With a cover confusingly reminiscent of Stephen King’s It, the anthology While We’re Here manages to be captivating, irritating, and a little bit dreadful, depending on which page you’re on. Formerly acompilation of blog entries written by both professional and amateur writers, editors Alec Ash and Tom Pellman have collected 17 non-fiction, nine fiction, and seven poetry pieces for your perusal. All proceeds go to charity too.
Intended to be “dipped into”, this book is eclectic to say the least. I found the structure slightly vexing. Loosely arranged to mimic the fluidity of seasonal life in China, fact and fiction were mingled together throughout the book. While I can understand the artistic desire behind such a design, practically speaking it doesn’t really work. Lines of fact and fiction are blurred, and I kept having to scroll back to the description of each piece to see if Xiao Peng’s unrequited love was as real as Hong Sheng’s nude splits (it wasn’t). Perhaps it was my OCD, but I would rather have the genres divided into separate sections. I enjoy decent flights of the imagination, but I prefer them not mixed with my grounded historical realities.
As far as factual content goes, the book’s primary strength comes from the diverse tales of both expats and Chinese-born-abroad: Brent Crane’s compelling venture into Kashgar’s Turkic community and the Id Kah mosque filled to the brim with Uyghur men; Sascha Matuszak’s descent below China’s impoverished peasants was entirely foreign to my own expat experience and left me with more questions than answers (a good thing); I even laughed out loud at Sam Duncan’s description of his new domicile, a scene of either food preparation or body disposal (we’re hoping the former).
The deficiency of the collection did not lie in its possession of compelling personal narratives. Of that it had in spades. Where it felt apart was the cohesiveness, the continuity of competency. Jonathan Kos-Read’s foray into Chinese cinema had some snazzy one-liners but his comic letter was nearly devoid of any actual humor.Life is an Internet Cafe is charming anecdote, but needed directional clarity. And a new title. And oh the wistfulness. If only every single piece did not end in the wist. After the fifth one I had to put the book down, for each ending felt ever more contrived than authentic. The redemption? I did want to know more. Most possessed a promising premise, cut short or stunted. They needed fleshing out, or at least a more deserved conclusion.
In terms of fiction, props to The Tiger Suit and Dumplings and a Golden Raspberry for Melon and Censor. The poetry, well, I am not sure if all the writers were entirely sober. All in all, a decent chunk is worth the read, just beware of the rubbish between.