Dictionary Offers Poetic Terms For Unnamed Emotions: Critical Linking, May 8, 2019

Sponsored by Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev, published by William Morrow


It’s important for us to see the myriad ways our common language fails to capture the complexity of reality, ordinary and otherwise. Ask any poet, writer, or language teacher to tell you about it—most of the words we use are too abstract, too worn out, decayed, or rusty. Maybe it takes either a poet or a philosopher to not only notice the many problems with language, but to set about remedying them.
Such are the qualities of the mind behind The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a project by graphic designer and filmmaker John Koenig. The blog, YouTube channel, and soon-to-be book from Simon & Schuster has a simple premise: it identifies emotional states without names, and offers both a poetic term and a philosopher’s skill at precise definition. Whether these words actually enter the language almost seems beside the point, but so many of them seem badly needed, and perfectly crafted for their purpose.

My favorite one is Vellichor: The strange wistfulness of used bookshops.


Poet Sara Holbrook, who often writes humorous verse for kids, had some harsh words for the Texas Education Agency after she discovered she couldn’t answer questions about poems on the its standardized tests — poems she herself wrote.

In an essay for the Huffington Post, Holbrook wrote that she felt like “such a dunce” after she didn’t know the answers to questions posed on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests about her poems — “A Real Case” and “Midnight” — meant for seventh- and eighth-grade students.

This would be funny if it didn’t say so much about standardized tests.


Now the author is back with an equally personal tale in The Bride Test. Here, her hero, Khai Diep, cousin to The Kiss Quotient’s Michael, is autistic — a young man who believes he has no feelings because of the stereotypes surrounding autism that have worn him down. Again, Hoang drew on her personal experiences and thoughts on the complicated emotionality of autism. “I would love for someone on the spectrum to read this book and to feel validated that they are emotional,” she tells EW. “That they are kind. That they have feelings.”

Even more personally, Hoang turned to another member of her family, her mother, a Vietnamese refugee, to craft her heroine, Esme Tran, a young woman who agrees to an arranged marriage for the chance at a better life for her family and finds love in the process. Though the story is set in the present day, Hoang based Esme’s journey on her mother’s story and the wells of inner strength it takes to create a new life for yourself in a strange and often unwelcoming place.

I absolutely love both of these books and is it too soon to deem Helen Hoang a national treasure?!

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