A Review of Jennifer Sinor’s Letters Like the Day

September 28, 2017 § 5 Comments

zz 32337327._UY630_SR1200,630_By Debbie Hagan

The other day, I came across a stack of letters, written in 1974, by my high school boyfriend. When I left for college, he stayed home. We couldn’t afford to talk by phone, so we wrote.

Reading the first letter, I hear this sweet boy’s voice, almost as if he were next to me. How can this be? I haven’t spoken to him in nearly forty years. I smile at his unflagging optimism: Can we get engaged? I’ve picked out our rings. We’ll get a place and live happily ever after. In the margins were scrawled love poems and cartoons with shaggy characters holding up signs: I miss you; I’m lonely. He had pressed so much love into these pages, I could feel his arms reaching for me, his kisses so sweet. This magical feeling lingered for days.

From 1914-1946, artist Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz wrote 1,900 letters. Jennifer Sinor found them in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and read them all.

At age twenty-seven, O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz wanting to subscribe to his magazine Camera Work. Months later, she sent him a few of her charcoal drawings.

“What am I to say?” he wrote back.

“This is from the man who would hold court for hours at 291, his gallery and what would be the cradle of American modernism,” writes Sinor in her essay collection, Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe. “This is from the man who would roam and rage from one topic to the next—art, politics, religion, the nature of reality—yielding the floor to none.” This is from the man who was twenty years O’Keeffe’s senior and already married.

Stieglitz had never met anyone like O’Keeffe. No one had possessed her passion, independence, and mulish drive to forge past brutal rejection and ridicule. She’d earned his respect, and it melted his curmudgeonly heart. In 1918, O’Keeffe moved to New York City. In 1924, she married Stieglitz. Five years later, she moved to New Mexico’s desert canyons, going east now and then to visit her husband. While distance kills many romances, these dreamy, impassioned letters sustained it.

In her letters, O’Keeffe professes she can’t articulate her ideas. Not true. Sinor uses her letters to offer an intimate, fresh look at this enigmatic artist through nine innovative essays. In “Holes in the Sky,” she imagines the artist physically dropping by for tea. It’s a clever way for her to metaphorically show that voice brings the work alive, so much so the letter writer’s presence is felt.

Her letters also give us insight into the way O’Keeffe thinks, her obsession with the voids. As Sinor describes it, “Not the bone but what can be seen through it. And what she saw was both beautiful and sad, terrifying and sublime, a space so complex, and charged, and personal, that words would never capture it.” Like O’Keeffe, Sinor is drawn to space, the narrative gaps that stimulates reader reflection.

“More Feeling Than Brain” is a richly woven collage made up of evocative events that occur during Sinor’s trip with her family through the desert. Her son yearns to see a coyote: “We have been waiting and waiting and waiting.” Then early one morning, they hit one with their car—hardly the way a child should meet his favorite animal. Death, longing, shock, Christian symbolism, and the vast, striking beauty of the desert make up this complex tapestry over which the writer weaves O’Keeffe’s haunting words: “I work in a queer sort of unconscious way: more feeling than brain.”

While each essay possesses its own intrigue, I’m drawn to the subject matter in the slightly amusing narrative “Perfectly Fantastic.” Dole Pineapple Company invites O’Keeffe to Hawaii to create paintings of its farm, scheduled to appear in a national ad campaign. Do the pineapple kings not realize that O’Keeffe’s eye goes to the desert—stark, angular, and full of voids? In fact, Hawaii’s lush, dense vegetation flummoxes the artist. She can’t find her way into it. Then she stumbles upon a lava-flowing volcano. She paints with fury and can’t stop. This is hardly what Dole had in mind.

“Her Hawaii paintings may not be her best work, and her time in Hawaii may not, ultimately, have been one of her most significant periods in her life,” writes Sinor. “What we have though, in these paintings and in her letters is the story of how we come to know—a place, a flower, a self.” O’Keeffe dared to look where most us don’t. Through her vision, paintings, and letters, we’re able to fully see and appreciate this artist’s own intoxicating vision of truth.


Debbie Hagan would write more letters, but there are only a few people around who can still make sense of her cursive. She’s the former editor-in-chief of Art New England, and current book reviews editor for Brevity. Her essays have appeared in Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

A Review of Morten Strøksnes’ Shark Drunk

September 11, 2017 § 2 Comments

zz 14uIiH9AfLBy Virginia Marshall

The subject of Morten Strøksnes’ Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean is a 1,300-pound fish that lives 4,000 feet below the freezing surface of the North Pole. The shark remains off-stage most of the book, but the premise is entirely dependent on the evasive, gruesome creature.

In Shark Drunk, Strøksnes, a Norwegian journalist, describes his various trips to northern Norway to join his friend Hugo Aasjord as they try to capture a Greenland shark “by using the old methods,” which involves a chopped-up, rotting bull, 1,300 feet of rope, and countless hours of waiting in the middle of a frigid fjord.

Translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, Shark Drunk is a feast of a read. However, Strøksnes and Hugo aren’t planning to feast on the fish if caught. The fresh meat contains the nerve gas trimethylamine oxide, known to induce a drunken, psychotic state when eaten, making the person “shark drunk.” At one point, Hugo mentions that he might use the oil from the shark’s liver to make paint for his next landscape painting. But mostly, it seems, the point is to go after the thing; the point is to wait and wonder about the mysterious creature and its inhospitable home.

That is the joy of Shark Drunk: experiencing Strøksnes’ wonder as he fills the narrative with impressive facts and stories about sea life in the far north. He writes about the history of fishing in Norway, the effect of climate change in the Arctic, his childhood, as well as mythology, art, literature, and the science of tiny plankton and outer space. I especially appreciated Strøksnes’ text when I visited the northern Norwegian island of Svalbard this past summer. His prose not only made the rocky shores and towering fjords take on new meaning, but his focus on those parts of the natural world that we cannot see—the depths of the ocean that are in some ways more unreachable than Mars—gave me a special, almost mystical view of the landscape. Shark Drunk was a better companion during the trip than any Lonely Planet travel book could be.

The one flaw in the narrative was that Strøksnes tended to drift through topics somewhat randomly—spending a few pages fixated on the physical distance between galaxies and then shifting to describe the claustrophobic drinking culture of Hugo’s small fishing village. That approach made it hard to find footing in the text, and at times his narration could be didactic.

The book’s chronology was loosely tethered to the four visits Strøksnes made over the course of a year, returning each time to drop rancid meat into the ocean and wait for the shark to make an appearance. His persistence is surprising, even to Strøksnes. “We still feel the drag of the irresistible arm Melville wrote about,” he confesses. “Two men in a small boat, never sure what they might encounter out on the sea or what they might pull up from the abyss, beneath melted stars and electric full moons, where breakers and swells assault the islets like hysterical herds of cattle and the lunatic eye of the lighthouse never lets us out of its sight.”

It is the mysterious, glimmering passages like these where Shark Drunk proves itself a unique read. Strøksnes allows himself a certain amount of poetry when he writes about the striking Norwegian landscape from different vantage points—approaching his subject first through the lens of Ovid’s ancient book about the North, then retreating and trying another view, this time by describing one of the countless mackerel that are the shark’s food. The pattern is similar to the fishing tactic the two men use to lure the shark: Strøksnes and Hugo drop bait into the ocean, retreat, then return and re-bait the hook, all in attempt to reel in that mysterious, monstrous subject.

Aside from the omnipresent shark always lurking just out of sight, there is another theme that skirts the edges of Strøksnes’ narrative: the disastrous impact of human activity on the wonders of the deep. But Strøksnes, in his characteristic sideways approach to the heart of each subject, gets at it by first describing the thirty words one Norwegian community had for describing different types of wind. Over several brief passages, Strøksnes expounds on our modern ways of understanding the world, from NASA’s advanced technology to the constellation app he pulls up on his smartphone to observe the heavens. He concludes with a quiet punch:

Unfortunately, the vocabulary, which was previously so rich in describing the nuances of nature, has severely diminished over the past decades. As the words disappear, so does the knowledge of complex ecological connections. Our view of the various landscapes is reduced, we attach less meaning to them, and they become less valuable to us. And that also makes them easier to destroy, in our pursuit of short-term gains.

Strøksnes is searching for the shark, in the end, not to reel it up and display its drunken flesh to the air, but to bring his world closer to that of the unknown. By forming those “disappearing words” into descriptions of the shark and the sea and the land, Strøksnes casts his line into the deep and waits for that one monstrous tug at the other end.


Virginia Marshall is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. She is also a freelance radio producer and assistant book review editor at the Harvard Review.

A Review of Jennifer Sinor’s Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir

August 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

ordinarytraumaBy Jennifer Ochstein

At a writing conference I recently attended, a panelist fielded a question from an attendee about what makes a good memoir. I’m intimately fascinated by this question since I devour memoirs and am writing my own. The panelist told this story: a creative writing professor he knows was asked by a student why she received a B rather than an A on the piece she submitted. The professor told the girl that her experiences just weren’t that interesting. While the panelist said he’d never tell a student such a thing, he believed that was the crux of it: some people just have more interesting experiences than others.

While I understand the impulse to say such a thing, I bristled, particularly since I’d just finished reading Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor for the second time. In my mind, the oxymoronic nature of Sinor’s title alone demolishes that misconception.

On a deeper level, juxtapositions and structure, metaphors and language prime readers. What the writer does with the experiences, how she crafts and renders them, causes the particularity of a lived life to universally reverberate with readers, making them feel as if the memoir helps them make sense of their own experiences. At least, that’s how Sinor’s memoir resonates with me. For Sinor, trauma becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it defines the life of her family, but how she renders those traumas makes her memoir. Sometimes the ordinary is the most heart-rending.

Sinor’s father seems to know and accept this so he trains his daughter, Jennifer, to act accordingly. He instructs Jennifer to never let her emotions get in the way of acting rational. Beneath the surface of his lesson is a personal edict he seems to live by: bury trauma. Her father, a career Navy man and maritime law expert, gives her practical advice on how to do this:

When something bad happens to you, Jennifer … you simply think of your mind like a dresser … A dresser full of drawers. And you take the bad thing, the memory, the loss, whatever it is, and you put it in the drawer of the dresser. Envision yourself doing this, like you were packing clothes in there. Then you shut the drawer and lock it. You lock it. Do you hear me?

Jennifer falls in line, lockstep.

Sinor sets Ordinary Trauma against the backdrop of the early 1970s and 1980s Cold War to illustrate the unacknowledged tensions and traumas that submerge families in their own cold wars, taking them to the brink of destruction. On top of that, she juxtaposes incidents that reveal how her family’s cold war escalates and how she consistently must lock away her feelings in order to keep those escalations from erupting and blowing her to smithereens. She does this by creating an internal order, fixating on counting pennies, for example, or listening to a Christmas song over and over. Later she develops anorexia. Fixating keeps her from emotionally marking the traumatic experiences, including her own near-death as an infant, sexual abuse, the scalding of her newborn younger brother, and later accidents that nearly caused his death. All of it is neatly tucked away so that she can hardly figure a way to deal with her own emotive reactions when they arise unexpectedly. She writes, “I cannot sort them, cannot label them, cannot explain my actions.”

Survival over pain and loss becomes a kind of liturgy that her father also teaches her. Just as she fixates on counting pennies, he teaches her how to count ocean waves during one of the family’s stints living in Hawaii. He wants her to master them rather than fear them, to dive beneath them rather than be drowned:

Waves arrive in sets of seven, he explains, and within each set of seven the waves increase in size, the next always bigger than the last. In addition, each set of waves also increases through seven sets of seven, the forty-ninth wave, then, being the largest of the series … The rules of the sea. At the seventh wave, like magic, the waves subside, a tiny ripple wandering up the sand.

It’s as if by mastering the rules, she’ll somehow never be pummeled and dragged out to sea. What she needs to watch out for is the rogue wave, the kahuna, “the one that will take you down,” her father tells her.

It’s the juxtaposition of her father’s advice to lock away her hurts and his lessons in diving deeply beneath the ocean’s waves that reveals the real oxymoron and packs the most powerful punch. She learns well from his lessons. On the one hand, because she locks away that which hurts her the most, she can hardly understand her own actions and emotions, but when she’s confronted with a kahuna, a life circumstance she suspects will surely drown her, she realizes the gift her father gave her: “the strength to do the hard thing” and the ability to “save herself.”

Sinor not only schools us in the art of the memoir, but also in the art of survival.


Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.





A Review of Jennifer Latson’s The Boy Who Loved Too Much

July 31, 2017 § 6 Comments

920x920By Tucker Coombe

Gayle D’Angelo was worried about her son. While his classmates in daycare were learning to walk and talk, Eli would simply coo and smile, then hold out his arms for a hug. “He catapulted himself into the arms of a schoolmate’s mother one day and climbed into the lap of a burly man at a shoe store the next,” writes Jennifer Latson in The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness.

At the suggestion of another parent, Gayle decided to look up a disorder called Williams syndrome. She began to read, then leaned over a trashcan and threw up.

In this debut title, Latson introduces us to Eli, Gayle, and a genetic disability whose most distinctive symptom is a complete absence of social reserve. “[W]hat would it be like to go through life this irremediably vulnerable, biologically unable to peel your heart from your sleeve and lock it safely inside?” she writes.

Latson spent three years shadowing Eli and Gayle (their names have been changed), starting when Eli is eleven. Her portrayals––subtle, complex, and unexpectedly funny––reflect this. “It was easy to fall in love with Eli,” she writes. I fell in love with him too: he’s a joyful, open-hearted boy who remains blissfully unaware of his shortcomings. Latson’s depiction of Gayle––a single mother of surprising, almost unimaginable strength––is rich and nuanced. Before she ever hears about Williams syndrome, Gayle is known to friends and family as an outspoken rebel, a fan of hard-rock concerts and horror-movie conventions. After Eli is diagnosed, Gayle trades in her heavy eyeliner and purple lipstick for sweater sets. She decorates the apartment with pictures of Cookie Monster, and delights Eli by dangling twirly, paper decorations from the doorframes.

Gayle’s ability to subvert the trappings of her old life was particularly striking to me. Before I had my first child, I feared, secretly, that the simple act of having a baby would somehow cause me to morph into an unrecognizable version of myself: would I spend my free time placidly pushing a stroller through the mall? Banish the family pets to the basement? Stop shaving my legs? In Gayle, Latson shows us someone who’s realized she has to change. To advocate for her disabled son, she must present a calm, composed version of herself to the world. The rebel and the fighter––needed more than ever––must stay below the surface, hidden along with her tattoos and ear discs.

Latson delves into the genetics of Williams syndrome, examines the prospects for gene therapy, and places the disorder in its historical context. It’s a relatively rare condition, she explains, accompanied by bewildering symptoms. People with Williams––often recognizable by their elfin-shaped faces––tend to be verbally proficient and deeply affected by music. They have difficulty with spatial concepts (making it hard, for example, to draw a simple figure) and are often plagued by anxiety, phobias, and fixations. (Eli, not atypically, is obsessed with industrial floor scrubbers.) But most notable is their highly social, effusive personality. Historians surmise they may have served as jesters and fools in the courts of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Latson shows Gayle and Eli facing all kinds of new situations: some of the book’s funniest and most touching scenes take place at a Williams syndrome camp, where Eli finds himself surrounded by uninhibited, exuberant kids just like himself. But it’s the onset of adolescence that poses the greatest peril. The stakes here are high: Eli must learn certain social skills so that he can navigate the complexities of adulthood, and “whether or not he could do so would mean the difference between being an active member of the human tribe, or living life on the margins, facing an especially acute loneliness.” By age thirteen, Eli still sings the Cookie Monster song, but his hormones are surging out of control. Once-innocent hugs are now directed toward large-breasted women: “Eli was a stage,” writes Latson, “on which puberty played out for all to see.” Gayle enacts a strict no-hugging policy: it’s handshakes and high-fives from now on. But Eli will not––cannot––comply.

Latson does a delicate dance here, illustrating everyday moments that are often mortifying for Gayle, hilarious to the reader, and which would be embarrassing for most people––but not Eli. She depicts him in all his earnest awkwardness, with great affection and not a hint of condescension. The book closes as Eli begins high school. I, for one, wish I could have stayed with Eli and Gayle just a little longer.


Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education from her home in Cincinnati. Her work has appeared most recently in The Rumpus and Los Angeles Review of Books.

A Review of Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage

July 12, 2017 § 5 Comments

51bLL4m4WeL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_By Emily Heiden

Dani Shapiro’s new memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage is an investigation into what happens when two people promise to abandon their individual paths in life and go down the same one together. It asks what we lose and gain in making the choice to link our life to another’s. It looks, too, at the selves that fall away in the process—the individual traits we hide to meet a partner’s needs, as well as the past selves that slip aside, unbidden, as we age. These past iterations of us dissolve with the decades—and the decades in turn disappear in a blink.

Shapiro offers beautiful meditations on the passage of time in her prose, telling the reader in one especially memorable section that “the decades that separate [the] young mother [she once was] from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and [she’s] back there.”

At times ruminative and nakedly candid, the narrative succeeds at bringing the reader into Shapiro’s mind, marriage, and past. The reflective nature of the text is its strength and downfall at the same time. It asks us to examine the questions Shapiro asks herself, and this allows us to contemplate time, love, and conjoined fates with her. Like a real, human conversation—which is an art eroding as quickly as the framework of Shapiro’s woodpecker-ravaged home in rural Connecticut—the text’s pensive lines and white-space-laden structure allow the kind of insight only possible when a story has the space to breathe.

A passage such as “Oh child…the future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches as you vanish” reveals a masterful collapsing of time, situating its unending forward motion within the framework of an omnipresent past.

Shapiro’s narrative stumbles in its lack of a central story. I enjoyed spending time in its pages, seeing from a perspective that as a never-married thirty-three-year-old I can only access indirectly; yet, I found myself wishing for a traditional through-line. What she gives us is more meandering. We weave through time with the author, learning that her now sixteen-year-old son almost died as an infant. We become privy to details about her prior marriages and the painstaking process of learning to stay in such a union. We learn, too, about the skins her husband M. has shed with time, that is, his “past lives” as a journalist in war-ravaged territories and his love of danger. In some of her most honest moments, Shapiro wonders if he had to stop being him in order to be with her. When M. is particularly enlivened by a brutal snowstorm, saying, “It’s like a war out there,” Shapiro admits bluntly, “I hate him.”

These raw admissions are what compel me to read, rather than a sense of story—because there really isn’t one. Shapiro herself admits this three-quarters of the way through the book: “Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, then why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it? Which is to say: before the story has become a story?”

At a previous time, she believed an event could only be told after the fact, a view she has since abandoned. She now believes that the “onrushing present” is the “only place from which the writer can tell the story.” This is intriguing, and I appreciate it from an aesthetic stance, but to this reader such a statement raises the question: What if Shapiro has simply run out of stories?

The present can be just as intriguing as the past. But we look to the writer to arrange its events just as she would’ve if they’d already reached their culmination. Shapiro’s book mostly eschews the notion of arc, offering reflection without the counterbalance of real narrative. It made me wrestle with the question of what gets to be a book.

I struggled, too, with the presentation of my state. As someone born and raised there, I could not help but think it was not my Connecticut present in its pages. A memoirist can only show us their life—but still, to read that Shapiro and her family “decamped for the wilds of Connecticut” shows only the most unidimensional stereotype of what is actually a complex place.

I was born, for example, in Bridgeport, a town that grapples with gang violence and sends its students home with backpacks full of snacks so children won’t go hungry over the weekend. For those children, and for me, Connecticut was far more than a bucolic place of respite or an escape from the city. I had no idea as a child that the notion of my state as a playground for the wealthy was based at all in reality. The income gap in the state is the starkest in the country, and Shapiro’s Connecticut may as well have been a world away. I spent my childhood in a suburb, but we did not own a yacht or go to private school. It’s hard to see the place I grew up dubbed the countryside when I know it to contain strata of diverse and complicated lived experiences.

I enjoyed this memoir for its thoughtful, skillful lines, for the sharpness of its insight about how we change as we move through life, and for the questions it made me ask, too: Who gets to tell stories? Who decides what narrative is? And just what do we see as reality?

Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.

A Review of Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’ Don’t Come Back

July 3, 2017 § 6 Comments

51iydmdXiyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By e.v. de cleyre

Let’s start with the almost-crash. When Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas writes about the time her sister is actually hit by a car in Bogota and the time she is almost hit by a car as a child, it reminds me of what happened in Tibet. I was on my way to karaoke with friends and a sedan sped toward me, not stopping. Suddenly someone’s hands were on my shoulders, and I was lifted and moved a few inches. The sedan stopped an inch from my knee cap.

Cabeza-Vanegas writes, “A second late on that tug and the car would have clipped me at best, ripped me apart at worst, written its name in my ribs and skull.”

Sometimes we read to find familiarity—the way certain lives overlap in uncanny ways. I was not expecting to find it in the pages of Don’t Come Back because the distances between my upbringing and the author’s felt vast. Yet Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s linked and narrative essays about Colombia, home, identity, and belonging grapples with “familiarity but never really feel[ing] at home,” a feeling I am familiar with, having traveled and returned “home” but never fully knowing or understanding what that meant. For Cabeza-Vanegas, this also means grappling with other people’s perceptions of Colombia—from US Customs agents to mythological renderings.

There is a breathlessness throughout with retellings of myths, a relentless pursuit of other people’s memories, and even a lack of spacing between dialogue that renders the text quite dense.

Reading Don’t Come Back brings to mind an entire canon of contemporary literature. The re-telling of Jorge Gaitán’s assassination in Colombia in “The Peach Orchard” is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante’s depictions of Naples. The images and graphs in “Empire of Toes” look and feel like the essays of Ander Monson or Patrick Madden. The shifting perspectives and circling of minor, and major violences read like Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children. Somewhere in there, a Colombian Leslie Jamison asks questions, grapples with empathy. And amidst the dreamscapes may be a hint of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The power of Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s Don’t Come Back is that it contains all of these, while still feeling entirely new.

Cabeza-Vanegas is in-between nations, languages, and mythologies. Her subject matter is as ambitious as the forms they take. Fragments, translations, interviews, code-switching, graphs, images, and multiple perspectives effectively strip the collection of a single, centered self, so that this is not just one narrator’s exploration of place, home, and identity. It’s a collection of interviews, histories, mythologies, and memories that circle around what remains to find shreds of understanding, familiarity. Somewhere in there lies resonance.

Literature may not erase gaps, but it brings them closer. Literature like this leaves an imprint, like a metal license plate on skin.


e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Midwest. She holds a BA and MFA in creative writing with a focus on nonfiction, and her essays and reviews appear in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

A Review of Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

June 16, 2017 § 3 Comments

Abandon Me jacket artBy Sierra Dickey

Living as a blend of Native American, Puerto Rican, gay, and European, Melissa Febos knows that the chance to tell her story is a hard-won privilege. The identity she deconstructs in her latest memoir is built on proximity, history, and the behaviors residing in her blood. By holding her patchwork nature in focus, Febos honors the silent ancestors that make her life a “very American story.” Abandon Me is an inventory of what she was given, what she has made of it, and, somewhat necessarily, what her inventions have made of the others in her story.

With this work, Febos has engineered a new shape for memoir, a feat she is well-positioned to accomplish. Her 2010 debut Whip Smart details her four years as a college student and dominatrix. Since 2010, she has written articles and spoken against “memoir-bashing,” and argued in favor of “expressive writing” and writing on trauma as worthy of readers and their high praise.

There are eight “memoirs” in this book. The first seven are brief and launched by intimate markers like names, tattoos, and hickies. They blend commonplace anchors and author revelation in expertly measured portions.

The eighth memoir breaks from the cadence and structure of the previous seven. One hundred and fifty-plus pages long, this essay considers the end of a tragic love story that had been taking place in flashes throughout the seven prior essays. By peppering the central event through the first seven pieces, Abandon Me becomes more like an album than a book.

Her structure delivers an autobiography told through familial and romantic attachments. The central event, an affair with a married woman named Amaia and its dissolution, is treated as Febos’ most epic relationship to date. We meet Amaia on page two: “I carried a story of my own into that room, but her voice silenced everything in me.”  Readers witness their love from preamble to desertion. Febos no doubt is changed by the affair (“I had to be destroyed to become something else”), but what of Amaia and the others in her life?

A bisexual woman with feminist politics, Febos orchestrates an uncanny negation of Amaia’s spurned wife. Nowhere in Abandon Me is she referred to by name. Only as “the wife” and never as “her wife.” Does Febos wish to make her into an archetype? An obstructing object? Febos also uses a title instead of a name for her adoptive father in the book: “the sea captain” or “my captain.”

I enjoy when authors of nonfiction treat their experiences with the focus and relish of storybooks. Chloe Caldwell made Women a novella and Wendy C. Ortiz used only initials for her L.A comrades in Hollywood Notebook. I acknowledge too that names are often changed or withheld to protect privacy. Yet I felt that the “storybookish” names Febos gives to those implicated in her histories put them within or beyond the range of agency. The sea captain may be in, but the wife is out. This is allowed in memoir, the form that gives ultimate license to the authorial “I” and all of its insertions and deletions.

However, this choice seems to contradict Febos’ stated mission with memoir: to do “the heart-work.” As she writes in Abandon Me, “In writing, I find the tender spot and start to push, to peel, to name.” There is plenty of pushing and peeling in this work, but along with powerful naming––“my captain” and “my beloved”––there is some obscuring too.

Febos’ tendency to obscure while purporting to illuminate made me restless as I consumed Abandon Me. Beyond renaming characters, she sometimes wraps her thoughts in circular constructions: “I wanted it to work. I wanted the work of it to earn me what I wanted.” To my reading, this does the opposite of unspooling. The repeated “wants” and “works” chase their own tails. But even as this kind of prose frustrates me, I’m stalled by the wisdom in her retellings. I’ve been a lover desperate to make it “work,” and I’ve been one that believed, stubbornly, that more “work” would redeem a dying relationship.

Dizzying repetitions aside, Febos is at her best with words that drive her narrative, such as Abandon Me’s beginning: “We had no television, no god, no family less than a day’s drive away, but we had stories.”

Sierra Dickey is a writer and farmworker living in Brattleboro, Vermont. Ping her on Twitter @DierraSickey.

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