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Illustrations of a Childhood Lost

A review of Dear Outsiders by Jenny Sadre-Orafai.

We want our parents to arrive breathing in their mouths saying we just wanted to know that you would be okay without us.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai, “There’s a Gap in the Land”

Dear Outsiders by Jenny Sadre-Orafai perfectly captures the unique voice of childhood, depicting a youth defined by two extremes of nature—the ocean and the mountains. The book primarily consists of short prose poems, with each serving as a snapshot, or perhaps a genre painting—individual moments of life that combine together to form a larger tale, serving as a poignant illustration of lost childhood and mourning.

In its first half, Dear Outsiders describes growing up in a coastal tourist town, drawing upon images of sea stars, bait worms and shells sold to tourists. There is a sort of sad nostalgia present throughout these poems, an anger in the way Sadre-Orafai conveys the relationship between the locals and the tourists, and the difficulty of living life as an attraction, with outsiders treating your culture as a novelty. Additionally, Sadre-Orafai gives a powerful portrayal of the ocean as something joyful and awe-inspiring at the same time as it is terrifying and deadly; this idea culminates in an abrupt depiction of loss, described with an affectingly straightforward sense of numbness.

In the second half, Sadre-Orafai exchanges the shells and seagulls for plant life and insects. The ocean has been traded for the mountains, but its lingering echo is present in the stagnant water of birdbaths. Here, the melancholic nostalgia transitions into outright grief, and there is a subtle transition in language to go along with it. The naturalism of the poems takes on a more abstract feeling, as Sadre-Orafai portrays the struggle to adjust to life after loss, and trying to find home somewhere so opposite from what you know.

Sadre-Orafai’s prose is deceptively simple, wonderfully recreating the thoughts and emotions of childhood. There is a beautiful juxtaposition of the simplicity of the sentence structure with the complex feelings present in the imagery described. It brings the reader back to the mindset of youth, when one often has such big thoughts, but not the words to convey them. It creates a feeling akin to thinking in pictures, in feelings. Sadre-Orafai illustrates her images with remarkable depth and invites the reader to join into the feelings they evoke.

This review is part of our coverage for National Poetry Month. Dear Outsiders is out now and available from University of Akron Press. Read the poem “Locals” from Dear Outsiders here.

Poems by Mia Pearson