August 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Sonya Huber
The evening I finished your essay collection, This Is One Way To Dance, I couldn’t go to sleep afterward. The structure of the book was buzzing in my head. Does this ever happen to you? (I love that one of your essays is about postcards and correspondence, so I thought I’d write to you.) Your essays span such a wide range of time, and yet you did the most brilliant thing: rather than smoothing them out to make them all “contemporary,” you added notes at the end of each to denote when the essay was written and then when you updated it. One of the opening essays, “Matrimonials,” about Indian weddings and language, movement and return, family and translation and diaspora among so many other topics, provides a kind of map and timeline for the essays that follow. And then each essay is ended with a year for when it was written, and sometimes a second for when it was revised. And then “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me” has a postscript! I had never thought to do that before. You leave the essay as it is, a moment in time, and then enter a correspondence with the essay itself.
(And we, too, have been in a regular correspondence about the essay, emails and hellos on social media. And is it true that we’ve really only been in the same room a handful of hours in our lives? This is one of the ways that our small community of creative nonfiction writers was knit together, through the first few NonfictioNow conferences in Iowa decades ago now, in unassuming function rooms. I seem to remember talking with you before or after a panel about travel writing, where postcards had been put on the various chairs, in the same room where I sat down the aisle from gangly smiley Phillip Lopate and gawked at him as though he were a rock star. The moments of being that Virginia Woolf talked about, and how one of them was with you. And then maybe a decade later, a similar bubble. We talked for just a moment, stolen in time, about our shared experience—which I knew would come up in the book—of marrying a man with a dead brother. How that is such a thing, the presence of an absence, a man you both know intimately who is a version of your love played in another key, and yet a man you will never know.)
What is fascinating to me about your book is exactly that: how you handle the oddness of the experience of time itself, what it hides from us and what it reveals. The individual essays each present two timelines, one of your life moving forward and one of when you sat down to recall those moments. I think this is what created the mind-blowing yet subtle effect of this collection: the essays are ordered not by “when stuff happened” with the childhood stuff first. They are ordered based on when they were written, so that we are tracking your consciousness as it unfolds through time, as it loops backward and returns to previous themes and changes perspectives. The effect, for me, was of a kind of writing intimacy that one feels in reading letters or diaries: there’s a sense of being in the head of the writer as they have a conversation with what they are writing. It’s like turning over a needlepoint to view the back. But then—whereas a needlepoint’s reverse is often a mess of threads—what you do is you make the back of the essay beautiful. You tuck the ends in and connect them. That’s the image that I keep getting when I think about your book: a flower with many small petals in rings, like a zinnia or marigold or chrysanthemum (and I thought you’d like a colorful metaphor since this book zings with color, the color of saris and weddings and skylines at night and food and sepia memories). The loose ends of the essays all curve and dovetail toward a larger design, making something beautiful, and it wasn’t through forcing them to align. It was through exposing the pattern of their making.
The book is full of returns that nonetheless carry the reader forward, like the “Ring Theory” that is another essay. Even your “Acknowledgements” section at the back is a return, full with the people and places that come up in the essays and notes on process. And then the very last section, “Notes,” offers a series of tiny essays on process, so that the reader ends with the seed of each essay, its inspiration and additional moments and texts that prompted it into being.
What a brilliant and subtle design. I look forward to the time when we can be in a room together somewhere, on the other side of this terrible virus, so that I can hear you talk about process and writing and putting this together, adding yet another ring of petals around your beautiful book.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.
July 24, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Courtney Ruttenbur Bulsiewicz
Margaret Renkl and I are strangers, yet as I was reading her collection Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, I couldn’t believe how much we share.
Parts of our hearts are held in Alabama, where she spent her entire childhood, and I spent part of mine. Both of us “were always barefoot.” I too “grew up playing in the woods, and all my life I’ve turned to woodland paths when the world is too much with me.” We both have realized as adults that “Sometimes Santa Claus has to wait till the hour before the store closes on Christmas Eve to get the markdown prices.”
Both of us have dealt with postpartum “depression, mastitis . . . loneliness, a baby who needed to be held all the time . . . . We moved from bed to sofa and back again, day after day after day. I smelled of sour milk and vomit.” And, unfortunately, we share our heaviest common ground: the grief of losing both parents, our fathers first and then our mothers.
Loss surrounds us. Renkl writes, “This life thrives on death.” And she gives us multiple instances showing how this happens in nature: crows eat the cardinal’s eggs, “Someone steps on a cockroach on the dark sidewalk, and by morning the ants have arrived to carry it off.” Cottontails eat their young. In the world of birds and snakes it is easy to see how one animal’s death feeds the life of another, but how, in relation to the personal losses we all experience of our loved ones, does life thrive on death?
Though I know Renkl is onto something here, I don’t want her to be. I don’t want goodness to come from the awfulness of my parents’ deaths. How could I thrive after that? When I lost them, I was still in my 20s, a time of life when most young adults are thriving, but life as I knew it ended—twice. Renkl’s parents died later in life, and she knows this pain. She knows how death kills not only the deceased but the living as well. Her description of losing her mother is wholly accurate: “I felt as if a madman had blown a hole through my own heart. Unmoored, I could not stop weeping.” Several years removed from my losses, I still weep. But even in that grief, I think I know what she means. I can see now how growth has come from decay.
Since losing my parents I have consoled others through the loss of a parent. I have gained confidence in my ability to push through devastation. I am determined to work out, trying to stay as healthy as possible because, like Renkl, I don’t “want my own children to face the agony of losing a parent too soon,” though as she points out, “loss is too often something I can do nothing about.” I have become more cognizant and grateful for my time with my loved ones since losing two people I wish I had all the time in the world. This is perhaps the aspect of death that fulfills Renkl’s thesis the most, that has the potential to bring more life: death helps us see what is important, what can bring us joy, pushing us to take in moments with our spouses, children, siblings, in-laws, extended family, friends. Loss helps us remember what was important. What is gone but still a part of us is still capable of bringing us joy through remembrance. Renkl writes:
Human beings are creatures made for joy. Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies, unwelcome variations from the pleasure and calm and safety that in the right way of the world would form the firm ground of our being. In the fairy tale we tell ourselves, darkness holds nothing resembling a gift. What we feel always contains its own truth, but it is not the only truth, and darkness almost always harbors some bit of goodness tucked out of sight, waiting for an unexpected light to shine, to reveal it in its deepest hiding place.
Late Migrations is just that: an unexpected light shining, bringing beauty and clarity to loss. Renkl has depicted a glorious world in this collection—a glorious world not despite its darkness, but because of it. Her prose warms and welcomes you into her world of bewildering opposites that we all experience and can connect to grief and joy, life and death, fear and acceptance.
Renkl takes you through her thoughts and emotions as she unearths the landscape and ancestry that surrounds and shapes her. She weaves lyrical passages on nature, like the clamor of songbirds warning of a rat snake hunting in the weeds, alongside stories of her family, like when her grandmother ate so many peaches while canning that she mistook labor pains for a tummy ache. Illustrations by Renkl’s brother help us see thriving life, prime us for the essays that follow so we can interpret parallels alongside her, and help connect us even more to the love Renkl has for nature and for her family.
This collection reminded me of my own family, of the life we shared in the woods of the south. It let me go back to an earlier, easier time, when my parents were still living. It kept me on the tips of my fingers, turning the pages, leaving me wanting more and more and more, but of course, at some point, there was no more. Instead I was left in awe and with gratitude, wanting to thank Renkl for attending to “that natural human urge to share something wonderful, even with a stranger.”
Courtney Ruttenbur Bulsiewicz is an essayist whose work has been published in The Tusculum Review, Inscape, and Context. She lives in the Mountain West with her husband and two sons.
July 17, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Randon Billings Noble
The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet is a perfect book to read right now.
But I’m not sure when “now” is for you, dear reader. I am, however, sure it is in the After-Normal. The after-normal is a time of “seasons mutating, oceans acidifying … icecaps melting … brush fires burning hotter, faster, larger …” It’s a time when “what we assumed, like our parents, and their parents before them, was ‘normal’—being part of the rhythmic cycles of slow-moving evolution—will never again, in a geological time span of 100,000 years, return.” This is heavy stuff. And this book wants to address our reactions to it: What do we think? How does it feel? What do we do?
COVID-19 has changed the After-Normal but it’s still an After-Normal. As I write this, I’ve been quarantining for more than two months. With my spouse and nine-year-old twins. In a two-bedroom city apartment that feels smaller every day. We are lucky and grateful to be healthy. But money is tight and the future—our future—uncertain. It’s difficult to think about the larger future—not just ours but everyone’s, not just in our lifetimes but our planet’s.
David Carlin and Nicole Walker can help us. They have written a book of “flash essays, in parallel with each other, one for each of the twenty-six letters of the Latin alphabet… [co-opting] the form of an A-Z ‘how to guide.’” They begin with albatross and bacteria and canal, and end with xeric, you, and Z.
Essays in this book range from five pages to one sentence, their titles from “Bitumen” to “Hesitation,” from “Embroidery” to “Frog” from “Xoxoxoxoxo” to “Death.” But they all in some way confront or address the After-Normal, sometimes with sadness, sometimes with humor, often with joy.
For those of you who like riffs, tangents, and free association, you will love this book. Same if you like the short essays in Knausgaard’s Autumn, Heidi Julavitz’s The Folded Clock, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights or, ahem, Brevity. Same if you, too, wonder what to do in this uncertain but always After-Normal.
Going back to the idea of riffing, an essay like “Catastrophe” starts with etymology, jumps to various cats (including the cat in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity), move to dogs, spikes out to Hart Crane, returns to etymology, then cat treats, then dog treats, and ends with the world on fire, “burning with clouds of red cardinals.” It’s like being a pinball in the game of someone else’s mind, bouncing between associations as the meaning of the essay builds. In some ways the whole book is like this—ever changing in subject, ever shifting in mood, but always illuminating some aspect of the After-Normal.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
From “Junk”: “Whalers called the melon of a butchered sperm whale ‘junk.’ This melon/junk, a mass of fatty tissue adjacent to the largest brain on Earth, was so named as it was the part of a whale’s head more or less useless for extracting sperm oil. For the whale the junk is not-junk .…”
From “Later”: “Maybe the problem is that we’ve never before had such power, as a species, both to predict and to affect the future.”
From “Loophole”: “Loopholes aren’t the soft things in fabric or in paper. They aren’t accidents but purposes. The word comes from the slits built into castle walls where soldiers could remain protected .… Loopholes are hard things, hard as night, hard as sleep, hard as children sleeping on hard floors .…”
From “Quarrel/Quarantine”: “Two things that can’t be isolated: love and change.”
I find that last quote particularly comforting. Especially now.
Just because the world as we know it is ending, Carlin and Walker claim, doesn’t mean we can’t enrich ourselves with long flights to see old friends, with whiskey, with pancetta, with a crab sandwich. The “bad” must be balanced with the “good”—so much so that I feel the need to put quotes around each.
(“Krab” contains the recipe for said crab sandwich, by the way. And not krab with a k. “If your objective in life is to die happy, spend the big bucks on real crab.”)
Lots of things can make us happy, and many are explored in these essays—growing your own fruit trees, following internet rabbit-holes, writing with a fountain pen, writing to governors, eating sardines from a can, reading letters that traveled half a world to get to you.
My favorite thing about this book is that it can be read so many ways. Straight through or skipping around. As a prescription or as a hall pass. For fun or in earnest. But why these binaries? These essays can be read both ways at once.
Nicole and David got the idea for this book while walking on a beach near David’s home in Melbourne, Australia. They “talked about the trouble with environmental writing—how some of it can be so depressing, humorless, shaming, guilt-ridden,” how it separates “Nature” from culture, and how that “separation is a symptom of the problem.” They agreed to write a book that “moved beyond useless despair, feel-good guilt, or callous denial. Toward noticing, and witnessing … to respond, with care and love and justice.” This conversation evolved into the conversation of the essays in this book
One way this book resonates in this new stage of pandemic After-Normal is that it brings the far-flung up close—Arizona if you’re in Australia, Australia if you’re in Arizona, both if you’re in England or New England or Argentina or the Arctic. It looks into igloos, gets microscopic with bacteria, pans back to show the Earth from the exosphere.
Personally, I’m finding it deeply pleasurable to travel so far from the confines of my own quarantined home.
Quite another thing is the challenges that these essays present—to be conscious of our peccadilloes and our privileges, our crimes against the environment as well as our efforts—however individual, however small—to save it.
Reading this now I feel the balancing act all too acutely. I have to get out of the house but I’ll wear a mask while I walk … unless there’s no one around (early in the morning, later in the evening) in which case I’ll peel it carefully from my ears, the feeling of fresh air on my face something I didn’t know I took for granted until now, on this deserted side street, the smell of wet leaves and soil and peonies more delicious than ever before. I’m trying to be responsible while still taking small pleasures where I can find them.
So maybe that’s the lesson in The After-Normal as well as whatever version of the After-Normal we’re currently living in—know the rules, know what hurts others and can be helped, know what hurts others but can’t be helped; try to follow these practices, the order of the alphabet, even if it’s not as easy ABC 123. Because either way it’s you and me—and the other 7.8 billion people on the planet.
(This review also follows the alphabet, starting with A for After-Normal and ending with – well – you’ll see.)
Underneath the somewhat rigid form of the abecedarium, however, are David and Nicole’s essays, each flexible and capacious (however short they may be). And the combination is both powerful and pleasurable – especially when it’s these two writers in conversation.
Voice can be a tricky thing in a collaborative work. But Carlin’s and Walker’s voices are both similar but distinct, compatible but individual. Once you read through, say, G, you can tell who’s who but by then it only matters if you want it too. Instead of competitive tennis, it’s a happy volley. I was thinking about this (thwack), what do you think about that (phut)?
(Who knew there was a name for the sound a tennis ball makes? Phut. So many new things learned from and through this book.)
X, however, is always tricky. Other than the overused x-ray, what starts with x? The After-Normal has taught me yet another new word: xeric: characterized by a scanty amount of moisture. Having enough water is a concern in the world, certainly in Australia and Arizona, where David and Nicole are from, and this essay reminds us that “[n]ot enough moisture leads to friction.”
Yet friction is not always a bad thing. David’s essay “Xeric” reminds us that “[t]his is the time in which the friction caused by the urgency of what we face makes new ideas and new alliances suddenly thinkable and malleable.” What new thinking about health and patriotism and racism and entitlement and compassion and community will come from this pandemic, our newest iteration of the After-Normal? What new beginning will come from our old beginning’s end?
Z is the end, the last letter. And, like X, it’s also a hard letter to start a sentence with. Especially a sentence that starts the last paragraph of a book review. But here goes: Because of its stimulating qualities, The After-Normal helps me think. But because of its reassurances, these essays also allow me to sleep at night. And that good night’s sleep – Zzzzz – allows me to wake up to another day in the After-Normal, ready to face whatever this ever-changing world might bring.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019, and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art as well as the editor of an anthology of lyric essays forthcoming from Nebraska in 2021.
July 13, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
A few summers back, I sat in a northern Maine fishing lodge watching the sun set as the loons began their mournful cries. Like them, I stood, facing Lake Kennebago, looking for my significant other. He’s asthmatic and accident-prone. He set out hours earlier on the lake in an antique boat with an unpredictable motor. Unlike the loons, I couldn’t call for him…no cell signal here.
Instead of fishing, hunting, or hiking (the activities one is supposed to do here), I’d spent the day hanging around the lodge, watching the male hummingbirds swoop and dive, trying to impress the ladies. When the males grew tired of that, they turned to the nectar, where they warred with one another, each determined to lord over the feeder. I was rereading The Sun Also Rises, following Jake Barnes’ tortuous romance with Lady Brett Ashley, trying desperately to hold onto his lady-love, even though she was clearly slipping away.
Maybe in the dark, standing next to the lake, worrying what I’d do if my husband didn’t return, I considered the battles of life, the need for love, the desperate urge to hold on. Even after I heard the boat motor and saw my husband’s dark shadow cross the water, these emotions churned within me. I wanted to write this…but how? It wasn’t a story really. It didn’t have a beginning, middle, and end.
The next day, I wrote in crots…blips or stand-alone fragments, moving by pure instinct, matching “like” images…sort of like working a jigsaw puzzle.
As I wrote, I felt a distinct undertow pulling me forward. I revised this piece a few times, titled it “Human Heart,” and sent it off to Superstition Review, which published it.
A happy accident? It seems so. I tried several times to replicate this form, this emotion, but my efforts fell flat.
Recently I came across Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, a book that proposes alternate patterns to storytelling, other than the traditional arc. Alison grew up understanding patterns, particularly how they can be tweaked and morphed. She and her sister, at ages four and seven, were living in Australia when their parents became romantically attached to another couple, who had two daughters, approximately their own ages. The parents decided to swap. Alison’s mother married the other husband, and they stayed in Australia, keeping Alison and her sister. Alison’s father married the other wife and took her and her daughters to the United States. The details about this are in Alison’s memoir, The Sisters of Antipodes,
Here’s the takeaway: life is made up of patterns that are quite malleable. Alison developed sort of radar for patterns, particularly in literature. She first saw it in W.G. Sebald’s novel, The Emigrants:
In the decade since first reading Sebald, I’ve sought power narratives that hint at structures inside them other than an arc, structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind, so that the stories feel organized—not just slice-of-life.
Alison urges readers to think of stories as organic shapes: waves, wavelets, meanders, spirals, radials, networks, fractals, and tsunamis. “Those patterns from nature have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries,” she writes. “Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?”
For examples, she draws upon such writers as Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid, Sandra Cisnero, Raymond Carver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marguerite Duras, and Ann Carson. At the very heart of this book is Alison’s close examination of writing excerpts, showing how various writers create internal movement (or pull) by using shape, color, and intrigue.
Just to be clear, this is not a how-to guide. There are no prompts or mini lessons. In fact, I found it to be a tad dense in spots, requiring rereading several sections. That’s not necessarily bad, because, in the end, I found extra effort paid off.
Also, I should also warn you that Alison’s excerpts are mainly fiction (Ann Carson, Jamaica Kincaid, and Marguerite Duras are exceptions). This didn’t bother me, particularly because the story examples involve universal human issues and life’s complexities—the same topics we’re always exploring in creative nonfiction.
“But what I hope is that thinking about patterns other than the arc will become natural,” Alison writes, “that they’ll imagine visual aspects of narrative as well as temporal, that they’ll discover ways to design, being conscious or playful with possibilities. How can you spread color across a story? Make texture with different kinds of words or sentences or zones of white space? Create repetitions or symmetries to strengthen (or trouble) a sense of movement?”
Once I finished this book, I decided “Human Heart” was a spiral, a story that begins “at a point and moves onward, not extravagant or lackadaisical like a meander, but smooth and steady, spinning around and around that central point or a single axis.”
This pattern worked great for my essay. Instead of motivating the reader with what happens next, I brought the reader inside the experience. The reader is pulled through the story through images…through emotions that grow and lead the reader off to a surprising new place.
Alison asks readers to go outside, look at the patterns in the water…at smoke…at a rainbow. She writes, “What I hope this book now will leave behind: the idea that new patterns like spirals or explosions or vortex streets might open our eyes to other natural shapes underlying our stories, might let us step away from the arc sometimes….”
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
July 10, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Stacie Worrel
Narrative tension pulses through Jennifer Renee Blevins’s essay collection, Limited by Body Habitus: An American Fat Story. How can a nonfat person write about fat in a fat-shaming society, when even her (fat) family members have told her that fat is wrong? Blevins started interrogating societal perceptions of fat after her father’s catastrophic gastric bypass surgery in 2010. Piecing together doctor’s notes about her father’s medical history with personal stories about her own struggle with body image, Blevins examines how fatness is pathologized by the American medical community. “I am afraid to write about fat,” Blevins says in the preface. “I worry that I’ll piss off skinny people who believe that fat is inherently unhealthy and fat people who believe that fat is never unhealthy.”
I, too, am afraid to write about fat. Like Blevins, I have spent my life policing the fat on my own body while trying to accept the fat on other bodies. In my first year of college, I lost fifteen pounds. Everyone talks about the “freshman fifteen” as weight gained, but it can also be weight lost. I no longer had parents around to buy me groceries and encourage me to eat. When I went home for Thanksgiving Break, my mom said I looked skinny. It was a compliment.
I will always remember the first time a random person called me “petite.” He was a student I tutored. One day when I wasn’t working, he described me to another tutor because he couldn’t remember my name. He called me “the petite girl with glasses.” A thrill shot through me when the other tutor told me the story. Petite. That word had never been applied to me, but I liked it.
In Limited by Body Habitus, Blevins relates her experience being seen as skinny for the first time. Relatives and random coworkers notice her eight-month transformation from size twelve to size two. Blevins is “applauded for taking up less space” and learns that her “old size twelve body was monstrous and unwieldy.” The problem with all of the compliments and attention given to someone who loses weight is that it makes us feel like we must have been “monstrous and unwieldy” before the weight loss. We are constantly afraid of becoming “monstrous and unwieldy” again. We eat less, exercise more, and do whatever else it takes to maintain a low number on the scale.
A fat-phobic society encourages skinny people to fear getting fat while telling fat people to hate themselves. In Limited by Body Habitus, Blevins looks to her mother as an early fat-shaming influence. When Blevins was six years old, her mother told her that she should want to look more like a skinny girl named Elizabeth. Blevins’ mother continued to criticize her daughter’s weight and physical appearance over the course of her life. Blevins comes to realize that her mother’s criticism was “a form of self-criticism” because “I was supposed to be the better version of her—the one who had the brother and father she didn’t, the one who got to live the life full of achievements and thinness that she had not.”
I am lucky enough to have a mother who never criticizes me for being fat, although she does praise me for being skinny. My mom is one of those people who thinks she is bigger than she is. She is always going on a new diet or trying a new workout routine to lose weight, but she’s always been thin. Watching my mom struggle to lose weight when she already takes up so little space helped me realize that we can’t trust how we see ourselves. We see ourselves the way we have been taught to see ourselves in a fat-shaming society. When we look in mirrors, we look for fat.
Blevins’s book encourages readers to recognize socially-trained impulses and move past them. “Decades of conditioning” tell Blevins to see fat people as repulsive, but her father’s gastric bypass surgery helps her realize that a fat person is “someone living in a world that wasn’t built for them—a world that, in fact, actively seeks to annihilate them.” Blevins’s book outlines how American society tries to “annihilate” fat bodies at the cost of people’s health and well-being. Blevins’s book is important to read at a time when even the medical community continues to see fatness as inherently unhealthy, putting lives at risk to make people skinnier.
Stacie Worrel is a creative writing PhD student at Ohio University. She is an assistant editor for Brevity and Quarter After Eight.
July 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Sarah Evans
Most young girls at one time or another idolize ultra-thin ballerinas, their hair swept back into a tight bun at the nape of their neck, floating across a stage in pink or white sparkling satin. Just count how many girls at the local playground encircle their waists with pink and purple gauzy tutus.
Even I, a tomboy who preferred light sabers over Barbies, have fleeting memories of slipping on satin shoes, carrying a hot pink dance bag, and gaudying up my pre-pubescent face with rouge and eyeliner for my first and only recital.
So when I picked up What You Become in Flight, Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s gorgeous memoir of her previous life as a ballet dancer, I expected a story rooted in traditional, delicate femininity. Instead, I found a thoughtful, poetic reflection on feminism.
As I delved into Whittet’s story, the theme that emerged made perfect sense to both ballet and feminism: women do not control their own bodies.
In the opening pages of the book, Whittet shares the story of an accident during ballet rehearsal where she jumped into the air, fell and fractured her spine. In a move she had rehearsed with her male dance partner many times, she had trusted him to catch her. This time, he didn’t.
The injury was the beginning of the end of her ballet career. But it was far from the only time she damaged her body. A dislocated pelvis, ruptured discs, and limbs thinned by eating disorders were just a few of the many woes she suffered in pursuit of perfection.
“Ballet excuses and glorifies a culture of dancing through pain,” she writes, “and that it relies on women’s bodies to be the tools of its expression, forcing its rigid ideas of beauty even at the expense of safety and comfort. I learned through my injury that making art requires more of me than I was prepared to consent to.”
It’s no accident that Whittet uses the word “consent” in this context. For as long as she can remember, ballet was something she automatically strived for, an art that her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt had all pursued. It seemed only natural that she would also pick up this art form.
Yet, she quickly realized that being a female ballet dancer meant she had to work toward a perfection that even her own mind and body did not, could not, agree with.
That perfection, that ideal of being the thinnest, most graceful dancer, led her and many of her classmates to compete at who could eat the least, who could hide their injuries the best. When Whittet’s foot fractured after her semi-rival massaged it too hard, seemingly with no remorse, Whittet didn’t feel anger. She felt empathy.
The other dancer “only carried through what all of us secretly felt: that other women existed to measure ourselves against, to hurt in invisible ways, to help along when we could,” Whittet writes. “That other women were just another device we used to punish our bodies with our naked, raw desire.”
Whittet didn’t come to these deep, thoughtful realizations about her art until after she left it behind. It was during her post-ballet life, chronicled in the second half of her memoir, that she was able to gain the right amount of distance from her passion to examine it truthfully.
With maturity — for women, at least — comes even more chances to lose control of your body. Whittet experienced this, too, struggling with debilitating stress and trauma after an incident where she withheld her consent during a much more sinister assault on her body. Again, she had trusted a man. Again, he failed her.
Whittet’s memoir may be filled with physical and mental suffering. But it’s also filled with clear-eyed, unabashed joy — a joy for being on stage, for expressing her story in new ways, for discovering her feminist self. The truths Whittet unearths, and the graceful prose she uses to express them, stick with the reader long after she takes her final bow.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who has been published in Mom Egg Review and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She writes book reviews for Hippocampus Magazine. She earned an MFA in nonfiction writing from Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.
June 30, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Jennifer Ochstein
I’ve begun seeing my dead mother’s face in the mirror. Mothers have been dying all along, so this is no new phenomenon. But it surprised me. While I’ve seen her in some of my gestures and actions (honking weirdly like a duck in an attempt to be funny or not answering the phone when I don’t recognize the number), it wasn’t until she died that I saw her ghost in the mirror.
My fixation forms on a common feature, our mouths, the way we smile when caught off guard. Stretched dry and crooked, it replaced her full lips as multiple sclerosis took over. It’s the same smile that causes me now to sometimes stand in front of the mirror like a teenager trying on different smiles or to delete photos in which I detect that same shape on my mouth. I practice and search for the smiles that allow me to see my own face again rather than the shadow of hers. Maybe it’s a matter of vanity, the recognition that I’m a few years older than the age she was when diagnosed with MS.
But more than that, I think it’s the need I have to distance myself from the fact of her death. Her physical absence is most difficult. I don’t want to only see her as a shadow in me. Without her physical presence in the world, I’ve felt more alone than ever. I had certainly imagined her death beforehand. But on the other side of it, it’s the fact that startles me. Sometimes I mutter a liturgy to myself, “My mother is dead. My mother died.” How could she go? How could she be dead? Oddly, I don’t know how to answer those questions. She was here. Now she’s not. I miss her.
I’m also reminded that I’m trying to do what many of us do when it comes to our parents: discover inheritances while carving out space for how those inheritances evolve. I was reminded of this when, about a month after my mother’s death, I read Apple, Tree: Writers On Their Parents, edited by Lise Funderburg. In the introduction to the collection of essays, Funderburg writes, “What other inheritances could be explored through those flickers of likeness we stumble upon … I decided to ask people … to consider that space between the apple and the tree, to make meaning of it.” As I see it, humans are a meaning-making species, and to consider the people we’ve become based on how we’re shaped not only by our inheritances but also those spaces is necessary work. I knew my mother would die and yet I didn’t. How could that be? What does that say about me?
Not all of the writers featured in Funderburg’s collection have seen their parents die, but they, like most of us, try to make sense of the likenesses, inheritances, and the spaces that make us who we are while examining with a keen “I” and eye toward the influence of parents on their children. It’s hard business.
One keen examination of the “I” in light of the eye comes from Kyoko Mori’s essay “One Man’s Poison.” Mori describes her abusive father as a “complete narcissist” (with good reason, which she details throughout), but concludes that the same narcissism has a home in her as well. “The pragmatic selfish streak he passed on to me is undoubtedly a poison,” she writes. As she recognizes the poison in herself, she also realizes that it can be medicinal rather than deadly. Inoculated with small, recognizable doses, the poison acts “like a weakened virus that immunizes us against life-threatening illness.” And in these small doses, she’s able to overcome the legacy her mother left: depression and suicide. Maybe even more importantly, she writes, “ … I inherited the right amount to immunize myself from the greatest danger of all: my father himself.”
Contributor Mat Johnson’s examination of his mother’s multiple sclerosis in “My Story about My Mother,” resonated in particular with me, probably because his mother has MS and my mother died from complications associated with MS. As he details his caregiving and her decline, I see my own mother’s experience as well as my own. This is part of what makes this collection so sharp. The examinations are broad. Rather than sentiment, these essays make use of clarity, the most powerful eye, the kind we all need when considering our inheritances.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor. She’s published essays with America Magazine, Sojourners, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, Lindenwood Review and more.
June 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Ian Maxton
Drones are probably killing someone right now. These words appear in small print at the top and bottom of each page in Sarah Vap’s most recent collection Winter: Effulgences and Devotions. These words are like an alarm going off quietly in an apartment that one searches for everywhere, but cannot find. They are the nagging sense one has forgotten something. They are an earworm of imperial decay. Someone is probably being extra-judicially dispatched, but between those moments, Vap attempts to write. That is to say, she tries to live and work, just like the rest of us.
Winter presents itself as a collection of prose poems, but really, it is a collection of fragments toward a poem. For twelve years, Vap attempted to write a poem about winter. This book is the result. Written in the stolen hours right after waking, her sentences often cut off. Thoughts are left hanging. She keeps getting tripped up on the “I.” “O, the tenderness, I – ,” goes a typical invocation of the self. And these are invocations. Vap is trying to get to the “I” with which Whitman sings himself.
However, things keep getting in the way of poetry. The drones, for one. The death of whales by sonar is another. Her young sons intrude, and she keeps having more of them and loving them anyway. Their voices and hers meld in the same way their bodies once did. She and her family move. She and her partner work degrading adjunct jobs. They keep losing their health insurance. They live, for a time, in an out of the way shack on the Olympic peninsula, a logging road their only connection to the outside world. In the background, winter itself is coming to an end in this region. The impetus for the poem, its occasion, is disappearing.
One of the ways Vap tries to cut through is by putting all of this anxiety on the page. Trying to make visible this country’s vile, invisible wars is an obvious example of this, but whole pieces are devoted to stray thoughts: that the valley they live in may flood irreparably one day, that the flu ripping through their home may never end, that her father’s illness will lead to his death. These last two items are part of how Vap accesses the “I.” It is not through poetic transcendence, but through the body and its daily, grotesque functions.
Vap’s sons are shit-obsessed. They sing odes to poop. They play in chicken feces. They find it all very funny, but in that way that children’s humor is deadly serious, too. They rely on their mother (and Vap’s role in the household as primary caregiver is hard not to notice in the book, even if it goes mostly unremarked upon), after all, to wipe their butts and laugh at their jokes. The asshole becomes a site of both humor and vulnerability. As an absence, Vap transforms it into symbol of the inner self—a place of potential enlightenment. Because it is a site of abjection, as well, enlightenment never quite comes.
The language in these pieces can be haphazard, flat, and rough. It is thrilling to read precisely because it feels unfinished, because it feels as though it has not been worked to death of a dozen years, but accumulated—like mold. Vap’s style can be direct at times, withholding at others. She can indulge in archaic poeticism or blank diarylike entries.
Winter can, at times, feel overwhelmed by guilt, by the knowledge that even the stolen moments that make up its composition are a privilege that comes at someone else’s cost. In an essay for N+1, published in 2006—right around the time Vap began to conceive her winter poem—Elif Batuman wrote that “the single greatest obstacle to American literature today” is guilt. This, she says, “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence.” Batuman contends that this has led to the stunting of our national literature, that our collective way of dealing with this guilt has been an obsessive focus on “craft,” which whittles our writing down to nothing. Writers, she says, act “as if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits.”
But it is difficult not to feel guilty. I sit down to write and the attack begins. My cat is dying. The cupboards are getting empty. There is too much work to do. There is not enough time. Drones are probably killing someone right now. And they are doing it for me. They are doing it for Sarah Vap and her children, too. So we can all enjoy the last few winters we’ve got left. Things keep getting in the way of enjoyment. Shit keeps getting in the way, literal shit. And for some reason we are writing at the same time that drones are probably killing someone.
This is the logic of capitalism. It is perfectly happy to heap its guilt on individuals. And because there is nothing you or I or Sarah Vap can do, on our own, to amend the deep wrongs of our time, despair becomes the status quo. In this perverse logic, if the whales are dying, if the drones are bombing, if winter is ending it is all your fault and there is nothing you can do about it. Vap writes, at what seems to be the end of the book, “Tomorrow, I think, I just won’t try again.” These words read, at first, as a resignation to this logic, as a final defeat. Because if writing is self-indulgence, if writing is a useless act in a world collapsing around us, then the only logical—the only moral—thing to do is to stop writing.
The book does not end with these words, though. In the epilogue, Vap sets the scene for the reader one last time. She is at her desk. It is a dark winter morning—“the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a thought: I am happy.” Thus, the book ends.
There is perhaps nothing more perverse in our time than to admit to happiness. But it is essential that we find it, because despair cannot fuel revolution. Happiness, as a kind of hope, can do just that. Batuman ends her essay with a similarly buoying injunction: “Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things . . . write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.” Winter is, ultimately, the rare book that can take up writerly guilt as its subject and achieve not just dignity, but happiness.
Ian Maxton is a communist writer and critic. He is an associate editor at Passages North and a contributor at Spectrum Culture. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Protean, and Cease, Cows.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Victoria Buitron
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Adriana Páramo a mentor and friend, who I met as a student while attending the MFA program at Fairfield University. Now that this is out of the way, I must admit that her most recent memoir, Unsent Letters to My Mother, has been one of the few quarantine gifts I’ve received while bound to my home. Like Páramo’s previous books, My Mother’s Funeral and Looking for Esperanza, I identified with the underlying feminist themes, how the sentences are cloaked with a sensual tone, and the way facets of home are continuously explored. All of this, of course, has some Spanish sprinkled in to remind us where the writer hails from.
Páramo, born in Colombia, begins her story in the mid-1990s as she and her husband depart from Alaska to Kuwait. We follow her journey in a stifling hot country, as she struggles to fit in among the American and British expats, and falls in love with a man who isn’t her husband. Every few chapters a letter is addressed to her mother, confessional in tone, which demonstrates how the narrator reconciles the woman she has become with the woman her mother would like her to be. She writes, “Mami, please don’t judge,” the inherent message those of us have aimed for right before ripping up a revelatory letter to our parents. Maybe some of us hide these letters in a cabinet drawer, a firecracker that will only detonate when read by its recipient, but Páramo inserts them throughout her explosive book while allowing us to remain invested in all facets of the story.
Although the memoir details the disintegration of a marriage, an affair, killing cats, becoming a DJ and a teacher, plus much more, the different threads of the story come together to create one whole and complete canvas. The braided chapters ground the memoir in an exquisite way, and due to the writer’s background in anthropology, the interactions with the women she meets shine and provide intriguing cross-cultural perspectives. There are vivid descriptions of Elena, the English woman whose voice confounds a nation; the feisty and domineering teenage Salma; and the withdrawn Rina, who gives up all she knows in India in search of a better life in Kuwait. Each has to face the challenges of a country founded on patriarchy, where the extreme levels of wealth are contrasted with modern slavery and discussions of honor killings. Páramo recounts their poignant stories, even the devastating event when she finds her maid close to death from a back-alley abortion, and acknowledges how her definition of injustice isn’t universal.
What captivates me most is the narrator’s search for home. Much like Páramo, I left my birth country in South America to work and study in faraway places. I’ve often asked myself, in a city much different from the one I took my first breath in, “Is this my home or just a place I’m living in right now?” Páramo writes:
The word “home” resonated with all its accommodating possibilities: noun, adverb, adjective, verb, but its linguistic elasticity gave me no comfort. Alaska was never home for me, Kuwait was definitely not home, I no longer had a home in Colombia. I was homeless. Sin hogar.
The narrator sees all facets of home collapse. Her life unfurls, and she is faced with grave choices that will shatter some homes but will go on to shape her own.
In this book, Páramo does what many are afraid to do—bare the truth—without embellishing or demanding an exculpation: “I knew that every encounter with my lover was a simple act of pure thievery, that I was stealing time from his wife, from Hunter, from the lives we were committed to.” She delves into her affair with sharp candor while juxtaposing it within the sociocultural backdrop of a country where her actions beget more than mere gossip. Somehow, she does all of this incisively, while weaving in the lives of women who become her sisters. Unsent Letters to My Mother is a memoir with profound layers, but most of all, it’s a love letter addressed to anyone who has had to decide how to lead their most genuine life while eschewing the judgment of others.
Victoria Buitron is a translator and writer based in Connecticut. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.
June 11, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Virginia Marshall
When you spend all day in your apartment, the little creatures that you normally cohabitate with peacefully suddenly become a big deal. Take ants. Perfectly harmless. If I were the same busy person I was two months ago, I would brush them aside and move on with my day. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am spending twenty-three hours a day in my apartment, along with the rest of New York City. So, the ants, you see, are an issue. I have taken to spraying the counters with a mixture of white vinegar and water every chance I get. I have even started spraying the molding on the floor and the space under the fridge where the ants seem to congregate. It is a battle to keep control over the small amount of space I have left. It is a battle I am losing.
“Chaos is the only sure thing in the world,” writes Lulu Miller at the start of her book Why Fish Don’t Exist. It’s a stellar opening. With the assuredness that comes from over a decade of science radio reporting (she co-founded the NPR show Invisibilia), Miller plunges her readers into the first scene. It is just after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a taxonomist named David Starr Jordan, the star of Miller’s book, is staring at utter chaos: the grand total of his work, the result of years spent capturing new species of fish, smuggling them home and putting them in delicate glass jars in his Stanford laboratory, lies completely destroyed in front of him, shattered by the earthquake.
“It was carnage,” Miller continues. “Fish flesh splayed as far as the eye could see.… It was like an act of Genesis in reverse; his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a mass of unknown.” Rather than throw his arms up in despair like a caricature of a mad scientist, Jordan reaches for a sewing needle and decides to stitch the name tags strewn across the laboratory floor directly onto each preserved fish body. It’s an obsession for order and control to which I can relate, as I stew in an apartment overtaken by ants. Jordan’s craze for order is, in fact, what initially attracts Miller to his story. “Are you a cautionary tale?” Miller wonders at the start of the book, “Or a model of how to be?” These questions take Miller and the reader on a journey from Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, to rocky beaches in New England, to a fledgling university in the Midwest, to a Hawaii resort, and finally, to a former sterilization facility in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Miller picked an interesting if controversial subject for her inquiry: Jordan, an oddball scientist, traveled the world trying to find new species to name and classify. Miller follows his progress with all the flourishes of a radio reporter: “It is now that the music montage begins,” Miller writes at the start of one chapter. “Cue the jaunty sea shanties and roll back the sleeves of David Starr Jordan and put him on the deck of a giant sailboat alongside a dozen men in bowler caps.”
Jordan becomes the first president of Stanford University, and then, halfway through the book (perhaps too late in the narrative to come across as a genuine discovery), Jordan becomes enamored with the idea of eugenics. The book takes a turn: Miller investigates the darker philosophy behind Jordan’s obsession with naming and order. Her star character becomes sinister. One chapter reads like a murder mystery, as Miller traces the rumors that Jordan poisoned the wealthy founder of Stanford University in order to maintain his control over the school.
Miller’s quest becomes more urgent. Jordan, she writes, “remained an ardent eugenicist until his dying day… it was chilling. His brutality. His remorselessness. … I felt sick. I had been fashioning myself after a villain, after all.” Searching for clues, Miller talks to some of the people who were directly impacted by Jordan’s philosophy. She visits a woman named Anna who grew up in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded and was forcibly sterilized there at age nineteen, in 1967. Miller becomes enamored with Anna and her housemate Mary; they are charming, kind-hearted women who live with a hamster named Sugarfoot and two pet birds. Anna carries around a doll, perhaps a stand-in for the child she could never have, and their apartment is decorated with hand-painted pictures. To Jordan, Miller writes, Anna would not have fit into his obsessive classification of living things. To Jordan, the only thing to do was stop genes like Anna’s in their tracks.
To put the nail in Jordan’s coffin and his obsessive ordering of what she comes to see as beautiful chaos, Miller ends on a fantastic turn. According to scientists and taxonomists, the entire category of fish does not exist. Based on their characteristics, species like lungfish and salmon and sharks are more closely related to non-fish-like creatures than they are to each other. The concept of a group of creatures called fish is a lie. Miller is simply gleeful when she reveals this. “I have come to believe that it is our life’s work to tear down this order, to keep tugging at it, trying to unravel it, to set free the organisms trapped underneath. That it is our life’s work to mistrust our measures.”
In the end, Miller finds beauty in chaos. She falls in love with a scientist, a woman, and embraces a new definition of family and love. She and her partner take a trip to the Caribbean and swim naked among the tropical water creatures (not fish, I suppose). It’s a wonderful passage to end on, and a gift to read when you are quarantining in the middle of an urban sea, frantically trying to keep the wild, natural world from spilling onto your counters. So, closing Miller’s book, I decide to watch the small colony of ants wandering in senseless loops at the base of my stand mixer and around my vase of spoons and spatulas. I try to admire their chaotic lives, and instead of reaching for the vinegar, I watch them scurry. My home is your home, I suppose. Chaos wins again.
Virginia Marshall is a writer and radio producer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be read and/or heard in Catapult, The Harvard Review, Atlas Obscura, The Millions, Essay Daily, Brevity, The Normal School, NPR’s Only a Game, and on WBUR. She tweets @vrosemarshall.