In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag (while longer works, like Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, were left at home.
Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair is illustrated by Juliana Neufeld, a full-page image introducing each of the short pieces.
The collection was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award (for children’s and YA literature) in 2011, and it could be read in a single sitting, or parsed over a series of days.
It begins with the concrete, and immediately readers are draw into the scenic detail and the narrative voice.
“When we travel to India to visit my parent’s family, my aunts tell me how pretty I am. I seize the opportunity to test out their observations. Maybe you should dress me up in a sari and see what I would look like as a girl, I say coyly. They jump at the chance. They spread out their rainbow sari collections on the bed and I feel like a princess as I choose the bold magenta and black one.”
Vivek stands on the margins and shares the view from that perspective, in simple and uncluttered prose.
“My body is disappearing. Armpits, chest, belly button, arms, fingers, legs, toes that were once bare are now lost somewhere under multiplying hair.”
It feels like a personal story but with wide-reaching relevance. “The more a brown person looks like a white person, the more attention they seem to get. Even if they are ugly.”
One source of strength for Vivek, in negotiating the world, is storytelling, which is recognized from an early age. “A ball being hit or thrown or kicked around doesn’t captivate me the way Nancy Drew books do.”
(Even though I wasn’t much of a Nancy Drew fan, any book was more interesting to me than any ball.)
But later the true power of storytelilng settles in: “It’s not until I am a little older that I find a new story. At a street-side vendor’s stall in India, as I am flipping through the stack of familiar pictures of Hindu gods, I freeze at an image I have never seen. It is of a deity composed of Lord Shiva’s left side and his female consort, Parvati’s right side. Ardhanaraeeshwara.”
I have a copy of She of the Mountains close at hand, and I suspect it has grown out of this discovery; I will be eager to add it to my bookbag in the weeks to come.
Another compact addition to the bookbag is Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude, comprised of four short essays,
It might seem unlikely that a series of pieces titled “The Joy of Old Age”, “My Own Life”, “The Periodic Table” and “Sabbath” could be inspiring, but if you are already familiar with his work, it will not seem such a stretch.
He has a way of laying things out, of displaying the ordinary elements in such a light, that the extraordinary catches every glimmer of light in the environs.
The volume is beautifully presented and the contents are honed. These short works have been worked and re-worked, so that every word appears to have found exactly the right place in which to rest.
Admittedly, I brought this book home with every intention of slipping it into the bookbag, but I found the pieces too touching: read-at-home pieces for me.
Although the pieces are soaked with life, and they are truly vibrant and life-affirming, I had not yet absorbed the fact that he had died, until I began to read from this collection.
Nonetheless, Gratitude does make good company for the grieving.
If you’ve read all of Joseph Boyden’s books, don’t despair, for even as the days in Aboriginal History month dwindle, there is plenty of great reading to be had, spun by aboriginal tale-spinners.
Jordan Abel’s Injun follows The Place of Scraps, one of my most memorable reading experiences of 2014.
As a reader who is hooked on narrative, works like these challenge me fundamentally, because it seems (at least, at first glance) that there is no linear story to follow.
Works like Jordan Abel’s might be even more challenging, if readers’ understanding of borders in this land, this land now called Canada, is rooted in the kind of “facts” that I was taught in my sixth-grade social-studies class.
As a schoolgirl, I dutifully coloured the provinces and territories on heavily dittoed maps.
I memorized the regions’ capitals, and a myriad of details declared relevant by instructors over the years (e.g. key industries, population, M.P. names). And I was a serious student. I learned my lessons well.
Nobody ever mentioned that these lands were some other peoples’ homelands: home + lands. So much was left unsaid.
Ironically, a lot is left unsaid in Injun too. (In The Place of Scraps, the concept of erasure is even more prominent.)
These spaces might be left for the gaps in which prejudice brewed, in which assumptions were left untested.
These spaces might be left so that other versions of the truth might stake a claim.
Injun is a perfect book for reading in the kind of space which affords the opportunity to reflect. (A commute works that way for me, because I am more inclined to look away from the book and muse for a spell. When I am reading at home, I am more likely to get up and wash the dishes in that span of minutes.)
Injun does not tell a story in a linear fashion, but it does smack of a story which is filled with beginnings and middles and ends. Not necessarily in that order.
And it does tell a story which insists that stories must be told. One which reminds us that they are told with spaces as often as with texts.
If you have already discovered Jordan Abel’s work, you likely need no encouragement to pick up Injun. If you haven’t sampled it, Injun is a compact peek into a story which deserves re/telling and un/telling.
What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?