Nadia Siu Van

Tension

Drawn image of woman in profile view against yellow background
By 
Pearl Low
Self-published, 46 pages, $15.00
2018
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

Tension, a graphic memoir by Afro-Asian artist Pearl Low, is about a woman learning to love and embrace her roots—literally. “I never used to mind my hair. . . until other people started to,” she writes in the opening strip, which depicts a younger Low who bemoans her “freakin’ frizzy” hair before pulling it into a tight bun.

As a biracial person of Jamaican and Chinese descent growing up in Vancouver’s east side, Low explores the complexities of being mixed-race in a predominantly white and Asian community that shares one thing in common: straight hair. Low feels further isolated when she realizes that even her Chinese mother, who she considers her most consistent influence, also has straight hair. 

While Low’s mother encourages her to let down her curls, the support that Low finds in her private life is quickly juxtaposed with the harsh realities of the outside world. As Low points out, “hair was ‘just hair’ until society decided otherwise.” Low traces this growing tension with her own hair to a vivid ninth-grade memory, where a boy she hardly knows suggests that she should always wear it straight. It’s a seemingly harmless exchange of a few words— in his eyes, even a compliment—that has a lasting impact, fueling years of Low feeling insecure about her natural curls. 

While Tension includes its fair share of endearing and even comical moments, the comic is laced with undertones of loneliness and not belonging. From the interesting, albeit unstylish, haircuts her Chinese mother tries on her as a child, to a university classmate touching her hair without permission, each stage of her life came with different challenges, and yet one thing remained the same: Low was still at war with her hair. “Thirty minutes this morning went into doing my hair. Most of that time went into convincing myself my hair looked acceptable enough,” she writes. It isn’t until Makeba, Low’s sister-in-law and a woman of colour who understands curly hair, gives her a haircut that she truly begins the process of loving her natural coils. 

Low’s narrative seamlessly drifts between moments and memories, each providing a small yet impactful snippet into her journey to finding self-love and acceptance. Her artistic and illustrative style effortlessly conveys a young girl taking baby steps to regain the confidence she once had as a child who did not ruminate on the opinions of others. Tension is deeply personal, and each strip—no matter how brief or fleeting—contains a compelling story within itself. The overarching message, however, can be summarized in a few words before it even begins: “No matter the crown on your head, you’re beautiful.”

Nadia Siu Van is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Ricepaper, Shameless, U of T Magazine, and Hyphen.

Letters to My Father

Bänoo Zan, Letters to My Father
By 
Bänoo Zan
Piquant Press, 41 pages, $18.50
2017
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

Bänoo Zan’s second book of poetry, Letters to My Father, opens with her rationale for seeking refuge in poetry, and fleeing from stories. “Stories distort the truth by virtue of their claim to facts. It is only when stories have exhausted themselves that poetry happens,” she writes. The poems, which are dedicated to and about her father, explore Zan’s search for reconciliation after learning about his death in 2012. Zan didn’t attend her father’s funeral or several memorial services in Iran, but he soon became the muse for this deeply personal collection.

While Zan and her father may have been separated by borders and continents, her poetry resists being broken up by descriptive titles or section dividers. The poems, which are simply numbered one through forty-one, flow seamlessly from one to the next without the narrative constraints of a story, all while achieving continuity and masterfully weaving together imagery from both locales. From tragedies and epics to ghazal and qasidas—which are Arabic words for poetic forms—Zan skillfully alludes to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, in the same breath as Mansūr al-Hallāj, a Persian mystic and poet. Time and geography are intertwined, where Zan refers to her father as the country she left, a “land of conflicts / unexplored,” in which she is still very much a citizen.

Despite being a poet with a facility for language, the overwhelming silence that Zan describes between daughter and father sits at the heart of their struggle for familial communication. “Your loss / is the absence of words / and there is no love / where there are no words,” she laments. These conflicted feelings can be traced through every single poem, where silence in life and death is a barrier to reconciliation. “Silence was our language,” Zan writes, where his “lips guarded [his] heart”, and his voice was a “silent kiss.” His death was but a “rehearsal for life,” where a daughter finds herself caught in a war that “doesn’t end / with the end of life” and must now learn to live after loss. While he is free from “life, love / pain and faith,” she must walk the earth bearing the weight of grief.

The most emotional use of language comes in one of the final poems, where Zan slips from using “Baba,” the Persian term for father, to a single utterance of “Dad.” Toward the end of the collection, the poet mourns the silence that defined this daughter-father relationship: “Love made us cowards / with more pauses than words.” Zan mentions that she decided not to use her introductory remarks as a confessional, and it’s easy to see why—her poems reveal far more. If stories distort the truth because of their claim to facts, as Zan says, and poetry allows us to write our own stories, then the poet’s truths lie somewhere within these lines—look for them.

Nadia Siu Van is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is currently the reviews editor at Shameless magazine.

Art Lessons

By 
Katherine Koller
Enfield & Wizenty, 191 pages, $19.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

“Trees, for me, are like humans,” writes Cassie, the young protagonist of Katherine Koller’s debut coming-of-age novel, Art Lessons. The first-person narrative opens with Cassie as a seven-year-old budding artist and traces her inner life for the next decade, trading the colourful crayons of her childhood for charcoal sticks, blossoming and changing like the trees she sketches over time.

As the story progresses and Cassie becomes more emotionally mature, so does her voice. The earlier chapters are defined by short, simplistic observations about the happenings around her; as Cassie grows older, her thoughts reveal a heightened understanding of how art is the thread that connects people near and far, “making lines like a net on the map of the world.” Just as when a tree is rooted and transplanted, but keeps its history within the heartwood—which Darryl, an old friend, describes as “the memory of the tree”—Cassie’s art is a vessel for shared memories. 

While Cassie refers to literal trees—the ones that give life to her sketchbook—it’s the family tree that nourishes her, gives her strength, and helps her grow. It’s no surprise that Cassie becomes an artist in her own right; her mother makes quilts, while Babci—named after the Polish term for grandmother, babcia—is a talented seamstress. Cassie sees Babci’s arms as branches “giving her the air she needs,” while Babci’s hands are “seed cones” that take root in her heart, filling it with “purpose, wit and compassion.”

The image of a grandmother holding her granddaughter’s hands is an endearing moment, but also echoes the intergenerational artistry that nurtured both women to become fearless creators; Babci uses her hands to sew, much like Cassie uses hers to draw. Koller’s novel takes a refreshing angle on how a young woman becomes an artist, mentored and encouraged by other women who teach her not only about art, but about life. The look that Cassie’s mother gives her children is likened to how Cassie feels when she looks at her own art. “It’s the look you give your creation,” Cassie writes. 

As a book that is meant to appeal to both young adult and adult readers, Koller’s writing style, like Cassie, evolves drastically from start to finish, which some readers may find challenging to follow. That said, Koller’s novel explores universal concepts of what it means to exist and grow, to root and transplant—as an artist, a woman, a human, a living thing. Art Lessons has the potential to take root in your heart—let it.

Nadia Siu Van is a Toronto-based writer and editor with an MA in English from Wilfrid Laurier University. She is currently the reviews editor at Shameless magazine, and has written for publications such as Ricepaper, Hyphen, and U of T Magazine.

Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac

By 
Anna Yin
Black Moss Press, 116 pages, $17.00
2015
Reviewed by 
Nadia Siu Van

Anna Yin is a vivid dreamer. In her newest poetry collection, Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac, Yin weaves together images and mythology from both the Eastern and the Western worlds, creating a universe where the extraordinary is ordinary.  

The first section, “Night Shades,” begins with a winter landscape, where Yin muses on despair and loss. By making a connection between tragedy and winter, Yin plays on the Chinese concept of yin (darkness) and yang (light), where the yin qualities of darkness and cold are believed to be most powerful on the shortest day of the year. But because yin and yang represent balance and harmony in life, everything must come full circle—light will always emerge from darkness.

Yin brilliantly takes the reader through the seasons of the zodiac year by intertwining Eastern and Western images. She alludes to Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and Dante—Western poets that influenced her own work—and incorporates them into pieces inspired by traditional Chinese poetry. The blending of the two worlds is congruent with the immigrant identity she explores in “Accent,” where the negotiation of two cultures should not result in one overtaking the other—like yin and yang, both exist in harmony.

This is masterfully shown in “Fatality,” where Yin plays on the Greek myth of Persephone, who rises above ground during spring—hence the fertility of vegetation—and withdraws into the Underworld after harvest, causing the harshness of winter. Yin paints a picture of pomegranate seeds “tickling red rivers,” a scene that echoes both the Red River of the North that ends in Manitoba and the Red River—also known as Hong Hà—that flows from China through Vietnam. Just as Persephone’s return brings rebirth and hope, Lunar New Year marks the start of the zodiac year and, more importantly, the start of spring.

The harmonization of images from the two worlds is a defining characteristic of many of Yin’s poems, and the title of her entire collection is no exception. The number “seven” is considered the luckiest number in the Western world, and has significance in Chinese culture since it represents Yin, Yang, and the Five Elements (Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth). 

The entire collection brims with bittersweet hope as the speaker yearns for spring and the return of her own Persephone, who will rise from the dark Underworld with cherry blossoms (instead of flowers) paving her way to the bright surface—“let light shine through,” she pleads. Yin’s poetry is captivating and breathtaking as it seeks ways to heal and move beyond the coldness of winter, searching for “an exit, a beginning.” In reading Yin’s work, the reader can do the same. As she quotes Mary Oliver, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost.”

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