Book Review: Dark Soil

The title card at the end of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, a classic of the New Queer Cinema film movement, reads “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” In the instance of The Watermelon Woman, Dunye creates the fictitious historical narrative of a lesbian filmmaker and her actress lover. Yamashita takes a similar creative journey with Dark Soil: Fictions and Mythographies. Part experimental fiction, part personal essay anthology, Dark Soil pairs the acclaimed writing of Yamashita with that of eight nonfiction writers to compile a narrative history of often overlooked and absent historical records. 

Yamashita’s writing transcends place and time, creating stories of whatever historical scraps she could find related to her hometown of Santa Cruz. Perhaps the most successful and provocative of Yamashita’s work in this collection is Frutos Extraños, a short story told from multiple perspectives, across multiple time periods to illuminate the fictitious history behind a gruesome image of two hanged men at a public lynching. Told matter-of-factly, the multiple narratives read like a court deposition. Yet, the story is punctuated with the actual printed image of the event, circa 1877, forcing a deeper engagement with the event and illuminating the common human desire to dissociate from our collective historical transgressions. In Quimosabe, Yamashita delivers a beautiful, haunting reflection on the relationship between nature and the human capacity for destruction via a series of fictitious scientific journal abstracts. While some may find Yamashita’s writing esoteric, her stories are certainly worth the challenge. 

Yamashita’s work is only elevated by the inclusion of eight nonfiction essayists in the second portion of the anthology, including Brandon Shimoda, Craig Santos Perez, Sesshu Foster, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, Angie Sijun Lou, Saretta Morgan, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and Juliana Spahr. The essayists cover a variety of topics, all in some way related to physical place, all told through different artistic lenses. While Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint shares a story of intergenerational fertility journeys in truly gorgeous prose, Juliana Spahr skillfully delivers a free verse ode to the Ohio River wrapped in longing and painful recollections of ecological destruction. These works serve as a reality counter to Yamashita’s fiction; a pitch perfect pairing of lost/created history and hidden/found history.

The ecological themes of Dark Soil are not often overt in every individual work. Rather, the assumption of all the pieces is that the deep, unwavering impact of the environment on the human condition is simply fact. Like most of Yamashita’s oeuvre, Dark Soil is somewhat abstract. Reading Dark Soil should not be a passive activity, but rather a conscious exchange of ideas between reader and writer. Though this is not a standard piece of eco-writing, it is a beautiful work for those up for a challenge.

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