In which I discuss the skinny volumes which accompany me on my travels, while the heavier volumes (like Margaret Millar’s omnibus of mysteries, like Elizabeth von Arnim’s Christopher and Columbus) remain at home.
Tiphanie Yanique’s Wife appeared from Peepal Press in 2015, after a collection of stories and a novel: time for poetry. It is divided into four parts: “Notes for Couples Therapy”, “Altar Calls”, “Abandonment Stations”, and “Words (last, fighting, true, etc.)”. Sometimes this means a handful of words on a page (as with “I Try”, which considers a ghost bride). Sometimes it means a page solidly printed (as with “To Capture Ghosts”).
Disturbing. “Love and art won’t die. Those things haunt.” (from “To Capture Ghosts”) Poignant. “You come to belong to yourself.” (from “Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse”) Painful. “A marriage is a myth cleaved / from the mirror.” (from “Blood Wedding”) Sharp. “I will say my husband is like skin.” (from “Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiancé”) Playful. “I do not want to marry the prince. Leave me with my beautiful mirror and my many dancing shoes.” (from “Feminist Methodology: a found poem”)
This one landed on my TBR because it won the 2016 OCM Bocas Lit Prize for Caribbean Literature in the poetry category, in the same year that Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree won for fiction. (If you have forgotten how much I loved The Pain Tree, this will remind you.)
Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments‘ back cover reads: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” Which is exactly how it feels, reading it.
This means that it’s not a very satisfying read for more than 2 minutes at a time. (It’s a skinny book intended to be consumed in concert.) But a single passage can also be extraordinarily satisfying for two minutes independently. So, if you plan accordingly, this could be your perfect commute-read.
Her thoughts on writing itself were most appealing to me:
“I don’t love writing. I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of”;
“Biographies should also contain the events that failed to foreshadow”; and,
“The title of a book seems so important before I commit to it, but my favorite titles don’t belong to my favorite books, and my favorite books transcend their titles as movie stars transcend their human names”.
Jacqueline Bishop’s The Gymnast and Other Positions landed on my TBR because it won the Bocas Literary Prize for Caribbean Nonfiction last year (yes, with Tiphanie Yanique’s poems and Olive Senior’s stories, as above).
About a quarter of the volume is actually short fiction, but the bulk of the collection is comprised by essays and interviews.
The first story is the title story, which is broken into short sections named for gymnastic positions. It, like the rest of the stories and essays is short (perfect for reading on your commute or in a few stolen moments with a cup of something tasty between chores).
Under “Cartwheels”, we learn: “My mother was right. Cartwheels were what I was left doing, in the end. One after another, trying to get my trainer’s attention; trying to get anyone’s attention.” It sounds like a sombre tale (and it is, in some ways), but it ends on a note of triumph.
Many of the essays touch upon the experience of other Caribbean women. “My immigrant story, as are the stories of the other women I collected, is a record, a testament, even a testimony of who we believed ourselves to be in Jamaica and the lives we have made for ourselves in the United States. These are the stories we tell ourselves, as Joan Didion wrote years ago, in order to live. There are the stories we tell ourselves in order to build a narrative. These are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives.”
There is much discussion of craft in the interviews, which will be of interest to the writing reader, but most particularly a reader familiar with Jacqueline Bishop’s work, both poetry and prose. In discussing her first novel, she writes:
“I felt I had to write The River’s Song. I felt that I had to write this book to go on to write other books. I had to understand this story of a childhood in Jamaica because then it would allow me to explore other things. It is something you feel you have to do. It is not even asking you, it is demanding.”
What’s in your bookbag today?