Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
My relationship with poetry has always been tenuous at best. There are a few authors whose works I will read no questions asked. Sherman Alexie or Sandra Cisneros? I’ll read their poetry, and I’ll like it. David Rakoff’s novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish., was another poetry-filled book I enjoyed. There are other books of poetry and several stand alone poems I’ve come across over the years that I’ve been very fond of, but I’ll be the first to admit that poetry isn’t something I actively seek out. Like, ever. I’m more of a prose girl.
So it’s probably a weird moment to mention that one of my best friends growing up was announced as McAllen, TX’s newest poet laureate (this is her latest book). And last month, she asked me to moderate a poetry panel at the McAllen Book Festival, which is how I was introduced to Amalia Ortiz, who breezed into the room wearing Star Wars leggings, a leather jacket, and a hairstyle that I wish I could pull off, but alas…I am not that cool. When the panel was over, I immediately went and bought a copy of Rant. Chant. Chisme.
If you say, I think the occupation of Palestine is fucked up on forty different levels, people are like, you’re the devil, we’re going to get your tenure taken away, we’re going to destroy you. You can say almost anything else. You could be like, “I eat humans,” and they’ll be like bien, bien.
– Junot Díaz
In the summer of 2014, Israel bombed Gaza for seven weeks during a campaign called Operation Protective Edge. Gaza, which had long been in a vulnerable state, suffered devastating losses; over two thousand people died and over half a million people were displaced. Historically, Israel’s assaults on Palestinians (and the US’s complicity in these assaults) have been largely ignored; there’s an occasional tsk tsk, but most turn a blind eye or think of the violence as part of some ancient Jewish-Palestinian feud that’s just too complicated to be worked out. It isn’t. And as Israel’s violence towards Gaza escalated in 2014, those images made their way around the world on news networks and social media. More started to take notice, and for once, those voices of dissent weren’t being automatically dismissed anti-Semitic.
Letters to Palestine is a collection of essays and poetry edited by Vijay Prashad. Its twenty-eight contributors, many of whom are Palestinian, include novelists, poets, scholars, and activists. The book is separated into three themes: Conditions, War Reports, and Politics. There’s quite a diverse selection of topics within each section, and the voices span a range of emotions — anger, pride, and solidarity, to name a few. Letters to Palestine is, as Prashad writes in his introduction, a book of documents:
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2012
Narrator: Tim Kang with Josiah D. Lee & James Kyson Lee
Length: 19 hrs, 22 minutes
What it is: Growing up in a North Korean work camp for orphans, Jun Do manages to rise from the humblest ranks in life to one of the highest, eventually even encountering the terrifying the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il. How he gets there is almost farcical, but the one thing keeping him grounded is his undying love for a beautiful actress named Sun Moon, whose career the Dear Leader is bent on destroying.
Why I listened to it: Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer, it was part of my Pulitzer Project for this year.
What I thought: This book is the literary equivalent of “Go big or go home.” And damn. Johnson went for it. The book generated a lot of buzz when it was released, but for some reason, I just never had the desire to read it. I picked up the audiobook shortly after it won the Pulitzer, not really knowing what to expect. I got lost a couple of times because it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around via audiobook, but more than anything, I was transfixed by Jun Do’s nightmarish conundrums. The Orphan Master’s Son is a clever and ambitious project that basically just blows everything else out of the water; I’ve never read anything else quite like it. So much of the book centers on identity, right down to the protagonist’s name — Jun Do…John Doe? — and though the book is almost dystopian in nature, it clings to some of the most basic tenets of human nature, particularly love.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Publisher/Year: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012
What it is: Before Terry Tempest Williams’s mother died, she told her daughter, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” That request was honored, and after her mother died, a grief-stricken Tempest Williams went to her mother’s journals to find some solace. What she found instead were three shelves full of blank journals. As time passed, she felt at turns angry, devastated, betrayed, and completely mystified as to what kind of message her mother had wanted to send her. The book is comprised of fifty-four variations — meditations of sorts — in which Tempest Williams imagines the message(s) her mother was trying to convey.
Why I read it: It sounded intriguing.
What I thought: Some parts were hit-or-miss for me. It took me a while to get into the book; there’s no denying the poetic beauty of the author’s writing — and at times, the chapters consist of straight-up poetry…but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a terribly poetry-minded person. That said, there were parts of the book that I wanted to copy down at length to savor later (and, in a couple of instances, I did just that).
by Suheir Hammad
from Born Palestinian, Born Black
learn to pronounce
the name of my spirit
the spirit of my name
and don’t complain
it’s too throaty
begin it in your gut
let it tickle the back of your throat
warm under tongue
let it perfume your breath
smooth your lips
and release it
round my hips