Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

April 28, 2016 § 2 Comments

lahiriBy e.v. de cleyre

On my fifth day in Italy, I accuse an Italian man of stealing my clothes. His basket, overflowing with clothing, is blocking the dryer into which I placed my clothes, and none of the garments are visible through the glass window. Scusi! I say, and that’s it—the extent of my Italian. I am all out of words and stand there with my hands on my hips, angry and confused and feeling like an idiot. The man speaks in rapid-fire Italian, riffles through his basket. He gestures to the three dryers, as if to say, which one? I point to the one in the middle. He moves his basket, and when I am close enough, I see my clothes there, stuck to the side of the dryer.

Mortified, and not possessing the words to explain, I repeat myself, but in a kinder tone: scusi!

 “The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world.”

To read In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein) is to be reminded of all that we don’t know, and all that we seek to find. The author chronicles a long-time love affair with the Italian language, beginning with a trip to Florence in her twenties and cresting with her decision to move to Italy with her family for two years. In Rome, she devotes herself more fully to Italian and begins to write in Italian, subsequently publishing In Altre Parole.

Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times that In Other Words is “sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. It’s a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book, packed with watercolor observations like: ‘There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side.’ That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing.”

Garner’s review lodged in my brain as I read, and the more I read, the more I respectfully disagreed.

The book resonates with the seekers and the seeking—those questioning their passions and obsessions and habits and patterns and daily lives on a deep level:

“What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.”

It is fitting, then, that Lahiri chooses to mention Matisse—how he moved away from traditional painting, the medium that defined him and his work, and instead cut pieces of paper, painted them with gouache and arranged them into an image. Lahiri writes, “It was a collective process: Matisse had his assistants paint the paper. He was no longer able to execute his works by himself. The result was a distinctive form, a hybrid style, notably more abstract than his painting.”

Lahiri moved away from the language that defined her and her work, even refusing to translate the Italian into English, instead entrusting the conversion of words (from her third language to her second; her first being Bengali) to Ann Goldstein—the woman responsible for translating Elena Ferrante’s novels. The book is a collaborative effort, “a collective process,” and that the book is oriented with Italian on the left, English on the right, makes for a wholly unique reading experience. One turns the page and habitually ends up at the upper left corner, only to find oneself lost in a sputter of letters, which, although beautiful, do not yet make sense. One can skip back and forth, pretend one understands Italian because one has access to both languages, both versions, side by side.

To divorce the English text from its conjoined Italian twin is to do In Other Words a grave disservice. When so few books are translated from other languages into English, fewer printed with their original side-by-side, and even fewer written in an author’s third language, Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book of nonfiction feels like a monumental feat. To read Lahiri is to be aware of the limits of a language—our abilities to express ourselves and opportunities to read works in translations.

In Italy, my favorite phrases are non capisco Italiano and scusi. Technically, the full phrases are io non capisco, and mi scusi. Italian verb endings change to indicate who is speaking, meaning speakers can drop the words io and mi—something that is impossible in the I-centric language of English. Perhaps In Other Words coming across to some as “self-dramatic” is not an issue with the way it was written or translated, so much as it is an issue of the inherent limitations of the English language. If so, we should be thankful it was written in Italian.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

Senior Moments at the AWP Writers Conference

April 27, 2016 § 13 Comments

Len Lyons

Len Lyons

By Len Lyons

“Even the registration was overwhelming,” I said to my daughter. We were walking, heads lowered, through a wind tunnel created by the massive Los Angeles Convention Center to our left, and the Staples Center to the right. She told me, “That should be your opening line.” I had just told her my fantasy of writing about the experience that lay before me: attending the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference, where I hoped to reconnect with a world I had once felt a part of, but one in which my citizenship was now arguable. That I had published two books in my thirties, two in my forties, and one in my sixties seemed not to matter. It had been ten years since the last book. Was it too late now to rejoin the cohort of twelve thousand writers attending this conference, most of them decades younger than I.

My daughter, Gila, is a 30-something writer riding the wave of a career gathering gravitas. She had been invited to be a panelist at a session on memoir writing and feminism. Among the thousands who had flocked from around the nation for this event were best-selling authors, aspiring neophytes, and the majority of us somewhere in between. But I felt I was in a category of one: a 70-something sometimes-writer, whose energy for generating books, or even journal articles, was palpably ebbing. I feared that all that was left of my erstwhile waves of creativity was the foam. Because I was in LA for my sister’s 75th birthday party, the conference drew me towards it, irresistibly, like a survival kit, a last attempt to confront the fear that the shelf life of my career had expired.

Earlier that day, when I first entered the cavernous West Hall of the Convention Center to register, I’d observed the long and fast-growing queue warily. As the line zig-zagged at a lazy pace towards the matrix of monitors for self-registration, I surveyed the 70 or 80 people ahead of me. They carried backpacks or dragged carry-on luggage behind them, their conversations were animated, punctuated by eruptions of laughter. There were plenty of tattoos, nose rings, and a remarkably large percentage of women with short blue hair. There were also a dozen or so middle-aged, conventionally dressed types, but no other senior citizens I could spot. Mathematically speaking, I was pretty sure that I raised the average age more than any other individual. Anyone here my age ought to be the dean of writers by now, I thought, not someone trying to get his game back. I wondered what I thought I was doing, I imagined ducking under the roped aisles and heading for the sunshine outside, opening a dependable New York Times, while nursing a nonfat latte at a ubiquitous Starbucks. I knew enough online, millennial English to think to myself, wtf!

What kept me in line, literally, was a snippet of conversation I overheard in the row of fresh young faces in front of me.

“I’m like totally bummed,” said a young lady in a tank top with blond curls falling to her shoulders. She was talking to a guy who gazed at her nodding earnestly, while his thumbs roamed with complete confidence all over the screen of his phone. “The agent was supposed to call me, but nothing. No text, no call.”

“Don’t worry,” said her friend.

“Fuck, man,” she continued, “she’s the closest I’ve been to getting my book published.”

“The conference hasn’t even started,” he assured her, “chill”.

Overhearing her frustration, her longing to get to a place I had already been, I was buoyed, briefly, by the feeling that I did have some right to stand there. At the same time, it didn’t begin to answer the real question: Could I write anything now, ten years after writing the most recent book?

Even more daunting was the question of whether I could write the way I had wanted to early on: from the inside, fueled by heart and imagination. It had always been easy for me to write about a topic, aiming at a known “market” for a book. I had published three books about jazz, composed on an IBM Selectric (William Morrow and Company), and two more about home computers in their infancy (Addison-Wesley), conceived on an Atari! After a brief (18-year) interlude as a technical writer (Sun Microsystems), I came off the bench and hit a solid single in 2007 about Ethiopian Jews struggling to find their place in Israel (Jewish Lights). But these topical books, which promised at least some predictable readers, now seemed like an easy target. But what about creating a feeling, a mood, an imagined story with memorable characters, struggling, failing or succeeding, a plot the reader had to see through to the end? This was what drew me to writing in the first place, the great novels, passionate internal explorations. Those were the targets I was initially after, but I had never really aimed high enough to test myself.

There was one more fleeting rush of confidence. A short story of mine, sent out on a whim, had been published in 2013 (jewishfiction.net). Full disclosure: it had been written 15 years earlier. Yet it was the kind of sustained, imagined truth that drew me to writing in the first place. That lonely spark from an internal fire, now mostly ashes, also helped to keep me in this line of writers, if only to find out once and for all if I belonged there.

The next opportunity to be overwhelmed came quickly on the morning the conference began. The program book offered a feast for anyone with an appetite for indecision. More than twenty panels met simultaneously during the first session at 9 a.m., but there was no doubt which one was meant for me: “Crashing Through Barriers: Confronting Writing Barriers and Rebooting Your Work.” It was comforting to be among close to a hundred writers for whom this panel was a compelling way to start the first day. By the end of the 75-minute panel, I had picked up one new attitude – writer’s block serves a creative function, letting your voice well up behind it, until it flows. I hope so. There were many practical tips. “Never throw out a draft,” said one panelist, a fiction writer who also edits a well-respected literary quarterly, “because you may revive it later on successfully.” Later that morning, I crossed paths with that editor and told him about my 15-year old story that, after some polishing, was published in a good online journal. “And I have more of them,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible. He invited me to send it and claimed he would remember me.

Not all picks were as obvious. “The Jazz Aesthetic” panel took place at the same time as “Grove Atlantic Writers Question Race: What difference does it make?” As a jazz author, who would love to incorporate the spontaneity of improvisation into fiction (think Murakami), I couldn’t pass that up. But my book about Ethiopian Jews had drawn me into investigating other Jews of African descent and ultimately the trope of “race,” which has recently been rejected as bogus by geneticists and anthropologists. The venues for these panels were a five-minute brisk walk from each other. I shuttled between them twice! Neither one lived up to my hopes, but I got my aerobic exercise for the morning.

Of course, I went to the panel “It’s Not A Love Story,” which featured five women writers, most importantly, my daughter. Among the 60 or so in the audience, there were only two men, and the other one looked close to my age. His daughter must be on the panel too, I thought. But this panel was enlightening for a guy like me who reflexively thinks of memoirs as a genre for famous people who hire ghostwriters. But memoir writing is not that. It is really not “navel gazing.” It is best explained by a book Gila gave me to read, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. The “I” is a character in the work, not the “I” who writes in a diary. For me, the most memorable statement in the session came during the Q & A from a young panelist who was responding to a question from the audience. She began by saying, “I actually had two boyfriends when I found out I was pregnant.” Did she realize that would be a perfect opening line for a short story?

Over the three days, I jotted down some pithy remarks that I think of as blossoms without stems, because I no longer know who said them. But they are in my notebook between direct quotation marks. Each one massaged my imagination and gave me something to contemplate that promised to nourish, mysteriously so, my quest to return to “real” writing. Here are a few: “A short story is like a bubble. Its surface reflects the world around it.” . . . “We don’t need chase scenes or shootouts to make a story succeed. We need to identify what is happening internally that transforms the self. That is drama.” . . .“It [the memoir] can’t just be about you, but about what other people can identify with in you.” . . . “I gave myself permission to write a thousand bad pages because writing badly is better than not writing at all.”

For the past ten years, I had committed the worst sin, worse than a thousand bad pages – not writing at all, or at least not the kind of writing that made me want to write. As the conference ended, I felt myself starting out again, rejuvenated or at least with a remodeled interior, an aspiring writer once again, now in his 70s. The question I had asked myself – Can I? – turned out to have an answer, but not the one I expected: I want to try, even if I can’t. I had to leave the landscape of known markets, topic-driven writing, and instead follow the writing itself and whatever creative instincts remain. There’s no telling where this will lead; so far, to what you’ve just read.

Len Lyons, Ph.D. in Philosophy (Brown University), is the author of six books on a variety of subjects, including jazz, philosophy, and computers and religion. His most recent book is The Ethiopian Jews of Israel – Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land, about the struggle for acceptance in Israel of 140,000 Ethiopian Jews. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Tablet, The Forward, Jewish Review of Books, JewishFiction.net, Journal of African Religions, and more.

Brevity Special Issue: Race, Racialization, and Racism

April 26, 2016 § 1 Comment

nbcccitizenrankineA reminder:

Brevity is excited to announce a special issue to be focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism. For our 53rd issue, we are looking for work that considers all aspects of race: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how race is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of race shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.

We are looking for flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open until May 31st and the issue will be published in mid-September.

We are very excited to announced that our anchor authors for this issue will be Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay.

The guest editors for this special issue will be Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro.

Born in Miami, Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Recipient of an International Latino Book Award and the Nebraska Book Award and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, she edited the collection Family Trouble:  Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and serves as the series editor of Machete: The Ohio State Series in Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in journals including SalonSeneca ReviewFourth GenreNorth American ReviewBrevityAfro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post RoadThe Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida.

Because we are committed to showcasing a variety of lived experiences in this issue, we want to be certain that everyone is able to submit their work. If Brevity’s small submission fee of $3.00 would keep you from submitting, you may submit your work to brevity.race@gmail.com without paying the fee. (Should you take this option, however, you need to send a word doc. not a PDF for complex technical reasons too boring to describe here.)

Submissions may be sent through our Submittable page.

A Review of Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams

April 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

51cBHWjPxtL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_By Amy Wright

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s second memoir follows Descanso For My Father: Fragments Of A Life, which won the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and International Book Award for Best New Nonfiction. Turning now to his mother’s story, Fletcher opens Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams with a trip back to Albuquerque after nearly a decade away from his native New Mexico.

Half expecting to find his mother’s home exactly as he remembers with “Navajo rugs, prayer poles, peacock feathers, Cochiti drums,” he discovers instead “displays of porcelain saints, rosary beads, gilded lamps, and crucifixes.” After having open-heart surgery, his mother stripped her room bare of casual decorations and outfitted it with “the aura of a chapel, complete with flickering candles and a creaky wooden floor.” The ambience is ripe for recollecting, and every phrase and anecdote Fletcher gathers shines with the intimacy of worry stones and desert roots he and his mother pocket on visits to gravesites, former dwellings, and other family landmarks.

His noun-thick prose is laden with sensory detail. “In the amber glow of a desk lamp, I read my mother’s walls,” he says: “Hammer head. Weather vane. Hatpin. Holster…As a boy, this was the world I inhabited—image, artifact, fragment, negative space.” Thus, he understands how what he leaves out, such as any interpretation of her memory boxes’ contents, best reveals the objects in themselves and the kind of person who treasures them. He presents, like a rare antique store find, the “nickel-plated hope chest [his] mother bought in the ‘70s from a widow in the hills above Cuba, New Mexico.” The original owner had shrugged off the container that once held her dowry and offered it to its admirer as a gift. Opting instead of receiving it for free to pay the fifty dollars she intended for the light bill, his artist mother reveals her core character. Her son’s character in turn filters through his recognition of what matters most to her, as he gestures to preserve the stories that animate her belongings.

Negative space allows air to circulate between many paragraphs, which are separated by enough white space that some sections in the book appear like poems. This layout makes legendary their family stories. In a passage titled “…the Weight,” for example, Fletcher relays a night when his mother and her three youngest sisters, as girls, lay awake in bed giggling. When a boot step makes its way down the hall toward them, they cover their heads with the sheet and hold their breath. Thinking the heavy weight that sinks into the mattress with a sigh to be another family member, they pull back the covers horrified to find nothing there. That so much remains unsaid in this eight-line story adds to its mythic quality.

But what I appreciate most in Presentimiento is that reminder of “something you feel in your heart,” which people relied on for centuries before telephones to communicate. The sense of connection that presentiment fosters recalls the gift Rebecca McClanahan created by braiding her family narrative into The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change. Both collections ask readers what they might pull back from the edge of the river of forgetting and what we can learn from places and people that are “fading, if not being outright destroyed.”

My mother leaning on tiptoe to pick a yellow Lodi apple boomerangs to me when he describes his mother’s pleasure to taste again the manzanitas de San Juan. The same bolt of lightning flashed through the viewfinder of her Brownie camera as his mother’s. “Look at them. Just look at them,” she tells him of the saints before the altar at the church of Las Trampas.  And look he does, swaddling what he sees in language as vivid as the dyed-oxblood huarachas that gave his mother her first glimpse of glamour, and in turn puts their family culture in a context by which readers might celebrate difference.

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Amy Wright is the author of Everything in the Universe and Cracker Sonnets, both forthcoming in 2016. She is also the nonfiction editor of Zone 3 Press, coordinator of creative writing and associate professor at Austin Peay State University, and author of four poetry chapbooks. Her first prose chapbook, Wherever the Land Is, is scheduled for release this spring.

How I Got Acquainted With A Real Writer

April 25, 2016 § 12 Comments

Ann Cinzar

Ann Cinzar

By Ann Cinzar

Is it an occupational hazard that as a woman who writes, I have a hard time calling myself a writer?

Ever since I began to write for myself — as opposed to an organization which paid me to do so — I have a hard time saying, “I am a writer.” When someone asks “what do you do?” I stumble over the words, unable to say “I write” without splicing my sentence with “try to/kind of/sort of.” How can someone with a love of words be so maladept at using them? And where did this pervasive case of imposter syndrome come from?

I’ve noticed this affliction with many of my women writer friends. We commiserate about feelings of inadequacy; we toil over work but leave it sitting on laptops; we hesitate to send our work to “big” names because we don’t think we are worthy. In short, we’re reluctant to call ourselves “real writers.”

A few years ago I befriended a “real writer.” He (yes, he) is the real deal: his books win awards, he’s had critical acclaim, he’s been in the New Yorker. He’s smart, young and funny, but he’s still humble and unassuming. One reviewer called him “perhaps the most endearing man in the country.” (I am not talented enough to make this stuff up.)

My first encounter with Real Writer was serendipitous. A few days earlier had been a momentous occasion for me — one of my essays had been published in a national newspaper. After reading my piece, a friend said to me “Do you know Real Writer? Your writing reminds me of his stuff. You should meet him.”

I laughed off my friend’s compliment — clearly, she was just being nice. And, while I knew Real Writer lived in my neighborhood, I also knew the likelihood of ever meeting him was slim.

The next day I went to grab a latte and there was Real Writer, shoulders hunched over his computer, at the coffee shop. My coffee shop! It hardly seemed a coincidence. Perhaps the writing gods had sent me a message? Naturally, I introduced myself.

“Are you Real Writer?” I asked.

“Why yes, I am,” he said, his eyebrows raised in manner suggesting, Ask me anything you’d like. Well, it may not have happened exactly like that, but that’s how it plays in my memory.

Nonetheless, we launched into a conversation, and after some time he asked, “Are you a writer?”

I laughed out loud. Real Writer just asked me if I wrote. It was akin to having Jamie Oliver ask me if I cook. I mean, of course I do, but would I call myself a chef? Is calling yourself a writer any different? Isn’t there some baseline standard, some prerequisite? Moreover, how do I call myself a writer when the real deal is sitting in front of me? Surely he thinks I’m kidding myself — a dilettante, dabbling at the fringes.

The truth is I spend a lot of time at the fringes, thinking and talking about writing. Sometimes it’s on my own, but often it’s with my other women writer friends. We support each other in our insecurities, we discuss the latest VIDA counts, we placate each other in our literary rejections.

Interestingly, when subjected to my self-indulgence or rejection woes, every man in my life tells me a variation of the same thing: Get back to work. My husband, of course, provides the most incisive and least diplomatic response. “Get over it.” He says. “Stop talking about it, and do the work.” This is the voice of experience. My husband doesn’t sit around wallowing in every lost sale or minor setback he encounters in his business. He takes it in, assesses, and moves on. He gets back to work.

I used to think my need to discuss and analyze the writing life was part of my nature — maybe I’m more outgoing than the average writer? Certainly, Real Writer isn’t introducing himself to random people at coffee shops. Then again, maybe that’s why he’s writing best sellers and I’m out chatting with my friends about how hard it is to get anything done, or worrying about our lack of talent, or time, or legitimacy, or self-worth.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether this constant navel gazing is merely an excuse to keep me from writing and submitting. Is it simply a distraction from the work? All this time I spend questioning my work, imagining editors laughing at my submission, stewing about how I’m too late, too old, too untalented…wouldn’t this time be better spent writing?

Real Writer and I see each other regularly, mainly at the same coffee shop. Sometimes I inch closer to him, hoping his talent might seep across the café table and into me through osmosis. I love talking to him about life in general, but on occasion I forget myself and ask him about a writing topic, or tell him about a recent small win. He’s always generous with his wisdom (in the reserved and reluctant manner of a real writer) and even encourages me in my literary pursuits.

One day recently, likely as I was in the midst of some self-indulgent angst, he made an offhand comment. “Just write,” he said.

My first thought, of course, was, Easy for him to say. When you’ve accumulated prizes and praise before the age of 35, the pressure is decidedly off.

But, then I realized I was at it again. That little voice in my head, always over-thinking, over analyzing, and consequently, under delivering. Perhaps the real occupational hazard is that as a woman who writes, I don’t take things literally. When Real Writer tells me “Just write” maybe that is precisely what he means.

Forget about anything else: just write. From now on, that’s what I intend to do. Who knows? Maybe actions will speak louder than words.

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Ann Cinzar’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Globe and Mail, and Literary Mama. Her essay “Adult Accompaniment” is forthcoming in the anthology So Glad They Told Me, to be released summer 2016.

A Review of Maggie Messitt’s The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa

April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

messittBy Karissa Womack

Sometimes a writer can be loudest by being the most quiet, an effect brilliantly achieved by Maggie Messitt in her first book, The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa. Unlike Messitt, I never could stay quiet or porch sit long enough to listen.

Messitt was twenty-four and on an indefinite leave from graduate school when she landed in South Africa. I was twenty-two when I first moved out of my home state of Alabama to teach at an inner city middle school with AmeriCorps.

While Messitt was bound for the adventures and stories of another continent, I’ve stayed within the familiarity of the American southeast. At the end of my volunteer year, I loaded up my pick-up truck and retreated back to the comforts of university life.

As a malungu, a white person, Messitt is an interloper in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet, her immersed status in Rooiboklaagte, where she opened a newspaper and school, allowed her access to this unique landscape. She lived and worked alongside the less than two hundred families of Rooiboklaagte until she felt her presence in the community would not notably affect her story and the lives she recorded.

During my time as an interloper, I didn’t know my presence would remain disruptive as long as I held a short-term contract, that to the community where I taught, I was another body in the revolving door of white young women in puffy AmeriCorps jackets. I struggled in writing stories of my time there because I hadn’t been ready to invest myself in the “beautifully complicated” lives of the community I was visiting. I’m still not, but I appreciate the grace of Messitt’s work and I respect her immensely.

Messitt does not evoke an agenda, but invites readers into an (almost) unobstructed view of Rooiboklaagte, sharing her access as a gift on the page. She has called out tama on the doorstep of three lives and each character has responded ahee, hello, you may enter.

With a cinematic lens, she brings her readers in close to see these characters: Thoko Makwakwa, Dankie Mathebula, and Regina Hlabane. Messitt carefully observes Thoko, a middle-aged woman, both a sangoma (traditional healer) and owner of a shebeen (backdoor illegal pub); Dankie, a high school senior with the dream of scoring high on his matriculation exams and attending a university; and Regina, an elderly weaver of the Mapusha cooperative and devout Catholic.

As I write this from my office, I think of Dankie in his mother’s home during a storm, the tin roof sheets lifting from the walls until they slam against nail heads. I try to imagine Messitt in that home, rain leaking through the nail holes, as she observes the small moments that illuminate another’s life.

Messitt shows the intertwining of her characters’ lives most notably through the shared community event of a funeral. The Rainy Season itself reads like a series of funeral songs, “a collection of people who could, at any time, lead a song of their choice.” Sections move between Thoko, Dankie, and Regina, with the voice that most demands attention leading on the page. These interconnected lives are contained within spring, summer, and autumn, highlighting the passage of time through the rainy season.

Their home, the new South Africa, is an amalgam of old tradition and imported consumerism. Messitt explores a world where Thoko wears orange-sherbet Converse All Stars to a chief’s home for tribal court. Her prose is alive from beginning to end with beautifully crafted sentences, like her description of money-laden pockets, “some are quiet, filled with crisp bills of blue buffalo, pink lions, brown elephant, green rhino, and maybe even a few leopards.”

Messitt’s story has no grand conclusion, makes no attempt to craft an artificial ending to her character’s lives. She adheres to the scope of a single rainy season, although she also provides satisfying postscripts to contextualize the reading experience.

I’m still meditating the uniqueness of this book, on Messitt’s prose, which exemplifies a respect for the lives of others as they exist in the world and apart from the narrative of her own life. Messitt has shown me that the authority for telling someone else’s story comes from humility, a sharp eye for accuracy, and a commitment to “sticking around” long enough to create trust. The Rainy Season sings out, in crisp notes, the songs of the new South Africa. The music of these lives asks us to quiet our own stories just long enough to listen.

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Karissa Womack is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida, where she serves as the Creative Writing Program assistant. She is the managing editor for Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art and the interview editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection.

 

On Playing with the Big Kids

April 21, 2016 § 3 Comments

Celia Tice, Intern Extraordinaire

Celia Tice, Intern Extraordinaire

An end-of-the-semester reflection from Brevity‘s excellent undergraduate intern, Celia Tice. Thanks for the help, Celia, and best of luck as you graduate:

When I first learned I’d be interning for Brevity this semester, I was absolutely ecstatic.  I knew that reading so many different writing styles and hearing the opinions of the other readers could only benefit my own writing. Having a chance to add something substantial to my cobweb-covered resume certainly didn’t suck either.

After the initial glee wore off, however, the anxiety set in. How did I get this opportunity? How can I possibly contribute effectively as a submission reader when I can’t even call myself a writer? I have to say, however, that having concrete experience with Brevity made things feel real. Suddenly, I could call myself a writer. I felt I’d even perhaps gained enough agency to write email salutations like, “best regards,” or even, “best.”

What power I had in my fingertips, crushing the dreams of someone’s personal essay. The one they surely struggled with, threw at a wall, debated giving up on, then got drunk/stoned/took Advil and continued trekking on with. How easy it was to move my fingers to the mouse and lightly push that “no” or “maybe” button. It was overwhelming. Be wary of power, ladies and gents, it can go to your head.

How much influence I truly had over what was published is debatable. I’m not sure how much weight my votes were given. Regardless, it was fun maintaining an illusion of power for a little while.

Something I found to be true while reading is something I’d been told once or twice in a nonfiction workshop that I took from Kelly Sundberg, Brevity’s Managing Editor: titles matter.

Kelly always said that a title should add something to the essay, and not just be something thoughtlessly tacked on at the end. I hate to say it, but I pre-judged many a submission based solely on the title, ranging from, “wow, what a cliché,” to “oh jeez, this is going to be sappy,” to “hmm, this might be good.” I can’t vouch for the other readers, but personally, I began reading many essays already having an idea in my head of how good that essay might be. And what am I, really, but a culmination of my perceptions of the world around me? So my point is, titles matter, people.

The other thing I learned, and maybe will draw encouragement from in the future, is that widely published people get rejected all the time. Being published doesn’t give a blanket of security. We are all going to fail (are you happy you’re still reading this?), but it is crucial that we keep going. Not every essay is going to be “good enough.” Many essays are going to be rejected. But we keep writing because we have to, because we think too much, because everything about the world around us is fascinating and important. We need to understand; we need to inform. So we grit our teeth and press on.

I’m beginning to embrace my impending adulthood. I’ve started getting ready for bed around 8 pm. I make myself a hot chocolate,(with two packets of cocoa powder if I’m feeling crazy,) and snuggle up with some nonfiction essays. I’ve even started listening to NPR in the mornings, becoming my father.

So with unfinished Spanish assignments piling up, I say “Adiós” to senior year and blindly jump in to the land of disappointment and writing/ employment/graduate school rejection letters, which will someday be sprinkled with the cottony mold of a valuable experience.

So thank you Brevity, thank you readers, thank you random people who have devoted your life to the love of the nonfiction essay, and thank you Kelly Sundberg for giving me a chance to play with the big kids.
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Celia Tice is about to become a recent graduate of Ohio University with a degree in English. She currently lives in beautiful Appalachia with her cat, Louise. You can find her personal blog at: celiatice.wordpress.com

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