THIS WOMAN'S WORK

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THIS WOMAN’S WORK BY JULIE DELPORTE, TRANSLATED BY ALESHIA JENSEN AND HELGE DASCHER

Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work, translated by Aleshia Jensen and Helge Dascher, is a beautiful and resonant autobiographical meditation on art, gender, and identity. The author sifts through her cultural consumption to find the root of her frustrations with gender inequality, sometimes so deeply ingrained that it is impossible to pinpoint their original source. She wonders, “What are the images that hold us captive?” Captive, that is, in repeated performances of gender that feel impossible to break. In pursuit of this question, Delporte presents the reader with her recollections of paintings, film stills, statues and texts, all evoked in bright and expressive colored pencil. Through vignettes, she wrestles with difficult breakups, pregnancy, and the fear of being alone. She expresses her anxiety and frustration with gender roles too. Recalling experiences of sexual assault as a child as well as potent micro-aggressions and barriers ingrained in the language of the adults she loved—and indeed, language itself, the masculine-centric French—the artist seeks to be liberated from womanhood, imagining herself as a wolf or a dolphin.

At the same time, much of her meditation centers on the life of Tove Jansson, a Finnish author and painter whose story and work inspires Delporte to explore her own trajectory as a working artist and the additional stumbling blocks that female artists face. Still, as she reads Jansson’s books and letters, it is through them that she eventually begins to feel that she is finally able to find that she is “falling in love with the idea of being a woman.” While This Woman’s Work captivates in its personal expression of womanhood in all its vicissitudes and complexities, Delporte, by placing her life within the contexts of larger cultural narratives and the lives of other artists, also earnestly opens the door to other women’s experiences, asking how much of her story is her own, and how much is “the story of all women”?

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Rome Morgan

RAIN AND OTHER STORIES

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RAIN AND OTHER STORIES BY MIA COUTO, TRANSLATED BY ERIC M. B. BECKER

Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories maps out a Mozambique that’s torn with war, heartbreak, and loss. While some of the stories read as fables, offering meditations on the lives of men and women grappling with displacement and rebirth, a Chekhovian subtly is achieved, even when their realism turns to the magical: “The flowers, the one’s with a blue glimmer, began to swell and soar toward the sky. Then, all together, they plucked the girl. . . She was swept away into the same womb where she’d seen her father extinguished, out of sight and out of time.” In other stories, readers witness the departure of characters as Couto’s narrators suggest an uncertainty of their return. And it’s this uncertainty, and the motif of rain and all of its implications, that connects one story to the next.

However, what’s most successful about this collection are the ways in which Couto repeatedly asks unanswerable questions, piquing reader curiosity. Take “War of the Clowns,” a story of two manipulative clowns who, through their arguing and violence, profit off an entire city and incite war and inquiry. “What’s going on?” ask the spectators of the clowns, and although Couto describes to readers what occurs, he never tells us why. Instead, confusion swells among spectators until the “supporters divided into two camps, [and] little by little, two battlefields began to form.” By the end of the story, answers manifest through subtext, and the effect is both chilling and tragic. In this collection, Mia Couto, via Eric M. B. Becker’s aesthetically rich translation, packs an emotional resonance in each story—despite brevity, many only reaching five pages—that lingers with readers long after putting the book down.

Biblioasis.

—Review by Patrick Font

COMPANIONS IN CONFLICT

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COMPANIONS IN CONFLICT: ANIMALS IN OCCUPIED PALESTINE BY PENNY JOHNSON

We’ve heard the African proverb of what happens to the grass when elephants fight, but what of the donkeys and ibexes, the boars and hyenas, the cows, camels, jackals, and gazelles, when hominids take up arms against each other? Penny Johnson’s Companions in Conflict strives to answer this question, interrogating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of large mammals, domestic and otherwise, whose commercial licenses are revoked, migration routes are barricaded, and find themselves on an increasingly regular basis bombed, exiled, or jailed.  

Don’t worry, homo sapiens, you’ll find this book interesting because it’s about you, too. On every page of Companions in Conflict, we come face to face with our human selves—infiltrating the lines and the spaces between them, occupying territory that’s not really ours. From Mahmoud Darwish wishing he were a donkey to Kafka’s jackals exhorting travelers in the Holy Land to murder Arabs with sewing scissors, Companions in Conflict, overrun with beasts of the imagination, surveys centuries of narratives that we’ve spun about ourselves, our relationships to other species. Even our piecemeal efforts to rescue these mammals—a vegan Israeli refusing to enlist in the army unless she’s issued synthetic boots; PETA calling for terrorists to stop using donkey bombs—remain oddly oblivious to the endangered among our own species.

Somehow, Johnson ends this nonfiction tragicomedy on a high, if tremulous, note, invoking Terry Eagleton’s notion of “hope without optimism.” “[T]hose animals who are the most like us,” she writes, “in their ability to adapt, survive, and even thrive amid our garbage and detritus . . . will persist and flourish.” She calls for “Acts of environmental imagination,” not just to “reviv[e] a desolated landscape” but also to “resurrect . . . memories, preserve . . . what is left, [and] envision . . . possible futures.” Deep in the Negev desert, wolves and hyenas—historic enemies—have been spotted hunting together, getting along. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this. But then again, maybe we should.

Melville House.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

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

THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS

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THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS BY ESMÉ WEIJUN WANG

In this collection of essays, Esmè Weijun Wang examines schizophrenia through a myriad of lenses, some directed at the conflicted medical community, some at pop culture, and others directed acutely inward at her own experiences with schizoaffective disorder. Far from becoming repetitive in theme, each essay tackles narratives the reader might be familiar with (Nellie Bly and David Rosenhan’s infiltrations into psychiatric hospitals, the Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin, the murder of Malcoum Tate, media representations like A Beautiful Mind and Legion) but probes and troubles the reader’s underlying assumptions by creating a textual space for intimacy/empathy in the confusion, pain and pursuit of understanding her own experiences. She posits after her diagnosis, “Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

Wang raises important questions about the future of understanding the schizophrenias. She notes conflicts in future research between the APA’s mental health handbook DSM-5 and the NIMH’s Research Domain Criteria project; between those who would fight for involuntary hospitalization and mandatory treatment, and those who want to protect individual autonomy; and between the perception of the schizophrenias as “signs of mental illness or psychic ability.” The Collected Schizophrenias is illuminating and important—not only because it educates and challenges—but because it forces us to consider how much we still have  to work to undo historical and systematic damage, to challenge our own broken, misguided partiality towards what it means to be healthy and sane.

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

MOTHERS OVER NANGARHAR

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MOTHERS OVER NANGARHAR BY PAMELA HART

Pamela Hart’s first book of poetry Mothers Over Nangarhar redirects our attention back to the home and the family that soldiers leave behind during a time of war. This book that is “Somewhere between theory and therapy” according to Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ introduction, toggles between news stories, personal anxieties, and shared fears. In Hart’s poems we hear the voices of mothers, partners, and friends who obsess over the few scraps of information they receive about loved ones halfway across the globe. Many of these poems work in the space of contradictions. Hart describes the usefulness of Kevlar when it comes to conflict at the same time that she points out its blind spots: “there was no Kevlar for heart disease / or her sadness.” The reader is asked to understand a world where the same kind of fibers are used for bulletproof vests and reeds for musical instruments. Not only are the poems situated in the very real concerns of bodily harm and conflict, but they are also deeply thoughtful about what it means for someone they love to be a soldier.

Hart’s poems work like a “contour drawing” that recognizes the disconnect between the object of study and the art that is produced; they never take their gaze off of their subject, but continue to circle the unknown closer and closer. This book feels extremely universal in its ruminations on loss and fear, but also deeply personal: “My pencil working its way into the story if a son.”

Sarabande Books.

—Review by Hannah Bradley

LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD

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LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD BY EZEQUIEL ZAIDENWERG, TRANSLATED BY ROBIN MYERS

So the rumor goes, Lady Lyric is dead. Ezequiel Zaidenwerg reports every way how in his sensation, Lyric Poetry Is Dead, with space for conspiracy theories to report of her sighting and escape. Each poem broadcasts anew; gossips and stirs the pot; one ups and redacts, chronicling narratives interspersed with Argentine history, celebrity and lore. The bilingual edition from Cardboard House Press, translated by Robin Myers, transmits to English the experience of reading Zaidenwerg in Spanish (a worthy feat) and includes drawings by Carmen Amengual and notes from poet and translator alike. The poems all begin in similar ways: “Lyric poetry is dead. Or so they say” but diverge in tone and cadence, and not only in story, so one never tires of reading or grows to expect the next line. There are moments of hilarity, like this one from the poem that opens the book which ends with lyric poetry’s liquidated estate and her properties include an “incredible variety of mirrors.” In other moments, the poem becomes accusatory and gives pause as the reader is charged with murder, and still other poems circumvent death entirely and boast of lyric poetry’s resilience: “but she is alive and she / is always coming back.” Lyric poetry becomes both the vehicle for Zaidenwerg to reimagine many histories and allude to other literary greats, and the poetic subject and star of her own legends. Just so, Lyric Poetry Is Dead is waiting to rise up like Lazarus and delight you over and over again.

Cardboard House Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

BRED FROM THE EYES OF A WOLF

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BRED FROM THE EYES OF A WOLF BY KIM KYUNG JU, TRANSLATED BY JAKE LEVINE

What if wolves behaved like humans? What if humans behaved like wolves? In Kim Kyung Ju’s dystopian play, Bred from the Eyes of a Wolf, translated by Jake Levine, this hypothetical comes alive. The outcome is not for the prudish or light-hearted. Kim newly approaches well-known narratives—from the archetype of the middle class family in Korean culture to the classic Greek Myth of Oedipus—to present an uncannily familiar and unfamiliar nuclear family, shitting together in a world where language is forbidden. The contradictory representation that unfolds forces the audience to confront taboo subjects and make new judgements. What’s morally allowable in a world of humanish wolves? What’s ethically grotesque and what’s just gross?

Kim layers more than classic archetypes here. He builds his post-apocalyptic pastiche with meta-awareness and the cockroach-like systems of civilization: capitalism and castigation. His wolf family highlights their cognizance of their own humanity when the mother warns her son: “Be careful! / Any animal that takes the path of humanity / always results in a scene filled with blood!” to which her son bemoans: “Fuck! Just like a human that thinks he is an animal, / I never recognize the trap.”  And then, there’s no short-supply of self-referential jabs at the deadbeat poet, or the censure of writing by an authoritarian government. Near the end, two policemen, in cyber suits and Orwellian practices, arrive to make arrests. From Policeman 2, “This mother and son, / they are like languages that live / in one another’s background. / [ . . . ] It’s suspicious.” Policeman 1, now suspicious, “Language is forbidden! // You are all sentenced to space dust!” Translator Jake Levine howls the play into English and leaves readers a closing essay to ensure that nothing from this new and untried Korean fable is missed.

Plays Inverse Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell