NÉGAR DJAVADI (tr. Tina Kover)
$18.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
WINNER OF THE 31st Lambda Literary Award—BEST BISEXUAL FICTION!
The Publisher Says: Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five and facing the future she has built for herself as well as the prospect of a new generation, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which come to her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.
In this high-spirited, kaleidoscopic story, key moments of Iranian history, politics, and culture punctuate stories of family drama and triumph. Yet it is Kimiâ herself––punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”—who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel.
I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF AMAZON'S PRIME READING PROGRAM. USE THIS BENEFITS! WE'RE HOW THEY LIVE, SO TAKE ALL ADVANTAGES.
My Review: From the off, this is a very musical, music-like story, told in the form of "Side A" and "Side B." This alerts us "...old enough to remember 45 rpm vinyl records know that the B-side is usually less interesting that the A-side. Side B is the failed side, the weak side", that we should expect the whole read to be inflected by this frame of reference. And lo and behold, it is!
Kimiâ, or "alchemy" as the word has come to us in English, is a magical confabulation of stories and ideas and history. She is in a fertility clinic when we meet her...she is making the future, deliberately and calculatedly, in other words...and she begins with many skips and backtrackings and forward-lurchings to relate to us the recent history of Iran. ("Recent" is relative, of course, since Iran's history dates back to the invention of the idea of civilization so dwarfs silly Western concepts like "history" and the yet-more-modern "prehistory.") Kimiâ's family, the whole huge swath of them...six uncles, a grandfather who had a wife for ever week of the year...are in their different ways shaping the world's as well as their own world's history.
Sara and Darius, her mom and dad, are revolutionaries against the Shah, though very much antithetical to the theocratic horrors of the Islamic state that replaced one cruel oppressor with another. Their exile to France doesn't dim their ardor for and connection to an Iran free and liberated from repression and tyranny. For Kimiâ that includes her sex's oppression and reduction to the role of housewives. She's a bisexual woman and very much anathema to the present regime. They don't acknowlege the existence of gay or bi identities in Iran.
It gives special poignance to the read to realize that Home, when it doesn't want you, isn't home anymore; and France, the land they're living in if not part of, is in the awful, wrenching process of a rightward shift that rejects foreigners like her. It's a miserable truth that Négar Djavadi, the author of the work, is living in that same France, writing in French, and unable to conceptualize a safe return to the land of her birth.
Sleep isn't about resting, it's about letting yourself settle, like the sediment at the bottom of a wine barrel. I'm nowhere near trusting this world that much.
It is, in the end, the birth, "that dark hyphen between the past and the future which, once crossed, closes again and condemns you to wander"...her own, your own, the one Kimiâ is going to endure soon enough...that provides Kimiâ's final reckoning with the subject of exile:
With the passage of time, the flesh of events decomposes, leaving only a skeleton of impressions on which to embroider. Undoubtedly there will come a day when even the impressions will only be a memory. And then there won’t be anything left to tell.
She is compelled "to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time." She is the witness, the one whose between-state of emigrant/immigrant is definitional; her responsibility equally to the parents and family whose worlds are so different from hers, and the life she's making whose exostence will continue a line of existences that partake in many beautiful, braided strands of the bread we eat with our every act, that we call History.
THIS CLEAVING AND THIS BURNING
$17.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: Two unrelated, aspiring writers, born on the same day in the same year to parents with the same first names, grow up together and eventually gain national prominence as authors. As the years pass, the complex sexual identities of Miller Sark and Hal Pierce undermine their intense private relationship, inflicting damage that cannot be undone by the distinction of their fiction and poetry. Inspired by the lives and works of American literary giants Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane, This Cleaving and This Burning reveals the passion and purpose behind masks of public reputation and creative expression.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.
My Review: The bones of this story are based on Hemingway and Hart Crane, a sadly now-forgotten poet popular in the 1920s for his exaggeratedly obscurantist poetry. He was much on the model of T.S. Eliot, though far more, um, impressionistic in his vocabulary and stylistic affectations. For all that, he had a spark of some beautiful thing, a light that shone from his lines (as oddly heard as they were:
The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead.
I could never remember
That seething, steady leveling of the marshes
Till age had brought me to the sea.
These lines are from "Repose of Rivers" which is from his seminal collection White Buildings. Modern Queer Theory proponents like the late Thomas E. Yingling and Tim Dean have pushed back against heteronormative readings of Crane's poetry, arguing that his gayness was central to his sense of himself, and his sense of being a social pariah for his queerness was central to his poet's identity.
Any road, the friendship between Hemingway (a hugely overpraised writer in my never-remotely humble opinion) and Crane is not factual; it's factual that, had it happened, this is the way it would've ended given Hemingway's homophobia.
The thing that drew me ever deeper into this read was the beautiful creative world these two inhabited, the joyous freedom of childhood and adolescence spent with light supervision allowing them to muse and think and just *be*. The way the words knit and tat and crochet the strands of character and story together was magical. There's really very little said, apart from a seriously climactic scene, about their natural world...and even that scene is far more about Hal's thoughts and feelings. The characters, based on real men, are themselves and not merely mouthpieces for a plot full of contrivances. It hews as closely to the known life-events of the men as it's possible to do within the confines of writing one's own story.
While the ending was a saddening thing to read, it was factual in its results and outlines. What I'd recommend to readers is that they come to this tale of the valences of long-term friendships, especially same-gender ones, with a spirit of discovery. The novel is about the transformative nature of Love in its many, many, bizarre and unhappy and joyful forms. The love between men-friends is one of the toughest to show in fiction unless one resorts to sports as a central metaphor. In the case of Miller and Hal, the center of their long and loving friendship is Miller's appreciation of the adornments of Hal's poetical imagination and Hal's appreciation of Miller's grounded, practical masculinity. The tragedy of an ending is always there in the rapture of a beginning, isn't it.
It's actually a bit of a surprise to me how much I ended up enjoying this read. I don't generally like tragic endings to queer stories but this one's both factual and handled with a real sensitivity to the story that's led up to it. The characters, always forefronted in Author Wainwright's hands, are very clearly heading into inevitability. Their hidden selves and their public presentations of self collide and fragment on the rocks of Love. It has happened forever; it will happen myriad times again. It's a testament to that reality's careful construction in This Cleaving and This Burning that it failed for once to trigger my knee-jerk hostility to this kind of ending.
I'll say this for Author Wainwright. Decades of writing, both poetry and novels, has led him into a beautiful green pasture of story that only he could inhabit with the lightness and rightness of touch to sell my resistant soul on such a painful, sad to read, finale for two fascinating characters.