[REVIEW] Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

BOA Editions
April 2016
Derrick Austin’s stunning debut, Trouble the Water, gives readers unique insight on what it means to be a queer, black man in today’s world. He navigates the complicated worlds of race, sexuality, and religion with such fearlessness that we as readers can’t turn away even if we wanted to. Mary Szybist, in her forword, writes that that fearlessness begins with the book’s title, and she’s right. Before we even see the first page, Austin lets us know that this is not a book to be read passively. Rather, Trouble the Water is both a title and a command, a command for us to trouble both society’s waters and our own.
One of the most striking aspects of Trouble the Water is the graceful way Austin weaves sexuality and religion together, so much so that at times they are one and the same thing. Sex and God are both equal and opposite, drawing Austin’s speakers in and also forcing them to turn away. Heaven is another’s lips. One poem, called “Devotions,” is an ode to a lover. Often poetry about sex or religion takes an obvious standpoint, either on one side of the line or the other, but Austin’s poetry makes the reader think, hard, about what it is we believe in, particularly on the subject of LGBTQ issues. Sexuality and religion are separate issues that have been so convolutedly twisted together in today’s society that it’s hard to see them coexisting, but Austin attempts to show us that they can.
The other prominent theme in Trouble the Water is race. In the poem “Blaxploitation,” every line ends with the word “black,” forcing the reader to confront that, for a person of color, blackness is something that is ever-present rather than something which exists only when it’s convenient. Then there are times when Austin writes about race as if it’s an afterthought, balancing the ideas that race is both a massive part of people of colors’ lives and at the same time is merely a descriptive factor.
An interesting tool that Austin utilizes throughout all his poems, whether they focus on race, sexuality, or religion, is to use art as a descriptor and comparative factor. Many of his poems are set in museums, others inspect God and Christ through paintings. The poem “Breakwater” is theimagined story behind a photograph. Paintings and photos and music are not separate from our humanity; they are our humanity.
Austin tackles the difficult task of being both hauntingly amusing and utterly serious, making the reader feel hope and joy and sorrow all at once. He makes us rethink old assumptions and reminds us that we have the power to change what we think we know. Religion can evolve to fit today’s society. Love is complicated. Race is too. In the end, though, we’re all essentially the same, just people trying to live our lives free from fear. In “Torch Song,” the speaker says, “when I open my arms to the crowd and mouth / the night’s first note, I don’t sing; you singe,” and I think that line embodies Trouble the Water. Austin sings to us in a way that makes the reader feel uncomfortable, on fire.
Austin is an important voice in poetry. His book comes at a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the social injustices these communities face. Trouble the Water is not justthe title of Austin’s book; it is a command. The only question now is whether or not we will listen.

[REVIEW] Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee


Curbside Splendor Press


Vanessa Blakeslee prefaces her remarkable debut novel, Juventud, with a quote by Gabriel García Márquez: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” It’s fitting, then, that memory casts such a long shadow over the events of this coming-of-age narrative that opens amid the turbulence and uncertainty of late-1990s Colombia. Memory and forgetting shape this narrative, however, and it is in in this tumultuous historical moment that we first meet our fifteen-year-old narrator, Mercedes: a Colombia after the takedown of Pablo Escobar, where regular citizens are caught between rivaling FARC, ELN and paramilitary forces, a deeply corrupt government, and a socially activist Church. Juventud covers all the usual trials of the coming-of-age story, but the expertly- rendered world and clever, strong-willed narrator make this novel snap with tension.

While hijackings, kidnappings, and desperate desplazados all belong to Juventud’s setting, Mercedes, the half-American only child of a sugarcane farmer named Diego, is largely protected from the violence at first. News reports babble in the background of her home, a bucolic hacienda near Cali de Santiago, and early in the novel she witnesses a bus hijacking while being driven home from her private day school in town. Yet Mercedes is a member of the small affluent class whose wealth is concentrated behind well-guarded gates. Diego would like to send his daughter away to boarding school in the United States, where her mother lives and where Mercedes will be safe.

Nevertheless, when Mercedes meets Manuel, a passionate social activist with a great talent for guitar, her country’s problems begin to take on a horrifying solidity around her despite her father’s efforts to keep her insulated from danger. Mercedes’s instinct is that Diego is also keeping her from some fundamental truths about the past, including the reason for her mother’s abandonment and Diego’s own place in Colombia’s recent history. Manuel offers a few answers about Diego and many opportunities to break out of the strictly defined role of obedient daughter. As Mercedes and Manuel begin to fall in love, Mercedes increases her own involvement with Manuel’s activist youth group, La Maria Juventud. Meanwhile, back on the farm, Diego decides to allow for some of the country’s many displaced people to camp on a plot of land. As Diego pushes her to leave Colombia, Mercedes digs in, reinvesting in her birth country by attending peace rallies in an environment that is increasingly hostile, if not deadly, to social activists.

Yet here, about halfway through the novel, Juventud expands beyond the scope of a romantic novel about youth. At its heart is a mystery story of sorts — a terrible personal tragedy that befalls Mercedes, whose solution is interwoven not only with her own family history, but with that of her country. Mercedes has a keen and curious mind, and one of the joys of this novel is seeing her investigative bent assert itself after the youthful naiveté falls away. Mercedes’s own family history, like that of Colombia, is patchy and marred by trauma, and even so both are confronted with the task of constructing an identity and a coherent story with what facts they do possess. From this point, the novel’s scope ranges widely as Mercedes immigrates to the United States, tries to connect with her mother, and makes her home among family members who are also strangers. The story brings us far and wide, to suburban Florida, academic Berkeley, Washington DC, and even an Israel that reminds her all too much of the Colombia she left. Through all of it, Mercedes excavates personal memory and official history, truth and lies and everything in between.

Juventud is a solid coming-of-age story with a refreshingly fleshed-out female narrator. Admittedly, the strongest parts are in the first two-thirds of the novel, but the somewhat sagging tension in the final act is forgivable in the face of such a well-rendered novel of memory and history in Latin America. Even through the most heavily plot-driven sections in the first half of the novel, I admired Blakeslee’s close eye for the little details of life and character: the sweet corn and hot grease of the street arepas Mercedes loves, the telling detail she notices on a knockoff designer handbag, the quiet way in which she notes when father has had a woman stay overnight. The novel is well done and wonderfully researched on the whole, and it makes for an enjoyable read. Readers who enjoy novels of Latin American history, engaging female leads and coming-of-age stories should all enjoy Juventud.

[REVIEW] Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Gutshot Cover

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

224 pages, $14.00, Paperback


Amelia Gray is a mortician with an overactive imagination.
Gutshot, her fourth publication, is an unflinchingly gory examination of life and the human interior told through stories and flashes that go for the gross out. Gray dissects human anatomy and the human spirit: blood, severed appendages, and mucus. Her stories extract the weird darker side of society—violence, vileness, longing, and despair. She punches us with a reading experience that is at times surrealist, absurd, or, on occasion, sentimental. This work is a complement to her three previous publications of oddities: AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, and Threats.


Gutshot is divided into five sections that vary in theme and influence, but they connect through Gray’s unmistakable style. She draws from literary fiction, horror, surrealism, romance, fabulism, thriller, and science fiction, often breaking from traditional storytelling altogether. She pulls in readers while pushing them into unfamiliar environments that inspire feelings of confusion and conflict. Her prose is punctuated by micro-epiphanies that challenge us to consider what we’re made of—emotionally and biologically: “Your heart is a wall of the same brick repeated,” she writes in “Loop.” She questions what we’ll leave behind when we die: “Every body of work deserves its spoils. When we keepers go, we’ll get maps and plans and cenotaphs in miniature, all housed deep under slabs bearing the names of every man, woman, and blue-faced baby we drew down, a towering monument to our work,” she writes in “Legacy.” She examines what interior and exterior spaces haunt us: “Our home was once the preparation wing of a garment factory, in which material was boiled with chemicals to change its color and character,” she writes in “House Heart.”


Gray’s writing possesses an intimate quality. Yet like the accouterment—spatulas, incision spreaders, mirrors, embalming fluid, an absorbed twin—resting on a mortician’s tray, it also hints at the grotesque. Her prose is brutal and bizarre. It incorporates unusual images. A whale’s heart. Crowbar. Swan poop. A Dunkin Donut’s in flames. Benzoyl peroxide. Scorched plastic. She utilizes the mundane to call attention to apparatuses we often overlook: “Every problem in the world can be traced to attention or its lack,” she writes in “Loop.”


Most of her characters would make nightmarish neighbors (unless you want to live next door to the Klopeks from the Tom Hanks’ movie The ‘Burbs). They rent a young woman and lock her in an air-conditioner intake duct, develop chronic puking problems, become cannibals, mutilate, castrate, and devise strategies for killing their boyfriends. But her freakishness is tongue-in-cheek and balanced with humor and heart. For instance, in “Date Night,” a couple goes to dinner and begins physically ripping their bodies apart: “Another man flicks open his button fly. His public hair scatters like dandelion florets. The man howls and a woman rips his dick off and drops it into a bowl of soup. What’s the deal with soup!” While Gray may be the queen of differentiation, here she points to a universal if not familiar theme: what it means to be alive. The mutilation isn’t an incursion; it is a celebration of humankind. She writes, “Every piece of internal armor on each individual is so thick with shine that even light from the recent past and future finds a way to burst forth, shattering across shattering glass, covering all in a blinding healing bleeding screaming LIGHT because that’s what LIFE is, you assholes! That’s what it means to be alive!” Her words remind us that the human body is a casing similar to a beetle’s shell. Inside, we’re soft.


Gutshot’s heavy-handedness is both its shortcoming and its strength. Gray tries—with great success—to be different and deliver what no one else has said. Underneath her eerie, original imagery and sentences, she explores ubiquitous themes: relationships, love, death, and life. The heart is a central image to her work, as is the house. She is a mortician who spends time with the dead, but her job doesn’t depress her. No, no. It makes her more alive. Lucky for us, she’s brought to the page her secret, which is hard to succinctly write but I’ll give it a try: To live without ghosts is not to live at all. Tell me, what will you do with the rest of your life?

T.M. Sumner is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Rathalla Review. She is an MFA candidate at Rosemont College, where she is writing her first novel. She holds a MS in Publishing from NYU and a BA in English from VCU.