In Other Words is a chapbook of poetry and flash fiction brought together by editors Saira Ali and Julia Rios to raise funds for Con or Bust. It has an impressive table of contents with work coming from Hugo Award winning and other award nominated writers. In their introduction, Ali and Rios write about the choices that went into gathering together these writers and the pieces contained in the chapbook. These pieces bear testimony to the experience of what it means to be other not only in genre space but also in the wider world beyond genre.
There are seventeen pieces in this collection. It is a combination of poetry and short fiction and the editorial decision to intersperse poetry with story is a good one.
The collection opens with Shweta Narayan's "Nettle-Stung." "They tell the story wrong," Narayan writes. What follows is a telling of what has been ripped away, of what has been taken by the colonizer.
they . . . left us (wingless) to mumble
stumble in Engliss only, stole
our tales to study.
There is pain in those lines. They speak of the brutality inflicted upon colonized bodies. The poem reminds us of what is lost when the mother tongue is lost. Narayan writes on:
We own only our silences now, but snakes
sting back. We'll crush their tongue
in our coils, swallow whole
and use their words to say
they tell the story wrong.
I can't help but love the sharpness of these images and the efficacy with which they are put to use. A reminder that silence is also an act of resistance and that the colonized body is not a docile one. Narayan's poem sets the tone for the rest of the collection and none of the works that follow are less than the others.
There are works that are deceptively light. Amal El-Mohtar's "What is Said of the Wind." The light and dreamy feel of this piece is further enhanced by the image of feathers cast into the wind but the reader becomes aware that there is more at stake here than a handful of feathers.
I hear tell that to claim from the wind
a fistful of feathers floating on the air
is easier than to chase down the rumours
that strangers try to slip between sisters;
When El-Mohtar writes, "So I hear tell," the poem is not ended for the reader.
It's not often that I come across a collection that is put together with such clear intent. Here is a diversity in range and voice that reminds us of how rich the field becomes when we make space for voices that are often marginalized. Emily Jiang's "Self-Portrait" is a short poem that starts with the words, "I am not a fighter." I can't help but wonder about the story behind the poem and I also can’t help but be reminded of how the onus of speaking is often placed upon bodies that are other.
When Jiang writes of being "bull-stubborn," there is no other recourse but to acknowledge it. That bull-stubbornness is needed too in a world where the soul is worn down by small acts of aggression. For a short poem, "Self-Portrait" packs quite a wallop.
Then there is LaShawn Wanak's "The Bean Between the E and the I," which starts with the journey of the bean through the body, examining the burden of the African-born and how this burden is one the next generation no longer sees as a burden, the frame which ends with a plop makes the reader laugh. We don't always need to take ourselves seriously even when we are serious. We need light, we need laughter, and we need humor if the soul is to survive.
David Findlay's "Stolen" is cheeky in its resistance. It's fun to read and conveys what it wants to say so very well.
I stole the torturer's tongue!
man wouldn't recognize this dancing, twining, retrained flesh
if it slapped upside the empty space in him head
This poem reminded me of how children stick our tongues out at those who think to bully us. We say, oh hey, you think you got me but you haven’t. The torturer's tongue has lost its sting. And again we're back to conversing with Narayan's piece, to being reminded that the body that is viewed as other is not a subservient one.
Claimings and reclaimings are part and parcel of the life of the othered. We claim and reclaim spaces for our own. We name and rename and in so doing, we take hold of our own power.
While Sofia Samatar's "The Adventures of Ja'far al-Barmaki" speaks of loss that takes place when it is the colonizer who renames/rewrites things, Nisi Shawl's "If They Catch Me I'm Using Your Name" speaks of what takes place when it is the othered who takes hold of names. Shawl writes:
Ask the frightened deer.
Ask the clouds.
Ask the waterweeds.
Whose are they?
They are mine.
I am She.
In Other Words ends with a flash piece by Tom Greene. "Drive Careful" grounds us in the present time, in the present reality of the colored body. In this piece, the main character purchases a Law Stay Away amulet as he is going on a road trip and doesn't want to get any speeding tickets. What follows reads like a comedy. The inevitable happens, our hero is stopped time and again on one pretense or another. It is a harsh reminder of the acts of racism the othered body faces on a daily basis.
This review has only begun to scratch at the surface of the wealth that is contained in this small volume. I could spend more words on writing about and analyzing each piece, but I would still fall short. Editors Ali and Rios have put together an impressive chapbook. These are poems and fictions that you will want to read for yourself. They are in conversation—not just with the reader but also with each other and with the world.
I am thankful for being allowed to take part in it. Agyamanac Unay!
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in the Netherlands. She attended the Clarion West Writer's Workshop in 2009 and was a recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship. Her work has been published in various online and print publications in the Philippines as well as outside of the Philippines. You can visit her website at rcloenenruiz.com or follow her on Twitter.