BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

The Map of Lost MemoriesThis has been my go-to article of late: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by Gracie Jin. In the few blurbs I’ve briefly perused online about Lost Memories, I haven’t seen any mention of author Kim Fay‘s ethnic background (by photograph, she does not appear to be of Asian heritage), although I have come across a few commendations about her familiarity with Southeast Asia. The reviews seem mostly full of praise, and it garnered an Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel in 2013.

But of course, I have to be the contrary one (think of this is as a public service announcement?), because Lost was surely a prime example of exoticized literary colonization. Irene Blum, not yet 30, doesn’t get the museum curator position she insists she deserves, mainly because she’s a woman in 1925. Her angry devastation proves brief, however, when her wealthy, dying mentor gives her the opportunity to discover a legendary temple in Cambodia which allegedly holds the secrets of the lost Khmer civilization.

Irene leaves Seattle for Shanghai where she convinces Simone Merlin, a Cambodian-born Frenchwoman with a reputation as temple raider and Communist sympathizer, to join her quest. After the two ambitious adventurers not-quite-on-purpose kill Simone’s abusive husband, they land in Saigon on their way to Cambodia. Both women pick up a lover – Simone’s old, Irene’s new – and eventually the foursome trek into the jungle, each with quite the contrasting agenda.

Irene’s motivation is purely personal gain: she plans to steal her Cambodian treasure to present to the American museum of her choice, cementing her career as a formidable curator. Hundreds of tedious pages later, she does indeed have some sort of too-late revelation (surprise!) about her self-absorbed greed and seemingly repent. In between, many – many – subplots meander and distract: lost parents, abandoned children, murder and other unsolved mysteries, secret pasts, orphan scribes of hidden libraries, and most prevalent of all, enough white privilege to keep the cringe-factor relentlessly zinging. Too much of Asia is but an exotic landscape to be manipulated, robbed, and colonized by the powerful, entitled white elite.

Hopeful that my tenacity (almost 13 hours stuck in the ears; narrator Karyn O’Bryant gallantly bears the weight of the faulty text) might somehow be rewarded with at least one character’s redemption, I grudgingly lasted through to the final track. Talk about misguided – lesson learned yet again: in the new year, literatus interruptus is a viable option that must be liberally exercised!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


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