In Nick Holmberg’s debut novel, The Emergent (Koehler Books), he asks whether we can come to understand and know a person through the way they tell their story. The book shows the psychological and moral growth of the narrator, a young woman named Kat, as she challenges her audience to piece together the account she gives them of her time between San José, California and New York City to form a more complete portrait of her through the details of her life both shared and omitted.
The novel follows Kat — a queer woman of color simultaneously discovering and revealing her identity — through her schooling, family tragedies, an earthquake and the dawn of the internet. At times, she experiences frustration as she finds herself conveying the stories of her family word for word from her brother’s and grandfather’s accounts, struggling to find her own voice and to understand why she was told some things and left in the dark about others. She watches her family try to pull together in the face of hardships only to eventually scatter, and can’t help but wonder whether people are born into behaviors and destinies or whether it depends on how they react to their circumstances, and their circumstances to them.
Kat observes that her life “has always hung in the balance of other people’s perceptions of me, my story, my race, my musical tastes, my family life, my reading preferences and my relationships.”
Despite these frustrations, she recounts the history of her shattered family in an effort to piece together her story, tracing back the events of her life to better understand herself. Even as Kat relays the account of her upbringing, she calls into question how she came to learn her personal history and, at times, her own telling of it.
The Emergent is more than just a family history — it’s Kat’s attempt at finding her own voice and defining herself on her own terms, crafting her identity by choosing what details of her life should make up the person she has become. Kat’s account of what appears as a family history spanning generations succeeds at holding the reader at bay much more effectively than can be understood until the novel reaches its close.
Holmberg’s story about Kat is a moving story of trauma and family and the ways in which we are defined. It also asks us, in more ways than one, to consider what stories are ours to tell.
While writing from a perspective that Holmberg acknowledges is not his own, he attempts to step outside of himself and his experience to provoke conversations about identity, history and the events that shape us without assuming the voice of any particular group. Whether or not he succeeds in this endeavor is up to the reader.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s April 2023 issues.