Book Review: Navigating the Divide by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

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Navigating the Divide is a selection of writings by Linda Watanabe McFerrin, including poems, travel essays, short stories and extracts from her novels. However this is no conventional anthology. The fiction is jumbled up and scattered among the poems and travel writing, in a fashion which seems random but starts to form a pattern. The end result is a patchwork in which the poetry and the prose illuminate one another, a complete new work in itself.

Even in her prose writing it is clear that the author is a poet. The travel essays are like prose poems, playing with words and ideas, throwing up startling images. Her descriptions are sensuous: the city of Nice “like a thick grenadine, trickled over us”, and “coconuts, split, by the side of the road, a fetid smell, like graves turned over”.

The fiction conjures up a sense of place, describing Tokyo, or Haiti, or San Francisco, with a traveller’s eye. And the poems pick up the themes of the prose.

The “divide” of the title is much more than the gap between literary genres. The author uses her personal experience of two very distinct cultures – American and Japanese – to explore the gulf of understanding between different societies.  We see how contrasting responses to the same events – such as the juxtaposition of the American Halloween with the Hispanic Day of the Dead – can lead to a sense of alienation.

Then there is the divide between individuals, often a result of misunderstandings or trickery. People  may assume masks – formally during Halloween or Carnivale, or for the purposes of disguise or deception. The lone traveller may enjoy chance encounters with strangers, while wearing the mantle of loneliness.

Navigating the Divide deals with the big themes of life: love and loss and death. It is infused with a sense of spirituality, in all its forms. This is a fragmented world, one in which rational explanation co-exists with zombies and ghosts. There can be no answers to the questions posed by the book, because there is no single reality.

Navigating the Divide, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Alan Squire Publishing, 2019, 9781942892144

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