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Book Review: "Nervous" by Jen Soriano

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

My excitement about Global Majority storytelling and storytellers recently inspired me to become a NetGalley* member and further boost the signal for the books and writers I love. In the past, I've posted now and then about something I've read or seen, but this is an opportunity to fully indulge my passion for what inspires me, feeds my curiosity, captures my imagination, and heals my soul.

To begin with, I'd been waiting for this book - literally and metaphorically - for a long time. In the most literal terms, I saw Jen Soriano on a Zoom writers panel during the pandemic and was so intrigued that I knew I would read whatever she published as soon as I could. When Nervous came up on my NetGalley feed, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on that Advanced Readers Copy (ARC).

In terms of metaphorical waiting, where do I start? An American-born Global Majority woman writing about ancestral trauma? Birth injury? The effed up history of American Imperialism? Dancing with a handsome mysterious man at a wedding? Count me in.

Nervous is a collection of essays chronicling the chronic pain Soriano has suffered over her lifetime and the many paths she's explored in search of understanding and relief. All this makes it an illness memoir and a medical detective story. And yet Soriano is more than a patient; with curiosity and rigor - inherited from her surgeon father -- she tells an engaging history of how science has interpreted the nervous system through time.

She is also a Filipina-American who tells her stories knowing that, rather than an isolated individual, she is a single strand in a web which includes not only her family, her people and, in my reading, anyone whose family history cannot be understood outside the contexts of racism, colonialism, and greed.

Before I picked up Nervous, I knew little about Philippines history beyond Imelda Marcos' closet of shoes and understood in only the broadest strokes how Japan, Spain, and the US had all made the islands their territorial football at one time or another. Through Soriano's history of her family, she makes it clear how much Filipinos have paid, and continue to pay, for being tossed around.

If it sounds like Nervous contains multitudes, it does; but Soriano's mad chops as a writer give her an astonishing capacity to braid her wide-ranging observations into one engaging and coherent piece of work. In fact, her accomplishment underscores why I am so devoted to supporting Global Majority storytellers: they simply know without being told that there is no separation between their selves and their worlds.

They know that no personal history exists in a bubble; know that family traumas stem from global violence; that our genetic inheritance is shaped by the systems in which our ancestors lived;

that national ideals are often just fancy ways to justify violence; and that the conflicts of history live not only in the books written by the winners but in bodies capable of revealing truths the winners still want to keep hidden. They also know that some of us can't even tell our family stories without also telling of the treaties and back room deals that gave rise to them.

And they write from that knowledge.

As someone whose family tragedies are also deeply embedded with global horror and the impact of colonization -- I could not put this book down. Unlike Soriano's family, my family histories will likely remain a mystery forever, but reading about her family's ordeal was nevertheless healing. Her passionate, intelligent storytelling is not only a testimony to how family history can be passed down through the body but to the healing power which arises from acknowledging that history. I have deep GRATITUDE for Nervous; it is necessary, fascinating, and powerful. If you have dealt with the mystery of pain and the possibility that the pains which you suffer did not start with you, read it.

*NetGalley is a site dedicated to helping books succeed. NetGalley sends Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of new books to its members who include all kinds of influencers, bookstagrammers, YouTube peeps. etc, so that they can promote what they've read and boost the writers and the books they love.

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