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The breasts of Bali: An update


Abandoned souvenir painting shop, Ubud, Bali (photo by Isham Cook, 2019).   And our women would have to cover their breasts as if they were whores… Vicki Baum, Love and Death in Bali   If you wonder what years of living in Bali — as opposed to Elizabeth Gilbert’s four months of Eat, Pray, Love fame — might do for the soul, long-time expat Diana Darling has bequeathed to us the delightful novel, The Painted Alphabet (Editions Didier Millet, 1992), a lush reimagining of the Dukuh Siladri folktale, from which I highlight the following quotation. Sent packing by her parents to be brought up by the witch Dayu Datu, the naughty eight-year old Ni Klinyar is provided with an assemblage of gifts to b...
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Confucius and opium


Illustration by Ye Su (耶苏)   This is where the hundred drugs are to be found. Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经), 4th c. BCE He pierced his ears, making him able to understand the language of plants. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism The context If you suppose I’m proposing that the beloved sage was a man of depraved habits or had even been an addict, nothing could be further from the truth. But the idea is absurd not because a wise man, or a philosopher, would ever stoop so low. It’s absurd because drug abuse is a modern concept: to attribute it to the ancients is to commit a major category error. For untold millennia mankind’s relationship with the plant medicines — a term I prefer to “drugs” — wa...
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Multilingualism and the time travel novel


  Wrap your watch around this Time travel has long provided rich material for writers. Yet problems crop up as soon as you try to work out exactly how to shift a mere hour forward in time, let alone days or years. Consider the following scenario. Arrayed naked on the table and draped with a towel, I announce to my masseuse as my 5:00 massage session is about to begin: “You see this fancy gadget on my wrist? It’s not a smartwatch but a time-travel device. I’ve programmed it to transport me instantly to 6:00 when I press the Forward button. To be frank, I don’t know if it will work, and I don’t know what will happen if it does. You will know for certain that it did work if I disappear. In that...
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American fascism: The sexual rage of the state


The monetization of infraction What if the state’s manner of dealing with traffic offenses were applied to all crime, and punishment consisted solely in monetary fines instead of jail time? Let’s start with the humble parking ticket and work our way up to more serious crimes. What interests me about this particular infraction is that everyone, the most conscientious car owners included, gets ticketed sooner or later. There are many otherwise perfectly law-abiding citizens who, whether due to sheer carelessness or obsessional necessity of some sort, get ticketed quite often. There are those who accumulate so many parking tickets they give up and stop paying them altogether. Or let’s take the ...
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The expat and the prostitute: Four classic novels, 1956-62

Yellow Crane Tower
  View of Yellow Crane Tower in old Wuchang (photo by Isham Cook) A walk down old Wuchang’s Tanhualin historic pedestrian street takes you past boutiques, cafés and nineteenth-century Western consulates and missions, before ending at grimy Deshengqiao, more alley than street, where a left turn plunges you into a more authentic China of milling crowds and open-front shops selling fish, vegetables and hardware items, a timeless street precisely because it couldn’t be more ordinary. A right turn further down and you’ll see the high school I’ve visited on a number of occasions regarding an English-teaching business I won’t go into here. Street-side stands sell deep-fried chicken patties injected...
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New release: The Kitchens of Canton, a novel


Release date February 14, 2018, in paperback and ebook (Amazon, Kindle, Smashwords). Synopsis: Jeff Malmquist is unaccountably catapulted to the year 2060. He finds himself in New Gary, Indiana, a labor camp of one million Chicagoans, their identities hacked and incriminated as pedophiles through the collusion of a corrupt US Government, the Russian cybermafia, and China (which runs the USA behind the scenes). He escapes to Chicago, only to find himself in a full-scale replica of Ancient Rome in China, erected for the wealthy country’s amusement and manned by a million enslaved Italians. Or did China come first? As he struggles to orient himself in these synchronized urban labyrinths, he is ...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 24: Zigaago


“I was like, now I’m here and now I’m there even though I’m still here.” “Far out,” said Cornelius. They were sitting around their usual Heartland Cafe Museum restaurant table by the Buffalo Bar. Cornelius and soon Wingyee had joined them. Ray was filling them in. Mason, parrot on shoulder, came up and was about to hand Malmquist a pale amber brew in a taster glass when he noticed a face he hadn’t seen in a while. “Aa, Wingyee neihou!” “Zeoikan houmaa?” She smiled and pulled up her tunic to let him comb his fingers through the eruption of black hair between her legs. She grabbed his balls. Mason turned cheerfully back to Malmquist with the taster glass. “Nei soeng soengsoeng ngodik maalaat n...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 23: Xinluoma


Zhang opened her front door to discover two bruised women holding rags to their breasts. “Dilaila! What happened to you? Who is this?” Delilah burst out crying as soon as they stepped inside. “What’s the matter, baobei?” “A cop attacked us and beat us.” “Oh, look at you.” Zhang touched Attica’s swelling eye. “Where you find her?” “She’s from Ancient Rome.” “Guluoma? What is ‘cop’?” “A policeman.” “Policeman? Where?” “Chicago. The Chief of police.” “Why he beat you?” “I don’t know. He went crazy. He threw me down and my hand is hurt from landing on the floor. Has my nose stopped bleeding?” Attica was likewise caressing Zhang on the eye. “Peregrino est. Ex quo est? Ab Oriente?” “No bleeding. W...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 22: Chicago


Malmquist took a long hot bath. He washed his two filthy tunics in the tub, rinsed them out and hung them up to dry. No writing was visible on the wet outer tunic. He slipped into Ray’s bed naked and had a long sleep. In the morning, he rummaged around her kitchen and fridge. American items — cheddar cheese, whole wheat bread, eggs, butter, the basics. There was no branding on any of the packaging, though jars of condiments bore Chinese characters printed on simple white labels. “Some kind of hot pepper jam,” he said to himself, dipping into one with his finger. He fixed himself a grilled cheese sandwich, brewed some coffee in a percolator, and lit up an unfinished ganja roach sitting in the...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 21: Gwongzau


People build their lives out of a mixture of reality and symbols. I’ll provide an example from my earlier Chicago days. I once rented the upper floor of a house; the owner lived on the lower floor. He was out of town one winter and asked me to keep an eye on the central heating unit’s pilot light to make sure it was always on. That much at least, the reality principle guided his life. One day I was back down in the basement and noticed the smell of gas coming from a gas line along the ceiling. The most prompt and reliable public service in any city, even faster than an ambulance or the police, is the gas company when you call their emergency number. They were there in a few minutes, shut off...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 20: Roma


  “Stop shooting!” yelled Malmquist. “What happened?” “Get out of the cage.” “It’s not a cage. We’re stuck under a board. I can’t move my arm.” Malmquist crawled out from under the board. It was a toppled litter. He extracted Danny’s arm and dragged the rest of him free. There had been screams. A pair of Roman ladies lay flung on the ground next to them. Several slaves bent over another person who was prostrate. A growing pool of blood and commotion. Voices exclaiming, “Quid accidit?” “Let’s get out of here, now! Follow me.” “Where’s my gun?” “We have no time to talk.” Confusion and the crush of the crowd enabled them to escape. Malmquist’s tunics were both torn open and he grasped them to h...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 19: New Gary


Ganja haze hung in the air and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy blared on the stereo when the buzzer rang. Delilah turned the music down. Gunther entered with a strange woman. “Leroy dropped her off. He said to take care of her.” “Hoc est lupanar?” the woman asked. “Who is she?” The woman walked around the room as if looking for something. She went up to the stereo and pointed to the speakers. “Ubi musici?” she asked, peeking around and behind the speakers. “What’s she doing?” asked Gunther. “I don’t know.” The woman then noticed the spinning record on the turntable and grabbed the tone arm, making a blood-curdling scratch. “Oh, fuck, you just ruined my record!” She looked up at them in con...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 18: Zigaago


“Where the hell am I?” Delilah whispered to herself. She was seated on a toilet in what should have been a toilet stall except there was no stall, only exposed toilets projecting from a wall. The seat next to hers was occupied by a black female. To one side sinks, to the other urinals, one being used by a white female facing forward, tunic hiked up over her hips. The only thing separating the so-called restroom from the noisy space on the other side was a screen. Then a white male came up and grabbed the toilet on Delilah’s other side. “Neihou,” he said to her. She immediately got up and went over to the sink. The black woman was soon at the sink next to hers, washing not only her hands but ...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 17: Xinluoma


“Poxie! Chou biaozi!” cursed the naked man as he punched and kicked the prostitute. “Ni ge jianbi! Ni die wo yijing ba ni bi cao lan le!” “Bie da wo le!” she begged him. Malmquist was just as startled by his sudden appearance in the attic brothel as they were, but he recognized the man and the man him. Dispensing with formalties, he knocked the wind out of the man with his fist, put his head in an armlock and bashed his face against the wall until he grew limp. “Shenme yisi?” said the startled proprietor as Malmquist dashed down the ladder and out of the eatery. The prostitute appeared on the steps to announce while pointing at Malmquist, “Nage nanren feichang ouda keren le. Kuailai ba!” He ...
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Foreign Devils on the Loose in China: A Review


One million foreigners currently reside in China as of 2017, an astonishing tenfold rise since 2010. With this increase, the number of expat books set in China has taken off as well. I imagine a decade down the line we will have a veritable literature on our hands. Yet the Great China Expat Novel (or Memoir) is not an easy feat to pull off. One reason for the relatively rare occurrence of memorable expat books, literary talent aside, is a simple insight lacking among the majority attempting the task: the perils of solipsism. Your run-of-the-mill expat tale revolves largely around the narrator’s own world, often with precious little to say about his or her interactions with the Chinese. The p...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 16: Chicago


“Haidou dangzyu ngo,” she said. “What’s going on? You’re putting me in a jail cell full of guns!” Malmquist said, grabbing her by the arm. “Ng.” She pulled away. “Wing-yee, please don’t leave me.” She was already gone. The cell’s bright lighting dimmed and all that remained was the dull glare of a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was a basement. Industrial steel shelving housed a comprehensive gun collection and stacks of ammunition. Dug out of one wall was a hole big enough for a person to go through. Malmquist went up the basement stairs and placed his ear against the door at the top. Fragments of a conversation were audible. “….What’s bandage head’s name again? Heard he’s in the are...
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Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel


With the Communists fighting both the Japanese invaders and the Guomindang reactionaries in a triangular war, the 1930s-40s was a tumultuous and extraordinarily violent period in the country’s history, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, mostly civilians. Such an earth-shaking era was story-worthy to say the least, and revolutionary authors applied their firsthand experience of the war years to penning firey, action-packed pageturners in the tradition of socialist realism. Among the best-known of these novels were Liang Bin’s Keep the Red Flag Flying (红旗谱), Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth (青春之歌), Liu Qing’s Builders of a New Life (创业...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 15: Zigaago


The old hippie sat facing Malmquist, his rainbow-tattooed penis proudly displayed. “It’s like this,” he said, twisting an imaginary object in the air, as if his hands could express the idea more clearly. “Hey, how’s it going?” “That’s what I was getting at.” “Haven’t we had this conversation before?” “All conversation is the same. What’s different is the man.” “Cool. Here’s to Ray.” Malmquist clinked glasses with Cornelius. “Damn this ale is good. Why did I just toast to Ray?” “That’s just what I was getting at.” “One minute I was talking to her, then I’m talking to you. I don’t remember you coming back.” “I never left, man.” “But you clearly did.” “Yeah, I left for a moment, but I didn’t re...
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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 13: New Gary, IN


He pointed at a food tray behind the cafeteria counter. “Oh, you again. Hominy grits?” she asked. “A lot.” “Can’t give you a lot. Only single portions allowed.” “I didn’t ask for a lot. I said there’s a lot.” “What you mean?” “You asked me hominy grits, and I’m telling you how many grits there are in that pan.” “Your humor so bad it’s good. Anyway you can’t eat shit and you can’t fool me on that score. I can serve you a coffee, though. I want to watch that trick of yours again. You seen him do that coffee trick, Akeeshea?” “I’m watching.” Deshondra served Carrot a cup of coffee. “Yep, you folks just lovin’ the sugar,” said Carrot as he opened the dispenser into the coffee and held up his oth...
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New Book Release: American Rococo


What do seashells, obesity, graffiti, and the American ghetto have in common? Nude hot springs and the Japanese theater? Atheists and family-values conservatives? Why do atheists go on religious pilgrimages? How have schools infantilized our understanding of Shakespeare, and the textbook industry conspired to turn our language’s history into agitprop? What is the single most dangerous sexual idea that even the liberated can’t handle? Ranging across centuries and continents, Isham Cook’s far-flung essays, whether discoursing on the most radical or homespun of topics, are guided by the notion of the “edge.” The edge represents the limits of conventional understanding, the zone beyond stereotyp...
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