Searching for a True Image

Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller
Book Cover of Danielle Geller’s memoir, DOG FLOWERS

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Danielle Geller shares her efforts to reclaim her mother in a quiet, yet powerful voice that’s substantially free of retrospective editorializing. For readers who want to learn a life lesson along with the memoirist, this absence of “and now I know” observations may disappoint. For me, it was refreshing to read a memoir that kept that sort of clutter out of a story.
Geller’s mother leaves her home on the Navajo reservation at nineteen, marries Geller’s father, and has three daughters. Alcohol takes over her life and she’s unable to care for her children; Geller grows up with one sister and their paternal grandmother. She has little contact with her mother and none with her mother’s family, and when her mother dies, Geller gradually takes steps to understand her mother, her mother’s family, and her mother’s culture. Her search for a true image of her mother has universal elements beyond the personal details of her story. Adoptees, foster care survivors, and others separated from their mothers as children will recognize the complexities of a child’s feelings toward an absent mother, how one carries those feelings into adulthood, the drive to connect with blood relatives, and how family separation creates generational loss. As an adoptee in reunion with my maternal family, Geller’s words rang true. As a writer and reader, I was swept up in the story, the structure, the imagery, and the wisdom. Looking forward to Danielle Geller’s next book.




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Activism for Readers: #StopAsianHate

People demonstrating on a city street, holding signs against hate crimes, including Stop Asian Hate.
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

One of Medium’s best ideas in 2021 has been starting the #StopAsianHate blog. I’m looking forward to reading and learning more about what life is like for people who identify as Asian in the present day and in the past. Reading has been an important way for me to educate myself about racism and anti-racism.

I’m especially hoping that Medium will include voices of transracial and transnational adoptees who identify as Asian, like J.S. Lee who writes about the trauma of transnational adoption for Yes! magazine

As a domestic adoptee, I feel a sense of solidarity with all adoptees. We all bring an outsider’s perspective with us to some extent, but people adopted from other countries and into families of other races often have an especially keen perspective on American culture. In any conversation about #StopAsianHate, the words of transracial and transnational Asian adoptees make a critical contribution, as so many have been “reckoning with racial identity and systems that tolerate and encourage racism” all of their lives.

As part of the announcement about the new blog, Medium sent an email asking folks to participate with some #StopAsianHate writing prompts, including “What does it mean to be co-laborers to advance racial justice? What does allyship look like to you?”

So what does allyship with Asian-Americans look like for me, a little old 97% white lady?

First, I’ll out myself as a disabled person: traveling and showing up at demonstrations are both difficult for me. I spend most of my time at home, but I am an avid reader and writer. My allyship takes the form of promoting Asian American literature by writing and publishing reviews of new books. Books from independent presses are usually the ones that get my attention. I publish the reviews on my blog, Amazon, and Goodreads, and sometimes the reviews are published online by literary magazines.

If you’re looking to read work by Asian American writers, I’ve included links to several of my favorite authors’ webpages at the end of this article. Meanwhile, here’s reviews of two recent books by Asian American adoptees that I enjoyed:

Cover of the novel FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE by Alice Stephens

Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens (@AliceKSStephens) kept my attention riveted from start to finish, like a roller coaster ride through a kaleidoscope. It’s a book that switches gears a lot, and the author manages the transitions very well, partly because the novel is told through the perspective of a single protagonist who has a distinct voice. Lisa, a multiracial international adoptee from Korea who grew up with white adoptive parents in America, is a hard-drinking, work-shirking young woman whose close friendship with Mindy, another international adoptee, blows up when the two young women are traveling in Asia. What starts out as a story about friendship and identity becomes a crime mystery/political thriller/cultural criticism story with a little magic realism and a good bit of humor thrown in.

This was a very satisfying read for me. It kept me up at night and it kept me thinking. The whiplash ways of this novel seemed to me to be a meta-metaphor for the situation of transracial and international adoptees whose lives, like all adoptees’ lives, begin with the emotional whiplash of family separation and are further complicated by the cultural whiplash of being raised by a family that is obviously not their family of origin.

I love reading stories about adoption — fiction or nonfiction — because I was separated from my family by adoption as an infant, and I need stories that represent my experience. As a domestic adoptee, there are significant differences between my experiences and those of Lisa, the novel’s main character, but I still identified strongly with her questions about her own identity and her sense of alienation.

If you’re looking for a classic page-turner, I highly recommend this novel. And if you’re looking for insight on the adoptee experience, I highly recommend it for that reason, too. [originally published on my blog]

Cover of Tiana Nobile’s poetry collection CLEAVE

Cleave by Tiana Nobile is a poetry collection of magnitude and fascination, spanning continents, history, and personal obsessions. I started reading it one evening after dinner and stayed up late with it, still reading. As poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi notes on the publisher’s page, “With breathtaking lyric beauty and formidable formal range, Nobile details the intimate effects of the international adoption industrial complex on children and parents caught up in a system’s unrelenting hunger. This is a book of remarkable compassion and real horror. Its stories will be news to many and all too familiar to others.”

Most, perhaps all, people who are adopted by strangers have experienced feelings of loss and alienation and an absence of knowledge about their origins. I’m a domestic adoptee, and Tiana Nobile identifies as a Korean American adoptee, so there are important distinctions in our two experiences of adoption, but her stories are still “all too familiar” to me. In a series of poems titled “Abstract” that are spaced out in the collection Nobile works with the abstraction that looms in absence. All these poems begin with wide, white space, visually illustrating the blank page that many of us face.

Mother without a face
looks in the mirror. I wonder what creases we share. I wonder
how long her hair is. I wonder if she chews on the inside of her mouth
until the skin is chafed pulp . . . (10)

Adoption is often portrayed as a private family matter, but it’s a cultural practice, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The adoptee experience of loss and alienation can be exacerbated in transnational and transracial adoptions in a country like the U.S., where racism and anti-immigrant hate poison communities, families, and individuals. Tiana Nobile’s poems place her personal experience of adoption in that wider community and in a historical continuum of American imperialism in Asian countries, making this a critical book for our critical times.

It’s also an aesthetically rich book, full of sensory delight in language and provocative use of many traditional elements of poetry like internal rhyme, organic form, alliteration, and startling imagery, much of which is taken from the “monkey love” science experiments of the 1960’s that separated newborn monkeys from their mothers in a study of maternal deprivation. From “Mother of Wire” (43)

Call me Rhesus
Young and Moonless
monkey without a cloth
to dust her bones

A variety of intriguing formats in addition to the “Abstract” poems are included in the collection. For example, in “Where Are You Really From?” Nobile employs a justified prose poem format. A list of place names in the U.S. create a mystery narrative — one that illuminates the empty past of people separated from mother, family, culture, language, and history

Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Fertile, Iowa. Uncertain, Texas. Hazard, Nebraska. Accident, Maryland. Why, Arizona. Hell, Michigan. Disappointment, Kentucky. Embarrass, Minnesota. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Nameless, Tennessee. No Name, Colorado. Nada, Texas. Nothing, Arizona. (9)

Many of the poems mine science (or pseudo-science) for information on the mother-infant bond and details about fetal and infant Nobile’s poem, “Lost First Languages Leave Permanent Mark on The Brain, New Study Reveals,” uses this headline format to introduce a final meditation on what is lost

How do I translate
the sound of my mother’s
moaning? It’s a soft wail
I hang on the wall
of my windpipe (44)

[originally published at Mom Egg Review]

A few more brilliant Asian American writers with recent brilliant books are graphic memoirist Mira Jacob (I wanted to give her Good Talk to everyone I know!), novelist Matthew Salesses (existentialism updated for a quirky 21st century), and Steph Cha (literary fiction meets crime drama meets recent history).

Writing even a very short review on Goodreads or Amazon for a book you enjoyed can have a significant impact on sales. It’s an effective way to support Asian writers doing the important work of bringing their stories into the light.

Read everything from Michele Sharpe — and more.

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Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com

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Review of Rising and Other Stories by Gale Massey

Rising and Other Stories by Gale Massey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Everything you’ve heard is true: Gale Massey’s characters are filled with desires, ambitions, misgivings, and the whole range of human emotions. They are people whose fates you need to know.

Massey’s figurative language is often stunning and powerful, contributing to each story’s plot, characterization, and emotional tone. The opening of “Racine,” for example, describes the inevitability of the story’s conflict and its stoic emotional tone with “The minutes gather at her feet, pooling there like water seeping through a crack below a door.”

This collection illuminates many of the dark corners of what it means to be a woman in a time and place where women are [still] at the mercy of woman-hating policies, whether those are governmental, individual, or family policies.

In artistic terms and in terms of human relevance, Massey’s stories deliver. The short form gives her characters and themes the right amount of space to entice and then surprise. Most of all, these intense short stories succeed as literary page-turners readers will find irresistible.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this short story collection.



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A Perfect Pandemic Novel

The perfect pandemic novel is a short novel, since our attention spans may be diminished by panic, or loss, or involuntary isolation. It is a novel set in a predictable world unlike the one we now inhabit, in order to offer us temporary relief from the 2020 shitshow.

Piranesi, the title character, lives in a labyrinth that offers the peace of solitude among beauty, interrupted only by brief interactions with “the Other.” He sets himself tasks, some wholly pragmatic, and some philosophic. His ongoing task is to know his world. Our task, as readers, is to discover how he ended up there.

The novel we need now might be one with an innocent protagonist like Piranesi because we ourselves may have become jaded by daily reports of infections and deaths and the callous responses of our government. We may need a likeable protagonist, too, because isolation may have made us unlikeable. Or perhaps the people we live with have become unlikeable, or even intolerable.

A perfect novel for this dark winter has a strange plot, original enough to be compelling, with just enough touchstones to invite us to try making sense of it. And because it is a novel, in the end we find a way through the strange yet familiar labyrinth. We reach a resolution. Sort of.

This is the book that kept me awake in the good way of reading because I believed whole-heartedly in a world, as opposed to the bad way of doomscrolling for jolts of “I cannot believe this bullshit.”

Piranesi, it turns out, is a man who can change his opinions when the facts demand it – a good lesson for us all in challenging times.

Review of Three Adoptee Memoirs Published in Hippocampus

Right in time for #NAAM2019, my review of memoirs by adoptees Nicole Chung, Karen Pickell, and Lori Jakiela appear in the current issue of Hippocampus Magazine. Each memoir is lyrical and insightful, and each presents a distinct experience of being adopted.

Hippocampus Magazine, by the way, publishes terrific nonfiction stories. If you are a writer of nonfiction looking to publish a piece, check them out!

From the review:

“With its built-in interrogation of what it means to belong to a family, adoption offers a rich context for memoir. Quests to locate mysterious origins provide deeply archetypal narrative arcs for adoption stories, too, and the specialized dialect of adoption invites stories that consider the impact of language on life.”

Click here for the full review — and check out these excellent memoirs!

Honoring Laura Hershey — #CripLit Goddess

Image result for laura hershey
Image description: Book cover featuring photo of Laura Hershey, a white woman with O2 line and wheelchair, at her desk.

The publication of a new book by an author you love is a wonderful thing, perhaps especially when that author is no longer in this world  Last month, a posthumous collection of Laura Hershey’s poetry and prose was published by The Unsung Masters Series, a project of Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast Journal, and Copper Nickel Journal.

Hershey passed away after a sudden illness in November of 2010; this came as a shock to her many friends and followers, including me. I’d met Laura when she organized a WOM-PO event at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver. About 30 women attended the lunch, exchanging news about recent books and publications.

I’d become familiar with Laura’s work through the WOM-PO listserv, and deeply admired her incisive intellect and her writing on personal and political facets of living as a disabled woman, and I was anxious to speak with her about her work. At the time, I was working on a chapbook of poems about my experience with hepatitis C and stigma. After some conversation, we embarked on an exchange of poems via email for mutual feedback.

Laura and her long-time partner Robin Stephens had recently adopted a teenage girl, and many of her poems in our brief exchange centered on her new daughter. As an adoptee raised in a fucked-up home, I had a bad taste in my mouth about adoption in general. Laura’s poems were a palate cleanser for me. I had no idea that an adoptive parent could focus, as she and Robin did, on learning all they could about who their daughter was, understanding her daughter as an individual, and acting for the benefit of their child.

The Unsung Masters Series project is an important one, but Laura Hershey was hardly unsung in the many communities she touched with her poetry, prose, and activism. For a sampling of her international influence, check out her website, which continues to live on after her death.

She put her considerable energies to work for both the theory and practice of LGBTQ and disability rights. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights activist groups. Among other issues, she advocated for universal design — a world that is ready-made for all of us — because, as she asked, “what could be more universal than having a body?”

One of Laura’s poems, “You Get Proud by Practicing,” was set to music and also became a rallying cry for many people with disabilities. It’s included in this important book. Here’s an excerpt:

 

You Get Proud by Practicing
by Laura Hershey

If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.

You do not need
A better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
To be proud.
You do not need
A lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
To be able to walk, or see, or hear,
Or use big, complicated words,
Or do any of those things that you just can’t do
To be proud. A caseworker
Cannot make you proud,
Or a doctor.
You only need more practice.
You get proud by practicing.

Thoughts on Two Novels

Somehow, even as a lifelong fan of British women novelists, I’d never read anything by Jo Baker until this month. It’s especially surprising that I never picked up Longbourn, her riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of my childhood/young adult faves.

Based on my reading of Longbourn and Baker’s latest, The Body Lies, Baker has the particular storytelling gift of exposing cultural lapses in logic and compassion, and similar lapses in individual readers. In other words, she sets you up like a bowling pin for your own personal epiphany.

Longbourne  parallels the plot of Pride and Prejudice by prefacing each of its chapter with a quote from P & P. These function as a sort of shorthand for the where and when of the main characters of Longbourn: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, Mr. Hill, the butler, Sarah, the ladies’ maid, and Polly, the char. The acts and concerns of the gentry, however, are as the acts of insects — utterly insignificant, except when they happen to sting. And sting they do, in surprising, devastating ways, often with less consciousness of cause and effect than an insect.

The focus is on the hearts and minds of the people employed by the Bennett family. It is their secrets, their desires, their thoughts, and their concerns that move the novel forward. In the precarious and changing economy of early 18th century England, these characters are as concerned with stability and security as the Bennett daughters, and they make a host of distinct sacrifices to stay afloat. This is a page-turner with a deeply embedded treatise on class division.

Reading up a bit on Jo Baker, I learned that she is a writer who tries something new with each of her books. The Body Lies is set in modern-day England, first in London, and then at a university in the north where the unnamed protagonist, a novelist, is hired to teach creative writing. In addition to weaving characters’ thoughts about the nature of fiction into this tale, Baker also takes on misogyny and violence against women.

This was a difficult read for me because the novel’s antagonist, also a writer, was so much like the man who battered me as a teenager. My experience of intimate partner violence was a textbook example, and Jo Baker nailed the charisma, the narcissism, the sense of entitlement, and the drama-queen gestures of the typical batterer. Readers who’ve been abused may want to know this ahead of time.

That said, the writing is brilliant, the narrator/protagonist is complex, and the book reversed some assumptions I wouldn’t have expected myself to have. In other words, like any great book, it taught me something about myself and about others.

Fresh Confessions

Perhaps especially because I’m a native-born #FloridaWoman, it’s a delight to have my review of Leah Claire Kaminski’s chapbook, Penninsular Scar, in this month’s Tupelo Quarterly Review

peninsula_1024x1024The title of the review, “Fresh Confessions,” refers to an observation about how the nature of confessional poetry has expanded in the twenty-first century, as exhibited in Penninsular Scar.

Like Sexton and Plath, Kaminski employs a set of private symbols that may accumulate meaning over time for the reader who follows her work. “Cypress,” for example, appears in many of the poems as a strong, durable building material that nevertheless falls to the same destruction as the rest of Florida. Unlike the confessional poets of the 20th century, however, Kaminski proceeds with a distinctively contemporary aesthetic. The confessions contained in the poems, even those contained in conversations with “my therapist,” avoid a coherent narrative by questioning a sense of self at the center of consciousness and employing syntactical disruption.

Read the full review here.