by Lisa Houlihan Stice (poet, Marine spouse)
I’m not usually one to go for hybrid or experimental, but when I passed the Kaya Press table at the AWP Bookfair, the modest purple cover of Kazim Ali’s The Secret Room humbly said, “I think you’ll love me.” I bought a lot of other books at AWP. Ali’s was the last that I read of the bunch. I found myself a little intimidated once I had it home. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of girl, and each time I opened The Secret Room it looked more and more like one of those super modern gastro pubs.
The Secret Room is part novel, part poetry, and part string quartet. There are four characters: Sonia Chang (first violin), Rizwan Syed (second violin), Jody Merchant (viola), and Pratap Patel (cello). Some pages are laid out as sheet music with the character on their own lines, while some pages are solos with a more conventional prose look. At first, I had to figure out how that book should be read. It took a little bit (it would probably take less time for someone who more about reading music than I). Reading from top of page to bottom made no sense, but then I started to pick up the rhythm of the book, and I also stopped needing to reference back to the front key of which character goes with which musical symbol.
Alone each character’s story is compelling and draws out sympathy and empathy.
- Sonia lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment where she eats and drinks from a single bowl. She practices her violin in preparation for a concert.
- Rizwan struggles with the sudden death of his aunt and his cancer diagnosis. Alienated from the rest of his family because of his departure from their cultural, his aunt was the only person to whom he felt close and now he has only his social worker, Jody, for support. Even in a room full of his yoga students, he feels alone while he tries to return a sense of peace and rhythm to his life.
- Jody is a busy mother who devotes her time and heart to her children at home and to counseling cancer patients at work. She mourns the death of her old self and finds herself lost in routine.
- Pratap lost his younger brother, a child of eight, to cancer eight years ago. Grief defines his life. He searches for the meaning of his own existence.
Together in the musical score, the lives complement and contrast on emotional levels that can only be experienced through reading The Secret Room. I felt my own life intertwined with these four characters through all the high and lows, quiet moments and crescendos.
In the end, Ali reveals all of the physical links among the four characters (I don’t want to spoil any surprises), but the physical connections are not what is most important. What is most important is what moves us.
About the author:
Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.
His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry; The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth Day; All One’s Blue; and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. He has also published a translation of Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras, Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri, Oasis of Now: Selected Poems by Sohrab Sepehri, and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras. His novels include Quinn’s Passage, named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine,and The Disappearance of Seth. His books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence and Fasting for Ramadan. In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company, he is a contributing editor forAWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books. He is the series co-editor for both Poets on Poetry and Under Discussion, from the University of Michigan Press.
Ali is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.
About the reviewer:
Lisa Stice received a BA in English literature from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) and an MFA in creative writing and literary arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She taught high school for ten years and is now a military wife who lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, the author of Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016), has had poems published in several literary journals, and is an associate poetry editor for 1932 Quarterly.