The Relativity of Living Well
Ashna Ali’s poetic memoir The Relativity of Living Well documents the experience of surviving infection with COVID-19 the period of quarantine between March and July 2020 as a queer immigrant of color public school teacher in New York City. These poems bear witness, holler rallying cries, and interrogate the roles, capacities, and needs of the individual within larger social fabrics afflicted by both pandemic and by imperialist capitalist logics of exploitation. These are poems of critique, of grief, and of the darkly absurd quotidian we have normalized in the face of structural failure.
“This is not about me,” writes Ashna Ali, and “Here. Taste this.” I see the poems in The Relativity of Living Well as compassionate and fervent calls to arms in a time where so much seems ungrounded and uncertain. Ali reminds us to consider the borders where the individual meets the collective, and where the collective meets the larger global world. It is in those spaces, they suggest, that the radical work of living must occur: through the everyday act of not just breaking bread, but also making it. Reader, I trust you to relish and cherish these tender and precise ruminations as I do.
Tarfia Faizullah, author of Seam and Registers of Illuminated Villages
Ashna Ali is Distinguished Professor of Grief in The Relativity of Living Well,
a short collection that traces the first months of the pandemic in New York
City. These poems instructively plunge deep into the consequences and costs of the US-American obsession with productivity.
What’s more, Ali teaches the reader to analyze the gestures of our fellow
grieving citizenry. “What if not a single medical worker hears the 7pm clamor?” If skeptical, their read is honest to the core. “I have to call things by their names before they ooze back together.”
They expose the despair inherent in working through a serious illness
in a city hard-struck by not just the virus, but bureaucratic jockeying and
governmental gaslighting that prizes optics over human life. It’s an important
work of documentation, particularly in 2021’s rush to get back to normal in
the wake of catastrophe--after which, for so many, normal is forever lost.
“The Relativity of Living Well” cascades of heart sunken and spirit trying! Ashna Ali conjures a spectrum of emotions which poignantly survive the empire. Brimming in reportage, memoir, and exploration, these stanzas harness daily sinew of a landscape in crisis. Ali delivers humor, reflection, pain, and peril with staggering texture. They ask us in the swell of racial injustice, “Have you learned yet? The difference between fireworks and gunshots?” How deliberate, vulnerable, gut wrenching! As a Queer, Muslim, and Bangladeshi educator, Ali has gifted us a nuanced poetry debut —incredible and dismantling.
Kay Ulanday Barrett, 2021 Barbara Gittings Stonewall Honor Book & 2021 Lambda Literary Finalist Award-winning author of More Than Organs
What forms—of work, of love, of living, of language—can and will sustain us?
Ashna Ali’s diaristic poems, written through the spring and into the summer
of 2020, trace both the systemic failures of government responses to the
COVID-19 pandemic and the acts of community support and survival that
flourished in the face of these failures. These poems find tenderness in “new
ways of saying we like each other / alive”: a student wiping a teacher’s desk
with bleach, a lover brewing tea, a Zoom seminar, a demonstration in defense
of Black Trans Lives. These survival strategies, Ali reminds us, are beautiful,
but are not a distraction from the witnessing and rage this moment calls for.
“This is America,” they write: “There’s no room for grief we can’t sell.”