World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, with full color illustrations by Fumi Nakamura
Milkweed Editions, August 11, 2020
184 pages, hardcover, $24.00
World of Wonders is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first collection of essays, but you certainly wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t been told. Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poetry, including Oceanic, which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award. She has also won fellowships and grants for her writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, Mississippi Arts Council, and MacDowell award, and it’s evident on every page that Nezhukumatathil is a poet of formidable magnitude. She writes each sentence with such careful poetic lyricism, that it was often difficult not to read these essays as prose poems.
The collection takes us along Nezhukumatathil’s childhood and adolescent moves: through a mental institution in rural Kansas to the deserts and mountains of Arizona and then the cold of upstate New York, until she finally finds her place in swampy Mississippi. With each new place Nezhukumatathil finds herself in, we learn about the local flora and fauna that have helped her find tools for survival in a world that doesn’t seem to want her.
Nezhukumatathil’s words are enhanced by the full-color illustrations of New York City-based street artist Fumi Nakamura. For the artist, originally from Shimizu, Japan, it’s evident nature is an important source of inspiration. Nakamura’s illustrations serve as an enhancement to Nezhukumatathil’s words—several times I found myself reading a line and looking back at the illustration that accompanied select essays. You can’t help but look at the Axolotl’s light pink body and black finned gills, its tightly smiling mouth as Nezhukumatathil tells us,
“If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl. The best thing to do in that moment is to just smile and smile, even if your smile is thin. The tighter your smile, the tougher you become.”
Or when she describes the potoo who “is best known for its motionless, mainly solitary life,” you look back at Nakamura’s illustration of bark-colored browns and understand how stillness is camouflage for this bird. As Nezhukumatathil says, “There is a time for stillness, but who hasn’t also wanted to scream with delight at being outdoors? To simply announce themselves and say, I’m here, I exist?”
Nezhukumatathil shows us how she has existed, how she has been marginalized for her brown skin, for her Indian father and Filipina mother. How she has existed as the only brown body in so many spaces throughout her life. How she has longed to be heard for so long, how her pain has been silenced.
Again, from her essay on axolotls:
“Scientific American reports that you can cut the axolotl’s limbs off at any point—wrist, elbows, upper arm—and it will make another. One can cut off various parts of arms and legs a hundred times, and every time: the smile and a bloom of arm spring forth like a new perennial…An impossible wound begs to differ with its body and says, I’ve got another. And another.”
Like the axolotl, Nezhukumatathil experiences microaggression after microaggression, amputated limb after amputated limb, and she is expected to smile and regrow her limbs from those wounds as if they were nothing, leaving no scar tissue behind.
In these times of Black Lives Matter and marches and protests every single day, to highlight the injustices of systemic racism and police brutality in America and around the world, we have to investigate the ways we contribute to the pain of black and brown bodies. How we cut them, again and again, and expect them to smile and forgive us our trespass against them, to let us have our “learning moments” to grow better, to sacrifice them on our altar of learning to be anti-racist, while they’re forced to regrow their limbs time and time again.
Of course, there are not only moments of tragedy and sadness in Nezhukumatathil’s collection. There are so many beautiful moments of hope and wonder, especially when it comes to Nezhukumatathil’s interactions with the natural world, with her husband, and with her children.
“Perhaps it is because of these whispered nocturnal adventures during the first years of his life that my son’s expressions regularly resemble those of a ribbon eel…Mommy! Look at me! Watch this!…When you see a ribbon eel swim, its very expression says, Look! Look at me!”
Nezhukumatathil researches her topics deeply; she follows the blooms of one flower around the world; she dives with whale sharks in Atlanta. Not only does every essay begin with both the common and Latin names of the essay’s subject, they each contain detailed, heavily researched information that let you know Nezhukumatathil is a self-made expert of the natural. I learned more about fireflies and dancing frogs, and whale sharks, and flamingos in one collection of essays than I ever had from years of David Attenborough documentaries.
“The narwhal’s “horn” is actually a tooth with about 10 million nerve endings—a loooong, helix-spiraled tooth that pokes through the upper left “lip” into the chilly arctic ocean. It’s one of only two teeth they’ll ever get in their lifetimes…it’s been widely accepted that this tooth also helps narwhals ‘see’ underwater by having some of the most directed echolocation of any animal.”
Nezhukumatathil’s poetic language makes these animals fly and swim and jump off of the pages, makes them real. You become invested in them, in these inhabitants of the earth that you never give a second glance: bugs and corpse flowers and fruit you’ve never though twice about. These creatures that share our Earth and our fate. We’re the ones deciding that fate, but they still have to live with our consequences.
That Nezhukumatathil is a staunch environmentalist, and that environmentalism is a key component in her writing is not just evident by the subjects of her essays. It’s in the way she looks at the world, interacts with it. In the way she chose her husband, the only man who invested himself as heavily into the corpse flower as she has. In the way she raises her children to be citizens of that world, to be responsible guardians and custodians of it. She makes me want to be better to the world, to do more than just recycle and shop local. She lets us know that’s not enough, any longer. We all have to do more. Nezhukumatathil is the environmental writer we should be reading in schools, instead of Emerson or Thoreau.
I want to leave you with Nezhukumatathil’s words on the cassowary:
“The phrase “I can feel it in my bones” is synonymous with “I know it to be true”. What if the cassowary’s famous “boom” is also nature’s way of asking us to take a different kind of notice to them? To not just appreciate and admire cassowaries for their striking looks and deadly feet, but to sense their presence on this earth? Suppose that boom that shakes in our body can be a physical reminder we are all connected—that if the cassowary population decreases, so does the proliferation of fruit trees, and with that, hundreds of animals and insects then become endangered…Don’t you see? We are all connected. Boom.”
Stop, Nezhukumatathil is telling us. Listen to the sounds around you that you’ve taken for granted all your life. No, that’s not enough. Listen again. Hear what the natural world is trying to tell you, what it’s crying out for. That you’re a part of it as much as it’s a part of you. It’s all interconnected and if it dies, we die. Listen. It’s already dying. Its cries are so loud, but you can’t hear. Listen. Listen.