True Fictionalizations: On Angie Sijun Lou’s “Dark Soil” Anthology

By David LewisMay 8, 2024

True Fictionalizations: On Angie Sijun Lou’s “Dark Soil” Anthology

Dark Soil: Fictions and Mythographies by Angie Sijun Lou

THERE’S A UNIQUE THRILL that comes from being in a place where we know remarkable events occurred, a rush from the sudden marriage of knowledge with the physical world, a feeling of the link between history and the present, mind and matter. The essence of the new anthology Dark Soil: Fictions and Mythographies comes from that eerie sense of place, combined with a desire to give voice to the stories history has tried to silence. The book was born out of editor Angie Sijun Lou’s prompt to “write a prose piece that illuminate[s] the hidden history of a place, a history that would not be obvious with one’s first visitation to the site.”

The first half of the book, entitled “Santa Cruz Nori,” contains 10 stories by Karen Tei Yamashita that are all set in Santa Cruz, California. The second half is a mix of essays, fiction, and poetry, each entry by a different author and set in a different location. While all the pieces have strong connections to geography, most strive for more than the worthy examination of forgotten histories. They perform a kind of literary and spiritual archaeology of place, summoning the suppressed ghosts of violence and injustice while also finding havens of reflection and solace. Some are more successful than others at the task of merging “history, biography, geography, and mythmaking.” But as a whole, they show how every place has stories buried in its soil, waiting for the right storyteller to dig them up.

Karen Tei Yamashita’s stories are made for adventurous lovers of historical fiction. They’re experimental in form and unflinching in their depictions of the injustices unearthed by the author. Her tone of dead-serious playfulness infuses each narrative with a sense of richness and humor that highlights her subjects’ tragedies along with their humanity.

In “The Missing Testicles of Padre Q/Los Compañeros Ausentes del Padre Q,” the narrator is Edgardo, a fourth grader on a time-traveling school trip. Separated from his class, he uses an app incorrectly and travels back to 1812, then can’t call home because his phone breaks down. Venancio, a member of the Awaswas people Indigenous to Northern California, finds him and doesn’t believe his time-traveling story: “Venancio is certain I am from his tribe, the Awaswas. Maybe from Sokel. That’s why he first spoke in his language to me. I told him I was Mexican from Watsonville. He shook his head. No. It’s a lie. Look into your heart.” This questioning of his origins is intriguing, but why does Edgardo shrug off the loss of his phone, and with it his chances of returning to the present? “It was the cheapest my mom could find at Best Buy, so no big loss,” he says. There’s both comedy and horror to his flippancy. Adopted by the tribe, who are being persecuted by colonist missionaries, he becomes subject to that persecution too. When he compares life under the Spanish colonizers to contemporary America, does he see a difference? Is Edgardo no worse off in the 1800s than he was in the present? Is he better off?

In “The Brother’s Parking Lot,” the ghost of ex-slave London Nelson has possessed a parking lot ticket machine to tell the protagonist his life story. Yamashita’s humor is on full display here. When the driver asks the talking machine if it’s fabricating its tale, it responds, “Brother, what I’m about to tell you is all true as best as I can pull together the facts into true fictionalization.” Putting historical facts into a work of “true fictionalization” may sound like a contradiction, but it’s also historical fiction’s greatest goal.

From story to story, Yamashita plays with form. “Frutos Extraños” is a set of monologues about the events surrounding the hanging of two vaqueros by an angry mob. In “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the ghost of Indian actor Sabu teams up with Ishi, Pandora, Chthulu [sic], the fairy queen Titania, and others to stage a play that combines Ursula K. Le Guin’s family history (her father, Alfred Kroeber, was an anthropologist at UC Berkeley who studied the Indigenous tribes of California) with reflections on the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. Yamashita’s stories are all engrossing, weird, and beautifully written. Indeed, while reading “Neverneverland,” you feel as though the author has spiked your drink with pixie dust: it’s a masterpiece of bizarre brilliance, a comic horror story set in the Sunshine Villa assisted living facility. I will reveal no more—read it!

Still, some stories try a bit too hard. “Indian Summer” alternates between sections narrated in first and second person, following two different protagonists who both have interesting stories. But the connections between them feel tenuous, and I wonder why Yamashita didn’t just divide this piece into two individual works.

This first section of the book walks a fine line between entertainment, art, and education, and most of Yamashita’s stories hit the mark impressively. She’s a hard act to follow, but section two does an admirable job. It is comprised mostly of essays, finishing with an experimental play and a poem. The priorities of these pieces are roughly the same as Yamashita’s, but in reverse order of importance: education, art, and entertainment. Their unapologetic focus on exposing injustices makes for riveting reading, but there’s an unquestionable shift in tone.

But that isn’t surprising considering the variety of authors the section contains. “Santa Cruz Nori” is certainly diverse, but there’s still a clear unity of voice and intent, to say nothing of the fact that all the pieces are inspired by one city. Part two reads like a well-curated literary magazine focused on place more generally: style and intent, as well as location, vary from one piece to the next.

In the gorgeous lyrical essay, “Navel, Bury,” Burmese-born writer Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, having moved to a town named after a racist imperialist, reexamines the meaning and importance of the word “hometown” for her newborn baby: “This singular man, the namesake, was a man of violence, and much has already been written about him. I do not want to write more. I do not want to name him. I want, perhaps, to un-name him, to take his name away, wrest it, pry it loose.” What follows is an exploration of place, language, migration, and control, from Myanmar to the United States. Reflecting on the Burmese word for “hometown” (a composite of the words for “navel” and “bury”), the author confronts how association with the town’s namesake could negatively affect her newborn baby and how much power she has to mitigate these effects.

Angie Sijun Lou’s thoughtful and chilling essay on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha combines an exploration of Cha’s work with observations on the historic Puck Building in Manhattan where she was murdered: “I knew that all physical traces of her would be imperceptible now, four decades later, but it was the aura of the building that drew me, cold and oblique, how it enticed and expelled me at once like a lover.” The morbid attraction to and repulsion from the place of the crime is compounded by the presence of luxury penthouses that Jared Kushner’s family built and sold for millions. Cha’s work is analyzed against the backdrop of this soulless opulence, which drowns out the otherworldly echo of violence. At once cultural critique and ghost story, Lou’s essay is a fascinating read.

Exploring a variety of marginalized lives, these stories and essays show the complex mix of culture, history, politics, and imagination that can make up a single place, whether that be California, Guam, or Ohio. It’s a cliché to say that every place contains a multitude of stories, but books like Dark Soil prove the statement true.

LARB Contributor

David Lewis is a Paris-based writer. His work has appeared in Joyland, The Weird Fiction Review, Barrelhouse, The Masters Review, Fairlight Books, and others.


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