Review of Cassandra Lane’s We Are Bridges

May 26, 2021 § 3 Comments

by Melissa Greenwood

When a former writing mentor suggested I might enjoy Cassandra Lane’s book We Are Bridges—a memoir about ancestral trauma—I bristled. What could I possibly have in common with this story? Yet, (to borrow from the title), good writing acts as a bridge, connecting writer to reader, and Lane, who won a Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, is a master with her pen.

I was ashamed of my initial resistance when it turned out that Lane and I have a great deal in common: an appreciation for tea and “big green cast-iron pot[s]”; attendance at the same MFA program, albeit during different decades; careers as reporters, then teachers (incidentally, we were both formerly teacher’s pets); Los Angeles addresses (I was born and reared here, but Lane has called LA home for twenty years now); and much more. However, the most striking similarity is that neither of us wanted children. Lane writes, “I’m never having children…Never…Never. Never. Never.” She changes her mind. I have not.

But this memoir isn’t about me, and it’s not even really about Lane. The book is about “ancestral trauma,” specifically, a “psychological need,” nagging at Lane all her life, “to get at the root of family questions” arising from her great-grandfather Burt’s lynching. It’s also about a “generational trail of broken people” and “trauma ghosting—the body’s ability to ‘remember’ a trauma that happened earlier in life or in an ancestor’s life.” It’s about “generations of trauma” and about “injuries that originate in the womb: wounds of slavery, lynching, and domestic violence.” More than anything, it’s about how Lane’s “pregnancy boomeranged [her] back to [her] family and [their] past…called [her] back to [her] ancestors.”  

Lane strives to shield her future son from the “leftover trauma” passed down to her, about which she says, “My body is a river, a channel…my body knew.” She shares memories of stories recounted to her by loved ones as part of her personal narrative, as well as imagined memories from her ancestors’ perspective; for these, she uses the present tense to differentiate from her own known story. The message is this: Burt may have been killed nearly seventy years before the author’s birth, but his too-short Black life still matters in the present day. (Lane thanks the Black Lives Matter movement in her acknowledgements, noting that violence against Black bodies, especially male ones, continues.)

Lane’s pregnancy is the bridge, if you will, to Burt’s experience. She writes, “With Solomon’s birth, Burt will live again, breathe again…with a new generation growing inside me…I [am] thirsty for knowledge.” And the narrator repeats this sentiment a third time: “The decision to give birth”—the very thing she swears she’ll never do and thought she never wanted—“connects me to my past.” Here, repetition acts to reaffirm the importance of Lane’s pregnancy as a connection to Great-Grandpa Burt and early 1900s Mississippi, collapsing time in a way that blends present with past. Repetition is just one of the literary devices Lane uses. Turn to any page, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find a number of similes. These could feel forced or overwritten. Instead, Lane’s prose is lyrical and rife with descriptive figurative language. The sun is “a dim disk.” The Atlantic Ocean is “vacation green.” Burt’s skin is “the shade of hay left out in the sun.”  

Lane’s tendency to draw upon the senses sharpens the violence about which she writes. There are “the white men with their guns and their pitchfork hearts, the law with its blind eye.” There is the hanging tree, an oak—an “unwilling accomplice to Burt’s murder [that]…must have moaned from deep within its belly”—a “centuries-old howl…releasing sticky tears that drip[ped] like molasses.” There are her own father’s “heavy fists” pounding into her pregnant mother’s back. There are whippings with “plum-tree” switches that sting. There are also, in her family history, other violations: merciless beatings and even molestation—wrongs that can never be righted. As Lane aptly muses: “The art of torture is a thing passed down.” 

But for all of the violence, there is love for Lane’s unborn son with whom her “heart is threaded” (it was this “‘miracle’ pregnancy” that set her on the quest to uncover her past); for Lane’s “foremothers”—the fierce women who shaped her and whose names she “will always hold…in [her] heart”; and for the ancestors she carries inside her still, especially the eponymous Mr. Bridges, whom she “wrote…into existence” by saying and repeating his name—Burt Bridges, Burt Bridges, Burt Bridges—until the name became a part of her, a part of us: We are Bridges.

Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. This is her third book review for Brevity, and she has written others for Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Melissa lives in LA with her husband and works as a Pilates instructor, writing and reading CNF when she isn’t at the “studio,” which, in present pandemic-times, is actually her living room.

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