I learned about Thalia Chaltas’ debut novel from our Featured Storyteller last November/December – Holly Thompson. When I found the book in our library, I had some reservations about borrowing it because it was quite thick – and I knew my limitations when it comes to reading, particularly as the semester is also starting in the university. However, I did manage to finish the book in three hours despite its being thick – it was that riveting. I also knew that I had to share this for our novels-in-verse/poetry theme.
I am always there. But they don’t care if I am because I am furniture. I don’t get hit I don’t get fondled I don’t get love because I am furniture. Suits me fine. (p. 3)
A Survivor’s Voice in Verse. This is the story of ninth-grader Anke whose father is violent, abusive, and essentially unable to control his urges. Her eldest brother, Darren, is turned into their father’s punching bag:
As Darren came out of the bathroom this morning, pulling shirt overhead, the bruise half his side glared garish mauve and I felt my upholstery rip and bits of fluff escape to float away before Darren noticed me and yanked his shirt down. (p. 101)
her elder sister Yaicha (whose name means: “a candle in the falling rain/ shining amidst the pain”) is sexually molested by their father.
My Father Who Art Not in Heaven, and never will be, sometimes doesn’t come home from work until two a. m. and for his own reasons goes to my sister’s room before he goes to his own bed. I don’t want to hear know live here. I am scared for her but I am so glad he doesn’t come to my room. (pp. 39-40)
Anke has no choice but to bear witness to all these atrocities happening inside her home – uncertain how to behave, what to say, unable to articulate her anguish. Yet despite all this, Anke was never portrayed as a hapless, mewling victim. I call her a survivor – because this is who she is. As she gained acceptance in school, her esteem bolstered by her being part of the volleyball team – her voice grows louder each time she is trained to yell “MINE” out in the volleyball court. Her indecisiveness is reflected here:
Then why don’t I tell on him? If they don’t, why don’t I? Because. Because I am safe this way, silent unnoticed. Because my family would crack snap shatter like pine boughs in an ice storm jagged pieces scattered, irreparable, and there would be no family and I don’t want that on my head. What we have is better than that. Right? (pp. 240-241)
In Anke’s search for meaning, she analyzes her father’s anger – and how it has not always been that way in their home:
His Anger stands alone stands erect in the middle of the room. We step gently around it, a terrifying totem pole bristling beaks, pinions, talons. I can’t remember when it started when firm hand became fisted liege became feral tyrannical rage more important than the rest of us, but it didn’t used to be this way and that keeps us tied to him guessing, teetering, waiting, while stepping around his Anger in the middle of the room. (pp. 125-126)
Anke eventually realizes that she has a choice – whereas her siblings and mother are paralyzed by their father’s wrath – it is the furniture in the family – moth-eaten, cracked, its insides chewed by dread – who dared to lay the truth bare in snarling rage – truths spat out in defiance – unmindful of inevitable pain.
Why I find this book so significant. As a clinician, I find novels such as these very important. Unlike very grim, dark novels that gleefully take you into the abyss and leave you there to find your way out – this book provides a credible resolution – Anke’s strength building up gradually – her endurance amplified by her training as an athlete. I am aware how others may feel at odds about narrating this kind of story in verse – but I took comfort in it. I love how the codes, snapshots of memories are carved and sliced in neat verse. I also feel that it is important for adolescents who may be going through a similar experience to be able to take comfort in gritty novels that expose dark realities and bitter truths – reminding them that they are not alone, and that amidst seeming-helplessness, there is always hope.
While I also felt that there were a few loose ends that could have been more tightly-woven together – and that there were a few ruminations that seemed somewhat displaced – I still felt, as a whole, that this is a deeply-moving narrative – leaving the reader much fuller and more nuanced than when they had first started reading the novel.
Thalia Chaltas shared that bits and pieces of this novel were taken from her own life experiences. The jacketflap of the book indicated that she also wanted to do everything as a teenager – including being a kinesiologist, a helicopter pilot, a firefighter – and has at times been a bus driver, a ropes course instructor and a contralto in an a cappella group. As she was doing all this, she played lots of volleyball and written poetry, and collected children’s books. Because I am Furniture is Thalia Chaltas’ debut novel. If you want to know more about her, click here to be taken to her official website.
Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas. Viking, part of Penguin Group, 2009. Book borrowed from the community library.