Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The essays collected here address identity and anxiety in our contemporary moment defined by two double-edged aspects of globalism. Capacity for travel connects the globe physically as never before, only this connection is marked by an obsessive focus on danger and, in response, increasing security technologies, surveillance, and bureaucracies of control. Likewise with information, digital networks stitch together the globe and allow for increasing intricacies of entrenched identity groups, the new nationalism, waves of racist paranoia lumping together vague categories into a general sense of dreaded other. Nealie faces all of this. As a New Zealander come to America, she wrestles with the implications of citizenship on selfhood, on the nature of the state as ideal and as legal system as well as the nature of homeland as “the space fashioned inside of me . . . like a series of stacking dolls within my daily routine,” even as the tangible realities of the remembered place fade into “streaky memories, sometimes defined, at other times receding, blurred, wavering.” Likewise, as a mother in this media-saturated age, she cannot watch her son eat cantaloupe without thinking of the latest listeria outbreak and, behind that backstory to each piece of produce, a narrative of conquest and inequality, fetish and myth. In the same book, we learn about a series of statues that honors Popeye the Sailor, in spinach-industry states, and accompanies the author in her recounting of anxious fantasies of her children being abducted, going lost. We ponder, with her, the mysteries of illness and mortality—“It is curious, how one’s body—the vessel that both contains the ‘I’ and is the ‘I’—can cannibalize itself.”—while also noting the immortality of reputation, subject to the whims of attention and the caprices of hate—her grandfather, a Muslim of Indian descent, becomes a character marked by “scandal” in New Zealand history, and more recently his mausoleum was defaced by vandals who “sliced the dulled brass crescent moon and star from on top of the tomb’s blue dome and daubed graffiti across the white stone walls.”
The book’s most muscular themes are already in that sentence: prejudice against some group, some category of people, linked to hue of skin; a painstakingly recalled place no longer present but reproduced, instead, in words. Nealie is brilliantly Socratic on both fronts, walking her readers through valences, questions, recounting the tonal ranges of her own skin, from “rich amber” to “translucent honey,” “pooled vanilla . . . cinnamon . . . damson at the wrists” and turning to the mystical terminology of science to phrase her relation to absent, familiar lands:
The metrological visibility index measures contrasts over distance. I measure contrast over distance, and sometimes my method is faulty. Scientists say that in New Zealand, the visibility index and optical depth are immense, because of clean maritime air and high levels of ultraviolet, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. I imagine, but cannot see.
Similarly on “race” or “ethnicity” or whatever labels people use to talk about their correlations of “color” to otherness, she knows that she cannot always see “how my brownness is perceived by others,” though certain situations are glaringly clear, as when, to some eyes, her “tawny skin could be, what, Palestinian, Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi? Enemy-colored, regardless.” Nealie’s professed bewilderment with her brownness anchors this book, in concert with her way of voicing her longing, her missing, for place:
the nikau palm outside my window, tui birds on the flax blooms chiming their bell notes to each other at dusk, the volcano Rangitoto hugging the entrance to Waitemata Harbor, the hibiscus tree behind my kitchen, the ozone smell of the Pacific pounding on the east coast, the sunlight reflecting on the shiny native karaka leaves made my eyes crinkle in the brightness.
The evocative clarity of such scenes, as with the coiling depth of her thinking on skin color, is enough to merit a reading of this book and to anticipate more from this writer.
Official Toni Nealie Web Site
Official Curbside Splendor Publishing Web Site