Puerto Rico and Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls

November 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Ashley Espinoza

I grapple with my identity as a Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto Rican, but she was born in America. When my grandfather was eight he moved to New York and when he turned eighteen he joined the United States Army and spent his years as a father moving his family all over America and various countries. Though my mom has been to Puerto Rico more times than I have, she has never lived there. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico but was mostly raised in the United States, in New York and Chicago. I have the Puerto Rican blood, but my culture has been mostly lost.

So when I picked up the book Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz and read that it was a book about her life in Puerto Rico and Miami as well as Puerto Rico’s history with colonization I knew it was the book for me. Díaz is Puerto Rican, like me, my mother, and both of her parents. Though, unlike Díaz, I have only been to Puerto Rico twice in my life. Once when I was two-years-old and have no memory of it, but plenty of photos to prove I was there; a photo of my mother and I jumping into a lake, me at a payphone, and more photos of me visiting a family-owned grocery store. I visited again at twenty-two when my grandpa invited me to Puerto Rico over Christmas break. I had the chance to visit a family orchard, to eat oranges picked right from the tree. I took shots of pitorro, a moonshine rum, at each home I visited.

Jaquira Díaz grew up in Puerto Rico until she was eight years old, then she moved to Miami. She writes about Puerto Rico in details and memories like those of my mother’s, like hearing the coquis, small frogs, sing at night. Díaz gives a description of Puerto Rico that makes me feel at home, although Puerto Rico has never been my home.

The year after I got my bachelor’s degree I visited the island I heard about my whole life. I went to the famous-in-my-family ice cream shop in Poncè and ordered the most delicious peanut ice cream. I still dream of going back just to eat that ice cream one last time. My grandfather showed me downtown Poncè, and when we saw a church he told me that maybe someday I could get married there, or somewhere like it. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t plan on getting married. I could not break his heart right there in his hometown. He dreamed of my wedding day, I did not.

While I was visiting Puerto Rico we stopped at Wal-Mart and checking out a lady made a remark to me in Spanish. I smiled as you would to a stranger seemingly telling a joke. I had no idea what she said but at that moment I was proud, I was Puerto Rican. She couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was from Colorado and that I didn’t know Spanish. To her I was just like any other Puerto Rican on the island. I never felt more Puerto Rican in my life. Except for the fact that I had no idea what she said and I couldn’t respond back.

I often wonder what my family in Puerto Rico thinks of me. Not many of my family members spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish. My great-uncle didn’t speak to me most of the trip. He only talked to his brother, my grandfather, in Spanish. The day before I was to leave he started talking to me in English. I did not know he spoke English at all. I wonder if he thought of me as a spoiled American girl who knew nothing of her culture.

Throughout her memoir, Díaz gives her readers the past and the history of Puerto Rico. In 1937, citizens of Poncè, Puerto Rico wanted independence from the United States. Cops surrounded protestors and shot them in the streets. In Poncè, Puerto Rico in 1950, a date that resonates with me as both of my grandparents were born in Poncè in 1950, citizens were not allowed to speak out against the US government or fly their Puerto Rican Flags.

Towards the end of her memoir Díaz visited San Juan and stopped at the prison that was called La Princesa, but instead of a prison when she visits, it’s a tourist location. D́iaz writes about a moment when she is standing in a prison cell and someone asks her to take their photo, without thinking she asks for her photo to be taken as well. Then she writes “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Those words ring true in a thousand ways. I too have stood in that same tourist location. I have photos of me in those prison cells. I too fell into the trap of contributing to the erasure of history. Is this what my great uncle thinks of me? Some tourist coming into his home and forgetting Puerto Rico’s history?

My great aunt only spoke one English sentence right before I left Puerto Rico. She grabbed both of my hands and said, “Come back, and when you do you will know Spanish.”

“Yes.” I said.

“Promise?” She asked as she held my face in between her hands.

“I promise.”

I think of that promise often. Sometimes I study Spanish really hard to keep that promise. Other times I forget. I have one problem; I have no one to talk to in Spanish to practice. My family prefers to speak in English and only a few Spanish words come out every now and then. Not enough for full conversations.

I want to keep that promise for my great-aunt and for myself. But most importantly for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up with dark hair and big brown eyes and for her to feel insecure that her mom never taught her Spanish. I don’t want her to visit Puerto Rico and feel insecure with each family member that she meets. I want her to feel her Puerto Rican culture. I want to feel it too. I hold Ordinary Girls in my heart. For its history of Puerto Rico, for reminding me what the island feels like, and for giving ordinary girls like me a chance to see themselves in a book.
___

Ashley Espinoza is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work has been published in Hobart, Assay, The Forge Literary Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is a nonfiction editor for The Good Life Review and is currently writing a memoir.

A Review of Laurie Easter’s All the Leavings

November 15, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Sandra Eliason

The things we leave behind, from the first home with a lover to the view of who we are, from our youthful sense of invulnerability to life’s inevitable losses, are described in lyrical detail in All the Leavings, a memoir in essays by Laurie Easter.

Her daughter Akela’s near death from a ruptured appendix in “Her Body, a Wilderness,” colors Easter’s future ways of thinking. After a forest fire, she does not want the burnt residue managed. Instead, she wishes the wilderness left to its own regeneration. When Akela becomes septic, Easter witnesses the wilderness of her daughter’s body raging with fire. She understands the body is as vast a wilderness as a forest.

Just as “humans have tried to conquer the wilderness of outdoor nature to wield it to serve and benefit our own desires,” she muses,we seek to control our inner wilderness by conquering disease. Similarly, we have tried to conquer our inner wilderness by manipulating and controlling disease and pain within our human shells….”

While Akela’s wilderness recovers, it is “not by any natural process of recovery, but by the commitment to dominate, subdue, and manage that wilderness.”

The essay “Relics” describes a memento box holding reminiscences of past people and events, followed by the lyrical essay, “Something to do with Baldness,” an ode to a friend dying of cancer. Although Easter has difficulty explaining why she shaved her head, she knew by becoming “bald sisters,” they had “stripped down to the bare minimum, exposed, nothing left but pure essentials.”

Reading how Easter lives off the land reminds me of dreams I had years before marriage and career took me in other directions. She describes a daughter’s birth on a plywood living room floor between a woodstove and bathtub, an outdoor shower she uses in winter and summer, feeling a cougar’s eyes penetrating her in the dark, and listening to the scream of animals being caught in the night. Her husband encounters a bear. Her children catch tadpoles and release frogs. These experiences are foreign to me, yet in Easter’s voice, they are accessible and understandable. These circumstances and others speak to the grit she needs to navigate her daily life, while her losses speak to the grit her heart needs to navigate all the leavings.

In “Crack My Heart Wide Open,” Easter describes an adolescent suicide, her daughter Lily’s crush, someone who had confided his intent to Lily, but promised he wouldn’t do it. Easter sees the boyfriend’s mother at school at the moment the son kills himself at home. How does a mother comfort her daughter, help her not blame herself? Easter ponders her own period of suicidal thoughts and wonders what it takes for someone to follow through. Seeing the sorrow and guilt the community experiences after a suicide helps her to put aside suicidal ideation.

A meth-addicted friend who disappears, her husband’s diagnosis of hepatitis C, and a friend dying of AIDS and has knowingly infected others, prompt Easter to ponder disease, choices, and medical decisions.

“The Polarity of Incongruities” describes money Easter receives from a friend’s estate—money that allows opportunities that otherwise would be unavailable; thus, she experiences “gratitude and grief—simultaneously.”

The essay “All the Leavings” is a perfect meditation on endings, goodbyes, and leavings. Easter explores the disparate words and phrases, tones and colors used for leaving:

Children are often expected to run along; then, as adolescents, they learn how to give the slip, and later, in defiance, tell adults to take a hike. Sometimes it is best to let one alone to solve her own problems. Sometimes, though, when problems seem insurmountable, she may withdraw into herself, which presents a bigger challenge than, say, withdrawing money from the ATM before disappearing from town or withdrawing before climax because no condom was handy. Sometimes there is an urge to ride off into the sunset. Always, if there is a fire, one needs to exit the building.

Set against the rugged backdrop of an Oregon forest home, Easter’s book gives poignant, readable, and gentle observations in the ways loss and remembrance affect a life.
__

Sandra Hager Eliason is a retired doctor who won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine’s Arts Edition writing contest in 2016. She has been published in Bluestem, Brevity blog, and in the ebook anthology, Tales From Six Feet Apart. She has a piece forthcoming in West Trade Review. Find Eliason on twitter @SandraHEliason1 or Instagram @sheliasonmd.

A Review of Ira Sukrungruang’s This Jade World

November 1, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

Several years ago, at a writer’s conference, I stood next to Ira Sukrungruang at a makeshift bar in the conference director’s kitchen, engaging in loose chitchat. For reasons that escape me now, Sukrungruang told me, he’d gotten divorced because he wanted a child. After this, our host shooed us outside to roast marshmallows, and, thus, I didn’t hear the rest of this story.   

The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about this yearn for a child, but not being able to have one…for whatever reason. Then, I saw Sukrungruang and his young son, Bodhi, running across the college lawn. He grabbed the boy, wrestled him to the ground, their faces glowed, their laughter ricocheted off the campus buildings, and I thought what a lucky boy to have such a father.

When Sukrungruang’s essay collection, This Jade World, arrived in my mailbox, I was thrilled, hoping to hear the rest of the story, still locked in my memory.

This Jade World is a collection of forty-five short essays (two of which have appeared in Brevity). Sukrungruang (who sometimes refers to himself as Thai Boy) describes growing up in Chicago, born to Thailand immigrants, struggling with body image and self-confidence.

At twenty-one, a college student, Sukrungruang meets poet Katie Riegel. “To friends, she was known as Teacher, a poet who was nine years older and taught at the university Thai Boy was a student at,” he writes in his essay “In 1997.” “He idolized her. Saw her as his guide in life. Someone who would lead him on the right path.”

Riegel invites him to her poetry reading, and Thai Boy falls into a “swoon that saturated him in a blushing warmth.” The relationship grows quickly. Riegel sees this and warns Sukrungruang on their fourth or fifth day: “You don’t have to be married to be in love. It’s just a paper, a fuckin’ paper. And then what happens? Domestication.” Riegel not only seems adverse to marriage, but seemingly rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother. Yet, young and naïve, Sukrungruang nods along…wanting whatever Riegel wants.  

“When you meet someone at twenty-one, someone nine years older and wiser, you learn the world through her eyes,” he writes. “You are a blank slate, a boy who hasn’t lost enough. You adopt what she wants and her views on life.”

Sukrungruang wants to show Riegel how much he loves her and stages a romantic outing, which he writes about in heartbreaking detail in “Mount Crested Butte.” On a chairlift, climbing up the mountain, he pulls a ring from his pocket, but doesn’t place it on Riegel’s finger. He’s afraid he might drop it. So, he hands it to her.

“She opened and closed her fist,” he writes. “Then she slipped it onto her index finger,” but says nothing.  

Back in town, Sukrungruang stops at the library. He pauses before entering, turns around and sees Riegel in the car, staring at the diamond, prisms flashing across the ceiling. He believes this is the happiest day of his life: “This woman loves me. Loves the ring. Wants to be my wife.”

Older and wiser, he looks back and sees these scenes differently. On the chairlift, after Riegel slides the ring on her finger, her “face is windburned, cheeks and forehead red. She wears a baseball hat that sits awkwardly in the tangles of her hair. Her face wears no expression. Not a smile. Not a frown. The boy doesn’t see the nothingness on her face.”

Maybe it’s like the snowball rolling downhill, going faster and faster. There’s no way to stop this marriage. They exchange vows in Thailand, in front of Sukrungruang’s family with “a white string—mong kol—twined around their heads joining them.” Guests “pour holy water over the couple’s hands, wishing them the best in their future together.”  

Riegel undergoes a hysterectomy, and the string that supposedly tethers them begins to unravel. In “After the Hysterectomy,” Sukrungruang writes in second person as if his wiser self needs to have a talk with young Thai boy: “Because of her you don’t want children, complain of their noise and ruckus on planes, the way they can’t control the yarn of drool dripping from their toothless mouths.” By the end of this essay, he realizes, “This would be the end, though you did not know it then. The end. The end.”

On the couple’s twelfth anniversary, Riegel sends Sukrungruang a note. She wants a divorce. Sukrungruang is shocked, heartbroken, and sees only a bleak future. He’s so distraught, he considers suicide.  

The book opens with a dark, slightly surreal piece, “The First.” In it, Sukrungruang leaves his warm, loving, and happy relationship to have robotic sex with an online stranger in a cheap motel.  

All of the essays are thematically connected, each one self-contained. They do jump back and forth in time, which might disorient a few readers. For me, though, it was like watching an artist paint a picture. First come the random brushstrokes, then bits of color, then shape. Eventually the complete image emerges and what a thrill to have been there to see it evolve.  While these essays circle around the topics of love and divorce, they’re also about renewal, finding love again, and, of course, the joy of fatherhood. 
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

A Review of Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart

October 21, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Kelly K. Ferguson

Last week I found myself wandering Ellis Hall in Ohio University. Back when I was a creative writing grad student, I lurked all the time, acting as if I had official business, but really on the lookout for company, which I usually found. But that was seven years ago, and we’re in the second year of a pandemic. Ellis Hall has since been renovated to resemble a Hampton Inn. The dusty hardback copies of Ivanhoe? Recycled. The bat under the trash can? Disposed. No sensible person would miss how the stairwells used to smell of baby diapers. The clank of an opening door echoed and I scurried out.

The above is what Brenda Miller would call a container scene. My scene is meant to demonstrate particular loneliness, the loneliness a writer feels for other writers. The German word for that feeling is Schrifstellersehnsucht.

Schrifsteller = writer

Sehnsucht = longing

In A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller weaves short essays of her writing life with craft lessons. The book is divided into three sections (of course!). The first centers around memoir of Miller’s writing life, the second on craft, and the third reflects on writing community.

Any follower of Brevity recognizes Brenda Miller as a good friend to creative nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve read her classic essay “Swerve,” or Miller writing about writing “Swerve.” Miller may not have invented the lyric essay, but she has made containers such as the hermit crab, collage, and braided essay accessible to instructors and writers.

If Miller’s Tell it Slant (co-authored with Suzanne Paola) is a chalkboard crammed with notes, A Braided Heart is a pot of perfectly steeped tea with two cups. The book is a testament to the tensile strength of essay. No matter how the form is bent, so long as the writer remains in conversation, the connection maintains, this friendship through words.

While I was a grad student at Ohio University, Brenda Miller was a visiting writer and I picked her up from the Columbus airport. I was nervous and excited and took a detour to Canal Winchester, the exit where strip malls and car dealerships go to thrive. Losing our visiting writer to the machinations of neoliberal industry would be bad. I rambled without pause to cover my anxiety until I figured out how to merge back onto the proper road.

Miller remained good company throughout.

Miller’s talent is to make the structure of her lyrical essays feel natural, as if they couldn’t read any other way. “Writing Inside the Web” connects a story about a Free Box at a lodge, to a writing retreat, to a list of internal brain machinations, to Simon and Garfunkel.

“…the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen.” (“On Thermostats”)

Last Friday, I sat down to finish this review, and wound up writing a hermit crab essay instead, which I credit to the juju provided from A Braided Heart.

When I taught the hermit crab essay as a graduate student, I would show this video of a pet hermit crab changing shells. Without their container, the hermit crab is vulnerable, disproportionate, a hunchback out of the belfry. At the end of the video, when the crab slips into their new home, a woman gasps, “Ooooh! There she goes!” This always made the students laugh.

That laughter was the sound of freedom from the five-paragraph essay.

Miller writes how concrete forms allow for “inadvertent revelations,” where the writer surrenders control. “Revelation, or discovery, emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.”

Confession: Schrifstellersehnsucht doesn’t exist. My partner is Austrian and finds this idea of a “German word” for everything perplexing. He explains that German has more compound words, so it’s easier to string words together, but that doesn’t mean the words are real.

“But what would the German word be, if you made one up?” I ask.

He knows I’ve been lonely for other writers.

The day after I’d visited Ellis Hall, I ran into my former creative nonfiction professor, Eric LeMay, in a market parking lot. Even as my chatter floated in the air, I wondered why I would go on about lurking for the smell of baby diapers, out of all the things I could say. Our exchange was over in a minute.

“Maybe see you somewhere, someday,” I said. I meant a reading or a gathering.

“Maybe,” he said through his mask.

The inside of my car was silent. I thought, this is a somewhere, someday.

“What I’m trying to say is the lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken,” Brenda Miller.

Two wide flat mossy rocks sit like invitations in front of my house. A father and his daughter walk by most days. The girl always runs up to the rocks, and leaps from one to the other. 

“Whee!” she says, but only when she’s in the air.

___

Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Storysouth, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications. In the past ten years, she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio back to southern Louisiana on to southern Utah back to southern Ohio, where she has planted asparagus in the hopes of yielding a tender spear in three to five years. 

Review of Abby Hagler’s There Was Nothing Left But Gold

October 8, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Hannah White

I was a quiet girl. I grew up in an all-girl home. In the spaces between my mother’s failed boyfriends and marriages, it was just my mother, my sister, and me, together in a home too large for just us. My mother loved silence, especially in the morning, when our voices carried easily through the emptiness of the house. Excitement was greeted with hushes, with demands to walk lightly. I made myself like a little ghost and she loved me for it.

But I must admit: I love quiet too. In it I find space, room for thinking, for reading and writing, room for loving myself like I always wanted someone else to.

Similarly, Abby Hagler finds space of her own as she revisits the rolling Nebraska grasslands of her home in There Was Nothing Left But Gold. After severing communication with her mother, Hagler heads toward her childhood home and stops in the prairie lands that inspired Willa Cather’s fiction. Weaving together personal and travel narrative, literary criticism, and ghost theory, in her lyric essays Hagler demonstrates an awareness of self, of how identity is inherited—or willed by parents onto their children—and of how memory is strongly tied to place.

Hagler identifies with Cather, who she says, “sought to escape the myth her mother had created for her.” Hagler herself a rebellious child who resisted the life her mother strained to raise her into—one of marriage, of being settled in one place—asks the question, “What becomes of the woman who lives the story her mother tells?”

Entering the prairie that is the setting of O Pioneers!, after being away from the grasses of her homeland for years, Hagler is left speechless. The life of the prairie moves around her, grass constantly growing and dying and growing again. She writes, “Grass resists assimilation. It grows against language because we cannot own it.” Hagler deftly puts into words what it feels like to simultaneously belong to a place—whether a landscape or a mother—without being owned by it.

Coming back to the prairie of her childhood, now an adult, Hagler feels she is now haunting the landscape that raised her. She revisits once familiar places—gas stations and fields—attesting to them that she still exists. But she asks herself, “Can I be nostalgic for a home where I no longer belong?” Though pulled to the memories of her childhood home, Hagler is struck by the continuity of the once familiar places around her despite her absence. Hagler provokes her readers with questions of the importance of place, identity, and inheritance.

Hagler’s mother sends her a lock of her baby hair, telling her she is in charge of her own relics. Because she lacks a house, family members resist giving Hagler family heirlooms, instead sending photocopies of pictures and documents of family history, “writing and being educated do not count as stability. One must display a physical immovability in order to keep time.” But Hagler makes readers question: Can one over truly leave home behind?

Though pulled to the lands of her home, where seeds in the prairie grass wedge themselves between fibers of clothing, holding on even through the wash, where blades of grass sprout out, each blade origin unknown and maybe even far from where it springs, Hagler imagines a willing revisiting of home, a sort of reverence for the past that does not compromise the personal choice of tomorrow.

Quiet is my mother, but it is me too.
___

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.

A Review of Judy Bolton-Fasman’s Asylum

October 1, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

A curious girl who grows up around people who keep secrets is like a balloon filling with water. It’s only a matter of time until it bursts.

But secrets don’t stand a chance against a girl who can find the words. And Judy Bolton-Fasman is one of those girls.

With sophisticated sleuthing and tender prose, she investigates her secret-keeping parents in Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets, the book she wrote to “release the pull of a mystery that had taken up sprawling real estate in my mind for too long.”

That her birth name is the same as the fictional girl detective Judy Bolton popular in the 1930s and 1940s, only fuels her curiosity. “It was the case of a lifetime,” she writes. The book is her personal, emotional detective story.

The prologue sets the tone and the tension. In the summer of 1985, a thick envelope arrives at Bolton-Fasman’s New York City apartment from her father who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She’s hopeful that the envelope might contain some sort of final confession that could put an end to her lifelong questions about his trastiendas, the word her Cuban mother used to describe secrets.

“The letter might be telling me that my father no longer had dreams to comfort him,” she writes. “After all, a trastienda is a dark, dank place, and this letter carried a whiff of that because no one’s trastiendas were more hidden away than those of my parents.”

But just as she is about to open it, she sees the flickering red light of her answering machine. Thinking it might be her ex-boyfriend whose swift departure has left her reeling, she hits the play button and hears her father’s voice imploring her not to open the letter. He says, “I need you to burn it.”

Another daughter might ignore that request. But when it came to her father, she writes, “obedience had always prevailed.” She placed a lighter to the envelope and dutifully let it burn in a metal garbage can, watching as the trastiendas disintegrated into ash—secrets she suspected “had the power to crack open the sky.”

I, too, would have wanted to know the contents of that package. But like Bolton-Fasman, I was a good Jewish girl who sensed that something wasn’t quite right: that there was a missing piece, a truth unspoken, a successful silencing.

But one needs to be ready. Bolton-Fasman writes, “If I opened the envelope, I would come face to face with secrets I was still too afraid to learn.”

What follows is a sensitively written account of her fact-finding quest for answers—many of which she finds, some not conclusively—powered by her curiosity and her strong Jewish faith. Ultimately reciting the traditional Jewish Kaddish prayer for her father after his death helped bring her some clarity.

“…Kaddish was symbolic of a spiritual anechoic chamber in which my public acknowledgment of God’s presence harmonized with the private silence of my grief. Even after I had finished the eleven-month ritual, the words of the Kaddish played out in the endless symphony of silence my father had left behind.”

The book’s title does a beautiful job of framing the story in metaphor. Bolton-Fasman grew up on a street named Asylum, in Hartford, Connecticut. This word is simultaneously associated with the idea of protection and security, but also an institution supporting the mentally ill. She describes her Cuban mother as a “beautiful hysteric” and “an emotional terrorist” and her Connecticut-born father as “a noble man” whom she followed around the house because he knew how to do practical things. Growing up on Asylum Street was both “refuge and madness,” she writes.

This tension holds the reader’s interest, while mirroring Bolton-Fasman’s internal struggle. She was a curious girl living in a family of secrets—two things that usually don’t go well together. Yet, her deep desire to know illustrates how the search to unlock secrets through words can be its own reward.

There’s a Jewish teaching, Bolton-Fasman writes, that an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter from God. Asylum is a return to that unopened letter from her father that allows her to share her own interpretation.
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Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), about breaking a long-held silence, was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.

A Review Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir by Allison Hong Merrill

September 24, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jennifer Lang

In her debut memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, Allison Hong Merrill chronicles her life from early childhood in an abusive home in one country to marriage to the man of her naïve dreams in another. Night after night, I put my legs up my living room wall or crawled under my covers in bed desperate to know she will survive and overcome the obstacles and challenges along the way: a father who disowns her, a mother who cannot mother her, a cruel husband who uproots and deceives her.

From the first sentence, “I discovered that I became a starter wife from a light switch,” the reader understands that something is amiss. There is a hint of foreign. A curiosity about a starter wife and its connection to electricity. A spark of humor.

When the first Mormon missionaries, Elder Copinga and Elder York, “both taller than the doorframe,” show up in Hong Merrill’s father’s house in Hualien, Taiwan when she is 12, I feel relieved. Hopeful. If her parents don’t understand how to love her and her siblings or how to make them feel safe or free to be themselves, whether healthy or handicapped (her younger sister had cerebral palsy), smart or stupid (Hong Merrill is the former but criticized for being the latter), then perhaps these devout American men and the religion they represent do.

Hong Merrill’s story covers myriad themes—family loyalty, true friendship, the meaning of independence, belief in a higher being, happiness—but the two that stand out are power (or lack thereof) and choice. In the beginning, she is powerless against unloving parents and choice-less amidst a culture that deems women inferior and invisible. But as she grows up, finds the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, meets the Bushmans whom she calls her rebirth parents, and moves to a country where women count, she eventually understands that she can take back her power and make her own choices in life. Because of her upbringing in a traditional Asian culture, she thinks she needs a man to take care of her, but what she learns first in Texas and later in Utah, first married and later divorced and alone, is that she needs to believe in herself. A beautiful message for all women from every culture.

Divided into 11 parts, each of the 99 chapters is short, sometimes only one page. While the story is linear, she moves within and between places, offering occasional time stamps to anchor us. Sprinkled throughout the text are Chinese proverbs, Mormon teachings, Rumi’s poetry, and wise sayings that she explains and refers to in subsequent chapters.

Hong Merrill’s capacity for reflection astounds me. She writes:

Looking back, part of me wants to warn my younger self to get on the next flight and run away from Cameron. He would become my nemesis. His words would replace mine. His voice would silence mine… But another part of me knows that the hardships I was about to suffer in Texas were the refiner’s fire. If I endured well, I would gain more strength and compassion.

And then there’s her wit; to describe the boys she deems handsome, she compares them to Hollywood actors like Cameron is Bruce Willis’s doppelgänger, Drake Hugh Grant.

Along the same lines, she has a keen ability to see and poke fun at herself, enviable for any memoir writer. When introducing herself to the building manager in Texas, a woman who had never heard her speak, she writes:

But the real surprise was hearing myself say the name that my tenth-grade English teacher had given me the way Americans do, without mixing up the L and R—one of the English-language learning curves that most Chinese people struggle with. Not Ayhreesong. I said Allison. The parting of my lips + the tip of my tongue kicking off the back of my upper front teeth + the soft dropping of my tongue + short hissing sss juxtaposed with the nasal ending = Allison. I said that.

This memoir moved me not only because it’s wrought with tension and well written but also because like the narrator, I am an immigrant living in a place where religion surrounds me: an American Jew in Israel. But the similarities stop there because unlike her, I moved here on my own accord in my early twenties, knowing I can always buy a return ticket and go home to northern California or anywhere in the United States no matter what. A freedom that I took for granted until I grew up and saw more of the world.
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Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, Hippocampus, and forthcoming in Consequence, among others. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she and her husband spent three decades packing and unpacking, rooting and uprooting in search of home. Finally, they settled in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and searches for a special press to publish her first memoir in vignettes.

A Review of Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last

September 20, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Sarah White

As a memoirist who most often chooses the brief essay form, I’ve wondered how my personal essays might hang together as a collection. For that reason, I was drawn to Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last. Having discovered, earlier this year, her 2019 book Late Migrations, I welcomed the chance to spend more time with her closely observed, intensely humane, and always brief writing.

Renkl was offered a monthly New York Times op-ed column about “the flora, fauna, politics and culture of the American South”—a dream job for any essayist. These columns were published between 2018 and 2020, and that period from mid-Trump-reign to full-on pandemic inflects in nearly every one.

Renkl considered organizing principles for the collection such as chronology (strict or loose) and grouping by approach before settling on “a kind of patchwork quilt, the art form of my maternal ancestors.” Oh, those ancestors! As in Late Migrations, they leap off the pages here. In “Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings,” about stage fright during her book tour for Late Migrations, Renkl writes, “…I prefer to think the family matriarchy saved me, that my beloved elders closed ranks around me, my mother and mother-in-law on one flank, my grandmother and great-grandmother on the other, to shore me up and give me strength.” In “Remembrance of Recipes Past,” she slew me with, “For me it is always both heartbreaking and comforting to open my mother’s recipe box on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” (My mother was no cook.) If you loved Renkl’s writing about nature and family in Late Migrations, the sections of Graceland, At Last grouped under Flora & Fauna, Environment, and Family & Community will delight you.

Graceland, At Last could easily be used as a text for teaching journalism. The essays in the sections on Politics, Social Justice, and Arts & Culture are exemplary—reviews of concerts and museum openings, op-eds that touch on the complications of life in Tennessee as “a red-state liberal,” argument essays against issues like the death penalty and unrestrained gentrification. “We may never agree on what real justice looks like, but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do,” she writes in “An Act of Mercy in Tennessee,” about clemency granted to a sixteen-year-old who killed her pimp. As a journalist, she practices Appreciative Inquiry—finding and covering the good going on in the world. Her journalism is always cogent but blended with personal reflection that ties public events to her singular, sensitive soul.

And how I love Renkl’s gift for language! From the introduction: “To love a person is always to love in spite of the faults that intimacy reveals, and so it is with a place. To love the South is to see with clear eyes both its terrible darkness and its dazzling light, and to spend a lifetime trying to make sense of both.” From ”The Flower that Came Back from the Dead,” about preserving the Tennessee coneflower from extinction: “There’s a great danger in hope, as Roxane Gay has pointed out: ‘Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others….’” From “The Misunderstood, Maligned Rattlesnake”: “I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that the peaceable kingdom is anything but. All day long and all night long, too, … every creature … is both trying to eat and trying not to be eaten.” 

Renkl is so likable, as a writer and an individual, with her rich family traditions, her concern for justice, and her observant and unsentimental love of nature, that every paragraph feels like a conversation with a friend.

One quibble, unavoidable since all these essays appeared as New York Times columns: the word count of each is nearly identical. The book is better taken in brief dips rather than sustained reading, where the lack of variety in pacing starts to annoy. At some point, I started to long for a sense of a larger narrative. There is none, but the juxtapositions created by Renkl’s selection and ordering of these more than sixty columns is thought-provoking. The book is full of gifts for the reader but even more for anyone who, like Renkl and me, enjoys writing in the essay form.
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Sarah White provides writing services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities from her home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Typical projects include books, articles, and life histories. She also teaches memoir writing through small-group workshops and one-on-one coaching.

A Review of Sebastian Matthews’ Beyond Repair

September 10, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Stephen Corey

At a writers’ gathering several years ago I had picked up a few basic details of the horrific, head-on, near-fatal automobile crash endured by Sebastian Matthews, his wife, and their young son. Because Sebastian and I are acquaintances from shared attendance at such gatherings and from my having published his work several times when I was editing The Georgia Review, I looked forward to learning more from his Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State. And I did learn, but most of the more was quite other than I had anticipated.

The opening pages of this literally small volume—more on that in a moment—were in line with what I had assumed the whole would be doing: providing the frightening insider details that only Sebastian could give, and then offering some anecdotal reports on the various stages of his and his wife’s years-long recovery process. (Their son, eight at the time, was in the backseat and remarkably spared all but seatbelt burns.) However, Beyond Repair quickly widens to engage multiple aspects of its cagey subtitle—Living in a Fractured State—and becomes thereby a study in which Matthews essentially sets aside his own physical trauma to focus on the ways it heightened and deepened his awareness of, and concern about, the social and political damages America has been enduring in recent years.

Beyond Repair is small in various ways—and bear with me as I give you some numbers, because they lead to a crucial point. This is a 5×8 paperback, and its count of 160 pages includes thirteen of front matter, fifteen blanks, eighteen holding only visual images or brief quotes from other sources, and a half-dozen that hold a handful or fewer lines of Matthews’ own text.

So, within about one hundred “actual” pages Beyond Repair gives us just over sixty taut essays, with the longest—that opener I mentioned—going just four-plus, and with more than thirty of the vignettes complete on a single page (and ten of those within a half-page). Also, Matthews’ titles seem to be seeking the same quick hits as his essays—twenty-eight bear a single word, fifteen more just two—as if, perhaps, he wants to try giving all his post-accident observations and thoughts the same unexpected and intense feel as the crash itself.

This would be impossible in a literal sense, of course, and would belittle the suffering endured by the two adults, so it’s an approach to the book’s structural elements that may well be more mine than his. But there is that term fractured in the subtitle, so I’m comfortable giving the writer credit for leading me along.

Racial and social-class tensions are the ones most consistently present in Matthews’ observations and concerns, whether blatantly in the muscle-flexing of “White Men in Trucks” or more nuanced via some small, multiracial/multiclass sparks flying in the neighborhood laundromat of “Quarter.” The tentacles of political stance unavoidably reach into the book as well, and these broader topics ended up pulling me along as much as, and then even more than, Sebastian’s long-range recovery from his brutal injuries.

White guy though I be, I have come to have a very diverse family over the decades. A number of years after having two daughters of our own, my wife (also white) and I adopted two more daughters, one from South Korea, the other from Peru—and their eventual partner choices have yielded us grandchildren who have added black and Hispanic strains to our inner circle. I’m neither innocent enough nor arrogant enough to claim too much about these facts, especially when Matthews overhears a young black writer say during a mostly-white-attendee conference, “‘They’re well-meaning, with their Black Lives Matter signs on their yards, but, really, they don’t know how to act around people of color.’” Still, none of us know as much as we need to know about people who are not ourselves, and too many of us fail to recognize that fact—and I’m grateful to Matthews for reminding me of this while he reminds himself.

Place and point of view are fluid in Beyond Repair: often we are told where we are, but not always; the dominant pronoun for the narrator is I, but with an irregular regularity you or he or we drops in. Further—and I mean this as an odd but definite praise—the entire work exhibits a fluidity that could be a weakness in many books. I’m not saying I don’t think Matthews gave careful consideration to the placement of the sixty-three individual essays, as well as to his division of the nine sections whose essay-count is an almost-obsessive-seeming 9-9-9-4-4-9-9-9-1. Rather, I believe he is recognizing the slippery-fish nature of his explorations, and thereby confronting the central contradiction of his effort:

Some readers may well ask whether the fractures in this book’s movement are spot-on, or an avoidance of full enough commitment to the healing that often seems to be the truest of Sebastian Matthews’ intentions, or a mixture of these and other results. I believe he offers what Poe would have termed a “purloined guide,” waiting until two-thirds of the way through the book to clue us directly about something we may or may not have been picking up on our own: in “Walking Lubbock” (which he is doing literally with a friend), Matthews susses out his dilemma and his search for a solution:

I worry aloud that our world has moved “beyond repair.” Curtis pushes back on the thought.

Is anything really ever beyond repair? I try to explain myself. I mean, why even try to repair something so broken? We bat the idea around. Maybe it’s not about systemic failure—as in That car is dead, it’s beyond repair—but, instead, about something transformational—as in, We need to move beyond repair. Not trying to fix something but overhauling the whole system.

Throwing everything out and starting again.

However, we are not looking at “the answer” here. Twenty pages further along Matthews forces himself to confront the word of Clinton J. Moyer in a Huffington Post article: “This, my white friends, is privilege. Even in our most activist moments, we don a cause like a fashionable hat, briefly, briefly, until we exhaust our emotional reserves.” Matthews is hit hard by this reminder of the inherent privilege he cannot entirely work off or wish away, but he cannot (and should not) set aside the fact that he bears another weight, that of the nearly-died, which has become a strong assistant to his search for fairness and decency at as many turns as possible.

In the earlier mentioned “Quarter,” Matthews watches (and hears) as the laundromat attendant pours a “steady cascade” of coins from one unlocked dryer box after another.

“I always try to listen . . .” she puts a finger up to her ear, tapping it lightly, “. . . for that sound . . .”

I smile at her, though not sure yet what she means.

“. . . I listen for that one silver sound.” She turns back to her work. “One quarter is usually pure silver, you know.”

Key in slot, the box slid out, dumped in the tub.

I listen for the silver sound but can only hear the dull roar of coins dropping from their chute.

Believing as I do in the centrality of smart metaphor as one of the keys to creating distinctive and effective writing, I have come to sense this quiet late scene in Beyond Repair—only four more essays follow it—as a crucial entryway to Sebastian Matthews’ understanding of how far he has come and how much farther he has to travel. His near-death experience brought him to a new intensity of awareness about a broad range of the experiences of others around him, but not to any quick-won answers to the questions that awareness raises. I strongly suspect that he will be walking other streets in other Lubbocks, seeking and finding some progression of answers in essays longer or—who can say?—even shorter.
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Stephen Corey is the author of ten poetry collections and, most recently, Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal, Literary, and Cultural (Mercer University Press, 2017). In the spring of 2022, White Pine Press will publish his As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New and Selected Poems, 1981-2022. In 2019, he retired as editor of The Georgia Review, with which he worked for thirty-six years.

1, 4 or 5 Stars: Why to Review Right Now

September 7, 2021 § 29 Comments

You can do something for me today. For every author you know. For even the authors you don’t. An act of literary citizenship that takes 7-10 minutes. Sure, you can spend time and/or money to be a literary citizen—hosting events, blogging, editing or reading for a journal—or contribute gently to your community by giving thoughtful feedback in your own writing group. But to actually help authors sell books, for free, right now:

Write a review.

Not “pitch a review to a literary publication,” although that’s great, too. Not “write a 900-word blog post balancing serious critique with just enough praise.” Not “read the book twice for fairness and highlight quotes and eventually put something up in a couple of months.” Just write and post a short review, right away.

  • Write a review of 3-10 sentences. Maybe quote one line you really liked.
  • Post to Amazon, where you can usually review even books you didn’t buy on Amazon. Copy your review before hitting “submit.”
  • Paste the review to Goodreads. (Goodreads accepts reviews even before the publication date, allowing for ARCs or having read the manuscript.)

Feeling ambitious, or you like the author? Take a photo of the book or the cover on your screen. No need to style like #bookstagram—next to your teacup or against your houseplants is fine. Post to your social media. Tag the author so they’ll see it and feel supported and can repost on their own social media…which might get you another couple followers. Citizenship always comes back around. Posting that photo with your Amazon review helps your review show up, and tells the algorithm you own the book (useful if you supported your local indie bookstore).

Should I wait to have time to write something “real”?

Amazon reviews are not serious discussions of literature. They guide buyers on the fence: Look, someone liked something I know I’ll like, too. Buy. Look, someone had an issue with a plot element that’ll bother me, too. Nope. Reviews help algorithms decide how many people will spontaneously see this book. More reviews (the best-guess “magic number” is 50) makes a book show up higher in search results. More people not specifically shopping for that book will see it, and some of them will buy it. Goodreads reviews are often more thoughtful, but review now rather than laboring over a paragraph truly reflecting your literary prowess.

What if I haven’t read the whole book?

Your review is more valuable to your friend than reading their whole book. Think about it: would you rather I email you in six months, “I finally finished your book and I loved it!” Or would you rather I post that sentiment on my socials during your release month, even if I’m not on the last page yet? (Authors: do not pop-quiz your friends on your book. Trust they read what spoke to them and be grateful. If they want to thoroughly discuss your plot choices, they’ll bring it up.)

…Shhh…I didn’t actually like my friend’s book…

Helpful reviews are no stars, four/five stars, or one star.

No stars: Hated the book? Don’t review it. For a friend’s book, pick a sentence you like (there’s one in there somewhere!) and quote it with a photo on social media. Tell your moral compass you’re not recommending the book…you’re observing that it exists, pointing out one good thing, and supporting your friend.

Four/five stars: If you liked the book enough to give your time to review, choose four or five stars. Didn’t like it four stars’ worth? Go back to the no-stars plan. Three stars says, “I think your work is…average.” Two stars says, “Your book sucks, but it didn’t raise my anger or disgust enough for one star.” If you wouldn’t say that to their face, don’t say it with your review.

One star: If a book you regret reading is by a stranger you will never need goodwill from, and it really irritated you, go for that one star! A trash review is better than tepid, as long as you’re specific about what you didn’t like. Your poison may be someone else’s champagne.

You want your friends’ support when it’s your turn. They need your support now. Maybe they’re not even your friend—maybe they’re an author you hope will blurb you one day. The best time to start publicly supporting future blurbers’ work with reviews and social media is two years before you ask them for that favor. The second-best time is now.

If you have time, if you have a mass media or literary venue, by all means read that book like it’s your job. Make extensive notes. Write a beautiful essay placing the book in context with the cultural moment and your own love of literature. But if that’s not what you’re doing, read enough to know what you like and write a quick-but-thoughtful review, right away. What have you read in the last six months? Other than bestsellers, those authors need your reviews. You will make their heart sing that someone, somewhere, recognized their artistic contribution to the world.

I’ve been writing reviews all year, making deposits in the Bank of Goodwill. And oh look, my book is out today! You don’t have to buy it or like it, and I won’t ever hold that against you. Most authors won’t even notice if you don’t review them. But we’ll sure remember it with joy if you do.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, SEVEN DRAFTS: SELF-EDIT LIKE A PRO FROM BLANK PAGE TO BOOK is out today. Buy it at Bookshop.Org to support indie bookstores; go Amazon.com if corporate behemoth is your style. Ignore the “out of stock,” it’ll get there!

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