ELEMENTAL (Calico Series)

Elemental
(Calico Series)
Two Lines Press — 9th March 2021
ISBN: 9781949641110
— Paperback — 240 pp.
Cover Design: Crisis


The eight stories of this anthology span the globe and language, but also span a wide range of approaches to the Elemental theme. Most approach the term from in the classical sense of the Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, but others also incorporate actual physical elements from the Periodic Table. Though not ever speculative, the literary tales frequently incorporate magical realism into the plots, with nods to mythology. Some of the authors chose to make the elements into something akin to characters themselves. Many place the elemental theme into the central turning point of the plot or character development. Others treat the theme of elemental more subtly, and some also approach it in broad terms of how humanity is impacted as a part of nature – even when humanity tries to bend nature to its will.

In this sense Elemental is very much an ecological anthology, a look at how humans impact the abiotic environment and vice versa. Like all literature, it’s also at heart an investigation of humans, their interactions and foibles. More particularly to the anthology’s theme, it’s often about humans trying to find connection and freedom in the natural world.

The stories span vastly different styles, but all appear beautifully rendered into English. Each story begins with a title page, featuring a duo-toned photo and a quote from the story that both connect to the Elemental theme. Most enjoyably, the quote is rendered not just in the English translation, but in the original language script as well.

I enjoyed and appreciated some stories more than others, of course, but I would not say there’s a bad story in this bunch. For most it’s their first appearance in English, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, many are actually excerpts from novel-length works. In retrospect after reading, this isn’t surprising, as many of these worked for me as themed mood pieces, but the ‘plots’ often felt unresolved, fragmentary. I dislike excerpts for precisely this reason. On the other hand, I can give a pass to excerpting in this case of literature in translation, given the full texts are otherwise just not accessible to me. This has given me a chance to discover several new voices. However, now let’s get the actual full works published. I wish the editors (who are the editors by the way? – it’s not actually credited anywhere) had indicated when works were excerpts or not. An appendix does provide nice biographies on the authors and their translators.

On to thoughts on the individual selections:

“Precious Stones” by Erika Kobayashi, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom — The anthology starts with the longest work, one of the best, and one representative of the varied styles and approaches to the elemental theme. Its length is particularly well used to explore a varied complexity beyond what the other shorter works here have room to offer. It’s a hard one to summarize. A woman experiences vivid dreams of her deceased grandmother, who simultaneously in those past moments has visions of a future granddaughter there regarding her. The two seem linked by an inherited jewel, the last real remnant of a jeweler family that previously lost all. With her family beset with cancer across generations, the woman, her mother, and her sisters visit a spa/shrine with a radium pool that is fabled to cure all sorts of ailments. But the sisters also trade urban legend tails of an ageless man who wanders a housing development near their home and tunnels being drilled into the Earth. A man who it is said can also help cure diseases through sex. How does this all come together? You’ll have to read; it is fantastic. The theme tackles themes of family, illness, and inheritance in a cultural context that references a famous, mythical poet who is linked to the shrine. It introduces elements that crop up in other stories in the collection: the magical realism, nods to mythology, and of course approaches to the theme of elements earth and water.

“Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay — After meeting an Iranian man while abroad, a woman returns home to familial expectations that she will marry him. The parents of the couple arrange her to visit the home of his parents and make a good impression, despite her lack of enthusiasm. During a visit, a sudden storm and flash flood sweep her away to the banks of a river, where other moss-covered women have been deposited. What begins as a very conventional story goes into fantastical, symbolic directions with a feminist viewpoint. A later story uses a similar idea of natural climatic elements sweeping someone away.

“Ankomst” by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin — A touching fragment featuring a woman who has been deposited at the Northern edges of the world, 100s of kilometers from any other human contact, to study birds and climatic patterns. Despite this isolation, she keeps contact with her partner who is scheduled to soon join her there, but she also uses this isolation to become reawakened by the natural world and its staggering power and beauty.

“We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born” by Andreas Moster, translated from the German by Rachel Farmer — A man visits a mining operation to oversee/check up on their status/progress. This is another example of a story that starts somewhat conventionally, but proceeds into directions increasingly surreal and perhaps magical. It also is one heavily influenced by mythology. The man arrives accompanied by a group of women who hold much of his attention, but then as he sees more of the mining operation, his focus turns to a ferryman there on the site. The story climaxes with a scheduled blasting at the mine that wrecks havoc and a howling (an element in common here with the final story in the collection). In the final pages the mountain itself becomes personified as a character. It’s a strange story, and I wish I got the mythological references more, but it also serves well for the themes of humanity trying to plunder the Earth and the effects.

“Lalana” by Michèle Rakotoson, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette — One of at least two stories in the collection particularly tied to location in a way that stresses how much a local landscape can change over time. Yet, some things never change. This story, set in the author’s native Madagascar, touches (among other things) on AIDS and its effects on society and individuals there. The native location (earth) and how it affects people touches the Elemental theme here, but in a way so to does HIV as a natural element of ecology.

“Jamshid Khan” by Bakhtiyar Ali, translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour — A second story with a prcharacter being swept away. In this case a man, a political prisoner and uncle of the story’s narrator, who escapes prison and subsequent troubles by simply catching his emaciated frame up in the wind like a kite to blow away. Similar to Aghaei’s prior story, it’s a story of politically symbolic magical realism.

“Place Memory” by Dorota Brauntsch, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye — Like “Lalana” this story also has a strong sense of place. Brauntsch touches more firmly and simply on the concept that humans can alter landscapes into things unrecognizable. It’s a melancholy story on things that can be lost, but also sweet in terms of memory that can still be held and ways that environment can still persist despite alteration. More of a mood piece than any other in the collection, but one of my favorite offerings.

“The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen — A story that again touches on the theme of how the natural world resists human attempts at taming. In this case it revolves around the concept of a weather forecaster, how meteorologists can understandably get things wrong. But the general population refuses to accept the unpredictable nature of … well, nature … and demands our advanced civilization should bend things to 100% accurate foresight if not absolute control. A town facing flooding installs a pipeline to help prevent disasters, and the meteorologist becomes involved more in this when the engineering infrastructure ends up producing an annoying howling they want gone.

This is the first offering from the Calico Series put out by Two Lines Press and the NEA that I’ve read, but it is the third to be published in their roughly year-old, biannual series.

“While each Calico book will zoom in on specific styles, topics, and regions, the series will build into a composite portrait of today’s vast and rich literary landscape. What’s more, Calico books explore aspects of the present moment without the usual limitations of book publishing: genre, form, style, or a single author. We asked ourselves: What would we like to read that’s not being published? The result is Calico. We hope you enjoy it too.”

—Sarah Coolidge, Associate Editor

I’ll have to go back and read the first (Chinese speculative fiction), and though I’m uninterested in the second, poetry fans should appreciate its new Arabic poetry selections. The fourth volume, due out in September 2021 is Cuíer, a collection of Queer Brazil writing (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction alike). It can be preordered here, and I’ll look forward to checking the fiction and nonfiction in it out at least.


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