By William Wetherall

First posted 5 May 2010
Last updated 7 May 2010


Kim Wong Keltner
Buddha Baby
New York: Avon Trade, 2005
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
vi, 277 pages, plus "Want More?" (15 pages)

Kim Wong Keltner's quiltwork of vignettes actually covers the body and stirs the brain more than one might think from a work of fiction titled Buddha Baby. Running the stylistic gamut from Chinked-out chick-lit (if I may mimic Wang Leehom) to contemporary literature, many of the twenty-six individually titled stories could stand alone, while a few make sense only after reading others. In this sense, the book is somewhere between an anthology and a webwork novel.

Buddha Baby is Keltner's second novel, following The Dim Sum of All Things (2004) and I Want Candy (2008). It was not well received by readers who viewed it as an insult to Asian Americans, men and women alike -- largely because she failed to create characters who think and act like graduates of Asian American Studies programs.

While Keltner's novel may not meet the standards of the politically more correct literature written by MFA multiculturalists, she does, in her way, fight the battles of racism and sexism through characters that are credible within the parameters of her story -- about the relationship between Lindsey Owyang -- "a Chinese-American girl" (page 1) -- and Michael Cartier -- "a white guy" (page 3).

"interracial hijinks"

"She'd become smitten with him three years ago and interracial hijinks had ensured," the narrator tells us. "But alas, a twist." (Pages 3-4)

Michael had come into Lindsey's life during the Age of Hoarders. By her own definition, a Hoarder of All Things Asian was a nerdy white guy in beige clothing whose good-guy demeanor camouflaged an insatiable hunger for Asian flesh. Hoarders came in many guises, such as co-workers offering to explain 401K plans or mall trawlers loitering around the Asian food court, and Lindsey had been hyper-vigilant about avoiding them. She knew a Hoarder's appetite was not satisfied by take-out dishes of sweet 'n' sour pork, but rather, he was fixated on the idea of Asian girls themselves as tasty dishes on the city's take-out menu. Lindsey knew that behind a Hoarder's innocuous façade, all he had on his mind was an evening of sweet-and-sour porking.

And into this paranoid world of hers, Michael Cartier had traipsed. She had initially suspected he was a Hoarder, but was surprised to find that not only was he not a pervo-goat in sheep's clothing, but he was, in fact, a Secret Asian Man. He was, as it turned out, one quarter Chinese. His non-whiteness was not readily apparent to the naked eye, and he'd grown up culturally removed from his Asian heritage. But his slice of life was not made completely of Wonder Bread, she'd learned. Blending easily into the Caucasian population, in his thirty years he'd been called lots of names, but not the same ones as Lindsey: chump instead of chink, jerk rather than Jap, geek but not gook. Asians had called him round-eye, straight nose, haole, and gwei-lo.

Come to think of it, this is pretty bad writing. But it is hard to imagine a better -- if unwittingly excellent -- example of the perversity of "racial" consciousness in the United States today -- driven by education that teaches people to think in terms of "heritage" and "culture" as racial qualities. The narrator comes close to admitting this in a closely following paragraph (page 5).

In learning to accept Michael's background, Lindsey eventually got off her multi-culti high horse and opened her mind to the fact that "white" was not really an ethnicity but a general catchphrase that didn't begin to describe the various cultures as proud and distinct as her own. In honor of Michael's Irish side, she reluctantly yet gradually accepted the lowly potato as a culinary staple.

Through such mechanistic and even didactic commentary peeks a certain sense of humor that is lacking in the writing of some angry Asian Americanists -- including not a few colorless people and men. While the ways in which Keltner urges Lindsey and Michael toward freedom of association and mixture may disqualify her novel as good literature, her intentions are honest, and her aims are irreproachable.