April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Dinty W. Moore
I’ve been a fan of Sue William Silverman’s work for more than twenty years, and was looking happily forward to her latest collection How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, never expecting the book release would coincide with this frightening pandemic. But it did, and aside from the peculiar irony of the book’s title, Sue (like many authors right now) faces cancelled readings and book signings, and the general frustration of trying to let readers know about her latest book in a time when we have so much else on our minds.
So, I asked her some questions. It was easy to do that while still socially-distancing, and aside from being a greatly-talented writer, Sue is a powerful teacher and master of the craft.
So, here we are:
DINTY: Your book How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences was released just as the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic stopped us in our tracks. It is frustrating for all authors publishing this season, I’m sure, to have book tours cancelled and book stores closing, but the irony with your book is that it speaks directly to our current fears, of death, of illness, of trauma, of what the final moment might feel like. How odd has it been, trying to talk about a book such as yours at a time such as this?
SUE: It’s oddly ironic, indeed. Many people have commented on the book in the context of our current pandemic. Of course I started writing it over six years ago, so had no factual knowledge this maelstrom was heading our way.
At the same time, given that I’m a hypochondriac terrified of death, the book underscores how I’ve always been on the lookout for Death—pandemic and otherwise. The book is structured, in part, around a metaphorical road trip, as the narrator tries to outrun and outdistance death.
So I’m also not the least surprised by the coronavirus; on some level I’ve been expecting it. I’ve been flying with a face mask, literally, for over 15 years! And in the book I list all the unguents and potions I use to survive death: for example, Thieves Oil. A different formula was developed during the Plague, but I use the modern version to stave off all sorts of new plagues and viruses.
In short, yes, my instructions on how to survive death are ironically relevant.
Pandemic aside, the book is relevant for anyone who generally fears death. However, thematically, it’s also about how to survive life—how to live an emotionally authentic life that will be transcendent.
DINTY: But your book, though focused on “death and other inconveniences,” is full of humor too, gallows humor on some pages, flat out funny moments on others. What are your thoughts on our need for humor right now, as the world faces this frightening and previously inconceivable challenge?
SUE: I’m pleased you see the humor in the book, which I was trying to convey by the title. Humor, gallows and otherwise, revels in the absurdities of life.
When you’re in the middle of a tragedy, the humor isn’t always obvious, of course. The power of creative nonfiction is that we implement a reflective voice to look back and better understand the past, which can involve seeing humor in a situation that didn’t seem funny when we were living it.
One of the essays in the book, “Flirting with the Butcher,” is about my first 12-step meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous. This was during the time Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, and his whole nightmare was in the news. In my then-current state of emotional disarray—I was also struggling with an eating disorder—and I became obsessed with Dahmer. I mean, my anorexia seemed “small potatoes” when I considered there were people with the ultimate eating disorder—cannibalism—out roaming the streets!
Perhaps the most absurd thing about this is that it didn’t seem absurd to me at the time.
DINTY: And of course, the ordeal we are living through now, COVID-19, includes undeniable tragedy – death to some, sickness to others, separation from loved ones for almost all of us. But even this moment will, as hard as it may be to fathom right now, eventually be fodder for humor, maybe even absurd humor. The Greek masks, comedy and tragedy: one comes off, the other comes on. You’ve made a career of writing with wit, grace, and honesty about difficult issues – abuse, incest, addiction, death. Do you have advice for other writers who want to strike that sort of balance in their own writing, the tipping point between too bleak and too lighthearted?
SUE: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to strike that balance. Mainly, it’s important to write in a way that’s emotionally authentic for any given narrative. For example, my first two books, one about incest, the other sex addiction, are darker than the two more recent books, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and now How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, even though they address a few of the same issues. The newer books are more ironic mainly because that’s how I now see those moments in my past. As my feelings toward my experiences change, so does my writing.
In order to discover your own particular viewpoint, it’s crucial to start from a small, specific detail and write outward from that. In other words, for me to write about the COVID-19 pandemic, I might begin my narrative, say, at the moment I told my partner I couldn’t kiss him goodnight because he’d been to the grocery store that day. Maybe a molecule of virus, lurking in the produce aisle, had adhered to him! I begin with the smallest personal detail in order to discover the universal. The universe, like the devil, is in the details.
Don’t get wedded to one voice. Don’t impose how you think an essay or memoir should sound. Listen to how the piece at hand wants to sound. Experiment. As an exercise, try writing a scene two different ways: one perhaps very serious, even melodramatic, the other, say, ironic, humorous, even absurd. Which voice helps you uncover some truth? Which makes you go, “Ah, ha!”
DINTY: When most people think about death and what lies beyond, they imagine either a sort of nothingness, or else some personal image of paradise. Both seem nebulous, which isn’t much help for a writer. How did you address that challenge? What strategies did you use to bring order to ill-defined territory?
SUE: The book is structured in three sections, each titled with the name of one of the Three Fates. There are also six brief sections written as if through the voice of these Fates. This structure is a reminder that death is ever-present, and we have to be creative, lucky, and tenacious in our ability to outwit it. So there’s both a memento mori (“remember you must die”), and a memento vivere (“remember you must live”).
As a writer, I focus on the creative option to live. My aforementioned road trip to survive death is also a vehicle to journey through my life collecting memories, as it were. I “drive” through all areas of my life, from youth to the present, not just amassing memories, but reflecting upon them, making metaphorical sense of them, making sense of my life.
In short, if all else fails—if I’m sadly not able to survive physical death—then I’ve preserved my memories to outlast me. They are now collected in my books after all. The art we leave behind transcends death. There are many reasons to write and create art. For me, cheating death is one of the most central.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog.
Sue William Silverman is author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, the memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, and a memoir craft book, Fearless Confessions.
March 20, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione
On December 14, 2012, a group of five and six year olds might have come to my desk with clipboards and pencils and surveys. They would have asked me questions such as do I prefer ice cream or cookies? Baseball or soccer? At the time I was working as an assistant to a Head of School at an independent school in Manhattan. The year prior to this position, I worked as the school’s receptionist behind a wall of glass doors. My office was catty corner to my boss’s office at the start of the hallway on the same floor as the classrooms that held the five and six-year-olds. I don’t remember if December 14th was a day when students from one of the classes learning about polls included me in their survey. I don’t remember if it was a day when my boss’s own grandson who attended the school, stopped by my desk to ask if he could just say hello to his grandmother. I don’t remember if it was a day when I stepped into a classroom to observe learning in action and to make notes and take photographs for a school newsletter. But I do remember having a break in responding to my emails and opening a news website and seeing the first headlines and images to come out of Newtown, Connecticut. I do remember texting a friend to see if her sister, an administrative assistant at a school in Connecticut, worked at Sandy Hook Elementary. She did not. I do remember my boss standing at my desk and me uttering the words, “There’s been a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut” and her eyebrows lifting. I do remember the heaviness of horror and grief that fell over my school, my community, and the nation as we learned the details of that day. I remember watching President Obama cry on national television. The images that shook loose from the Sandy Hook massacre are etched into my bones, deepened over time with the advent of becoming a preschool teacher, a mother, a US American who has also been touched directly by the effects of gun violence on my family.
In Carol Ann Davis’s forthcoming collection The Nail In The Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood she writes into the surreal of being an artist and a mother raising two boys in Newtown, Connecticut in the shadow of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. She writes about the ethics of image, “how a narrative sometimes detaches the image from its surroundings.” She writes this in response to a fight her two boys are having with neighborhood children inside her home, wasting one of the last warm days to play outside before winter tucks children away for months. She also writes this in response to a poem of Paul Celan and a painting by Arshile Gorky. She writes in response to art, violence, and childhood. She writes not to make connections with the abstract expressionist painters she admires, but to leave “loose threads” in her essays, daring not to pull tight in favor of a tidy narrative.
Davis’s strength lies not only in her poetic prose but what she chooses to shine a light on, including the works of the artists and writers and poets she chooses to dissect. It is what Davis notices that gives this collection of essays its other-worldliness and yet universality. In a gift shop in her town, she observes, “I have watched a full basket of silver mantra bracelets dwindle over five years. All the ones that have sayings such as ‘choose love’ or ‘you are home’ are gone. Two identical ones remain, and both say everything happens for a reason.” With the use of art theory and her own experiences that capture something close to her reality, it is how she argues “image and meaning need not connect” that is most effective, this absence of reason. That in fact, to impose one on the other—image and meaning—would deny the truth of this surreal existence where children are killed in their classrooms and her boys will go through their educational journey sandwiched between a haunting of missing children.
When writing “On The Relationship of Art to the Body” through the framework of artists such as Pablo Picasso and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, Davis attempts to articulate the limitations she feels as both artist and mother in trying to separate her existence and experiences from her children’s and the impossibility of this effort. In quoting Cixous and then responding, she writes, “There is an outside of me. These six words describe the paradox of love. In the moment of knowing that one’s own happiness is tied to another, that one’s own well-being is no longer the most important thing, a door should open to an inside. Instead, one realizes that there is an outside of me, something I can’t protect. Something likely to suffer or even die. This is the terrifying and somewhat unthinkable truth: we are not outside ourselves but rather stuck inside, watching parts that are outside-of-us walk around, jump too high, cross the street without looking, enter their classroom.”
The Nail in the Tree is a collection of essays that reads like a folding of art theory into memoir, a churning of thought and emotion grounded in the terrifying reality of modern day parenthood and the violence of childhood. It is Davis’s conviction that, like the surrealists, to try to create art without acknowledgment of these truths would be “fundamentally dishonest.” In an examination of Eva Hesse’s Chain Polymers, she quotes the late artist, “It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.” Carol Ann Davis’s essays live in this space in between, a creation of necessary loose threads. Much like Arshile Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother, The Nail in the Tree leaves “the seams showing.” Davis equates this deliberate “unmaking” of art as imperative to honoring the full trauma of one’s experience. In terms of Gorky, she explains how “’meaningful’ connections would have sealed away whole parts of his (and his mother’s) experience in a sort of non-existence.” If “broken parts shine truest,” as Davis suggests, The Nail in the Tree is more than a collection of essays but a linguistic portrait of what it is to be an artist and a mother in the United States, a blueprint for how to keep creating in defiance of fear, grief, and meaning.
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione is a MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her most recent prose essay can be found in About Place Journal: Roots & Resistance issue.
March 16, 2020 § 24 Comments
By Marie A Bailey
Caveat: Cinthia Ritchie, author of the memoir Malnourished: A Memoir of Sisterhood and Hunger, is my friend, and I read her memoir keenly aware of my affection for her. I don’t claim to be objective in my review, but, in all honesty, I don’t know that I’ve ever been objective when reviewing any writing. It’s the subjectivity of writing and reading that attracts me, after all.
This doesn’t mean that I would automatically give “5 stars” to Malnourished, although I will. It’s unlike any memoir I’ve read before now. Ritchie’s story of her relationship with her sister is so honest I sometimes felt I was swallowing broken glass.
Malnourished starts haltingly, as if Ritchie is trying to get into position before diving into her memoir. Knowing already that her sister died from an eating disorder, I felt hesitant about reading her story. I knew it would be painful and yet Ritchie’s acknowledgement of how “memory is a funny thing,” encouraged me to dive in with her:
“Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it, how it adds and subtracts, takes something as simple as watching a whale swim along the shore and mixes it up in your mind so that your sister is there beside you, even though she’s been dead for years.”
Richie’s conversational tone—as if we were two women sitting on a living room carpet, our backs against the couch, a bottle of wine between us, talking in the dark—kept me anchored. Even when she admitted to lying: “I lie, I’ve always lied. Growing up, we all lied, though perhaps this is common in most families, the ability and need to lie.”
We all lie. I think of how I might never be able to write a “true” memoir because of the lies told by my family through the years, although perhaps they’re not all truly lies. What do they call it? Selective memory? Choosing to remember some things and not others? Choosing to believe that not telling can mean it didn’t happen.
I cringed sometimes at Richie’s raw honesty as with her take-no-prisoners unearthing of her sexual use of men as she took herself farther and farther away from home, from her sister, Deena. They were close as children but grew apart during high school as Deena became anorexic.
Both of them were subjected to sexual abuse by their stepfather, although Richie never quite tells you that, except in one short paragraph, almost buried in the book. Before then, she doesn’t give you details, but she makes you feel her fear of the creaking of footsteps on stairs, the guilty relief when the door being opened is not the one to her bedroom. That one short paragraph gives you only the least of details, just enough to make your imagination explode in horror.
I cringed at her raw honesty, her (what some might call) promiscuity, her hunger and thirst for touch, just to be touched. I cringed because I recognized myself in a way I’ve never done with anyone else’s story. For once I could reflect on my own promiscuous era and believe that someone, notably Richie, would understand what drove me to that particular brand of self-destructiveness. She absolved me of guilt while she heaped it on herself.
Richie also doesn’t spare herself when describing her neglect or disregard of Deena as they grew older and resumed their relationship. Deena had become “crazy,” and Richie often didn’t want to deal with it. It was a losing battle, as such battles are with families, even those not dealing with abuse and eating disorders. Sometimes, as Ritchie notes, you just don’t have the energy. “We could barely keep ourselves together.” Again, I saw her story in myself, in the way I avoided my father as his mental health deteriorated, not wanting to deal with him when he needed me most.
Malnourished weaves back and forth, in and out of time, and at first that was a little disorienting. But Richie is a poet as well as a journalist and novelist and whatever writing -ist may be included. After awhile I read the ebb and flow of her memories as shifts between fasting and satiety, between lightheadedness and clarity, between not remembering and remembering.
Malnourished is a journey toward understanding: “It would take over fifteen years and her death before I’d understand that I’d never gotten over the closeness we shared growing up.” Malnourished is a journey I won’t soon forget.
Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com. She’s been published in Brevity, by Nightingale & Sparrow, and in various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.
March 9, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Elizabeth Frank
I met Joan Frank (no relation) in person just once. We were in a café in Florence, eating bean soup, sharing insights about the publishing industry and our impressions of Florence: the ubiquitous selfie-taking college students on their junior year abroad (whom her husband, the playwright Bob Duxbury, was there to teach), the dense herds of tourists (not, of course, us), the necessity of purchasing things which came free at home, like potable water and disposable shopping bags, the fact that vital stores were closed all afternoon, and that the homeless wore flowing hoods and velvet skirts, like extras in an opera.
Many of these annoyances Frank includes in her essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place, which was the recent winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and published by the University of New Mexico Press. The essay “In Case of Firenze,” originally published by the TriQuarterly Review is the one which provides the title “try to get lost.”
Frank does get lost, and so will you. The foreign and the familiar are met with the same level of attention and insight. To Frank, “place becomes, finally, the only subject . . . obsession, raison d’etre, riddle.”
More than once, she refers to Shirley Hazzard and I felt, reading Frank, what I feel reading Hazzard, an inclination not to turn the pages to see what happens next but to dwell on the page, to linger in the evocation of scents, vistas, and emotions. Her observations are precise, witty, charming even at their crankiest. Always, she situates you in a specific world (place becomes riddle). In enumerating what France does poorly and what it does well, wine is obviously in the “well” column. Any traveler will tell you that in France, wine is inexpensive and everywhere. Frank tells you that wine is “delicious, kindly priced, wholesome and fundamental as milk.” With “kindly priced,” we are in Frank’s France, under the guardianship of benevolent caretakers. “To travel is to be a fool for awhile,” she declares, to give up control, to give up preoccupied oblivion to one’s surroundings. Travel demands that we pay attention, makes the obvious remarkable.
“North and south yield logical products of their geographical données,” she writes of France. “Butter above, olive oil below; white wines and champagne above, Bordeaux and varietal reds below (berries which have to work to exist) – for all of which we are, without question, better.”
Not everything is benevolent or makes us better. Luggage, that necessary evil, is both heavy and flimsy. Air travel, while admittedly a luxury, is a taxing ordeal. The sun, the entire point of traveling for some, can burn down without pity or relent. Her husband’s penchant for teaching semesters abroad and his visits to his native England, coupled with Frank’s own wanderlust (place becomes obsession), provides Frank with many landscapes to detail in her luminous prose, but she doesn’t require “exotic” inspiration to paint a compelling scene.
Her account of a visit to her childhood home in suburban Phoenix, the “dry, supine, block-on-blockness” of the squat houses of the old neighborhood, is the collection’s most heartbreaking essay, as popsicle-and-lawn-sprinkler, sun-drenched childhood bliss darkens into the interior of a shattering lifelong trauma.
The collection’s merriest piece concerns Frank’s ritual, with her husband, of setting up cocktails and snacks in their motel rooms on the road in order to watch HGTV, although they don’t fit the channel’s demographic of trendy young consumer in pursuit of gleaming surfaces. Their own home (the word “home” contains, she notes, “the meditative OM sound, a sustained vibration that seems to inject our bones with an irresistible promise—sanctuary, safety, peace, freedom”) is a “paid-off 1930s bungalow bought thirty years ago . . . shabby and worn.” (They prefer to spend their money on travel.) HGTV shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper follow a three-act narrative structure: the find, the renovation, the reveal of the new, the sparkling, the shiplap. Traveling, Frank studies homes she passes, wondering about the lives of those inside. In her rented room, she is absorbed by the redemption drama of HGTV, which “suggests it’s showing us exactly that: who lives there, and what kind of lives they—we—are having.”
Place becomes raison d’etre. Place is, in the end, the only subject. Joan Frank is a vastly compelling and lyrical guide.
Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes will be published by Stonehouse Publishing in November 2020.
March 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Hemingway said all true stories end in death. But he wasn’t from Jersey, so what did he know?” quips Sue William Silverman in her latest essay collection, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences.
The book’s title may suggest this is a morbid book; yet, Silverman in her own clever way leans towards tongue-in-cheek, mixing pop culture, literature, and history with her stories and, of course, her unending quest to survive.
But what is death? First, she thinks it’s the Ultima Thule on medieval maps—the great unknown where sea monsters roam. Then again, it could be the ultimate boundary…the great wall. On the other hand, it might be a new path, a grand new adventure. Whatever…Silverman is dead-set to outwit, outdrive, and outrun it.
This latest collection of essays examines her life from age four to present, though not sequenced chronologically. They are stories of survival. Most focus on Silverman’s teenage years in Glen Rock, New Jersey, cruising Route 17 in her gold Plymouth Savoy “for hours, for days, or seemingly forever.” Windows down, hair flying, Stones, Beatles, and Supremes blasting, she’s searching for action: bars that welcome teenage girls, diners with illuminated “Eat Here” signs, boardwalks with rides, and parking lots with guys with packs of Camels rolled in their sleeves.
Terrified of death, teenage Silverman nevertheless taunts it: “When I reach Deadman’s Curve, I hit the gas. I spin around the circle once, twice, as if driving an amusement park bumper car, daring death to catch me in this never-ending circle. I swerve to avoid an unamused driver inching into the roundabout from a side street. He honks, I wave, smile, and press on, driving faster.”
The gold Savoy propels Silverman into a dream world. On the shoulder of the road, she sits and watches a movie flicker on a drive-in screen. “Giant movie stars, night after night, hover godlike over the awed assembly: Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood. Their starry faces glow, projected against the backdrop of night,” she writes. “The movies end. Cars roll from the lot. Tinny voices, from speakers knocked from their posts and dangling on frayed wires call out: Come back, my darling!”
Later, the gold Savoy climbs the majestic Palisades taking Silverman on a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. There she discovers a monument erected to Alexander Hamilton who died in a duel against Aaron Burr. Silverman consoles him: “Generations will visit you on this spot, keeping you, albeit, not the corporeal you, alive.”
It’s here, I realize that the “death” Silverman refers to is not limited to the physical, but includes the soul-crushing spiritual death that dims our lights and steals our hearts.
The gold Savoy moves on to the Jersey Shore, famous for its rides, games, saltwater taffy, and sandy beaches. On a starless night, a man with a knife pulls Silverman into the dark, below the boardwalk. “His hand pins my long braid as if staking it into eternity,” she writes. “A wisp of soul levitates from a somatic body.”
Traumatized, she’s unable to speak certain words. Later, when she returns to the boardwalk, she watches the Ferris wheel hover over her as it did that night, and she sees the ride has since darkened. Now, though, she knows bulbs can be replaced, light restored.
One of my favorite essays (originally published on Rumpus) is “Miss Route 17 Refuses to Grow Old.” At an Adam Lambert concert, Silverman watches the American Idol winner rise onto the stage, glittering in sequins in a feathered top hat, fringed jacket, and black pants. Though Silverman is on the third row, she pushes closer, closer, closer: “In Adam’s presence, we are cloaked in a black-magic trance, a malarial fever, an outbreak of frenzied worship.”
I know this so well. Years ago, I fell under the spell of a goth rock band, known as Rasputina—three women with cellos, dressed in lacy corsets, hair in ringlets, singing outrageously creepy songs about plagues, fires, insanity, suicide, and eating rats. I obsessed over the band’s lead singer, Melora Creager. Her voice, reedy as a siren’s has a wide quivering vibrato. It combined with the cellos and special effects created a gritty, old, faraway sound as if hearing this music from the horn of a Victrola. It became my gold Plymouth Savoy, taking me away from real-life dramas that scared me far more than any crazy tales this band could conjure.
“In short, pre-Adam, I slumped into middle age,” Silverman writes. “But now he and his music jump-started my heart better than any defibrillator.”
No Hemingway death ending here. These essays show a narrator pushing on, doing whatever it takes to rock on.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
February 7, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Hugh Martin
Prior to describing a rocket attack while serving in the Bad Pech Valley of Afghanistan, Steven Moore, a sergeant with the Iowa Army National Guard, reflects upon those more well-known, albeit briefly, stories involving the war: Bowe Bergdahl. Osama bin Laden. Pat Tillman. “The war in Afghanistan was a perpetual background,” Moore writes, “always there but easy to forget about. America looked at the war whenever the war could produce a coherent story. Rarely was it capable of doing so.”
Throughout the twelve essays in The Longer We Were There: A Memoir of a Part-Time Soldier, Moore further interrogates and complicates this idea of—and impossibility of—“coherence” in relation to his service in Afghanistan between 2010-11.
Rather than writing a linear narrative or one with tidy bromides, or farfetched resolutions, Moore instead writes in fragments, vignettes, and short “flash” pieces as he moves between past and present throughout his deployment overseas and his seven years in the Iowa Army National Guard. In the penultimate chapter, “The Trouble With Ceremony,” which delves deeply into the moral and ethical quandaries involving the limits of narrative, along with the relationship between war and art, Moore wisely considers his own difficulties and skepticisms when attempting to put into language what is often an ineffable, and incoherent, experience, “I became increasingly hesitant, if not directly afraid, to tell anyone what it was like to be in Afghanistan” he writes. Citing writers as various as Tobias Woolf, Joan Didion, Tim O’Brien, Maggie Nelson, and Robert Hass, Moore smartly considers the obstacles involving, for instance, aestheticizing violence: “…telling a story about war in any way,” he writes, “no matter how brutal its violence is made to seem, will make that violence look desirable to someone.” Although Moore doesn’t, not surprisingly, have the answer—“…what I’m trying to say is, I still don’t know what we are asking art to do, or for whom, or when”—his self-awareness involving language, structure, and the unavoidable aggrandizement of the writer, an American veteran, telling his version of war, is present throughout the entire book.
Moore’s collection, which begins five days into his Afghanistan deployment on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, captures with honesty, precision, and humor, the bizarre, often liminal space National Guard soldiers occupy as civilians and soldiers. Early in the collection, as a college student and a newly minted National Guard soldier, Moore explains his attempts to juggle both identities: “The problem was inhabiting both parts, civilian and military, simultaneously.” While working as a student at the university bookstore, Moore struggles to answer innocuous questions about his training from other students. “Part of me didn’t want to describe what we were doing…” he says. “The military parts became absurd when exposed to a civilian context, the way blood changes color when exposed to oxygen.” In some sense, throughout the entire trajectory of the book, Moore grapples with how to fulfill his role as a citizen-soldier—later, as a full-time soldier in Afghanistan—and, even more significantly, how to put that experience into words, both in conversation and on the page.
As someone who served in Iraq with the National Guard—I joined as a high school junior three months before 9/11—I admire Moore’s vivid depiction of the citizen-soldier “behind the triumphant sheen of the TV commercials.” Moore shatters stereotypical soldier portrayals with his attention to detail and his eye for particulars. While working at his family’s gas station, which is directly across from the armory where he’ll soon drill, Moore frequently interacts with National Guard soldiers stopping in as customers. “None of the soldiers seemed heroic, or very noble, or upstanding, or glamorous,” he writes, and then later, wryly: “They were just doing some kind of job, then taking breaks for soda and cigarettes.” No sentence captures a National Guard drill weekend better than that.
In the latter parts of the book, Moore focuses on the war and the trouble with homecoming. In “American Background,” one of the most riveting sections, while recounting a rocket attack from multiple perspectives, Moore and another soldier debate whether to fire at what they discern to be muzzle flashes a half mile away: “The flashes disappeared. We stared at the spot. Daniels paused a moment, then said, Fuck it, I’m firing. He pressed his gloved thumb against the safety. I said, Wait.” Ultimately, they don’t end up firing, at least on this night. Having endured dozens of indirect fire attacks in Iraq, the scene is fitting to these typical moments of “war”: attacks and explosions happen quickly and no one, often, has any clue what’s going on.
In the final chapter, “The Case for Zakir,” Moore focuses on an Afghan interpreter, Zakir, and his struggles to obtain an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) to come to the United States. Moore explains how Zakir’s life is constantly in danger because of his work with U.S. soldiers, but still, he’s rejected due to misinformation exchanged through the layers of bureaucratic channels and processes. The book closes, fittingly, without a coherent ending or resolution: Zakir is still in hiding, in fear for his life, in a sort of limbo, waiting for help that may never come. From a narrative perspective, Moore is wise to end here, at this place where the war still goes on, still affects those, like Zakir, whose story often gets ignored or lost. “He can’t continue to exist in hiding,” Moore writes. “It’s like living in jail…for him, Afghanistan is jail.” The book closes with Zakir still, after five years, waiting. Although we, as readers, still might have trouble imagining one “coherent” narrative involving our War in Afghanistan, Moore gives us, with compassion and depth, a human face to a war that is, today, “a perpetual background.”
Hugh Martin is the author of In Country (BOA Editions 2018) and The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions 2013). He is a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio University.
February 3, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Candace Walsh
Imagine a memoir in the form of a centipede. Each segment of its body is a chapter. In each chapter, the narrative takes on a new genre’s characteristics, from noir to Choose Your Own Adventure. This is Carmen Maria Machado’s second book, In the Dream House: A Memoir. Her narrative flows through each discrete-genre segment like the centipede’s life force: potent, skittery, undulant, spiky, and fluid.
Once, Carmen Maria Machado fell in love with an unnamed woman writer, who gained her trust, mingled their worlds, and then steadily turned their love affair from a fairy tale into a horror movie.
The story Machado tells, of her time with an abusive girlfriend, is executed in her signature gorgeous-surprising style, but the story of one woman abusing another is absolutely horrid, because we women can at least, while enduring vagaries petty and seismic of the patriarchy, comfort ourselves from the lofty moral high ground. No, we can’t? Not entirely.
In the book’s prologue, Machado acknowledges the brutal incompleteness of queer life in historical archives; even sparser, depictions of queer abuse. She writes, “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence.”
Machado’s story is also absolutely horrid because we queer women can at least, while enduring homophobia, heteronormativity, physical threats, and microaggressions, feel smug because as Machado avers, “To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.” But it is sometimes hell instead? Yes.
The ever shape-shifting momentum of the book, powered by its thrumming, antic centipede energy, echoes the relationship’s mutability from heart-shaped bed to haunted basement, bliss portal to sinkhole; Machado’s role from chosen to chastised as her girlfriend rapid cycles through the roles of love-bomber, interrogator, waif, harpy, terrorist.
The book’s structure and craft choices also foil merciful dissociation. Even the most traumatized, abuse-experienced readers who would otherwise dissociate or put the book down are strapped in by her use of second person point of view, and captivated by the pleasures of her text: the how and the wow of Machado pulling off her ongoing legerdemain, iron-hand-in-velvet-glove with the recognition of Machado’s girlfriend’s moves and the speaker’s justifying responses. The gullibility. The freeze hunkered down in a seat reserved for flee: when the girlfriend squeezes her wrist, “It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do. This is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation, and it hurts more and more, and everything is static.” The mucky, shamed feeling of being treated like garbage. Maybe I’m garbage? Garbage that dare not speak its name: a partner-abused queer person.
Why the silence? That comes down to questions like: Who gets to be a bad person or be the prey of a bad person? Not a marginalized person, not without maligning the fragile reputation of their already-marginalized group. These conundra pace the perimeter of In the Dream House’s scar-tissued heart. It’s definitely Bad for Lesbians when an abusive lesbian is outed. Back when Machado was tweeting about writing this book, my unvoiced gut response took the form of tut-tutting thoughts: “Can’t you write about something else? Didn’t you get the memo about how we all have to be exemplary citizens in order to maintain our meager patch of societal acceptability?” Queer women can’t afford to be as publicly bad or done-bad as straight white couples, for fear our singular stories will erase all the Ellen-and-Portia happily ever afters that justify us to straight relatives, friends, and legislators, and reassure vulnerable young queer folks that It Gets Better.
Garbage festers in dark, covered places. Having to be perfect is another way society tells us we’re not allowed to be who we are, what we are: flawed humans. Not flawed because of who we love. Flawed because we’re humans. As Machado puts it, “queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.”
For all this talk of flaws, Machado’s book is free of them. Machado is a master of roping the glancing and the glinting, the ineffable and the unseemly. She hazards offbeat comparisons: “In those months, hazy from lack of sleep and raw with anxiety, I felt like a calculator with someone’s finger over the solar panel—fading in and out, threatening to shut off altogether.” She also describes things we often banish from our minds before putting them into words, like the dissipating pleasure that anticipates an argument with a volatile person: “By the time you’ve wound out of the mountains and gotten back to a freeway, the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.”
In the Dream House is intoxicating, mesmerizing, and addictive like the best bad relationships are, but at the end, we aren’t abruptly dumped as readers the way the horrid girlfriend dumps the speaker. Machado ushers us to a curtailed freedom via final chapters limning her release and recovery: a chiaroscuro of rebound sex, epiphany, and her friends’ and acquaintances’ stinging skepticism: “Maybe it was rough, but was it really abusive?” She exits the dream house, but the dream house has forever changed the way she sees the world, imparting the fraught knowledge that far too many people on the outside are zombified by the same inertia and denial that once kept her captivated and captive.
Candace Walsh is a first-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. Her essays have recently appeared in Pigeon Pages, The New Limestone Review, and K’in Literary Journal. She also has a short story in Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir. Follow her on Twitter @candacewalsh.