You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (Catapult Press 2020)
Reviewed by Isabella Scala-Natoli
In Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much—what some have called a bildungsroman, and a character study—an unnamed D.C. raised Palestinian-American narrator gets dumped by her girlfriend for her chronic infidelity and goes to rehab, then an MFA program. Across America, Europe, and The Middle East, she learns how to shape her life story into a love-story both shattering in impact and fractured in shape. Each place the narrator takes us to is tied to a person, and another manifestation of the same quest. That is, to find a mother—and in effect—a homeland. On this quest, as readers, we experience with the narrator what I can only describe as growing pains. What I got from reading YETM was the chance to bond with a character who by working out her own flaws, made me consequently realize my own. This sounds negative but it isn’t. It was a pleasant awakening. Like suddenly remembering where you know that person from, the one you saw on the bus earlier. You went to college together. Of course! Your dislike of others stems from your own insecurities. Of course!
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (Counterpoint 2019)
Reviewed by Yollotl Lopez
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is like balloons filled with paint exploding against a white canvas — c. Heart Berries is Mailhot’s debut memoir told in a cyclical narrative touching upon her experience as a writer, mother, mental health patient, and partner all informed by her identity as a First Nations Canadian living in the U.S. It is the story of love, and loss, but most of all it is a story about storytelling. Mailhot writes:
“Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers” (105).
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
If “cat got your tongue” is the euphemism for not finding your words, then “a ghost in the throat” is its opposite. Author Doireann Ni Ghiofa defines it best in her titular combo of auto-fiction and essay as she explores her need to write about Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, the eighteenth-century noblewoman and poet of Ireland’s classical keen, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, or The Lament for Art O’Laoghaire, is Chonaill’s account of the romance and death of her husband, and is taught in Ireland’s literature curriculum as one of the greatest poems written in the country’s history. However, Ghiofa points out that this is one of the few texts written by Chonaill herself. How can someone so famous have little to no other accounts written about them? Ghiofa’s book chronicles her search for the story surrounding Chonaill’s life while intertwining her own experience of hardship and motherhood during her years of research. Her prose does its best to put into words the yearning need to give voice to the silenced artists of the past.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit 2018)
Reviewed by Stephanie Chariton
British author and psychiatrist Tade Thompson’s stories and shorts have been critically acclaimed worldwide. His debut novel, Rosewater, won both the Nommo Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the U.K. Originally published in 2016, the Wormwood trilogy’s first installment is a deep dive into a world of aliens, with a beautiful mix of psychic powers, detective work, and sci-fi at its best.
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2020)
Reviewed by Megan Foster
A good man is hard to find, as they say. This is certainly the case in Cuban author Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral, a darkly comic novel that buzzes around the Stewart family’s fated arrival to Cienfuegos. Arturo Stewart moves with his wife Carmen and their three children – David King, Samuel Prince, and Johannes – with the express purpose of constructing a titular cathedral to outshine any temple in Cuba and make Cienfuegos the new Jerusalem. It doesn’t take long for the neighborhood to suspect that the Stewarts are not what they seem. Readers must determine whom to trust as the novel rapidly flits through everyone’s point of view but the Stewarts: town gossips, classmates, a school principal, an architect, a drag queen, ghosts, a serial killer. In a town spurred by greed and violence, no one is holier than thou.
Drizzling in Tongues: On Translating Myself
By Kiran Bhat
In this piece, multilingual poet Kiran Bhat reflects on the act of self-translation, and how the act and ambitions of a translation project can shift based on language, emotion, and sound.
To be lost in language, or languages. I don’t want to say I was born with this problem. Language is not a space, language is a trap. We are born into one, we are formed into one, and we never choose which one it is. My blessing was that I was raised in an environment in which I thought, felt, and conditioned myself in the world’s lingua franca, English. For my family who remained in India, particularly the older generation, the language was Kannada. In order to connect deeper with my grandparents or uncles and aunties, I would have to speak in Kannada. And then, when I studied abroad in Spain, and learned that there were people who did not speak English, who had chortled and gossiped and slandered in a completely different tongue, I learned I had to speak in Spanish, too.
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung (Ecco Press)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Books can find their way to you at exactly the right moments. With many significant social issues demanding justice in the weeks preceding the 2020 election and the path ahead foggy at best, I was in need of strength and hope. Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse, and her heroine Katherine, appeared as an omen of power and resistance.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Gallery/Scout Press 2019)
Reviewed by Amy Spaughton
With a global pandemic and lock-down looming, I, like many others right now, depend on books to take me elsewhere. Anywhere will do; the past, the future, a completely new world… Books that travel through time and space allow us to understand our current world from a safe distance. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, however, shows us that escapism is not the only way out. This book follows Queenie, a young Black woman in present day South London, as she navigates her relationships to love, race, and mental health.
I’ll admit, I was initially resistant. Being brought firmly back to my hometown of South London and to this particular reality felt harsh. But then the protagonist, Queenie, mentions things like Tumblr and Twix bars and it’s oddly comforting. It feels like reading a diary. Her unyielding and often comic honesty is as refreshing as it is poignant. In honour of this intimacy, I have decided to present my review as a diary.
The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, trans. by Chris Andrews (Graywolf Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
There is an old saying that one can tell the character of a person not by how long they have known them, but based on a single gesture. These view sinuously weaves together four characters of Selva Almada’s 2012 novel The Wind That Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews in 2019, both author and translator create a character study of four individuals at a roadside garage in Argentina.