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‘In Case of Emergency, Break Glass’ by Sarah Van Arsdale

‘In Case of Emergency, Break Glass’ by Sarah Van Arsdale

Author: July Westhale

May 3, 2016

“Come back inside,” Imiut says. “It’s dark, and cold. Someone wants you inside.” The “someone” could mean anyone, but it’s clear what Imiut means: hirself. If this were happening in another time, Simut would say I’m sorry, or don’t worry, or I love you, but this is happening so early in the time of people that she doesn’t have the words, and so she follows Imiut back.

-Sarah Van Arsdale, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Sarah Van Arsdale’s book, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass begins with a novella about people in the early times of people. People who must figure out how to survive day to day, while navigating cultural customs that often go against their emotional tendencies. Simut and Imiut are two queer natives who fall in love before a time when queerness is a word, before a time when love is a word. The only language is one of humanity and survival—death, life, and dignity in both.

In this way, I got hooked into the book (which is made up of three novellas). Van Arsdale starts the reader off with a legend of the unmappable: what does a life without our queer taxonomy look like? A life outside the cultural hierarchies that come from political movements surrounding queer identity? More importantly, how do we communicate with those we feel tenderly towards when our language does not contain tenderness or nuance?

Poetically, patiently, proudly the novellas all have this in common. Though the other two novellas (“In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” and “Conversion”) are far more contemporary than the first (which is called “The Sound in Cold High Places”), the complications of human relationships are similar. One protagonist (in the title novella) finds herself battling with her own tendencies to self-edit in order to find a partner. When she realizes that the man she’d believed herself to be falling in love with has conned her (whether he sees it that way or not), she recognizes a pattern in herself that would be familiar to any reader who’d suffered a bad relationship.

The third and last novella in the book features a protagonist with the opposite problem; when faced with her own psychological tendencies, she finds that she bulldozes and bosses her loved ones into her perspective.

Whether the stories take place on a snow bank in an unknown, prehistoric land or in a hotel in Barcelona, Van Arsdale’s novellas strike achingly close to home by reporting true narratives of people and their complications. In Case of Emergency, Break Glass is beautifully rendered, intellectually poignant, and highly relatable.


In Case of Emergency, Break Glass
By Sarah Van Arsdale
Queen’s Ferry Press
Paperback, 9781938446601, 207 pp.
April 2016


July Westhale photo

About: July Westhale

July Westhale is the award-winning author of Via Negativa,Trailer Trash (selected for the 2016 Kore Press Book Prize), The Cavalcade, and Occasionally Accurate Science. Her most recent poetry can be found in The National Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, CALYX, Rappahannock Review, Tupelo Quarterly, RHINO, Lunch Ticket, and Quarterly West. Her essays have been nominated for Best American Essays and have appeared in McSweeney’sAutostraddle, and The Huffington Post. She is the 2018 University of Arizona Poetry Center Fellow.

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