review: ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by nicole chung

maybe the current generation is more sensitive, empathetic, or generally informed. but when i was a korean girl growing up in the whitest, most wealthy part of a conservative state, girls would dismiss their “weird” sisters with the quip that “she’s the adopted one.” even though she clearly wasn’t, as if it were the worst possible thing you could be. more than being poor, more than being sick. & in the 1990s, in this tiny town where parents don’t get divorced, where all the stores close at 8pm, where all the most popular boys in school have cornflower hair & giant blue eyes, maybe it was

no one ever told me to “go home” but they pulled out the corners of their eyes & pushed down their noses & complained about not being able to see. they asked me if i ever wanted to go find my “real” parents. when mulan came out, they asked me why i never show off my martial arts at recess

later, it became a game: white people who encounter me in the wild would guess what “type” of asian i am. in their brains, two neon signs would light up: CHINESE & JAPANESE in bold block letters. there were no other options. even now, old white men will stop me at work & say “nǐ hǎo” to me, their white square teeth acting like they’re doing me a favor
the adopted one. like there’s anything glamorous about it. like blood is the only currency
this is the thing: nicole chung is korean & adopted, too, but her story is not my story. because there is no ~one~ story about the adoption experience. some big, easy differences between us from the outset:

  • nicole has her shit together
  • nicole loves her (adoptive) parents
  • for most of her life, nicole was functionally an only child
  • nicole searched for her birth parents

still, i would be lying if i said i didn’t request an ARC of all you can ever know to find out more about who i am. because the truth is that no one from a biological family, no matter how close to me, can understand how this feels, unless you’ve felt it:
Where did they get you? people at the grocery store asked. Or, on the playground, How much did you cost? Kids at school wanted to know why I didn’t look like them. Teachers stumbled over my Hungarian surname, looking perplexed even after my corrections.
up until last year, my legal last name was irish: the same letters in my first name, a tongue twister & a brain teaser. to see that name on paper then look at me. sometimes my new name turns heads (you’re not hispanic, tho??) but mostly, people think it sounds like a name for a writer
mostly, i’m no longer a korean girl in a town with sixteen thousand people
cindy is nicole’s biological sister & what they told her (& cindy’s half-sister jessica) was that their baby sister had died. or that was the implication when the baby was coming for so long & then gone (two went to the hospital; only one came back). while “Cindy would never be able to recall anyone actually telling her the baby had died,” it became a fact about her life, the same way nicole grew up with the story that she was her adoptive parents’ “gift from God”
as nicole got older, she “[could] make out the gaps; the places where my mother and father must have made their own guesses; the pauses where harder questions could have followed: Why didn’t they ask for help? What if they changed their minds? Would you have adopted me if you’d been able to have a child of your own?
over & over, her parents would tell her the same story—they thought adoption was the best thing for you. they told her “the fact that I was Korean didn’t matter; what mattered was ‘the kind of person’ I was.” but things still happened. in second or third grade, a boy on the playground told her she was “so ugly, your own parents didn’t even want you!”
at that age, with white parents who “[took] a ‘colorblind’ view of our family…believed my Koreanness was irrelevant within our family, and should be so to everyone else as well,” there weren’t words for these attacks that didn’t leave bruises:
I never heard or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence; even that was relegated in books and lessons to “it happened in the past.” What I experienced on the elementary school playground, and then later on my middle school bus, and for the rest of my years in Southern Oregon…always seemed too insignificant to be even remotely connected to real racism
instead, nicole was left with the feeling that she was “more like a white girl than an Asian one,” to the point where “sometimes it was shocking to catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and be forced to catalogue the hated differences; to encounter tormentors and former friends and know that what they saw was so at odds with the person I was”
the white people that adopted me took a different approach. until third grade, they put me in a montessori school a long commute from where we lived so i could go to school with other people that looked like me, or at least were different than all the ashleys & sarahs. my best friends were from india, china, zimbabwe. one day, the white people that adopted me even came to my school & did a presentation about hanboks
maybe there’s other adoptees that would have flipped for this but it made me feel like i had done something wrong & didn’t know it, like i needed someone to apologize for me. in my childhood room, there was a poem in a frame about how i really had two mothers & that they both loved me the same amount. but unlike nicole who “kept a secret running tally of every single Asian person I had ever seen in public,” who “looked for my people, for my parents, for a sudden light of recognition that never came,” i had no desire to find the people that gave me up. i didn’t want or need to go back there; i wanted somebody who would take care of who i was here, now
old school adoptions were intense. in part one of her memoir, nicole explains that back in the day, “birth parents had no legal rights once an adoption was finalized.” that even more “open adoption [arrangements] at the time of placement—with, say, the exchange of regular letters, photos, and phone calls” were up to the continued active participation of the adoptive family. otherwise, “the adoptive family had the right to cut off contact, at any time, with or without an explanation”
on top of that, the names of the adoptee’s birth parents could only be “accessed and shared with [her] by a confidential adoption intermediary, and then only after [her] birth family approved the information exchange.” much different than today, where (in the state of washington) nicole could request a copy of her original birth certificate as part of public records. but the legislation did not change until summer 2014, years & years after nicole started her research
so nicole needed a “search angel,” an industry term for the intermediary. as with certain bureaucratic processes, however, nicole found it difficult to “hire someone who would listen, understand the unique circumstances of my placement, and see us all as individuals with our own feelings and histories to be respected” instead of “[viewing] my birth parents or me as a cause, or representative of larger problems with adoption.” she wanted someone to care about her, as she was trying to navigate the idea of discussing the search with her adoptive parents:
I tried not to recall the cautionary tales they’d told me about adoptees who should have been more wary of their birth families, or the way my mother had once said, You’re our daughter, no one else’s! In a joke attempt that struck me, even at the time, as strange and a little desperate
on paper, it was a lot. like why even do it if it was going to cost all this money, cause all this pain, ruin this neat little story where these white people saved her life & she lived happily-ever-after with her bachelor’s degree & scientist husband?
because she was pregnant & “couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that our baby was destined to inherit a half-empty family tree.” because “i don’t know” only goes so far. because “in most published stories, adoptees still aren’t the adults, the ones with power or agency or desires that matter”
she wanted to look her daughter in the eyes & tell her the truth, not a story

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if the story in nicole’s head was a french omlette, perfectly fluffy with the edges folded just so, the truth was like the first & only time you order eggs benedict from a diner in the middle of nowhere: the eggs are goop, the canadian bacon is spam, you’re sure you could see the “hollandaise” from jupiter. in other words, not at all what she expected—messy, raw, pieces missing
imagine wondering your entire life if your parents thought about you, if your sisters still counted you when strangers would ask them about their family, wanting to know whose eyes & chin you had only for your search angel to tell you that you don’t exist. according to nicole’s file, the potential controversy over her korean birth parents bringing home a “sick” (premature) baby or having to explain why they had left her were so humiliating that “they thought it would be easier if they told everyone, including your sisters, that you had died.” not only that but her birth parents had since been divorced & lived in different states so she would now have to decide if & how she’d like to contact each of them
in the margin where the search angel delivers nicole this bad news as good news, i highlight it all & write holy fuck. the fantasy was not only blurry but obliterated: “If I opened my eyes to find my birth parents standing right in front of me, I wouldn’t have known what to say.” if it were me, i might have already hung up. but nicole stayed on the line & donna said the one thing that could have kept her from giving up: “There’s a name here in the file. I guess your parents chose it for you before you were adopted”
it was “susan” & it was enough
my american name is from a dead beauty brand named annalia’s garden. my brother’s american name is after saint nicholas. at first, though, we were going to be named lucy & jet, & i thank the universe every day that that was not the case
the white people that adopted us kept our first names in korean as our middle names, but we’ve always kept them close. my brother uses his full korean name as his email & lists his hometown as seoul on facebook even though he’s never lived there. i added the rest of my korean name to my middle name when i changed my last name
right now, neither of us speaks korean but my brother & best friend are learning. nicole is learning. in the last chapter of her memoir, nicole’s oldest daughter abby asks her, “Mama, am I a real Korean?” as an imported korean, i recognize this wonder, but it was not something i thought about until i was maybe fifteen, not five. abby explains that her “real” chinese friends speak chinese, & that they’re all chinese while abby herself is korean & “lemonese” (lebanese)nc2-final-crop

over signature floats at the drive-in behind our childhood house, i ask my brother about what it means to be a “real” asian. he’s visiting america after his first year of teaching english in japan; i’ve only been dragged to wisconsin for legal meetings related to our nana’s death. he says that he got made fun of in high school if his grades weren’t perfect but wasn’t as stressed about it during college. both of us agree that if our birth parents contacted us that we would talk to them or maybe even meet them but didn’t have any interest in looking for them or building like a life-long relationship because of it
i don’t know why other people look, just as nicole accepts that other people don’t. but i think the fact that i have had a brother since i was two years old helps me; we didn’t need to search because we had each other
nicole asked someone to be her sister for the first time when she was ten. i don’t know if there were other times or it was only this then finding cindy, but it intrigues me. thinking of her own sister, nicole’s grandmother encouraged the idea: “Mary always looked out for me. all our lives! that’s what sisters do. maybe your friend needs someone to look out for her, too”
it didn’t work out with her childhood friend but the bond with cindy was immediate. they wrote each other every day; nicole even made a “cindy” folder where she kept their missives. cindy flew out to meet nicole. after that, they arranged a trip where nicole would go to cindy, & part of that vacation was dinner with nicole’s birth father
& this, of course, is the view from space. each of these milestones was filled with much more tension, anticipation, complication than i’ve listed here. but the moment that rooted me to present-day nicole writing this book, giving me this window, is one where her & cindy weren’t even together. on march 12, cindy calls & tells nicole she’s six weeks pregnant
we haven’t told anyone else,” cindy says. to check, nicole asks, “not even your dad?” cindy’s reply: “for now, you’re the only one who knows”
if this were a movie, here’s where we could cut. but cindy goes on, saying she’s “trying not to obsess over it,” & nicole holds her hope, crosses all her fingers & toes. “I’m thinking about you both,” she says. in the margins, i’ve written ¡THE ONLY ONE!
adoptee has never been the first word i would use to describe myself. it’s probably not even in the top ten & wasn’t a word that entered into my vocabulary until a few years ago. what comes before it? woman. feminist. older sister, failed pianist. poet. cat person. but being an asian woman in america affects every part of my life; i know it does
back in march, nicole wrote an article for longreads & one of the things she said was “Sometimes I wonder if I wrote a really bad book, and everyone is just afraid to tell me because my father is dead.” now it’s august. it’s been seven months & there’s still a month & some change until all you can ever know is out in the world
make no mistake: it’s excellent

review: A TWENTY MINUTE SILENCE FOLLOWED BY APPLAUSE by shawn wen

This review was originally published at Plougshares on 8.15.17

Odd and delightful, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause is an artful character study, entertaining portrait, and comprehensive investigation of a great modern myth.

full review here

review: STOMACHS by luna miguel (tr. luis silva)

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 7.14.17

Let’s romanticize purple. Let’s use it when something is so maudlin that it becomes gaudy, to describe a thing that contains copious amounts of weltschmerz. Let’s have this consensus: purple is not the way you (should) want your work to be described. But there are times for sadness and severity and all things bleak, and what do we do then?

Luna Miguel might not have solutions but Stomachs reminds us that melancholy is not always destructive. Translated from the Spanish by Luis Silva and published by Sacramento indie Scrambler Books, Stomachs is Miguel’s first poetry collection available in English. While some covers mean to obfuscate, the design here is blunt—even belligerent, gnarly and grotesque. In a reproduction reminiscent of old-fashioned film, the same image is produced over and over: a naked woman splitting herself open at the abdomen, blood stains trekking toward her navel. It announces that this collection is not for readers seeking cute haikus about cats, or the heartbreak that would rather focus on coffee mugs left in kitchen sinks. This is the ugly kind.

full review here

review: IN FULL VELVET by jenny johnson

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 2/3/17 

The trope with invoking the muses is that it is always a request. Whether it is pleading or demanding, pedantic or indignant, the epic tale is something owed. For her debut collection In Full Velvet, poet Jenny Johnson’s address begins with “Thank you,” and it is radical, as if a muse might peer over the edge of her throne and say, “My, those are words I have not heard for some time.”

“Dappled Things” spans eight pages, each with two stanzas. In a meditation too specific to be anything but genuine, Johnson names gratitude for everything that is “still somehow / counter, original, spare, and strange,” like “the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how / they form a perfect triangle.” She comments on the weirdness of “[generating] a realm / where we can always see, never see” and the optimism that remains relentless despite all: “Where’s Hope? Hope’s a weed, obscene / on my head, springing white hairs.”

When Johnson does ask for something, it is from herself, rather than the universe. With “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” she employs the oddities of nature to remind her that she is here now, sentient and present:

Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening

Each image has a sense tied to it, perhaps with the hope that conjuring these things can remind what a privilege it is to witness them.

The title poem, as the cover implies, explores the vascular skin that grows on deer antlers during their development. Here, again, is a fascination with the body: “Gut a body and we’re nothing left but pipes whistling in the breeze.” Johnson describes watching a scientist severing the wing of a cassowary (“Because it made me want to turn away”) and quotes a taxidermist giving instructions about deer:

Now we’re going to put a puncture in the tip.
So, we’re not just hitting the one vein.

That’s what we want to see.

It is gruesome but Johnson is reaching for something, trying to understand the oddity of being alive. “Love, we are more than utility, I think,” she writes, and it is both a declaration and a question. “I know my body’s here,” she writes, “when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings spread wide, smelling all of it.”

However, it would be wrong to categorize this book as a collection of “nature poems,” as it were. “The Bus Ride” is Johnson’s joy of looking at her girlfriend as the light comes through the window, making her glow. “In The Dream” is the transcription of a nightmare that begins with her “alone in a dyke bar.”

In “Souvenirs,” the last stanza is about an ex-girlfriend calling years after a bad breakup. Now living a thousand miles apart, the ex-girlfriend asks Johnson’s permission to build a model of her new home. The ex-girlfriend is a sculptor and wants to use sugar cubes but does not know the measurements. Johnson does the work with grace:

I cannot explain my consent
that evening, alone, at home,
the yellow tape unspooling, I measured closet widths,
calculated the feet between hedges—
I wanted her to craft it perfectly to scale.

If In Full Velvet is a map of Johnson’s mind and memory, it is one worth saving. Johnson is precise with herself, patient with others. These poems celebrate the feeling of spinning in tight circles until all that is left the spiral, rushing from the inside out.

review: UMAMI by laia jufresa (translation: sophie hughes)

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16

Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.

It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”

It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”

As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.

But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.

The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”

It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”

The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.

“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.

In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.

Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.

review: THE OTHER ONE by hasanthika sirisena

This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 8.20.16

Some wounds never heal. In her debut collection The Other One, all of Hasanthika Sirisena’s characters find themselves in situations where they have lost something that cannot be replaced, whether it is a sense of safety, a family member, or their own mind. Set in Sri Lanka and America, Sirisena uses the decades that the country spent in civil war as a prism (though we are fractured, we remain) rather than a blackout (war takes hold of everything).

The balance is a delicate one—how to speak about war, have a collection centered on war, that does not become repetitive? A mercy that Sirisena offers readers is that her stories do not take a moral stance. A mercy that Sirisena offers her characters is that, save for one scene in the first story, the war happens mostly off-screen.

True, there are some middle-class characters, but the majority of Sirisena’s figures are more like Anura in the first story “Third Country National,” a maintenance worker at an airbase. Anura, a drifter who can speak little English, is among a group of thirteen, with colleagues from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh. The base itself is in Kuwait, but “the average Kuwaiti was too wealthy to work [there].” To say it plain, Sirisena aims her focus on the characters that in movies function as “the extras.”

Perhaps to maintain a panoramic view, Sirisena pens most of her stories in the third person. However, her first story where she allows us to enter the mind of young teen Sonali emerges like a buck from the wood, enchanting and singular. Sonali is Sinhalese, the eponymous Chief Inspector’s daughter. Her boyfriend Siva is a Tamil. Both of them are medical students at the University of Colombo.

Of course, there is tension and not a small amount of angst—“Since that night, Siva’s behavior toward me has changed, and I know what he thinks: I am Sinhalese and I cannot completely be trusted”—but Sonali’s desire to understand the chaos around her offers insight to readers who may not know the particulars of Sri Lanka’s history. To Sonali, the war is still abstract, malleable, even though “twenty years of civil war makes us jump at our own shadows” and “everyone has stories like Siva’s.” Readers can crawl along with her as she tries to see her father as a person beyond her daddy: “I have never spent any time, until now, wondering what my father is capable of.”

“Treble Seven, Double Naught,” the last story in the collection, is the shortest but seems to come with this warning: “Never forget where you came from.” Chamika leaves for the states to escape the war and finish school and never comes back. Instead, she lives alone in America—sometimes dating women, sometimes not. She has not spoken to her aunt’s niece Amanthi for twelve years. When she gets a mysterious message from her estranged aunt claiming Amanthi needs to borrow a large amount of money, Chamika does everything she can to find her.

After too many rounds of international phone tag, Chamika goes to Vermont herself, showing up at Amanthi’s doorstep. Her husband is there, makes an excuse, attempts to turn Chamika away. Chamika insists that her family is worried. Christos is cool in his response: “That’s surprising, because her family hasn’t cared enough to call for a long time now.” Then, “When was the last time we saw you?”

When Christos calls Amanthi, he does not give Chamika the number. Instead, he hands her the phone. Amanthi asks if it is a trick. “It’s me, Chamika-akki,” Chamika says. Into the silence, she says, “I’m sorry, nangi, I waited too long to call.” Does Amanthi forgive her? Does a family ever understand when one of their own goes across the world and never returns? Is it true, as Chamika insists, to remain Sri Lankan apart from Sri Lanka?

“It was far easier to be Sri Lankan in America that it had ever been in Sri Lanka,” Sirisena writes. “There you were bound by far too many social obligations; you were always doing things for people.” In America, she could shape her Sri Lankan identity as she chose: “She maintained her freedom while also praising the culture and tradition and telling stories about how wonderful her childhood was.” Because, as Chamika says, “nobody knew about Sri Lanka to contradict her or cared enough to grill her.”

With The Other One, Sirisena explores the stories of Sri Lankans who leave and those who stay. As she does with the Sri Lanka’s history, Sirisena does not choose sides. Rather, she offers us characters at crossroads, causing us to question what it means to deem somewhere home.

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 6.24.2016

 

Not all rat mazes have corridors. For the Morris water navigation task, it is as it reads: a rat must learn to fare in water. It is placed inside a pool and must swim to the other side. Once the rat learns its path, the scientist adds a solution to the water, causing it to become opaque. The hypothesis is that the rat will be confused. However, “despite changes to the environment, rats swim right to the platform.”

Lily Hoang is a first generation Vietnamese-American. A Bestiary, her debut collection of essays, is not about rat experiments, though they appear in some cases (as the above garnered from “On The Rat Race”). In meditations comparable to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Hoang both approaches and avoids her sister’s death (drug overdose), her failed marriage (white man she calls Chris), and a destructive on-again, off-again relationship (white man she calls Harold).

She has made attempts, like the rat, to find her way back home, but the paths didn’t lead the way they promised. “I had wanted to be a good wife, and for the most part, I was,” she writes, “but the fact that my marriage was a catastrophe doesn’t change.” As for Harold, he is a stubby lighthouse with broken lamps and both of them know it, but she remains. In “On Scale,” she does the math: “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and all the terrible things he’s told me over the years. In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.”

Suffering, she tell us, is a virtue in Vietnamese culture. It is right and true and noble, a thing required of all women. Hoang points at jade bracelets, describes how when she was young “my mother would cuddle me closely when I was sick. She would say, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ and tell me that she wanted me to give her all of my sickness, so that she would be sick and I wouldn’t.” This inherited anguish—the pain and pleasure it inspires—seems to be a birthright, one that clashes with Hoang’s ideology as a feminist.

In “On Catastrophe,” she introduces us to Other Lily: “She would succeed in all the ways I have failed. She would not be a professor. She would not be divorced. She would be a good daughter.” Other Lily is a medical doctor, does not have “bad skin” or “a head full of white hair” or “do something as shameful as smoke cigarettes.” Other Lily “saves two lives and loses none”; Other Lily “is in love. And all her loyalty and love is reciprocated, an equal distribution of desire and faith.” Other Lily is perfect, the embodiment of our “better” self, the one we have always been told we should strive to become.

Actual Lily is feral and flighty, ferocious in her inner life. However, she also writes, and not without effort, “Face the facts: there is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.” Here, she stresses an essential point: she is not an either/or but a both/and. Winding, whimsical, and wild, A Bestiary tackles race, womanhood, and memory with a precision that pinches right at the veins.