A curated literary guide

Week #47 / 20th – 26th November, 2017

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Sunday Review: Stay with Me

a novel from Ayòbámi Adébáyò

[ Knopf / 2017 / 272 pp ]

There is so much to treasure in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s debut novel. Its freshness, for one, is remarkable: there are many novels on broken families and couples, many on domineering, abusive parents and in-laws. In the midst of such a timeless subject, Adébáyò delivers with aplomb a story that startles and guts you.

I don’t want to give anything away—Stay with Me is driven by a masterfully-paced plot, where secrets unfurl and shock you even at the very end – but it’s safe to say that this is a novel about a woman driven to her absolute wits’ end by her in-laws and her husband. Yejide is masterfully created, gloriously independent, sharp and fierce. Her sense of worth in Nigerian society is inextricably tied to her baby-bearing ability: though she desperately wants a child, she finds herself unable to conceive. Facing her in-laws’ increasing ill will, she dabbles in superstition, magic and prophets, a whole world of beliefs that she, a modern Nigerian, used to dismiss without a second thought. She starts to unravel when her in-laws impose a second wife on Akin, her husband.

The novel’s poignant force comes from the fact that this family drama is played out against the tumultuous political climate of the 1980s, where one does not know what the next day holds. The future’s a dangerous, foggy mess: politicians keep secrets, the army keeps its silence, and families have their own load of unspeakables. What is a woman’s ‘place’, when security comes with men, when opportunities for women are handed to them depending on how favourable they are to their husbands? Stay with Me also captures the schism of the African developing nation, one that struggles to reconcile traditions and superstition with technology and the modern world (I would know—if ever I fall pregnant, my mother will swaddle me in her ancestral potions, lotions and techniques).

The characters’ voices are an absolute delight throughout—from salon gossip to marital fights, the dialogue is on point, as realistic as they come, laugh-out-loud-while-you-cry brilliant. Take Yejide’s thoughts at the beginning of the novel, for instance, when the in-laws come into her home and announce that Akin is to have a second wife:

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles […] I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose.

She then cooks a meal with bad leftovers for them, and they have diarrhea. The seamless blend of laughter and private disaster pulls the reader in from the very first; this isn’t a novel which you read at a remove, it’s one that you love, one where you deeply care for the characters, for Yejide especially—and there isn’t a single moment where her strength, her fervid spirit doesn’t come through. She’ll live on in our minds, I am sure: a spell wrought by the novel’s title, by Adébáyò’s superb craftsmanship.

Visit Knopf to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie

Five Things with Benjamin Zephaniah

1. The last thing that made you smile.

I was in a Whole food store (on the 9/9/17), and a boy, around the age of 10, was looking up at a shelf when he said loudly, “This is not a real whole food shop. It can’t be. They sell split peas.” I thought it was funny anyway.

2. A secret.

I get really turned on by ancient Babylonian stone erotica—there really is nothing like it.

3. The last thing you wrote.

I’ve just written a statement for the courts because I’ve been caught speeding. In the statement I tell the judge that I really need my car to travel around the country, and that if I don’t have a car, thousands of children will be deprived of poetry. That poetry could save their lives. Researchers have found that children love literature and are generally more expressive if they encounter a living poet when they are young, so poets should not be put in prison, or be without their own forms of transport, (if they live in villages), but fines are acceptable because we can claim them as travel expenses for tax purposes.

4. Favourite city.

Very difficult this one. A couple of years ago I would have said Shanghai, Tokyo, or of course London, but I am beginning to go off cities, it’s so hard to breathe in them. I now want clean air and trees. In 2014 I went to Pyongyang. There’s not much pollution there. So for now let’s say Pyonyang, until the first modern city made from sustainably sourced wood is made, then, that will be my favourite city.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

I’d like to put me in it, but if I couldn’t do that I’d like to put a film of me reading ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ by Dylan Thomas. It’s on YouTube, but I prefer the BBC version of me doing it which is not on YouTube!

Benjamin Zephaniah was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He cannot remember a time when he was not creating poetry.

Spirit Photography

a poem from Nick Lantz

in darkness as an image bloomed
to life on a white sheet of paper.

Can a photograph say more than a poem? What can a poem express that a picture can or cannot? In Nick Lantz’s poem, the visual and the textual become inseparable from the relationship between the speaker and their mother. The mother takes pictures of things on the edge of permanence, whether it’s a “house / burned in fire” or the speaker’s stapled abdomen. The fragility of birds nests, dying friends, and the mother’s previous travels all become revelation as a form of ars poetica for the poet-speaker.

In a poem about death and the blurred instability of the between and before, I appreciated the nod towards Emily Dickinson in my favorite lines of the poem: “[a]nd because I knew / she wanted to but would not ask, I offered—”. How we get to the poem’s end is absolutely a knock-out. This is a work that has layers of love and disturbance in how we view the world and its art.

Visit Boaat to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

The Last Cacique

a poem from Elizabeth Acevedo​

American Thanksgiving is an ideal day to read Elizabeth Acevedo’s ‘The Last Cacique,’ about the last days of the Jaragua chief and resistance fighter Anacaona. The poem is not lighthearted fare, nor is it explicitly connected to Thanksgiving, even if it is a great Thanksgiving poem. I am not hypocritical enough to condemn the holiday, yet partake in it; after all, I am going to gather with friends and family around a traditional turkey today. But, between gushing over pie and debating naps, maybe we could take a moment to acknowledge how the lovely fruit of our family-focused holiday grew from bloodied, poisoned roots. Massacres of indigenous people across the Americas, the gnarled and broken branching of our country. While Acevedo’s poem is about the land we currently call Haiti and the Dominican Republic—it’s fundamentally a poem about colonialism. It’s the story of a specific, powerful woman, but it’s easy to see how it could apply to the United States, a story of names forgotten by history within our own country. Celebrate today, but also, remember.

Visit Beltway Poetry Quarterly to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

The Holy Theatre

a poem from Alexis Smithers

The curtain nevers.
the applause recoils but as they say, I must go
on. Spring forgets its lines and
winter steps on as understudy.

There’s a particular rhythm, a breaking of images and moments into their own distinct entities that builds ‘The Holy Theatre’. The language weaves between letter, to confession, to stage direction; like holding unwavering, a mirror to self and pulling measurements, exactitudes out of one’s own life.

Smithers illustrates the Holy Theatre as a dynamic entity, as much a place as an analogy, with its own limitations, its own laws of physicality. The stage as uncertain, unsteady land. The lights turn in on you, the dark spaces full of others, full of expectation, insistence. Here, reality is reflected back at you through the gaps in the stage curtain.

I’m terrified all the time because
it’s in the director’s notes. I slow dance with broken streetlights and
our haunting
sounds like I’m stepping on your toes.

Visit the Shade Journal to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild

a poem from Kathy Fish​

Language fails us every day, as human experience is absurdly too complex for any system of sounds and signifiers. But language gets pretty close most of the time. And sometimes the failure of language is itself a means to better represent the scale of our realities. This all may seem a little too heady, and you’re probably right. But these are the thoughts I’m left with after reading Kathy Fish’s ‘Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.’

This a poem about language, and it’s a poem that ends with a surprise of sorts. Sometimes a surprise is a surprise not because it introduces us to something new, but because it reveals something we’ve known. Perhaps subconsciously. And so the surprise is inward; it’s less about seeing the world anew than it is about realizing what’s already been/being stored within your memory and your body. And this is all tied to language, somehow—through the mastery of Fish’s poem, grief and anger find another angle, somehow.

Visit Jellyfish Review to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Texts from Your Existentialist

visual art from April Eileen Henry

Inevitably, once I get comfortable enough in any group chat or friendship, I start dropping gifs & memes (or tweets, which are an extension). Those from ‘Texts from Your Existentialist’ are the better of the crop, combining wry humor in iMessage bubbles with varied, but sometimes instantly recognizable paintings & figures. The latent art history nerd in me is always elated when I recognize one of the images, but it’s the text that often deeply expresses an unnerving thought or feeling with me barely having to lift a finger.

Coupling “drop it like your sense of self in the pale moonlight” with a painting of Salvador Dali was choice. His renderings of the body feel simultaneously solid and fluid, dictated almost completely by where the light hits the backbone and hipbone. Similarly, a sense of self is both physical articulation and amorphous light. We can pinpoint with our presentation, our tenor of voice, the ways we manifest in the world, yet we can never truly hold it in our hands. Dropping it low usually doesn’t involve shattering. Yet the moonlight surrounding this moment of casual self-sabotage offers tenderness: a spotlight reminding us that we’ve sunk, a voice calling us to regain.

Picasso entwined with “I think we should perceive different realities” makes me laugh-sigh, mostly in the implication of “at this point in time.” Really, some relationships are entirely made of being on different planes, but only recognizing you’re separately hovering when a particular instance highlights the divergence. Even in some of the best partnerships, there’s still wiggle room in regards to seeing that simultaneously keeps the relationship fresh, but also leaves it open to fracture; it’s both the bind and the untangle. Here, I’m struck by how this acceptance feels both generous and heartbreaking. It names a self that cannot fully be shared. It’s a moment flitting between a kind goodbye wave and a well-needed shoo.

I feel like death is using my body as a timeshare” takes the cake though. The idea that Death has vacation time and spends those moments inside our living bodies is A Lot. It feels like we’re composed of these many rooms that are tarnished by Death’s touch. Yet this Gabriel Ferrier painting feels very luxurious: the transparent cloth spins off, the human back rubs against the velvety bat, and nothing is noticeably decayed. Whenever I see this, I wonder how I can reconcile my deep discomfort re: swipes with Death with wanting this openness / lack of tension.

In these seemingly simple commentaries, TFYE is able to open theoretical avenues that sometimes have me stopping mid-scroll to go “hmmm.” If you browse the collection, I’m sure you’ll find a piece to mull over as well.

Find Texts from Your Existentialist on Instagram.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse