Of Book Burning, Nostalgia, and Little Women: An interview with Jennifer Niesslein
March 23, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Brooke Champagne
How does a self-proclaimed nostalgic square her affection for the past with progressive politics? How can one remain a nostalgic American when others use that sentiment for ill intent? Jennifer Niesslein, editor of Full Grown People, addresses these and other issues in her exciting new collection Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia. She spoke with me about race, class, family, humor, and Little Women for the Brevity blog.
Brooke Champagne: Jennifer, I loved this book, and want to thank you for writing it. Dreadful Sorry could not have been more prescient for this moment in American culture. I was curious if there was an event or essay or epiphany that created the impetus for this themed collection on nostalgia. How/when/why was the first idea for this born?
Jennifer Niesslein: Thanks, Brooke! Like most writers, I have my themes I return to again and again. Over the years, I’d been writing essays: The one about my boot-legging great-great-grandmother. The one where I visit my childhood hometown—during an eclipse—for the first time since we left. The one where I talk to a psychic medium. They all start out with some degree of nostalgia, and I didn’t realize this because I’m a nostalgic, through and through. The theme was invisible to me for a while.
At some point I realized that the more regressive people in the country were using nostalgia as a tool for evil. (I live in Charlottesville. I’m not using “evil” lightly.) I wanted to explore how nostalgia—a source of comfort to me—could also create such devastation.
BC: This book feels like a crucial examination of White identity in a way that’s feared in politically-conservative circles. What role do you think nostalgia plays in the current right-wing preoccupation with banning books dealing with a difficult, complicated American past?
JN: The book banning in schools is part of conservatives’ efforts to undermine public education, no different from the anti-intellectual actions designed to undermine other professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding policy and medicine and justice, etc. If you don’t trust anyone but the people encouraging you to distrust, you can only put your trust in their authoritarian regime.
I can’t really speak for the conservatives, but I suspect that they use nostalgia to appeal to a time when White people—White men, in particular—were considered the neutral standard and everyone else was an aberration. Are you Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Hispanic, Latino, or normal? Are you a woman or are you normal? Do you have a disability or are you normal? I mean, holy hell, Archie Bunker has been off the air for forty years.
Speaking for myself, once I realized that a White perspective is an actual perspective, it opened the door to my becoming a more just person.
BC: I so appreciated how you spoke so openly about class in these essays. In your essay “Respect,” you note how in college, you learned much about historic female trailblazers, but little about the American working-class women who made you, and built this country. As not just a writer but an editor, I was wondering how you think this translates into the publishing industry today. Do you see a particular privilege or pedigree in much of what we see lionized in publishing?
JN: I don’t know. I can only see from my little corner of publishing. At Full Grown People, I’m definitely partial to essays about class. But I’ve always been struck by what Deesha Philyaw said about publishing rewarding the dominant narrative: writing that reinforces the status quo gets the attention. Class-wise, we definitely saw that with Hillbilly Elegy. And did you see Tara Westover’s piece in the NY Times, “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream”? She’s definitely pushing against the idea that, with enough gumption, anyone can achieve what she did.
I think it’s hard to write about class especially in the big squishy middle (where everyone imagines themselves) because there are such different forms of status symbols. Take my son: he’s a highly skilled musician with a breadth and depth of musical genres that’s rare. But we were talking about a recipe I sent him, and he didn’t know that if the recipe calls for broth, you can just pop a bouillon cube and water in the pot. After we hung up, I thought, “Shit. I forgot to teach him how to be poor.”
BC: There’s such a fun, dry wit in the book that comes from the most surprising places. Are you intentional about how and where you employ humor? Is it a way for the medicine (of discussing difficult subjects like race and class) to go down easier?
JN: At this point in my career, the humor is just a reflex. It’s not so much a literary device as it is a life skill for me, so it comes out in my writing.
That said, some passages didn’t make it into the book. When the funny distracts from critical thinking, it doesn’t work.
BC: In your essay “Little Women,” there’s a reference to your childhood couch having been used on the set of the 1994 movie version. I’m deeply nostalgic for the Susan Sarandon of that time, before I unfairly blamed her (and many, many others) for the Democratic loss of 2016. Can you share the story of how your couch made it to 1994’s Little Women?
JN: Without giving too much away about the essay, I think the couch stands in for a truth my mom knew but we sisters didn’t realize yet.
Part of my identity, though, is rooted in being one of four sisters, and Little Women, both the book and movie adaptations, are the go-to for the four-sister-and-mother archetype. I love any mention of it because I love us. I reread the book not too long ago, and I had to laugh at how preachy it was. There’s one point when Marmee tells Amy that, essentially, Beth is a better person than Amy is. Jesus, Amy, just try. No. Harder.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece ‘Exercises,’ which was published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019. Her writing has appeared in many print and online journals, most recently in Under the Sun, Barrelhouse, and Hunger Mountain. She is seeking publication for her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.