Rad Riot Reviews: You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. by Sheung-King

A complicated read: I was enthralled by the beautiful craft and intimate prose of the story while being alienated by the characters and the detached luxury they inhabit.

I wondered what it meant for a Chinese person to eat Japanese rice

This musing from our narrator embodies the cultural ambiguity at heart of You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. What does it mean for the intimacies of a home cooked meal to confront the alienation of globalization? Sheung-King explores this tension through the prism of a young couple as they share stories and food across the course of their relationship. The story is written in an unstructured format, following the lovers through a series of simple moments that string together into a broader reflection on pan-Asian identity. 

Our lovers You and Me, You and Her — navigate the insecurities and mundane realities of dating in your early 20s. Shopping trips to T&T; snack stops on the subway; waiting at restaurants; sharing stories in line for egg tarts. Don’t expect to get to know these characters. It’s not clear how well they know each other. One has a penchant for unexplained disappearances. Their relationship comes across as vapid and cold. If you ever want to experience dating on Tinder in Toronto, this is the book for you! 

However, this is done intentionally. Inspired by authors like Mo Yen, Haruki Murakami and Yo̅ko Tawada, Sheung-King brings contemporary Chinese literature to the world of CanLit. As he confesses later on in the book, for authors like Mo Yen, “writing directly engaged literature is impossible because of state oppression.” Instead issues are approached indirectly with a lack of emotions or sense of security. The spectre of the relationship at the centre of You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. is one of heartbreak, apathy and life without weight. By centering the story on the mundane, Sheung-King has made these feelings all the more omnipresent and ultimately relatable.

Unlike Mo Yen, it is not the oppression of the Chinese government that Sheung-King is critiquing. Spread across Vancouver, Hong Kong, Macau, Toronto, Tokyo, Singapore, England, Burma, Taipei, Chinatown, Prague, this story is centered in the uncertain world of diasporic pan-asian identity. In these settings, Sheung-King tackles the ‘hole’ that colonization and the western world’s orientalist view has cast upon generations of people assigned an Asian identity. Our lovers travel from city to city, sharing stories from eastern folklore without any sense of place. 

As Me struggles to articulate their relationship, so too does he struggle to express his place in a world defined by whiteness. At one point he becomes so alienated with himself that he becomes a You. And yet, by doing this he experiences the freedom to express an intimacy with the reader that has been so lacking prior. This will likely be a disappointing turn for many readers as the ending doesn’t fully resonate with the thematic energy leading up to it. But for a story about young love and diasporic identity, disappointment and unresolved feelings probably ring truer to experience. 

The star of the novel will likely be the folk tales Me recounts to his enigmatic lover. By embracing the disillusionment of the orientalist gaze these stories ground the work in a rich tradition of performing for the west. There is a power in this performance that Sheung-King uses to draw attention to the way Orientalism manifests today. In many ways You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. is a folk tale for the post-modern era: fun and unpredictable.

Rad Riot Reads is column written by members of the Rad Riot Books community that reviews literary works from the Global South, translated, queer, migrant and anti-oppressive literature.

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