Review: On Relationships: Tangled Webs and Things Unsaid

Short Fiction
3 Cups Press

Review by Amy Stewart

What is a relationship, at its core? In what physical and intangible ways are we connected to others, to places, to ideas? And what can such connections tell us about ourselves? On Relationships (3 of Cups Press, 2019) is an anthology of poetry, art and prose which seeks the answers to these questions, and many more.

On the surface, it’s an anthology about relationships of all types — familial, romantic, platonic — but it’s perhaps at its most interesting when it probes how we understand ourselves through our connection to the abstract, the inanimate, the temporal.

For example, ‘The Way’, an essay by Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe, considers how the places we come from shape us by chronicling the history of Edgware and its various guises and identities through time. What’s brought into sharp relief is the emotional resonance such places hold for us, and how they tie us to those who came before: ‘We lived here,’ Pelz-Sharpe writes, ‘In this nothing and nowhere place, each of us stopped for a moment.’

‘What Becomes of the Crazy Rich Asian?’ by Rebecca Liu deftly explores the connections between identity and capitalism, concentrating on the proliferation of mainstream stories surrounding Singaporean lives and the tension between traditional and contemporary cultures.

Culture, and how it impacts our identity and our relationship to others, is a running theme throughout the anthology. In ‘Firm Ground’ by Kasim Mohammed, the narrator struggles to reconcile his faith and family values with his sexuality and burgeoning relationship with a co-worker. In ‘Braid my Hair’ by Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, the writer recounts a life of relationships with her hairdressers, touching on the connection between her hair and heritage.

Fittingly, the pieces in this collection talk to, contrast against and have relationships to each other. This occurs in subtle ways, woven in glittering threads throughout the collection, so that many feel as if they are in loose conversation. Ideas introduced in one piece are picked up and explored from a different angle in others. Melissa Gitari’s ‘Sunday Service’ slowly unfurls the impact of a single event on a married couple, concentrating on how a relationship can be continuously fractured by a moment that happens off-page. Then there’s Tori Truslow’s ‘In Birth’, in which a mother physically shapes her newborn’s face. The single moment in this story — the birth — also happens off-page, and yet here the resulting consequence concerns creation, not dissolution. They both seem to speak to a larger, more general idea: how much of a responsibility it is, how much of a burden it can be, to love someone else.

Elsewhere in the anthology, these relationships in language are explored in formally experimental ways. Take ‘Cambric’ (a poem written in the original Indonesian by Mikael Johani and translated by his wife, Anya Rompas), and ‘Bilang Dengan Bunga’ (a poem written in the original Indonesian by Anya Rompas, and translated by her husband, Mikael Johani). How do we ‘translate’ the person we love to others? What is lost along the way, what is gained? It isn’t the only instance in the collection where translation is spotlighted — in Jen Calleja’s thoughtful piece, ‘Miracle’, we follow the narrator as she spends time with the author whose book she’s translating in Italy. The piece is peppered with translated words and phrases, multiple versions offered of the same thing. Words define our relationship with the world, but they’re tenuous things, slippery and often misconstrued. ‘Miracle’ puts a magnifying glass up to this in a way that somehow feels simultaneously universal and highly individualised to the writer’s experience.

The stand-out from the collection, for me, is ‘Love’ by Isha Karki — an explosive, propulsive, colourful exploration of selfhood, female desire and sexual politics. We follow our protagonist as she is drawn into a lustful new relationship — so far, so familiar — but it is slowly revealed that something else altogether is at play here. What do we truly give away, when we give ourselves to someone? ‘To be desired’, Karki writes, ‘is to be brought into existence’. The end scene is grisly and fascinating in equal measures, the narrator forced to confront her sacrifices. It encapsulates a lot about what I feel On Relationships does so well — shining light into the spaces between us, and these disconnects within ourselves.

On Relationships is a diverse and rich study of connection and identity, at turns meditative, at others furious and pulsing, which seeks to ask as many questions as it answers.