[identity profile] stephenhongsohn.livejournal.com
A Review of Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (University of Wesleyan Press, 2009).

Kazim Ali is a particularly prolific writer, having published five full-length books within the last decade, including two poetry collections (The Far Mosque and The Fortieth Day), two novels (Quinn’s Passage, which was reviewed earlier on this community, and The Disappearance of Seth), as well as the current title I am reviewing, the creative non-fictional “text,” Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. In thinking back to Fred Wah and his “biofiction,” we might put Ali’s book in a similar category, except for this work treads more closely alongside poetry in its attention to line breaks and word density. It is not unlike the “form” Ali has used for both Quinn’s Passage and The Disappearance of Seth, where line breaks after practically every successive sentence or sentiment. If there is a loose autobiographical narrative running through, we can first interrogate it through the subtitle that links life-writing to urban centers, where we come to understand that the “I” of Bright Felon has resided in six cities in the span of five years. Consequently, most chapters are titled with a certain city in mind, whether it is New York City, Cairo, and Paris. In these various urban centers, the readers are treated to an intensively meditative work, often stream-of-consciousness in their sequencing, and effecting something of a dream-like quality to this particular life and to these particular experiences. Of this formal and tonal impulse, one looks to this line: “Eventually novels would evaporate into politics, politics would splinter into poetry” (80) and here we begin to excavate the writerly architecture of Ali’s work, where we are reminded that cities are constantly built atop each other as are the bodies that must inhabit them. In this keen attention to architecture and the urban space, especially across vast geographical terrains, I am reminded of Lawrence Chua’s Gold by the Inch, where the brother of the unnamed narrator-protagonist is an architect. At one point in that novel, a building collapses (also reminiscent of a moment in Hagedorn’s Dogeaters) and there is that understanding that one builds atop other deconstructions and disintegrations. Bright Felon, on the other hand, shifts architecture also into a different register where the fragmented self (rather than the perhaps aptly referenced alienated modernist subject that seems to haunt as a specter throughout the autobiography through references to Marianne Moore, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and others) attempts some form of articulation, a mode of speaking that while not grammatically or syntactically “normative,” nevertheless seeks to interrogate a labyrinthine world of racism, cultural distancing, familial rupture, homophobia, and religious persecutions. This context is further complicated by much of the post-9/11 awareness that pervades the work, where mosques are desecrated and the “narrator” reveals his own sense of disorientation and instability. The familial rupture that clearly energizes the text relates specifically to the encounter between the “narrator” and his family, especially his father, as it is suggested that there cannot be a queer individual and at the same time be Muslim, that is to have a kind of spiritual faith. The conclusion leaves us with the possibility though of claiming one’s multifaceted identity and that such a leap sometimes requires the sacrifice of blood ties. Even in the dark abyss that seemingly confronts the queer Asian American figure forefronted by Ali’s autobiography, we yet still see the “bright felon” that refuses to dim. I love this book and I am teaching it this quarter!

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