Venus Shells by Nadia Malik, Review by Sophie Jones

Malik’s collection holds a dedication ‘for those hurt and healing,’ and follows her passage from trauma to healing alongside her development from childhood to pregnancy to motherhood. As Malik discussed in our interview, her poetry is therapeutic, and through her interest in art therapy she grew comfortable with acting on the simple motivation of being ‘sad about something’ to write poetry. Consequently, reading this collection is a deeply personal look into a deeply emotional journey, but the vividity of the pain Malik creates is balanced by the strength of the joy she is equally skilled at producing.

Malik is an expert of imagery, and every inch of this collection offers brilliance. To her descriptions of motherhood, especially when talking about her child, this also offers a stunning strength of love and warmth that we can bask in. To her descriptions of sexual assault and trauma, this offers crushing heartbreak, and shattering (in writing and in reading) sadness that it seems an awful feat to have contained in words. However, as Malik confides in us and guides us through her journey, even in its darkest points, the delicate care that she gives to her word choices and her imagery offer an element of comfort – you are in safe hands, and she will guide you to safety.

Multiple threads and journeys run through this collection, connected through the development of multiple images. For example, the first poem, ‘Buah Hatiku’, sets up the image of the fruit as a symbol of reproduction. The title is Indonesian for ‘my baby’, but literally this can be translated to mean ‘fruit of my heart’.  The poem describes her grandmother’s death, and the growth of ‘coconuts… fruit plants… bamboo…kawung’ from her body – the Indonesian ‘kawung’ fruit, more specifically, from her ‘crotch’.

This simultaneous birth and death is also a fitting introduction to Malik’s imaginings of motherhood; full of wondrous dichotomy. In ‘The Moon in the River’, a pregnant belly is compared to being just that – ‘I am stillness / in action / I am building a home / without moving’. In ‘Watermelon’, Malik imagines childbirth as ‘remov[ing] life from your body’, while also as the process through which you can ‘feel ripe and full and / know your own power’. In ‘You Make Me’, she begins by questioning her child: ‘how do you make me / small and big / simultaneously.’

The image of the ‘fruit of my heart’, the child, later develops in ‘I Stole Your Mum’s Shoes from Morning Prayer’. The narrative of the poem is self-explanatory, but within this Malik also imagines being a mother, or more specifically being pregnant; ‘I imagine the day I am ripe.’ The idea of ‘ripeness’ has also been seen above, in ‘Watermelon’, the so-called ‘ripeness’ of the woman in pregnancy echoing the ‘ripeness’ of the child she is growing within, connecting them and imagining the woman as almost tree-like, natural, strong, and flowering, but also as complete, especially poignant when surrounded by narratives of sexual assault, trauma, and healing.

The development of pregnancy to motherhood is intertwined throughout with the collection’s passage from trauma to healing, and both threads, perhaps, reach their conclusion in the final poem. ‘Love’, and what a wonderful note to end on besides, sees Malik watching her daughter in the rain, allowing her the ‘shelter’ of her arms when she needs them. She is offering her daughter the safety she herself could not keep, and affirming her wholeness, embodied, as that shelter – ‘I’m here’.

Venus Shells is a masterclass of imagery, vulnerability, and strength, with delicately interwoven themes and threads that unfurl as you read. Malik’s debut collection offers a glowing glimpse at her talent, and is worth seeking out.