Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essays are breaths of fresh air. Taken piece by piece or in one big gulp, her Kirkus Prize–nominated collection is an antidote to despair. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed, Sept. 8) celebrates creatures and plants both familiar and strange through the eyes of a poet with a lifelong enthusiasm for ecology. In brief lyrical chapters, she contemplates axolotls, vampire squid, catalpa trees, cockatiels, and the human relationships that tended—or dampened—her natural inclinations. Ultimately, World of Wonders entreats readers to remember we are all connected, Nezhukumatathil says, so that we may “soften our hearts towards each other.” Kirkus spoke with her by phone from Mississippi, where she lives with her family and a rescue Chihuahua named Haiku. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What does wonder mean to you? What has it done for you?
One thing I discovered, when I was doing reading for this [collection], is that one of the roots of the word wonder means to smile. Wonder is wanting to know more about others, with a smile. It’s that joy. And I don’t know if this sounds Pollyannaish, but you don’t have to teach a kid to wonder. They’re always saying, Look mommy! Look at the moon! Look at this acorn! Look at this leaf shaped like a bear! And then the questions follow. First, it’s the enthusiasm, then it’s the questions; and a smile is there the whole way. We were all like that, Megan. We were all like that. And I know now, when I take a walk with my 10-year-old, our pockets are filled with acorns and maybe a special leaf that he wanted to save or a rock shaped like Florida, where his grandparents are. What wonder has done for me—and what I hope it does for readers of this book—is that it helps us keep our pockets full.
“Keep our pockets full”—I like that. Can you talk a little bit more about what that means and where it leads?
When you realize there are birds that collect anything they can find that’s blue to make their nest, when you realize there are salamanders out there who rely on a clear night to see the stars to find their way home, when you realize there are birds who need to read the stars to fly home, it might become harder to want to use a product that clouds up the sky so that the birds and the salamanders can’t see the stars. Learning more about [the natural world] helps us come to know and love creatures that are different than what we’ve ever seen or had contact with. I think maybe it makes us want to do less violence to them and, by extension, to other people we’ve never seen or had contact with, on the other side of the planet.
You write about close encounters with whale sharks and corpse flowers. Are there creatures in the book you’ve never seen in person?
I’ve never seen a cassowary, [a large, flightless bird that lives] in New Zealand. But my heart is so soft for them, and I want to do what I can to keep them alive. We shouldn’t have to have firsthand experience to want to do so. That’s the thing that I saw in so many nature books: Oh, once you’ve had an encounter with a bear, you want to save the bears. I got lost in the desert; now I want to protect the desert. It was very purposeful that I included animals that I’ve never touched, never looked into their eyes. We should be able to care for creatures outside of [our immediate vicinity]. We should be able to care about plants and animals and people that we’ve never seen before.
Your mother is from the Philippines and your father is from South Asia. Growing up in the U.S. in the ’80s and ’90s, your family moved from state to state. No matter the region, you write, your parents continuously encouraged your love of plants and animals. But some other adults, including a third grade teacher, dampened your enthusiasm with their prejudices.
There’s a reason that I think it took me all this time to finally be able to tackle these subjects. A lifetime of not seeing myself in books, not seeing myself in TV or music videos—as a third grader, you don’t have the right vocabulary for what’s going on. You just come away with this idea that none of this is allowed. I still think of that 8-year-old girl who loved sitting on the floor of her library, reading about animals and plants. How excited I was to read new nature books. Every time, turn to the back cover, and it was always a White guy. I never saw someone like me. I might have started thinking, maybe outdoors is not for me [if it wasn’t for] my parents, who showed me what it means to have a garden and how much fun it was to memorize the constellations. So it was weird, because I was internalizing what I saw as a lover of pop culture, but what my parents modeled was different. That’s why I included essays that show me as a daughter, a wife, a mother, and as a teacher—because I didn’t have that [breadth of] representation growing up.
Do you consider nature writing to be a political act?
I love the poet Kwame Dawes, and I always come back to this quote of his: “We are political by our noise and by our silence.” What we choose to be excited about is political. For the longest time, I’d kind of cringe, thinking I’m not bold enough to be political.His words really helped me own the power of my own enthusiasm. Think of how many things weren’t championed by the publishing world in the ’80s and ’90s. Think of how many things weren’t even encouraged. It’s not that there weren’t Asian Americans writing literature or writing about nature. The publishing houses chose not to publish them. That’s a political statement, too….So for anybody who says, Oh, I don’t want to get too political here—we’re all political. You’re political by what you champion and what you stay quiet about.
World of Wonders published on Sept. 9 of this strange year and received a warm welcome. In addition to being nominated for the Kirkus Prize, I know you’ve heard from readers near and far expressing their gratitude for this book.
I’ve just been so overwhelmed in the best way with the response. The whole time, even up until the day of publication, I was like, really, who’s going to care about this little brown girl who gets crazed with delight and excitement about the outdoors? But people with vastly different experiences than me have said how much they’ve connected to this book. Or they felt seen. Or they felt like they could relax and unclench from the news a little bit. That’s exactly it. There are books that are more hard-hitting or have a lot of jargon in them, and there’s definitely a place for that, but this—I want it to be like I’m sharing things I’ve been wanting to share with a friend, to open up the conversation and take us back to a time when we all were filled with wonder.
Megan Labrise is the editor at large and host of the Fully Booked podcast.