We’re celebrating the release of Coats by Naomi Telushkin, winner of our 2022 Chapbook Open, with the publication of Kim Fu’s introduction to this terrific book. Coats can be purchased at Barnes & Noble and Amazon and will soon be available on Bookshop.org!
About the Author
NAOMI TELUSHKIN is a writer based in Sydney, and an Assistant Professor of Film at the University of Canberra.
Introduction by Kim Fu
While reading for this year’s Masters Review chapbook contest, I was stunned by the quality of the longlisted entries. Each manuscript was a pleasure to read, animated by an individual spark of brilliance that made it seem incomparable to every other. At first, choosing a winner felt impossible.
But then I remembered that I would be writing this introduction.
In my mind, the introduction to a book is written by a close friend, a biographer, or an academic scholar of the author, someone with a personal relationship to the text. Knowing nothing about these writers, I asked myself which manuscript I wanted to engage with that deeply, that could stand up to the scrutiny of study, that I could endorse with the passion of a friend. Which chapbook did I want to read over and over, certain I’d find new insights each time? Which text seemed that rich, that layered, that complex?
Coats by Naomi Telushkin was the undeniable answer. The novella opens almost essayistically, relating information about an actual historical figure, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and I was immediately struck by the wry, harshly irreverent voice: “[H]e wanted, demanded, that his followers be joyous… They were impoverished Jews in remote villages in early nineteenth century Ukraine. It wasn’t a joyous time.”
This is how we’re introduced to Alexa, née Ayala, as she learns about Nachman on a Jewish Young Professionals trip to Kyiv. From the jump, she’s disruptive and disdainful, obsessive and conflicted—a protagonist who challenged and intrigued me immediately. Within the first few pages, the text nests again, down another layer, transporting us into one of Nachman’s tales, the Seven Beggars, reimagined as a terrifying haunting, a parable of trauma and refugee displacement:
“[T]he bride and groom were forced to remember those days in the forest. Forced to remember what they’d shoved down and forgotten. How their breath turned to crystal, how screams wove around the trees, how his mother, nineteen, lay motionless in the snow, how her father said, ‘leave her!’ because they were still being hunted…
The bride and groom clung to each other, awash in memories and blood, and they screamed at the beggars to stop it, but the beggars wouldn’t go away. They never go away again.”
The seven beggars’ blessings—treated by the story as curses—structure the rest of the book, as it moves from Kyiv to Washington, DC, St. Petersburg, and New York City, following a decades-long affair between Alexa and a married man from her youth, dancing nonlinearly through time. The first scenes we see of this propulsive, toxic romance are written in appropriately short and brutal fragments, like scattered shards of glass. The setting of a Japanese restaurant is boiled down to a “a single orchid, a black vase. The sashimi bright, severe.” I was blown away by the range and elegance of these varied constructions, how confidently the author moves between them.
The affair poisons how Alexa sees everything—how she interprets history, religion, art, other people’s lives, her own life, her work, herself. But Coats has more expansive concerns, a sophisticated understanding of power at every level: between men and women, between classes, between nations, the money that runs the world. Alexa’s story is firmly embedded in the now, the most urgent present, where the choices you make can get someone killed on the other side of the globe, where our most private and intimate desires can’t be separated from the weight of the past and a world on fire. Reading it, I was thrilled, enlightened, discomfited, and devastated. I know you will be, too.