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Anahita Safarzadeh

Book Review

You & Me Forever

by on August 18, 2020

Chaos, lies, and raw emotion battle one another, composing and decomposing organically to create the heavy words strung together in Valerie Hsiung’s You & Me Forever. A work which transcends the barriers of a title of contents page and throws tradition under the bus of nostalgia. Memories alter page by page, making readers question their own experiences in youth as if self deception is a character in the story of our lives. Tradition, raunch culture, religion, origin story and sexual harassment mold into the textbook of an elementary school child and we are transported back to the world only our repression can find.

Written in sections of “Book One” , or “Postscript”, the poems wreak havoc on the mind and transport readers into the strange world of being literally lost in thought. This form of revisionism lends the text to become an art form in multiple layers and works as a performance. There have been certain moments when one can feel certain of relative trauma in text. You feel, I feel, they feel. We can all empathize or sympathize and wonder and relate. But there are times when a person comes across words on a page, and while remaining a hundred percent sure that they just read about rape, abandonment, or the unavoidable lies which come with ancestry, one may not notice the significance of the trauma. Valerie Hsiung’s work functions as a coping mechanism in both structure and content. From the words on the page to how they settle on the paper, meaning is woven into memory. Playing around with sentences and repetition like no one before her, Hsuing’s poems twist popular culture by recycling phrases and lyrics to make different meanings from them, as if putting together a ransom note from newspaper clippings.

Without giving away too much of herself, Hsuing uses ancestry to connect readers to the work in a way that’s relatable like parents lying about the origins of the child’s name, or a small exaggeration of a childhood event. Something so innocent that later becomes the foundation for a life of trauma.  While the first section, “Book One” delves into the youth of the narrator, the rest of the work jumps around memories of pain and confusion through events which have been altered by time. Hsuing’s use of italics showcases the mastery of intonation and how the way you say something affects the meaning,“They said the mind-the soul-die too/but only after the body.” 

There is a back and forth play between nature and technology at times, “I lick and lap at the magnetic water, become a part of the magnet.” As the narrator discovers a mutiny of self, a battle between memory and reality proceeds and the carnal animal or beast of the narrator becomes the driving force of the work. Violation is a lubricant for timeless emotion and poetry. And here also, the pain and violence in the poems are written with a sense of fragility and lightness that readers may at some points wonder, did we just skip something deep or was it meant to be so fleeting? 

More than once did a hand raise and a yelp come from my mouth as I joined in unity with the text, ME TOO! I wanted to shout, but had to keep reading each lasting word like I was starving. Hsuing introduces old ideas and creates their counter-positives, “In ancient times, rape was as common as wild was common. So, abduction, and the two – rape and abduction – often went hand in hand. These are common themes.” And immediately after this we read a section on the double standards portrayed onto Hera and Zues. But there is an almost existential nonchalant way in which the allegories are written. To see rape, then follow with “List of youngest birth mothers.” and no context behind it stands out as poetry that asks the reader to do work – which is brilliant. 

Unlike the grit that often comes with trauma poetry, the work here even goes as far as to reclaim “discharge” as something natural and feminine rather than grotesque or medical, “It was easy to carry the box that held her remaining life to the rented room in the abyss where the tree leaked its discharge…In this place, there were trees, mucosal intonations, and unprotected intonations, a vast, endless gamut, with trees, with trees, upon which she was only one of countless sentences.” The heartbreak I still echo while rereading the words in You & Me Forever is something I will cherish each time I have to call my parents grudgingly, or explain myself to an authority figure, or even explain myself to myself. Even in its final section, Hsuing manages to throw tradition in the air and writes the typical “acknowledgements” section of a book but instead of thanking names, she lists moments which have affected her in putting together this work. It’s almost like saying, yes thank you to all my friends and family for shaping me into this creature, or thank you for giving me the trauma and pain to put together this raw perspective of my life. 

You & Me Forever is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

The Book of Scab

by on May 14, 2020

Written by Danielle Pafunda
Review by Anahita Safarzadeh

Dear Ugly Little Scab – we see you, we feel you, you are not alone. As the chronically ill Scab manifests within her passages, so do shared realities with a psychedelic twist. Danielle Pafunsa’s The Book of Scab makes what could be classified as nightmarish acid trips. Written as letters addressed to “Mom and Dad”, Pafunda opens the floor for ownership and for vulnerability as she traces through her adolescence and forces readers to experience the uncomfortability of sex and drugs which have so heavily influence the upbringing of little Scab. 

Fully equipped with the weaponry of a run-on sentence, Pafunda tells a tale much like the myths and legends of our ancestors. “I give his father the keys to your cars I give his father a bottle of your black label Jack Daniels I give his father some of the pornos I found in the ravine just in case he likes that kind of thing.” Something old and somehting new, Pafunda combines the nostalgia of the past generations who exhalted sex drugs and rock and roll while also being reminicient of what it was to like to be a child looking in on their parents confused or unaware. 

Something full of true grit, while still maintaining what is unique about our generation – music, sexual freedom, and a little bit of LSD. Although mysterious and out of place with time, the small essays between each parental letter has true depth. Using techniques such as alliteration to create a melody even if the chorus is made up of “bitch” and “fuck”. Spilling out of inanimate objects, little scab explores the landscape of her memories, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“Between my ribs there are failings, and in my lungs there is a swollen crown of pollen spurs. It’s the only thing natural about me. I cough, and my bad taste wheezes out.”

To say one is reminded of Candy Man would be an understatement. The creature living within the passages of this novel has experienced pain, yes, but beyond that she is in pain and she see’s even her bodily fluids as evidence of her life as consequence. Consequence to what, to living, to existing, or consequence to being born into a body which others see as an object 

One is reminded of the magical realism of Latinx writing, an exotic tale of twisted stories. People turning into animals, love turning into puking in a bush. Is this all an acid trip, are our lives one nightmarish ride which has stops meant to wake us up. Using rose petals to dab blood from cuts made into the skin to write words. An expression of art and storytelling as a way of giving life from trauma. The Book of Scab dares to execute what many have only fantasized about. 

In certain moments readers are able to get a glimpse of what is real and what is not, then the proverbial rug is pulled from us, our trip guide wanders off, and again we are left alone to address the motives behind the hurtful actions of our friends and families. Each scenario, although unique to the Scab, relates to minority and female upbringing. Moments which have always existed and never been challenged are now written against a bourgeoise backdrop. 

Pafunda constantly uses shared realities to expose moments of sexual assault which have gone to make scabs of us all. Candy and fruit as a way to numb the pain and outrage of sexual assault, or lack there of. A showcase of extreme cruelty and unforgiving abandonment leading to a lifelong need to fill a void. The novella freudian tactics sewn into childlike dreams and adult-like realities. Midway through Scab begins to recognize why she did certain horrible things to others, but only after she is left awkwardly craving attention from men who have inappropriately attacked other women, “I ruin everything, don’t I, when I go looking for attention.”

There is a sexual narrative carefully told throughout the novel. Something which allows readers to connect the otherwise seemingly different essays, letters, and passages. A scab is a wound healing, but this scab keeps breaking open, like zooming into the Mandelbrot set. But there is also a narrative of an outsider which could be glossed over if not read with more open mindedness. “My rights are alienable. That I hold onto them for the time being is material….All my privileges are plenty suckled up around me at night in the bed when I dream of getting out of here.” Pafunda begs the question of identity and passing. Are we all unhinged corpses walking around in our skin suits absorbing the world around us, letting the world around us absorb us in turn? 

The Book of Scab is available now through Ricochet Editions.