Jessica Bell’s Icasia Bloom Touches Readers With Happiness

Review: How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness (Vine Leaves Press), by Jessica Bell

Scheduled for release 21 September 2021

By Rus VanWestervelt

***NO SPOILERS***

I don’t know about you, but I have a full shelf of books that I return to often. Sure, I love the plots, and they are entertaining in a way that makes me want to keep reading to the very end, even though I know every plot twist and turn as if I had written them myself. I come back to them time and time again because I need to remember a certain message about life: believe in yourself, don’t get too caught up in the world’s drama, the power of love. You get the picture.

Jessica Bell’s newest novel, How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness, now has a permanent place on that shelf.

Here’s why.

The storyline is simple enough. Four characters find themselves in various stages of paradoxical oppression, as they face the challenges of a dystopian-ish leader who requires the acquisition of perpetual happiness to be guaranteed eternal harmony in what Bell terms a “Second Life Phase.” When “The Globe” is getting a little crowded, leadership thinks it’d be a bright idea to chop a few decades off the life span of those still pining for that happiness.

Bell delivers in two key areas: complex character development and story structure.

First, Bell builds characters that are immediately accessible to us as readers. Icasia and Selma are young moms who have fought against the system and don’t believe they are destined for Globe salvation. Jerome, Selma’s husband, is just months away from his Death Inducement, and he struggles to find happiness in every aspect of his life – in his job, with his wife Selma, and especially with Selma’s daughter, Leila.

Each of these four characters is on a unique but relatable deadline – none more terrifying than Jerome’s – to discover truths about themselves and about life itself, despite the governmental gaslighting that seems to have the world convinced that their way is the only way to eternal happiness.

Through an intricately woven tale told from multiple perspectives, Bell grabs us by the wrist in the first chapter and doesn’t let go until after we’ve turned over the last page, desperate for more.

The structure of the story is as intriguing as the plot line, including a volley between chapters titled, “Listen” and “Watch.” Even more compelling are Icasia’s first-person entries in the “Listen” chapters, addressed to a character named Eve who is not even part of the story as it is being revealed. Yet, Icasia writes to her as if she is talking directly to her – in the same space – as she is sharing the story with us.

Like the situation the characters find themselves in, Bell’s approach is equally paradoxical, a crossing of boundaries between characters and readers that is hard to pull off. Bell does the job, though, delivering a meta-experience for the reader that keeps you thinking through the entire read.

Just one example: We do not know how much time separates the telling of the story to the actual events unfolding. Every time we read a new “Listen” chapter, we are reminded that there is a deeper sense to this plot. Bell delivers on this promise in the end in one of the many twists. It’s this simple: the structure mirrors the storyline at every turn.

I have to say it: Icasia Bloom is a meta-novel crafted to make you think beyond the story. It will work your mind without you even realizing it.

Without giving away any spoilers, this is what I was thinking as I was reading the novel (and this is why it is a top-shelf book in my library): Don’t believe everything you are told, or even that you see. The path of truth leading to authentic happiness lies deeper within, for each of us. No rules, no mandates, not even any life secrets heralded in the best of self-help or spiritual books can determine that truth for any one of us.

By the time we get to the ending, we realize that we are strapped in to a roller coaster of twists and turns, all highly unexpected.

There is urgency at the end, no doubt driven by the countdown to Jerome’s scheduled Death Inducement, and at times I wanted the converging plot lines to slow down. Bell does such a great job developing suspense through the evolution of her characters that I could have easily enjoyed another 50-75 pages of the climax and resolutions at the end.

Regardless, the reader is left with a good reason why Bell’s story is – and must be – told often. And why we must never tire of tales of hope, redemption, self-love, and of course, the essential pursuit of perpetual happiness.

Baltimore’s Nasty Press Holds Fundraiser, Provides Platform For Local Voices

It all started last summer with a cool sticker at Open Works in Baltimore.

For five consecutive Fridays, I had the good fortune of working with 25 teens in Baltimore City through the Bloomberg Arts Internship Program. We met at Open Works, a collaborative space for creatives. In the main lobby, between the classrooms and the Greenmount Coffee Lab (highly recommended), local literature rested on a small wooden table. Sipping the daily roast, I walked over to see what literary opportunities were happening in Baltimore.

A small sticker, with the words “NASTY PRESS,” stood out. I picked it up out of curiosity, stuck it in my pocket, and returned to the workshop.

That night, I did a quick search on Facebook, and there they were. I was immediately drawn to their quick surge in Baltimore providing what I call “Literary Advocacy.” In just a few short months, they had created a space for locals to share their stories that, until now, had no real platform to be heard.

How appropriate to discover them in a place called Open Works.

I reached out to the founders of Nasty Press and asked them three simple questions. Here are their responses, just as they supplied them. Any attempt on my part to paraphrase would be ridiculous and, quite frankly, rude.

They’ve got a fundraiser happening at the end of the week as well. See below for more details.

The need for these voices to be heard cannot be overstated. I support Zoey, Em, and XoChitl in the work they are doing for all of us.

The Baltimore Writer: Please tell us the origins of Nasty Press, the purpose for starting, and its current state.

Nasty Press: After the election last November, the three of us separately noticed a shift in Baltimore’s creative energy. It felt almost like a power-outage. There were expressions of rage, sadness, fear, and joy all over social media, but it seemed like the artistic communal hub that we’ve each grown from was at a stand still. We each separately concluded that artists needed a push to re-direct their energy; that maybe they needed an unbiased, open and inclusive place to showcase their emotions and artistic responses about what was happening socially and politically, instead of only ranting on the internet. There needed to be a place without labels that doesn’t exclude anyone, but which uplifts the creative voices of Baltimore, no matter who you are or how you feel. We wanted to generate constructive discussion, even if that meant pissing some people off.

We are in the throes of formatting our second issue which tackles mental health and mental illness in the Baltimore community. We were blown away by the submissions we received and we can’t wait to release this issue to the public. Our FundRager will help fund the printing of the zine along with raising donations for select local non-profits.

TBW: What kind of space are you providing Baltimore citizens, and how might publishing their works further your mission?

NP: Much like collectives before ours in Maryland, we are cultivating space and time for voices that feel and are unheard. We provide a space for visual art (illustration, painting, drawing, etc.), poetic and creative writing, film and photography, and live music and performances. Our collective exists in print format as well a literal venue for local artists. We cater events toward current socio-political issues aiming to benefit the people that are directly affected. This past September, as a result of the potential ban on trans people in the military, we hosted a mini art fair in which we showcased visual art, poetry, and music from our POC and trans/queer family in Baltimore. This event was entirely free to participate in and to attend, and the artists kept 100% of their earnings. We are planning a similar but larger event in April 2018.

TBW: Your work is important, even essential. But you are just one opportunity where we need many. How might you encourage others to do what you are doing to strengthen your larger mission?

NP: We are transparent and tangible. We are open about the way that we operate, and we are accessible to all communities. We never have a cover charge at our events and no artist is ever charged to submit work to the zine nor to participate in our events. We are showing people in our community that it isn’t difficult to get the ball rolling; all you need is passion, drive, and friendship. You don’t need a degree or money, you just gotta stand up and speak up, and people will listen. Recently, we’ve met with organizations, such as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, to discuss future collaborations in hopes to generate more active socio-political dialogue in our community. 

Their upcoming event, FundRager², will be held on Friday December 15, from 8pm to 1am. For more information, including the venue address, please visit their Instagram at @nastypress, email them at thenastypress@gmail.com, or find them on Facebook at Nasty Press.