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VOICES FROM A FORGOTTEN LETTER

POEMS ON THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR

A record of a country and people in crisis rendered in fearless, anguishing detail.

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Seif-Eldeine’s debut chapbook acts as a vigil for the people of Syria.

Even when embedded, dedicated journalists can’t always fully capture the emotional cost of war and disaster. So, artists, writers, and poets step in to describe their impact for those who live beyond the headlines and to provide perspective to stories that might otherwise remain untold. In this chapbook, Seif-Eldeine chronicles the psychic damage of more than a decade of conflict in Syria, much like a reporter would; he oscillates between being an observer and a participant, conveying the experiences of ordinary Syrian citizens under violent oppression and intermingling them with accounts from first-person speakers who grapple with sacrifice and the sheer emotional weight of survival. In these works, war destroys even the most mundane objects and tasks. Prayer rugs become Kevlar vests in the poem “What Prayer Rugs Collect”; nuptials transpire in camps of those on the run from destruction (“Refugee Wedding”), and even the smallest pleasures vanish from everyday lives (“Who Wants French Cigarettes in Syria?”). Over the course of this collection, Seif-Eldeine is careful not to simply damn the perpetrators of violence, aside from president and dictator Bashar al-Assad. He considers what motivates people’s support for al-Assad in “Talking Politics in Syria,” and he makes no value judgments about human losses on both sides; in his works, every soldier is a “wild / mouthed child of a war” (“The First Kill”). He records and honors the experiences of farmers, housewives, the highly educated, soldiers, and foreign-born nationals alike.

It’s the way the poet conveys these stories and alludes to his own personal burdens that’s so arresting and strikes so deeply. The poems convey grief without pity and pomp; the entanglement of sorrow and fury may catch readers off guard in lines such as “the pines we chop down / for Christmas: green and red. / Did the triage doctor mark me / green, or red like the sea?” (“The Soldier’s Last Thoughts”) and “On days I am King, I give up / my lamb to my children. / Their stomachs are as empty / as a gun that has run out of clips” (“King or Queen for a Day”). In his Syria, neither death nor life has any dignity; bodies full of bullets expel excrement when retrieved, marriages buckle into isolation and abuse, and children are sold to pay for food and shelter. Concrete details are interspersed among lyrical accounts of such things as an offhandedly expressed death toll, al-Assad’s experience with dentistry (depicted as a metaphor for his tyranny), and the growth of refugee camps in neighboring countries. But Seif-Eldeine is most harrowing when he uses small moments and details to convey the true scale of suffering in an ongoing conflict, as when a woman paints in a blurry Van Gogh–like style because she lost her glasses in a bombing, or a farmer harvesting his crops remarks on his “watermelons larger than decapitated heads.”

A record of a country and people in crisis rendered in fearless, anguishing detail.

Pub Date: Jan. 25, 2023

ISBN: 9798375000510

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Jan. 10, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS WITH A JEW

An important dialogue at a fraught time, emphasizing mutual candor, curiosity, and respect.

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Two bestselling authors engage in an enlightening back-and-forth about Jewishness and antisemitism.

Acho, author of Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, and Tishby, author of Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, discuss many of the searing issues for Jews today, delving into whether Jewishness is a religion, culture, ethnicity, or community—or all of the above. As Tishby points out, unlike in Christianity, one can be comfortably atheist and still be considered a Jew. She defines Judaism as a “big tent” religion with four main elements: religion, peoplehood, nationhood, and the idea of tikkun olam (“repairing the world through our actions”). She addresses candidly the hurtful stereotypes about Jews (that they are rich and powerful) that Acho grew up with in Dallas and how Jews internalize these antisemitic judgments. Moreover, Tishby notes, “it is literally impossible to be Jewish and not have any connection with Israel, and I’m not talking about borders or a dot on the map. Judaism…is an indigenous religion.” Acho wonders if one can legitimately criticize “Jewish people and their ideologies” without being antisemitic, and Tishby offers ways to check whether one’s criticism of Jews or Zionism is antisemitic or factually straightforward. The authors also touch on the deteriorating relationship between Black and Jewish Americans, despite their historically close alliance during the civil rights era. “As long as Jewish people get to benefit from appearing white while Black people have to suffer for being Black, there will always be resentment,” notes Acho. “Because the same thing that grants you all access—your skin color—is what grants us pain and punishment in perpetuity.” Finally, the authors underscore the importance of being mutual allies, and they conclude with helpful indexes on vernacular terms and customs.

An important dialogue at a fraught time, emphasizing mutual candor, curiosity, and respect.

Pub Date: April 30, 2024

ISBN: 9781668057858

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon Element

Review Posted Online: March 13, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2024

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BEYOND THE GENDER BINARY

From the Pocket Change Collective series

A fierce, penetrating, and empowering call for change.

Artist and activist Vaid-Menon demonstrates how the normativity of the gender binary represses creativity and inflicts physical and emotional violence.

The author, whose parents emigrated from India, writes about how enforcement of the gender binary begins before birth and affects people in all stages of life, with people of color being especially vulnerable due to Western conceptions of gender as binary. Gender assignments create a narrative for how a person should behave, what they are allowed to like or wear, and how they express themself. Punishment of nonconformity leads to an inseparable link between gender and shame. Vaid-Menon challenges familiar arguments against gender nonconformity, breaking them down into four categories—dismissal, inconvenience, biology, and the slippery slope (fear of the consequences of acceptance). Headers in bold font create an accessible navigation experience from one analysis to the next. The prose maintains a conversational tone that feels as intimate and vulnerable as talking with a best friend. At the same time, the author's turns of phrase in moments of deep insight ring with precision and poetry. In one reflection, they write, “the most lethal part of the human body is not the fist; it is the eye. What people see and how people see it has everything to do with power.” While this short essay speaks honestly of pain and injustice, it concludes with encouragement and an invitation into a future that celebrates transformation.

A fierce, penetrating, and empowering call for change. (writing prompt) (Nonfiction. 14-adult)

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-09465-5

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Penguin Workshop

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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