I have just finished reading * Ioannis Gatsiounis * latest book of fiction “Velvet and Cinder Blocks” – a collection of 10 cleverly crafted and engaging short stories which centers around the quest for a sense of belonging in a world that is fast collapsing due to intense polarization and politicization despite years have passed since the 9-11 tragedy rocked our lives.
[Here, I must thank Lori Lee from ZI Publications for contacting me and sending the book my way for review].
He doesn’t say it often but the events in this book is mostly based in Malaysia, or deals with Malaysian characters and centers around relationships between the different identities, communities, and ethnic groups.
I felt, in a most intimate manner, how through the events and characters in this book, Gatsiounis confides in his readers his personal discoveries of the various facets of life in this previous British colony, once occupied by the Japanese during World War II.
Having known the atrocities of war, have we learned to cope with its tragedies and terrorism, or allowed our prejudices to divide and dissect us further, mar our relationships with others? Did this happen to the Americans, too, post 9-11? Gatsiounis will show us that we are not very different from the rest of the world.
In most chapters, I can feel quite clearly that Gatsiounis is telling us through his fiction that he is equally astounded or confused sometimes at the sheer hypocrisy of our so-called Asian/Malaysian/religious values. But that, there are some individuals who are courageous enough to challenge the boundaries of race and religion to make life better for themselves and others.
In his interview with PopTV, Gatsiounis explains that in his debut fiction, he attempts to explore the concept of 1malaysia, or lack thereof, and how it figures into people’s lives. How it causes them to behave, and react to the world around them.
He has tailored it in a very interesting way so that you, whether Malaysian or not, will be able to recognize some of the individuals types, the struggle they are facing, the struggle we all face when dealing with them, and the way these individuals and people around them resolve the issues that affect their lives together.
Of course, there are some raunchy, sexy episodes, too, which you will have to find out on your own, so please buy the book 🙂
Meanwhile, many of his characters are Malay Muslims, who does what is unexpected of them, or does what Malaysians do not hear about in the local papers or news, for example, Muslim women facing abortions or practicing sex outside marriage; a rape survivor, who overcomes her trials in the aftermath of tsunami by going beyond her faith.
There are disturbing stories, too, like a young painter who follows a false prophet deep into a desert only to feel sexually harassed. Some are simply just creative, like the character Basel in the final story “Guesthouse”, who performs karaoke in his very original style, and finds that he can save himself from his insecurities. He could even overcome the fact that he was no longer wanted by his employer, a elder Chinese woman, and continue to survive despite the limitations of his race and religion.
But not all stories are about Malayness or Muslimness, for example, there is also a rather humorous story about a Chinese-American’s Chineseness being put to the test in multiracial Malaysia. His depiction of the characters in his stories are so familiar, that I must congratulate Gatsiounis for having lived truly well in my country!
While Gatsiounis attempts to clarify all this in his fiction, I felt he was also trying to tell his readers, us, that we are not so alone, that the world around us are facing these realities too and the sooner we acknowledge this, the better.
His stories also show that while the entire world is polarized and politicized, family, kinship and friendship can help people rise above the difference. Although some of the stories may begin on a somber mood, where the focus are failed relationships between fathers and sons, or brothers, or lovers, it does have an optimistic ring at the end. That at the end, like everything else in life, things get sorted out and time heals. There is nothing political about this, just a fact of life.
* IOANNIS GATSIOUNIS* is a New York native who has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political-cultural radio call-in show in the US. He has been living in Malaysia since the early 2000s. He is the author of a new collection of stories, Velvet & Cinder Blocks (ZI Publications, 2009). He is also the author of a nonfiction book, Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia’s Struggle for Dignity and Direction (Monsoon Books, 2008).