World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments was Barnes and Noble’s Book of the Year 2020 and poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first book in prose. One could call it poetry in prose as the poet’s touch is very evident in the collection of essays. In each essay or rather vignette, the author focuses on a specific natural wonder from the plant or animal kingdom and connects it to a personal experience in her life. The stunning cover and the gorgeous illustrations that accompany almost every vignette by artist Fumi Nakamura pair beautifully with the writing.
As an half Indian and half Filipino person of color living in the US, Aimee felt quite out of place in school and took refuge in the natural world around her. Her parents were educated professionals who moved around quite a bit within the US. It was nature that helped Aimee get through a lonely childhood whether in Arizona or Western New York, Kansas, Ohio or Mississippi. Life was difficult as a bi-racial first generation American and she recounts how her family was subjected to comments that ranged all the way from ignorant remarks and micro-aggressions to blatant racism.
Aimee makes her way through this hateful world with the help of nature. A tall catalpa tree with its giant heart-shaped leaves and long extending branches served as a green umbrella to provide shade to her and her sister from the sun in western Kansas and also to shelter them from unblinking eyes who were not used to brown-skinned people. The leaves could cover her face entirely if she needed anonymity. The distinctive smile of an axolotl which extends from one end of its face to the other is similar to her sheepish or rather salamander- like smile when a white girl at school tells her what make up she can wear and not wear on her brown skin.
In one of the chapters she describes how in an animal drawing contest at elementary school, she picked the peacock as her subject, inspired by the beautiful peacocks with their iridescent turquoise and jade feathers she came across in her father’s hometown in India. Her teacher told her sternly that she was supposed to draw only American animals as they live in ‘Ah-mer-i-kah’ and she had to abandon her animal of choice and pick another one. She drew a bald eagle perched on a cliff and added an American flag to the picture as well. She ended up winning first prize but the incident scarred her and she writes:
This is the story of how I learned to ignore anything from India….. But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.
As an Indian-American, it pained me to see that a teacher caused her to reject her beautiful and rich cultural background. I would have rushed to set up a conference with the principal if my children had to deal with such a prejudiced teacher. But I understand that she grew up in the eighties in a small town and the only way to survive in those days was to ignore and fit in completely to be accepted. Eventually as she grows up, she learns to love what she pushed away with embarrassment during her childhood and on her wedding day chooses a peacock- hued saree as her outfit. The sarees on the dance floor worn by her and her guests flash in the light in reds, violets, teal and turquoise reminding her of a bird of paradise.
The essays are mostly in chronological order tracing the trajectory of her life as she completes her education and settles into a career, falls in love and marries, has children and finds a place she can call ‘home’. She has a strong bond with her family. It is the world outside that is hostile and frightening. Just like the red-spotted newt that spends years wandering the forest floor before it decides which spot to settle in, she wandered from state to state before putting her roots down in Mississippi.
For the most part, the author seamlessly weaves the natural world into her personal stories but sometimes the connections she makes between the exterior world and her interior state of mind are tenuous and facile. A corpse flower with its stinking smell reminds her how to clear out the weeds of the dating world or the touch-me-not plant teaches her to fend off predators by folding inward and shutting down. Her son opens his wee mouth in amazement and wonder and she is reminded of the ribbon eel drawing water over its gills to help it breathe.
The first few essays were wonderful and informative. My interest was piqued when she referred to obscure flora and fauna. For instance, the colorful glass bangles that she got as a gift from her grandmother in India remind her of a comb jelly which flashes mini rainbows in the darkest oceans. I immediately googled the creature as I wanted to find out more about it. But unfortunately some of the later chapters had almost an encyclopedic feel to them and I felt I was reading a Wikipedia entry.
She also keeps hammering the point that she is brown-skinned. I can understand the trauma she must have endured as a child but why have a chapter entitled “Questions while Searching for Birds with my half- white sons…”? She has already told us she is married to a white guy. Is there any need to keep reinforcing the color of skin when there is no relevance? Also the writing evoked mixed reactions in me. It vacillates from lush and lyrical paragraphs describing succulent cara cara oranges or the chattering of bonnet macaques to clumsy phrases like “…after an especially plus amount of warm rain.” I am also nitpicky about grammar and some chapters have typos and errors like ‘another boatmen came up’ or ‘they busted out laughing.’ The book would have benefited from more fastidious proofreading and editing.
In spite of these annoying features, it is a gentle and meditative book that reminds us to savor the world around us. It is also a call for conservation entreating us to save our fragile planet. The author brings up the fascinating but sobering fact that fourteen new species of dancing frogs were discovered in Kerala, in southern India, only to be endangered almost as soon as they were discovered, due to erratic monsoon patterns. There are thousands of unnamed extinctions in the natural world when species become extinct even before they have had a chance to be discovered. She bemoans the fact that children have lost touch with nature and are glued to their phones or games. I was surprised when she mentioned that out of 22 students in her poetry class, 17 said that they had never seen a firefly although they lived in a town where fireflies were common. Aimee Nezhukumatathil asks us to slow down and look for fireflies:
I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again.
World of Wonders is a paean to nature and its amazing diversity as reflected in the millions of species that make up life on earth. If only we would also embrace this diversity within our own species!