World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, the debut book of essays from poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, made me nostalgic for my childhood—spent poring over encyclopedias and marveling at the entries on animals.
In fact, I wish Nezhukumatathil would have written those entries—her unique mixture of humor, contemplation, memoir, insight, and paradox reveals the complexities of our natural world. Complemented by beautiful illustrations from Fumi Mini Nakamura, World of Wonders is appropriate to its title.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems. Her most recent book, Oceanic, won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, ESPN, and Tin House. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, she is a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
We spoke about how her parents inspired her love of nature, the difference between writing poetry and essays, and who gets to tell their stories of the outdoors.
The Millions: Your books of poetry, especially your latest, Oceanic, reveal a world of wonder through verse. How does prose—in the form of essays—affect how you think and write about the natural world?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: For me having the space in an essay allows me to unfurl and roll out an image creating whole scenes and while I still use elements of poetry, (metaphor, music, alliteration, etc.), writing an essay allows me to linger instead of rushing down the page.
TM: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.” These are the first two sentences of the book, and I love the poetic paradox of the second line. This reference puts your mother at the literal front of your narrative, and she appears throughout the book, as do other family members. How do you envision your perception of your mother as it relates to the way you see and appreciate nature?
AN: I love that question, but I’m much more interested in seeing how readers see both of my parents, Asian immigrants helping their bookish eldest daughter navigate white spaces both in and out of doors. But I will say that my mother and my father were my first environmental teachers, and silently watching them hold their heads up high while they experienced racism throughout my childhood and yet still maintained their sense of wonder absolutely informs how I shaped this book.
TM: In one section of the book, you describe that most of a beetle’s life is in the shadows: “When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have one or two weeks left to live.” You then write: “Learning this as a child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance.” You have a talent for creating such a mood in your writing: for lack of a better word, I would almost call it a “comfortable” sense of melancholy, a type of resigned peace. What about the natural, wild world elicits that feeling for you?
AN: Thank you so very much! The easy answer is that being outside was always a place of comfort and magic for me. Fireflies never asked me “what are you?” But I also realize with great sadness that feeling of comfort does not exist for everyone, especially many of my friends of color. There is so much that I don’t know about the natural world but I view that curiosity as a good thing, a place where I feel alive and my pulse quickens because I genuinely want to know the hows and the whys of creatures and plants with whom I share this planet.
TM: Early in the book, you write about the fragile comb jelly, whose “hundreds of thousands of cilia flash mini-rainbows even in the darkest polar and tropical ocean zones,” but which must be handled with the tenderest care (“If you want to observe one up close, scoop it into a clear cup and take a look-see that way.”) That image stayed with me when I read your description of suburban Phoenix in the 1980s: “an abandoned white roller skate, its neon-pink bootlace frayed,” in the parking lot of Fry’s Food and Drug. How you “wore keys tied to yarn around our necks or fastened with a giant safety pin in our pockets like our moms showed us,” since “those were the days our teachers told us of kids who never came home from school.” You mention wanting a “sentinel” of your own, something “to watch out for us.” There feels like a tension between the wild (or perceived wild) world and the constructed safety of the domestic. Where does nature fit within this tension?
AN: That’s a marvelous question. So much nature writing I grew up with only focused on the wild or places where humans did not primarily live. And these narratives were beautiful and haunting but I had hoped to find someone who could experience awe and wonder from the suburbs or rural small-town America, where a person with brown skin learned to navigate the outdoors and the “constructed safety of the domestic.” You can imagine the pickings were slim to none. I guess I just internalized that for so long, and that, coupled with me not being a scientist but instead a writing professor, meant that my narratives would be inauthentic somehow. But over the years I’ve been happily proven wrong as readers from all over the world have assured me. I’m just hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get told and taught and why.
TM: “I’ve felt the sting of moving from home to home.” There’s an itinerant theme to this book; in a way, it feels connected to the cartographic sense of your poetry, with you as explorer (of memories, of narratives). Often in the book you metaphorically connect yourself with animals. Could you talk about these themes of migration and perhaps even metamorphosis? Did the writing of this book—the arranging and retelling of these experiences—move or change you?
AN: The central question of searching for home is one I’ve been trying to answer my whole writing life, and I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life answering in some way or another. I have different answers for that now in 2020, married and with two tween boys than what I had when I was a newlywed, or when I was fresh out of grad school, or when I was 10 and looking at the nature books I checked out from our school library and wondering why I never saw an Asian American in them. I wrote a good portion of the book after the 2016 election and I’m not going to lie, there were many difficult days in writing about wonder and belonging, when most of the current leadership’s platform was built on fear, xenophobia, and a distrust for knowledge/science. But on my darkest days of writing, when I thought of my loved ones—it was easy to insist on and remember how good it feels to express astonishment and to be curious about others. I try to not be prescriptive in this book, because really, who am I to tell other people how they should live—but my hope is that readers are guided towards a possibility of tenderness and wonderment towards other living things.
—A Year in Reading: Aimee Nezhukumatathil