The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi is a novel that encompasses the breadth of an Iranian family and the conflicts they become involved in. It’s a novel about family, magic, relationships, politics, war, and is written in the same vein and voice that a weaving family history would be told in. The story mainly focuses on Ahmad, a son who can’t speak after he is forced to shoot his father, where he learns what it means to exist within conflict. Araghi is able to create a sweeping narrative that captures magic found within the family’s curse of living forever, the burning ability of Ahmad’s poetry, and the flowers created after a musician plays songs. The magic adds curiosity, suspension, and all felt wonderful within the world that Araghi builds.
I was especially impressed with how Araghi navigates the death of one of the immortal characters, Agha. Reading the portions where Agha observes himself to be dead and a celebration/funeral is thrown in his honor is surreal. And I felt the finality of setting Agha back in his tree, where he will reside in forever, was a fitting and bittersweet moment with both Ahmad and his grandfather, Khan. I also found the tie in with the story about the cats in the beginning added an air of legend to an already mythical story. Finally, in the last few pages of the novel, the narrator, in a way, identifies themselves which, not only adds to its parallelism with the cat story, but becomes a story about a story. This feels like a story that a grandpa tells their grandson, something passed so delicately from one mouth to another about how the family came to be. And for that, I loved it.
Final Rating: 5/5
Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping is a collection of essays by Matthew Salesses that looks to question, dismantle, and rebuild our notions of what fiction and workshop is. Salesses interrogates the idea of craft, and its white heteronormative beginnings, and what that means for minorities, such as Asian Americans. The book also looks into how to go about workshopping pieces in new and different ways. Salesses suggests what has worked for him in the past, and provides examples on those types of workshops, knowing of the initial model. And finally, Salesses provides pathways and questions that would be helpful in strengthening the workshopped piece. I enjoyed the overall tone of Salesses, as well as the concrete ways he tries to go about writing and workshopping.
Final Rating: 4/5
Obit by Victoria Chang is a collection of poems which try to work through and deconstruct the grief she had felt after the death of her parents. She discusses the deep well of pain and suffering as well as confronts what that mortality means to her. The collection is mainly in the form of prose poetry in paragraphs, which aid in creating a sense of endlessness to the grief and suffering. Additionally, there is a sort of repetition in the poems where each one begins by saying something (an object, a concept, a person) died. I think the poems that use this concept well are ‘Voice Mail’, ‘Civility’, ‘Gait’, ‘Secrets’, ‘The Clock’, and ‘Victoria Chang’.
To me however, while the poems worked to deepen the understanding of the speaker’s grief, they didn’t seem to push past those boundaries. Though, I did appreciate the lines in the poem ‘My Mother’ that said, “The way memory is the ringing after a gunshot. The way we try to remember the gunshot but can’t. The way memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking.” Chang admits in her poems that even after sitting and residing in the hurt that she still isn’t sure that it will go away. And for that reason, after finishing the collection, it feels like a bittersweet moment for Chang as she must continue to live with, understand, and grow from her parent’s death.
Final Rating: 4/5
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
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.