Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

Book Reviews, Fiction

If 2017 was finally the year that ushered in feminist science fiction fabulism, let 2018 be a stronger contender for more releases of the same kind!

Last year, I read two notable books in this category and reviewed them on the blog: The Power by Naomi Alderman (one of the best books Barack Obama said he read that year) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Folks may have casted this book as a dystopian read but come to think of it–a world where women held a tangible, lethal power over men? More would argue that that’s actually utopian.

I remember these books while I was reading Heartland by Ana Simo, a copy that Restless Books sent to me late last year. I didn’t know much about Simo, but after reading that the New Yorker was born and raised in Cuba and participated in early women’s and gay and lesbian rights groups, I felt an instant kinship.

Heartland is the dystopian tale of a queer Latina from Elmira County who loses her ability to write and is only comforted by the fact that she will gain some semblance of her old self by committing murder. A likely but unsuspecting target: Mercy McCabe, who has recently broken up with the love of our narrator’s life, Bebe.

If this plot doesn’t interest you, consider this: how all of these things were executed, down to the would-be murderer’s schemes/thought processes/details are hilarious. Meandering between establishing an identity as a queer woman of color, as a writer, as someone worth remembering, Simo’s prose simultaneously probes and tickles.

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Deviant Lives, with Carmen Maria Machado (A Book Review of ‘Her Body and Other Parties’)

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love, Writing

I picked up Carmen Maria Machado’s book of short stories Her Body and Other Parties (Amazon | Indiebound) after seeing it on the National Book Awards shortlist for fiction. The title first drew me. I looked up to see who Machado was and found she’s a queer Latinx (yes!), which made me want to read her work even more. And whoa. As soon as I finished one story, I knew I was in for a wild, beautiful ride.

The first story on the book called The Ribbon was my first introduction to Machado. Hers is a concise but weighty voice, one that told the story but kept important details hidden. It was both what she is and what she isn’t saying that drew me even closer to the text, a kind of magnetic pull impossible to resist.

I think it’s also in the way she writes about women in the book, filled with audacious desire and a wonderfully overwhelming presence that had me enthralled. They were eerie in their brilliance, as if something hummed underneath the story line.

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Loving in Ireland, with John Boyne (A Book Review of ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’)

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love, Soul + Spirit

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Before I picked up John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Indiebound), I must confess that I barely knew anything about Ireland. The most I’ve read about the country and its history was from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, wherein he mostly talked about how a crop, the infamous potato, from a historical, political and epistemological context in the country.

The book centers around Cyril Avery, an Irish gay man who survived. Emphasis on the last word because he did, in every essence, survived everything he went through from being carried in his mother’s womb in the beginning of the book until its last page.

I was traipsing in the Riviera Maya when I started reading the book so that probably made it a little harder for me to get acclimated to. While I was burying my feet in the warm Caribbean sand, it occurred to me that The Heart is probably not the best beach read (whatever that means). But I forged ahead, certain that Boyne had an important story to tell with Avery.

And boy did he! I wasn’t prepared for the kind of violence in the book, even though it’s the kind I’ve known throughout my life even as a young girl in the Philippines. Ireland in 1945 following the declaration of a free Irish State in 1922 was largely influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Spain brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the 1500s as part of conquest strategy, while Catholicism in Ireland dates back to the fifth century with a history rich with violence itself.

This violence brought on by the Catholic Church: from Cyril’s mother’s exile from her town after getting pregnant out-of-wedlock to the pervasiveness of homophobia in Irish society which resulted to violent deaths. It wasn’t surprising then when one of the characters, whose lover was murdered by his own father on accounts of being gay, would say this:

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The Sagacity of Susan Sontag: On Love, Queerness & Writing

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

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Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts–like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

Nothing is the same after reading Susan Sontag. Her diaries and journals to be exact, as I have yet to read any of her books or essays. It all makes sense now — Teju Cole’s ephemeral praise of the writer, Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) inspiring tributes.

There are a number of affinities that I feel like I share with Sontag — desolation around marriage/relationships (well, mine is evolving, but you get the point), living in simultaneous awe and bewilderment in the Bay Area, embarking on a slightly self-effacing trip to Puerto Rico. In two distant entries, I felt a trickle of bemusement as she wrote about meeting Filipino poet José Garcia Villa (known then as the “Pope of Greenwich”), a fondness as she wrote about reading Bataan and Corregidor.

I have profound devotion to a few writers (Baldwin, Moraga) and poets (Finney, Finney) and this may be premature, but Sontag is getting to that list. She affirms what I love most about writers: the multiple ways their work transcend time and space and reach readers like me.

I got a used copy of  Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 at Green Apple Books and the rest is history.

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I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts, except in that it be a reflection [of] basic sensitivity which I do demand…I intend to do everything…to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive…I am beautiful…what else is there?

The Inevitability of Ocean Vuong’s Poetry

Book Reviews, Poetry

His face between my hands, wet as a cut.
If we make it to shore, he says, I will name our son after this water.
I will learn to love a monster. He smiles.
— “Immigrant Haibun”

51t5rbcccgl-_sx365_bo1204203200_To be named after vast waters is an immense weight, but Ocean Vuong’s poetry in Night Sky with Exit Wounds ripples, sends waves across the body, across time.

Living at a time when queer contemporary poets are publishing their work has been life-giving. Over the past years, the work of Saeed Jones, r. erika doyle and Danez Smith have suffused harsh nights with tenderness, long days with joy.

Ocean’s poetry reminds me of Warsan Shire’s in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth where the self is in constant rhythm with flight — of leaving and arriving, of reliving and remembering. Both poets grappled the afflictions of war throughout their writing — from Vietnam, Somalia.

In Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean carries the stories of his parents seeking refuge away from Hanoi. His father is a constant subject, navigating political and emotional terrains. I remember reading “Telemachus” with a profound longing to reach through time and understand the visceral loss of a son, entwined with his father.

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba?
But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine — but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.

A few months ago, I read and wrote a book review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. What little I knew of the Vietnam War expanded as I dove deep in the sometimes hysterical, sometimes maniacal narrative of Viet’s main character, a half-French half-Vietnamese sleeper spy. While genres, voice and format differ, the Vietnam War left a significant imprint on everyone and everything it touched.

He reveals the semiotics of memory, the traces of war on the body. (To transcribe the poem in the blog would not suffice, here’s “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back” straight from the book:)

#GetLit: Standing Strong with Orlando

#GetLit

We didn’t take no shot from nobody. We had nothing to lose. You all had rights. We had nothing to lose. I’ll be the first one to step on any organization, on any politician’s toes if I have to, to get the rights for my community. -Sylvia Rivera

The last time I celebrated Pride was back in 2010. Since then, I’ve associated Pride with Backstreet Boys (who performed at Civic Center that day) and rainbow tutus (wearing one isn’t really gay solidarity, if you ask me).

I’ve also come to detest the co-opting of Pride celebration — where companies could instantly attach a rainbow flag to whatever they deem appropriate while failing to address institutional discrimination, class and gender oppression within its structures.

But waking up last Sunday with news of the mass shooting at an Orlando gay club made me rethink of Pride celebrations in a different way, with a heavy heart. Clubs were safe havens when I was in my early 20s, where I knew I could be myself in the dark, against bodies pulsating to the rhythm of music, dancing to the beat of my own queer heart.

The politics of dancing is the politics of feeling good; the politics of dancing is also the politics of willing yourself to feel good. Pop is replete with miniature psychodramas in which memory and desire, subject and object, play out on the dance floor. (Only When I’m Dancing Can I Feel This Free)

The last thing anyone would think of happening after going to a gay club was to be killed. The deaths of 49 gay Latinx and Black folks and the wounding of many others pierces through the soul, a testament to the vulnerability of gay people wherever they are.

While the shooter’s intentions are sliced and diced by the media, while the public is bombarded with Islamophobic messages, it is worth noting that LGBTQ lives suffer under continuous oppressive conditions in immigration, job discrimination, state violence and police brutality, homophobia and transphobia. Rampant racism and xenophobia occur everyday.

Contrary to what the media and mainstream LGBT organizations and publications are depicting: the victims and survivors are Black, Latinx, AfroLatinx, Trans, Gender Non Conforming, undocumented, and working class.

These identities matter.

They matter because of the US occupation and militarization of Puerto Rico and Latin/South America due to US sanctioned economic violence. They matter because our communities have to make separate Latinx nights at clubs due to racism even within the LGBT community. They matter because Black and Latinx club sanctuaries and safe spaces (like Starlight in Brooklyn, Club Escuelita in Manhattan) are routinely shut down due to rampant gentrification and increased policing of our neighborhoods. (Do Not Militarize Our Mourning, Audre Lorde Project)

The lives lost last Sunday brings into focus who we’re fighting for — and the things we must do to prevent the kinds of violence we do not deserve. Audre Lorde once said that we were not meant to survive. We must do everything we can to find the will to fight for our communities, for our friends, for our (chosen) families, for ourselves.

We call on our communities and allies to join us in these conversations and build solidarity together to ensure not one more of us have to live in fear – for the victims and survivors of the Orlando Shooting and the countless others who remain nameless and unaccounted for. (GABRIELA USA Mourns the Massacre in Orlando and Pledges Solidarity for Victims of LGBTQGNC Hate Violence)

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All The Dead Boys Look Like Me
For Orlando
(Loma)

Last time, I saw myself die is when police killed Jessie Hernandez
A 17 year old brown queer, who was sleeping in their car
Yesterday, I saw myself die again. Fifty times I died in Orlando. And
I remember reading, Dr. José Esteban Muñoz before he passed
I was studying at NYU, where he was teaching, where he wrote shit
That made me feel like a queer brown survival was possible. But he didn’t
Survive and now, on the dancefloor, in the restroom, on the news, in my chest
There are another fifty bodies, that look like mine, and are
Dead. And I have been marching for Black Lives and talking about the police brutality
Against Native communities too, for years now, but this morning
I feel it, I really feel it again. How can we imagine ourselves // We being black native
Today, Brown people // How can we imagine ourselves
When All the Dead Boys Look Like Us? Once, I asked my nephew where he wanted
To go to College. What career he would like, as if
The whole world was his for the choosing. Once, he answered me without fearing
Tombstones or cages or the hands from a father. The hands of my lover
Yesterday, praised my whole body. Made the angels from my lips, Ave Maria
Full of Grace. He propped me up like the roof of a cathedral, in NYC
Before, we opened the news and read. And read about people who think two brown queers
Cannot build cathedrals, only cemeteries. And each time we kiss
A funeral plot opens. In the bedroom, I accept his kiss, and I lose my reflection.
I am tired of writing this poem, but I want to say one last word about
Yesterday, my father called. I heard him cry for only the second time in my life
He sounded like he loved me. It’s something I am rarely able to hear.
And I hope, if anything, his sound is what my body remembers first.

* * * 

To honor our dead, and fight like hell for the living, we need a new vision for safety that prioritizes human rights and does not facilitate deadly violence. We need a world that realizes that the word “terrorist” is not synonymous with Muslim, any more than “criminal” is synonymous with Black. The enemy is now and has always been the four threats of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and militarism.  These forces and not Islam create terrorism. These forces, and not queerness, create homophobia. These forces unleash destruction primarily on those who are Trans, and queer, and brown and Black, and we are the first to experience its’ violence. These forces create the conditions for our dehumanization and our death, and we will hold them to account, no matter whose face they may wear.

Until these systems are defeated, until anti-Blackness no longer fuels anti-Muslim and anti-queer and trans bigotry, exploitation, and exclusion — we can never be truly free. (In Honor of Our Dead: Latinx, Queer, Trans, Muslim, Black — We Will Be Free, Black Lives Matter)