Welcome to Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

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Karen Babine

A guest post from the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies: Karen Babine:

Here’s something I’ve learned over the past three weeks, since the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies went live:  Google Analytics is my new favorite form of entertainment. In realtime, I can watch how many people are on the site, where they’re located, and how much time they’re spending on each page. When I worked for Mid-American Review and we gave away free copies at AWP, it was a thrill to walk by somebody perched in a chair in a hallway, reading the magazine, flipping the pages, and it was always hard to resist the urge to interrupt and ask what they were reading, what they thought about it. There was a conversation happening between page and reader that I could see—and the same is happening here, even though it’s not paper. Google Analytics is my new version of walking-by-somebody-reading—and this is a good thing.

Assay is designed to be a space where all perspectives on the genre are not only welcomed, but celebrated. Nonfiction is claimed by composition and rhetoric, and literature, as much as it is by creative writing. We have more to gain by talking with each other than we do by insisting on a hierarchy of who owns the fourth genre. The seed idea for the journal came out of the realization of just how much critical work is being asked of our creative writing graduate students, especially in PhD programs, with little published nonfiction scholarship for them to draw on—and fewer opportunities to publish what they produce. The idea of nonfiction studies incorporates more than creative writing workshops; it must include nonfiction-as-literature and nonfiction-as-rhetoric/composition, as well as dedicated space to consider the theory and pedagogy of the nonfiction classroom. Often critical introductions are the only place these discussions happen—I’m thinking of Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, even the state-of-the-art introductions to the year’s Best American Essays—and as a result, they are separate notes, to be played individually. Or, even worse, they are the staccato or tenuto that tells us how the note is to be played, never truly part of the composition.

We take the journal’s name from a quote from Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow, who wrote that “There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this.  Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained.  You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land.  What you absorb will eventually change you.  This change is the only real measure of a place.” This idea of the essay (to try) and assay (to test) forms the basis for the philosophy of the journal and what we want to see in the work we publish. The goal of Assay is to test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality.

Maybe it’s how my brain works, this core belief that there are many different—and right—ways to explore the questions and curiosities in front of us. Sometimes putting on G.K. Chesterton’s hat feels right—but sometimes, we want to go running after that hat with Derrida or Ursula Heise. We envision Assay to be a space for short pieces that come out of “I never thought about it that way before” moments, musings of the brain on nonfiction subjects and texts that aren’t represented in current publications.  We hear in passing what a colleague is doing in a class, perhaps an old hat like first-year writing or something narrow and specialized, classes we wish we could sit in the back row and observe. Maybe we have heard of Writing Marathons, but we have no idea how to implement them in our classes (stay tuned to the spring issue for this). In another sphere, our TAs often receive excellent pedagogical support for teaching composition, but creative writing pedagogy is much rarer. (It’s a long-term goal to compile a syllabi bank, like ASLE has collated for environmental studies, so look for that initiative in the future.)

A couple of days ago, I posted to Assays blog and asked which volumes of Best American Essays are your favorites—and today, on another Facebook page, Donna Steiner asked who we’d like to see as a future editor. These are the kind of organic conversations that Assay wants to foster, on our blog and discussion boards (as well as Facebook and Twitter), as reactions to what we publish as well as realtime issues and questions within nonfiction studies. (For instance, Derek Hinckley’s Riff on Alison Bechdel appears in our first issue—and Bechdel just won a MacArthur Genius Grant.) To take advantage of these opportunities, we are launching several between-the-issues initiatives, one of which is a dedicated series of guest posts to our blog. Karen Craigo’s guest pedagogy post, on the ethics of teaching your own work, is a good example of what we’re going to be looking for.

Another between-the-issues initiative we’re excited about is our In the Classroom project, and we’re looking to compile pedagogy resources, available to anyone teaching nonfiction, from creative writing to journalism to literature to rhetoric. We are also seeking syllabi for courses in creative writing pedagogy (we are going to be most interested in those geared toward nonfiction, but multi-genre courses are acceptable). We want this to be a community resource, to start and sustain conversations about what we’re doing in the classroom.

Being online gives us a platform to engage with each other in ways that traditional paper does not—though I did not want to lose the link to paper, so we include printable PDFS with each piece we publish. While there’s no way to track how many people read a particular work printed on a book’s page, I can see exactly how many hits a particular page gets and know that 300+ people have read Wendy Fontaine’s article on the neuroscience of memory and its effects on memoir. Ned Stuckey-French’s terrific essay-on-the-essay has (as of this posting) received more than 1800 hits, according to Google Analytics.

So, welcome to the first issue of Assay! We’re very excited about the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices, from traditional literary scholarship to looser forms, from interviews to pedagogy. Submissions are open for the spring issue, which will go live on March 1st, 2015, and there are a lot of truly exciting submissions coming in already—and we hope that you will add us to your list of publishing venues, for yourself as well as for your students. Forward us to colleagues in your department outside of creative writing, whoever might be teaching nonfiction texts. We’re looking for representations that come out of ethnic literature courses, critical theory courses, and other sources of conversations we should all be a part of. If you have a great class discussion, write it up for Assay (or suggest to a student that s/he do so). While we don’t have a firm submissions deadline for the spring issue, January 1st is a good benchmark.

In the meantime, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to the magazine on the website. Feel free to let us know what you’d like to see in future issues, how we can better serve your work as a writer and reader, as teachers and students.

A Blanket or a Gun

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

RankineCitizen-HiResClaudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric combines essay, image and poetry to describe how mounting racial aggressions in daily life and the media–some intentionally offensive, others errors consistently made–affect a person’s abilities to speak, write, perform, and stay alive.

At BOMB Magazine, Lauren Berlant interviews Ms. Rankine on the daily encounters that make up the “tone” of citizenship, the weaving of fiction and nonfiction, and the use of mixed forms throughout her work:

Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. [Your question] presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!

The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.

She also discusses the difficulty of attempting to “reroute the content I am living,” within the frame of a world pushing back against her truth.

Read the interview at BOMB.

Ms. Rankine also has a fascinating website. It’s well worth checking out how she presents her visual, collaborative video, spoken, and multi-genre work in a graphic format that frames and reflects her subject matter.

 

So the Was Turns to Is

September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:

So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch

Lynette D'Amico

Lynette D’Amico

When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.

My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of  Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.

I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.

Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”

I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:

“The impossibility that she is dead.”

“How impossible it is that she is dead.”

“It is impossible that she is dead.”

“The impossibility of her dead.”

I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.

Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.

In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:

…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.

In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?

___

Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for howlround.com.

MariNaomi on Building a Graphic Memoir

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

lizardAn interview conducted by Sarah Einstein:

Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories by MariNaomi, out this month from Uncivilized Books, is a graphic memoir comprised of brief essays drawn and told in a sparse style, but taken as a whole, they create a complex and lovely picture of a life. Many of the vignettes were first published on the online magazine The Rumpus as the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

MariNaomi agreed to answer a few questions for Brevity about the work, and I was particularly interested in the ways in which graphic memoir coincides with other forms of brief creative nonfiction and how the author deals with the nonfictional in her artwork.

SE: In a statement in the front of Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, you say “These stories are memoir, which means that each one is only as true as the author’s memory is reliable.” I’m thinking that veracity must be particularly tricky in graphic memoir. Can you talk about the choices you make both in writing and in design, and whether you feel the need to be more “truthful” in one or the other?

MariNaomi: In 2005, I drew a comic about a dog mauling that occurred in San Francisco that resulted in a woman’s death. I did a ton of research to make sure everything was accurate, reading countless articles and one terribly written book, poring over police crime photos, figuring out the layout of the crime scene. I even drove by the building where the mauling took place. The ten-page comic took almost a year for me to draw, a year of staring at horrific images. It wasn’t a fun year, but I was proud of how accurate the comic was, in the end. But I’ll probably never illustrate someone else’s experience again, as it was terribly exhausting.

For my own stories, I follow my memory paths, and sometimes fill in the blanks by consulting photos, diaries and friends or family who were there. This means that I don’t get nearly as many facts right.

I know that other memoirists are all over the place on this subject. Alison Bechdel, for example, holds the specifics in high regard, whereas Liz Prince has compared memoir to historical fiction. Personally, I want to be completely emotionally honest in my comics, and also convey a time and a place, but the physical details beyond that are unimportant to me. I mean, who cares if I get a date wrong, or if I can’t remember where each Duran Duran poster was placed on my bedroom walls? I’m not on trial, and I’m not a historical figure, so the minutiae seems irrelevant. I do draw the line on fudging experiences, though. I’ll never write that I had an experience that never happened to me.

That said, every time I purposefully alter the truth (like combining characters or incidents in order to tell a more succinct story), I toil over it a lot. And every time I write and draw a story and am later told “That’s not what really happened” by someone else who was there, I feel a little bit ashamed. But you know, everyone sees an event from their own unique perspective, so that’s bound to happen.

SE: So much of this book is about loss–loss of home, loss of love, loss of safety. There are a number of elegiac pieces in the book, such as “What’s New, Pussycat?” “Mr. Vanoni,” and “Coalinga.” I was struck by the grace with which you bring tiny moments to life and how effectively these tiny moments stand in for the longer, fuller life lived and seemed in some ways to be teaching me, as the reader, how to understand the larger work.  How I should see the tiny vignettes from your own life as serving as glimpses meant to stand for the whole. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the craft of building a memoir out of these tiny moments in a way that creates such a beautiful sense of something larger than what is on the page? You have managed that so very well here.

marinaomi-headshot

MariNaomi

MariNaomi: Thank you! That’s really nice to hear.

A fellow cartoonist once told me that the whole point of drawing was to create an image using the fewest brush strokes or lines possible. I didn’t necessarily agree with his idea in terms of artwork–sometimes lots of lines/detail is the way to go, sometimes a minimalist technique gets the point across better–but I do agree with that idea when it comes to storytelling. And graphic storytelling is a fantastic medium in which to pare down a story. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s worth it to me to try to show a reader complex emotions and situations using the smallest of details–a slight smile here, a defeated posture there. Reading a graphic book can often go much faster than a book filled with just words, however I believe that an attentive reader will absorb just as much information in the same amount of pages, if it’s done right. Which is good, because drawing a book takes so much longer than writing one!

SE: I first discovered your work in XOJane, where you published “It Happened To Me: I Was Sexually Harassed On Stage At A Comic Convention Panel.”  Could you talk a little bit about your experience writing for an audience that at least sometimes seems hostile to, or at least dismissive of, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk? I know you promote the work of LGBTQ and POC cartoonists, and I’d like to know more about that work.

MariNaomi: That panel was a bit of an anomaly for me, as it’s rare for me to interact with the mainstream comics world (my harasser is a writer for DC Comics). I’ve heard that sexism and homophobia is rampant in the indie scene, as well, but honestly, I’ve seen very little of that first-hand. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked by that incident, enough to write an essay about it. (The other harassment I mention in the article also happened with someone I consider a mainstream artist.)

Since that article came out, I’ve met a lot of mainstream comics creators, and overall they’ve been really supportive. But I’ve also gotten a glimpse into a whole lot of sexism and misogyny that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t stepped forward like that, and I’ve found it very unsettling. It’s kind of similar to what some people have been going through since Ferguson got on the news. Many folks weren’t aware there was still such a problem with racism in this country. If it’s not in your face on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that it exists.

But I digress.

I’m not writing for a hostile audience of racists and trolls (I couldn’t care less what a misogynist thinks of my work), I’m doing it for people who are open to the experience of others, who want to be better people but maybe don’t always know how to go about it (like me). People who get that compassion is something you have to work at your whole life, and are willing to try (and forgive themselves when they slip into judgment). If you read the “news” or read the comments section in a feminist article, it’s easy to think that compassion is a dying thing. But I don’t think so. I’m keeping the hope alive.

And of course, compassion is the only thing that can kill off ignorant hate. And visibility helps foster compassion, right? That’s what’s at the root of my projects, the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ Cartoonists database. At first glance they’re just lists of names and links and maybe a little information. But if you delve into it, you can get lost in the work of all those amazing, diverse creators. I get lost in it everyday.

SE:  Graphic memoir and biography seems to do a particularly good job of telling complex, difficult stories. I’m thinking of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and of course you. I wonder if you could talk about why the genre is so well-suited to untangling complexity without mitigating or obscuring it. (If that’s too grad school sounding, please reword. I spent an hour trying to make this question less awful. Ten of those minutes were spent trying to decide whether or not to take Spiegelman off the list.)

MariNaomi: I’m not sure that comics are a better way to tell complex, personal stories, it’s just another medium in which to do so. If you delve into the genre of graphic memoir, you’ll find plenty of badly told personal stories, I assure you. And there are many amazingly complex stories that are told in the form of essays, paintings, photographs, music, collage, sonnets, etc.

I’ve been writing about my life in comics form since the 1990s, but autobiographical comics seem to be getting more attention now than ever. I expect the fad will pass eventually, just like any other. But in the meantime, as long it’s popular, we (as memoir-loving readers) are lucky that more creators will be making and publishing quality work.

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Sarah Einstein is the Fiction Editor for Stirrings and a PhD student at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in journals including PANK, Ninth Letter, and The Sun and been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. Her first book, Mot: A Memoir, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press and the recipient of this year’s AWP Prize.

On Capturing Complexity: Brian Turner’s War Memoir

September 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

Poet Brian Turner. Photograph by Kim Buchheit.

Poet Brian Turner. Photograph by Kim Buchheit

Brian Turner’s new memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, is astonishing: at times, hard to read, but always impossible to put down.  Becca Lachman gives the book a full review in the new issue of Brevity, and here Brian talks with Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore about the process of writing about war and soldiers:

DM:  You have covered some of this territory, or at least some of this part of your life, in the books of poetry Here Bullet and Phantom Noise. How was capturing this surreal world in prose, particularly memoir, a different challenge?

I felt as if I were working with a much, much larger canvas. One of my life-long friends, Russell Conrad, is a painter, often working in oil. I’ve watched him paint different variations of a scene on the same canvas–over and over, layer by layer—so that the original scene disappears into the foundation of all that remains visible. There’s something analogous here to the process I experienced in the writing of this memoir.

Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Each fragment, each meditation became a way to strip away the paint in order to reveal something of Iraq in 2003, or of napalm in 1981, or a spy plane in the mid-‘60s, or my grandfather struggling to gain the beach on Guam as the Japanese defenders fought to kill him in the water.

And I had to learn to trust in the failures and slippages of memory, the fractures in history where fact turns to smoke and drifts beyond our view. These are lessons I’m still trying to learn—to discover meaning in the ruins of my own life, to assemble what I can from all that remains, and to trust and challenge the landscape of the imagination in equal measure.

DM: Did you intend the segmented, brief chapter form in this book, or did that develop as you wrote and revised?

During a year spent traveling overseas (under the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship), encouraged by an old-school editor, I tried my hand at writing haibun—a traditional Japanese form that often begins with a brief prose travelogue and culminates in haiku. I didn’t know that I was writing a memoir (or even that I was working on a book at the time). I was simply experimenting with form and trying to discover how it shaped my thoughts on memory and travel. While working on these pieces, a much larger essay began to form; this essay was cut down from roughly 90 pages to about 22 pages and then published in VQR as “My Life as a Foreign Country.”

The essay braided fragments into a larger whole and depended upon a reader that enjoys participating in the construction of the work itself. With each subsequent chapter, I tried to create meditations that worked to further develop the elements introduced in the first chapter while situated in a completely new landscape. That is, each chapter had its own unique approach: one chapter was a 3-act play, another was a compilation of haibun, and so on. The manuscript had to be stripped down to its elements and rebuilt, and it’s at this point in the process that the book really began to congeal into its current shape.

So, the impulse to write in brief, segmented chapters that launched the book was something I veered slightly away from (during the middle manuscript drafts) before returning to it in a large-scale way. That said, it was useful to explore and stretch the meditation—in those middle drafts—in order to discover and recover more of what lay waiting within the imagination and within memory.

DM: Other than wanting to write a powerful book, which you have done, did you feel strongly about any political repercussions? In other words, did you ever think, “I’m writing my own anti-war book?” or “Maybe folks who oppose the recent wars will at least understand and empathize with the price paid by the men and women who serve?”  Or was it just the writing, just getting your experience down on paper, clearly and in full, that motivated you?

Over the years I’ve often been asked why I decided to join the military. I think it’s difficult for many to square the idea of a poet/writer and a soldier coexisting within the same human heart. That was part of the motivation. I also wanted to better understand, to get it down on paper–What does it mean, in very deep and meaningful ways, when I say that I joined, in part, because “I come from a family with a long tradition of military service”? I wanted to try to answer the question I’d so often been asked (and had answered at the time with a kind of shorthand response for something much more profound and layered and nuanced).

I still don’t believe I’ve found the answer with this book, but I’m closer to some of what I set out to learn. And, in sharing the work with others, in sharing this meditation, part of my hope is that it might serve to spark a larger, necessary dialogue. Do we fully comprehend the magnitude of responsibility and attentiveness to the world that we take on, as a nation and as individuals within a nation, when we go to war? Do we recognize that the historians nearly always get it wrong? Wars do not sit in history books, neatly encapsulated within parenthesis the way birth and death dates are often inscribed on cemetery tombstones. Wars outlive the firing of the guns.

I also wanted to write something that approached the complexity of the times we live in. I didn’t want to sing to a choir and I didn’t want to preach to those I might politically disagree with. I wanted to recognize the humanity in those I may have fought against, too. I wanted, very much, to try to come closer to understanding my own culpabilities, my own complicities. And, in sharing these, perhaps readers might discover or question their own internal landscapes.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t also say that I wanted to make something that might be considered Art. I love the making, the crafting, the tremendously difficult and rewarding moments of discovery available within the field of language. It is a type of architecture, and the raw materials–words themselves–are filled with the crackling electricity of the imagination. I love those moments when I’m lost to a passage that I’m trying to create, the world around me falling away, time suspended, and a moment or an image or a single phrase is all that exists in the world in that very instant of surprise and wonder. I’m addicted to that.

Review of Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country

September 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

Foreign-Country-199x300A review by Becca J.R. Lachman,

Of all the issues that can tear a family down the middle over time, deciding how to define and live out service has shaped–and divided–the people I love most. Both sides of my family talk about “COs” but mean different things. Until I moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Appalachian Ohio, I’d never passed a U.S. soldier in uniform on the street, let alone ever taught one. Some days, the main crosswalk on our college campus swells with camo, and I find myself holding my breath, wondering what we, America’s taxpayers, might ask these young people to do someday.

In Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, I get an answer. It’s as complex and eye-opening as you’d imagine, a palimpsest of surreal imagery — Iraqi dead lingering in the shadows, dreamscapes where owls and camels beckon, soldiers in training filmed to star in a new video game — entangled with the realities of war.

But what are the realities for American soldiers in the War on Terror? Can civilians touch any part of those truths through newscasts, photographs, blogs, or twitter? Using mostly linked, numbered sections, Brian Turner’s memoir shows the recursive experience of one man keeping diligent witness over what brought him into war, and what still leads him out of it.

Turner feels a primal pull towards joining the narrative shouldered by generations of veterans in his family. He follows what he’s come to see as his destiny by enlisting, eventually serving in Iraq. “We rode on a war elephant made of steel,” he writes about his convoy there. As a volunteer soldier, as a son, husband, and veteran, he pairs the flat, sanitized language of combat with the way a poet sees the world. The result is work fueled by astonishing empathy. Perhaps the bravest aspect of this book is that “known and suspected enemy targets” remain human beings under Turner’s watch, even as he describes having to kick in doors to houses or guarding men of military age with sandbags over their heads.

Turner also revisits past wars tied to other men in his family. My family, too, has a rich military history. On my dad’s side, serving meant enlisting for every war since WWI, even if you were too intoxicated to remember doing it. It meant working for the Pentagon, being one of the first women in the Air Force, or coming home with a new bluebird tattoo, a Navy dare. But on my mom’s side, to kill or be trained to kill would have meant turning your back on your faith community and identity. Serving, to them, meant living outside of the mainstream, even–especially–when a military draft was in place. It meant years of unpaid labor in Civilian Public Service work camps during WWII, digging ditches and smoke jumping. The five Americans I know who have been wounded, kidnapped, or killed in Baghdad and Kabul were there voluntarily and unarmed, engaging in nonviolent work with Christian organizations. All my life, these accounts of service have pushed against each other. And yet, I could give Turner’s memoir to either side of my family, and we could talk about it together for hours.

As a reader, there were times I wanted to look away, to put down the book and move into the luxury of not knowing, especially when Turner describes announcements over the battalion net like “You are authorized to shoot children,” or when his convoy listens to Insane Clown Posse and watches porn while driving through the streets of Mosul, addicted to aggressive adrenaline because war’s become routine. Because adrenaline can keep you alive. That being said, this is a book that many will read in hours, not days. Its masterful storytelling and language keeps the pages turning.

Since reading My Life as a Foreign Country, I’ve begun to more fully interact with the veterans at the doctor’s office, in my classrooms, and at work because I finally feel I’ve caught a glimpse of how they see the world. “How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of his life?” Turner writes. The answer I glean again from his memoir is that no one ever truly does, not completely, and all of us are part of both the continuous sending and homecoming.

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Becca J.R. Lachman’s newest poetry collection, Other Acreage, will be published by Gold Wake Press in 2015. Editor of A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, her work appears in such places as Consequence Magazine, So to Speak, Image, and Mothering Mennonite. The War & Peace-themed poetry workshop she’s currently teaching at Ohio University explores defining service through storytelling as its springboard.

Washington University’s New CNF MFA

September 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

stlouThe MFA program at Washington University, St. Louis is currently taking applications for its new creative nonfiction track, with an initial acceptance of two students for fall 2015, with two more added in 2016.  The program is tuition-free, with a livable [$21,150] fellowship stipend and 1/1 teaching the second year (no teaching the first year).  Students will work with WU’s nonfiction faculty Kathleen Finneran and Edward McPherson and with two Visiting Hurst Professors annually . Nonfiction writers who have been recent visitors to the MFA program include Patricia Hampl, Jo Ann Beard, Amy Leach, Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn, and Nick Reding.

Click here for more about the MFA program.

 

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