Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales - Eleanor Bluestein (and interview)

Title: Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales
Author: Eleanor Bluestein
Published: 2008 Pages: 234
Genre: Short Story, Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5

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.


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.

Find Eleanor on her website and read a summary on TLC Book Tours.


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. :)


Amanda said...

You have a cardinal rule of writing concise reviews? Oh man, I'd totally fail if I made that my rule. I'm so bad at being concise...

Sure, why not? I might as well enter. Generally we have similar tastes and I trust your judgement, so while I'm not usually a fan of short story collections, there might be something to this one. That 4.5 does it for me. :) You already have my email. :)

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Amanda - Hmm--edited. :P I actually left a comment on someone's blog yesterday about how I usually skim over long reviews. I don't think I've ever been able to be fully concise, although I don't like my reviews to get too too long. Short stories are really hit or miss for me, but this one worked well. I didn't ever have a feeling of "huh?" when I got to the end of the story and they all felt really complete.

Darlene said...

Really wonderful review Trish. I'm not a fan of short stories as you know but this does sound good. I do like books that give me a view of another culture though. I'm glad that this was such a good read for you.

No need to enter me. My tbr pile is so big already...

bermudaonion said...

Great review. I loved the interview too - the author has a fascinating background.

Terri B. said...

I like the way you describe being "entrenched" in the culture. I love it when I can get absorbed in another culture -- even a fictional one. I also like the idea of the loose connection of the stories to each other. The book I just finished, Dreams Underfoot by de Lint, does that -- each story can stand on its own but are a bit interwoven making a short story collection feel more cohesive. This is good for me since I prefer novels to short stories.

Eleanor said...

My thanks to Amanda, Dar, Bermudaonion, and Terri for your interest in the book and the interview. And thanks to you Trish, of course, for your great review. I'm gratified when people who don't generally like short story collections, find that they do like this book.

Perhaps there's a clue there as to why this got off to a slow start for you, Trish--maybe you had to get to know the country a bit for the stories to start to grab you. I've wondered about that--wondered if, no matter which stories I started with, the reader wouldn't feel fully involved until about story 3. What do you think?

bethany (dreadlock girl) said...

I am interested in reading it! for sure. my email..even though I KNOW you have it : bethany(dot)

I guess I will have to be honest and say that I wanted to read this book, but was slightly turned off by the cover, and since I don't have a TON of time to read I didn't get a hold of it. But, that you are saying it is excellent and that interview was so great, seriously I need to look beyond the cover. I get soooo hung up on covers sometimes (boooo to me!).

So, yes that is why...I guess in a nutshell because you, my bookie buddy recommended it and because I already wanted to a little before.

b (yes call me rambling b!)

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Dar - I have a tough time with short stories also and a lot of the ones I've received have been relatively unpleasant, but I really enjoyed these. And of course I love reading about different cultures!

*Bermuda - Thank you! :)

*Terri - I've been trying to think of other fictional cultures I've read about and other than Discworld am drawing a blank (well, except dystopian societies). Bluestein did a wonderful job of creating this country and painting such a vivid picture.

*Eleanor - Thanks for stopping by! I think that getting acclimated to a society and really understanding it before appreciating it might be something. I also read the first few stories in little spurts (my reading time is sometimes sporadic). I was interested off the bat, but my attention really got grabbed after "Skin Deep."

*Bethany - The cover is not my favorite, to be sure. I don't think I would pick it up based on the art alone. I think you would really like this book. I was actually thinking about giving my other copy away on the OT website since I think OTers would really like this book, but didn't know how much interest it would garner.

Anonymous said...

I like the message Eleanor wants the reader to take from the book. The stories you mentioned sound lovely, especially North of the Faro. Thanks for the review Trish.

Please enter me (if international). I would love to read this book because it looks like something I would enjoy :)

elizascott2005 at yahoo dot co dot in

Thoughts of Joy said...

I received this book from Jessica's (The Bluestocking Society) Give-Away and I'm so excited! I have 2 more short stories (actually they are novellas) of the current collection I'm reading, then I will begin this one. Woo! I haven't read (skimmed) anything but glowing reviews about this collection and I'm so happy to see that you felt the same way. I'll be back to read your thoughts when I'm done. :)

Michelle said...

Wow Trish! I love the idea of this book. How creative. I love the idea of book about a fictional place coming to life in different short stories. I would love to be entered into the drawing for this book. I think you already have my email. If not it is Great interview as well. The author is right, we do all need to be a little nicer to one another. I appreciate her trying to remind us all in her book. Great post!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Violetcrush - "North of the Faro" was one of my favorite stories but they are all unique. I agree that Eleanor's message is a great one as well. Got you entered! :)

*Joy - I hope you like this one. I found the stories individually and wholly satisfying...not something that always happens for me with short stories. Other than a few stories not resonating with me as much, there wasn't a whole lot I didn't like about this collection.

*Michelle - the author did such a great job of creating a vivid country and culture. The stories are a little on the sad side at times, but there is a prevailing message of hope. By the way--how's it going?? Miss you!

Laura said...

Wow! A completely fictional country/society--with it's own language, government...etc. Very creative!

You wrote a really great review, Trish, and you asked great questions! I'm glad to know there are short stories out there that actually seem to have a point! :) I have to admit that the thought of a ventriloquist's dummy coming to life creeps me out a bit! (even though she has wise words to tell her owner).

Bookfool said...

Oooh, I'd love to read this one! I'm actually one of those rare folks who enjoy short story collections. I don't know how and when I went to the dark side, but it was a gradual thing and now I'm hooked. Also, I've read many glowing reviews.

nancytoes (at) bellsouth (dot) net

Not that you couldn't find me, but I'm really picky about the email address, too. It makes drawings so much easier!

Debi said...

What a wonderful review, Trish! And wonderful interview, too, for that matter. This book sounds utterly intriguing! It is going straight to my wish list, for sure. I love short stories, and there is something about the idea of them all being interconnected that I find especially appealing (maybe it's just that it makes me actually finish a book of short stories, instead of just setting it aside after a few to start something new...even when I'm hopelessly in love with the stories I read...I think it's my adult-onset ADD rearing it's ugly head). And yes, I will stop this incessant babbling now. :)

Have a wonderful week, Trish!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Laura - This book was really interesting! The author put so much detail into every aspect that it felt like I was reading about a real country. And yes, there were only a few stories where I couldn't find the immediate point (they are listed in the review).

*Bookfool - I enjoy short stories, but I find that I have to remind/force myself to read them! :) Don't know why that is.

*Debi - The stories are interconnected in that they all deal with the country--the characters didn't really cross over. It was a really fascinating book, though, and definitely one you could pick up and put down. By the way--I miss you...

Becca said...

Okay, you sold me. I love books about other cultures and I like short stories. I'd probably love this book, too, as it has interesting themes. Thanks for the review!

gautami tripathy said...

Infact I felt that it could be India too in a story or two. It made so much sense to me!

I linked your review with mine. Here is my review:

Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales