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World of Wonders

July 27, 2021

“Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.” –popularly attributed to Ernest Hemingway

As you know if you’ve ever read anything posted on this blog, I’m an advocate for personal writing, and for personal reviews. But recently I had to reassess that stance because I read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, which should probably be subtitled “a memoir in which animals are used as metaphors.” I hated it, not because it isn’t well-written, but because reading about how she feels about the animals and plants she mentions brings up my own associations with them, which are less pleasant.

It could be that she begins with the catalpa tree, which is burned into my memory as the source of the long, stiff pods my mother once used to whip my younger brother. Aimee’s comment that “my mother always kept her calm…without losing her temper” does not make it better.

It could be that her next memory, of fireflies, is from “rural western New York,” while mine are from central Arkansas and southern Missouri, where we call them “lightning bugs.” There are two essays about fireflies, and although Aimee and I share the wish that more college-age students could see them, Aimee glosses over the reasons they haven’t, briefly mentioning “screens” along with “lawn pesticides and light pollution.”

It definitely is that her story about drawing a peacock–something I did obsessively up until high school, when I organized a “peacock farm” club and took my friends out to scream with the peacocks kept at a local memorial park–entirely missed its target with me. Aimee’s story is about how drawing peacocks set her apart as a foreigner. Poor little Aimee was told she had to draw something more American, so she drew a “ridiculous, overly patriotic eagle” and won first place in her school’s drawing contest. This turns out to be emblematic of the rest of the book. Aimee often has some kind of small, temporary setback which turns out to be a preface to her greater triumph.

I found the essay about comb jellies interesting until Aimee’s declaration that “I have always been drawn to color,” as if the rest of us are only capable of discerning shades of gray and she’s special. I liked reading about the touch-me-not plant until Aimee made it metaphorical, saying “how I wish I could fold inward and shut down and shake off predators with one touch….touch me not in the green room right before I go onstage, touch me not at the bar while I wait for my to-go order, touch me not at a faculty party, touch me not if you are a visiting writer….” Aimee seems to be drawing specific examples from her own experience, showing us how exquisitely desirable she is. Okay fine, we get it—she’s attractive and she’s a faculty member who is wealthy enough to order from bars, consort with visiting writers, and appear onstage.

When an elementary-aged boy teases Aimee, it must be learned racism (and not what the rest of us experienced, the aimless cruelty of small boys who let loose their darts until they see one hit a target). (I remember a boy who got so desperate to make fun of me that he resorted to switching the initial letters of my first and last names and repeating the resulting nonsense syllables like a taunt.) When a girl in “the junior high locker room” pretends to be an expert on what shade of “Wet n Wild lipstick” Aimee should wear, it must be about Aimee’s skin color, not about the other girl’s attempt to establish a pecking order. When we hear that “butterflies have always been special to my boys” I guess we’re supposed to believe that Aimee is a better mother than any of us who have taken our children to countless butterfly gardens, planted milkweed, and watched a chrysalis to see what would emerge.

We’re supposed to feel sorry for poor Aimee because she spent one year being “the new girl in high school” and had to eat lunch by herself: “I ate lunch in the library. I ate lunch in a stairwell hardly anyone used. I ate lunch in the dark enclave of the only elevator….Once I ate lunch—my sad peanut butter and jelly sandwich—while standing up in a scratched and markered-up bathroom stall.” Who here didn’t spend more than one year finding places to avoid the high school lunchroom? And who feels sorry for a girl who actually got to eat some lunch? My memories of high school lunchtime are memories of being hungry and not eating, because a girl who wasn’t thin wasn’t supposed to eat in public. “This was my cephalopod year,” Aimee says, as if no one else in high school ever wanted “to disappear or sneak away into the deep sea.” And, predictably, for Aimee it was only one year. After that “I did end up making friends….people noticed when I had to leave parties early….They didn’t want me to go.” And she’s grateful for that one year of friendlessness, Aimee says, because “if not for that shadow year, how would I know how to search the faces of my own students?”

We’re supposed to believe that Aimee is one of the only people in the world who appreciate the chance to see a blooming corpse flower, when in actuality we know that there are always people eager to see them in arboretums and conservatories. This attitude was written into an episode of a tv show called Scorpion, about a group of people who are self-described geniuses. One of them, Walter, takes a girl to see a corpse flower opening and is surprised she doesn’t know what will happen. They are standing in a line of people waiting to get close to the flower, showing that Walter is not the only person in the world who wants to see it.

When she gets into a tank with a whale shark, Aimee says “I was simply unprepared to submit myself so completely to nature.” Although she subsequently acknowledges that this is “humans’ interpretation and preservation of nature,” I think this is the point in my reading where I started thinking about writing a parody of her book.

This book is by a woman so lucky that she not only got to go to Greece, she once got to experience a “month-long stay where I spent mornings teaching poetry to students from around the world and afternoons snorkeling with my young sons and husband in turquoise-colored coves.” This is a woman so fortunate that she admits “I felt guilty for even daring to hope I could lend a tenure-track job—all I knew was that I wanted to stay in the classroom, but I also wanted to be able to spend time outdoors and write.” Well who doesn’t? But how many of us actually find a tenure-track job?

So favored that she can watch other people from “my blanket on the beach,” Aimee contorts a metaphor about the sound a cassowary makes to say “Boom to the man in the truck in front of me on Highway 6, who tosses a whole empty fast food sack out his window and then, later, a couple of still-lit cigarettes. Boom, I want to say to the family who left their empty plastic water bottles on a bench.” Rather than identify the manufacturers and distributors of plastic water bottles, Aimee is content to lie on her towel and think about the way those few individuals she can see from the beach should be acting.

Aimee’s final question is “where does one start to take care of these living things amid the dire and daily news of climate change, and reports of another animal or plant vanishing from the planet”? Perhaps, for once, she’s convinced me that the place to start is not with the personal. What means a lot to me won’t mean the same things to you, and it might well irritate you for me to try to tell you how I feel about these animals and plants.

It can be easy to criticize, but I think what irritates me most about World of Wonders is the failed attempt. Rather than identifying it as a memoir, Aimee and her publisher are trying to make us think that we can join in the way she’s fond of the world and its wonders when in actuality the number of people who can join in her rarified society are few.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2021 8:58 am

    Wow, you and I had REALLY different reactions to this book! 😂 I never once felt irritated by her stories. I thought that not every essay was successful in its marriage of memoir and nature, like a few were “stretching” to make the connection personal. But I never thought she wanted the reader to feel sorry for her. I just felt like she was relating her personal experiences, which undoubtedly as a child of two brown immigrants and a girl with a “weird” last name who moved around in high school, included experiences of racism and loneliness. And I was pissed at that teacher who made her draw something different! And the essay about the octopus made me bawl. BUT… we all bring our own lives to the books we read and it’s wonderful that there are so many different books for different readers! Im glad I read your thoughts, it’s good to get other views.

    • July 28, 2021 1:31 pm

      Sometimes a book just rubs a reader the wrong way. This one definitely raised my hackles. I thought it was worth writing about because I do advocate for the personal, and this experience contradicts some of my evangelizing about how useful I think it can be.

      • July 28, 2021 3:31 pm

        You’re not alone – I went back and looked at Goodreads reviews and quite a few people mentioned her privilege, and also how slight some of the essays were in terms of a personal connection between the nature and her life.

        • July 28, 2021 3:51 pm

          I didn’t mind the slightness of the connections. (I think the perceived need to do more research before one writes is one of the leading causes of writer’s block!)
          But glad to hear that my reaction isn’t entirely idiosyncratic.

  2. July 27, 2021 12:06 pm

    I adore your review and it is a thing of beauty. 🙂 Thank you for being the best thing in my blog feed this morning!

  3. July 27, 2021 3:08 pm

    It is very tough to hear, from a famous writer, how she ‘overcame disability’ – and now runs. Runs! When I can’t walk or stand more than a tiny bit.

    Some writers can make the personal universal, others really can’t. One can be entitled and clueless and NOT white. Sorry this got under your skin. And that you had better stories, if this were a competition.

    • July 28, 2021 1:35 pm

      You’ve put your finger on the problem, which is how to make the personal universal. No one will ever be entirely successful at it, but I think it’s good to call someone out when they fail. Now I will have to wait for someone to call me out on how I failed at that in my own book, Postcard Poems.
      And I’m chuckling about the competition and telling “better stories.” I do have a very real impulse to parody this book with one about my own experiences drawing metaphors with animals and plants. That might be too unkind, though, and I don’t need to spend more time in the state of irritation that would spur the stories.

  4. July 28, 2021 1:35 pm

    This book sounds so cringe-worthy. Props that you got through it!

    • July 28, 2021 1:40 pm

      From what I’ve read, others don’t react to it as I did. I expected to love it, and since it’s about matters dear to my own heart, I guess I didn’t just react with pallid dislike but with real hate.

  5. July 30, 2021 4:08 pm

    Huh. I may be missing some context, but none of those quotes sounded like bragging or fishing for pity at all. The part about her wanting to avoid peoples’ touch sounds like she’s saying she was constantly subjected to inappropriate touch – maybe even sexual harassment.

    The part about being shamed for her “foreign” mannerisms feels very relatable to me. I was constantly teased for my weird name and one mom even grumbled that I only got into my chosen university (Marquette) because they’re filling some diversity quota (while her poor daughter had to settle for George Washington U instead of Georgetown).

    A kid on the bus once called me an illegal immigrant because of my funny name. An entire school bus chanted “NERD-EE-A!” at me one day when I was running late.

    Like the first commenter said, it sounds like the author is just sharing personal feelings and experiences, not being judgmental or self-righteous or suggesting she’s some rare specimen.

    And as for her feelings of being singled out via racism, her examples seem entirely plausible to me. While most kids experience cruelty from their peers, this cruelty *can* be tinged with subtle racism. A girl can absolutely be concerned with pecking order AND use racist micro-aggressions (like “suggesting” what lipstick goes best with a person’s skin) to do it. I’m inclined to trust people when they say a particular experience felt racist to them because, as a white woman, I have no personal basis for comparison. I have no right to argue whether or not the other person is exaggerating or overreacting because, the above experiences of foreignness notwithstanding, I’m very privileged to have never needed to wonder if my skin color had anything to do with it.

    Finally, I think it’s easy to dismiss a person’s mental and external hardships based on that person’s level of wealth or appearance or what not, but I know from very personal experience that things like depression don’t give a **** how privileged I am. It’s an illness, not a moral failing or a trend meant to reel in sympathy. As my therapist tells me all the time, there will always be someone somewhere who has it worse than me. It doesn’t help AT ALL to shame ourselves or others for not being constantly, purely grateful.

    Honestly, your criticisms got my own hackles up, even though I understand that every reader brings different experiences to the book that affect their response to it.

    • July 30, 2021 9:36 pm

      Definitely we’re missing some context, which is what makes writing so different from talking. Sharing personal experiences is always risky, as this conversation demonstrates, because we all react so differently, sometimes to the same kinds of things.
      I hope what I wrote doesn’t come off as dismissive at all; I’m trying to say that I agree that the small things she points out are important and that I support her approach. This time the approach didn’t work with me at all, which is meant to be as critical of the way I’ve advocated for it as it is of the piece of writing that demonstrates it.
      Sorry I got your hackles up but thank you for commenting and bringing your point of view to the discussion.

  6. August 2, 2021 3:13 pm

    Sorry you didn’t like the book. Like Laila I very much enjoyed it. Not all of it wowed me, but the essay about the drawing contest made me angry that she was forced to draw a different picture. It spoke to me about forced conformity and how schools can be very good at killing imagination. It’s been awhile since I read it so it’s all gotten hazy at this point. I am curious though, if you weren’t enjoying the book and it was making you so angry, why did you keep reading it? Were you hoping it would get better? Or did it reach the point of hate read? I’ve totally done that before and then found myself wondering why I did it and wasted my time. Heh.

    • August 3, 2021 9:27 pm

      What I was trying to say in my last two paragraphs is that it made me angry because I think this book’s message is so important. Many of us love flora and fauna in different ways, and we need to find ways to work together to preserve it.
      What made me the angriest is that her personal approach–which is one I’ve always advocated for, here and elsewhere–failed with me.

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