The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

It’s in your genes: The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif

Cairo can be an inspiring city, especially in winter. So I think to myself as I come home one evening. The microbus stops where the overpass descends to the street, rain pouring, Road 10 running beneath, the taste of a damp cigarette. Winter is, even so, like religion: both fit spaces for expressing emotion, sadness above all. A whistle lengthening then broken off: a soundtrack to the scene; a perfect summons to tender feeling for a tableau that has been generated thousands of times before and embedded in memory and which, when tickled by the tune, comes back to life.

The Law of Inheritance, by Egyptian poet and writer, Yasser Abdellatif, originally published in Arabic in 2002, and now available in Robin Moger’s crystalline translation, is a delicate, filmic ode to emerging adulthood set against the tumultuous political environment of Egypt in the 1990s. Drawing on his own memories and on mythically-toned stories from his Nubian family history, Abdellatif manages to spin, in a mere 94 spare pages, a richly textured tale.

The opening section, “Introductions,” sets the stage, sketching in fragmentary, third person passages, images of a young man, at various ages from childhood through adolescence, from grade school to high school, from cigarettes to hashish, to the University of Cairo where both creative and Leftist political energies will be sparked. His father is absent, forced abroad to find work, his mother fragile, and the weight of being the older brother rests uneasily on his small shoulders. This brief, cinematic prelude paints a minimalist portrait of the narrator who will soon step out of the shadows to carry forth his own account, framed within a multi-stranded evocation of contemporary Egyptian identity distilled to its most elegiac essentials.

The narrative is moody and melancholic, evocative of time and place, infused with memory and family lore. Architecture and addresses serve as conduits to a personal past—the Lycée the narrator attended as a child, the University of Cairo where he studied Philosophy and finds himself swept up in the fervor of political protests  in the early 1990s, the roads and byways where he and his friends lingered, listening to rock and roll and experimenting with pharmaceuticals. One has the sense of a slow, directionless drifting toward adulthood, which echoes and reverberates with stories drawn from his ancestral past and woven into the tapestry of this lyrical novella. As the narrator unspools his tale, he traces his family’s intersection with the city, with its streets and neighbourhoods. Relatives, pushed into exile from their native Nubia, arrive as social outcasts in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some find the promise of a better future; others find it more difficult to adjust. Yet for all of them, even the narrator and his father who are born there, Cairo seems to be a somewhat uneasy fit.

His grandfather does well. By virtue of his education, he chances to rise from a barman to an office worker, a transition that affords his family a move up in both social standing and neighbourhood.  However, it also loosens the restraints he’d previously maintained against his own religious inclinations, an enthusiasm accompanied by periodic bouts of depression. By contrast, Fathi, a nephew to whom he is very close, has quite a different experience. Given to the pursuit of carnal pleasures, he embarks on an affair with an Italian girl in the mid-1930s. This enrages her budding Fascist countrymen who chase him through the streets and eventually force him into retreat in Rhodes. Another distant relation will fall into religious fanaticism and madness, and will ultimately retreat back to the Nubian countryside.

The Law of Inheritance is a novel of exile—from a homeland, a city, a neighbourhood—that succeeds through its lyrical precision and its measured humility. The narrator warns against vanity early on, and he is, in his own transition to adulthood, neither hero or victim. Likewise, the men in his family whose stories are told without glory or pity. The result is a powerful, moving exploration of what it means to belong in a world that is ever shifting and changing shape.

The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

The Best Translated Book Award 2018: Some reflections about the fiction and poetry nominees

In advance of the announcement of this year’s BTBA finalists for fiction and poetry, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the nominated titles I have had a chance to read. I read almost half of the poetry long list and almost six of the 25 fiction titles—I say “almost” because there is a title on each side that I have not yet finished. I don’t have posted reviews for all, but I do have a few favourites going forward.

What I love about this award is that it invariably draws my attention to a few titles that I might never have encountered and, because it is based on titles released in the US, I can generally get my hands on the books that interest me. This year, because I turned my focus to poetry, the experience has been especially rewarding. Here are the books I’ve read, in whole or in part, with links to the reviews I wrote (where applicable) and some thoughts about the books read and not yet reviewed:

Fiction:

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

I have not quite finished this book, and therefore cannot judge it fully. I am pleased to see it on the list; it’s an interesting blend of genre and so far I am enjoying it. However, as it is my first experience with Espedal, I have no context to place it against.

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

 The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press) Also see here.

Hands down this is my favourite title of all that I have read, a book that I absolutely adore. Above I have linked the argument in its favour that I wrote for the Three Percent site. I would have to say that this and My Heart Hemmed In are two books I really love and hope make the cut. Both, it happens, are from the same publisher, in this case Two Lines Press—a circumstance echoed on the poetry side of the equation.

*

Poetry:
Because this is where I spent most of my energies, this is where my attention will focus.

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Raining. Winter wet pluries of southern hemispheric June in the beach town. Dense fog, tick, a sort of paste of days when the rains start to soak even gardens and streets. An evocation of fairies through the windows: all marrying winter, leurs sombreros s’embracent in an orgy of wet leaves. I swear.

I have not yet finished this most unusual book—an extended prose poem that employs a delicious blend of languages to tell a strange narrative tale. Very intriguing, it would be good to see it make the cut.

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

I am
inside you
Where nobody expected
Looneysingapore
Hovered down through
The Phillipine
storm

cat-soft
toxoplasma
schizosex

Endorphoria
never kills
its host world

Of the poetry I read, this book was the least successful for me. The imagery—parasites, computer viruses, hackers, movie and pop culture references—did not resonate with me. I could admire it, the translation is slippery and solid, but I don’t feel I would be drawn back to it so readily. It is a quick read, so another visit is likely in order. But not yet.Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling)

The plants in the garden
Give a first impression
Of peace
Even more so than pets
But that impression changes
As evening falls
And the garden seems to have multiplied
In the movement
Of proportions of changes
You understand
At such times I try not to look
In case someone is hiding there
As it often seems
Though in morning the garden
Will be once more
Like the slanting line on the cheeks
Of very young girls
When the light strikes them from the side

—from “Plant Upbringing”

I did not have time to review this book, but probably will write more soon. This is a magnificent collection of six early book length poems by Eleni Vakalo, presented with great attention to placement and space on the page, and intended to be read as complete pieces. One of the exciting encounters of my recent BTBA poetry excursions.

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I am so pleased to see an Indian author in translation on each list. This collection strikes a melancholic tone and speaks to very human emotions—loneliness, loss and nostalgia. It speaks to the diversity represented by the BTBA selections.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

If it isn’t clear from my recent review, I love this book. It is a vital collection and so very timely. I would be quite happy to see this take the award. I certainly hope it makes the short list, along with my other favourite, also from the same publisher, Action Books (in this case a joint publication with Broken Dimache Press in Europe).

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Action Books & Broken Dimanche Press)

You were inside me like I was a house; that does not
mean I know what’s going on inside you. A house
does not know the interior of its resident.

That is the other wall for loneliness.
To irradiate.

My x-ray/loneliness.
Your loneliness/grass.

If you are to be tortured, I must
teach you to sing: as I walked out one midsummer’s morning
it will keep them out.

You make me think, as I walked out, I must learn to sing
double with one voice,

whose song will fan in to seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices, whose songs will

make the air solid and prevent any movement. No one can move.
No one can harm you.

I have read this book many times, my copy is exploding with marginalia and sticky notes, and in response, I wrote an experimental review that has been published at Minor Literature[s] . In the meantime, I will say it is at once spare and epic. A post-human vision that moves beyond patriarchal and matriarchal physical, social, and political dynamics—edgy, unnerving and ultimately inspiring. A challenging work, I love it as a piece of literature, and find it endlessly fascinating as a person with a bi-gendered life experience and a history of heart-stopping re-awakening (in literal terms).

So, now to see the short list…

“The city is bigger than a poet’s heart and smaller than his poem”: Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun

We who are strewn about in fragments, whose flesh flies through the air like raindrops, offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilized world, men, women and children, because we have unintentionally appeared in their peaceful homes without asking permission. We apologize for stamping our severed body parts into their snow-white memory, because we have violated the image of the normal, whole human being in their eyes, because we have the impertinence to leap suddenly on to news bulletins and the pages of the internet and the press, naked except for our blood and charred remains.

—from “We”

There is an eerie and uncomfortable synchronicity in coming to Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin while, on the TV, a reporter stands against the skeletal structures of the besieged Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now a ghostly battleground where Syrian government forces are closing in on the last remaining Islamic State fighters in the capital region. That is because this devastated neighbourhood is also the birthplace of the Stockholm-based, Palestinian poet whose first collection to be published in English is one of the titles long listed for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. From a part of the world that has been producing poetic visionaries for more than a millennium, Almadhoun offers a powerful twenty-first century testament that reinvents earlier forms and imagery to create a vivid, contemporary lament for the futility of war and the costs it extracts.

I was going toward death when the fighters stopped me. They searched me and found my heart on me. It was a long time since they had seen a heart with its owner. One of them shouted ‘He’s still alive,’ and they decide to condemn me to life.

—from “Schizophrenia”

His is a poetry about dying or not dying or being dead already too many times to count. About that which death can neither ennoble, nor ensure. In history, in the recent past, and in the ever present. In the world he conjures up, massacre and Damascus are personified, grief and angst are objects that can be purchased, new or second hand, and “suicided” is a verb. Employing a mix of prose poetry and free verse, the images he draws are coloured with unexpected juxtapositions and observations. It is a poetic reality at once modern and ancient, speaking to displacement as does the poetry of an earlier generation of Palestinian poets, but bound with the more recent flow of  refugees who have fled the Middle East and North Africa seeking new lives in Europe.

He is among those refugees, whether he fled or was lured away by love, the place he left behind lies in ruins. Yet, he is aware that the safe quiet space he has found in Stockholm confers upon him a privileged perspective and particular responsibility to be a voice for those people and places who have been rendered mute by conflict. And that elegy extends beyond Damascus, and yet is ever beholden to her—at once his mother and his first lover—and to his Palestinian identity. Take, for example, “Schizophrenia” a poem written following a visit to Ypres on the 100th anniversary of the first chemical weapons attack. Among the visitors to the reconstructed city he notes the contradictions and the burdens his presence represents:

I am the Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish refugee, wearing Levi’s jeans invented by a Jewish immigrant from Germany in San Francisco, filling my camera with pictures like a Russian peasant woman filling a bucket with milk from under her cows, nodding my head like someone absorbing a lesson, the lesson of war: I am the Palestinian distributed over many massacres, standing here naked, trying to wear my poem in the hope that it will hide my wounds, confusedly gathering pieces of me from here and there in order to become a witness.

As this series of poems and collected facts will go onto illustrate, the gas attacks of one hundred years ago, the recent sarin attacks on Damascus, and all of the wartime deaths  rendered by chemical means in between have taught us nothing. Nothing at all.

Almadhoun’s poetry is a potent blend of defiance, passion and melancholic nostalgia. It is a heady mix that produces work of raw beauty. Throughout this collection, his beloved birthplace is never far from his imagination, a bond evoked most intimately in “The City,” where Damascus is portrayed as a multifaceted female figure, timeless and complex:

She is the earliest cemetery, which people have celebrated as evidence that memories are real. I pass her, a stranger to myself, so she passes me without recognising my face. I distinguish her in the faces of strangers who have belonged to her, so she and I are briefly deluded into believing we are one. She is old like a fossil and I am new like the end of history, I hold on to her dress like a child and she holds on to my heart like a woman and we commit a poem, I the dreamer hunting down verse and she reality giving birth to children and not raising them. I the ephemeral and she the eternal, everlasting, I the fatalist stuffed with transcendental truths, she the heretical realist. There is no consolation for me, and no harm done to her, except that by chance we are lovers

The most striking quality of the poems that comprise Adrenalin is the urgency that comes through. These are fiercely intelligent political pieces that invite historical figures, philosophers and other poets into the conversation. Deeply rooted in the intertwined tragedies of recent Palestinian history and the Syrian civil war, it offers an urgent, compelling commentary presented in a style and manner that even those who tell themselves they don’t read poetry will find remarkably accessible and compelling.

Finally, if you would like an opportunity to experience Almadhoun’s poetry in the best way possible—hearing him read it himself—I strongly recommend this poetry video in which  he reads from “Details,” one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. Presented with Catherine Cobham’s piercing translation, against visual and musical accompaniment, this is the best endorsement for this book that I can think of.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun is translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham and published by Action Books.

“No, you are better than me, Yahya”: Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan

He felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names kept repeating themselves in succession without end.

The enclosures were always building themselves in processes to which everything contributed. Everything gave birth to everything. Time, places, names, women, trees, men. He felt he was traversing the book, word by word.

Memory, for Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan, is a troubled quantity, shaken and shaped by the past, near and distant. His work is rooted in the land and the lives of his people, disrupted and dislodged by the forces of history. The losses cross generations. The tremors run deep.

His first work of prose to be translated into English, Describing the Past, was set in a refugee camp east of the River Jordan, a location based on the settlement where Zaqtan grew up after the Israeli invasion of 1948 forced his family out of their home village. The first part of a trilogy, this dream-like coming-of-age story is a tale of loss—the loss of childhood friend and of childhood innocence itself. The narrative, shared by three voices, has a gently circular flow. The young man at the centre, continually eludes to the future yet is sensitive to the ongoing presence of the past, to the ghosts that continue to have a tangible existence in the community.

With the second installment, Where the Bird Disappeared, Zaqtan takes a somewhat different approach, but one that is likewise weighted with lyrical beauty and sorrow. The narrative begins in the years just prior to the invasion and extends to the present day, while its echoes with the past go much farther back in history. Set in the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, the central character is a youth also named Zakariyya. He and his best friend, Yahya not only share their names with two prophets so strongly associated with the region—known to Christian tradition as Zechariah and his son, John the Baptist—but bear distant imitations of their personalities and fates. Other characters and images also shadow figures from the shared Biblical and Koranic traditions.

This novella adopts a narrative style with more of a mythic feel than Describing the Past. The tone is still dream-like, spare and poetic. However, the disruption and violence of the invasion is much more explicitly portrayed in this tale which unfolds in a series of short, intimate vignettes. As adolescents, Yahya is a restless spirit, given to wandering alone in the countryside around the village. Zakariyya is the more reflective of the two, intuitive and sensitive to place. Together with the other boys of their village, they have their own visions and dreams for the future. Until the military arrive.

With the sudden forced migration, as families flee into the hills, all of the young men are thrown into dangerous new roles. They are drawn back to their villages, to try to protect their homes against impossible odds. There are casualties, including Yahya who is captured, and shackled inside the citadel outside Zakariyya. His friends keep vigil for three days and nights until he is finally killed:

Yahya knew that they were listening to him from the cactus field. His voice was full of testimonial. The pain had stopped and the fear had stopped with it. Only the testimonials remained, running through his voice and pouring into the air. They gathered them in the cactus field.

Zakariyya’s own journey commences with the death of his friend. He sets off to find Sara, who had loved Yahya, drawn by his own attractions as much as the need to bring her the difficult news. Along the way, he takes refuge at the Monastery of Saint Saba carved into the mountain side overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Old Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. His short stay is a time of mystical suspension and release from the burdens weighing him down. He is attuned to the presence of the thousands of monks who passed through the complex over the previous fifteen centuries:

Saints, and pious men at the edges of sainthood, rose up, their chanting lingered as the living met the dead in the vestibules and halls of the monastery, sharing bread from nightfall to dawn.

He listened to their talk and their steps, he distinguished between the weightless steps of the dead and the empty stammerings of language. He arrested the movement of his body and left the air entirely to them.

Gathering the peace afforded him by his time at Mar Saba, Zakariyya sets off again to find Sara. He joins a refugee camp where she also comes to settle with her family. But once he is in close proximity to her, he comes to realize that he cannot approach her, and that to preserve his memories of both Yahya and Sara as they were all once together, to hold on to what little he has of his own past, he must leave. He returns to pass the night at the monastery before continuing “down the falling road” to the Dead Sea.

Zakariyya will settle to work the salt mines, in a land yet again bound to the far-reaching named and remembered history within which he is half aware that he exists. As the years pass, and age bends his back, he finds himself haunted by the strange notion that he was born a father. It’s a sensation that increasingly troubles him. He does not understand it, knowing only that it is bound to a name and that it is becoming more oppressive, leading down a road carved through memory. A road that will ultimately lead him back to Zakariyya. The place. His home.

Rich with allusions, but never forced or heavy-handed, Ghassan Zaqtan weaves a delicately devastating fable that illustrates that the connection of the Palestinian people to their land is not simply geographical, political and economic, but bound through mystical and psychological ties that are enduring. And not easily severed.

Where the Bird Disappeared is translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books. The final part of the trilogy will be published in Spring of 2019.

Ancient sorrows, modern woes: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

Don’t let the current fashionable popularity of flash fiction deceive you—it is a form with a long history in Arab literature, an allegorical tradition to which Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar proudly belongs. But, as an immigrant living in exile in the United States, his tightly crafted parables and short fictions have a quality that is both timeless and timely. We cannot but recognize ourselves and the world we live in today.

Free Elections
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.

In his most recent collection,  The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories, Alomar employs this traditional manner of storytelling to craft pieces that range from a single sentence to a page or more. Animals and objects—man-made and natural—are often animated to take centre stage, offering philosophical reflections on life, humanity, or wondering at strangeness of the universe. His narrators and protagonists, human or otherwise, speak to sadness, loneliness, and injustice while the shadow of his troubled homeland hangs over their tales. It cannot be ignored. The futility and violence of war is a frequent theme. These pieces may read like age-old wisdoms, but their message is immediate. If they sound timeless, it is because, at the end of the day, little changes.

The Dark Side
The moon wished to punish humans for the many transgressions and frightful crimes they commit against each other and against nature. She decided to hide her lighted side so that they would curb their behavior and return to reason. And so the eclipse took place. But great was the surprise of the moon when she saw millions of people coming out of their houses to enjoy the view of her dark side.

His style is spare and unsentimental. The shortest entries have a sharp aphoristic tone, whereas the longer ones, with a wider stage on which to play out contemporary themes, are painfully heart-wrenching. “Love Letter” is a long message addressed to a woman with whom the narrator was involved. It speaks to intimacy against a backdrop of war and revolution, an intimacy that deepened even after he left the conflict zone. When her letters and emails stop he fears the worst but holds to faint hope. “The Shining Idea,” one of my favourite pieces, is a dialogue between an unconceived child and the man he hopes will give him life. The would-be child sees only the beauty and joy in the world beyond the transparent boundary that contains him. The father he beseeches knows only suffering and poverty and cannot be convinced that his is a world worth bringing another life into.

Time and again, knowledge, compassion and understanding are the ingredients most at risk, or missing altogether in the world Alomar presents us with. His weary narrators and anthropomorphic characters know this well. But, in keeping with the tradition from which he emerges (Kahlil Gibran is one of his heroes), his messages are never forced or dogmatic. They are simply laid bare for the reader to encounter:

 Never Been Touched
A book sitting on the shelf with torn covers and pages filled with comments and notes in the margins said to his colleague who stood behind him, “I envy so much your freshness and your eternal youth!”
But his colleague answered him dejectedly, “I never been touched!”

With over 160 stories spreading across no more than 95 pages, one might be tempted to consume the accessible, entertaining short fictions that comprise this collection in quick succession, swallowing one after another. However, these fables, wisdoms and cautionary tales are best digested slowly, over a few days perhaps. At once beautiful and urgent, they deserve a little extra attention. The chorus of their voices deserves to be heard.

The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories by Osama Alomar is translated from Arabic by C J Collins with the author, and published by New Directions.

For World Poetry Day, excerpts from a few books on my bedside table

In honour of World Poetry Day (which at the moment, in my time zone, is still happening), I thought I would take a moment to look at some of the poetry currently on my bedside table. I sometimes write about the poetry I read, but do not feel equipped to formally review it. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying it, of course.

I read a lot of poetry in translation. It can, perhaps, be a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem in another language, but that’s not a reason to deny its worth. Poetry opens up worlds of experience in a way prose typically cannot. And when competing (or rather, complementary) translations emerge, I like to think of that as an opportunity to re-experience a piece of literature reflected through a somewhat different prism.

I have a fondness for collections, complete or selected, that allow me to sample a poet’s work across their career, and delight in the magic of opening a book randomly, finding words that strike home. The following pieces are taken from the works I have been spending time with lately:

Water binds me to your name.
Nothings is left of me except you.
Nothing is left of you except me—
a stranger caressing the thighs of a stranger.
O stranger, what will we do with what is left
of the stillness and the brief sleep between two myths?
Nothing carries us: neither path nor home.
Was this the same path from the beginning?
Or did our dreams find a Mongolian horse on a hill
and exchange us for him?
What shall we do?
What shall we do without exile?

—Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, without Exile?”, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, collected in Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press)

* * *

I’m a Child of this Century

I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
And wait for the caravan of the mad

—Abdellatif Laâbi, from Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated from French by André Naffi-Sahely (Caranet Press)

* * *

Every day wakes up to some abuse
in my monologue is
embedded the legend of my sorrow,
with thousand year-old grief
I prevailed over my dirty life,
but not over the rationality of the winter cold . . .

In taprooms you rip off
the tattered shreds of your tragedy,
no forest, no merit, no archangel . . .

Above your poetry a swarm of birds mows
mows and mows a life imploring . . .
nothing for anyone
in the proximity of this dream,
nothing for worldly lovers . . .

Fruit of rottenness,
a wicked sun . . .
Temple ruins, broken pieces gathering
on the rediscovered shore . . .
in gloomy courtyards books opening . . .
Verses on abandoned walls . . .

. . . not the perfect one,
not the dead man, who drove you into the cities . . .
Trust in your song.
You plough the earth with your fragments,
cold begot you . . .
You, left behind by your creators . . .

—Thomas Bernhard, from Collected Poems, translated from German by James Reidel (forthcoming from Seagull Books)

Lament for a lost land: Journal of an Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish

A place is not only a geographical area; it’s also a state of mind. And trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood. The tears flowed freely from my fingers as the bus passed quickly by. Upon our return, the sadness of my childhood came back. This dream standing before me, why didn’t I just wrap it around myself even once so I could say I have felt the joy that kills? The soldiers were guarding the dream, but I will enter it when they sleep.

2017-02-09-15-32-49Journal of an Ordinary Grief, the first of three major works of prose spanning the career of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), is a work of intense, heartbreaking loss and pain. Yet this collection of autobiographical essays is more than simple memoir. He chronicles his family’s history, meditates on the meaning of homeland, and focuses on the horror visited upon Arabs in the occupied territories. He talks about being under house arrest, his confrontations with Israeli interrogators, and his time in prison. He talks of the life of the refugee and the exile. As the translator, Ibrahim Muhawi, points out in his Foreword, Darwish makes it clear that Palestine is his cause. He equates his self with his country; the pronouns he uses—I or you—can represent his own personal experience or those of his people. Here the poetic is merged with the political, and the memoir becomes a requiem for a nation, up close and immediate: “In Journal, as in all of Darwish, we are placed in the middle of an encounter between writing and history where writing gives shape to the homeland.”

He approaches the telling, as a poet, with a lyrical force that levels one powerful image after another. The opening piece, “The Moon Did Not Fall into the Well,” sets out as a dialogue, presumably between a father and son:

—What are you doing, father?

—I’m searching for my heart, which fell away that night.

—Do you think you’ll find it here?

—Where else am I going to find it? I bend to the ground and pick it up piece by piece just as the women of the fellahin pick olives in October, one olive at a time.

In the end we realize that this is the poet’s younger self interrogating his older self. The latter speaks of his family, driven into exile in 1948, only to return to find themselves exiles in their own land. Childlike curiosity meets the sorrow born of experience and loss, wisdom and despair.

Attention to the quality and shape of the sentence informs Darwish’s poetic prose. He frequently, and efficiently, employs a dramatic dialogue in a number of his essays. The title piece is largely composed of a series of “conversations”—commonly ironic in tone—that cast light on the political dynamics of racial discrimination and oppression. The impact is strikingly effective:

—Where are you from, brother?

—From Gaza.

—What did you do?

—I threw a grenade at the conqueror’s car, but I blew myself up instead.

—And . . .

—They arrested me and charged me with attempted suicide.

—You confessed, of course.

—Not exactly. I told them the attempted suicide didn’t succeed. So they liberated me out of mercy and sentenced me to life.

—But you were intending to kill, not to commit suicide?

—It seems you don’t know Gaza. Distance there is an imaginary thing.

—I don’t understand.

—It seems you don’t know Gaza. Where are you from?

—From Haifa.

—And what did you do?

—I threw a poem at the conquerors’ car, and it blew them up.

—And . . .

—They arrested me and charged me with mass murder.

And so it goes. Thus the reader/listener is brought into the heart of the political struggle. Later on in this piece, the narrator addresses his audience directly to illustrate the losses of basic freedoms he has experienced: You want to travel to Greece? You want to rent an apartment? You want to visit your mother on a feast day? Other voices enter and play devil’s advocate. There is bitterness and defiance running through the sections of this essay, but the language carries a frightening beauty: “They place you under arrest when you are committing a dream.”

The poetic spirit and sensibility with which Darwish explores the fate of Palestine, and what it means to live, as he does, as an exile in Israel, pushes this memoir closer to the heart, generating more emotional energy than a more conventional first-person narrative essay format would typically allow. As such, the reading experience becomes more intense as one moves through the essays. And, of course, this work is sadly as relevant today, as it was when it was first published in 1973—speaking not only to the roots of the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine, but to broader concerns facing Arab refugees forced out of divided and troubled homelands throughout the Middle East, and of those who dare to speak out who risk detention, or worse, in many states:

You write to your imaginary lover: “I wish you despair for you, my love, that you may excel for the desperate are creative. Don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for anyone. Wait for the thought; don’t wait for the thinker. Wait for the poem; don’t wait for the poet. Wait for the revolution; don’t wait for the revolutionary. The thinker may be wrong, the poet may lie, and the revolutionary may get tired. This is the despair I mean.”

By making individual experience universal, and personifying historical tragedy and loss, Mahmoud Darwish—though his poetry and his prose—stands witness to the fate of his people under occupation. “The homeland,” he claims, “is always at its most beautiful when it is on the other side of the barbed wire fence.” He grieves, and his grief is anything but ordinary.

Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, is published by Archipelago Books.

Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan

She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.

From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.

ghassan_zaqtanZaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.

The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.

And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:

At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.

The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.

As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:

He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.

Our house, our village, our land.

There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.

And it leaves you with chills.

Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.