August 15, 2019 § 1 Comment
by Stefanie Norlin
On the same day I found out Donald Trump had been elected president, my husband and I also discovered we were pregnant with our daughter. I’d gone to the polls the day before and, already suspecting I might be pregnant, had run my fingers over my abdomen as I filled in the last selection on the ballot for Hillary Clinton.
For you, baby, I thought. I’m casting this vote to show you that you can be anything you want to be.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I’d lost that optimism, and in the months that followed, I grew distant from friends and family members who became increasingly strident in their support of the current president’s policies—policies so contrary to our shared value system as Christians that I still struggle to reconcile it all.
It’s a common enough story, one that writer Lyz Lenz knows well. Lenz opens her new book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America in the middle of her own divorce: a personal break, she writes, that mirrored the national one. She’d voted for Hillary Clinton, while her husband had supported Donald Trump—it was the final fracture in a long series of differences.
Part reportage and part lyrical memoir, Lenz writes to understand the divide she experienced in her marriage and her faith life, as much as to interrogate why churches across America are shuttering closed. As a resident of the Midwest, Lenz sees the landscape as representative of American values and consequently, a bellwether of the larger nation’s feelings about politics and religion. Throughout the book, I sensed Lenz’s desire to understand how a familiar childhood faith had turned into one largely influenced by capitalism, regionalism, and politics—and more than that, to figure out how to reclaim a Christianity that now felt so foreign.
Nowhere is this estrangement clearer than in her chapter “The Pew and the Pulpit.” Lenz writes, “I’m hurt and angry at a Christian ethic that is so tangled in the politics of the Right that voting any other way means I am seen by my family and friends as going against the very will of God.” By working to understand this historical partnering of evangelicalism and conservative ideology, Lenz is gradually able to find solace while still bearing witness to her pain.
Each chapter of God Land is part of a gorgeous literary road trip through cornfields and manufacturing towns as Lenz seeks out people like modern-day circuit riding pastors, megachurch congregants, and a new generation of farmers to talk about the status of faith in Middle America. She often weaves personal commentary alongside these reported conversations, educating the reader about things like epigenetics and trauma, how survival instincts impact the rural mentality, and the embedded masculine nature of Christianity. Some of Lenz’s most lyrical and compelling writing occurs when describing this land or the people in it, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear these people are as much the guides of this story as Lenz is.
Together, they introduce us to a small pioneer church on Bluff Road to help us interrogate the commingling of colonization and the Church; a University of Iowa football stadium to show us how viewing God through a strictly male lens can be problematic; an Asian American reformed church in Bigelow, Minnesota, to reimagine what supporting immigrant communities looks like; and a dim churchyard on Holy Saturday to show us that it’s ok to embrace darkness from time to time.
“Faith in America is dying,” Lenz writes in her final chapter. “Populations are changing. Churches are closing. Small towns and schools consolidating…. The forces of faith, economics, politics, immigration, the internet, technology, racism, and homophobia can be so devastatingly felt. But it’s also wrong to say that this is the end. Maybe the answer is to just sit with death, to hold it in our hands, to examine it, watch it, and realize that it’s not death at all.”
Death doesn’t have to have the last word, at least not for Christians.
Stefanie Norlin is a Detroit-based writer, book lover, and French fry connoisseur. Her words have appeared in Christianity Today, Essay Daily, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her writing at stefanienorlin.com or find her on twitter at @stefanienorlin.
August 13, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Hyde Stevens
In the months before becoming pregnant with my daughter, I got into a stranger’s car and drove out to the Berkshires to attend an Ayahuasca ceremony with a Columbian shaman named Taita Nelson. I was writing a novel about the possibility of psychic healing after my mother’s death from Lewy body dementia. My hope was that I might reconnect with my mother. My brother had told me I was the bravest person he knew. But the truth is that I am far from fearless.
“To my knowledge no one has discovered a gene for self-determination,” Carter Taylor Seaton writes in her essay “The Girl in the Mirror” in the literary collection Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment. “I don’t think they will, either.” Fearless, published in April by Mountain State Press, is lyrical, sprawling, and forthright, essays mostly, with the occasional microburst of fiction or poetry, all featuring women bravely making their way in the world. “Some challenges,” Seaton writes, “present themselves, like coping with an alcoholic husband or ending life support for your oldest son, and you grapple to overcome them. Others you willingly accept.” After playing the Virgin Mary as a pregnant high school junior and having four children before she was twenty-three, at fifty, Seaton willingly took on the challenge to become a writer and marathoner.
With over thirty formidable writers contributing, Fearless creates a celestial-chorus-like effect, like reading #YesAllWomen tweets or Scary Mommy Confessionals. Yet, unlike the fragmentary moments of online confessions, Fearless provides the context, intelligence, poise, and perspective that only literary explorations can give. The works are short—two or three can be read in the time it takes to read a novel chapter—but long enough to show ongoing-ness of women’s badassery. Brimming with rebellion, duty, loss, fear, motherhood, divorce, poverty, hedonism, hope, and faith, the stories show women as intrepid, infragile, heroic, each writer mounting the audacity to become the hero in her own life.
West Virginians abound, although the stories reach to New York, Los Angeles, Florence, and beyond. Editor Cat Pleska, a seventh-generation Appalachian, grounds Fearless in the peculiarity of the mountains, coal mines, poverty, and pickup trucks where plucky women refuse to do as they are told, and, instead, blaze their own trail: the righteous victory of rebuffing a boss’s harassment, finding the confidence to run away from home or start a global business. Many of the stories are too complex to describe in pull-quotes: the older-self-shocking confidence of a woman giving birth “the natural way.” The pain of losing the love of your life to cancer, even though you divorced him many years before.
Daleen R. Berry writes of the moment she found out—while getting an ultrasound on her right breast – that her husband died, setting off a protracted legal disaster. M. Lynne Squires writes of a rape in which she was not sure if she should hope her roommate comes home to save her or hope to avoid being found in such a shameful state, later vowing “that moment, that experience wasn’t going to define me.” In “Star Child,” editor Cat Pleska writes of the larger-than-life friend from Stitch-and-Bitch meetings who believed in magic, flew her out to Paris, and breezily brushed off the greatest marital betrayal, a tribute to a quixotic, vibrant life snuffed out in an instant.
In “Daughter,” Rajia Hassib denaturalizes and ironizes the task of “raising” a fearless woman. Wracked by mom guilt for failing her daughter, the protagonist anxiously tries to teach her graduating senior to ride a bicycle so she won’t embarrass her new friends at college. All the while, the fully capable teen girl texts friends, likely mocking her, with both thumbs. What else, the story suggests, do we forget to teach young women before they go off into the world?
In one of the rare nods to politics in Fearless, the poem “Women’s March Washington, By God, D.C.,” by Kari Gunter-Seymour, paints a picture of a mounting women’s movement in Appalachia:
Their husband’s mouths gaped,
They board the bus, middle of the night,
Cardboard signs and children in tow,
Their bodies a poem of spine
And gut and cicada music.
Some have never before left the county.
Majestically, Sheila Coleman-Castells imagines a new post-coal, post-poverty future for her chosen homeland where “expectations, stigmas, and inertia” don’t have to define our lives. Her lyrical invocations resonate for her fellow Black Affrilachian women and for women everywhere: “I have to show her, while young, that she has no need to adhere to outmoded cultural ways of being that require her to get ‘permission’ from anyone to be her authentic self. No one who ever asked permission from others would be allowed to let their talents roam free.”
Ultimately, Fearless is not about the lack of fear, but rather about writing a hope for a better future—a hope resounding right now in all parts of the nation where women reside (and vote), but perhaps nowhere as lyrically as the blooming mountains of Appalachia—the hope that, as Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri says in “In Every Dream…”: “They no longer need to imagine.”
I didn’t see my mother in the shamanic ceremony in the Berkshires, but I saw powerful internal landscape of loss that helped me let go of my biggest fears. I saw a rose bloom out of my womb. And then I saw my mother’s hair—her thick, charcoal-black, fluffy 1980s-blow-dried follicles sprouting up over mountains, fields, rivers, streams, oceans, and continents all over the earth. I will forever be grateful to have had the courage—and the bravery of women before me—to see that dream.
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of the pushcart-nominated story “Wolf Memoirs.” Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Salon, The Awl, The Millions, Rolling Stone, RogerEbert.com, and Fast Company. She is the author of the nonfiction book Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson which was praised by INC, The AV Club, Brain Pickings, WGBH, and The Boston Globe. Stevens has taught writing at many schools including MassArt, Brooklyn College, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Harvard Extension School. She currently teaches a writing and research seminar at Boston University exploring the future of video games.
August 2, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Anita Gill
I had the fortune of hearing Krystal A. Sital read from her debut memoir Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad at HippoCamp 2018 in Lancaster, PA. She spoke of her home, the island nation of Trinidad. She spoke of her family, generations of Trinidadians of Indian origin. But then she sometimes didn’t speak. Instead her mother and grandmother did, as evidenced by Sital’s smooth switch into a patois accent.
Framed around her grandfather’s fall and subsequent decline in health, Sital memorializes the man who had doted on her. But Sital is perplexed by her grandmother and other relatives who have reservations about approving additional procedures to extend her grandfather’s life. “My grandfather. The uncontested patriarch of our family. Did I see the true glimpses of who he was and, like everyone else, choose to pretend it didn’t happen?” she writes. “I wrestle with two images of this man, wanting to know more, need to discover as much as I can to make sense of him, of us all, for allowing him to dominate our lives.”
Over a variety of meal preparations that her mother executes without a glance at a recipe, Sital uncovers the stories of the women in her family and the abuse they suffered under the hands of their patriarch. In giving her mother and grandmother the space to share their stories verbally, Sital provides the same freedom on the page. One of the first sections is for Arya, Sital’s mother, whose story starts as a young girl. In a later section, Sital narrates her grandmother, Rebecca’s story. The two women from different generations are unified in one desire: to have a life better than the one they were born into.
Sital’s narration reveals insights into her complicated role as storyteller, specifically in terms of portraying some of her family members as antagonists. “As I learn about the men in my life—my father, my grandfather—men I’ve been enamored with and admired, they take on dimensions I’ve never imagined,” she writes. “I can no longer see them as just my father and grandfather; they are Dharmendra and Shiva. Fathers, yes. But also husbands. Perpetrators.” Though the men have few redeeming qualities, she examines the bigger picture, in how the country molded the men this way, to pass down the same habits in every generation. This observation is not intended to exonerate her father and grandfather. Rather, it elucidates the societal structure that permits this behavior.
Sital’s story is her mother’s story, as it is her grandmother’s story. They’re inextricably linked, the joys and traumas of a family passed down. It’s only through providing the accounts of her mother and grandmother that Sital can introduce herself into the story as the young daughter born in Trinidad and made to adapt to the U.S. as an adolescent. Like a bricklayer, Sital sets up this foundation with precision and purpose, allowing readers to better grasp the nuanced complications within the family upon migration into the U.S.
Since studying memoir, I had come to believe the narrative had to follow the character “I” throughout. Most of our craft books on memoir center around the individual (in most cases, the writer) and how they experience their unique past. When I think deeper about this, I understand how American individualism influences the way we’ve been taught to write memoir. It was no wonder I struggled when I attempted to capture my Indian family on the page. In a culture where we champion the family over individualism, I hit a roadblock. How could I tell my story when it is intertwined in the larger narrative of my family?
Sital’s expertly executed memoir accomplishes this feat with finesse and poise. Her memoir is a guidebook for how to capture the complex dynamics within a family. Through her arduous work to better understand her ancestry—to appreciate their stories and share in their grief—she is able to finally know herself.
Anita Gill is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.
July 26, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Ian Maxton
There is a sound coming from the radio. We used to have radios in our homes, now most of us do not. At sixteen, I would sit in my room late at night listening to Coast to Coast AM—a show concerned with government conspiracy, UFO sightings, and the astral plane. It was, at times, absurd, surreal, and strangely affecting. People deal with the trauma of late capitalism in all kinds of ways, and some of them funnel it into highly idiosyncratic belief systems about ancient lizard people who live inside the hollow earth. The show felt as though it came from a world just adjacent to my own, a world the radio accidentally tuned into through some combination of technology and magic. Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
What the show did for me, though, was attune me more acutely to the possibilities of the strange in the world. I watch the skies at night for UFOs as much as stars. I investigate strange sounds in my house in the dark. Though I have cultivated this practice carefully, I find myself a rank amateur when compared with Kristen Gallerneaux. The curator of communication and IT at The Henry Ford Museum—which means, among other things, she oversees a vast warehouse of the strange—Gallerneaux is also the author of High Static Dead Lines.
Subtitled Sonic Spectres and the Object Hereafter (though less theory-heavy than that subtitle implies), the book of essays ranges across fields—music, technology, history, archaeology. The individual essays mine secrets “locked within the tangled guts of object history,” as Gallerneaux writes. In between the essays are interludes that the jacket copy describes as “ficto-criticism.” These sections are about a girl named K. and conform significantly to what is known of the author’s own biography, blurring the line further between the real and the unreal. Throughout the book, footnotes make reference to hauntings, paranormal happenings, or folk beliefs, haunting the text.
The book is a catalogue of overheard séances, TV broadcast hijackings, haunted pianos, and fetches (a ghost of oneself that slips out of time as a portent of death). Gallerneaux considers the first laser, the Votrax, and the Moog synthesizer. This interplay of objects and phenomena is at the core of the book. As is sound. Unsurprisingly so, considering that the first séances of the spiritualist movement in the U.S. were productions of sound.
But the book does not stake its ground in any particular object philosophy, instead, following the objects where they lead to. Gallerneaux positions herself as neither skeptic nor believer in the supernatural, but, like Fox Mulder, someone who wants to believe. And what she believes in is “the voice of the object, the thing, above all else.”
These voices are spectres and Gallerneaux’s text is a hauntological one, in that—per a quote she pulls from Mark Fisher—“hauntology [is] the agency of the virtual, with the spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing.”
There is an episode of The Twilight Zone that goes like this: an old woman lives alone and starts receiving strange phone calls. The calls frighten her, but like many frightening things, they excite her, too. She investigates the source of the calls and finds they are coming from a phone line that has gone down and left the wire resting on the grave of a former lover. The physical (electric line) connects her to the metaphysical (whatever plane of existence her lover resides on). This episode presumably completed its production sometime in mid-1963. On the evening it was to air, however, it was pre-empted by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This is hauntological. It is hauntological, too, when we watch archival news footage from that day.
Haunting is the point. Gallerneaux writes that “finding ways to allow our media to haunt us is crucial to understanding it.” The resonances – the revenants – of our past still haunt us. As Gallerneaux points out, the radio was once thought to be a tool for utopian democratization. Now, it is a nearly obsolete object in the North American home. But you can go on YouTube right now and listen to Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. You may already have.
In one of the ficto-criticisms, Gallerneaux tells the story of K., on the porch one summer evening with her grandfather during a storm. The storm rises and, just above the looming tower of the town’s glass factory, a ball of lighting forms. A huge ball that stuns everyone into silence and keeps them that way for, as the lightning dives into the earth, it fries the telephone wires of the whole town.
Phone wires, like radios, are becoming less and less needed, but now that our phones beam messages through the air, we may see an uptick in calls from the beyond. Or, more simply, Facebook may put a “memory” on your feed that includes a picture of someone who has died.
Marx famously wrote that “all that is solid melts into air”—Gallerneaux recognizes that, even after objects and people disappear, the air is filled with ghosts.
Ian Maxton is a writer and critic. His work has appeared in Permafrost, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere. He is a contributor at Spectrum Culture, an associate editor for Passages North, and lives above the 45th parallel with his wife and their two cats.
July 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Christine Byl
Don’t judge Far Flung: Improvisations on National Parks, Driving to Russia, Not Marrying a Ranger, the Language of Heartbreak, and Other Natural Disasters by its cover. Or by its playful subtitle, or its slim profile. A jaunty cover and jacket copy might imply Cassandra Kircher’s first collection of essays is breezy, travel-focused and quick to digest, but the opening essay unveils a darker and more nuanced book. Kircher’s essays spring from and interrogate her experience in wild places, first as a kid in a camping family, later as the first female patrol ranger in a remote district of Rocky Mountain National Park. Kircher’s book is no easy roam through feel-good girl-power woods narratives. She traverses complicated terrain: a wounded family, the limits of her own empowerment, and the complexities of human adventuring.
Thank God for that! If I see one more woman-in-nature book praised as “badass” or focused on “living the dream,” I may give up reading them altogether. As a trail designer, mountain traveler, and wildlands addict, I am in many ways the ideal audience for this genre. But I’m also a tough critic. I have a low tolerance for nature writing that falls flat, gets mired in cliché, or reads more enamored of self than world. And enough with the badass trope, which turns every triumph or effort into a gender performance instead of an experience. Why can’t we just be women, throwing ourselves into the world? Kircher shows us we can.
Yes, the book covers road trips, Park Service jobs, and weeks at remote cabins, but also gives us essays on the draw of the back-country garbage pile, or “National Parks deaths” (“fall from rock during night,” “disappeared in snowstorm”). I found the book’s most interesting journey the one into the depths of a family with a depressive, mercurial but loving father. The relationship between parent and child and of both to nature, recurs throughout the essays, sometimes the focus, other times a refractive lens. This subtle choice anchors the collection with a through-line both relevant and moving: “There is, I suspect now as I move along the trail, a way that nature can make you strong enough to survive a father like mine.”
Any successful book is built on good prose; Kircher’s is inventive and supple, not over-written. About waking up on a childhood camping trip she writes, “The next morning my body feels the lines on the air mattress, and I smell earth and canvas. The sun is gold and awake.” As an adult, she drives with her father across a frozen lake and thinks, “At that point my heart will acknowledge the weight that has been handed down to me. It’s a weight that could crack any surface, still pull me under.”
Kircher’s gaze is also outward; she invites other thinkers and doers into her essays, many of them notable women, from Agnes Vaille, the first female summitter of Longs Peak, to Joan Didion, writing on the Hoover Dam, as well as E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, and John Muir. A certain pragmatism runs through as well; she tells us the best ways to remove trash from a firepit or how to call in a fatality on the radio, her insider’s view showing us park as workplace, not just respite.
So many books about epic adventures fail to capture a place’s specificity. Plants and animals and weather become generic backdrop instead of its truest inhabitants. Kircher paints her set with the exactness of the high Rockies and the lake-pocked Midwest: “the darkening color of the gray-green Engelmann spruce”; and lightning—“it’s quick: a wide line of neon fire so close I can’t see it.” As a resident of the subarctic and an ardent fan of tundra plants, I underlined this passage: “It’s no rural legend that alpine flora grows in slow motion. Dwarf willows a few inches tall may be over a hundred years old. Lichens scraped away by a boot take three decades to grow back. The tundra is old fashioned and naked. Wiser than any rain forest. More delicate than fine china.” Hers is a deep, considered literacy.
We are all drawn to books whose details overlap our own experiences, and this one does for me. When Kircher arrives at a favorite backcountry spot, she “feel(s) as if I’m hooked back into a web where everything fits.” I know exactly what she means. But I also love books that resonate across vast differences. My father is not a brooding presence in my backstory. I don’t have adopted children. Sarcastic and antsy, I was never “park ranger material,” and stuck to the trail crew, mostly invisible. No matter. The essays that diverged from my immediate experience drew me in with equal pull, showcasing how a nuanced narrative invites universality.
Whatever your overlap of background is with hers, Kircher is an inviting guide. Absent ego, she is not interested in grand views or bragging rights, but in the ground, stable and shaky, where fathers, bears, and all the rest of us, make a stand.
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, a finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in nonfiction. Her prose has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other journals. She lives in Interior Alaska.
July 19, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
Has knowledge of Laika already broken your heart? Do you hear her name and quickly shut down your emotions before you lose control of them? Do you think of her, traveling through the emptiness all those decades ago, and wail your sorrow into the nearest soft object? Well, then, brace yourself and join me. Because we are going to look head-on at Laika, the first living being to orbit our planet, for at least the length of this review.
Kurt Caswell’s detailed, deeply felt biography, Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog, covers not just the most famous dog of the century but also her context. Caswell writes of many other animals in space and space programs, offers thumbnails of the Russian space program and the history of animal experimentation generally, and speculates quite compellingly about the men who worked with Laika and how she herself experienced her journey. This last is the touchstone of the book: what was in Laika’s mind as she sat patiently in her capsule, as she underwent the enormous physical stress and pressure of liftoff, as she died. Caswell returns to these questions again and again. Laika’s actual mind is, of course, a mystery, but Caswell’s perspective on her makes the book a warm and meaningful read.
While the American space program experimented with monkeys in the 1950s, because they were similar to humans, the Russian space program used dogs instead. Monkeys “proved difficult to train and vulnerable to the stresses of spaceflight,” the Russians determined. “They just weren’t very tough…. The Soviets knew dogs, and they knew how to work with them.” (Blame Pavlov.) A variety of dogs were acquired, most of them hardy, friendly strays, and were cared for very well as they were trained and tested. Caswell tells stories of the space program staff loving the dogs, having strong bonds with them, feeding them special treats. “The space dogs of Soviet Russia were not lab animals, I think,” Caswell proposes. “They were cosmonauts, highly trained working dogs with a job to do.”
As with police dogs and military dogs, though, the job was dangerous. Everyone involved with the space dogs knew they would not survive being shot into space. Getting Laika safely back to earth was not possible with the technology of the time, though shooting her into space was. She was the best fit for the job of first animal into orbit both literally—she was a small dog, and the smaller the better in space programs—and because of her temperament. She was profoundly patient, capable of sitting in a confined space for 20 days, and she took well to space training.
And so, on November 3, 1957, up she went, inside Sputnik II. She died of overheating after a few orbits, but she passed on a wealth of information about the status and survival of living beings in space, such that Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit a few years later would not have been possible without her.
The Soviets who worked with Laika offered her all due credit, and the nation put up multiple monuments to her. Caswell, too, depicts her as a hero in Laika’s Window. He also doesn’t shrink from asking questions about the ethics of Laika’s story: “What does it mean that we use animals for our own designs, our own purposes, to improve human life, for wealth and power? What does it mean that we sacrifice them instead of ourselves?” Both his philosophizing about Laika and his sentimentality about her should be demerits on the book’s quality, but in this case they are perfectly placed. Laika cannot help but inspire sentiment, and if you have no curiosity about what went through the mind of a dog who saw the earth from above, I am not sure you should be reading books at all.
The only off note in what is otherwise a sure and confident book is the epilogue, which editorializes that we, the human race, must establish colonies on Mars. Caswell says that he started the process of writing Laika’s Window thinking the opposite, that we needed to sort out the problems of this planet first, but writing the book changed his mind. Reading it did not change mine. His insistence on this point, after the sensitivity and level consideration he brought to Laika, seemed out of place. Still, this final note hardly mars a marvelous tribute to a heroic dog.
After reading in such detail about her, though, I am not reassured that Laika had a noble fate. I clenched my jaw painfully in order to write this review, and a picture of Laika will tell you why. She looks like a sweet little dog, eager and friendly, and, science be damned, she died a lonely death at the hands of the human race. Now she is immortal, when as a street dog in Moscow she might not have lived past 1960. But when I think of her, sitting in a tin can, running out of air one breath at a time, I am indifferent to what her life might have been. My heart breaks for what was.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in early 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.
July 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Melissa Matthewson
If you think of life as a series of devotional moments and, also, of cognitive reasoning, or at least a thinking of one’s self in relationship to others and in relationship to our most vulnerable moments, especially fear, then it reasons that we might arrange a self in such a way that we might interrogate our insecurities, or at least, expose our vulnerabilities. That in this, we can find profound connection with each other. That’s the hope. Perhaps this is the function of art—and why we need it so urgently—that is, art reminds us of our own possible transformation through collective inquiry and beautiful expression.
For instance, I was stopped at a train crossing recently, commuting to work, morning near eight, and paused at the edge of the tracks, taking in the surrounding landscape as the train and the patterns of graffiti art tagged on the steel cars rumbled by. And in the significance of this small moment, I recognized the tessellations of change scratched into the train car, a representation of both beauty and the loss of beauty, which equates to me the purposes of literature: to show the dark and the light.
To think further on this, perhaps the reason I devour books, is to an encounter an inquisitive mind who challenges my notions of the world in unexpected ways. Further, the essay, when written well, makes me feel less alone and serves as an instrument for transformation. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.” This is all to say that this is what Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s essay collections does—takes a circumstance of our lives—fear—and transforms it into a book of timeless ideas from which we might or could transform.
The essays in Fear Icons, the inaugural prize winner of the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press, are invigorating in that they present to the reader a stylistic candy shop from which to sample: essays as letters to iconic figures in popular culture as well as explorations of motherhood, violence, culture, pain, politics, to name a few of the subjects. In essence, Schlegel’s style is spare, controlled, precise, sometimes proceeding with caution. What Schlegel does best is to reveal the dark underbelly of the human condition—asking hard questions about who we are, what we fear. The work is smart and precise in its word choice. At the outset, she asks, “Who are we to each other when we are afraid?” She engages with a historical line of authors – referring to the shadow texts at the back of the book. From Barthes to Maurice Sendak, from Terrance Hayes to Anne Carson, Schlegel situates her own thinking and inquiry within a tradition of thinkers and artists, lifting the narrative to new heights. She also experiments with hybrid forms and lyric narrative—braided essays, letters, fragments, dates and time, numbers, illustrations, white space. Each form speaks to the content that lie within the essay.
My favorite part of Kisha’s collection is when she reveals herself, as the “I,” the persona who shifts and changes as we encounter various stories within the book. She is a compelling character in her own right and she invited me into her stories such that I felt comfortable following her lead. I particularly favored the essays in which Schlegel reveals herself as parent and the ways that we fear for our children and also love them. In one essay early on in the collection, “Gun,” Schlegel opens, “I needed something to be beautiful again, so I took my son to The Nutcracker, to see the sugar plum children dance.” The imagery set forth here feels encompassing and visceral. As in all of Schlegel’s essays, there is an attention and devotion to language, to beautiful sentences, which as both a reader and writer, is what makes me fall in love. As she continues in “Gun,” Schlegel reveals the beauty of motherhood: “For a brief moment, I only felt the weight of his warm body. I feel his legs dangling against my legs, his knees over my knees. Our bodies moved together. He was a little planet in my orbit, and I was a planet in his.” This, juxtaposed to the thread in which Schlegel investigates the violence, death, and trauma of the Newtown school shooting. As she watches her son play, she writes, “I turned away so I couldn’t think of dead children while looking at my living child.” She describes her fear in this essay as she imagines a shooting in a movie theater and how she might respond, how she imagines surviving. She continues to investigate both her own life, her son’s, and the ways we fear, damage, and wound each other, both in specific ways and subtly. Schlegel seamlessly integrates an anecdote into the essay to reveal her own fears by telling the story of a little girl building blocks with her son in the library. She imagines the girl will do something to harm her and writes, “A part of you dies even though you live, the destruction moves all too easily from one person to another. I’m not comfortable thinking this way, but there it is: the idea that the wounded will wound.”
In an essay in which she explores the persona of Dolly Parton, Schlegel visits the Dollywood Amusement Park, and the replica of Parton’s home is the point from which Schlegel investigates notions of beauty, time, nostalgia, and preservation. Parton has changed her appearance in every way possible and in this transformation, Schlegel asks, “What’s it like to preserve yourself this way? What is it that makes us care?” She continues thinking about the persona of Dolly, how we both admire and turn away, with, “Dolly bubbles onward, floating somewhere between a down-home country song and that figment of timelessness called fame. She stays a comfort and so strange, ours and not ours, hers and not hers.” Schlegel then turns her attention to nostalgia, to the strangeness of being human. She thinks of herself as a girl, all the possibility held within, writes of herself, remembering, “I sit cross-legged in the clover, feeling all the strangeness of being alive only to die.” Schlegel doesn’t look away from the difficulty of living, of pressing on in her essays to investigate the dark realm of being, of time, and diminished selves, and “the magpies are already gathering in the corner of the year, waiting for what remains.” It’s an essay that builds through layers and accretions, exposing our terror, exposing our comfort, showing us what it’s like to live.
All in all, I think what is most admirable about Schlegel’s essays is her unafraid progression—she’s not fearful of trying to write the dark, the hard, the sad. She wants us to confront fear, and she does so with depth. I admire her smart, thinking mind and the way she crafts language in surprising ways to show us something we need in order to live—to transform, as Borges said, for the eternal.
Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Guernica, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives on a farm in the Applegate Valley and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is forthcoming from Split Lip Press (Sept 2019).