The Sealey Challenge: A Theory of Birds

Zaina Alsous's A THEORY OF BIRDS, in front of bushes & a telephone pole.
A Theory of Birds

Birds are everywhere in Zaina Alsous’ A Theory of Birds: live birds, dead birds, birds as metaphor and myth and presence, birds in lost homelands, lost birds in the pages of books and the halls of natural history museums. The birds tangle and flow alongside the pervasive, violent, ever-violating colonialism, in the U.S. and in Palestine; they fly alongside women, and move across land and family, an ever-present reminder of loss.

Alsous breaks up her poetry with historical texts, moving from Darwin (and other nineteenth-century scientists) to Napoleon and beyond, an ever-expanding universe of colonialities encroaching upon inhabited worlds. (Guess who’s here! That’s right: Columbus is back! Not by name, but he’s sure here. Every kid in the U.S. knows what 1492 means.) She references the dodo throughout A Theory of Birds, another bird as metaphor for the violation of coloniality. (How many colonizers have blamed the colonized for the violence of colonialism? Why the hell were scientists blaming dodos for their own extinction?)

A Theory of Birds draws heavily from postcolonial theorists, even, at times, directly quoting Frantz Fanon. And Alsous draws on colonialities from across the world (and throughout time), from Palestine to Indigenous territories in the Americas and beyond. She looks at the ways in which naming and classifying and the creation of taxonomies can be tools of oppression, and they can be, and they are: any librarian willing to critically examine our shared profession knows just how damaging they can be, if not examined and re-examined, and as they trail through A Theory of Birds, Alsous reminds us of the political and colonial power of words, and of categories.

On every page, in white space and in words, Alsous drives home the violence and the despair of coloniality. A Theory of Birds is not an easy book, any more than is Bitter English—and, like Bitter English, it really shouldn’t be easy, for colonialism is itself an ongoing violation. Alsous’ insertion of historic quotes, from men as diverse as Charles Darwin and Napoleon Bonaparte to Thomas Jefferson (who even gets to directly contradict himself! good job on the quotes there, Ms. Alsous) and French zoologist Henri Milne-Edwards, from atlases and museums to Socrates himself, force us to confront the long and twisted history of coloniality coupled with exploration and discovery.

The land—whichever land it is—was never uninhabited, and the colonialism remains an act of violation, and Alsous ties coloniality and gender and place and family together, and birds fly through every word and every white space.

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