Review of American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans

American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, The Vilcek Foundation

Dalkey Archieve Press, February 2013, Reviewed By Monica Wendel

What, really, could be said about art that refuses to encompass movement? Does such a thing exist? Even the statue, as Antoni Gaudi said, is not “a moment of action, it is the whole completed action.” The stories and poems in American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans (Vilcek Foundation, 2013) rarely show characters in the action of moving to America, but within the movement of the stories and poems is the whole completed action of migration between lands. Or incomplete; as Ilya Kaminsky writes in the poem “Author’s Prayer,” he will “speak / of music that wakes us / music in which we move. For whatever I say // is a kind of petition …” Later, the speaker wonders, “What ties me to this earth?”

Some names, familiar, appear in this anthology; others have not yet published a book, and the reader enjoys the shiver of discovery. David Hoon Kim’s story “On the Persistence of Sorrow in Gravitational Interactions,” is one example of this. A rock-hard and terrifying piece, the narrator is a Japanese–Danish student studying abroad in Paris whose relationship with his Japanese girlfriend is conducted in French. However, language comes between them: “the fact that so many French words rhymed with each other, coupled with Fukimo’s difficulties in pronouncing them, resulted in frequent misunderstandings between us.” After finishing the story, I eagerly Googled Kim to find more work, only to learn that patience is in order (he does not have a book out, and this story originally appeared under the title “Sweetheart Sorrow” in the New Yorker in 2007).

Other names are more recognizable, yet reading them in the context of writers born outside the United States lends a new depth to, for example, Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / The Terror of the Future” poems. “There were girls waiting at the gate / but we were homonyms away from / understanding each other, like halve / and have, like ‘let me hold you’ and ‘I hold you / responsible,'” she writes in “The Future of Terror / 6,” a poem constructed, in part, from the writer’s reading of the dictionary between the words “future” and “terror.” Vuong Quoc Vu, in his poems, turns to definitions as well. “I would like to build a city just to give / it a name,” he writes in “The Names of Cities.” A few pages later, we learn that in the Viatnamese language, “apple is qua tao, / which translates as ‘apple fruit.’ / The word for ‘apple’ — tao — by itself / is for some reason not enough…. But it is in these oddities we see / that anyone who speaks Vietnamese is a poet.”

Perhaps these poets turn to the idea of words themselves because, as Charles Simic writes in his introduction, “the problem is familiar to almost all immigrants who try to describe what has happened to them: they find that their own lives sound unbelievable, not just to strangers, but even to their own ears.” And in those cases, the writer may find him or herself examining language for any truth they can find contained in those words. The preface by Jan and Marica Vilcek points out “that nineteen of the twenty-two very accomplished writers represented in American Odyssesys are writing in their second language of English” and furthermore that for seven of the twenty “20 Under 40” New Yorker writers were writing in their second language.

In “Autumn Troupe,” Mino Nonaka returns to the idea of borders. “Truly I had been / a tightrope walker all along, / never straying from the line / between reality and dream, beauty / and damage. No desire to ever / wake up on either side of the border.” This anthology embraces borders: many of the writers identify with where they came from, and understand this new country as exactly that, new, unlike the old one. And yet, like a circus, the borders are not set, but created, which means that we are then invited in to a startling range of voices, experiences, and times. What more could one ask for, after all, from literature?


Bio: Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (forthcoming, Georgetown Review Press) and the chapbook Call it a Window. This March, she will serve as the Writer in Residence of the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando, Florida. Her poems have appeared in Bellevue Literary ReviewNimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, and other journals.