Book Review: TURNING JAPANESE by MariNaomi

 photo TurningJapanese_zps3mqogw2v.jpg Turning Japanese
Graphic Memoir by MariNaomi
2D Cloud, 2016
$24.95

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

“The year was 1995 and I was twenty-two years old.”

MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese begins with a breakup and ends with a homecoming. It’s a memoir that chronicles the protagonist’s personal evolution from job to job, from hemisphere to hemisphere. It’s a story that details MariNaomi’s reunion with a culture she thought she left behind. A fascinating visual insight into the mind of a torn-up twenty-something, desperate for some sort of solace in the country she barely remembers from childhood: Japan.

The graphic novel format was a bit jarring at first, but I very easily adjusted to the irreverent, very nearly goofy artwork that filled page after page. After finishing it, I can’t picture Turning Japanese in any other format—it is simply necessary that it be a graphic memoir. The illustrated form allows the reader to focus on the strong dialogue, while the scene spills out around the speech balloons. MariNaomi talks family, sex, cultural divide, all while lighting a cigarette, preparing snacks, or gauging a client’s behavior. Emotions are represented by emoticons and Cathy-esque sweat droplets and “Ack!”s. Characters’ faces are exaggerated and cartoonish, and oftentimes directly compliment the humor of the situations in which MariNaomi finds herself.

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And there are many, many humorous situations. As often occurs in cases of extreme culture shock, there are misunderstandings that come about, whether through botched language, missed cues, or alien gestures. MariNaomi hits them all with the curiosity and wit of a wide-eyed young traveler. She’s on a quest for understanding. She’s put herself on an adventure hoping for an ending.

After a breakup, MariNaomi finds work in the illegal hostess bars of San Jose, which eventually whisks her and a new lover away to the hostess bars of Tokyo. It is here she forces herself to change according to the culture around her: she learns the language; she visits with long-lost family. In their strange ways, her fellow hostesses and regular clients help her to adapt and survive.

Clocking in at 216 pages of emotive illustrations and unflinching, smartly crafted dialogue, Turning Japanese chronicles MariNaomi’s bizarre journey of retouching old lineage. At its core, it is a compelling tale of a traveling youth, seeking to find something meaningful on the other side of the Earth.

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Turning Japanese will be out from 2D Cloud on May 16, 2016.

 

 

 

 


Book Review: DON’T GO BACK TO SLEEP by Timothy Liu

 photo 15b7535b-208f-49bd-b253-cfca597443ce_zpsufct1y9b.jpg Don’t Go Back to Sleep
Poems by Timothy Liu
Saturnalia, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Robert Pinsky, in his essay “Responsibilities of the Poet” says we must answer for what we see. What about what we can’t see? How do we answer for such things? In Don’t Go Back to Sleep we see Timothy Liu grapple with lasting affects of the Nanking Massacre: a mass murder and mass rape by Japanese troops against the capital of the Republic of China, beginning in December, 1937. Since then, most documents detailing the massacre have been destroyed and many claim the events have been exaggerated or fabricated. Yet, Liu’s personal history, his family, and his Chinese heritage are intrinsically linked with this disaster. So we enter pages filled with historical questions, an obsessive and circular wondering of love, and a subtle despair for the death of his mother. Translation: the attempt to understand identity within a forgetful, uncertain world.

The collection opens with a poem that extends the length of the first section, a rough eighteen pages, titled “A Requiem For The Homeless Spirits.” It begins with the speaker looking at an image of a Chinese soldier’s head, and we quickly learn the decapitation is a result of a contest (the first to kill 100 Chinese), for which the winners received their picture on the front page of a newspaper. Liu documents the violence of the massacre, repeating the phrases “This is not how anyone would want to be remembered” and “Photos exist.” While the documentation is important, especially in spite of so many records being destroyed, Liu’s poem reads more like newspaper highlights and a fragmented narrative. As a reader, I’m searching for the language that takes these events beyond the page, that makes them transform from a research paper to an event I can feel sharp under my skin and mourn. Perhaps I’m not given that because, in a sense, the speaker has not been given that. Still, the moments I most connect to are when the speaker breaks into the stanzas and self-reflects on the magnitude of such as massacre:

Few of the survivors remain alive.
Few of the perpetrators remain alive.

Some of their stories have been recorded.
Many of their stories will never get told.

What should any of us do while they are still alive?

After the first section, we are thrust into a series of obsessive love poems, sexually charged, somehow both slow and frantic. Though at times the subject, whether the husband or the beloved or someone else entirely, is not consistently clear, Liu fills these poems with raw, physical images and a gritty vulnerability. I’m often surprised by such tenderness amidst the roughness, with lines like, “There are places in our bodies / no one has ever reached” or “not knowing if / I have a name, not unless / he calls.”

In one of my favorites, “Without You,” Liu experiences the absence of a romance, his own body now foreign and slow for “Without you I’m a tray of coffee mugs / the waitress spills in slow motion / on the night she got fired.” The poem is filled with these metaphors, repeating the title “without you” at the beginning of multiple stanzas. At the end, I find the most powerful moment among all the love poems:

Love whomever, then return

For without you, I’d have forgotten
the many doors through which
the world disappears

This disappearing world is the motivation behind Don’t Go Back to Sleep. The speaker in Liu’s collection is driven to find himself; his own family origin story under threat by those who wish to bury the Nanking Massacre. Liu does the work necessary to fight this erasure, navigating facts and molding them into an art form, of which he is able to share and memorialize with many.


 

Book Review: THE REPUBLICS by Nathalie Handal

 photo e089317b-6e09-4e80-a48b-24d024d2fb07_zpsv5bo8nla.jpg The Republics
Poems by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

After the Haitian earthquake of 2008, the poet Nathalie Handal revisited the country of her birth and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Faced with two vibrant cultures learning how to resituate themselves after this latest tragedy, Handal began to write a series of “flash reportages” based on the people she met and the stories they told. As much a love letter to her homeland as to its residents, The Republics is immediately successful as a collection that humanizes the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic to her readers elsewhere. Using the weight and lyricism afforded to her by the prose poem form, Handal is able to address these subjects with the urgency and gravity they deserve.

The island of Hispaniola, where so much is screaming crickets and broken motorcars and “Ten Drumbeats from God”—it is in these desperate spaces that Handal finds the people to whom she will give voice throughout the collection. Typically these are people living on the margins of society, such as the black Haitians speaking in “Noir, une lumière.” Even (and today, especially) in the United States we can recognize their particular cry for freedom: “Take everything but my blackness.” Spurned by a society that would rather erase them than face its issue of racism, they beg to be liberated from poverty, tragedy, and inequality while still being recognized for who they are. “They hated our black,” the speaker explains. “What they didn’t understand is that it illuminates their world.” By amplifying the voice of blackness in Haiti, she places the issue of racism starkly before us to be considered both as a Haitian problem and one here in our own backyard. By the poem’s end, readers are forced to face how demoralizing it is to be told, “You are in the wrong land even if the roosters recognize you.”

Despite some poems being written from what seems to be Handal’s viewpoint, nearly the entire collection is devoted to speaking on behalf of others. The series “Salt on the Tongue” introduces us to nine Haitians and their stories. “Amor in la Zona Colonial,” set in the Dominican Republic (and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World), doesn’t give name to its characters. Instead, it visits five bedrooms, perhaps in an apartment building or a hotel, to find unique voices and perspectives on romance. Some of Handal’s most beautiful lines are found here:

The hour changes time into other forms of desire. A woman needs no bra in summer. A kiss after a fuck. A way to depart.

We are a riot waiting to be broken and dispersed. I have no idea what it means to be beautiful but I try to survive what you don’t say.

I couldn’t tell if we were dancing or screaming or maybe it was a way to meditate la pobreza away…

Desire, loneliness, regret, and desperation make frequent returns throughout the collection. In “Milagro’s Recollections,” we meet a mother whose son, Frankie, died unexpectedly at the age of 19. The speaker remembers a time when the woman lived vibrantly before turning to examine her in the present moment. “All I saw was the way life moved faded leaves on her face. The way Frankie stayed handsome forever. She disappeared… But I was told, on some days when she is lucid, she says my name with a faint smile.”

The curse of the remembered dead seems to follow all the people Handal meets throughout The Republics, and each person lives with this burden in his own way. For her part, Handal first has to come to understand the rootlessness of this feeling.

I look at the mother looking at her child eating—why isn’t she smiling? I look at my lover looking at me naked beside him—why isn’t he smiling? I look at the ex-slave growing mangoes, and his daughters drinking water from a well—why aren’t they smiling?  I always believed that everything was black and white. But what’s closed inside me isn’t black or white.

Then there are those who run from what’s closed inside them—if only for a moment—such as the Haitians Handal observes celebrating Carnaval. “A parade of wild colors… Masks glittering. Every meter a dream.” Overtaken by beauty and joy, the people admire the “illusion” of the ocean while some cosmic camera pans over the entirety of the country. We’re told, in Haitian and French, that “coal is burning. The crowd is ready.” “Quelle belle nuit,” the partygoers agree. “Carnaval is a country made of secret crimson skies—why know everything.”

And yet, Handal’s voice throughout does ring as rather omniscient. There is no letting up from overwhelming reality; the presence of grief and injustice are never far. But, as she shows us in “La Carta del Capitán,” there are a few moments where we can locate the beauty in devastation. Sometimes, to survive, we must force ourselves to look at blessings as well as pain:

Love, your lips circling my chest, the shape of your mouth on my neck, I know now that distance isn’t a broken letter; it’s a dazzled heart, elegies turning into comets.


 

Book Review: MOTHERING THROUGH THE DARKNESS Edited by Jessica Smock & Stephanie Sprenger

 photo 7be5b3ba-0f07-401a-8b6a-f7a00db9f988_zpsi80e646q.jpg Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience
Edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger
She Writes Press, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Postpartum depression is the most common pregnancy-related complication with at least 1 in 7 new mothers mired in its dark water for months or even years, if left untreated. At least 1 in 7. But the nature of the disorder, the way depression, as Nina Gaby describes it, is like “Vaseline over the camera lens—the view is distorted but the object hasn’t changed,” paired with a new mother’s fear of being stigmatized as a “bad mom” or worse, an “unfit mother,” keeps many women wading alone through the murk of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, OCD, and other postpartum disorders. They never report it. They never ask for or receive help. They suffer through feelings of inadequacy and guilt, an inability to connect with their newborn, severe panic attacks, obsessive worry, and even thoughts of harming themselves or their baby. But this is an illness, no less controllable or the fault of the person suffering, or less deserving of treatment than brain cancer. But it is the trait of mental trickery, this hormonal deceit that locks mothers into silence, that makes Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, a collection of 35 beautifully crafted, highly personal essays, necessary reading for anyone who plans to become a mother or is close to a woman who is considering motherhood.

This anthology opens with poet Maggie Smith’s essay, “Here Comes the Sun.” Smith artfully drops the reader into the obsessive, redundant thinking that ushers itself into Smith’s world as a new mother, turning her into a person who is overcome by the need to “find The Pattern.” While heightened protectiveness, awareness, and focus on a new baby is part of the biology of new motherhood, the reader is quickly made aware that the intensity with which Smith experiences these inclinations was anything but normal:

With my son I wrote everything down: every feeding, what time he started, what time he finished, when he burped, when he spit up, what the spit up looked like, when he peed, when he pooped, what the poop looked like, when he cried, what his cry sounded like, when he slept, what position he slept in, when he woke.

If I wrote everything down, I would see The Pattern. The Pattern That Would Make Him Happy. The Pattern That Would Make Him Sleep.

The Pattern That Would Fix Him.

The Pattern That Would Fix Me.

Postpartum disorders associated with new motherhood do not only affect the biological mother. As Jill Robbins describes in her essay, “A Different Side of the Baby Blues,” adoptive mothers can experience post-adoption depression and are even more at risk of having their depression symptoms misunderstood and ignored by those they reach out to. The partners of new mothers, as well as family and friends, also need to be made aware of the symptoms of pregnancy-related mental disorders because, as this collection makes clear, the afflicted new mom will more than likely not be willing or able to ask for help, believing the lies of the postpartum disorder which tells her the problem is her failing as a mother and it is untreatable.

Although each of these essays is as different as the women writing them, there are striking similarities between them. Most notably, the realization that outside help is not only needed but vital is slow and takes the suffering mother, even those who are health care professionals, months, even years, to seek help. The new mothers think the lack of joy and contentment is their fault. Quite a few of these authors write that in their darkest times a glance in the mirror yielded in an unrecognizable, disheveled, miserable person looking back. But sadly, it is the recurring thoughts that their family would be better off without them, the vivid picturing of fatal accidents involving themselves or their babies that forces them to break their silence, to do what they most fear and tell someone about what is torturing them. And all, after getting the help they need and deserve, only wish they had been able to ask for it sooner. In essay after essay, the reader is faced with how common it is for women to want to lie about having postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, OCD, perinatal depression, or any other overwhelming feelings besides joy at being pregnant or having brought a new child into the world. And in every essay in this collection, talking about what is happening in the new mother’s mind does not lead to her child(ren) being taken away as she fears, but to her getting into therapy, sometimes taking medication, but most importantly getting her life and sense of joy back.

In “Recognizing the Darkness,” Lea Grover writes:

We’re learning more about postpartum depression all the time. We’re learning how a flood of ante- and postpartum hormones can trigger latent bipolar disorders, anxiety, all manner of mental illnesses that we already has susceptibilities for. Like an infection in an old, not-quite-healed scar…

We like think that our brains are above the petty illnesses that plague the rest of our bodies, but it’s not true. Our brains are as susceptible to fatigue and disease as our bladders, our lungs, our livers.

More and more, these postpartum complications are becoming part of the broader conversation about motherhood. This anthology is proof of the need to shatter the stigmas and allow women the freedom to open up about their true, myriad experiences with motherhood.