In this episode, we asked our reviewers—readers from various marginalized communities—to write about any book by any marginalized author that has stayed with them in some way. Their choices spanned the globe and reached deep into what it means to be human. Ranging from nonfiction to thrillers, these four books take readers around the world and to different time periods, yet all focus on human elements, such as family, death, sexuality, and survival. Each book tells a tale, whether fictionalized or difficult truths, that highlights the diverse elements of what it means to be human.
Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems by Frank Lima
Reviewed by Andrew Navarro
This collection by Frank Lima brings together a body of work from a poet who, despite being associated with the New York School of Poets and a protégé of both Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, never received much recognition while he was alive. In the early sections of this collection, readers will find poetry centered around details from what was, early on, a difficult life. Sexual abuse, heroin addiction, incarceration, and poverty were just some of the obstacles Lima faced. However, as poet and friend to Lima, David Shapiro, states in an essay found in the appendix of the book, Lima’s poems are not merely “any facile listing of a victim’s horror.” Instead, Lima’s poetry is a poetry of “everyday life.” As the collection progresses, Lima manages to wonderfully intertwine ordinary objects, the philosophical, and the emotional within his poems: “when I talk to my ash tray about you it gets bored / my subjects are monotonous so it tells me / That’s life ash tray.” In work that is both surreal and grounded, Lima presents an opportunity for readers to reimagine the world and our experience in it. Yet, what makes this collection so enriching is reading and witnessing Lima grapple with his identity. As the only Latino member of the New York School, (his father was from Mexico and his mother was Puerto Rican), I find in Lima a poetic forefather in a historical literary landscape historically dominated by white poets;, many poets whose work I cherish and love, but whose work on some level I lacked a connection with. In a way, in Lima’s work, I felt seen, while at the same time his poetry provides a map on how to circumnavigate the complex struggles of identity and art.
Life For Sale by Yukio Mishima
Reviewed by A.M. Larks
This recent translation by Stephen Dodd from one of the twentieth-century Japanese fictional powerhouse authors features Hanio Yamada on a satirical journey to discover the meaning of life and death after his botched suicide attempt. Hanio, a seemingly reliable narrator, puts his life up for sale in the classifieds and narrates his journey through the odd clientele who come calling, their equally bizarre requests, and the mad-cap comedy of errors that ensues. From jealous husbands to spies to vampires to virginal drug-addled heiresses, each client allows the author to examine why we live while Hanio is trying, unsuccessfully, to die. Love, lust, duty, loyalty, fealty—what serves as a reason to live, or, rather, for one to die? The heady discussions are lightened by the fast-pace and inventive plot.
Originally serialized in 1968 for Weekly Playboy, certain aspects of the novel feel dated, like the James Bond-esque sexual attraction women have for Hanio, or the flatness of their characters. But, overall, this book is an enjoyable read for those willing to consider such heavy topics. And heavy it is, not simply from the discussions of life and death but the novel feels particularly weighted by Mishima’s personal history. (He committed seppuku at age forty-five, just two years after the original publication of Life For Sale). That these are not simply theoretical discussions and that we all, including the great Mishima, struggle to find the meaning of life and what constitutes as a good death is the real take away.
The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao
Reviewed by Jade Valenzuela
This striking debut novel opens with Gwendolyn Sulinado in a coma. She is the sole survivor after her sister poisoned three hundred members of their wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family. Throughout the novel, Gwendolyn explores her memories in an effort to figure out what led her sister to murder their family.
Tsao highlights issues such as sexism, economic inequality, and the devastating power of secrets through Gwendolyn’s memories, which revolve around her family’s past and the secrets she and her sister uncovered while planning a birthday party for the family’s patriarch. The most intriguing is the exploration of how racism can turn victims into villains, as they do whatever it takes to avoid suffering. The titled “majesties” refer to butterflies that are in a stuporous state and are controlled by a parasitic fungus so that they can be arranged into living jewelry. The lives of the butterflies and other insects used by Gwendolyn’s business parallels the lives of the Sulinados by reflecting how one can metamorphose into a product of surrounding, external forces, and, in their case, the villainous Chinese stereotype the Sulinados fall into in Indonesia. The Majesties is an eye-opening and gripping read depicting another of many underrepresented cultures in Western literature that encourages the reader to confront the danger and consequences of stereotypes.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs)
Reviewed by Zulma Trejo
Written under the pseudonym Linda Brent and published when slavery was still rampant in the South, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs. Born a slave to an affluent white family, Jacobs’s puberty becomes the catalyst for her male master’s—Dr. Flinto—obsession with having a physical relationship with her, which leads to Jacobs’s ostracization by Flint’s wife. Enraged by Jacobs’s rejection, Dr. Flint vows to make her life a living hell. With the constant fear of being assaulted, Jacobs enters a relationship with an older white lawyer. She bears two children with the lawyer who promises to free them although they legally belong to the Flint family. Jacobs’s plans for freedom are dismantled as the Flints keep a firm hold on her and her children. In her desperation, Jacobs believes that she must separate herself from her children. So she does the unimaginable: Jacobs leaves her children behind, hiding in a crawlspace for seven years to avoid being captured in hopes of lessening the Flints’ grip on her and her children.
Jacobs’s story brings to light the added hardships of a woman’s experience of slavery. From the threat of sexual abuse, the loss of her children, forceful impregnations to the loss of her self-possessed femininity, relationships, and love. Unlike other notable autobiographies, Jacobs isn’t curated. There is no careful writing or witty anecdotes. It is her story as an enslaved child, enslaved woman, and enslaved mother. This book is written with strength and determination as Jacobs unapologetically recounts her experience. Her struggle, survival, and path to freedom is jarring and shocking, vividly capturing the horrors and cruelty that Black women faced during slavery. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a great, sad read with a plot full of emotion.
Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices, curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.