Mrigaa Sethi Editor's Reflection: Ambassadors of the Otherworld
When we were sifting through photographer Nguan’s extensive and excellent work for this Dispatch—images spanning the world, from Tiananmen Square to Coney Island—our challenge was to identify a selection that would do justice to the geographical breadth of his keenly perceptive lens as well as gently suggest a theme.
Eventually, we agreed on a collection of portraits depicting young people from different places—kids in that strange time when they come to realize that there is much more to the world they live with and even the bodies they inhabit than they had initially thought, and almost none of it particularly comfortable.
I suppose nominating this kind of focus for our admiration was inspired by my reading of The Abundance, the new collection of essays by Annie Dillard, in which she writes with redemptive tenderness about the experience of being a child waking up to increasingly layered truths. Maybe it was also because I’ve been thinking about American teenager, Jordan Edwards, who was shot dead by a white policeman while leaving a party. And because many of my closest friends are having children, and because my own biological clock is making me seriously, if irrationally, consider parenthood.
The poems and the photographs in this dispatch think through the complicated, often awful truths that children inherit: the languages of home countries, adopted countries and other places (Bhatt); the anxieties of their parents; their bodies and what they signify in a crowd (Nguan); gods whom they will struggle to forgive (Alyan); the words of their oppressors rolling happily in their mouths (Bulley).
But this week, as my friend lovingly braved what turned out to be two, three, almost four days of contractions and labor, I wondered about the other world, the one that children are from before they arrive. It’s a world that is located both in the room and somewhere entirely else, a world whose temporary proximity wrenches us from the catastrophe of living in this world and being this person, this subject. I wondered if it’s what children bring rather than what they must bear that makes us want them.
They are, albeit to a degree that decreases with age, ambassadors of the otherworld, the one that is separated from ours by less than an inch of belly, the universe in which, as Sujata Bhatt writes, “truth is mute and love will be silent."
Temple was the jade figurine
around my neck lightly held by
thread the color
of lobster heart.
Worried like misbaha, the same love-
against the pad of my thumb. Oh please let. Oh won’t.
Beirut from the balcony lies
spangled as some sugared fruit.
That citrus smell mantling my bed for days.
ii. Requiem Aeternam dona eis for the men the ocean ate,
swaying on dark ships from the Levant
Allah is pastoral in my hand, soft as flannel,
as the curl of grass across water.
There are fires set in Gaza. Rage is the soup
that keeps some alive.
My aunt arrives tipsy and rapturous,
speaking of love in my grandmother’s kitchen.
We light cigarettes, spoon black olives from the jar.
She pours an inch of whiskey,
shows me her new earrings, a gift. I am wary:
Silver turns green in sun.
That night, I lie watching
dawn beneath the curtains, flinching
from the twinge in my abdomen as muscles stitch
Sujata Bhatt was born in India. She grew up in India and in the USA. Her most recent books from Carcanet are Collected Poems (PBS Special Commendation, 2013) and Poppies in Translation (PBS Recommendation, 2015). She has received numerous awards including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) and a Cholmondeley Award. In 2014 she was the first recipient of the Mexican International Poetry Prize, Premio Internacional de Poesía Nuevo Siglo de Oro 1914-2014. Her work has been widely anthologised, broadcast on radio and television, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. She divides her time between Germany and elsewhere.
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in numerous journals including The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Columbia Poetry Review. Her poetry collection ATRIUM (Three Rooms Press) was awarded the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry. FOUR CITIES, her second collection, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press. Her latest collection, HIJRA, was selected as a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2016.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a British-born Ghanaian poet, writer and facilitator. A former Barbican Young Poet, her work has been commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts, in addition to being featured on BBC Radio 4. She was shortlisted for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize 2016, and is one of ten poets on the acclaimed UK mentorship programme, The Complete Works. Her debut pamphlet, Girl B, is part of the 2017 New-Generation African Poets series, edited by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes. She is the creative director of Mother Tongues, a forthcoming intergenerational poetry, film and translation project supported by Arts Council England and Autograph ABP.
Nguan was born and raised in Singapore. He attended Northwesterm University in Illinois and graduated with a degree in Film and Video Production. Nguan’s photographs are about big city yearning, ordinary fantasies and emotional globalization. His first book Shibuya (2010) was named in PDN Annual as one of the best of the year. His second book, How Loneliness Goes (2013), was called “a masterful color portrait of quiet urban lives” by American Photo. How Loneliness Goes was presented as a solo exhibition at the 2015 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, and was part of group shows at Para Site in Hong Kong and SFAQ [Project] Space in San Francisco. Nguan’s photographs are in the permanent collection of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).
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