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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

If you’ve ever seen a child poring over an encyclopedic book about animals, plants, or other natural phenomenon—fingers ready to point, mouth ready to gasp—you know the excitement such treasure troves of miscellany can spark. It’s that childhood "sense of wonder" famously pinpointed by conservationist Rachel Carson and celebrated today by the movement to keep children—and adults—connected to nature in our hectic world. Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, published in September by Milkweed Press, reads a bit like an adult version of that varied, almost-random-but-carefully-curated knowledge found in those children's books. Here, however, there are interwoven threads of the personal and cultural that result in a hybrid of zoology, botany, and memoir. Each brief essay in World of Wonders takes a creature or plant with which Nezhukumatathil has had direct experience and blends interesting tidbits of natural history with carefully chosen moments of personal history. Fumi Nakamura's illustrations add to the sense of an artfully informative narrative.

The child of a Filipina mother and South Indian father, Nezhukumatathil has navigated the world of wonders she describes with a deep awareness of being viewed as different. In a recent interview with NPR, Nezhukumatathil explained, "I'm hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get to be told.” And how true. How many wonderful stories of outdoor explorations saturate our literature delightfully? But then: how many are the experiences of people of color? Nezhukumatathil grew up facing the kind of erasure from the dominant narrative that our society has been confronting with particular emphasis these past months, writing in her book that she "began scribbling in notebooks and notebooks, trying to write my way into being since I never saw anyone who looked like me in books, movies, or videos.” Whether she’s writing about catalpa trees or peacocks, Nezhukumatathil maintains an undercurrent that if we can revel in the connection to and awe of things unlike ourselves and see in them what is, in fact, like ourselves, maybe we don’t have to make exotic lives in nature other. Maybe we don’t have to make the brown-skinned woman in a small Western New York town other. Maybe other cultures can, like nature, be viewed with wonder instead of fear. If you can be both awed by and similar to an axolotl, surely you can in a small way be awed by and similar to your neighbor whose identity is a patchwork of multiple races and experiences.

While Nezhukumatathil makes this larger statement, her writing is also deeply imbued with the details of personal experience—memories like watching fireflies light up while coming home from family vacations. “I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days,” she avers. “Perhaps I can keep those summer nights with my family inside an empty jam jar, with holes poked in the lid, a twig and a few strands of grass tucked inside.” Nezhukumatathil's compendium of information about creatures and plants is carefully layered with the particulars of a life spent noticing and learning about the world around her, and her desire to cherish and protect memories feels particularly pertinent in a 2020 world gone slightly mad.

Nezhukumatathil’s slender book is quite unique, but if you read it and find yourself craving other narrative blends of personal experience and the natural world, check out Margaret Renkl’s gorgeous Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (also published by Milkweed), Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. For more similar suggestions, fill out a Choose My Reading Adventure form to get recommendations tailored just for you.

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