If ever there were a season that needs a do-over, it’s summer 2020. The most expansive and languid of seasons has become stilted and bowed under the pandemic restrictions. There’s the enforced indoor time, the constant bad news, and the de rigueur doom scrolling to take in everything. Into this summer of our discontent comes poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first book of essays World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. Here is everything that’s been missing: family, food, travel, immersion in nature, the abundance of the season, the time to slow down and savor. There’s so much to be dazzled by in the world, Nezhukumatathil reminds us. Pay attention.
Wonder, as in a state of being awed, is a hard thing to sustain, which may explain slenderness of the collection. The 28 essays and accompanying illustrations span 160 pages with most topping out at around 5 pages. Every essay in World of Wonders has had a previous life elsewhere, either in Nezhukumatathil’s short-lived bi-monthly column “World of Wonders” for The Toast or across a plethora of literary magazines. Each essay focuses on a single animal, plant, or phenomena and braids in Nezhukumatathil’s own experiences in the world. The essays are supplemented by Fumi Mini Nakamura’s lavish drawings, which render the recipients of Nezhukumatathil’s fascination in vivid detail on the page.
What holds the collection together is Nezhukumatathil’s love of the natural world and fondness for its weirder bits. Did you know the narwhal’s horn is actually a tooth used for echolocation? Or that the axolotl, a salamander native to Mexico, can regrow its limbs no matter how many times it gets cut off? Or that the plant Mimosa pudica is sometimes called shameplant because it shivers and folds in on itself when it feels threatened? Spend enough time with Nezhukumatathil and your list of amazing facts about the world will grow exponentially.
Against this backdrop, she weaves in her own history and that of her family. Her mother is from the Philippines, her father hails from Kerala, India. Nezhukumatathil and her younger sister were born in the States. They spent their formative years hopscotching around the country as their parents, both in medicine, finished schooling and found jobs. It’s a journey that takes the family from the plains of Kansas to the desert of Arizona to the temperate forests of western New York and Ohio with stops in Kerala, the Philippines, and Greece. No matter where she is, Nezhukumatathil turns to nature to ground and form herself. It is the stone she hones herself against.
It’s also an avatar. In “Axolotl,” Nezhukumatathil channels the smiling visage of the carnivorous salamander, a serene smile that “often tricks people into thinking of cuteness and perhaps a gentle restraint”, through a host of microaggressions. As a preteen, Nezhukumatathil smiles when a white classmate tells her the candy apple red Wet-n-Wild lipstick Nezhukumatathil loves isn’t her color. Nezhukumatathil keeps smiling when the encounter leaves her wearing a cotton candy pink lipstick that clashes with her skin tone, making her looking wan and parched. As an adult, Nezhukumatathil smiles when a member of her tenure committee insists on greeting her with his palms together and a Namaste! even though she’s told him multiple times that her family is Methodist. Though her smile is sharp, Nezhukumatathil never goes in for the kill, unlike the axolotl. “When it eats — what a wild mess — when it gathers a tangle of bloodworms into its mouth, you will understand how a galaxy first learns to spin in the dark, and how it begins to grow and grow.” What kind of beautiful, wild mess would be born if she dropped the smile and went full axolotl?
In the introduction to her column “World of Wonders”, Nezhukumatathil wrote she wanted the space to be “a bon-bon of delight and amazement” and “there will probably be an abundance of exclamation points.” Both hold true for the book as well and this instinct to turn to joy and amazement can undercut the gravity of the topics she takes on. She laments “unnamed extinctions” of species we don’t even know exist in “Dancing Frog” but ends the essay with “We have to remember that in a time of so many extinctions, to find fourteen (fourteen!) new species of frog is a small ray of hope” and “I’m just so tickled to know these little ones exist”. With mounting evidence that we are living in a time of mass extinction, there’s room for delight but it needs to be grounded against the consequences of what we’re losing.
Similarly, Nezehukumatathil shies away from the overtly political, but her lived experience as a self-described “brown girl” in America is inherently political. Consider: summer 2020 kicked off in the States on Memorial Day with a White woman calling 911 and threatening a Black birdwatcher in Central Park after he asked her to obey park rules and leash her dog. Who has access to outdoor spaces? Who gets to enjoy nature? Who is welcomed into it? These questions linger in the larger context of racial inequalities in the U.S. It’s no small thing that Nezhukumatathil lays claim to nature or that she insists that nature, and how it can deepen and expand our humanness, is a necessity for everyone. But instead of digging deeper into this, she keeps it at the surface. Her cri de coeur essay “Firefly (Redux)” ends with wanting all of us to sit in a field at dusk, watch fireflies and feel connected, to the Earth and to each other. Any sort of messiness that might entail is never addressed.
The strongest essays are when Nezhukumatathil presses into the tension between her always look on the bright side outlook and the complicated topics she takes on. The essay “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day, Oxford, MS” unspools in a series of questions ostensibly asked by her sons. The format allows Nezhukumatathil to be both far-reaching and pointed, glancing upon racism, school shootings, extinction, aging, and death, while still leaving room to ponder whether birds have eyelids and if they giggle. Here, the heaviness and the humor work in perfect synchronicity.
Short as they are, the essays work best in small doses, savored like exquisite chocolates. Too much enforced wonder in short order can leave a person feeling like they’ve eaten too much sugar — jittery and sluggish, overfull and hollow at the same time. But in a world where it’s so easy to find the bad, it’s nothing short of radical that Nezhukumatathil relentlessly keeps pointing us to the good, the bewildering and enchanting, and insists we pay attention.