The city as a character in its own right is a frequent device in otherwise disparate novels. In Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (1987), a water-shimmering, pleasure-seeking Venice forms the fabric of the female protagonist’s life. Andrei Bely’s modernist tour-de-force Petersburg (1916), following a long tradition in Russian literature, portrays this city as both the site and driver of the action. For the navel-gazing narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), Paris and other locations in France are integral sources of his copious memories. The commonality among such city-infused works is the reputation of said cities: world-renowned and possessed of their own symbolic capital and literary mythology. The associations are not always positive—writers often portray big cities as dirty, oppressive, even demonic—but the cities historically portrayed in literature are famed embodiments of grandeur and stature.
Everything about Happy Singh Soni, the titular hero of Celina Baljeet Basra’s stinging first novel, is unlikely. He is the son of Punjabi cabbage farmers, but he fancies himself a screenwriter and prospective movie actor in the mold of Nouvelle Vague darling Sami Frey. (Indeed, he has effectively memorized Godard’s Bande à part.) He imagines his future in a Europe of all the classic allures, living in an elegant stone house with a yellow door; he is all about the details, which are uniformly sensual and full of wonder to him. Even as a child on his parents’ modest farm, he begins practicing for the day when his public utterances will be sought after by the press, so he invents a series he titles “The Loo Interviews,” conducted by an eager reporter for the gossipy Jodhpur News . . . while he occupies the privy.
He is in exuberant love with all he experiences, especially his mother’s adoringly proffered fried treats. Happy even appreciates the pests that afflict the surrounding farmland that is slowly being consumed by the amoeba of a badly managed Disneyland knockoff called Wonderland, where he takes a desultory job in which his nascent talents are ignored. He is the kind of imaginative soul who can’t help but personify even the stars in the sky (“Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde”).
Sometimes visiting a new neighborhood can change your life. While scouting locations for a fashion shoot, filmmaker Naomi Yang happened upon a boxing gym in East Boston. The modest second-generation family business, with its sparring ring and wall of framed black-and-white photographs depicting local boxers, seemed like a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the gym’s owner and head coach, Sal Bartolo, Jr., disagreed, citing aprevious photo shoot that had gone badly, with high heels destroying his mats. There would be no fashion shoots in his gym. Instead, he gave Yang his pitch to all visitors, telling her to come back for a free boxing lesson. In voiceover, Yang confides to us that she did not take the offer seriously and didn’t plan to return. And yet, a few weeks later, she did. Part of her was holding out hope that Bartolo would change his mind. But another part felt drawn to boxing, and Bartolo’s gym would soon become the center of her life. Yang’s documentary tells the story of how this chance meeting at a boxing gym brought her into a deeper understanding of herself, and of the ways bullying forces can leave their mark on places as well as people.
“Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are,” suggests philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Based on her collection Dialect of Distant Harbors, Dipika Mukherjee would agree, I believe, but “landscapes” here would have to be plural, because in addition to geographical landscapes, these poems embrace multiple settings, languages, weather, generations, relationships, and traditions and rituals, both spiritual and secular. Through experiences both lived and dreamed, her poems invite the reader to discover beauty, danger, and heartbreak by exploring new worlds and revealing heart-stopping moments of intimacy. The harbors she describes are distant but never forgotten, both welcoming and estranging.
Although they are not named or numbered, we can see by the choice of extra spacing between each group of five to seven poems in the table of contents that Mukherjee has created seven sections for this collection. Throughout the book, each section is separated by a graceful lotus mandala, similar to those that adorn sacred texts and women’s hands hennaed for special occasions. These seven symbolic pauses serve as a constant reminder of the overarching message of healing, resilience, and rebirth in all the poems carefully gathered here. They also invite the reader to pay special attention to seven central themes: generational roots, the misogyny and physical torture women suffer, the passing of time, the horrific violence of racial and cultural hate, mortality, migration and exile, and the value of travel.
Review: Poems of Encounter in Dipika Mukherjee’s Dialect of Distant Harbors
The art critic Jerry Saltz peppers his Twitter feed with advice to artists. Recently, he wrote: “Artists: Every single second you spend on being jealous of someone else is a complete waste of life.” Reading it, I thought of Lizzy, the sculptor at the center of Kelly Reichardt’s new film. Showing Up is a dry comedy that is a love letter to anyone who finds time to make art while holding down a day job and trying not to let anxieties—which might arrive in the form of jealousy, resentment, or self-loathing—get the best of them. What makes this story unusual is that it focuses on an artist in mid-career, someone who has honed her talent and is respected by her peers, but who is not famous or conventionally successful. I can think of a lot of movies about artists at the beginning or end of their careers, charting the exciting rise or the tragic crash-and-burn, but there aren’t many filmmakers who can find the drama in the daily life of an artist diligently doing the work.
Welcome to the June round of Friday Reads! Are you hoping to read more this summer? Do you have a favorite shady spot in a backyard or park, but no book to share it with? Read on for exciting recommendations from our contributors. Find stories that reach beyond the scope of normative human experience, essays about writing and writers, and hybrid memoir on music and survival.
My first encounter with Mona Kareem’s work was not her poetry, but her essay in Poetry Birmingham on the trend of Western poets “translating” from languages they are not literate in. Kareem brings attention to what she calls the “colonial phenomenon of rendition as translation,” in which a poet effectively workshops a rough translation done by a native speaker or someone who is otherwise literate in the original language. Often, this is the only way acclaimed writers reach Western audiences. I was excited, then, to see that I Will Not Fold These Maps, Kareem’s first collection translated to English, defies this trend. Presented with the original Arabic alongside the English translated by Egyptian poet and journalist Sara Elkamel—for whom this work is a debut full-length translation—this book is a mixture of Kareem’s previously collected work alongside brand new poems, presenting a great overview of her work. I Will Not Fold These Maps’s execution as a collaboration between Arab poet-translators only strengthens the experience of reading it, filled with poems that vividly explore exile, grief, and writing and its relationship to resistance.
“My way is so long, so long, but my road is foggy, foggy,” reggae legend Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, chants on his 1980 song “Road Foggy.” The beat sways underneath him like a horse plodding on a mountain track, and the horns sound muted and distant through the mist. It’s a song about the song as journey, a track that feels like it’s never meant to end. You travel not to get to get to the end of sound, but to luxuriate in it. As Spear said in an interview, “If I walk away from music, I walk away from myself.”
Colin Channer includes that quote and the line from “Road Foggy” in several poems in his recently released second collection Console (FSG). The volume is suffused in dub and reggae recordings he loves from his homeland. Dub is not just something left behind, though. It’s also a metaphor for the way that Channer’s own experience and existence makes Jamaica live in his new home of New England, and vice versa. Music creates an imagined space in which disconnection is its own coherent landscape. The consolation is that the places you go are both where you’ve been and who you are.
Happy May! Our 25th issue launches on Monday, bringing you a portfolio of unforgettable writing from Kuwait, poems about rodents, car washes, and colonization, and prose pieces about art, religion, albatrosses, and snowcats. In this installment of Friday Reads, Issue 25 contributors reflect on some of their favorite books.
In middle age, many women find themselves members of the sandwich generation: those who are caregivers to both their elderly parents and young children. Such is the fate of Sandra Kienzler (Léa Seydoux), the heroine of Mia Hansen-Løve’s sneakily powerful drama. Set in Paris, Sandra’s story also unfolds in the busy landscape of midlife. She’s both a widowed mother to her school-aged daughter, Linn, and a dutiful daughter to her elderly father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), who is suffering from Benson’s Syndrome, a rare, neurodegenerative disease. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Sandra hurrying from work to visit with her father before picking her daughter up from school. It seems she’s figured out a way to balance everything, but it’s also clear that it can’t last. Georg can no longer open the door without coaching from Sandra or prepare food for himself without help. His disease affects his vision and his memory, and Sandra has to remind him that she works as a translator, and that his favorite author is Thomas Mann. A former philosophy professor, Georg lives alone in an apartment filled with books he can no longer read. He survives thanks to visits from his daughters, Sandra and Elodie, his ex-wife Françoise, and his long-term girlfriend, Leila.
Much of One Fine Morning is concerned with Georg’s decline, and the struggle to move him out of his apartment and to find affordable long-term care. This process is long, drawn-out, and extremely sad for everyone involved. But it’s not the only dramatic thing happening in Sandra’s life: she’s also falling in love with an old friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), a married father whose son goes to school with her daughter Linn. It’s Sandra’s first serious relationship since her husband’s death, and it’s immediately intense. The convergence of these two psychically seismic events is what give One Fine Morning its dramatic shape, but it’s the attention to Sandra’s daily activities which gives it a texture that feels remarkably true to life. Sandra may be in a difficult transitional period, with big emotions roiling underneath the surface, but she still needs to get on the bus and head to work; she still has to pick up her daughter from school; she still has to plan for vacations, celebrate holidays, and figure out what on earth to do with all of her father’s books.
Love Will Remain: A Film Review of “One Fine Morning”