May 20, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Jennifer Lang
By the time Brahna Yassky, author of Slow Dancing with Fire: A Memoir of Resilience, realizes her skin is on fire, it’s almost too late; fifty-five percent of her body, including her right arm—her painting hand—is marred. In her early thirties, she spends three months in a burn rehabilitation unit followed by the better part of a year in her parents’ house outside NYC, where she has no choice but to surrender and accept help with the mundane acts of living, from being fed to being dressed to being driven. Over time and with a tremendous amount of outpatient therapy and unconditional support from her family and her own determination not to be considered a burn victim, she regains enough strength and mobility to return to her loft in Tribeca, where the accident happened.
In the first four chapters, as Brahna floats in and out of a morphine-induced state in the hospital, she flashes back in time to her earlier life: childhood, lovers, painting. The constant switch between her present realities—the medical staff check-ups, the bandage changes, the therapies—and past memories mirrors her foggy state of mind.
Brahna puts a lot of emphasis on beauty, exteriors, and appearances, and on seeing and being seen. But when she looks at her skin and finally understands the extent of the damage and the finality of her body after dozens of surgeries and skin grafts, she wishes she were invisible. For the first time, she is forced to look at the world through a different lens. That shift in perspective becomes a journey of healing, of self-acceptance, and of understanding that beauty is inside.
Her journey, of course, doesn’t happen overnight or all at once but slowly, over time. First, she widens her circle, lets extended family and select friends visit, dares to show herself. Then, still unable to paint, she focuses on others, sharing art with people in need like the elderly, disabled children, and low-income schoolkids. Each experience makes her appreciate how much joy it can bring and how therapeutic it can be to those who are lonely or lost, broken, or burned. Next, she earns her credentials as an art therapist.
But Brahna writes:
In the year since my accident, I’d become obsessed with the intimate knowledge of how life can change drastically in a flash and was drawn to people who had that experience. I saw other people’s flaws as the most interesting parts of their faces and bodies. Mental and physical wounds were the stuff that moved and inspired me, but I still couldn’t accept them in myself.
To accept her new body means accepting loss, both physical and emotional. The summer after the incident, when she rents a house in the Hamptons and starts living in the world per her doctor’s recommendation, her only sibling and his partner, two of Brahna’s biggest cheerleaders, visit. Dressed in scar-compression garments, she bikes and plays tennis and swims in fresh water every day, but none of it is easy or comfortable. When she expresses her desire to drive to Montauk and buy fresh fish to put on the hibachi that she didn’t dare light, her brother says he came to relax, not to be her chauffeur, which sends her into a tantrum. Much to her shock, the men pack up and leave, unable to and uninterested in catering to her needs or wishes. Their once close relationship becomes distant and painful. And because of some deft foreboding earlier in the book, we know it will not end there or well.
In contrast to losses, Brahna gains experiences she never imagined. Her open-mindedness and willingness to try new things lands her making a short movie about the accident then writing this memoir. Her need to overcome and accept her new body is inspiring and contagious. While I’ve never experienced physical trauma, I’ve had my own version of drama and had to dig deep, to be resilient, to reinvent myself, to start anew every six years after my husband and I moved—countries, continents, cultures—in search of home. Sometimes it takes reading about other people’s resilience to recognize your own.
Jennifer Lang, born in the San Francisco Bay area, lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as assistant editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat—practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003—with her legs up her living room wall, Lang’s experimental memoir-in-shorts Places We Left Behind will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.
May 19, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Renée E. D’Aoust
One summer when I was about seven years old, I decided I wanted to set up a little stand to sell things. (I had probably seen a Charlie Brown cartoon where Lucy sets up her lemonade stand.) The problem was twofold: no one ever came by the dirt road at our island cabin, and I didn’t know what to sell. I didn’t have any lemons to make lemonade, and we were on a rural island with no stores. My mum and I brainstormed what to sell: fresh-caught fish, bouquets of fir boughs, funky driftwood. “How about salt crystals?” I spent two days drying salt water to make salt, and I spent a further two days sitting at my little stand on the dirt road with three little baggies of homemade salt. I made a price list. A sign. Mum brought me a chair from the cabin. I was a patient, persistent kid.
Though I’ve never met Tarn Wilson, I was drawn to her because she spent part of her childhood in British Columbia on an island, which she writes about in her first memoir Slow Farm, and I spent summers as a kid in the same Canadian province on a different island. I first heard Tarn Wilson speak on an AWP panel many years ago and became absolutely hooked.
Wilson doesn’t shy away from hard questions, nor does she hit you over the head with wise answers. One of the most wonderful characteristics of her writing is her capacity for compassion. She has suffered hardship, but her ability to love has not suffered. So it’s no surprise that compassion features prominently among the many salient qualities of her most recent essay collection In Praise of Inadequate Gifts: A Memoir in Essays.
Wilson welcomes us into the many challenges she has faced in her life: a traumatic childhood, a savior complex, a divorce, even teeth that grow wonky and have to be fixed again and again. But not once do we feel sorry for her. Such is her craft and humanity that we journey together toward a better tomorrow.
That tomorrow is today. In each of these twelve essays, Wilson draws the reader into how she discovers that the process of writing is “a disclosing eye, revealing some of what has been invisible.” Wilson is able to write herself into a new way of living: “Obsession imprisons us in repetitive thinking; after my obsession eased its grip, I was able to take action.” In this quiet and lovely book, Wilson frequently breaks the veneer of distance between reader and writer: “I break the unwritten rules of essay writing. I’m not supposed to show you the movie camera at the edge of the scene. But I have no other way to tell you the whole story.”
The “whole story” includes trying to figure out how to be a better human in our broken world. Her hippie family is broken through divorce, assault, and undiagnosed mental illness, yet Wilson tries to have a “perfect little life.” After all, if everything is perfect, particularly if she is perfect, she can control her environment and bad things won’t happen.
But it’s impossible to maintain control as a kid; things are by definition outside a kid’s control. She experiences “flat grief” and loneliness; Wilson doesn’t know how life can ebb and flow and be made whole because her home life has always been turbulent. The perspective of a writer makes healing possible; Wilson writes: “When my story is assembled, always imperfectly, always with a few under or overfilled joints, I look down from the top, as from an airplane.” And yet, even when assembled, ever conscious to be honest, she’s not sure her story “is true”:
How can I know if the story I’ve told is true? I can’t. But I can tell I’m getting close to truth when I’ve found the right pattern, made the right connections, and feel an electricity I don’t understand that pulses through the sentences and makes the story live.
Sitting at my little stand that summer long ago in Canada, I finally sold some of my hard work. I sold my homemade salt on credit, because when the island hippie Richard chanced by our cabin, he ambled down to my stand, delighted to find me patiently waiting for someone, anyone. Of course, he didn’t have any actual money with him. (He said he would pay me later, and he did. A quarter.) He listened to me explain the process of making salt crystals; he was compassionate as I spoke and clapped when I did a little salt dance jig. This is the kind of compassion Wilson leans into, “Love that touches down, moves through a particular person at a particular time, then lifts. Love that might follow [us] anywhere.”
May 18, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Cheryl Anne Latuner
For my husband, born in France, there are only two sports: soccer, which he played semi-professionally before moving to the U.S., and cycling. Soccer plays year-round on our TV, and I’ve come to know teams, players, even coaches, as well as terms for play—off-side, corner, penalty, shoot-out—watching the players dribble up and down the field, ball between their feet. But come July, our TV is tuned to the twenty-one stages (race days) of the three-week cycling marathon, the Tour de France. Here are players and teams, too, but the players are virtually unrecognizable, helmeted in their casques, and I have a hard time figuring out how exactly the teams in their same-colored shirts are playing together, scattered throughout the vast peloton, the horde of cyclists making their way along hundreds of miles like ants on the march. There’s the occasional échappée (escape) of the leaders from the pack, but literally nothing much else to watch—heads bobbing up and down, bikes tilting side to side. All I can focus on, beyond gorgeous views of French countryside, is how each cyclist manages to keep up that same repetitive motion of peddling mile after mile, how he endures the climb, day after day, up all those extreme French mountains at grades of as much as seven or eight percent. I try to imagine the suffering.
Now, in The Cyclist and His Shadow, translated from the French by François Thomazeau, Olivier Haralambon tells us exactly what it is to be that cyclist, his suffering—and his euphoria. Haralambon’s book is something quite different from an experiential description you might find in an adventurer’s magazine. It is, rather, a poetic treatise on the existential reality of the cyclist, its prose a mesmerizing pastiche of virtuosic descriptive language and metaphor, as if the author wants not merely for us to understand what it is to pedal in the cyclist’s shoes, but how it renders the cyclist something other than himself—in body, mind, and soul. Linguistically, Haralambon captivates even the never-professional-cyclists among us. As someone who has long loved and studied French, I hear the flavor of the original in what the translator calls the “slipstream” of Haralambon’s language, vividly wrought to inspire our imagination and pleasure.
“Who never fell asleep in front of a Tour de France stage?” Haralambon begins, rhetorically, knowing that for many of us, “cycling races are a dreadfully monotonous spectacle.” He writes,
You might notice, that the pace of [the cyclists’] legs varies, that they accelerate sharply from time to time, that they stand up on the pedals and then sit back in the saddle; you might, should you know the toughness of some climbs at a given place, roll your eyes at the speed at which they tackle them, but…after a puzzled bout of disbelief, halfway between respect and pity for the sight of their suffering faces, you look away and turn to something else.
But cycling was something Haralambon could never turn away from, after the moment he first rode, at the age of thirteen, on a country road, and “found myself in the space opened inside me by the landscape separating my eyes from my muscles…and my soul was ripped open like a fruit whose overripe flesh was a promise of infinity.”
In passage after passage, I hear echoes of the long tradition of French philosophic musing, as Haralambon exposes for the reader the ineffable that he has experienced through cycling:
I loved pedaling breathlessly beside the demon of my shadow. I pulled it behind me mercilessly for tens of thousands of kilometers and it never ever let me down. I sweated, cried, spat, came, dribbled, bled sometimes on the tarmac and the landscape. I have loved the bike and I have loved racing fiercely because they gave me a form of trust in the unfathomable immensity of life, in the verticality of time. Without it, without them, I would never have had the slightest feeling of eternity—not as a myth but as an experience.
Far from being the perpetrators in a “monotonous spectacle,” “the best competitive riders,” he argues, “are among the cleverest and the most subtle individuals in the human race…as delicate as ballet dancers and more astute than many writers.” As if to prove just that point, Haralambon exhibits his skill as a writer on page after page, as in this passage about coming of age as a young competitive rider:
We felt like rising stars…all the neighborhood girls were at their windows, chatting and calling each other. The façade of the building looked like an Advent calendar. Behind them, you could feel the polished kitchens, the put-away dishes and the pink rubber gloves thrown over the faucets like the remains of Michelangelo in the arms of St. Bartholomew on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
Though Haralambon gives the insider’s privileged view of all the facets of competitive cycling—the training, the solitude of the individual, the “monstrous” nature of the rampaging peloton, even the doping—it’s his encounter with the existential that drives the narrative. Reading this book, I forgot what I had witnessed, obliviously, every summer on TV. I began to feel myself inside the soul of a person dedicated to two excruciating and unaccountably rewarding activities, cycling and writing, and to see the parallels between Haralambon’s experience as a cyclist and all the endeavors artists undertake that lead to transcendence:
He pushes on the pedals, rotates them, makes them dance, and moves ahead in the direction designed by the road lined by spectators…Yet the landscape that is the background of the show is not the real place of his meticulous effort. He performs and creates from the resonances of his solitude and carves in himself his own share of space.…He works with all muscles on the rough, indistinct, and endlessly improvable material of his most intimate life.
Cheryl Anne Latuner is author of the memoir Baby at My Breast—Reflections of a Nursing Mother and is at work on No Long Island Girl. Her essays and poetry have appeared in journals such as Literary Mama, The Comstock Review, Naugatuck River Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, and in Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words. She loves taking long walks, practicing piano, and visiting her young adult daughter in Paris.
May 16, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
The challenge Aaron Angello set for himself is daunting, maybe a little insane, borderline brilliant, and truly fascinating. For roughly four months, Angello woke at 5 am, brewed himself a cup of coffee, carried his cup to a small writing desk, and wrote – one per day, in order – a word from Shakespeare’s 114-word 29th Sonnet.
One word. The word “the,” for instance, or “of,” or “bootless,” or “possessed.”
He sat with the word a while, and then, “Once I felt I was filled with that word—as if the word filled my body, not just my mind—I began to write.”
The fact is, a single word can take you anywhere. The mind works that way. The word “Beweep,” for instance, a very Shakespearean word, leads Angello to imagine a Gallery of Forgotten Words, “pile after pile of bodkins and blunderbusses, jolly-nobs and junts, lacerts and lam’s grass.”
But The Fact of Memory is not a book about Shakespeare, or even just a book about words. It is a book about how the mind works. About memory. About rumination. Fabrication, And narrative structure.
The sonnet is deconstructed word by word, and then built back up again, to find stories Shakespeare himself had never imagined.
The simple word “of” appears only once in Shakespeare’s sonnet, and Angello’s brief chapter – the book, essentially, is flash nonfiction, with a robust lyric bent – imagines a vintage movie, a projected backdrop, two actors, a scratchy old 78 rpm record, skipping on the song lyric “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” the way our minds skip over and over a remembered detail, an old song, looking for truth maybe, or just a story, or what may pass for a story, what may pass for a truth.
The way images break apart, reform themselves into narratives, remembered, felt deeply, but ultimately not real.
The 29th Sonnet does not use the word “memory” anywhere, but the word “remembered” appears once, as in “For they sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Angello remembers his own sweet love, youthful love, a rooftop in New York City, jealousies, guilt, and failure. No wealth, or kings. It is a different time, a different thinker’s thoughts.
He remembers detail after disconnected detail of this tragic past love, then writes, “But this isn’t a confession. I’m making all of this up.”
Which we sometimes do when we reconstruct memory. When we try to reconstruct our truths, word by stubborn word.
The fact of memory is not simple. The Fact of Memory is complex.
Dinty W. Moore is the editor of Brevity.
May 13, 2022 § 2 Comments
By Brian Watson
I wasn’t expecting my mother’s question.
She knew that I was working on my memoir; I had called early in September 2021 to let her know that a publishing company had requested the manuscript—an exciting turn of events that later led to a kind rejection from the publisher.
I had given her a very rough outline of the manuscript. How I had grown up gay, how my failure to process my father’s death when I was fourteen affected me, my choice to move to Japan in 1988 in the hope of escaping the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the United States, and how my ten years in Japan unfolded me.
Can you send me a copy? I want to read it.
Imagining my mother reading about my roughshod sexual education (my first adolescence as a frightened queer kid) and emotional evolution (my second adolescence where feelings were finally allowed to join the physical) had me suddenly nervous. But I ordered a copy of the manuscript from the local print shop and mailed it off.
My stepfather called first, telling me he loved it and couldn’t wait for it to be properly published. My mother, he said, was still reading it, going more slowly.
She called at some point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that point in the year when, by law, family drama must occur. I overstate it, of course, but the conversation included this moment:
You write very well, Brian.
Thank you, Ma.
I like it. But I have to tell you something, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.
I had to skip over parts of it. There were things I just didn’t want to know.
That’s okay, Ma.
It reassured me to know that, as close as she and I had become over the years, we still had mutually respected boundaries.
There are some details in a grown child’s life that no parent is meant to know, especially when that grown child has the kind of early adulthood pastimes that I had.
I didn’t write a memoir to free myself, though in the process I did.
The first few pages of Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative hit hard, and I started to vibrate, emotionally. My first adolescence, the ten or so years before I left for Japan, was an awful combination of urgent sex and fear. Fear of grief—my father died when I was fourteen—and a fear of exposure as a gay man to my family.
I had put some raw content on the page (and revised it and revised it) and it unnerved me. And it was more than my learning how to cruise other men in Manhattan at age fifteen. It was a trauma I was walking back through. I had concerns beyond the writing and its impact on me, however.
Anyone who writes the story of their individual trauma, and especially those of identities that have been historically oppressed and abused, is subject to the retraumatization by ongoing perpetrators: the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonizing nation(s) in which they must live and learn to heal.
I have taken classes with other writers of memoir, I have taught a few as well, and I hear the fear. Women, queer people like me, Black Americans, and other people of color? We were vulnerable to trauma even before we started writing. Were we about to allow others to dig deeper in our wounds?
Shortly after [Abandon Me] was published, during a post-reading Q & A, a woman stood up and asked me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’
Another fear that I and other writers of memoirs share is blowback. Within the traumas we write about, there are often specific persons we can point to as those who victimized us or who intensified the trauma. People love to share the Anne Lamott epigram, If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better. I’m partial, myself, to one of the lines that Allison K Williams has taught me to use, I can’t wait to read your memoir, Aunt Martha.
Memoirs have the potential to burn bridges, to destroy relationships. I feel this keenly as I write.
…I wanted to be able to tell both stories. That felt more fair. Still, I felt the violation of that narration. [The other person’s] version was not my story to tell.
Telling my story is enough. Talking about my choices, the impacts of other people on me, and my ultimate successes—getting the manipulator out of my life, finding a way to be out of the closet professionally in Japan, of all places, and discovering the changes I could make that allowed me to finally fall in a truer love—are the ways my story will reach readers, the people I want to be present for.
As memoirists, we, too, speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others. While I know that the person helped most of all is myself, part of my own healing has come from the hundreds of strangers who have written to me, claiming that I told their story, too, and that reading it showed them that it was possible to tell.
Body Work is a work of courage. And in reading it, I was imbued with a new courage myself. What a wonderful gift to the writing community.
Thank you, Melissa.
Brian Watson is currently revising and querying his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Saitama, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. His recent essays have appeared in Brevity’s online blog. His other book reviews have appeared in Hippocampus magazine. He is the author of an upcoming article on marriage equality in the US and Japan for JETs on Japan magazine and was recently interviewed for a May episode of the Second Adolescence podcast. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com and Twitter @iambrianwatson.
May 6, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Candy Schulman
It began during the pandemic lockdown. Teaching my nonfiction writing workshops to Zoom rectangles, I could hear Black Lives Matter marches outside my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their voices made me understand that my own reading habits and recommendations to students were still not diverse enough.
My millennial daughter pointed out that I was drawn to work by women whose lives mirrored mine. These writers made me feel less alone in a complex world. One weekend my daughter’s friend read aloud the first paragraph of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had….If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.”
Kawakami’s first novel, Heaven, was about bullying. This heartbreaking, deeply disturbing allegory transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn—where I too had been bullied at fourteen, 6,894 miles away from Osaka. My essays on bullying were similar to Kawakami’s experience, and also different. Reading diverse authors emphasized the universality of the human condition.
Next my daughter recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel spanning 300 years, from Ghana to American slavery and beyond. It was so disturbing that I could not read it before bedtime. In my classes I’d often paraphrased Kafka’s claim that the job of an artist is to make us uncomfortable, not happy. Gyasi’s horrifying descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves emphasized Kafka’s view that “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”
As writers we need to “wake up” in order to surprise our readers and create original voices. With over two million books published worldwide, I was grateful for my daughter’s guidance. I’d introduced her to reading and was always proud that she grew up to love literature. Now she was teaching me.
I followed her recommendations as if she were my book club leader. Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, illuminated her shame, depression, and racial identity struggles as the daughter of Korean immigrants in America. As soon as I read the last page of Hong’s hybrid memoir of personal experience and cultural criticism, I put it on my syllabus. An Asian American student emailed me: “Minor Feelings changed my life. Thank you.”
I studied books and styles I might never have read before. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an inventive memoir about psychological abuse in a love relationship between two women. Its innovative structure where each chapter is crafted around a narrative trope made me think anew about ways we order our essays and memoirs.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, a Chinese American coming-of-age story begins, “Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house…” Her first paragraph was the lengthy kind I urged my students to divide into shorter morsels. Yes, a writer could break the rules—once traditional craft is mastered.
One night in class, after workshopping a student’s personal essay written in the second person, I warned that the “you” voice was tricky and rarely effective. A student recommended “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” a second person epistolary essay by Ocean Vuong. His brilliant lyricism, in spite of numerous transitional spaces, was the kind I warned students often made prose feel jumpy. I changed my mind when saw how effortlessly Vuong achieved it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Writers need to stretch and grow. I tell my students that learning to write is a lifelong process. My essay style has evolved over the years. Broader reading tastes have enabled me to penetrate new boundaries in style, format, chronology, and language. All writers can spread our literary wings across oceans. After 35 years of teaching, I’ve expanded my knowledge about the craft of writing—as well as systemic racism, slavery, immigration, and prejudice.
My teaching syllabus has evolved from mostly white voices of women who’d grown up with more than one or two windows in their house. The daughter of first-generation Americans, I was raised in a modest Brooklyn house with five windows. My apartment today has eight windows. I keep opening them as wide as possible, inviting a wide array of today’s literary voices into my writing life and my classroom.
Candy Schulman is an essayist, memoir writer, and creative nonfiction professor at The New School in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Longreads, Salon, among others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press), Same Time Next Week (In Fact Books/Creative Nonfiction), and forthcoming Embrace the Merciless Joy (McSweeney’s). Candy has twice won the Best Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and notable honors from Best American Essays.
May 4, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Rachael Hanel
After years of teaching media writing to undergraduates, I received the opportunity this semester to teach creative nonfiction to MFA candidates. Ever since I learned that Debra Monroe had published an anthology of creative nonfiction in 2020, I knew I wanted to use that book in a class.
What excited me most about the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, was Monroe’s clear intent to new, diverse voices among some of the CNF stalwarts we’re used to. Of course there are many great CNF readers out there, Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay being one of them. Others on my shelf include In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism: A Reader, and The Literary Journalists.
These fine volumes do what any CNF reader should do: present diverse offerings in terms of subject matter and form. Beginning and practiced CNF writers alike can learn a lot from them.
But they don’t always represent a wide diversity of voices. When I teach media writing, I primarily use examples from the world of literary journalism. Those anthologies rely heavily on the New Journalists of the 1960s that broke with the traditional journalistic form and made themselves part of the story: Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Hunter S. Thompson. No comprehensive study of literary journalism is complete without reading works by these trailblazers.
But it is 2022, and so many skilled CNF writers from traditionally underrepresented groups are contributing mightily to the diversity of voices. Monroe put together her collection precisely with an eye toward diversity, and the result is splendid and rich.
My students are responding positively. Not only do they like the variety of form and subject, but they see themselves in the writers. Says one: “I’m rarely exposed to writers who come from the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background as myself, so it was interesting this week to read two essays from Mexican American writers.” I was thrilled to hear that, but also a little sad: He’s a graduate student in his mid-40s, and this is one of the few times he’s been exposed to writers who share his background.
Monroe’s book, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology, is also helping me diversify other examples I use in class. I’m not going to throw away some tried-and-true essays that stand the test of time: “The American Male, Age 10” by Susan Orlean and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. But when I wanted to find examples of long-form journalistic profiles, I turned to my collection of The New York Times Magazine and chose a profile of Gayl Jones, a Black writer who seemingly disappeared from public view, as well as a profile of Questlove—both modern examples from 2021 that showed so well what a good profile can do.
I asked Monroe some questions about her anthology via email.
RH: What was the impetus in creating this anthology?
DM: As my friend, a poet, said: It’s the genre where the most is happening. It’s in an exciting state of change—open to influence, so suited to this era. Existing anthologies were already fifteen years old, with traditional essays. Do you remember when creative nonfiction used to be described as “like fiction only true.” I wanted an anthology with experimental essays and lyric essays, too.
And my campus is minority-white. Ten years ago, I ordered an anthology people recommended, and when I saw the table of contents, I thought: OK, I’ll photocopy essays by writers of color. But I walked into my class and saw my students. I didn’t like implying that writers of color were special status: photocopy-only. So I photocopied every reading assignment, aiming for variety. I discovered that many creative nonfiction teachers were photocopying for similar reasons. Sometimes, I’d order a few essay collections by single authors but didn’t get the sampler effect, the big range. And my craft lessons were a disorganized amalgamation. I wanted craft lessons in one place, synthesized in an accessible but not reductive way for readers just encountering the genre.
RH: There are so many excellent essays spanning centuries. How did you choose which ones to include?
DM: I’m indebted to Sarah Einstein for suggesting that the turn of the century is a good cutoff date for “contemporary.” I tried to stick to that. There are 48 essays in the anthology—500 pages of essays!—and the oldest, just four, by writers everyone considers essential, were published in the late-1990s.
Being inclusive affected decisions, too. Every campus isn’t as diverse as mine, but the country is. I used demographic percentages from the U.S. census as benchmarks. After that, I selected for variety in forms, styles, subjects. I consciously included well-known writers as well as writers who should be known.
RH: The release of this book got caught up, like many others, with the arrival of COVID-19. What was it like promoting a book during lockdown?
DM: I’d asked the textbook publisher to rent a booth at AWP—before the pandemic, prelapsarian times. My publisher does a lot of English titles, but was new to creative writing. When I sent a follow-up email asking for rented space for an off-site reading, explaining that this is how writers launch books—readings in bars—I never got an answer. So I rented, out of pocket, a private room in the Liberty Bar, a PA, a lectern. Four contributors agreed to read: short, sweet readings, five minutes each. Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Dungy, Sonja Livingston, Sayantani Dasgupta, Bonnie Ilza Cisneros. I sent invitations and had so many RSVPs I worried about the space being too small. You recall the slow-fizzle confusion as AWP had trouble deciding whether to cancel the San Antonio convention. As COVID news got worse, my readers began to cancel, and then I canceled. The only other publicity has been me posting on social media and one interview in Assay. Promoting the anthology has been like everything during COVID, subdued and solitary.
RH: It’s a large book with heft and depth. You told me that some people have commented about the size, but it’s comparable to fiction and poetry anthologies. Do you think the size signals that CNF is as worthy as other genres of a large reader?
DM: Yes, this magical genre deserves a big anthology! As teachers, we dip into big anthologies again and again, in different ways for different students or courses. Students find themselves seduced into reading essays not on the syllabus, and they keep these anthologies long after the semester is over, as resources.
RH: From my experience teaching out of this book, students are responding positively. You told me in an earlier conversation that one writing instructor reported a student said the anthology opened the world of CNF to her. Can you expand on that conversation? What else are you hearing from students or instructors?
DM: I recently taught out of it for an undergrad literature class that also included fiction and poetry. Students, nonmajors who’d never heard of the genre, loved creative nonfiction the most. On their evaluations, they said things like: These essays are about life now. These are the most relevant readings I’ve been assigned in college. That was a literature class, but their remarks remind me of what someone teaching creative writing in Oklahoma said. She sent this note:
It’s an amazing anthology, a game-changer. It makes a case, without being didactic, that we are in this together. One of my students said, “‘For the first time ever, I feel like I am living in the middle of history and my experience matters.” You do realize that the whole anthology, with introduction, headnotes, prompts, constitutes a radical pedagogy?
I included over a hundred writing prompts, and I’ve heard from people teaching graduate classes that the prompts have generated great essays. Writers gravitate toward their most unsettling experiences, and these experiences bubble up into even innocuous topics in interesting ways. I think how, in medical terminology, to “express” means to release something trapped, swollen. But the direct approach doesn’t always make for an artful release. Prompts help students make inroads into otherwise daunting or overfamiliar topics. Essays in the anthology cover many subjects, but those that cover dark subjects approach these sideways, as if by stealth. A student said to me last week that a few essays clarified for her that trauma isn’t always compelling, but, she added, “our imperfect buoyancy afterward is.” She’s already such a good writer. She put that well.
Rachael Hanel teaches media writing and creative nonfiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book of narrative nonfiction, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to Symbionese Liberation Army, is coming out in December from the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013.
April 29, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Hannah White
When I was a girl, my grandmother taught me how to sew. She was quite young for a grandmother—always mistaken by strangers for my mother—but she was obsessed with old things. Her basement was littered with antiques: a giant loom for weaving blankets, a sewing machine with a foot pedal, colorful textiles, and furs. She wanted me to learn things the old way, the right way.
I spent afternoons by her burning wood stove, practicing stitching together scraps of fabric or watching the steady tap of her foot as she powered her sewing machine, making intricate matching sets from designs in sewing books and magazines. I wanted this power—my grandmother’s power of creation—but I didn’t have the patience or, as I grew older, the time.
Often instead of practicing, I’d just peruse through her sewing or knitting catalogs, admiring the beautiful, delicate stitching and imagining myself ornamented in these garments. But it was this imagining that I enjoyed even more than the act of sewing, and I soon unstuck myself from this activity and turned to reading, and then writing, stitching together words where fabric once was.
In the opening of her new chapbook Dominant Genes, SJ Sindu writes, “My mother, out of love, stitches up my heart, pulling the thread tight to make sure it won’t rupture again at the same spot.” In this hybrid collection of lyric essays and poems, Sindu explores issues related to familial expectations and the construction of nonbinary and queer identities with a voice that powerfully simmers both with anger and hope.
Raised in a Sri Lankan family in which matrilineal expectations are strict and heavy, the speaker is filled with a rage that her mother finds problematic. Since she turned twenty, her parents have been trying to marry her off, but Sindu has inherited an anger that has been, “folded up in the pleats of cotton sarees, transmuted from the heads of our mothers at the same time they scolded us for not knowing how to cook roti, and how will we keep a man happy?” Wanting a life and identity of her own, cut off from these expectations, Sindu questions if her own happiness could ever be compatible with her mother’s.
Though anger ties Sindu to her mother and her ancestors, it is also what her mother believes to be what prevents Sindu from finding a suitable match, from choosing that path she wants for her daughter. Sindu writes, “We learn our anger through osmosis, or maybe it’s in the breast milk, spreading through our veins long before we learn how to look only at the floor and walk without showing our ankles.” In her mother Sindu sees both a mirror—anger reflecting back at herself—and a wall, an ending of a long string of inherited traumas, only Sindu holding the scissors.
Sindu posits anger as something somehow both inherited yet not compatible with tradition. She shows this outright: “You’re going to end up alone, my mother tells me. It’s because of your anger. Your anger pushes men away.” Blurring the lines between past and present, fact and fiction, Sindu’s poems and lyric essays are strung together tightly by this tension between mother and daughter, between a life worth living and a life willed onto one by the past, by tradition. Sindu turns truth on its head in this genre-bending hybrid collection, making readers see for themselves the complexities of inherence and tradition.
Sindu comes out to her mother three times: “I tell my mother I’m bisexual. Bi, from the Latin dui, the Greek di, the Sanskrit dvi. Meaning double. Having two. Living in two. I have bifurcated: my life, brown and white; my family, my parents and me; my body, masculine and feminine.” Each time Sindu comes out, her mother tells her she “can still marry a man and have children, that [she doesn’t] have to be different. Bi, meaning two paths. One path lets [her] stay in their lives. The other sees [her] cast out.” Her mother gives her this choice—it is her decision to make whether she will remain tethered or cut free. She feels she must choose to be true to her own identity or to play pretend for the sake of others.
She tries to “stitch [her] two selves back together.” She goes on dates with men who tell her she will have to hide who she is. She entertains men who are tolerant of her identity if it is kept hidden, not strung up plainly for the world to see. But Sindu has always “had a serpent tongue,” one that can cut with a bite, destroy, sever.
Sindu explores ancient stories like Draupadi the beautiful heroine of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata who is punished and called a whore for denying men’s advances. Sindu wants to rewrite Draupadi’s tragic story. She wants her to “get world-shakingly mad,” her “rage to cut through everything and spin the world into new string.” In this chapbook, Sindu rewrites stories like these, speaking what others would silence.
In these stories, some genes might be dominant, but so is Sindu’s will. And Sindu makes it clear that the same strings that bind us to our past can be pulled too tight, cut off circulation, make us bleed.
Hannah White is a writer and graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She copyedits for the Journal of International Women’s Studies and writes for Literarytraveler.com. In her free time, she enjoys baking and walking through the woods of her hometown’s state park with her two Boston terriers. She sometimes lurks on twitter @Hannah4White.
April 20, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Elizabeth Bales Frank
Grief is a canyon that rings with unexpected echoes.
Suzanne Roberts’ latest essay collection Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties relates her experience with all of these things: grief, its canyons, and its echoes. “The essay is an accumulation of grief. Mother says to get over it,” reads a paragraph from the collection’s opening essay “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin” (which first appeared in Brevity). A common reply to grief is “get over it.” The very phrasing of this curt dismissal, however, acknowledges that grief seeks you into a depth. “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin,” even in its title, echoes the famous final line of a Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.”
Animal Bodies explores several of Roberts’ personal losses due to death: the death of each parent, of a cherished friend, of a faithful dog, and even of a forgotten high school torment—but also due to life: the erosion produced by the tension between sexual desire and the sexual shame, the dissolution of an off-again, on-again marriage, the encroachment by age on the carefree reliance on a strong healthy body. Life is grief; grief accumulates.
The fundamental grief for Roberts is, as it is no doubt for almost all of us, the loss of her mother, whose dying, death, and funeral are the subject of several essays in this collection. But the mother’s spirit infuses many other essays not strictly devoted to her. In her youth, Roberts’ mother, who was raised in England, fought her way out of poverty by offering her services as a “good-time girl,” akin to Holly Golightly’s livelihood in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—at least, in the glossed-over Hollywood version of it. Roberts’ mother is a compassionate guardian—“the president of my fan club”—but also projects the shame from her “good-time girl” years onto Roberts when she begins dating. And “dating” is itself a glossed-over Hollywood word for some of Roberts’ early sexual encounters and entanglements, and their consequences. She is candid in her descriptions of the shame, pleasure, regret, and occasional mess of it all.
Roberts, whose previous collections include Almost Somewhere and Bad Tourist, is an “outdoorsy girl.” “I have spent my entire adult life living in the mountains so that when the perfect powder days arrive, I’ll be ready.” Her devotion to the slopes shapes both her teaching career and her relationships. “I decided that if you went skiing today, I was leaving,” announces one boyfriend, who dislikes her writing because it takes her focus away from him, and considers their life in Lake Tahoe a brief respite from “the real world.” His departure leaves her with the courage to create “the extraordinary life I could only fashion on my own. . . an untethered life of wandering the world.”
Yet even her love of outdoors and travel is encroached by shadows.
In the masterful essay “The Danger Scale,” Roberts juxtaposes the dark side of her beloved “powder days”—descriptions of the escalating scale of avalanche danger—with the painful examination of the erosion of a longtime friendship under the accumulating fractures of political differences. In “Queen of the Amazon,” Roberts travels, with her second husband Tom (“always up for an adventure”), for an expected “quintessential honeymoon” at the Ecolodge Paradiso in Marasha in Peru, only to find herself disheartened not by the perils of the jungle but by the disregard the natives have for the splendor and the dignity of the animals that surrounds them. Ancient trees sacred to the Mayans have been razed by their descendants for farmland—“you can’t eat the trees,” one guide tells Roberts. Terrified sloths, jaguars, and manatees are plucked from their habitats to be caged by minders and offered to tourists to pose with for photo ops.
I told myself I couldn’t cry over someone else’s trees. I didn’t stop to ask myself to whom the trees belonged; I didn’t have the words for my deep feelings of unease and loss, which I now recognize as ecological or environmental grief, a term that would not be common for another five years—the deep sadness, mixed with the helplessness, we feel when faced with environmental degradations and disaster.
This collection may sound like a bummer; it’s not. It is beautifully observed and realized, heartfelt and informed, self-deprecating and often wryly witty. These essays explore how the bodies we inhabit bring pleasure and shame. How the planet which hosts us is beautiful and terrible. How sometimes we cherish it, and sometimes we treat it as carelessly as we would a disdainful ex. How grief is the residue of love.
Elizabeth Bales Frank lives in Astoria, where she is writing a local history about the pandemic, gentrification, coffee, and dogs. Her most recent novel Censorettes was published in 2019 by Stonehouse Publishing. She works as a researcher in an international law firm and urges you to support your local libraries and librarians. Her website is www.elizafrank.com.
April 15, 2022 § Leave a comment
By Debbie Hagan
As I listened to Sufiya Abdur-Rahman read from her memoir Heir to the Crescent Moon, an old curiosity awoke within me. As a teenager, I’d wanted to know about Islam, beyond Malcolm X. However, living in Kansas City’s suburbs, in the 1970s (pre-internet), my research was limited to the resources of the town library. In other words, I had to live with the itch of many unanswered questions.
In Heir to the Crescent Moon, author Abdur-Rahman describes how she and her three siblings grew up Muslim under the guidance of their parents, Black Power-era Islam converts. We see that Islam is more than just a religion, but a way of life: fasting, praying, studying Arabic, and attending the mosque.
Sepia-toned photos of Malcom X and Sufi scholar Hazrat Inayat Khan hung in the father’s office. He reads from the Qur’an, takes his prayer beads off his wall, and says a prayer with each bead, the “flattened tips of father’s thumb and forefinger pinched each globe then inched along to the next, the string of beads rotating in his grasp like stairs on an escalator.”
We witness Abdur-Rahman’s family’s devotion and how they bond in their worship, prayers, and deep love for one another.
Ironically, sometimes it’s the passions that unite people that also tear them apart. There’s no question about the father’s charisma and deep love for Allah and his children, but he’s haunted by his own past, a moody and mercurial man who uses corporal punishment in disciplining his children and his wife.
After seventeen years of marriage, the wife seeks a divorce, but discovers, divorce is not necessary. They were never legally married. Her husband never filed the marriage license.
“With that I knew that technically, my siblings and I were all illegitimate,” writes Abdur-Rahman. “…it called into question my entire being.”
Part of her entire being was her religion. People would ask, “What kind of name is Sufiya Abdur-Rahman? It doesn’t sound very Christian.”
In fourth grade, her best friend tells her, “You don’t pray to the real God.”
Abdur-Rahman tries to explain that even if she refers to God as “Allah,” they’re the same God.
No, her friend argues, “You’re not gonna go to Heaven…. You can ask my Dad.”
“And you’re not gonna go to heaven echoed in my head as the familiar paralysis that gripped my vocal cords whenever I cried took over,” the author says. She’s the only Muslim in her school, except for her brother who’s in second grade. No one can help her. No one can speak for her.
I grew up in a religious family too; however, mine was Southern Baptist and I’m guessing not as devout as Abdur-Rahman’s family. Still, I understand the confusion and conflict religion can bring.
For instance, our church, back in the late sixties, looked a lot like one of today’s mega churches. Pews circled around a giant aquarium-like tank, where our pastor dunked converts on Sunday morning, washing away sins, preparing a spot in Heaven. Our pastor was a disciple of Jerry Falwell, and he had been our church’s previous pastor.
In 1973, leaders sold this church to Black Muslims, so it would become Muhammad Temple #30.
This confused me, because every Sunday morning our pastor pounded his fist into the pulpit, drumming into us that this idea that our Bible, our church was the only way into Heaven. So, if that were true, how could our church could be sold…particularly to people who worshipped differently?
A simple Google search today clarifies a lot I didn’t understand. Christianity and Islam are the two largest religions in the world and are both Abrahamic and monotheist.
In fact, Abdur Rahman’s father had grown up Catholic, and “one reason he had become Muslim was because Muslims recognize Christianity as a predecessor to Islam and Christ as a prophet of Allah.”
She continues, “It was their circular black, red, and green logo with a sword, a star and crescent, and Arabic script in the middle affixed to the door that had initially drawn him to the building…. That symbol was a combination of black and Muslim pride, the very things my father was reshaping his life around.”
There. the Inman gave his sermon in Arabic, then translated it in English. “He spoke of struggles in the black community—with justice, with jobs, with safety—and related them to stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life,” writes Abdur-Rahman.
It’s not surprising that Abdur-Rahman won the Iowa Prize for Nonfiction. Heir to the Crescent Moon offers beautifully depicted characters and vivid and evocative scenes that cause readers to become invested in her family’s life and struggles, as they’re persistently guided by unswerving faith.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, and Pleiades. Her essay “Portrait in Red” will appear in the April issue of Dillydoun Review, and her essay “Lights Out” will appear in the June issue of Star 84 Review.