What We're Reading Now: Poems, Fairytales, Testimonios

Our reading list this month features two uniquely framed collections of poetry—Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales: Poems & Stories to Stir Your Soul and Diane Ackerman’s Origami Bridges—and a collection of Latina feminist testimonios called Telling to Live. Each collection has a perspective, tone, and language distinctly its own but, picking each up in turn this week, I was struck by the threads connecting each of them.

Nikita Gill’s modern poetry collection recasts old stories, traditional fairytales full of cliche and gender stereotypes, by dismantling outdated tropes and re-imagining new kinds of heroes, villains, stepmothers, princesses, and queens. Early poems like “Somewhere Across the Universe, This Intergalactic Fairytale Is Being Told” make clear the vast scope of Gill’s new mythos:

“In the far corner of the Virgo supercluster, a small galaxy called the Milky Way exists, and in one of the further spirals of that galaxy there is said to be a tiny planet called Earth….The extraordinary thing about this planet though, are the beings that exist on it.”

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As big as the universe, these tales start entirely anew. “The Tale of Two Sisters” is a new origin story for the stars and planets, and “The Fable of Thermodynamics” interjects the awe of magic into scientific law. Other poems offer guidance to Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel—a whole host of princesses caught but aware, in Gill’s retellings, in the heteropatriachal pressures of their times. “The Stepmother’s Tale” and “Two Misunderstood Stepsisters” offer compassionate perspectives on previously unlikable characters, refusing to play to the trope of women competing/in conflict with other women. In the poem “An Older and Wiser Little Mermaid Speaks,” she says “Now the mermaids are becoming sirens, / for sirens are monsters … / and monsters, unlike girls and mermaids, / know how to protect themselves well.”

Once I opened Gill’s collection, I could hardly put it down, reading it all the way through on a rare, rainy Los Angeles afternoon. The strong narrative bent of the poems lent momentum to the read, and there are moments where the lyric language seems almost an incantation or spell—for the reader, or for the speaker, or for both. Gill’s poem “Beauty and Bravery” does just the latter, in perhaps an echo of Mary Oliver or Emily Dickinson:

“So I’ll tell you a secret
no one wants you to know.

You do not have to be good to be brave.
You just need to know how to love.
You just need to unfold your heart
and recognize where you stand
and who you are.”

These intentional & deconstructed feminist fairytales resonate strongly with the Latina feminist testimonios of Telling to Live by a collective of authors, the Latina Feminist Group. Several dozens of women share stories which range thematically across genealogies of empowerment, the body, passions, and erasure. This book is part of a series called Latin America Otherwise: Language, Empires, Nations that explores “the emergence and consequences of concepts used to define "‘Latin America’”, and continues in a storytelling tradition that is part cultural participant/observer, part radical reformer, part intellectual theorist.

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Telling to Live includes both prose—like several piercing essays on teaching and the academy—and poetry, (like “Migraine”, a duolingual poem of an illness affecting nearly 20% of American women). The testimonios give name & nature to the intersection of their writer's’ marginalized identities: gendered, racial, religious, and cultural. Many of the stories in Telling to Lives section on erasure deal with numerous instances of outright bigotry and microaggressions in academia, a chorus of individual voices and experiences that shouldn’t need such compounding to lend credence, but which nonetheless are strengthened by the volume and number of their stories.

Later this month, we’ll return to Telling to Live and Origami Bridges for another in depth #WWRN post. What are you reading this month?