Review of People You Know, Places You’ve Been by Hana Shafi

Nadia Siu Van

People You Know, Places You’ve Been
by Hana Shafi
Book*hug Press
132 pages
$23

“We’re all just animals searching for dopamine,” writes Hana Shafi in her journey to find beauty in the mundane and every day. The bold statement is accompanied by one of many colourful, quirky illustrations interspersed with her poetry, and masterfully embodies Shafi’s own desire for “us average ugly folk” to find “little signs of magic in such / an un-whimsical world.”

In People You Know, Places You’ve Been, stories and their flawed heroes can be found in the most unlikely of people and places: it’s the “off-white knight” paramedic on the bus who is also the only one not wearing a mask during a pandemic, the thrill-seeking dumpster diver harmlessly looking for good trash, and the “she-warrior” in the public bathroom offering spontaneous laundry service to a girl in need. For Shafi, it’s about recognizing these simple joys “in any small insignificant / moment in our complicated but pointless lives.”

And like with all stories, there are antagonists, too. In the “dichotomy of grannies,” Shafi effortlessly weaves in humour that aptly describes that uncomfortable yet familiar feeling of sharing space. She depicts two types of elderly women that exist on public transit: the “wholesome granny” who is a lovely surrogate grandmother you hope to be one day, and the “almost wholesome granny” who seems nice enough until she says something “vaguely racist” that leaves you awkwardly avoiding eye contact for the rest of the ride.

The poem “wolves” takes a darker turn and centers on the predators who walk among and within our families, while “cookies and gold stars for your support” criticizes fake allies who don’t show up when it matters. With a refreshing blend of poignant truth and raw emotion, Shafi observes “how meaninglessly violent we can be / unflinching in cruelty,” and how such tragedy can only be offset by the vibrancy of our courage and lived experiences.

People You Know, Places You’ve Been offers an insightful, endearing, and relatable glimpse into the diverse tapestry of people and places—each character and setting contribute to the seemingly good and bad parts of urban existence. Our day-to-day interactions leave a ripple in our lives until “all that we are mixes with everyone we were / every place you’ve been / every person you know.” As Shafi puts it, “there is no disconnecting / ‘us’ from ‘them.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this delightfully honest collection is for “us average ugly folk” to find our dose of dopamine in the little things. Indeed, our daily encounters may not be grand moments, but they can be profound, extraordinary, and even slightly magical. As Shafi beckons to her readers: “Romanticize your ugly life.”

Nadia Siu Van is a Vancouver-based editor and writer.

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