Title: World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
Author: Aime Nezhukumatathil
Genre: Creative Nonfiction
Word Count: 799
I still remember the sense of amazement I felt upon first discovering the existence of whale sharks. At the time I was in the 3rd-grade, settling down with my classmates and teacher to watch educational VHS tapes about aquatic life in the ocean during the science portion of our day. When the whale sharks made their appearance, I felt my eyes grow as round as their large, gaping mouths which fed on small shrimp and fish. To me, these colossi of the ocean seemed akin to underwater alien spacecraft, lit up as they were by the neon-white spots embroidering their thick, armor-like hides. Once I had ascertained there was no chance I could ever be eaten by their hungry maws, I found myself entirely captivated by these docile sharks, wondering how anything so large could yet hold such gentleness, while the voice of the narrator dwindled away.
I have never forgotten the day I felt that child-like awe and I found this same sense of fascination to be embodied within Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s illustrated collection of personal essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. Author of four poetry collections and Professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program, Nezhukumatathil invites us into a whimsical depiction of the flora and fauna she has made friends with, offering vignettes beginning in her childhood and moving into adulthood. However, Nezhukumatathil counterbalances these flowing descriptions with a touch of seriousness, using each species of plant or animal mentioned as a touchpoint in which to ground real life issues that she or those in her life often came across.
From the start of the collection, we walk with Nezhukumatathil through the different themes and lessons she gleaned from some of the most unassuming characters in her life. She highlights the importance of being conscientious of our impact on the environment through her discussion of Fireflies, whose numbers are declining the further city lights encroach on their mating grounds because “Porch lights, trucks, buildings, and the harsh glow of streetlamps all complicate matters and discourage fireflies from sending out their love-light signals—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born the next year” (12). The Whale Shark’s teachings are that showcasing animals for human pleasure deprives them of their freedoms, since “. . . whale sharks belong in the wild, where they can do more than trace a slow curve around the same planted coral and faux sea-cliff” (90). Touch-Me-Nots offer a quiet message that everyone has a right to demand autonomy over their own body and to not be touched without their permission. The Corpse Flower tells you to always be yourself, which will help to weed out unsavory characters, while simultaneously drawing nearer those deserving of you. With the Comb Jelly, she brings us back to the simple joys of appreciating beauty.
Catalpa Trees remind Nezhukumatathil of the enduring strength her mother bore in withstanding discrimination in her work place while yet sheltering her daughters from that world. Axolotls trained her how to cope in the face of racial micro-aggressions, ranging from childhood comments about makeup and brown skin to adult stereotypes on cultural mannerisms, as she notes, “Scientists have taken to studying axolotls for the regenerative properties of their limbs — very unique in the animal world, because axolotls don’t seem to ever develop scar tissue to hide damage from a wound.” (46) Peacocks were a lesson in not being ashamed of your roots, as Nezhukumatathil was pressured into, being the only non-white child in an American classroom, since “. . . what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.” (19) While the Vampire Squid left her only with empathy and compassion.
Recognizing the beauty in living things that we might not otherwise pause to give a second thought to or seek to understand may result in a better understanding of ourselves and those around us, seems to be Nezhukumatathil’s message for us, and that these lessons may also help us to face the challenges within our own lives. Well-researched, short pieces rendered in delicate prose deliver these truths of Nezhukumatathil’s simply and completely, creating an easy and fulfilling read. Allusions to moments involving discrimination, micro-aggressions, self-ownership, and environmentalism do offer opportunities for Nezhukumatathil to expand further on these matters but, she still address the topics through self-reflection, offering a discussion that melds well with the collection’s ultimate goal of conveying joy. This essay collection may be best appreciated by those within the literary field, however the palatability of the content makes this an easy read for children as young as middle-school age. Any age group will be left with wonder.