Nadia Siu Van

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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