Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first essay collection, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, stands with one foot in nature writing and the other in memoir. Widely known for her poetry, Nezhukumatathil uses clean, playful prose to guide us through interesting anecdotes about nature and morsels of memoir about growing up as a woman of color in America.
Structured into a series of bite-sized essays, Nezhukumatathil offers vignettes on a selection of flora, fauna, and natural phenomena while drawing on her own life experiences. Some mostly memoir, some mostly nature anecdotes, there is enough of each to fascinate and draw us all in. Even for non-nature enthusiasts, the nature anecdotes are interesting and digestible. Who knew the adorable axolotl has cannibalistic tendencies or that red-spotted newts are filled with deadly toxins? Interesting as each anecdote is, they also embody the theme of each essay.
In “Firefly,” Nezhukumatathil paints a mesmerizing picture of these insects as innocent and nostalgic as a childhood summer:
“In flight, [a firefly] is like a loud laugh, the kind that only appears in summer, with the stink of meats sizzling somewhere down the street, and the mouths of neighborhood children stained with popsicle juice and hinging open with the excitement of a ball game or tag.”
And while we learn about the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, what we see even more clearly is her parents trying to instill a sense of wonder in their daughters. “Perhaps,” she writes, “I can keep those summer nights with my family inside an empty jam jar, with holes poked in the lid, a twig and a few strands of grass tucked inside.”
Though the essays center around wonders of nature, many of the memoirs in these essays are laced with stories of stereotypes and racism. In “Peacock,” we follow Nezhukumatathil through a school day in Phoenix, one of the many places where she lived in during her very mobile childhood. In the essay, her teacher reprimands her for drawing a picture of a peacock, a bird native to India and South Asia, and indicates that she should “start over and draw American animals” since they “live in Ah-mer-i-kah!” Nezhukumatathil deftly shows us how racism is never confined to a single incident, and how a single incident can create ripples through an entire life.
Nezhukumatathil’s parents, immigrants from southern India and the Philippines, play a prominent role in many of the essays as they grow their medical practices and their children. Sometimes, as in “Firefly” and “Catalpa Tree,” they are characters, and we’re given glimpses into their lives: familial conversation during a long car ride to the Smokies, greetings in her mother’s office after a day of work and school. Other times, as in “Whale Shark” and “Monsoon” we don’t see them directly, but we see their influence in different ways: the Pilipino folktale of Kablay, a visit to her ancestral homeland with extended family.
Through the entire collection, we feel the wonder that nature and family have created in Nezhukumatathil’s life and are able to reflect on the wonder that we experience in our own lives.
About the Reviewer
Aurora Bonner is an environmentally inspired writer and teacher. Her work has been published in national and regional publications, including Under the Gum Tree, Colorado Review, Assay, Brevity, and in the anthology Dine, published by Books by Hippocampus. She holds an MFA in creative writing.