Hiba Tahir

THE TINY JOURNALIST

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THE TINY JOURNALIST BY Naomi Shihab Nye

Internationally renowned writer Naomi Shihab Nye shines in her latest full-length collection, The Tiny Journalist, a compendium of poems coping with war and violence in the West Bank. Nye’s book was inspired by both Janna Tamimi—a young activist who began capturing videos of anti-occupation protests at the young age of 7—and her own Palestinian American heritage.

In deceptively simple syntax and universally relevant terms, Nye’s poems call on us to grapple with what it means to be human in the midst of conflict. Her poems speak for Janna at times, and then, speak directly to her. “You know gazing into a camera / can be a bridge, so you stare / without blinking,” Nye writes in “Janna.” Though Janna might be her “tiny journalist,” it is not hard to imagine Nye herself inhabiting the role—particularly when you learn that her own father was a refugee journalist. The reader can almost feel Nye staring unblinkingly through these poems, demanding peace across manmade boundaries, and though the first half of the book often takes on a childlike perspective, the second half is almost exclusively dedicated to the anguish of adults.

In this latter section, Nye covers loss, grief, hopelessness, and even the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. To a painfully searing effect, she centers her own Palestinian American identity in poems like “Unforgettable:” “The fathers sailed away / planning to return. / Not easily will they forget / a place that let us all / sorrow this much.” In "Stay Afloat," she provides a solution to this intergenerational conflict: "Find a child to be your leader now." Nye calls on the reader to find a child like the ones whose perspectives her poems explore, a child who inherited a war they had no part in, and yet, is determined, out of their own innocence and goodness, to end it.

BOA.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

AVIARIES

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AVIARIES BY ZUZANA BRABCOVÁ, TRANSLATED BY TEREZA NOVICKÁ

Zuzana Brabcová’s Aviaries, translated from the Czech by Tereza Novická, is a lesson in literary phantasmagoria—not for the faint of heart. Composed of oscillating diary entries, vignettes, dreams, observations, interior monologue, meditations, short anecdotes, newspaper headlines, and anecdotes from both poetry and prose, it presents a kaleidoscopic picture of present-day Prague, a world reeling with political strife that treats disadvantaged people badly and seldom makes sense.

The novella opens in 2011 with the death of Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia. Contemporary news reports and headlines provide a bleak background to this snapshot of the life of the protagonist, Alžběta, a woman living on the fringes of a relentlessly unforgiving Prague. She navigates a world of confusing characters that exist in and outside her imagination in Prague’s Smíchov district. She is unemployed and struggling with mental illness. Her troubled thoughts contribute to the fragmentary nature of the text, told in both third person and, what can only be described as, a distant first person. The result is profoundly confusing, yes, but also strangely satisfying, particularly as it contributes to Alžběta’s interactions with the women in her life, including her mother, her sister, and her dumpster-diving, Bob Dylan-dating daughter, Alice.

Completed just before Brabcová’s untimely death, Aviaries received the Josef Škvorecky, a Czech language award, in 2016 for best prose of the year and, in 2017, was shortlisted for the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award. Czech cultural-political monthly journal Literární nonviny called it, “A sophisticated testimony about social exclusion.” And now, Twisted Spoon Press and translator Tereza Novická have brought it to you.

Twisted Spoon Press.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

MAGICAL NEGRO

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MAGICAL NEGRO BY MORGAN PARKER

“Death is the only cultural truth,” proclaims Morgan Parker in her third and latest collection Magical Negro—a stunning compendium of both present and past black experiences which explore themes of personhood, loneliness, displacement, and despair, among others. Comprised of searing commentary on subjects that range from ancestral grief to daily struggle, Magical Negro loses no gumption in between topics. Parker organizes her verses in three large sections—“Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes,” “Field Negro Field Notes,” and “Popular Negro Punchlines”—where each section informs or speaks to the others, and all teem with Parker’s signature abrupt and often surprising humor, putting her extraordinary skills on conspicuous display. “Have you ever felt like a square peg / in a round hole?” Parker asks in “The History of Black People,” the last poem in the first section. “Do you sometimes dream / of a handful of Skittles sprawling on February lawn?”

In the second section’s final poem, she engages again with the progression of time, stressing, “I am only as lonely / as anybody else . . . It isn’t / summertime.”  From “It was Summer Now and the Color People Came Out Into the Sunshine,” the last poem in the book, Parker provides stunningly powerful descriptions of famous black people, past and present in communication and simple acts of overlap: “Martin Luther / King Jr. Boulevard kisses the Band-Aid on Nelly’s cheek. / Frederick Douglass’s side part kisses Nikki Giovanni’s / Thug Life tattoo. The choir is led by Whoopi Goldberg’s / eyebrows. The choir is led by Will Smith’s flat top,” before ending with the deceptively simple, “It is time for war.”

“I worry sometimes I will only be allowed a death story,” Parker says in another poem. Magical Negro is so much more than that.

Tin House.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS

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DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS BY MARCI VOGEL

Marci Vogel’s Death and Other Holidays, the inaugural winner of the Miami Book Fair / Degroot Novella Prize, is a tour de force that comprises a year in the life of April, a painfully average woman who grapples with the vicissitudes of young adulthood after the death of her beloved stepfather. Composed of gorgeous vignettes that chronicle April’s trials and tribulations in 1990s Los Angeles, Death and Other Holidays is raw, honest, and darkly humorous. Vogel’s tight prose reads like something of a diary by its immediacy, capturing the inner workings of April’s mind, and speaks to the aching young adult in all of us. From one section, April recalls a science experiment where researchers measure molecules before and after having people watch them, and they find that the molecules have changed. “Something as minor as taking pictures changes the world, at least on a molecular level,” writes April. Here, too, readers who watch as Vogel’s endearing protagonist battles death and young adulthood will most certainly find themselves changed.

Melville House.

— Review by Hiba Tahir

OBITS

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OBITS BY TESS LIEM

Tess Liem’s debut full-length collection, Obits, centers on an essential question: Can poetry mourn the unmourned? In a seemingly messy but, nevertheless, effective and triumphant collection, her speaker grapples with this uncertainty by setting out to write obituaries for those who have none. Liem’s poems, or obituaries, encompass varying proximities—from those distant to her speaker, mass death victims and the fictional Laura Palmer—to the intimacy of her own aunt. Though she fails epically to complete this task, the journey is a rewarding one. Not only does it display Liem’s prowess for invoking something inimitable in her readers, it also comments on the profound nature of poetry itself. In “Call it,” Liem admits, “I wanted a poem to be a throat clearing // My misunderstanding . . . // To speak as if we all share the same loveliness, the same doom, / is not to speak // of the fact that some people have their hands / around other’s necks.” Liem’s Obits may fall short on its journey to grieve all of those unhonored, rich lives, but it more than succeeds in awakening the reader and will ultimately leave you wrestling with your own ideas about death and elegy.

Coach House Books.

—Review by Hiba Tahir