REVIEW: Fiction At Literati: Akil Kumarasamy

 

Image result for half gods 

am discovering a litany of South Asian female writers, from the much-loved Jhumpa Lahiri and her Pulitzer-Prize winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and recently, the Fatima Farheen Mirza’s brilliant debut novel, A Place For Us. Being Indian myself, it is refreshing to see the emergence of these writers documenting their stories in gorgeous, intelligent prose. I am thrilled to announce Akil Kumarasamy with her debut collection of ten short stories entitled Half Gods among their ranks.

Kumarasamy’s ten stories tell the loosely interconnected lives of immigrants, people displaced by the civil war in Sri Lanka, a Chinese neighbor, and many others. Myriad viewpoints in character and perspective– bouncing between first, second, and third person– and an interesting cast of characters elucidates Kumarasamy’s deep wisdom in exploring the lives of many different kinds of people. You feel as though she knows more than she ought to know about subtle suffering, disorder, displacement– but there is a viscerality to the characters that makes them all real.

This is how I felt at Literati while Kumarasamy read a short story from her collection. The story she’d read was written in the second person, which gave it a sense of being fragmented; it felt like we knew a whole lot about the main character without ever learning their gender or name. It was a skilled use of the second person, as her character was an actor and the perspective amplified the effect of him in a mask. Kumarasamy’s language hones in on the physical details and nuances of the world around her, and looks at the world with almost godly eyes– as though consequences and actions are rendered as one. Her work is lyric– poetic– rich. Divinely so.

And yet, I felt occasionally that there were aesthetic niceties that strained the story. This is perhaps a matter of personal preference, and I have not read but two stories in the collection. At least during the reading, I felt sometimes disconnected from the character and story. I think this may be because I didn’t have the text of the story in front of me and I had to rely solely on oration– sometimes that can be tricky with stories rich in language and content.

Kumarasamy read one story at the reading. I wish she could have read more. I wanted to compare a second person story to one of her other stories, as I feel like a second person story is a category of its own.

When Akil Kumarasamy releases her next book, I await to read it– I’m interested in the projection of this writer’s career and the literary feats she will accomplish. She’s released a stunning debut, acclaimed by the New York Times, the New Yorker, USA Today, and I’m sure anything she has yet to make will stir the literary community.

PREVIEW: Zell Visiting Writers Series: Esmé Wang & Danielle Lazarin

Esme Wang and Danielle Lazarin

Kicking off the first installment of the Zell Visiting Writer’s Series for fall 2018 is  novelist and essayist Esme Wang and short-story writer Danielle Lazarin. The Zell Visiting Writers Series invites one or two distinguished writers for a reading of their literary work. These authors have critically acclaimed reception for their fiction, and engaging in their work and this event is a great way to be involved in the literary scene on campus and beyond.

Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, Esme Wang is the author of the Border of Paradise, which is her debut novel. It is set in a post-war America and centers around the secrets and the haunting mental illness of family members affecting generations to come. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program, Danielle Lazarin has recently published her debut collection of short stories which has been called a brilliant look into the inner lives of middle-class women. Both these writers have much to say about womanhood, complex mental lives, and the truth of being human. Attend the reading Thursday September 20th, 2018 from 5:30-6:30 at UMMA’s Helmut Stern auditorium.

REVIEW: Lecture: Race, War, and Refugees with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen received critical acclaim for his book The Sympathizer, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 and a string of other awards and recognitions. It was to the utmost excitement of the University to host him with the collaboration of over a dozen student organizations and departments on campus. The reading and lecture was introduced by the well-loved and exuberant Emily Lawsin, Professor of Women’s Studies and American Culture, who declared his novel as a major work of representation for Vietnamese Americans, and the Vietnamese Student Association; both welcomed Nguyen to the stage with raucous applause. There is much to be said about both the reading and lecture, though I will focus on the reading in this review.

Nguyen’s reading was moving in an unexpected, visceral kind of way. Framed by the lecture’s air of social justice and interwoven with his own personal accounts of being a refugee in America after the Vietnam war, the reading was elevated in its state of importance in the packed theatre. The book follows the circumstances of a nameless narrator moving from the final days of Vietnam to his shift to Southern California. The narrator is a double-agent, spying on Southern Vietnamese forces until he is forced to the US.

Nguyen’s writing is witty, funny, takes the often mundane or silly and complexifies it into something rich and important. There was a passage that he read on the stench of Vietnamese fish sauce, which could not have been more eloquent and hilarious: “This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek, lending new meaning to the phrase ‘there’s something fishy around here,’ for we were the fishy ones.” He tackles Vietnamese identity with the depth of someone who is acutely aware of all facets of his American experience– from the microaggressive comments from white people to the guilt of being a half-refugee, half-American and having to choose one to the strange, wacky clashes in culture and tradition.

One of the students asked a question about how one can make their story readable and engaging, especially if it focuses on issues that its audience won’t know much about. Nguyen explained that the whole point of writing a story is to elucidate experiences that its audience doesn’t know about. He knows that Vietnamese fish sauce may be an experience limited to a few, but it simply has to be included if one is to tell an honest story– how it’s included is the question. And how Nguyen does it is brilliant: with rich language, an exuberant narrator; unafraid to grapple with unsettling topics; sensitive yet risky; bold enough to say, in the end, this: “We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers were cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk?”

More than anything, what moved me about this event is how important it was. It was a space for the APIA community to be represented and heard. Nguyen made a point that stays with me still: he said that he was disappointed that a New York Times review of The Sympathizer described Nguyen as “giving a voice to the voiceless”. His objection: “We already have a voice. Do you know how loud Vietnamese people are? We have a voice, but the problem is, we’re not heard.”

Most critically acclaimed stories on the Vietnam War are often from the American perspective, like The Things They Carried or Matterhorn. They all focus on how the war affected America and wounded its soldiers– it’s the same sentiment of how Americans start wars and then make a movie thirty years later on its damaging consequences on its poor citizens. And I don’t mean to diminish the trauma of the war on Americans– it’s just that when you think about it from a bigger perspective, it’s a bit selfish to see only that. We’d left a country with hundreds of thousands of orphaned children, over a million refugees, and a simmering hatred between North and South Vietnam that still lasts today. At least our stories must reflect both sides. At least our stories, if anything, must do the invisible job of reconstructing our wars so we remember them through a lens of truth, justice, and of honesty that couldn’t be served before those stories were made. The Sympathizer ranks among those stories, and Viet Thanh Nguyen among its brilliant tellers.

REVIEW: An Evening with David Sedaris

I’ve been told that evenings with David Sedaris are memorable and hilarious, and I’m excited to say that it’s true.

A woman from Michigan Radio introduced him with an anecdote about him calling into the station to make a donation, leaving everyone on the other line starstruck. It seemed that the same starstruck feeling echoed in the almost-full auditorium of Michigan Theater as he walked out in a long dress shirt, untucked and down to his calves, beneath a jacket that had seen some scissors. He modeled for us as a start to the evening before his anecdotal debut: a quick mention of a time when he called into another radio station, who told him that he sounded like Piglet.

His timing there must have been on purpose, because I and several others afterwards discussed not being able to get that out of our minds as he spoke for the next two hours. Nothing that he brought was content that I’ve read before, so it was nice to hear something new to me.

Sedaris brought a couple of short stories to read, sprinkling in small anecdotes and some selections of his latest diary collection, Theft by Finding — along with some from his upcoming second selection of diaries. After reading an essay simultaneously about mysterious dental pain and traveling to Japan, he brought up something that I’ve been wondering since first reading Me Talk Pretty One Day: he never wants to write about just one thing at a time. He has a way of associating seemingly very separate things in order to avoid writing about just one thing. “I wanted to write this essay about my tooth, but I also was thinking about my visit to Japan, and it just had to fit.” And in some magical Sedarisian way, it worked. He seems to have the life experience to associate anything.

Another story that he read was called “Active Shooter,” about him and his sister going to a shooting range because they’d never done it before. His sister was interested in learning how to handle a gun, specifically just in case she was about to be killed and her killer dropped his gun — much of the story hinged on his sister’s oddly particular foresight and thinking of the most specific instances. It followed their journey through a long class about how to handle guns and ended with the sister being praised for her skills, while the teacher consistently called David by the name of Mike. Both siblings left without feeling the need to shoot again.

My favorite diary entry that he read — which made me and several cry laughing — was one about trying to translate the English idiom about the pot calling the kettle black into French (directed toward his French teacher who called him a sadist), which turned out something like “That is like a pan…saying to a dark pan…’you are a pan.'” I instantly thought of all my foreign language experience trying to translate what was in my head directly, and how often it just doesn’t work.

One of the final bits that he read was “And While You’re Up There, Check My Prostate.” This essay explored international methods of dealing with road rage, many sayings translating clunkily but funnily to English from various European languages and dialects. I liked the general theme of translation-based disconnects that evening, and also appreciated their delivery. They were hilarious enough to make anybody laugh no matter their translation experience.

Following the reading and before the signing, he requested to bring the lights up for a Q&A session with the large audience. I loved seeing how appreciated he was to locals here, and figured it made sense with his wit and attention to social culture. The question I best remember was somebody asking him whether he still picked up garbage (mostly as a gesture to preserving the environment) — to which he responded, yes. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was the only one in the room who did that.

What I love about Sedaris’s writing is that it’s largely about the human condition, but also is so full of rich comedic timing and phrasing. It’s honest and fun, rarely distant, and always makes me wonder how much of it he’s actually experienced. Following the reading, I braved the long line to have him sign my copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames and was delighted to find that he was just as funny and surprising on a conversational whim. I left Michigan Theater feeling ecstatic, especially after getting to meet him.

He’s returning in June to Ann Arbor, and I highly recommend going to see him read and speak! You’ll laugh and learn so much.

PREVIEW: An Evening with David Sedaris

A few years ago in my freshman year, right after I read Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris came to Ann Arbor. The following year, he returned. For various reasons I was unable to attend either event and decided to wait with hope until his next visit to try seeing him — and now that he’ll back in town this week, I can! I’m super excited to see one of my favorite humor writers speak about his work, craft, and hopefully life (about which he writes both satirically and honestly). I feel right to assume that this event will yield plenty of laughter and food for thought, mirroring his writing style. This will be my first time in his presence, which I have heard is entertaining and awesome. There are still some tickets left if you’d like to come celebrate the end of the semester with us!

Date: April 18th, 2018
Time: 7:30pm
Location: Michigan Theater

More info and featured image credit found here.

REVIEW: Student Poetry Reading

When I rushed from my 3-6 class in East Quad to the 6-8 poetry event in the Institute for Humanities, I was a little surprised to see so many people standing and sitting along the wall — all of the seats were taken. I hadn’t seen very much advertising for the event (and honestly didn’t know if the poetry community at UM stretched to this size). I sat alongside the wall with some professors and students, all of us celebrating the start of National Poetry Month together.

Laura Kasischke, a writer and professor of poetry in the Residential College, introduced the event with a Wyn Cooper poem, “Fun,” the foundation of which Sheryl Crow used for one of her popular songs. With that tidbit, Kasischke described Cooper as the richest poet without many people even knowing. Her opening was (from my memory) the only interpretive reading — the rest of the evening was all originals.

For the next hour and a half, several UM students read their own work. It was admirable to see that they came from such a range: while several were there for an RC poetry class and/or studying creative writing, some were on their way home from the School of Information or business students working on a project with poetry relating to anorexia. One of the last student readers even read from a published book of their own poetry. Regardless of student background, there was no poem by which I wasn’t impressed.

In fact…I was so enthralled in the poetry that I don’t remember many names or titles. Oops.

The first student read an ode that came from a poetry class assignment, followed by a few more students reading from the same course. I enjoyed this for the chance to see the hybridity of different poems coming from the same teaching and prompts. While this wasn’t necessarily required, most if not all readers prefaced their work with a little information about where and why they wrote it. Sometimes I’m more interested in the work standalone, but perhaps this gives another crucial layer to understanding the work, thus changing that opinion of mine.

I especially loved that most of the students read multiple poems — several read 2-3 pieces, though one student in particular read what seemed like 10. This was great as a chance to really get to know their style. I also participated, reading 3 pieces (one of which I hadn’t yet shared with the world beyond my own poetry professor).

The UM poetry community seems more niche and separate than it really is. When all of the students exhausted the pages they brought along, the event turned into a chance to chat among each other. I loved this unexpected element and upkeep in energy. For most of the poetry events I’ve attended and/or participated in, the poetry took up the entire time without very much time to debrief or get to know the other attendees/readers. This was where I realized that I had attended previous readings with these same incredible, young poets — further highlighting that community aspect.

It was a supportive space from start to finish, with applause turning into personalized encounters along the lines of “I really loved your poem about ____” shared among strangers. Poetry brought us all together that windy Wednesday evening and I hope to meet them again.

All of this is to say, there’s always room for more poets everywhere! I hope y’all visit some other poetry events. Even better, maybe try your hand at writing and/or sharing your poetry this month. I’d love to read and celebrate it.