‘Postcolonial Love Poem’
By Natalie Diaz
‘My Autobiography of Carson McCullers’
By Jenn Shapland
c.2020, Tin House
Often, you enjoy a book. But it’s as ethereal as a lovely snowflake. After a month, you forget about it.
That’s not the case with two unforgettable books by queer authors that are among this year’s National Book Awards finalists. Natalie Diaz, a queer, Native American poet is a finalist in poetry for “Postcolonial Love Poem” and queer writer Jenn Shapland is a finalist in nonfiction for “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.” The winners of the distinguished award will be announced in a virtual ceremony on Nov. 18. Winners of the prestigious prize will receive $10,000; finalists will receive $1,000.
Neither Diaz’s or Shapland’s book – one a searing volume of poetry, the other an arresting memoir – will slip out of your mind. Each volume will leave you questioning and pondering yourself, identity, erasure and history.
“Postcolonial Love Poem” is Diaz’s second poetry collection. Her first poetry collection “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” was an American Book Award winner. Diaz, who is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, has received many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University.
Poetry is of the body – the body personal, the body political and the body historical. Rarely has this been more true than in “Postcolonial Love Poem.”
Diaz’s poetry speaks eloquently and vividly of desire. “Haven’t they moved like rivers/like glory, like light/over the seven days of your body?” she writes in the poem “These Hands, If Not Gods,” “And wasn’t that good?/Them at your hips/isn’t this what God felt when he pressed together/the first Beloved: Everything.”
The narrator of Diaz’s poems knows that desire is often intermingled with worry, anxiety and sleeplessness. She uses striking imagery to evoke desire and the night. “Insomnia is like spring that way – surprising/and many petaled,” Diaz writes in the poem “From the Desire Field,” “the kick and leap of gold grasshoppers at my brow/I am stuck in the witched hours of want/I want her green life.”
The volume is a stirring indictment of injustice and erasure. “Police kill Native Americans more/than any other race,” Diaz writes in the poem “American Arithmetic.”
“I’m not good at math–can you blame me?/I’ve had an American education,” she adds with incisive irony later in the poem.
“Postcolonial Love Poem” is the most provocative, compelling poetry collection I’ve read in eons. Check it out.
In her memoir “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers,” her first book, writer Jenn Shapland explores erasure and identity. Carson McCullers, who lived from 1917 to 1967 and is best known for her novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and her novel (as well as its adaptation for the stage) “The Member of the Wedding,” is an iconic writer, playwright and poet.
Yet, in biographies and literary history, her queerness has been largely erased. In her genre-defying book (part memoir, part biography), Shapland examines and illumines both McCullers’ and her own identity, queerness, memory, obsession and love. Her nonfiction has been published in “Tin House,” “Essay Daily” and other publications. Shapland won the 2019 Rabkin Foundation Award for art journalism, and her essay “Finders, Keepers” won a 2017 Pushcart Prize. She teaches as an adjunct in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
When Shapland was a graduate student, she discovered intimate letters that McCullers wrote to a woman named Annemarie. As she uncovers the letters, she becomes obsessed not only with how history has erased McCullers’ queerness but with how queer women’s love stories are told.
In short, evocative, incisive chapters, Shapland questions: Why have queer women had to (even now) tell their stories in a way that fits straight narratives? Why have we had to be ourselves – navigate in hetero spaces? As she struggles with her own sexuality, Shapland wonders what McCullers’ secrets and legacy will reveal to her about herself.
“To tell another person’s story,” Shapland writes, “a writer must make that person some version of herself, must find a way to inhabit her.”
“My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” is an absorbing, revealing story of queer history and identity.