One great idea. One beautiful little book. Ander Monson of New Michigan Press creates fantastic chapbooks with a preference, and special contest for, innovative hybrid manuscripts. The full-length chapbook essay form is especially appealing, and Cheng’s work is perfect for this structure. Her chapbook is a personal memoir-photo-cultural exploration-essay in one compact, smartly designed package (publisher/editor Monson is also the designer).
Cheng’s prose is lyrical. Her photos are intriguing. And her sense of narrative is original and also inviting. Her integration of visual components (black and white illustrations and black and white photos) is clever with visual elements well and appropriately placed and paced, which overall is quite striking. And she knows how to grab—and hold—the reader’s attention. She begins with a diagram of the oral cavity, follows with a spare, haunting verbal introduction (“The world begins with a voice shut tightly, a closed throat”), and moves immediately into a series of stunning photos. Then back to the prose: “When I speak bitter molasses drips from my tongue into still water basins.”
This is the story of cultural intersections, family dimensions, and visual and verbal interactions. Verbal texts move between forms, from single sentences to short narratives to lists:
(She walks through the grocery store while pushing a cart.
She waits in line.
She pays the cashier.
She washes vegetables, turning each leaf over.
She closes the refrigerator, sits at a table.
She turns on the water in the bathtub.
She looks at the tiles, blinking through droplets.
She puts on a shirt, brushes her teeth.
She turns off the light.
She curls on the bed.
She waits for her eyes to adjust to the dark.)
I can’t tell you more or the review will be longer than the chapbook. So, I’m invoking my right as a reviewer to stop before I go too far. But, take my word for it, you will not want to miss Innovation: An Essay.
(Note of disclosure: New Michigan Press has published work by the reviewer.)