12 Asian Writers to Watch

Love the surrealism of Haruki Murakami and his cats? Or the caustic wit of White Tiger author Aravind Adiga? Exciting Asian writers are everywhere, both in Asia proper and throughout the diaspora. With a cultural heritage as diverse as the sprawling continent itself, this eclectic group of wordsmiths is worthy of a few trips to the bookstore. Let’s crack the books on these fine authors.

asian american authors

Sanjena Sathian. A former OZY editor, Sathian once rented an entourage to stalk her like a Hollywood star for a story. We are admittedly biased, but Sathian no longer needs to fake it. Having joined the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017, she just released her debut novel, Gold Diggers, to critical acclaim. The coming-of-age tale peppered with magical realism has been snapped up for TV by comedian Mindy Kaling. Beginning in Sathian’s hometown of Atlanta, the novel centers around the Indian American writer’s idea of belonging — a theme Sathian has been grappling with after the shooting of six Asian American women in Atlanta last month.

Kevin Nguyen. This Brooklyn resident’s debut novel, New Waves, was named one of NPR’s best books of 2020. It also garnered high praise from fellow Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng. An editor at The Verge, Nguyen sets his story at a tech startup and explores topics of both race and discrimination. The book “captures beautifully the subtle strains of being disenfranchised, poor and lonely in New York,” The New York Times says, teasing the plot as if Jay Gatsby had worked at a startup.

Simon Han. With his 2020 debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, Han examines the Chinese immigrant experience through a story about a family living in Texas — one he can relate to, having been born in Tianjin, China, before settling in Carrollton, Texas. TIME called it a “haunting” novel that asks “whether immigrants in America can ever feel truly safe.” Despite the Cheng family’s achievements in their adopted country and safe suburban life, each of the main characters suffers from terrible insomnia, allowing a sense of unease to permeate the novel.

Anthony Veasna So. Many Khmer Americans feel torn between two worlds, as I discovered while working as a journalist in Cambodia. Tragically, the author of this short story collection — who once described himself as “a grotesque parody of the model minority” — died last year at 28. His collection focuses on intergenerational relationships between traumatized refugee parents who escaped the Khmer Rouge and their American children.

the new feminists

Cho Nam-Joo. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is this Seoul-based writer’s debut novel. While it’s centered around an “extremely ordinary” housewife living a humdrum existence, don’t be fooled: It caused such a sensation in South Korea that it has been made into a movie. One national assembly member bought a copy for each of his fellow 298 legislators because he was so taken by its biting social commentary on gender inequality in South Korea. Published domestically in 2016, the book came out in English last year and has been the most talked about South Korean novel since Han Kang’s haunting feminist treatise The Vegetarian.

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Mieko Kawakami. If you’ve seen the Olympics-linked stories of sexism in Tokyo, you won’t be surprised to learn the patriarchy is alive and kicking in Japan. That could explain why Breasts and Eggs, a book about a woman who loathes sex but wants to have a child “without a man,” shocked the nation when it came out in 2019 (with the English translation published last year). Shintaro Ishihara, a former Tokyo governor, deemed it “unpleasant and intolerable,” but readers disagreed: The novel became a runaway bestseller. It even won praise from Murakami, despite Kawakami having earlier criticized the septuagenarian’s books for sexism.

Lauren Ho. Malaysian-born, Singapore-based Ho traded in a soaring career in law for life as a writer. Her 2020 debut novel, Last Tang Standing, generated comparisons to the hit book and movie Crazy Rich Asians. This chick-lit gem centers around a Bridget Jones-esque character named Andrea Tang, a 33-and-fabulous singleton, who, to her family’s chagrin, doesn’t need a man to feel complete.

Avni Doshi. Her debut novel Burnt Sugar, nominated for last year’s Booker Prize, shocked India with its fraught mother-daughter relationship and main character’s postpartum depression. The book uses dark humor to examine family ties and expectations of motherhood, with the Booker judges calling it “utterly compelling … sometimes emotionally wrenching but also cathartic.” Doshi was born in New Jersey but moved to Mumbai and says the idea for the book stemmed from her own uncertainty about whether to have children.

race and war

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie. This Karachi-born writer deals with confusion around identity in her stunning 2017 novel, Home Fire, in which a British Pakistani youth runs off to join the Islamic State group in Syria, to the horror of his two thoroughly modern sisters. The contemporary take on the ancient Greek play Antigone is a globe-trotting read, one that spans London, Massachusetts, Istanbul and Raqqa. A thought-provoking examination of belonging, it’s a must-read for anyone trying to understand the post-9/11 world.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Her first novel published in English, The Mountains Sing, is a generational epic recounting the effects of war through the lens of a single family. Unlike many recent novels about Vietnam, the author focuses on the nationalists who built a communist state after fighting off the French, Japanese and Americans. Nguyen was born in Vietnam, studied in Australia and currently lives in Jakarta.

Alexandra Chang. This debut novelist lives in Ithaca and used to write about tech for Wired magazine, which helps explain the tech journalist protagonist Jing Jing in Chang’s Days of Distraction. The novel tackles complicated situations around race that others may gloss over. One such example? While a promised salary bump never comes and microaggressions abound in the newsroom, Jing Jing longs for the confidence of her white boyfriend. Chang’s secret power is making the seemingly banal gripping, much to the pleasure of her readers.

Megha Majumdar. The New Yorker compared this young Indian writer to William Faulkner. In A Burning, the New York-based Harvard graduate tells the fictional story of a Muslim woman jailed for terrorism after posting a Facebook comment in the wake of a Kolkata bombing. “It’s a book that encourages a reader to think about injustice,” she told the Guardian, adding that the work stemmed from her alarm at politics in India and her fears about the erosion of secular values.

12 Crazy True Stories About Children’s Authors

I haven’t been this disappointed since I found out Aslan the lion was really Jesus and Narnia was proselytizing. As an only child, I could most often be found with my nose in a book. But as I was researching my favorite children’s authors, I learned that some of the “friends” from my salad days were far from innocent. In fact, many were not very nice people, and their ranks include perverts, bullies and racists. Read on to learn about their strange obsessions and dastardly deeds, but be warned — this is no fairy tale!

sex, drugs and … children’s literature?

Hans Christian Andersen. If you grew up on his fairy tales, it might surprise you to learn that the author was a wanker. Literally. In fact, he was so obsessed that he actually kept a diary of how often he shook hands with the milkman, with entries like “I had a double-sensuous ++.” The Dane never married but visited Paris brothels, not to have sex with the prostitutes but to chat with them and then go back to his hotel and, um, add a new entry to his diary. Some of The Little Mermaid author’s stories for children were incredibly dark and his troubled personal history might now explain why.

Kenneth Grahame. Badger, Mole, Ratty and that insufferable narcissist Mr. Toad were all staples of my childhood, with Wind in the Willows transporting me to the bucolic English countryside. The book still charms me with its pastoral innocence, so I was surprised to learn about author Grahame’s tragic life and sexual problems. The writer was asexual until, nearing 40, he began a romance with his soon-to-be wife, Elspeth. The two exchanged cringeworthy letters full of baby talk (adult Grahame still played with dolls and toys), but he was afraid of sex and she was left disappointed. Like giant pandas, however, they must have succeeded at least once because they had a son. Tragically, the child, for whom Grahame invented the stories that would become his greatest book, died of a likely suicide at 19.

Shel Silverstein. If you ever thought grown men cavorting with women dressed as bunnies was infantile, well, then, I suppose it makes sense that a children’s author would want to make his home in the Playboy Mansion. Which is exactly what this Where the Sidewalk Ends writer did. The talented draftsman started off drawing cartoons for Hugh Hefner’s magazine in the 1950s, and later lived with him in his infamous party pad, where he wrote many of his beloved children’s books. Read more on OZY.

cancel culture

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Dr. Seuss. I do not like them Sam-I-am, I will not print green eggs and ham. If you’re unaware of the controversy over Dr. Seuss supposedly being canceled earlier this year, you must have been living under a rock. The writer’s estate announced it was pulling six books containing racist stereotypes from circulation, sparking a huge debate over cancel culture on Fox News and elsewhere. Of course, no publicity is bad publicity, and sales of his work have skyrocketed. That some of his cartoons from the 1950s are unacceptable to modern audiences, however, is perhaps less surprising than his sordid personal life. Theodor Seuss Geisel cheated on his wife, resulting in her later committing suicide.

Rudyard Kipling. Most children love fat, lazy Baloo the bear and kindly panther Bagheera in The Jungle Book, but questions have long been raised over their creator, Rudyard Kipling, who has been slammed as a racist and an apologist for colonialism. The furor has been less about his children’s books, however, and more to do with his poem “Mandalay,” which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unwisely quoted during a visit to Myanmar in 2017 and was quickly quieted by the U.K. ambassador. The arbiter of all things British, the BBC dropped the poem from planned Victory Day celebrations, and a mural of another poem of Kipling’s at Manchester University was painted over and replaced with one by Maya Angelou.

Roald Dahl. Witches turn children into mice, wives feed their husbands spaghetti worms and Veruca Salt disappears down a garbage shoot. Gross and nasty things happen in nearly all of Dahl’s books, and children are endlessly delighted by them, but, given his violent imagination, perhaps it’s not surprising the author himself had an unpleasant side. We won’t judge Dahl for writing erotica on the side (including one story about not a giant peach but a giant penis) or cheating on his wife, but we will bring him to book for his anti-Semitism. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he said in a 1983 interview. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

tragic tales

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. To children, The Little Prince is a simple tale about a boy and a fox. For adults, it’s a philosophical treatise on loneliness, love and conflict, made all the more pertinent by its pilot-writer’s disappearance near the end of World War II. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had escaped Vichy France for the U.S. in the 1930s and, despite being in his 40s, convinced the Americans to let him fly reconnaissance missions for them. He died during one of these in 1944, apparently after being shot down or in a plane crash, but the wreckage wasn’t found until 1998, after fishermen in Marseille caught a silver bracelet belonging to the writer in their net, and divers then found the plane.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer, in holidays

Oscar Wilde. The witty, sharp-tongued playwright isn’t a children’s author, you may exclaim. But there you’d be wrong. Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which, despite the title, all have a certain melancholy about them. And they’re all the more poignant when you read them in light of the flamboyant raconteur’s tragic life. Wilde, who was gay, was jailed for “gross indecency” in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labor, during which he wrote his famous and heartbreaking poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” He only lived three years after his release as a bankrupt and broken man.

J.M. Barrie. Researching the dark side to children’s authors, a clear pattern has emerged. Many of them had childlike natures themselves. This was certainly true with the Peter Pan author, who altered the will of a family friend after she died so that he would become the guardian of her five sons instead of their nanny. The characters of Neverland in Barrie’s novel were based around the children, but unlike their never-aging fictional counterparts, three of the real Lost Boys died young. While one brother died as a soldier in World War I, another threw himself under a train and the third drowned in what was a suspected suicide.

interesting anecdotes

Ludwig Bemelmans. The beloved author of Madeline, a story about a mischievous Parisian girl, was also quite the rebel. While on holiday in Germany in the 1930s, the American showed such disdain for Hitler that he was promptly thrown in jail. He had been sitting with his wife in a beer garden not far from the Führer’s home when a broadcast by the Nazi leader came on the radio. Like John Cleese in the famous goose-stepping scene in Fawlty Towers, Bemelmans muttered, “Pooh-pooh to the tiger in the zoo,” placed a cigar stub on his top lip and offered up a mock Nazi salute. His impersonation saw him charged as a subversive, and he had to be rescued by the American vice consul. Read more on OZY.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder. What do the billionaire Koch brothers, whose right-wing movement helped give rise to the Tea Party, have to do with iconic Little House books? Well, in the 1960s, the brothers attended a free-market academy in Colorado called the Freedom School established by author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, and sometimes editor, Rose. Both were staunch opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, which expanded the role of the federal government. The Little House books advocated for rugged individualism, grit and hard work, and the women basically helped kick-start the libertarian movement. Read more on OZY.

Enid Blyton. I named my first dog, Scamper, after the faithful hound in The Secret Seven, and I am still salivating over Blyton’s descriptions of picnics and midnight feasts with “lashings” of ginger beer, hard-boiled eggs and warm buttered bread. I was such a fan of the ever-so-innocent books, where the rudest thing ever said was “golly gosh,” that I was aggrieved to learn that the writer had a darker side. Her daughter Imogen once said Blyton “was without a trace of maternal instinct,” and she cheated on her husband but then banned the children from seeing him after the divorce. The U.K.’s Royal Mint even dropped Blyton from consideration as the face of a new coin in 2019 owing to her “racist, sexist and homophobic” views. She also apparently enjoyed the occasional game of naked tennis. Golly gosh!

What Makes Strange Diplomatic Bedfellows?

Leaders of some countries have gone through more bouts of conscious uncoupling than Hollywood stars. Others are swiping right on the strangest of profiles. If opposites attract in romantic relationships, the same can certainly be said of diplomatic ones. Today’s Daily Dose looks at some surprisingly dangerous liaisons, past and present, in global politics.

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Israel and Arab Nations. Is Benjamin Netanyahu turning pro-Arab? Israel’s prime minister this week finds himself once again scrambling to form a new government with his Likud Party after the fourth national election since spring 2019. One possible solution is to team up with the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that would prove controversial but potentially give Netanyahu a path to remain in power. This follows Israel recently establishing formal ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, who all got goodies from the Trump administration in exchange and share Israel’s skepticism toward Iran. The next domino to fall is seen to be the relatively moderate Oman.

Israel and Brazil. For decades, Mossad has been hunting down old Nazis in South America, after many escaped there from Germany at the end of World War II. So the region seems an unlikely choice for a diplomatic push by Israel, but in 2017 Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to tour South America, and later he attended Brazilian populist president Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration. Before Bolsonaro, whose comments that the Holocaust should be forgiven drew ire, Brazil had taken a pro-Palestinian stance, but Bolsonaro knows that warmer relations with Israel play well with his evangelical base. For his part, Netanyahu stands to gain from closer economic ties, and more friends abroad bolster Israel’s stature.

Turkey and Russia. Historically, the Russian and Ottoman empires engaged in multiple conflicts, and they pursue drastically different geopolitical agendas today. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have come together in an unlikely place: Syria. The protracted civil war there has seen the two powers act as partners at times, opponents at others. They are on different sides of the long-running conflict, with Russia backing the regime of Bashar Assad and Turkey backing the opposition, but Moscow still helped enable Ankara’s offensive against the Kurdish forces Erdogan considers terrorists. Confused? Another result of their cooperation in Syria is the fact that Putin has succeeded in drawing Turkey away from NATO. But will this precarious friendship hold?

unlikely asian friendships

Cambodia and North Korea. While Maoist-suit-clad Kim Il Sung and Pol Pot had similar tastes in fashion and philosophy, it was Cambodia’s mercurial monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, with whom North Korea’s “Dear Leader” had the really close relationship — and the two nations’ ties endure even as Cambodia continues to recover from the Khmer Rouge ultra-Marxist revolution and genocide. Prime Minister Hun Sen has somehow maintained relations with Pyongyang as well as key donors Seoul and Washington. Still, it’s telling that the North Korean Embassy sits right next to Hun Sen’s residence, and until recently several North Korean restaurants operated in Cambodia, allowing the Hermit Kingdom to earn much-needed cash.

Taiwan, eSwatini and Somaliland. A landlocked nation formerly known as Swaziland, eSwatini is a rare African country to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China is king on this continent, and while some citizens may grumble about a new imperialism, governments are eager for Beijing’s loans. So while most countries kowtow to Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, eSwatini is sticking with the underdog, which provides the absolute monarchy with barrels of aid. And it’s no longer alone. Somaliland on the Horn of Africa, which Somalia considers a breakaway province (notice any similarities?), recently established diplomatic relations with Taipei.

The Philippines and Russia. Take a walk around central Manila and U.S. influence is apparent from the malls and fast-food joints to the American-inflected English used by many Filipinos, who were under U.S. control for a half-century until World War II. But populist President Rodrigo Duterte has been moving away from Washington, which has been critical of his deadly war on drugs, and toward Moscow. While the Philippines tries to renegotiate an agreement that allows U.S. troops in the country, Russia has provided weapons and held joint exercises with the Philippine army. Duterte has declared himself a big fan of fellow macho strongman Putin and the two have met numerous times.

Bangladesh and Japan. Ever so carefully, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is strengthening ties with Japan to balance China’s influence in the South Asian nation. Meanwhile, Japan is increasing investments in Bangladesh as its companies relocate from China amid deteriorating ties and lingering supply chain concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

african alliances

Russia and the Central African Republic. The icy streets of Moscow are far removed from the heat and chaos of Bangui, but that hasn’t stopped Russia and the CAR from building warm ties, and Russia’s presence in the unstable country grew again after December’s violence-marred elections. Russian mercenaries abound in the mineral-rich CAR, employed by the Wagner Group, which is owned by an oligarch close to Putin and provides a security detail for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. And Russia’s natural resource-motivated pivot to Africa doesn’t end there, with plans for a naval base in Sudan on the strategic Red Sea and a huge platinum mine in Zimbabwe.

Ethiopia and Eritrea. These erstwhile enemies signed a peace agreement in 2018 that garnered Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a Nobel Peace Prize. But Abiy’s new friends in the ultra-secretive state that many term “Africa’s North Korea” have been quick to get involved in the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Human Rights Watch has accused Eritrean soldiers of massacring Tigrayan civilians, and on Tuesday Abiy acknowledged the abuses after months of denials. Before making peace, Eritrea and Ethiopia had not had diplomatic relations for 20 years following a border war, but the Tigray offensive has badly tarnished Abiy’s reformist image — and he might be destined for the rogue’s gallery of Peace Prize winners.

Cuba and South Africa. There’s a restaurant in a hip neighborhood of Cape Town that serves a mean mojito. But its name, Cape to Cuba, would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago, when the apartheid regime and Havana each had troops fighting on opposite sides of the Angolan civil war. Now, however, the two nations couldn’t be closer, with the communist country that backed the African National Congress during the liberation struggle now aiding Pretoria in a new fight against COVID-19. Havana last year sent more than 200 Cuban medical experts to South Africa as the country battled the pandemic, and every year South Africa sends many of its doctors to train at Cuban medical schools.

european unions

Royal tour of the Caribbean - Day 3

Barbados, the UK and Africa. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced last year the country would be removing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, signaling a break with its British colonial past. Meanwhile, other commonwealth countries are taking a more skeptical look at the royal family after recent racism allegations from Meghan Markle. The government of Barbados has at the same time been expanding its presence in Africa, establishing diplomatic offices in Ghana and Kenya, as the island nation also looks to woo friends in Asia and Latin America.

Estonia and the EU. Its eyes are turning westward. The new government of Estonia’s first female prime minister, Kaja Kallas, is set to enhance ties with the EU and NATO after the previous administration struck a deal with the far right and insulted allies. Estonia was forced to apologize to Finland in 2019 after its interior minister called the latter’s new prime minister, Sanna Marin, “a salesgirl.” Meanwhile, relations with neighboring Russia have worsened in recent weeks, with Estonia urging the EU to stick with sanctions against Moscow.

Moldova and the EU. Moldova’s recently elected president, Maia Sandu, is trying to pull her tiny nation closer to the EU and away from Russia. The former World Bank adviser beat Moscow-backed incumbent Igor Dodon last year and has already asked Russian-backed forces to vacate the breakaway Transnistria region. Unlike Dodon, Sandu has made clear she will visit Russia only after traveling to other pro-Western neighbors and has vowed to clamp down on corruption.

dirty u.s. diplomacy

U.S. President Trump Meets North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un During Landmark Summit In Singapore

North Korea. The world was slack-jawed as the American president waxed lyrical about the “love letters” he’d received from the ruler of the world’s foremost pariah state. “I like him. I get along with him great,” Donald Trump said of Kim Jong Un, a despot who assassinates even members of his own family. “We have a fantastic chemistry.” The unlikely bromance started like many meet-cutes in romantic comedies: Two people take an instant dislike to each other (though you don’t often hear the word “dotard” in rom-coms), hijinks ensue, and by the end of the film the two are inseparable. Only in the Kim-Trump version, both had access to nukes.

Saudi Arabia. Among the many morally dubious liaisons over the years, perhaps none is so stark and long-lasting as Washington’s friendship with Riyadh. Not only was the Saudi monarchy responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but Osama bin Laden and many of the 9/11 hijackers also were natives of the oil-rich state, which has done more than any other country to spread extremist Islam far and wide by funding radical clerics. Not to mention its abysmal record on women’s rights. And yet even as President Joe Biden has struck a harsher rhetorical tone and withdrawn support from the Saudi war in Yemen, he has yet to drop any real punishment on Washington’s longtime ally.

The Khmer Rouge. In the name of opposing communism, America allied itself with some nasty types from Indonesia to Nicaragua to Argentina. But its support for the Khmer Rouge takes the deadly cake. The genocidal regime was overthrown in 1979 after communist Vietnam invaded and helped establish a new government of Khmer Rouge defectors, including current prime minister and ex-battalion commander Hun Sen. Yet because of its anti-Vietnam policy, the U.S. declined to recognize the country’s new rulers and continued to back the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations until the early 1990s. In supporting Brother Number One Pol Pot’s government in exile, the U.S. was aligned with China — yet another case of strange bedfellows.

surprising diplomatic history

France and Rwanda. There is not much love lost between France and Rwanda these days, thanks to Paris’ checkered history in the east African state. In the 1990s, the French had a close relationship with the Hutu-dominated government responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis. Even today, Hutu mass murderers are still being discovered hiding in France. In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron set up a commission to look into the Élysée’s role in the conflict, with results expected soon. A journalistic investigation recently published by Mediapart and AFP found documents showing Paris was aware of genocide suspects hiding in a French safe zone, and not only failed to arrest them but actually facilitated their escape.

Poland and Japan. United in their dislike of Russia in the early 20th century, the Poles helped to supply the Japanese with intelligence during the Russo-Japanese War, and a great friendship was born. After the Russian Revolution, Japanese soldiers rescued hundreds of Polish children orphaned in Siberia and brought them back to Japan. When World War II rolled round, however, the friends found themselves on opposing sides. Despite this, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, went against his superiors and rescued 6,000 Jews fleeing German-occupied Poland, writing them visas to travel via Japan to safety.

UN-PING PONG DIPLOMACY

The U.S. and China. Sports diplomacy can either be used to exert pressure, like when the world isolated apartheid South Africa’s teams, or to bring countries together. One famous instance was when U.S. chess genius Bobby Fischer played “the match of the century” against Boris Spassky in the former Soviet Union (reworked recently in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit). But perhaps the most surprising cocktail of sports and politics involved a group of American Ping-Pong players at the height of the Cold War. Time magazine called China’s invitation to the American team “the ping heard round the world,” and the following year, President Richard Nixon followed suit and visited Beijing for talks. Point, Forrest Gump.