragged out with a decision she has to make regarding the new man in her life. However, beyond that, especially when the book’s title is given meaning, The Forever Girl really takes off. It becomes fast-paced with every page moving the story forward and setting up one nice subplot after another. With regard to the meaning of the book’s title - I’m obviously not going to give it away here so you’ll have to buy the book and read it yourself -  I do recall one other movie (or was it a book?) that has a similar element to it but I can’t remember its title so, really, for my money, Ms. Hamilton is presenting something new. The fact I can’t recall the other work’s title, it probably didn’t present it very well either. Ms. Hamilton also creates new names for her supernatural beings - Strigoi and Cruor, for instance - that remove us from the world of vampires and werewolves that have become part of our everyday cultural lexicon thus erasing any sense of ‘been there, done that’ the reader may bring to the book.

As I got deeper into the book, it dawned on me that my Goodreads comment was completely inaccurate. The Forever Girl is exactly my cup of tea. I’m a weekly watcher of HBO’s True Blood. I loved - not just because of the crush I had on Sarah Michelle Gellar - the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer television series and it’s spin-off Angel. Recently, I’ve discovered the ScyFy channel’s Lost Girl, which, just like The Forever Girl, presents interesting gender-bending relationships; although for 2012 they may not be so bending. The Forever Girl also opens its readers to the world of witches and Wiccans, something I was first exposed to culturally in the movie The Craft, when the Buffy character Willow delved into it, and when I dated a fellow martial arts student who practices Wicca. True Blood, last season, centered its conflicts around witchcraft as well but other than these examples, there aren’t that many mainstream pieces of literature dealing with Wicca. In this way, The Forever Girl not only entertains it also educates, albeit minimally and without being academic.

Writing today, speaking as a novelist myself, can be difficult when trying to create something new in fiction. There aren’t any new storylines to be had. Just think of all the stories of good versus evil that have to do with a young apprentice and an older mentor. Granted, some are hacks and not very well written but there are also the gems - Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books to name a few. What makes the good ones worth the time and cost is that they offer a new twist to the story and that they balance well the elements they’ve taken from previous versions of similar stories. The Forever Girl has obvious similarities to Buffy, True Blood, Twilight, Angel and, even, Lost Girl. I’m sure that Ms. Hamilton was inspired by some of these other works but in no way intended to duplicate them. And she hasn’t. What she has done is create a new version of this world of demons and bloodsuckers with an identity-confused heroine. Written in first person POV, I couldn’t help from feeling that I was a part of Sophia’s entourage and I enjoyed getting to know her. I’m looking forward to getting to know more of her in the next book of the series.