In Review: Cranesong

cranesong

Cranesong by Rona Wang. Half Mystic Press (2019, 76 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.

Rona Wang is, in Carissa Dunlap’s words, a “badass creator,” and I couldn’t agree more. Wang is the type of creator who gives other creators pause, who makes one ask, what have I been doing with my life? Not nearly as much as this sophomore at MIT who is already a prize-winning writer (Wang won the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose and a 2018 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize from MIT’s Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, just to name a couple) and has created a writing mentorship program, an online learning platform and community, been named one of “22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women” by Her Campus, and has written a gorgeous and gut-wrenching debut of short stories. And she’s only 21.

Cranesong, published by Half Mystic Press, is a collection that puts the rest of the world on mute as each story peels open. In one story, a “barely-eighteen college freshman” returns home for Thanksgiving and realizes “[e]verything [she] knew of home is gone,” and some things can’t be replaced. In another, a village is transfixed by the “Guiyang girl in the rice paddies,” her power transcending death. And in another, a young Chinese girl finds a precious moment of friendship in a war-time America determined to erase everything she cares about.

Wang’s skills as a storyteller are a joy to behold. She shifts smoothly and seamlessly from one point of view to another, from present to past and back again, from realism to magic realism and back. Legend can sit beside YouTube; each element, no matter how quotidian, jumps forward into something close to wonder, but the painful kind, like sunlight bouncing off snow. In another writer’s hands, these shifts would be incongruous. But in Wang’s, they’re magic.

And Wang’s characters are so real: they lift makeup they can’t afford, “stealing promises for the lives we yearned for,” crave connection so hard that when they look at the person they love, they “wanted to crawl inside of her, make a home out of all that tenderness,” and say yes against their better judgment because “it feels so good to be seen.” And they’re often in free fall, trying to find their place in a world that asks them to break themselves against its closed, and often locked, doors.

As they deal (but not always cope) with culture, language, sexuality, loss, and racism, and yearn for love, beauty, and home, it’s impossible not to ache right along with these complex characters, many of whom exist with a foot in two or more different worlds, watching, being watched, and sometimes targeted by those that “shimmy like they know they belong in this moneyed, neon world.” In “Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar,” Liv says, “Some people would walk for years to have something magnificent and entirely theirs.” These are characters walking, getting a little messed up in a messed up world, and the reader gets a little messed up, too.

Wang has a talent for slipping the floor out so that each paragraph, each story, reverberates through muscle and bone to something central. Her imagery is so arresting (“skies that swung open like switchblades” in “The Evolution of Wings”), her diction so startling and fresh (“Skeins of green grains embroidered her limbs and neck” in “The Girl in the Rice Paddies”), the whole of her collection so true to the raw emotion roiling under each surface, that I’d be willing to follow Wang pretty much anywhere. Better pay attention to this bright, vibrant new voice.

Cranesong is available here.

Rona Wang: Guest Post

cranesongIn December, STYLE was coming to Los Angeles on their world tour to promote a new album. It was all the Fashionista forums could yammer about. Online magazines with short, snappy names released thinkpieces about the global rise of K-pop. I used Python to compose a script that would purchase concert tickets the minute they went on sale.

—From “Style”, Cranesong

When I was in ninth grade, K-pop wasn’t cool in America yet. I had only a few queer Asian friends, but we all loved K-pop because it was different from the Western music we heard on the radio—and, more importantly, because it was perfectly fine with being different.

Which brings me to “Style.” In Cranesong’s leading story, protagonist Kitty and her best friend Janie are sort-of-kind-of-high-key obsessed with a Korean pop idol group called STYLE. Fun fact: in the story, only the lead singer of STYLE, Yuna, is named. However, STYLE has five members, and their first initials spell out the name of their group. Cute, no? It’s not a real group, but rather a conglomerate of every K-pop artist I looped over and over when I was in high school. (To give you some context: this was right after “Gangnam Style” blew up. I had a Sony Walkman, y’all.)

I attempted to make a full-blown playlist for this blog post, but quickly scrapped that idea upon realizing that it was about 98% 2NE1 and GIRLS’ GENERATION. So here’s some of my old-school favourites:

At the time, I didn’t know that K-pop can be problematic as hell. It has been criticized for questionable business practices that devalue performers. It appropriates Black culture. But with “Style,” I wanted to tell an honest story, one starring a deeply flawed girl scrambling to survive. A girl who shoplifts from Sephora. Who lies about herself on dating apps. Who is so entrenched in her own insecurities that she turns to find comfort in a subculture that exalts heteronormativity, colorism, and commodification, all because—at least in her mind—it is everything she is not.

Despite its flaws, K-pop has steadily gained visibility in America. Last year, BTS became the first South Korean band to debut an album at No. 1 on the US Billboard chart. I wonder how Kitty would feel about that. Maybe she’d feel vindicated; she’s totally the petty type. Or maybe she’d be that one person who has a compulsive need to inform everyone, “I liked K-pop before it was trendy!” Most likely, she’d be irked at the intrusion, at everyone claiming her subculture for their own.

Yep, she’s kind of a mess. But who isn’t?

Rona Wang is a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her writing, she has been named a Her Campus 22 Under 22 and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. Her debut short story collection, Cranesong, comes out from Half Mystic Press on February 13.

Half Mystic Press’ debut short story collection—out February 13, 2019—is, above all, a bright thing. Cranesong explores the trauma that clutters our bones, the echoes that infuse our language, every dawn that insists on spinning into existence despite it all. At the same time, it lingers inside wild wind, consumes the cartography of longing, interrogates all the colors piano music can hold. These stories pinwheel from realm to realm—some fantastical, some deeply modern, and some settling in between. Yet there is an ancestral lineage that braids them together. These characters don’t exist in the same world, but if they did, perhaps they’d recognize each other. Preorder your copy here.

In Review: Knock

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Knock by Melissa Atkinson Mercer. Half Mystic Press (2018, 70 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.

Half Mystic Press’s first book, written by Melissa Atkinson Mercer, is bewitching, full of pitch and portents. One stumbles in and is caught in its spell…or is it curse? Knock uses elements of both, gathering its earthy ingredients (“my tongue is turbulent with acanthus, with bloodroot, with a pig’s mudded hoof” in “she says: these are my lungs”) and mixing them with ritual and the conjured voices of dead poets.

On the table of contents, a formula is laid out: six steps to “cure” depression (the first of which is “they cut out your tongue”), split into three parts. Braided into these steps are three definitions for knock, all verbs, all with agency: “to produce a noise,” “to gain entry,” and “to collide.”

When the tongue is removed, one must find other means of communication, and a knock can be so many things: forceful, tentative, sinister, urgent, and deliciously eerie. What is it about noise divorced from body—unexplained bumps in an empty house, scratching at a windowpane on a dark night—that gives one such a chill? That shiver up the spine lies at the heart of this collection where, behind each poem, there is an incessant, unsettling tap, tap, tap.

In the title poem, the cursed speaker says, “If I could be loud enough, if incessant, the door might truly open.” But as each section unfolds, instead of the door opening, who is knocking seems to shift. The speaker seems to exist on both sides of the door, an uncomfortable impasse. To be cursed is to be trapped, after all. Frustrated movement ebbs and flows poem by poem until the landscape seems to vibrate, and the speaker’s occasional calmness in the face of it deepens the chill. The poem “love was the thing i wanted to say” begins with a house filling with water, the speaker inside. Time passes, and the speaker eventually becomes a fish, and “the walls turned black with eyes.” Yet instead of alarm, the speaker says, almost casually, “There was nothing so unpleasant…”.

The speaker exists in a dissociative state, sometimes more beast or object than human, other times divorced from her parts, from voice itself: “I found my tongue singing in a pail of waste” (“the first cure for depression…”). The cure for the speaker’s “sickness of the tongue” is biblical (Matthew 5:30, KJV: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee”) and performed outside our frame of view by faceless beings. Mercer’s cutting and mixing in clips and lines from poets who committed suicide feels almost like a reclamation, cut-out tongues singing through this collection like the speaker’s own disembodied tongue, stubbornly hard to silence.

The loss of voice doesn’t stop the speaker’s yearning. She projects it (knock, knock) onto everything around her. The animals take up her thirst: “I taught them, the thirsty pigs, lifting their hooves to fence posts: one, two, three & again, darlings, again” in “knock.” And as others try to tame the speaker, their shaping a form of violence, so too do images, words, and objects contain a wisp of violence: “Storms grew on the black lake, cracking it like marble. We plucked out the cotton sky” (“mother, ice storm”).

As these lines show, Mercer skillfully juxtaposes images, building tension and deepening connections. In the first poem, which is also the first cure, the mountains made from the “tongues of women buried for the sin of lust” collide with the father who “cuts the tongues from goats before the feast.” Sitting as they do, the father figure and the women are connected, the father’s violence a shadow that looms and echoes forward. The women, tongueless, become goatlike.

Indeed, the women’s and speaker’s human form eludes them: they are birds, beasts, cyclops, trees, fish, elephants. This shapeshifting (mimicked by form as the poems flow into prose and back) sometimes seems like power, sometimes curse, sometimes both. In “xiv” of “to gain entry,” the speaker says, “my sea-born blood is a cathedral’s light / dreamlike ferocity a snake skin / shimmered beneath the wet leaves.” In “oh where to begin,” the speaker asks, “Lord, preserver of man & beast, who may I ask has been tasked with my unimaginable body…?”

The speaker is often acted upon, and even when she makes the move herself, her actions are almost always self-defeating…or self-mutilating. In “what do you remember of before,” the speaker says, “I’ll dig a grave & climb inside.” This self-immolation is echoed in the recurring womb, which is “Verboten,” whether by the speaker’s choice or another’s. Perhaps the womb is the key to breaking the inherited curse: “While my own mother lives, you could not speak at all. That was the curse we chose” (“too emphatic,”). In this way, the speaker is indeed “apocalypse.”

This multilayered collection weaves the reader in with every image, every shift, until the reader is left disoriented, existing on multiple levels, an ear there, a tongue here. The reader is both the one who hears the knock and the one knocking. Also the knock itself. Also the door. Also the one who opens it. Also the one who leaves. What pieces might be left behind?

More information about this title here.

More reviews here.