Gymnasts are brave and like to brag about how much pain they can take. Girls who couldn’t handle it were pulled out of class and enrolled in ballet. They were going to be disappointed when they learned the truth about that one, too.
Strip the skin off my body and hold
me tight. Take this ugly brown shell, burn
scar, thrown to sea. Let waves batter
me against rocks, shark teeth ravage carcass,
oil spill on pale water.
Lisa, the most beautiful cousin,
the 80s flip of dark blonde hair,
shiny cotton candy lip gloss,
tight striped sweater,
squeezing 7-year-old me in that Polaroid,
my wild curly ‘fro against her cheek,
she had an even, radiant smile,
while I was missing four teeth. With her,
I knew I could be beautiful too.
i wear my trauma
like a badge over my heart
an enamel pin that tells the world
i have seen hell, and i am still here
The small-town coming-of-age story is hardly new terrain, but Melanie Mah’s The Sweetest One offers a unique hook: What if three of your older siblings died at age eighteen after they left town? The narrator of Mah’s first novel, Chrysler Wong, longs to leave the fictional town of Spring Hills, Alberta, but is paralyzed by her belief in a curse against her family.
When we first meet Chrysler, she is five months past her seventeenth birthday, when her last living sibling, Trina, abruptly ran away. Despite a keen interest in science and writing, Chrysler isn’t thinking about graduation or university—“I’m gonna die this year, so what’s the point?” she asks. Piling on to her fatalisitic outlook, her classmates have taken to calling her “Dead Girl.” Yet Chrysler can’t fight her natural curiosity about the wider world as she reluctantly learns to take agency over her own fate.
Mah intersperses Chrysler’s story of trying to live a normal teen life with her memories of her dead siblings, Reggie, Stef, and Gene. Each successive loss compounds the family’s suffering, driving the Wongs toward further misery. Though Chrysler does her best to enjoy what she views as the little remaining of her life, her relationship with her abusive father and withdrawn mother is strained at best. Chrysler is in stasis, her belief in the curse gradually fastening her to a life of resignation working at her parents’ store. She tamps down her desire to explore and sees “travel, leaving, [as] a kind of betrayal.”
Though the novel is ostensibly about Chrysler’s journey, the flashbacks are the true driving force. Mah slowly reveals the tragic circumstances behind each siblings’ death while Chrysler treads water, afraid to participate in teenage rites of passage like going to parties and learning to drive. Chrysler’s reluctance to be intimate with her peers, including her boyfriend, is understandable given her circumstances but slows the story’s momentum in the second half. Her hesitation and anxiety, brought on by loss, rings true, but also makes for an uneven reading experience.
Ultimately, the unfolding of the family tragedy and Chrysler’s spirited narration make the novel worthwhile. Mah convincingly portrays a family fractured by grief and isolated by the town’s barely concealed racism.
Her intriguing twist on the bildungsroman and likable protagonist makes The Sweetest One a compelling debut.
Alissa McArthur is a member of the Growing Room Collective. She holds an MA in English literature from UBC and writes and edits out of Toronto.
Once in a while a novel is written that successfully bridges contemporary world issues with historical events. Beginning in West Africa in the late eighteenth century, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing opens with Maame and her two daughters, Effia and Esi—both completely unaware that the other exists. Effia—born amidst a fire that surrounded her father’s compound—is married off to an English governor and slaver, assuming a life of comfort in a seaside castle. Her sister, Esi—who was born years later and known as the prettiest girl in her village—is captured, crosses the Atlantic, and is forced into a life of slavery in North America. Migration is a central theme throughout this novel; each character moves as if running from their inherited trauma and familial burden—expected reactions to generations of oppression.
Maame has bestowed each daughter with a black and golden stone pendant that gets passed down through the generations; The heirloom serves as comfort and a reminder of where each descendant originates. Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, was gifted the stone by her father as he blessed her decision to leave the family and her village after a series of negative events: “The next morning Abena set out for Kumasi, and when she arrived at the missionary church there, she touched the stone at her neck and said thank you to her ancestors.”
Following Maame’s descendants to the present day, each chapter reads like a snippet from the life of each of the fifteen characters. Gyasi’s ability to develop so many distinct characters is remarkable. Her descriptive yet succinct writing provokes compassion, shining a light on each character’s complexity and wholeness. In providing context of to whom and to what situation each character is born, Gyasi manages to tell stories that describe the impacts of inherited trauma—slavery, forced and chosen migration, fire, death, and loss—while staying away from stereotypes and cliché. Marjorie, a contemporary character who has moved to Alabama from Ghana with her parents, is called “white” by classmates, she was: “made aware, yet again, that here ‘white’ could be the way a person talked; ‘black,’ the music a person listened to. In Ghana you could only be what you were, what your skin announced to the world.” Gyasi excels at fleshing out the context for each character’s circumstances without offering easy answers about complicity. Each character’s surroundings and situation are fleshed out, and their relationship to the world well-written.
Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing is a timely and important contribution to literature, and to conversations about anti-black racism in popular culture, much like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the documentary 13th, and movies like Moonlight and Get Out. This novel should be read within this context, giving pause for reflection and examination on how we allowed ourselves to get here, and how we can move forward.
Rachna Contractor is the reviews editor of Plentitude magazine and co-director of Unforked Salon, a monthly dining event. She completed a BA in Art History from the University of Toronto and after a decade of working in communications, Rachna moved to the hospitality industry. Rachna lives in Parkdale, Toronto.
A maternal figure in my life recently wrote me to say she struggles with poetry precisely because it exists as a place between thinking and feeling—a place we’re out of the habit of visiting, let alone dwelling. But then there are some poems that shake you and bring you back to the space that flickers between pathos and logos. Kai Cheng Thom’s a place called No Homeland is the hearth of such a real yet imagined place. These are poems that live with paradox, straddling both myth and reality. In a place called No Homeland, Thom transposes the energy of queer punk spoken word onto the page. The result is a vulnerable, shimmering debut.
Throughout the collection, Thom commits to bringing queer, trans, and racialized bodies to the forefront. The inaugural poem, “diaspora babies,” tells us there are “stories that are never told / but known / nonetheless we bake them into bread / fill buns with secrets.” For Thom, these repressed histories endure despite their marginalization. They exist materially and spiritually in unexamined corners and baked into daily bread, nourishing the poet. Later in the poem she writes “some poems / cannot be written / just felt,” inviting us into her poetic (no) home—that space between thinking and feeling. These invocations initiate us into the world of the collection where tales of the oppressed emerge from their “invisible ink” and “ghost children drawing maps in the margins” sing themselves into vibrant existence.
What unfolds in the following poems are new geographies, both difficult and sublime. Thom transforms Vancouver into a “concrete rainforest / sequestered in silence / sea-hungry cavernous” in “downtown beastside,” blending mysticism and grittiness in a way that resonates sincerely with the fraught cityscape. Similarly, “the river” begins with a covert lesson in oral history and geography:
someone told me once
that a secret river flows
under every street
in every chinatown in every city
The poem sprawls beautifully, proceeding gently, at first, with the soothing alliteration:
this river speaks
in a secret language that sounds like
And then the poem rushes into the rapids of brutal revolution: “darling, when your revolution comes, i will not be here, / when the towers start to burn, i will be the first to die.” Many of Thom’s poems deploy this bold, storytelling voice, foregrounding the wisdom of what is said, experienced, lived, rumoured, and gossiped in lieu of traditional history with its myopia of normativity. a place called No Homeland consistently examines the collisions that marginalized identities encounter. And through this, Thom finds, “there is a poem waiting deep below.”
Adèle Barclay’s poems and criticism have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, PRISM international, The Literary Review of Canada, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection is If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You (Nightwood, 2016). She is the 2017 Critic-in-Residence for CWILA. She lives in Vancouver.
After living in New York for many years, Durga Chew-Bose returned to her hometown of Montréal to finish her debut collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood (FSG), which was subsequently named by The Globe and Mail and NPR as one of the best books published in 2017. In the following interview, Room editorial board member Kayi Wong met up with the essayist at a literary festival between her panels, and chatted about Tumblr, the lack of clarity in her writing, and the radical act of liking things as women of colour.
"These queer stories are already ingrained in the land, and I’m just trying to find them. Things are never forgotten, they’re just forgone."—Joshua Whitehead. In an in-depth interview, Room's Jessica Johns chats with Joshua Whitehead, an Oji-Cree Two-Spirit storyteller and academic from Peguis First Nation on Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba, and author of the novel Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018) and the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer (TalonBooks, 2017).
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Edited by Alissa McArthur
In this issue:
Tharuna Abbu, Farah Ali, Kristin Bjornerud, Michelle Chen, Nomi Chi, Morgan Christie, Kim Fu, Hannah Graff, nancy viva davis halifax, Ceilidh Isadore, Liz Kellebrew, Jo Lee, Kris Ly, Melanie Mah, Sara Mang, Katie McGarry, Estlin McPhee, Triin Paja, Loghan Paylor, Nagmeh Phelan, Oubah Osman, Lisa Rawn, Yvonne Robertson, Erika Thorkelson, Cara Waterfall.