“As I sit under the lamplights, I feel happy, I laugh, I talk to myself, I talk to the books. I talk to the trees, and in my mind the palms form a swaying jungle of stories” (57).
So ends Jessica Sequeira’s beautiful book, “A Luminous History of the Palm” (Sublunary Editions, 2020), twenty-four short stories in which the author “imagine[s herself] in other lives” (1). The stories range from around 500 to 2,000 words, and are organized in triplets, set off by short notes that illuminate the form of the work; for example,
“To be luminous is not the same as to be enlightened. Enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress. To be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time, and form part of an organic system that is possibly infinite. It is to avoid abstraction, at least at the start, to prefer the concrete and sensual, the soft light forged by the bodies of stories as they crush together in violence or embrace” (29).
The concept, of occupying different characters over time, works using the human tool of empathy. What is known? What can be known, and how? How does one get to know? Where and how does the engine of cognition get started? This is not appropriation. It is a sharing of thought and experience. As argument, it is pathos, grounded in the emotional with passion. The reader becomes detached from any kind of narcissistic rendering, from identifying with, relating to, finding relevance to one’s own life. One disappears into another. One’s own interests are subsumed by history, and what emerges are anthropological vignettes, finds.
The vocabulary is exquisite: “Chinoisierie”; “crassulas, euphorbias, stapelias and aloes.” The words used in each piece form a brilliant cover, the style fitted to the personality of the character: a “Healer, [from] Yemen”; a “Housewife, [from] New Zealand”; a “Surfer, [from] California” – and that surfer dispels and defies stereotype to get to the heart of the new and original. The vocabulary is natural to the character. “I’ve got my shortboard, bright orange, and a new haircut.” That new hairdo – foreshadows a surprising identity, personality, transfixed and transposed by expectations and breaking away from the confines of one’s predicament.
“We get through the book in about an hour, silently noting its patterns” (53). But why hurry? The Sublunary Editions copy is professionally bound, recognizable as a series, and “A Sublunary Object,” a form that enshrines the short work in a book the reader will want to keep and save and, most importantly, reread and share.
I love the kind of writing found in “A Luminous History of the Palm.” The design, the ideas, the language, the brevity, the characters, the places and descriptions, how easily they seem to change, the reader entering a new land, country, weather. And the book is encyclopedic, the way Borges can be, and full of mystery, the way Lispector wrote – brief, compressed. As each story opens, the reader feels a kind of petrichor of a particular place and time and the close smell of a person suddenly near and unexpected. The palm trees spread and growing throughout the book are also very cool.
A Luminous History of the Palm, by Jessica Sequeira, 2020, Sublunary Editions, Seattle, WA, sublunaryeditions.com