Contributors Archives

Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt

Deep, Deep into a Self: ‘Too Much and Not the Mood’ by Durga Chew-Bose

Too Much and Not the MoodToo Much and Not the Mood is Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, though Chew-Bose’s writing has been getting published for many years now. Known for her BuzzFeed Reader essay “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself,” Chew-Bose’s name has appeared in the same circles as other feminist hipster writers based in New York like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, and Jazmine Hughes. She is also one of the founders of Writers of Color, a collective of feel-good-yet-aestheticized-sadness progressive writers out on the East Coast.

Melancholy, nostalgia, wistfulness, wishful thinking, or the lethargy of a warm summer afternoon are constants in Too Much and Not the Mood, although essays in the latter half of the book explore boredom, self-possession, embarrassment, and other emotions that characterize adolescence. Indisputably, the collection’s biggest strength is the richness of its prose. Chew-Bose’s is especially talented in preserving moments of beauty. She’s incredibly attuned to detail, and catches a person’s verbal or physical tics in such a way that they seem authentic. Take, for example, these scenes from the 93-page-long “Heart Museum,” a sprawling, meandering kaleidoscope of an essay that opens the collection:

“Because writing is a grunt, and when it’s good, writing is body language. It’s a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity. It’s an elbow propped on the edge of a table when you’re wrapping up an argument, or to signify you’re just getting started. An elbow propped on the edge of a table is an adverb.”

and

“Writing will never be as satisfying as observing someone whom I knew was terrible get caught in a lie; as satisfying as the pop! I anticipate when twisting open a Martinelli’s apple juice or when I pour hot coffee over ice come summer or lace up skates in the winter—the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot. Writing is a closed pistachio shell.”

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Tangles, Erasures, and Connections: ‘Of Form & Gather’ by Felicia Zamora

P03334In the introduction to Felicia Zamora’s collection of new and selected poems, Of Form & Gather (62 pages; University of Notre Dame Press), Edwin Torres writes that “A poem’s burden is to live inside its creation, where the organized singularity of its gathering is what brings the reader to the reader’s own voice.” This is an accurate description of how Zamora’s poems work, and what they do to the reader. The book is divided into four sections, titled “circles & circulations,” “that that that; this this this,” “in in; gather gather,” and “To be out of- dually other.” Each section does exactly what the title of the book says, as they each play with form and formalistic elements while underlining the circular and repetitive nature of Zamora’s poetry and images.

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History and Poetry as Unending Things: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

WhereasWhereas (120 pages; Graywolf) is Layli Long Soldier’s first book of poetry, and what an exquisite book it is. Gathered in one volume, Long Soldier’s poems clearly expose the ways language—either English or Lakota/Lakȟótiyapi—is used to create and destroy opposing politics. She does not shy away from political speech in Whereas, and indeed, she can’t—not as long as Native people continue to suffer under continued settler colonialism, or as the various languages and traditions of the thousands of indigenous ethnic groups are continually stomped out yet revitalized in specific Native spaces.

Divided into two parts, the book begins with “These Being the Concerns,” a section comprised of seventeen poems, some previously published and some new. The last section, “Whereas,” consists of three poems titled “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” and “Disclaimer.” “Whereas” considers many different scenarios where Long Soldier examines her relationships with other poets, with “emptiness” in American Indian poetry, with religion, with history (cultural, state-approved, or otherwise). Each poem also considers physical posture: bodies curled in fetal positions, crouching, teetering down a hall, kicking at another person out of anger. Like a number of poems in “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas” unfurls across several pages, filling the spaces on each page, connected only by the telltale semicolon at the end of each line on every page.

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What Comes After the Trauma of Fleeing: ‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

9780802126399The Refugees (224 pages; Grove), the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, consists of eight stories circling around the displacement caused by the Vietnam War. Though reviewers of the collection have tied the narratives of these stories to some kind of universal “immigrant experience,” the title of the book, as well as the historical context of the stories, refuses this oversimplified categorization. The Refugees gently but firmly reminds the reader of the difference, which lies largely in the ways one group has had some kind of choice in leaving their place of origin, while the other has been pushed out by a violent external force. The way Nguyen makes this distinction throughout The Refugees is elegant, even if it is not explicit. The opening story, “Black-Eyed Woman,” does this by discussing how a woman’s girlhood and innocence were stripped away as part of her experience as a boat person. By opening the collection with a story that depicts this familiar (but somehow still unacknowledged) narrative, Nguyen situates the rest of the pieces within a context of trauma and forced migration, of pain and loss.

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Poems of a Man ‘Robbed of His Country’: ‘In Praise of Defeat’ by Abdellatif Laâbi

laabicover-600x700Abdellatif Laâbi is perhaps Morocco’s most well-known poet-activist-writer, and a well-respected Francophone poet as well His personal history—founder of leftist Moroccan/Maghrebi magazine Souffles (Breaths) in 1966, imprisoned for “crimes of opinion” against King Hassan II from 1972 to 1980, and exiled to France since 1985—is staggering on its own, and his writing reflects each stage of his life in haunting and affective ways. This is perhaps what makes In Praise of Defeat (824 pages; Archipelago; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) so incredible. The book is a veritable brick—it’s almost intimidating in its scale, refusing to let the reader forget Laabi’s illustrious and prolific career. The poems span from his early work (“Le Règne de Barbarie/ The Reign of Barbarism,” 1965) to the quite recent (“Le Saison Manquante/ The Missing Season,” 2015), and the length of the poems—most notably, Sous Le Bâillon, Le Poème/Beneath the Gag, The Poem (1972-1980) and Le Soleil Se Meurt / The Sun Is Dying (1992)—range as impressively, too. It seems a little crass to call a book of poetry a “page-turner,” but as some poems here span up to ten pages, it’s worth noting that Laâbi’s deft metaphors sustain your attention so that the physical interruption of the turn of a page is lessened. (The book also includes an essay, “Writing and the New World Disorder.”)

With Laabi’s original French on the left-hand pages, and Nicholson-Smith’s English translations on the right, In Praise of Defeat showcases a series of poems, and selections from longer poems, hand-picked by Laâbi. In some cases, this means that only a few stanzas of a poem appear in the book, and the reader is left wondering what else was said, or what Laâbi wanted the reader to seek out on their own. The excerpts, however, do work as stand-alone poems.

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A Political Awakening in Haiti: ‘Dance on the Volcano’ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dance on the VolcanoDance on the Volcano, by Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973), was originally published as La Danse sur le Volcan in 1957. Previously translated into English by Salvator Attanasio in 1959, Archipelago Books has published a delightful new translation by Kaiama L. Glover. Glover, a scholar of Caribbean fiction, translation, and Francophone literature, seems like the natural candidate for translating Vieux-Chauvet’s stunning novel. She has already translated two other works of Haitian fiction, and her scholarly knowledge and apparent pleasure in making the sights and sounds of colonial Haiti accessible to an Anglophone audience are palpable.

Dance on the Volcano tells the story of Minette, a young black woman who passes for white in 18th century Haiti (then called Saint Domingue). Minette, blessed with a beautiful singing voice, becomes the first free woman of color to perform at the opera performance house in Port-au-Prince. The novel, which alternately radiates joy and terrible pain, traces Minette’s rapid radicalization and political awakening, while also depicting the build-up to the Haitian Revolution, as well as delineating race, class, and gender in the country at the time.

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An Upended Life Amid an Upended City: ‘Meantime’ by Katharine Noel

MeantimeMeantime (288 pages; Black Cat/Grove) is an absorbing novel, the second from author Katharine Noel, whose first book, Halfway House, received widespread acclaim. Meantime seems to be on a similar track, as reviewers praise its humor and emotional depth—especially as found in its narrator, Claire Hood. Claire is dry and amusing, and her voice and reactions are engaging and convincing. The main plot points—Claire growing up with her bohemian “Naked Family,” her varied boyfriends and failed relationships, her marriage to Jeremy, and Jeremy’s illness and recovery, et cetera —are all fascinating; the characters and their dialogues drive the novel. There is not one character, however small, that doesn’t seem fully realized. (Claire’s judgments about them notwithstanding). And none is entirely despicable or lovable, but all are undeniably real.

But what sets Meantime apart is how Noel’s beautiful prose renders contemporary San Francisco. Her San Francisco is not some overblown mythical city promising rebirth or “finding yourself,” and it certainly isn’t overly romanticized, either. The San Francisco of the novel, from its descriptions of the views of the Bay or the litter and garbage lining the streets, are recognizable to anybody familiar with the city (thankfully, the novel has no references to the Golden Gate Bridge or fog). Noel’s San Francisco is the same San Francisco that I myself am familiar with, one that has been facing rapid gentrification and staggering income inequality—that in recent years seems like it’s been dialed up to 11.

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