Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry that focuses on the pain wrought from the treatment of the Native American people. Diaz works to expose, rectify, and challenge the American narratives about the Native population and their land. It is brilliantly done through the use of rivers and waters acting as the constant theme throughout the collection. In ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz writes, “Americans prefer a magical red Indian, or a shaman, or a fake Indian in a red dress, over a real Native. Even a real Native carrying the dangerous and heavy blues of a river in her body.” She touches on the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the exploitation of water by the government and corporations, and explains that water is not separate from the body. The collection is heartbreaking as it shows the rawness and pain that her and the Native Americans have gone through and will continue to go through. In the collection, I enjoyed the poems ‘Catching Copper’, ‘American Arithmetic’, and ‘exhibits from The American Water Museum’. It is a brilliant and aching collection of poetry.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar is a collection of poems that questions, asserts, and plays with the speaker’s place in religion, family, and America. Akbar works to create a narrative that, in a sense, is fearful of God, but soon traces his fear, not to God, but to the Americans he is surrounded by. Akbar writes about how he immigrated to America from Iran, being Muslim, and is continuously questioned and berated by people who despise him for no reason. The starkest of this is in the repeated lines, “At his elementary school in an American suburb,/a boy’s shirt says: “We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!””. I loved the way Akbar is able to draw upon what we believe children, and the innocence that is associated with childhood, to be and defile that thinking with complete hatred given to the boy by his parents. It speaks to a much greater and sadder reality of the positive feedback loop of xenophobia in America.
Though, I found the poem that struck a deep chord in me was in ‘How Prayers Work’ where Akbar and his brother attempt to pray but his brother trips over a doorstop and they laugh uncontrollably. The final stanza was what blew me away. “It’s not that we forgot God or the martyrs or the Prophet’s holy word—quite the opposite, in fact, we were boys built to love what was right in front of our faces: my brother and I draped across each other, laughing tears into our prayer rugs.” This, I felt was the turning point in his understanding of Islam, and thus worked to show him that religion was much more than what he was taught. I found the repeated used of the different ‘Pilgrim Bell’ poems worked to keep a rhythm, both inside the stanzas with shorter, choppier phrases, and also in the collection as a whole being interspersed periodically. I also loved the poems ‘Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997’, ‘In the Language of Mammon’, ‘There is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit’, and ‘Seven Years Sober’. This collection was powerful, heartfelt, and worked to create a sense of longing for family, religion, and peace within the self.
Final Rating: 5/5
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong is a collection of poetry detailing the life of a gay Vietnamese immigrant. In it, he grapples with encounters he’s had with other men and what they mean, the origin of him and his family, and works all those moments into understanding religion and the self. Not only is Vuong highly skilled at creating a satisfying and beautiful narrative arc, but he is also tidy and imaginative with his mastery of prose. In ‘Because It’s Summer’ Vuong writes, “you want/to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave/we climb out of but he’s already fixing his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming/with manure you smear your neck with”. His words are so exact in this collection, and the imagery refracts back on itself in new and imaginative ways. I was also astounded when reading ‘Aubade with Burning City’ where Vuong so powerfully juxtaposes the song of ‘White Christmas’ that played to signify the evacuation of Vietnam with the stark chaos and pain and sadness the Americans caused. It ends so heavily with the words, “In the square below: a nun, on fire,/runs silently toward her god—/Open, he says./She opens.” Other amazing highlights include ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952’, ‘Notebook Fragments’, and ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’. This collection is deftly honest, powerful, raw, and above all, beautiful.
Final Rating: 5/5
When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen is a collection of poems centering around what it means to be Chinese American, gay, and grappling with parents that do not accept him. At times it is humorous, and other times his deeply serious about his desires.
In its penultimate poem, and, I think, the heart of the collection, ‘Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls’ works to dismantle and push back against the narrative that, “All you write about is/being gay or Chinese.” by refuting, “Wish I had thought to say to him, All you write about is/being white/or an asshole. Wish I had said, No, I already write about/everything—“. This discussion of writing exclusively about being Asian has cropped up before, and I feel that Chen Chen defies that in a powerful way.
Other poems I was deeply moved by were ‘Race to the Tree’, ‘Talented Human Being’, ‘Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon’, ‘Didier Et Zizou’, and ‘Chapter VIII’. Chen Chen has a unique, at times abrasive, but always authentic, voice. The collection works initially to show the wound that is created by Chen Chen’s family and the Chinese society around him. Though, throughout the collection he grows to understand himself and his sexuality through the lines, “The parents wait for the child to become a western bird,/but the child/keeps leaking into a northern lake.” The collection works to challenge white heteronormative narritives, parental expectations, Chinese traditions, death, sexuality, and the power structures each contain. I absolutely admired this collection.
Final Rating: 5/5
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dang Thuy Tram is a diary of a Vietnamese doctor who treated patients during the Vietnam War. The diary spans roughly two years, where she documents and discusses the patients she treats and the longing for loved ones who have been killed by the American forces. The diary works to counteract the generally accepted narratives of the Vietnam War by exposing the pain and suffering America caused within the region.
The entries talk about someone she deeply loved before they split for the war, and the people she grew to understand and work with. Throughout, there is a thread of vitriol and anger for the American forces, which can be seen most represented in the sentence, “We certainly must defeat the American invaders, must bring ourselves to the days of independence and freedom.” In other entries, she talks of the Americans as demons. What is interesting to me, and possibly a sore spot for America, was that in America’s eyes, we were bringing peace and freedom to a land ruled by communism. However, Thuy flips the script on that by stating the Americans were, in fact, the ones oppressing and stopping freedom to occur. The diary ends on June 20th, 1970 and two days later, Thuy is shot and killed.
Final Rating: 4/5
The Best American Short Stories 2021 is a collection of twenty stories edited by Jesmyn Ward and selected for their literary quality. The stories contemplated queerness, gender, race, and class all in intrinsically unique and bold ways. I was completely enamored with six of the stories, many of them focusing on what it means to be gay or queer. These stories were ‘Good Boy’ by Eloghosa Osunde, ‘Palaver’ by Bryan Washington, and ‘Biology’ by Kevin Wilson. I was also enthralled by the voices and storytelling of ‘Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’ by Jamil Jan Kochai, ‘The Miracle Girl’ by Rita Chang-Eppig, and ‘The Rest of Us’ by Jenzo Duque. Overall, the collection was strong, poignant, contemplative, and tender.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
48 Blitz by Brett Biebel is a collection of flash fiction and short stories centered around Nebraska. Its stories intermingle and branch off each other, making reference to the local politician, the football legend, and even the inmate on death row. The collection features unique and sometimes humorous characters all while cultivating a Midwestern charm.
What popped out at me from the get-go was the specific and unique voice of the pieces. The style felt like a warm bowl of cheesy grits, which was most appreciated in the piece, ‘The Fat Man’. I was also intrigued by the more technical pieces. These highlights included, ‘A Simple Explanation of Benefits’, ‘The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes’, and ‘Supply and Demand’. The piece however that stood out from the collection was, ‘Luisa’, for its change in voice and style. It was a more conventionally written piece but acted as a strong emotional closer to the collection.
Final Rating: 4/5
Freeman’s: Change is a collection of stories, non-fiction pieces, and poems that are loosely tied to the theme of change. It features writers such as Ocean Vuong, Lauren Groff, Rick Bass, and Yoko Ogawa. I found the particular pieces by Christy NaMee Eriksen (a writer who I knew from a local poetry slam club), Ocean Vuong, Lana Bastašić, and Siarhiej Prylucki to be stunning. Though, there were pieces that lacked the sparkle I was hoping for.
I’d like to especially highlight two pieces that struck a massive chord in me, and one of them was Ocean Vuong’s story called Künstlerroman. His story details the life of a man going backwards in time as he watches on. He is so delicate and powerful with his words, that I couldn’t stop rereading the sentence, “Then the cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips as the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” The other piece that blew me away was Bread by Lana Bastašić. It was haunting, and painful, and deeply true in its rendition of what it means to be a girl becoming a woman.
Final Rating: 4/5
Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodriguez is a collection of essays detailing life as a Mexican American boy in Texas. The essays ranged from getting a dog to throwing a dead bird into an office building. The essays focused so finely on livable moments that the descriptions and synthesis of ideas worked well together. I also noticed that throughout the collection, Rodriguez understood the limits and strengths of his early life analysis.
Written with a captivating voice, there wasn’t a dull moment in the collection. And things as little as losing a raptor drawing or stealing an action figure were crafted in a way that pulled me into the minutia of being a child still unsure of the world.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a novel about a marsh girl, Kya, who was abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself in the marsh of North Carolina. Years later, she is accused of murdering Chase Andrews, one of her past boyfriends, because some clues lead back to her. It is a story about loneliness, love, loss, and nature.
While I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the initial set-up of the story, I was more or less underwhelmed with the story. The largest thing that stuck out to me was that a lot of the side characters that were black, Jumpin’, Mabel, and Jacob all talked in an overly stereotypical manner. Kya however, who only went to school once in her life and was self-educated with little contact with the outside world, spoke perfectly clear English without a twang. I’m not sure if this was unintentional, but I was put off by that.
To get more granular, I found that chapter 33, where Jodie came back, was stuffed into the narrative. Both the characters were written awkwardly and there was too much exposition/explaining of what Ma did when she left. In addition, the last chapter was directionless, and the two deaths were not impactful.
And my final gripe is that the last third of the story was simply a court drama where Kya was let off Scot-free. The court, while a needed aspect to push the story forward, didn’t add feeling to Kya’s actions. It was more or less dull in its retelling.
Final Rating: 2/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.