Author: Isham Cook

American essayist and novelist based in China since 1994. Writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, provocative, discriminating, outrageous. Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are influences.

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 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 area….”

“….Set the sick fuck on fire….no trace….blow him away.”

“….Lemme get the….”

One of the voices grew louder and closer. “What’s he got to do with it, rectum face?”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“You stupid cum-eating dumster mouth feedbag fucktard!”

The door opened. From behind the stairway where he had hidden himself just in time, Malmquist could see someone’s legs trotting down through the steps. They stopped halfway, then headed back up.

Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

One of the hundreds of massage shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

China: Kunming

As my jumping-off point for a four-country Southeast Asia tour, I thought I’d begin with a few words about the massage scene in one of China’s more attractive cities, Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan Province, conveniently located a few hundred kilometers from the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. There is a key point of contrast between massage in China and the rest of Southeast Asia, however. Although it’s big business in both regions, in the former it is largely targeted to domestics, in the latter to foreigners. In your typical Southeast Asian hotspot, massage shops proliferate wherever tourists are to be found, jostling for attention with similarly catchy English-language signs and menus, among all the bars, cafes and restaurants, while in your typical Chinese city, massage shops are scattered uniformly in most neighborhoods, touristy and not, and their shop signs are in Chinese (though the Western word “Spa” is standard code for the full panoply of massage services).

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 (创业史), and Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag (红岩), all written in the late 1950s-early 1960s (also published in English by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing). This flowering of communist fiction dried up during the Cultural Revolution. To Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, nothing was quite revolutionary enough to pass muster and she banned virtually everything, including the aforementioned novels.

The decades since have presented a quandary for Chinese writers. With socialism firmly established and war and devastation a thing of the past, in the absence of some new vital struggle or national emergency, it must have been, and continues to be, a tall order to revisit the authentic socialist realist novel. That is until the contemporary female writer Zhang Lijia saw what was staring at us all along and has now fashioned into an impressive new work of socialist realism, the novel Lotus (Henry Holt & Co., 2017). What momentous cause was this up-and-coming author the first to bring into urgent focus? None other than the great scourge of prostitution and sex work.

Facebook, rococo vulvas, and the pornographic imagination

A rococo vulva, which apparently violates Facebook’s ads policy.

Authors who publish independently on the subject of relationships and sexuality are soon acquainted with the industry’s strictures. They boil down to two: 1) If the content of your book contains graphic descriptions of sex, it will likely get involuntarily pegged as “erotica,” even if you thought you were writing something literary. 2) If the cover of your book is too sexually suggestive, it’s also likely to get pegged as erotica or simply turned down for distribution altogether. And then there’s Facebook, which is not less but far more comprehensive in its family-friendly guidelines and requires a considerably steeper learning curve. But first a few observations on book content before moving on to our primary concern, book covers, and finally Facebook.

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, an imaginary sphere poised on his fingertips.

“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 really leave. I’m always here. Ray left.”

“I don’t remember that. Didn’t I already leave and come back?”

“You did. You two left together before I returned.”

“I know as a fact I left because I’m still frying from the acid I ingested in Ancient Rome. But I didn’t know I left with her.”

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 14: Roma

ALMIGHTY
TRUTH IS ON THE MARCH
NOTHING CAN STOP IT NOW

Malmquist slammed the straw pillow with his hand. “Fuck!”

Attica walked in. “Quid agis? Esne bene?”

“Do you have a candle? I can’t see the writing clearly in here. It’s too dark,” he said as he responded to the message on his tunic.

“Quid est?”

“A candle. You know, light. Fire. A candle.” He depicted a candle with his fingers.

“Mentula sagittandi?” She masturbated an imaginary cock.

“No! I don’t mean a hand-job. I mean a candle, with a flame.”

“Candela?”

“Yeah. Candela.”

She returned with a candle. The grimy cubbyhole illumined, the tunic now spelled out:

I’M NOT EASY
BUT WE CAN DISCUSS IT

“I’m fucked. I’ve lost the connection and it now seems to be mocking me. Oh, of course, you wouldn’t understand.”

She pointed to her sundial watch. “Hora est.”