March 22, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Shamae Budd
I escaped the mayhem of the birthday party with a slice of cake, sinking with a sigh into the woven fabric of the front sitting-room couch. I was there to support my friend—mother of the birthday boy—but none of the screeching children belonged to me. A ten-year-old girl sat near the window, knees pulled into her chest. I said a few words in greeting, but she didn’t respond. I assumed she was shy. I let her be, spearing a piece of cake—enjoying the quiet. But as I lifted the fork to my mouth, a woman entered the room and asked tiredly, “Are you ready to apologize?” The girl shot back a withering, “No.” My mouth still slightly agape, I realized I had unwittingly settled myself in timeout.
Their terse conversation continued, and I seemed to see a past version of myself in the girl, a future version of myself in the woman. Certainly I had played similar scenes alongside my own mother as an irascible teen. And now, nearing thirty, my husband and I had begun talking about starting a family, having children (who would inevitably become teenagers, as this girl was reminding me). I seemed to be seeing double: a moment that could have been pulled from both my future and my past.
Much like this quiet exchange between a mother and daughter, James M. Chesbro’s debut collection of essays, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, invited me to consider the duality of parenthood. He writes, “All sons are heirs and successors to the way they are fathered.” Chesbro is a devoted husband and father of three, but he is also the son of parents who fought and separated, a father who died young—and these two sides of Chesbro’s experience with parenthood consistently inform each other. Similar to E.B. White in “Once More to the Lake,” Chesbro sees flashes of his deceased father in himself, and flashes of himself in his son—a circularity that becomes both a gift and a challenge.
In “Footsteps,” Chesbro recalls nervously sitting in a cardiologist’s office, not long after his father’s pulmonary failure: “I want to live longer than my dad,” he says, determined not to inherit his father’s legacy of heart disease. And in “Overtime,” he describes himself stomping to the attic after a disappointing football game, reflecting:
When Dad was alive, as I grew older, I vowed to keep football in perspective… And yet, this is how he would have reacted—stunned into silent anger. Dad shakes his head in my memory, and I shake mine back at him. Get a grip, Dad, I think to myself. But here I am in the attic.
These tensions felt familiar—I, too, have been startled by little habits and tones of voice that remind me suddenly of my mother. I see her in a gesture of my hands while I am speaking; I see her in a woman at a birthday party, and am startled when I see myself there, too. What lifts Chesbro’s essays from mere recollection into insight is his ability to move between everyday ephemera and self-scrutiny, revealing the complexity of a self that is at once both son and father.
These sometimes competing roles of father and son intersect compellingly in “Trains.” Chesbro hopes that an inherited set of toy trains will help rekindle a connection with his father, but as he unwraps the trains in the attic he finds only “the paper used as packing material: a bank envelope, an auto insurance business reply card that said I saved $12.30 on my auto insurance with Allstate, and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog Bargain Flash.” The heartbreak is in the mundanity of the detail—the devastating ordinariness of the objects appearing in stark contrast with Chesbro’s hopes for almost transcendental discovery. Eventually, Chesbro allows his son, James, to play with the precious toy trains, which leads, unexpectedly, to the father-son connection Chesbro was hoping to discover: “James struck the red train against the track over and over and over again, like a match to a matchbook. By the time my son went to bed, my mind was aflame with father.” In the hands of his son James, the trains—and memories of Chesbro’s father—come back to life.
This shift from empty-handed grief toward renewed life and wonder in “Trains” beautifully reflects the movement and organization of the collection as a whole. Chesbro’s father—who is so forcefully, even painfully present in Part I of the collection—seems to drift quietly into the background as the collection winds down, not disappearing entirely, but informing Chesbro’s fathering in ways that cause him to connect, to be present, rather than to disengage. Part II—often humorous and filled with slice-of-life essays on parenting—becomes a celebration of Chesbro’s own fatherhood, and especially his young son, James. Chesbro’s re-enactments of wildly rambunctious family dinners, ER waiting rooms, and tumbling block towers reminded me of Brian Doyle’s laughing reverence for family life. And Chesbro’s honest depictions of the joy, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder of fatherhood ultimately left me smiling with anticipation for the day when I will be the mother of that belligerent little girl at a birthday party: participating in a scene I have so far only experienced from the perspective of a daughter.
Shamae Budd received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. She lives in Utah at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, and when she is not writing, she can generally be found among the aspen and pine, on a yoga mat, at the craft store, or walking her big red poodle in the park.
March 15, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Vivian Wagner
David Shields’ The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is a wide-ranging and sometimes chaotic look at masculinity in our culture, as well as an exploration of his own personal and idiosyncratic experiences as a man.
I have to admit that this is not an easy book to read, not because of the subject matter so much as its strange, free-wheeling structure. Ostensibly addressed to his wife, the book is only partly in Shields’ own voice. Most of the book is actually a wild collage of quotes and paraphrases from books, articles, essays, chatrooms, and interviews. These other sources are cited in brackets at the end of paragraphs, but the citations are cursory, just names or brief mentions of context, and there’s no traditionally academic bibliography to account for them.
Often, while reading this text, I’d come across an interesting passage and mark it, thinking it was part of Shields’ own story, only to find that it was another’s voice or story or comment, something from Brigid Brophy, say, or Bret Easton Ellis or Walt Whitman or Donald Trump.
After being caught this way several times, I realized that the book’s odd structure is not a bug but a feature. It’s what this book is about. It’s a book, at least in part, about resisting a coherent story, about the perils of intimacy, and about the ways that we’re inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live. In the book’s universe, these dozens of other voices are, in all their bewildering and contradictory variety, Shields’ own.
Still, I found myself hunting through the text for Shields. I looked for those passages that were his and his alone. I wanted to know his story. I began to mark those places with a star and “HIS.” And yes, I started to see how these pronouns were inevitably gendering both the text and my response to it.
The few paragraphs that are actually Shields reveal this: He’s writing to his wife. He wants to express both his love for his wife and his frustration with his marriage and himself. He wants to get at what it means to be a man, what it means to be married, and what it means to be on the twenty-first century’s roller coaster of sex and gender.
As he says in a rare moment of straightforward candor in the opening chapter, “This book aims to be a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy. How did I get this way? What is this way? Our marriage involving this way. Attempt to stop being this way. Implications of being this way.”
Shields explores the ways that he came of age as a man in a culture that equates vulnerability with weakness, and this book struggles against this paradigm. He wants to be vulnerable. He wants to tell a different story. He wants to wade through all the vagaries of male sexuality to discover what’s at its soft heart.
In short, he wants to tell his wife that he loves her.
At the end of the final chapter he finally stops quoting and paraphrasing the cacophony of others. It’s him. HIS, I wrote in the margin: “I dearly/desperately want a real marriage—whatever that means. I think it means two people standing before each other completely naked; does such a thing exist? I don’t know, but in opposition to that essay we read in praise of marriage made of masks, I still want it (the unmasking).”
And then, there’s this direct address, vulnerable and pleading and somehow heartbreaking:
Do you love this book? Do you hate it? Will it mark the end of our marriage? The beginning of it? Putative (true?) goal for this book: a greater intimacy (at a minimum, candor?) between us.
The nicest thing you’ve ever said to me (admittedly, this was an eternity ago—on the inside of a card on our third anniversary):
What you think of as your weakness I think of as your vulnerability, which I love.
This passage is addressed his wife, yes, but it’s also addressed to the reader, who has, perhaps, been addled by the pages full of cultural flotsam to the point of giving up. Don’t give up, Shields seems to say. I’m here. I want to connect. I want to change. I want to be with you. Please don’t leave.
And I didn’t leave. I’m not going anywhere. I’m turning back to the book’s first page to try again.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.
March 8, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Magin LaSov Gregg
Porochista Khakpour spoke on the first panel I attended at the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Program’s Annual Conference. The panel titled, “The Body’s Story: On Writing Narratives of Illness,” also included Sandra Beasley (moderator), Sonya Huber, Suleika Jaouad, and Esmé Weijun Wang. This was my first AWP after a Lyme disease diagnosis, traveling now with multiple medications and peripheral neuropathy. But I was eager to learn from Khakpour and her fellow panelists. So, I showed up at 8:50 a.m. and chose a seat that would allow me to stretch my arthritic knee.
To a packed room, Khakpour described traveling with physical challenges, impetus for her memoir Sick, chronicling her life with late-stage Lyme disease.
“I couldn’t find myself in the narrative,” Khakpour said. The myths of Lyme disease are many, the most insidious being that Lyme patients are white, East Coast, outdoorsy, wealthy, and also (of course) making it all up. Sick shatters these myths, revealing Khakpour’s experience with this disease.
Hers is not the story of the victory march and resists militarized metaphors of conquest, battle, and colonization. Hers is the story of the slog, of being ill and on the margins and at the mercy of a broken American medical system. It’s the story of being displaced, disbelieved, and laughed at by hospital personnel. It’s the story of what it means to live, to be in love, to build a writing career, to be an artist, to come of age, to take pleasure, while also living with escalating and debilitating medical symptoms. The end of Sick is not a celebration, but a taking stock of human vulnerability.
“This book is, it turns out, a miracle book, because it wrote its own ending, insisted on its own ending,” Khakpour writes in her epilogue. “It didn’t believe in my bows, my full circles, my pretty arcs, my character development.”
Her epilogue draws distinctions between the book she “sold” and the book she “wrote.” The book she sold was “a story of triumph, of how a woman dove into the depths of addiction and illness and got herself well.” The book Khakpour wrote ends on the poignant realization that “illness will always be with you as long as life is with you. And tragedy will be with you too.”
Because her body is the setting of her disease, setting becomes the controlling device of her story. The narrative follows Khakpour’s travels from California to New York City to New Mexico to Germany. She’s global and bicoastal, as difficult to place as the origin of the spirochetes in her blood.
“If you face yourself properly, you also have to at some point face where you take up space,” Khakpour writes. She not only faces multiple and sometimes contradictory spaces, but begins to accept that something mysterious is taking up space inside of her.
She suspects she contracted Lyme disease as a child hiking in California with her parents, who emigrated from Iran when Khakpour was a toddler. But the precise origin of her infection eludes her. Like many Lyme patients (myself included), Khakpour has no memory of the tick(s) who bit her, nor did she see a bull’s eye rash, which does not manifest in all patients infected with Lyme.
But after her diagnosis, Khakpour actively tells doctors and others that her disease is “CDC level Lyme,” meaning at least five specific antibodies appear on her blood tests. I have done the same, and understand intimately how Khakpour must learn to speak the master’s language in medical settings: “to let them know I was real.” Death is the price of not being believed. And this is not hyperbole.
During her AWP panel, Khakpour shared an anecdote, included in Sick, about young women dying of Lyme disease because doctors do not believe they are ill. Her book’s title is as much a descriptive of her personal story as it is a political statement. Women “suffer the most from Lyme” and “tend to advance into chronic and late-stage forms of the illness most because it’s checked for last, as doctors often treat them as psychiatric cases first,” she notes.
Indeed, it’s not difficult to conflate doctors’ treatment of modern day female Lyme patients with the historical treatment of nineteenth century so-called “hysterics.” Khakpour, myself, and many women have been made to believe that we are stressed or mentally ill, and certainly not physically sick, experiencing first symptoms. How can we be seriously ill when we are youthful, stylish, or even thin? As Khakpour notes, “the experience of going for years undiagnosed and then misdiagnosed as many like myself do can cause considerable trauma.”
She adds, “In the end, every Lyme patient has some psychiatric diagnosis, too, if anything because of the hell it takes getting to a diagnosis.”
In Sick, redemption comes, but not in a miraculous recovery or a body made “well,” whatever that means. Khakpour’s refusal to quit, her persistence, is what saves her. By telling her complicated and unvarnished story without a hero’s journey, Khakpour gives voice to the experiences of countless others who lack her platform or who have not survived to tell the tale.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, Solstice Literary Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first essay about living with Lyme Disease (“To Punctuate” Full Grown People) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018. She’s working on a memoir about how she lost and found her Jewish faith after moving to the Bible Belt and marrying a Baptist minister.
On the Value of Women’s Memoir: A Response to Alexandra Fuller’s “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.”
February 27, 2019 § 25 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
Earlier this month in the New York Times Book Review section, writer Alexandra Fuller took three recent memoirs to task, including Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir, Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, and Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, in one brief but cutting review.
Fuller begins her article with the blithe suggestion that Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston should seek counseling, writing, “At their worst, there’s little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional.” She then goes on to enumerate the ways each of these writers’ books is “poorly conceived,” dubbing the works both “special-interest” and “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape.” At one point Fuller even uses the tired phrase “navel-gazing” in reference to Zaman’s memoir, a book about the devastating effects of silence on women’s safety and well being, which Fuller deems too narrow in scope to truly “inspire the reader.” According to Fuller, what distinguishes a “good” memoir from a “bad” one is the ability to “reach beyond itself,” though how this should be accomplished is limited to comparing these works unfavorably to Maya Angelou’s classic and perennial I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Fuller’s is an argument nonfiction writers have heard many times before—writing about the self has been subject to this kind of withering scrutiny since the days of Michel de Montaigne, who famously prefaced his work with a warning to the reader that it “would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject” as a book entirely about him. No, not even the great-grandfather of the nonfiction essay was immune to this variety of criticism, and not much has changed since the 16th century in that respect. There will always be readers to whom the memoir does not appeal, and that’s okay; no book can be all things to all people. Still, it’s always shocking when the condemnation of the genre comes from one of our own, especially from a memoirist as widely celebrated in the writing community as Alexandra Fuller.
As a teacher of creative nonfiction workshops, I am constantly reminding students—and particularly the young women in my class—that their writing has intrinsic value. Many of the stories my students choose to share from their lives are intensely personal. They write about surviving sexual assault, losing family members, struggling with addiction, living in the United States as the child of immigrants, as a person of color. I encourage them to write toward the truth they’d most like to tell, toward the audience they’d most like to pick up their future book, without concerning themselves with what good writing is “supposed” to do.
Contrary to what Fuller says, nonfiction, and especially memoir, does not have to “be inspiring” or “reach beyond itself” to any great or meaningful extent. In fact, many wildly successful books don’t—think heavy hitters like David Sedaris and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the latter of whom has written not one but ten plodding autobiographical novels to warm commercial reception. Both of these writers tackle almost exclusively personal subjects, detailing the minutiae of their lives in a way that might be labeled “confessional” if they were women. The only real difference I can see between their books and the memoirs Fuller mentions is that Sedaris and Knausgaard are men.
Writer and feminist Adrienne Rich put it best when she wrote how “women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which values only male experience.” This sentiment is still demonstrably alive and well in the writing world today. Readers seem to have a great deal more patience for male writers, whose work is far more likely to be published than women’s, according to the latest VIDA Count, despite men being outnumbered by women in MFA programs across artistic disciplines. Male writers are also more likely to receive free publicity for their work in the form of book reviews, interviews, and other opportunities.
I don’t claim to know how Fuller personally feels about writers like Sedaris or Knausgaard, but I can’t help but question her choice to negatively review Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s memoirs as “navel gazing” books with little substance—even if she personally didn’t care for the work. Because, in doing so, articles like Fuller’s quietly perpetuate the sexism already lurking in the writing world.
By this, I don’t mean to imply that a woman cannot be in any way critical of another woman’s work. As writers, critique is the air we breathe—a welcome and necessary component of the writing process. But to broadly lambaste the memoir genre using three recent examples by women—and from a position of privilege and power as a book reviewer for The New York Times—is difficult to justify under the umbrella of constructive criticism, especially when one considers the subtext of some of Fuller’s statements:
To write that a memoir is “poorly conceived” suggests that the writer should have written her book differently in order to better fit what “good” or “successful” writing is supposed to look like. To write that a published, otherwise well-received memoir is not a “successful” book is to imply it is not worth reading. To imply that a memoir is not worth reading is to dismiss the value of the story it tells. To dismiss the value of this story is to dismiss the woman telling it.
There are so many women writers who look up to Fuller and aspire to her level of craft, myself included. As an established memoirist and a woman, herself, Fuller should know her words have the power to silence those in earlier, less confident stages of their careers.
In The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that silence, once imposed, is a highly effective weapon. “A free person tells her own story,” Solnit writes. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.” In a political climate where women, people of color, and queer-identifying writers are in very real danger of losing basic rights and freedoms, we need to make places for these stories, perhaps now more than ever before.
Because when Fuller writes that these memoirs are “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape,” her words imply they do not have a place on our society’s figurative bookshelf. That they are neither casual enough for light leisure reading, nor analytical enough for its heavier, high-brow counterpart. But memoir does not exist solely within the binary of guilty pleasure and intellectual rigor. There is room within the genre for stories that exist between, even outside of this spectrum. Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s books each bear witness to the interiority of the human condition. Their voices are unique to their experiences, and contribute to our collective understanding of our world. That should be enough.
In one final strange twist of irony, Fuller quotes Maya Angelou in her review, writing: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It would seem Fuller has neglected to heed, as it were, her own advice. The memoir is not going anywhere, and the writing world is harsh enough as it is. As women, we have a responsibility to hold each other up throughout our careers, and not to pull the proverbial ladder of opportunity up behind us. We have a responsibility to value each other’s stories, even when others don’t. And this is what I most want my students to take with them as the writers of tomorrow.
**The essays quoted above include “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” by Adrienne Rich and “A Short History of Silence” from The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit.
Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She also serves as Brevity’s Managing Editor. Find more on her website at zoebossiere.com, and on twitter @zoebossiere
February 25, 2019 § 3 Comments
by Valerie Wayson
Early in her newest essay collection, The Reckonings, Lacy Johnson describes what has become a common occurrence: At the end of a reading, someone, usually a woman, asks Johnson what she wants to happen to the man who kidnapped, raped, and tried to kill her. Does Johnson want him to die? To suffer? The questioner often has a story similar to Johnson’s, a story of surprising violence and survival. Johnson has attracted these stories since she told her own in her 2014 memoir The Other Side, a book that grapples with differing versions of one event and the inherent faultiness inherent in describing a deeply traumatic experience. Don’t you want justice, these fellow survivors ask? Johnson examines the line between justice and vengeance, and she questions whether vengeance can ever be healing or cathartic. Johnson herself doesn’t think the death and suffering of a man she once loved would allow the “shut place” inside her to open. Suffering begets suffering, and she doesn’t want a continuance of the cycle. Instead, she wants a reckoning. “I want the truth told back to us,” she says. “I want the lies laid bare.”
In “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age,” Johnson argues that a woman’s body is often not her own. She tells of her children’s reaction to the stealing of the Boko Haram girls, how her daughter binds her dolls in rubber bands and puts them on a shelf, how she doesn’t want to be a girl anymore. Most compelling to this end is Johnson’s casual catalog of the self-protective habits she has acquired over the years: keeping the lights off in her office so she can see anyone approaching more easily than they can see her, or keeping her scissors visible and sharp. These behaviors seem reminiscent of those suffering from PTSD—the constant vigilance, the ever-present expectation of violence.
In “Precarious,” Johnson shows the effects of a culture desensitized to violence, how it changes the survivors and makes them more likely to be violent themselves. In “Speak Truth to Power,” she describes a sixteen-year-old girl waking up in her yard and learning through social media her naked body was exposed, urinated on, and slapped with flaccid penises while football players doing the videotaping made rape jokes involving a dead girl. Two of the perpetrators are found “delinquent” to which one breaks down after and sobs, his life is over. Meanwhile, the girl receives death threats. Johnson shares her first rape at the age of fourteen, saying how she repeats no over and over, and when she describes the incident to others, they “explained it back to [her]: ‘Slut,’ they said. ‘Liar.’ ‘Whore.’”
Sexual assault is not the only offense for which Johnson demands reckoning in her collection. She describes oil spills, flooding, a town built next to nuclear waste. She wants each story told because when we tell our stories, although we can’t undo what’s been done to us, we can at least make it harder for this to happen to someone else.
When I tell the story of my own abuse, the reactions are now predictable: women thank me for my trust, and men offer to kill or beat up the aggressor. When I was younger, this offer pleased me. It made me think that if my aggressor had known he would be held accountable for his actions, he might not have assaulted me. Over the years, this prospect has become less appealing. I don’t want revenge. I want to be away from my aggressor, to never have to see him again. This is selfish on my part. I want it because I want my suffering to stay finished. Other suffering, however, is ongoing, and every time someone doesn’t tell their story, that’s another incident hidden, one less opportunity to expose the prevalence of violence, one more time someone got away with hurting someone else. Like Johnson, my motivation has been misunderstood as seeking attention or gaining revenge, when the truth is telling our stories is a way to protect others.
Lacy Johnson makes an elaborate and nuanced point in The Reckonings: telling of our stories is not about vengeance or anger, but about our refusal to accept our own suffering. If we continue to assert that this is not okay, we will eventually achieve a world in which it isn’t.
Valerie Wayson is a writer and teacher who’s taught in Iraqi Kurdistan, Madagascar, and Texas. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and is pursuing a PhD in creative nonfiction at Texas Tech University.
February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Scott Russell Morris
I volunteered to write this book review of Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, over a year ago. It was a foolish thing to do given my schedule, but I had just read and reviewed Minna Zallman Proctor’s essay collection Landslide, and I was smitten. Also, like most graduate students, I was overly optimistic about my time constraints, especially considering that in the year following I finished writing my dissertation, my wife took on a full-time position and started graduate school, I defended my dissertation, my wife gave birth to our second child, and I graduated, all of which necessitated some celebratory traveling. Plus, surprise, I accepted a faculty position in South Korea, which meant immediately after said celebrations, we packed up the house, sold most everything we owned, and moved two small kids and eight suitcases (plus carry-ons) from Lubbock, Texas, to Incheon, Korea.
All of this I generally expected (sans a job overseas), but I didn’t foresee that immediately after submitting my dissertation I would be completely incapable of writing. I kept feeling like I should be writing, but used everything else as an excuse not to. Though writing had once been an unquenchable enthusiasm, I now felt empty. I never wanted to see my dissertation again, nor could I bring myself to review other manuscripts-in-progress, even after several nice notes from editors. And though set-backs had never slowed me before, a slew of rejection letters left me deflated, a feeling oddly compounded when I finally got around to reading These Possible Lives, this little book about writers. And the book is little, easily readable in a one afternoon, even when your thoughts are elsewhere, which mine were the day after I received the job offer, the day before we sold our car, and the day I stubbornly refused to grade papers while sipping a chocolate milkshake at a mall in Korea.
Just three essays long, only sixty pages, These Possible Lives is more of a chapbook. The essays are each biographies of famous writers—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—and its shortness, its compactness, delivers the pleasure of reading an entire book in one sitting, but its fluid and expressive prose also accentuates the rush through life from naïveté to death. Each essay ends with the subject’s demise. Both lyric and narrative, Jaeggy’s essays don’t dwell overly much on the great works of these men, but rather, on the mundane and often ethereal elements of their lives, which makes them seem both ordinary and yet, somehow, beyond our reach, touched by gods and spirits. Jaeggy frequently juxtaposes the terrestrial and heavenly, suggesting the writers’ mortal and immortal qualities: “…Keats was malnourished, of weak health, and had no family. But aren’t all poets the heralds of heaven?” These are the essays of men between worlds, conduits of some divine nature, which gives them life even in death. Of De Quincey we learn “that he been a ‘good sick man,’ and a gracious corpse; he didn’t want to trouble anyone.” Death becomes the others, too: “Death animated him in the last moment,” we read of Keats; and of Schwob, “His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold.” But the essays don’t move much beyond these expressions of life in death, seeming to suggest that after death, there is nothing. Keats’s essay ends, “They stripped the walls and floor and burned all the furniture.”
I like melancholy conclusions as much as the next essayist, but somehow these morbid endings struck too hard this time. Each of the essays felt cut short, not on Jaeggy’s part, simply because they end with death, so there was nowhere else for them to go. I could see the irony, of course, because these famous men’s lives and works live on, but still each time I finished reading an essay, I felt as though there was no point in writing—we would die, even if, like De Quincey, “a pack of Gods clutched,” or we otherwise showed signs of genius, as all these men do in Jaeggy’s portraits. And though I had often before felt that writer’s block was an imaginary thing, I didn’t believe that any more.
Exhaustion is real. I have since learned that post-partum depression is almost as common in fathers as it is in mothers, and I wonder if I felt some of that as the birth of my daughter and the conclusion of my graduate work coincided. I’ve told others about my daughter and the dissertation and the move, too, trying to explain why my current project is trying to write anything at all, even just a book review. And each time, as it does now, this list sounds like excuses, especially when the list of things preventing me from writing are all good things. Things I am privileged to have accomplished. Still, it wasn’t until I accepted the items on my Why-I-can’t-write List, not as excuses or even reasons, just as things that are, that I got the nerve to sit down and write this book review. And, as I think many people know, writing is a cure for writer’s block.
It feels self-serving to begin, middle, and end this book review with all the reasons I haven’t written it sooner, but three days ago as the baby was taking a nap, her brother at school, and my grades finally submitted, I was washing the dishes when I realized that accounting for myself was the only way forward. And so, I have written this, the first thing in over a year. I don’t know what will come next, if this will suddenly compel me back to my unfinished manuscripts, but I do know that reading Jaeggy’s essays has taught me one very important lesson: If, like Schwob, we are to “[turn] into a writer,” we cannot go around, over, or under whatever grief or mortality that might grip us, we can only move through it.
Scott Russell Morris is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah Asia Campus. He has a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, Assay, and elsewhere.
February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Emily Webber
In the summer of 2012, I attended the Tin House Summer Workshop where Ann Hood read from, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, her memoir about her daughter’s sudden death at age five. It was a hot summer night and people fidgeted endlessly to get comfortable. Hood’s words, so full of sadness but a testimony to love and hope, hushed the crowd. In the opening pages of Comfort, Hood provides rebuttals to all the well-meaning things people say to help someone deal with grief. Her friends give her other stories of loss and Hood says: “But none of them lost Grace. They do not know what it is to lose Grace.” Hood understands the power of telling one’s own story. Her new imprint, Gracie Belle, from Akashic Books focuses on stories of grief, loss, and recovery. The debut book, Catharine H. Murray’s memoir Now You See the Sky, delivers a gorgeously written memoir that burrows deep into the heart.
From the start, the reader knows that this family will suffer the loss of a child. However, the opening part of the book is about how Murray ends up in Thailand, finds love, and builds a life there. The beginning pages are filled with marriage, births, jobs worked, houses built, meals shared, prayers and rituals performed, leaving the reader feeling safe with the idea that we have complete control over our lives. Then there’s the diagnosis that Murray’s son, Chan, has terminal leukemia. It hits harder, just having read about all the life that has been conducted, and it serves as a powerful reminder that everything can change in a moment.
This is not an easy book, and not just because it concerns the death of a child, but entire sections spare no detail on the suffering and mental anguish that comes with cancer. Murray puts everything on the page—the physical suffering, the exhaustion of being a caregiver, the frustration of not knowing what to do, the ways in which siblings sacrifice, the emotional burden. It is one of the most open, honest, and raw accounts I have read, and Murray offers us her thoughts uncensored:
Because I was holding a small, crying skeleton of a boy all day, the healthy, happy boys were a double delight to me, if not to Chan, who cried when he watched little Than run joyfully as fast as his thick legs could carry him. And in some terrible way, they offered me a kind of assurance. Well, if Chan dies, I will be left with these very healthy boys.
The reality is that there is no clear, direct path when making decisions about the fate of another person, especially a child. Murray brings these struggles to light with no sugar coating. She agonizes over whether she should tell Chan that he is dying. She wonders if she should have given in to the treatment plan prescribed by the hospitals, which is to say his goodbyes and go on morphine until he dies. Murray’s courage in taking care of her child away from doctors and hospitals is tremendous. She does this to give him a chance at living with his family, on the land he loves, and to leave open the door that there is a possibility he can also heal:
Fresh, tender fiddleheads gathered from the edge of the stream below her sprawling garden; wild pennywort, glossy green faces like giant shamrocks, the plant we pressed to make the bitter juice that Chan had learned to swallow, believing what we hoped, that it might beat back the cancer; balls of sweetened sticky rice stuffed with black bean paste and coated with flakes of coconut, all raised and harvested by Tong and Cam from the land they worked and loved.
Coming from a western sensibility of how we handle terminal illness and death, there are parts of this book that initially were hard to understand. In the United States, elderly go into nursing homes, the sick go to die in hospitals and doctors oversee their last days, our funerals are structured and packaged affairs that seem to try to distance us from death. Chan dies at home in the arms of both parents. The family gathers and stays with the body for days, moving to the temple for cremation. Then they collect some of Chan’s ashes and pieces of small bones. There is a communion with the body and spirit, and intimacy with death and a recognition of what has passed that forms a natural pathway to acceptance and healing.
Dtaw and I untied the plain cotton cloth that held the ashes, poured the bone shards from the jar onto them, and covered it all with the flower petals. Cody and Tahn and Jew helped Dtaw and Cam and me lift the bundle over the side to tilt the last tangible elements of their brother into the swirling brown water. The gray dust of his ashes floated and shimmered in the sun on the surface before the water swallowed them.
Even readers who have been fortunate enough not to suffer a devastating loss like Murray will still learn much from her story. After reading, I revisited my thoughts on what is a good death, how we treat the dying, and the importance of our memories. I also learned about a sweet, little boy who lived in the mountains of Thailand and loved horses. Chan’s mother still feels his presence and remembers him. This reader now carries Chan’s story too, and it is an honor. I’m thankful that Catharine H. Murray had the courage to tell her powerful and illuminating story and that Ann Hood gave it a way to reach others.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer, Five Points, Maudlin House, Fourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.