Instruments of Memory

The New York Times Book Review

By Vaddey Ratner
324 pp. Touchstone. $26.

Vaddey Ratner calls each of the three parts of her tenaciously melodic second novel a movement. And indeed this story of an orphaned Cambodian refugee’s return to her homeland does have a symphony’s elevating effect on emotion. Ratner stirs feeling — sorrow, sympathy, pleasure — through language so ethereal in the face of dislocation and loss that its beauty can only be described as stubborn.

Continue reading in the NYTBR.

Of Islands and Other Mothers

“From one woman acting on behalf of a daughter to the next, had maternal fierceness somehow forged a chain to connect us across the divisive waters of race and religion and history? Was this then, at last, our Caribbean archipelago?”

My reported essay about Caribbean New York, “Of Islands and Other Mothers,” appears in the literary atlas Nonstop Metropolis (University of California Press, 2016), edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. My piece tells the stories of Caribbean immigrant women across Queens and Brooklyn. It takes readers to temples and churches, introducing them to seers and the heterodox, and reframes Derek Walcott to ask how gender allows us to bridge islands of difference created by race, religion and histories of bondage in the West Indies and its diaspora in New York. Other contributors include Marshall Berman, Garnette Cadogan, Teju Cole, Francisco Goldman, Valeria Luiselli, Margo Jefferson, Suketu Mehta, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

“A Good Story, If I Can Remember It”

Tracking down the memories of anti-apartheid writer and editor Sylvester Stein for Lapham’s Quarterly.

“Even before dementia’s onset, Stein felt mocked by the fallibility of memory, which exacerbated the creative toll that exile already takes. Decades earlier, he brooded over the fate of his friend Gerard Sekoto, a painter who continued to churn out portraits of his beloved South Africa while exiled in France but, as Stein lamented in Who Killed Mr Drum?, was ‘painting memories only, fading year by year, being copies of copies.’ Stein, visiting him in Paris in the early 1960s, ‘saw the danger: his emotions were becoming memories of memories.’

Yet discrepancies between 2012’s I Danced with Mrs. Gandhi and 1999’s Who Killed Mr. Drum? suggest peril of another kind. Memory might become derivative with the distance of decades and oceans—or it might grow more vividly motley as the ties to its source loosened.”