Tunsiya / Amrikiya (Chatti)

Leila Chatti, recently named the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow and Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center, promises to be an exciting addition to Cleveland’s literary scene for the two years of her fellowship. Her most recent book concerns itself, as the title indicates, with her dual identity. ‘Amrikiya’ is Arabic for an American female. ‘Tunsiya’ is Arabic for female Tunisian. Chatti grew up in Michigan and holds dual citizenship. In an era when few of us could have found Tunisia on a map before Arab Spring, her Tunisian voice is most welcome.

But she cannot just be reduced to a token representative of a particular culture. Her words may come across as gentle, but her insights and technique are quite pointed. In “When I Tell My Father I Might Begin To Pray Again,” she writes

If there exists / in my blood a map, it is one I keep / folded for fear // of where it does not lead. God, / I want so badly to speak // with you

Note the line breaks. She also demonstrates her skill with lines in the absolutely heartbreaking “Motherland.” The opening lines –

What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?

and the closing –

“no one’s leaving the world / to anyone yet.”

Perfect. Now remember the title.

Both “What do Arabs Think of Ghosts?” and “Upon Realizing There are Ghosts in the Water” are haunting. From the former –

Death grows here. . . I don’t know the names / of the dead accumulating like snowflakes, so many / the news talks about them as if they are one thing, / a mound of indistinguishable parts.

The magic she makes in this 33-page collection is just remarkable. I look forward to what she produces while she’s here.

Anisfield-Wolf’s press release about Chatti’s appointment

Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center

Chatti’s site


Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (Hochschild)

Though there is some overlap with an idea expressed in Hillbilly Elegy, I think this is the clearest explanation of how we got to this point in the country’s political life that I’ve read so far. Hochschild owns her biases and travels to Louisiana in search of an understanding of what she calls the Great Paradox. How, she wants to know, can people be so anti-government as to vote for our current occupant of the White House when they are among the biggest users of its services and in great need, because of pollution, of its protection?

I am not familiar enough with the jargon of her discipline to know whether Hochschild is using established terms or creating them for this book, but one that stands out for me is ’emotional interest.’ She says we’ve been looking at the 2016 vote and considering economic interests, but we’ve forgotten the story people want to believe about how the world works and why, therefore, people would vote to protect that narrative.

I found the book, with its combination of interviews and research, to be convincing. One irksome style issue. Hochschild repeatedly insists on calling the subjects of her interviews her ‘friends.’ I am not going to question the ethics of this (interview subjects becoming friends) or whether, given such circumstances, the friendship was reciprocated. It seems like her repetition was meant to suggest a kind of smug superiority – as in, “Look at me, I can be friends with people on the right!” I wish an editor had caught it or Hochschild had explained it or something. Maybe she just needed a collective noun to describe her interview subjects, one that didn’t sound so impersonal. I don’t know; it irked me.

Freshwater (Emezi)

Be patient with this, and you’ll be rewarded. I think it’s right to say that it unfolds. It can be blunt at times to have someone’s mind and body laid out in front of you so, well, nakedly. It will take you some time to acclimate to Emezi’s style, but be heartened by the fact that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has given the author and her book her stamp of approval. There is a great deal of pain in this book. And hope. There is some hope. And I wish I knew more about Nigeria. I think it would help me gain another layer of insight.

I will read it again. I don’t think this is one to be taught, but handed to just the right student and just the right time.

Believe me. You haven’t read anything like it.


Emezi’s site

American Street (Zoboi)

Hmmm. . . Hmmm. . . I am just not sure. There is just so much here – so much ambition, so much cultural weight (both American and Haitian), just so much. Zoboi, in her first novel, has definitely heeded the axiom not to leave anything for her second novel. This is just so packed, and it builds to such a wide-ranging and powerful ending. Does it work? Maybe it’s too soon for me to tell? But I am eager to talk about it, to hear about it, to hear from the author on April 5th, so those are all good signs. This is a relentless novel – from the gut punch of the opening pages to the very end.

Zoboi at The Happy Dog on April 5th

Broken Hallelujahs (Dougherty)

The first one that sent me reeling was “Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti.” With the frenetic energy and ambition of part of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Dougherty writes a love letter, an honest love letter, to the city. “Somewhere on Planet Earth” also summons that optimistic, specific, and straightforward energy. Dougherty is no romantic, it would seem; nor is he romanticizing the city, but the love of someone who can write lines like – “Monk choreographing the sound that smoke shapes” – for a city he loves. Algren’s here – the beautiful woman with the broken nose. “Never a lovely so real.”

“Embraceable You” is one of the best love poems I’ve read; “Narrative I Don’t Know How to Spell” is its spiritual partner. I’m not sure how Dougherty does it, but his poems seem to have their own momentum; they move forward and demand to be heard. I’d often find my lips moving as I read; I wanted to say his words out loud.

Even with all of that energy, I think it is “What We Keep” that I’ll return to the most.

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (Alinsky)

His fondness for alliteration notwithstanding, Alinsky knows exactly what his title does, and that’s his point. This is not Obama’s “take half a loaf” pragmatism. This is, instead, a recipe for how to proceed, even if the last ingredient is, in the end, there are no rules, so trust your organizer. I was surprised that such a ‘rule’ came last. Though he does address how to get people on your side prior to bringing up this last rule, I think he maybe underplays the importance of this. And maybe it’s just the notion of a professional organizer has receded somewhat, and that we don’t give people with such knowledge and skills the latitude they need to pursue our goals. Maybe it’s something akin to teaching English, my own profession. Anybody who speaks it thinks they can teach it. Or maybe I’m just too far removed from the profession to know of the effective organizers out there. I know there’s an anti-leadership sentiment circulating (see the Occupy Movement), and it makes sense in some places (see Black Lives Matter). But when even Naomi Klein suggests the need for leadership, I think the issue has to be taken seriously.

In any event, I like Alinsky’s irreverent tone, though it may irk some people, and I doubt his references to sex and toilet issues would time travel well to these days. That aside, in my eyes, these are rules we need to be reminded of today as many of us scramble to find our place in this less than brave new world. Not surprisingly, for those who know me a bit, I support the call for plain speech. There is no more time for dancing delicately around what we mean. Let us say what needs saying.

Children of Blood and Bone (Adeyemi)

I’m calling it now. This one’s next. Next for the kind of word-of-mouth that moves a book from well-reviewed to huge hit to the movie screen. Wow. Just wow. I think, but I don’t know, that this one counts as Afrofurism. I’m still trying to work out for myself what that means. There is a vision here, one that seems to travel both forward and backwards about what life, what black life, could and should be. I don’t think I was able to find my way to that level of understanding on a consistent basis, and when I decided to stop trying because I knew I’d read it again, it just became a riveting story with an exciting and unpredictable ending.

One minor complaint is that Adeyemi seems less adept at the romantic moments. For example, she should never be allowed to use any form of the word ‘tingle’ again. Like I said, a minor complaint. Such things, I am sure, will improve with time. And sequels.


Adeyemi’s website