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Review: Pasha Malla’s Fugue States and Aisha Sasha John’s I have to live explore different ways to be seen

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Fugue States

By Pasha Malla

Knopf Canada, 355 pages, $32

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I have to live.

By Aisha Sasha John

McClelland & Stewart, 145 pages, $19.95

I had been wondering if Shakespeare's Coriolanus still makes sense. It's about a Roman general who is nominated for consul but then refuses to disrobe and show the people his scars, even though doing so is commonplace. The angry citizens then withhold their vote: "He used us scornfully: he should have show'd us his marks of merit, wounds received for's country." Coriolanus is exiled as a result and he joins up with the Antiates to overthrow Rome.

Today, it's difficult to imagine a rising politician missing the chance to expose themselves for broad acclaim, so I was surprised to find out the Royal Shakespeare Company in England is mounting a production of Coriolanus this fall. But two of Canada's best young writers make the case that the tragedy is more familiar – and more interesting – than I had realized.

On its surface, Pasha Malla's Fugue States seems like a dark riff on Don Quixote. Ash Dhar is Malla's long-suffering Sancho Panza and the novel begins at his Kashmiri father's funeral, where Ash struggles, despite his career as a radio interviewer, to deliver a eulogy. His childhood friend Matt arrives in a pickup truck from parts underknown, in the name of emotional support but clearly seeing an opportunity to "make memories" or at least tilt toward their fabrication. In the days that follow – conspicuously, between Christmas and New Year's – Ash wrestles with his grief in Southern Ontario while Matt journeys to India, until an act of cruelty forces Ash onto a plane with his father's remains.

Ash's crisis comes, in part, from the kinds of stories we expect Canadians of colour to tell, and his mourning is continually short-circuited by an awareness of cliché. When he finds a secret, unfinished manuscript in his father's office, he's embarrassed by his desire to complete it and by the likelihood it would be a hit. "Picture it: me scattering the cremains from some mountain, and then honouring his memory by completing his opus. And then what? People read it and are so moved that peace descends on the Valley? Or, worse, I win a prize?"

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Ash's frustrated storytelling is the counterpoint for Matt's braggadocious fibbing, which is just one element of a savage caricature of white Canadian maleness. Matt is all body spray, beers, "Bro," bad jokes and brusque physical contact, and Malla deftly uses him to interrupt both dialogue and the flow of the narrative until even a single, terse "frig" can make the skin crawl.

But looking through – which is not to say, past – Matt's odious behaviour, there are fascinating correspondences with Ash's late father. Both indiscriminately collect and abandon interests, both are violent drivers, both have a complicated love for Ash and, most importantly, both are the unreliable narrators of their own lives, without sympathy for how that unaccountability affects those around them. What starts as a critique of Canadian culture through the lens of a second-generation family becomes a funny, brutal and strange commentary on the relationship between power and storytelling. Malla extends this attention to the mechanics of the novel itself, which is framed as a musical "fugue" and includes a liberating "dissociative fugue" for one of its characters. I would have liked Malla to do more with either sense, but storytelling seems less like a laboratory than a target for Malla and the best parts of the novel are those in which Ash collides with the world of Canadian literature.

Host of a nationally syndicated interview program, Ash is a star and gatekeeper but feels like an outsider amidst the country's hobbyists, teachers and dilettantes. I don't think a public library would be open on Boxing Day, but the writing seminar that Ash attends is worth the incredulity: "Next up was a story co-written by Priscilla and Bertrand set, shockingly, amid the Cambodian death camps, followed by Donna's piece about a paralegal a little too attached to her cats. ('The bestial,' lectured Milosz, 'has fascinated artists since the cave-painters of Lascaux.')." This combination of pillaged global trauma, banality and inflating rhetoric is endemic to a world in which people know they want to say something before they have something to say, and Malla is merciless and hilarious when depicting the citizen-literati that would have Ash bear his wounds for them.

Along similar lines, Aisha Sasha John's poetry practises a form of radical autobiography through declaration. A trained dancer and multitalented artist, John's new collection, I have to live., reads as a refusal to reveal herself at the expense of her tomorrow. Throughout, John's poems turn from experiences in the world to statements about the self, and "I have to live" is repeated enough to become a sort of heartbeat for the collection. At the end of I wore a mint-green Donna Karan suit in the Lincoln LS commercial, she makes the Canadian context of the collection clear:

On the way back from the bathroom plus a flasher's

Wobbling dinky:

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'Happy Canada Day.'

I really like covering my head.

This poem provides a compact sense of the life – or a life – of an artist of colour in Canada, as commerce, aspiration and assaultive masculinity collide in a few lines before John responds in the present tense. We easily understand why she wants some kind of protection.

Her concision, though, is a departure. THOU (2014), John's previous book, is two long narrative poems, while I have to live. contains dozens. And the shift shows John to be an emerging virtuoso of "versure" – not just the end of a poem, but the way it handles the expectation that it end decisively. Most poets turn to epiphany or deflation, both of which can feel phony or cheap when asked to bear the weight of conclusion. But John prefers lines that might read as non sequiturs if it were not for the power that being an ending provides. Their certainty heightens the lurking instability in the other lines – does the flasher say Happy Canada Day, or is it someone else in the poem, or the poem itself? As John repeats this manoeuvre, it begins to seem less like resistance or persistence than pure existence. Aisha, after all, is Arabic for "alive."

Earlier this month, I was lucky to catch John's the aisha of oz at the Whitney Museum, and I'm almost ashamed to say it was truly sublime. Over nearly an hour, John combined soliloquy, dance, music, performance, excerpts of I have to live. and what I want to call "Skype-voguing" to dramatize the dissonant experience of mundane life under the shadow of institutionalized racial violence. Then, in its final moments, what had seemed to be the back wall of the performance space began to rise. As John danced and chanted "forever she may live," the curtain revealed floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River and the sticks of the Chelsea Piers. It was sunset – the performance timed perfectly – and as the sun swallowed the grey space, John became an astonishing silhouette. A radiant figure within the washed-out interior of the museum, reminding us of the many unexpected ways to be seen.

David B. Hobbs is a Canadian writer and editor of the forthcoming 21 Poems by George Oppen.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this book review incorrectly identified Aisha Sasha John as a trained ballet dancer. In fact, she is a trained dancer, but not of ballet.
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