A Review of Sarah Viren’s Mine
August 27, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Emily Webber
When my son was born a year and a half ago, I was suddenly a different version of myself, and as he has moved into toddlerhood, I’ve had dueling emotions. On one side there’s a feeling of overwhelming completeness. I’ve finally found the thing that is closest to me—possession in its truest sense. There’s a power in bringing someone into the world and caring for them. But I’m also met with a profound sense of powerlessness. Every day I am faced with the realization that my son has his own personality and agenda. The realization that I won’t be able to protect him from everything. Sometimes it seems with every interaction he is pushing away just a little more, leading up to a larger loss in the future that I will surely face—his leaving home, our own mortality. As I read Sarah Viren’s essay collection, Mine, I thought about this inner conflict.
Originally, I stumbled across this book and immediately started reading because Viren spent part of her life in Florida, the state I call home. I have spent the four decades of my life just a couple of miles from the hospital I was born in, and I know how much the place you inhabit and call home can seep into your being. Viren’s writing in these essays truly comes from a position of observing the world. Viren reports from her lived experiences that bring her to Florida, Iowa, Texas, and Guatemala. She takes a sharp look at our core values, our culture, and our current social problems as she is trying to understand the world. While I found the familiar in her words, I also unexpectedly found a new way to think about what I call my own and my connection to other people. In one essay, Viren speaks of how life unfolds and what we encounter along the way: These things pulse up against each other: life and death, beginning and endings, what we call ours but is never really ours to begin with.
In the first essay, “My Murderer’s Futon,” Viren writes about inheriting the belongings of Robert Durst from his landlord, while Durst is on trial for murder. This essay starts as a fascinating look into how objects come into our lives with their own history, but Viren goes deeper. In a style that is both warm and unassuming, she shows us why we should find the humanity in those who are different from us. In other essays, she writes about a mother who murdered her two children and about her experience reporting on an ex-gay conference. These essays are a lesson in firmly standing your ground, but with respect and empathy for others. We are all outsiders in some way, but Viren’s essays tell us that we are stronger if we try to understand each other and come together.
Each essay in this collection also considers ownership or perceived ownership. Viren writes about her hands, her wife, her name, her children. In her very personal narratives, she weaves in outside lives and voices: I know I have a habit of that: latching on to the lives of strangers and using them to try to understand my own life. I watch people in airports, I read classifieds, I eavesdrop when the opportunity arises.
Viren reminds us that where there is ownership, there is also loss. She tells the reader at the end of the collection: Everything I have owned has since been lost. Even my memories are not the same.
In the essay, “My Story,” Viren is writing about her younger sister, her sister’s daughter, and her own daughter. She presents the essay in an unconventional format and through a series of sections some that are titled: fact, story, quote, confession, and revision. While reading, it feels like a conversation between her and her sister and shows the reader that even our own stories are not truly ours alone.
Viren gives the reader carefully considered and quietly delivered insights into the world and the people in it. These essays are full of humanity, a reminder to try and understand others, and a call to recognize our impermanence and honor our connections with each other. I’m still reflecting on Viren’s writing and transforming my ideas of ownership, especially with my son. This boy is mine, but I will have to watch as he makes his own way in the world.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Fourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.